Town zipped electric wires overhead;
Crowds spilt from the edges of the island’s soul.
My working mother in the emporium said
Dad would come soon to take me away.
I said Yes Yes YES! out we would go into
The sweating street where my favourite Indian
Restaurant was always ready to serve up
Curries of the dreamiest kind.
But dad did not come and I
Stepped outside by myself
(The street rang with bright lights and shone
With restive passion air chatter) –
To find the years slide backward
To a time when the same street was
Red sailors tattooed lanterns and rickshawmen.
The pretty ladies in the jade green cheongsam
Brushed my hair and asked me if
I could help them halt the River.
One of them shed a trembling tear,
Saying all she had would soon be gone.
And right on time came the wholesalers of
Housewares and faceless materialism
To wipe out her kind of romanticism.
Now the nights took in families of
Righteous virtues and solid cash.
The merchants of life’s necessities
Believed in the fantastic playground –
Until the island shifted West and
The shadows of the monster malls
Towered over the green and the blue.
I knew then I’d have to find my dad
And tell him of this strange fever.
To the Chinese Sports Club I hurried.
Round the corner I imagined its checkered floor
Of black white black white black marble.
There men like my dad played ping-pong
To the steady sound of their passing youth.
13.7.16 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Note: Rifle Range Flats are Penang’s earliest low-cost housing project (1970). The curious name dates back to the 1950s when the ground was used for target practices by the army. It’s infamous for its squalor, violent gangs, and heroin addicts. It’s also my childhood home of some 18 years.
Eyes opened – the cradle spring from the ceiling,
Soft light from without illuminating plastic flower
Remnants of the Flower Power Generation with dreams
That would shape a new life within these four walls of
Indestructible concrete. Child boy saw ma and pa
As a cocoon to which he wished he belonged, but
Pa rose up and left and the house of dreams
Shut its door to many possibilities.
Crying ma positioned herself before the vanity mirror
Like a parrot ready for mating,
And child boy watched with artistic eyes,
Internalising the laws of aesthetics.
Grandma said oh no there would be no tragedy in this house,
Not while she’s still around!
(But how long would you stay, grandma?)
She took child boy down to smoky hawker heaven
And they ate like the hungry ghosts of July.
Aunt #1 having lost her husband but not
Her sense of humour said boy child had his pa’s
Mouth (ha-ha) for it’s CNY again and the grass
Was aflame. ‘Ashes for new things,’ a random cousin quipped.
Night fell years later to find teen boy dreaming
Of a single streetlight lighting up the barracks across.
Lying sleepless he wished for dawn when the first reveille
Would sound bringing out the toy soldiers,
‘Colonel Bogey March’ bouncing off
The misty hillside.
He dreamt through the long sweet day,
Waiting for the thrills of hide and seek.
When his schoolmates came calling,
The classic game would unfold on the lowest level
Of the buzzing catacomb,
And boyish hoots would ring out
As their lightning footsteps thundered up
The foul dark stairwells, up and up
Towards the 16th floor, the seat of the stars
Where that other failed schoolboy had hurled himself off
They marvelled at the view, the boy’s courage.
Then came the realisation that
Many of his schoolmates had gone missing.
The maze had swallowed them and their futures.
Teen boy braced himself for the descent,
For down below all the great love songs had been playing.
(‘Just one night and we’ll have the magic feeling like we used to do.’)
In the very room where he had lain as a dumb babe,
The foreign lover now came and told him of
Tales of another land in the virgin snow.
He made up his mind then –
Say goodbye to Ferringhi Beach sensual white,
Say goodbye to grandma, ma and pa,
To all that’s his except for
What he had committed to memory.
His best pal cradling his knees said,
‘These buildings were built to last.
German technology no?
Go, leave this place if you must.
Go – but keep the faith that
This room in the Tower of Babel,
Its walls so strong and proud,
Will remember the music of our youth.’
29.5.16 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Lyrics taken from ‘Miss You Like Crazy’ (1989) by Natalie Cole. Writers: Preston W. Glass, Gerry Goffin, Michael Masser.
Note: Cathay was an old-school, single-screen cinema on Penang Rd that operated for some 35 years. I did my ‘schooling’ in Hollywood movies there throughout the 80s. Today’s cineplexes mean little to me.
As children of the next generation,
We flocked to the imagined world of Hollywood
Just when the town was recovering from
The cruel heat of another blank page day.
We waited beneath the familiar marquee,
Knowing it would light up our dim imagination
When the magic yellow bulbs flashed bright,
Announcing the dream of the evening.
