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     Singapore Short Stories: Reflections



This is a short story entitled REFLECTIONS written by Raymond Han in 1999.

All rights reserved: no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or otherwise without the prior written permission of the author.


"Kai Ming! Kai Ming!" cracked his mother's voice.

"Have you finished pounding the chilli?"

She finally appeared at the doorway to the kitchen, having given up getting a reply from Kai Ming.

"What are you daydreaming about?" said she.

Kai Ming was lost in his own world, as usual. His mind was still throwing up the adventures of the Famous Five in the Enid Blyton book 'Five Go Adventuring Again' which he had read the night before. How he longed to be in England, having the adventure of his life. It was such fun, what with George, Anne, Julian, and Dick, not forgetting of course good old Tim, their pet dog.  Kai Ming wasn't lonely in Singapore when he was with these guys. Their company kept him occupied most days when he wasn't outside playing. It was the only world he liked, though it was only make-believe. Fiction. But it didn't matter to him. He was comfortable. He was satisfied and at peace with himself. It was only when he had to put away the book he was reading that he abruptly entered the mundane world again.

A slap on his shoulder put an end to his daydreaming. He was back in the real world again.

"Daydream! All you know is daydreaming," barked his mother.

"I...I..," was all Kai Ming could mutter.

Then his mother stopped her racket.

"My, my. What nice ground chilli you have done for me."

"I do declare this must be the best you have pounded so far."

Kai Ming had got used to his mother's whimsical mannerisms. He washed his hands and darted out of the kitchen into the living room. Home to him was a two-room HDB flat in Blk 107 in Queenstown, the earliest public housing estate in the country. There was only one bedroom, into which crowded the whole family at bedtime. The kitchen was a narrow short passage, barely two metres in length, leading into the balcony where a long bamboo blind shielded the occupants from the direct rays of the sun while they were having their meals. Adjacent stood the toilet cum bathroom -- a narrow cubicle with a water urn for bath use and a squatting pan at one end. The floor in the whole flat was all bare cement screed.

There was no grille gate attached to the front doorway. A cane chair, a foldable table and four stools dotted the spartan living room. Of course,  there was the ubiquitous altar cabinet on which stood a statue of the Goddess of Mercy which his mother would talk to every morning, afternoon and night without fail. He could not understand how she could connect with the Goddess who was in another dimension. Day in and day out she would remind him to burn joss-sticks for the Goddess, and day in and day out he would find ways and means to avoid doing it.

His mother wanted him to talk to the Goddess. That wasn't the point. He was afraid she would answer him and he wasn't prepared for that situation, not yet, anyway. So it was with great reluctance that he had to burn joss-sticks to ask the Goddess to bless Father and Mother and Big Sister and him. He had no choice this time, his mother was standing behind him.

"Oh well, better luck next time," he thought to himself.

The family's only means of entertainment was a Rediffusion set blaring away from the wall where it was perched. The Rediffusion radio service had kept many a household entertained then. Mandarin programmes were unheard of at the time. The programmes which were broadcast were all in dialects. This service was one of the few "luxuries" the typical Singapore household of the time could afford. Then, every boy wore singlets. There were no jeans, no T-shirts and no McDonald's to speak of. The few games played by youngsters were "cuti-cuti", "five stones", "hop-scotch", "goli" and "trading cards".

This was the Singapore in which Kai Ming spent his childhood. This boy was very independent. He had no father to hover over him and control him because his father, being a sailor, was overseas most of the time. Kai Ming spent much of his free time outside the flat in the neighbourhood playing with his peers. His elder sister was a cashier at the Jurong Drive-In Cinema, a novelty at the time, having opened barely three months back. He had not been there before but had heard from his sister how big the screen was. Every night cars would queue all the way from the front gate to the main road several blocks away and the movies were always sold out.

"Kai Ming! Kai Ming!" his mother bellowed again.

Her plump figure gave backing to her loud voice. She had been father and mother to him most of his life as his father was never around. But still she had carried out her duties quite well. Kai Ming, though mischievous at times, never committed big sins like stealing and smoking.

Kai Ming poked his face into the kitchen.

"What is it this time, mother?"

"Kai Ming, tomorrow, we are visiting your Uncle Chiam. Do be on your best behaviour or I will give you some 'kway teow' to eat when we get back."

Of course, by now Kai Ming was looking very squeamish indeed. He had 'eaten' lots of "kway teow" before and never once liked its taste. His legs still bore the cane marks left behind during the last 'meal'. He scampered off at once, out through the corridor, and up to the fifth storey landing where his 'kakees' were waiting for him.

"Why are you late again?" asked Choon Huat.

"Eh, eh.. I had to help my mother pound the chilli," came the reply.

"Aiya, don't let's waste time any more, we have to be on the hill by ten and we're already late," cried Juk.

Choon Huat and Juk were Kai Ming's best pals. The three of them were neighbours and also attended the same primary school -- New Town Primary School -- a ten-minute walk away from their block. But it was the school holidays and the school was closed.