Our collective memory stretched far back –
To Bastian riding the dog-dragon over Fantasia,
To Damien grinning at his daddy’s funeral,
To the Jedi losing faith in himself.
We had lost ourselves in the glowing dark
(Like thousands of other island dreamers),
Many times over through the faceless years,
Forgetting there was another kind of dark
Outside the four eternal walls of wonderment.
The screen, anything but silver, was a kaleidoscope
Of all possible worlds in impossible ways.
We travelled on the sirocco and the northern lights
To the glittering heart of each fantasy nightmare,
Battling the alien queen with cinema’s greatest heroine,
Spinning through NYC as ghostbusting tomfools,
Waking up in Freddy’s vision of his shredded kids –
And how we cheered when Bruce Willis saved mankind again!
We learnt of the many faces of Love
– from honesty to treachery –
And fell hard for leading men and femmes fatale.
We got back up on our feet every time,
Ready for another round of tragicomedy.
We bonded with our brave fathers
Over badass Eastwood and cowboy flicks.
We found the rare fountain of youth
With the help of old veterans in the Florida Keys;
Understood then why we all wanted to live forever
In a world where all that’s born must die.
We were together, under the colourful canvases
Of movie ads declaring to all brothers:
‘Stand by me!’ And we did stand strong till
The lonely digital age came stealing in,
Whispering individualism in our ears,
And cold, cold multiplexes with personality disorder
Paved the way for an era of
The marquee lost its shine, was
Dismantled in our absence.
But sometimes when the night is long,
We see the children at the box office again,
Fanning themselves in the heat of illusion,
Dreaming foreign myths with one beating island heart.
7.5.16 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
The rusty tram clanged through the dusky heart
Of the town steadying itself for
Another night of swift forgetfulness.
It had transported me out of the bamboo groves
And the endless cabbage farms –
The slumber of green nothingness –
And deposited me in the midst of
The rickshaw rebels tipped their straw hats
And nodded half shadows at me – while
Children I would never have raced against time
With colourful kites of innocence on their backs.
The vapours of the coolies’ dinner
Tickled my desire – but Aunty Ling was waiting
With the curling iron and the hairdryer:
Wondrous inventions that would give me back
My femininity on this night of nights.
Aunty Ling’s chatter and the vendors’ calls
Merged into an ageless incantation,
And my vision and consciousness drooped.
I opened my eyes again to see a new
Presence – me but not quite, the Other
That hid from daylight.
The rouge on my cheeks gave me
The blood of life: renewal in the hue of
I was ready for the Swallow across.
Aunty Ling accompanied me there herself.
(‘Trust no-one,’ words trailing from her wartime experience.)
The crowd outside Odeon was restless,
Oblivious to small women like us.
We crossed the street, arm in arm,
Under the neon-lit gaze of the spirits.
Once inside the belly of the Swallow,
We made for the darkened first floor,
The long, musty corridor leading to the heart,
Where I had a room of my own.
Aunty Ling gone, the room conversed with me
Through the remnants of opiate ecstasy
From the nights before.
He came in a rickshaw phantom sudden.
Then he was at the door, blue eyes deep ocean.
Then he was in the room with me,
Tattooed arms around my waist.
No speech necessary except –
He chose to sing in my ear:
‘I’ll close my eyes and
See you with my heart.’
I said: ‘If I close my eyes now,
I’ll see you everywhere – at the port of Nagasaki,
Of Hong Kong, of Singapore, and of Malacca –
Everywhere but here.
If I close my eyes, you will no longer be real.’
He pinched my nose and smiled
(Everlasting imprint of here and now).
‘Soon I will return to the sea,
But for now these moments are still yours and mine.
Once at the misty peak of Inasayama
(There was precious little left below),
I learnt the ultimate truth of reality:
That though Time will not remain still,
There is permanence in all times elapsed.
The many nights we have seen through together,
Within these silent four walls of witness,
Will be preserved whole in eternity –
Even if the world may turn colder
Or crueller – and
Mankind should become more heartless
Than they have been.
These sweet hours on Chulia
(Do you hear echoes of Old India?)
Will outlast the street vendors,
The trolleycar riders and the pawnbrokers,
The gold merchants and the ironmongers,
The imperialists and their haughty ways.
When the waves come and claim back the Isle,
You and I will still be here,
Locked in unchanging embrace,
In this old motel of tropical dreams.’
2.4.16 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
*Lyrics taken from ‘I’ll Close My Eyes’ (1957) by Dinah Washington. Songwriters: Billy Reid and Buddy Kaye