Kai Ming was the tallest of the three. His lanky legs provided most of the support for his thin frame of a body. He had well-pressed hair which smelled of the Brylcreem he had applied. Just above his forehead, his hair trailed off into a neat 'curry puff' pattern. He wasn't much of a talker as he was reserved and shy. Choon Huat was the exact opposite. His mouth was like a machine gun -- always shooting and never stopping. His bubbly, round face seemed to match his equally bubbly legs. He also had a 'curry puff' hairstyle.

Juk was the shortest of the trio. He had short straight hair. His cute adorable looks always managed to attract the attention of the Ah Sohs around the neighbourhood. They would come up to him and pinch his cheeks as if these were displayed for sale in a stall. Still, he wasn't ever mad with them.

In those days, in the late sixties, children did not have much pocket money. Most families were poor and the three were no different. Between the three of them, they only had fifteen cents. Still, it could get them some ice balls to cool them down in the sweltering June heat. The walk to the hill behind the block took half an hour. They had to meander through a sandy path past an old cemetery and a temple to the top of the hill. It was already 10.30 am. and the heat was almost unbearable. The boys stopped under a tall Ficus tree and put down their things. From there, they had a bird's eye view of the whole area. The Chip Bee Estate nested just below their block which was built on the back of a steep slope. There were many 'Ang Mohs' walking around down there. Some 'Ang Moh' children were playing on the road outside their terrace houses.

Kai Ming had heard from his mother that these people were families of the British soldiers stationed in the country to help protect it. Kai Ming tried to match the children's looks with the descriptions of British children described in Enid Blyton's books. How accurate these were. Enid Blyton was really good at what she did.

"Kai Ming! Kai Ming! Don't dream. We have lots to do!" exclaimed Juk.

Kai Ming and Juk went off to look for some sticks while Choon Huat unpacked a long string and broken pieces of glass. He proceeded to ground the broken glass with a small rock he had found earlier. They were going to coat the string with ground glass for the 'layang' they had made yesterday. This "glass" string would help the boys to cut other people's 'layang' strings and so "kill" other 'layangs'. Once the 'layang' strings were cut, the 'layangs' would fly off out of control to the heavens and never come back.

Soon, the two boys returned with some sticks and stuck them into the ground near the tree but out in the sun. Juk took an empty tin can, poured some water into it, mixed in some tapioca flour and placed it over the small fire Choon Huat had started. In went the ground glass. Soon the mixture was boiling. Juk removed the can from the fire and set it on the ground. When the mixture had cooled down somewhat, the boys used some brushes to coat the mixture onto the string which they had laid out, wrapped repeatedly across four sticks placed five metres apart. When it was all done, the trio went off to the stream near by to catch water snakes. Juk was the expert in the team. His father, Encik Abdullah, had taught him the ropes. It wasn't long before he managed to bag one, a three-foot long brown beauty. He placed it into a jute bag he had with him and tied the bag.

"Mother would love to barbecue the meat," Juk thought to himself.

Kai Ming could only stare at him. Kai Ming was afraid of animals- big or small- ever since he was bitten by a monkey while sitting on a corner stone bench outside a terrace house down by Chip Bee Road near by. The sun was at its hottest, for it was noon. The threesome went back to the Ficus and checked the string they had decked out. The glue had dried and it was time to roll it up. Juk did the rolling, as usual. He was the one who did most of the work all the time. Kai Ming liked to dither and bubbly Choon Huat was lazy. But then, who could blame them that day, for the heat was unbearable. Even the stray cats in the neighbourhood were too lazy to prowl. These cats were stretched out along the corridor areas, having their forty winks.

"Arhh!" screamed Juk in pain.

He had accidentally cut himself with the 'glass' string and his right index finger bled. Quickly he put the finger into his mouth and sucked it repeatedly. Choon Huat took out a plaster from his pocket and offered it to Juk who gratefully slapped it on the affected finger. Kai Ming  merely stood and watched. He was afraid of blood and felt faint. Choon Huat took over the packing up and then the three boys made their way down the hill, past the rows of terrace houses where the 'Ang Mohs' resided, and through an opening at Chip Bee Secondary School. On the other side of the school was a path which led to the hawker centre. By the time the boys had reached the hawker centre, they were very thirsty and famished indeed. As they did not have much money between them, they settled for an ice ball each. It was already past lunch time and their parents would be worried sick. Though people were poor then, the family was all important and children, especially the boys were treated as small emperors.

The ice balls quenched the boys' thirst. They were pure heaven to them. But they melted all too quickly in the hot weather. In barely a few minutes the ice balls, which the boys had to use both hands to hold earlier, had been reduced to a trickle of water. Still, it had the boys lapping it all up as they trod back to their block across the road. The three boys reached their favourite spot -- the landing on the fifth storey and hovered there for some time. They were hungry. Still they hated to go home. It was lonely at home. All three had no brothers to play with, only elder sisters to nag at them. It was while they were stretched out with their butts on the floor and their backs against the wall that Kirpal Singh happened to pass by. He was almost fourteen whilst the trio were only eleven even. He was also a bully and they all hated him. Standing at 1.68 metres, he was a head taller than Kai Ming, the timid one.

"What's in that bag?" Kirpal roared.

"None of your business," retorted Juk.

"This whole block is my territory and everything that happens here is my business."

"Says Who?"

"Says this fist of mine."  

     This story is continued HERE.