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     Singapore Short Stories: San Yun

     San Yun

  This is a short story entitled SAN YUN written by Raymond Han on 16th March 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 either the prior written permission of the author or a licence permitting restricted copying issued by


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  "I don't know; you'd better tell him."

  "Mr Gee won't believe me, you know..."

  "San Yun. SAN YUN. Are you talking to yourself again?" asked his mother.

San Yun came out of the toilet, and washed his hands. 

  "You forgot to flush the toilet again. How many times must I remind you to flush the toilet?" chanted his mother.

  "Okay. Okay. Why do you always nag over small things, Mother?"

  "Well, you don't help in the housework. The least you can do for me is to get some decent grades for your exam. But look! You are always failing your exam," exclaimed his mother.

  San Yun picked up his Digimon Two and piled himself onto the settee in the living room. He lived in a two-room HDB flat in Hougang with his father, mother and an elder sister. He would be eleven years old this April, but things were not going right for him nowadays. His mother had promised to buy him a Digimon Five, an electronic toy which responded to him much like a real-life pet, except he couldn't cuddle it in his arms. He didn't stand a good chance of getting it from his mother, though. His first term results were just in, and although he had managed to hide the marked test papers here and there, his mother, who somehow had the knack for finding lost things, had at last found his test papers.

  What an unlucky week for him! It had been three whole days since that discovery, and his mother's nagging had not abated. He had lied to her about the test papers not being released by his teachers. But his mother had seen through his lie almost effortlessly. He groaned as he continued feeding his electronic pet monster, How he wished exams were abolished! 

  Alas, it was only wishful thinking. That would never come about, even if the world came to an end suddenly. The phone rang. San Yun dragged himself out of the settee, and picked up the receiver. It was his sister, Wei Ting, on the other end. 

  "Come down now. Jingshun is here with me. We are going over to Hougang Mall."

  San Yun replaced the receiver, put his wallet into a pocket and stole out of the flat, leaving his mother still talking at the top of her voice in the kitchen. But, she had no listener now. San Yun lived on the thirteenth storey of his block, just next to the lift lobby. But, he would always walk down the stairs all the way to the ground floor. Not because he felt he needed the exercise, even if he did look as if he could do with plenty of it. At 45 kg, he was by any standard, much too heavy for his age. His belly bulged out so much that when he answered nature's call his urine would spray all over the squatting pan as he could not see what he was doing.

  The truth was, San Yun was afraid to go into the lift. It was the fear of a blackout in the lift when he was inside that put him off using these contraptions. He had such a nasty experience some months ago and since then, the only times he allowed himself into the lift were when he had company. If he wasn't in a rush, he would wait patiently till someone else found a need to use the lift and then he would quickly file into that little cubicle, albeit apprehensively. Today, he was in a hurry. He panted heavily as he made his way down thirteen flights of stairs to the ground floor. He made a few stops along the way, to catch his breath. At last, he reached the ground floor. Big Sister showed him her familiar glare. He needed no words from her to tell him she was almost through waiting for him.

  "You mean he walked all the way down from the thirteenth storey." exclaimed Jingshun.

  "Aiya, he's always like that, afraid of everything," replied Big Sister.

  Big Sister was a head taller than San Yun. She had barely scraped through her PSLE examinations last year and had been posted to Serangoon Garden Technical School the first term of 1998 to study in the normal academic stream. Jingshun had more grey matter and that was why he could get into the express stream at Montfort Secondary School, situated a stone's throw away from where they lived.

  The three of them were pals and related by blood. Jingshun was their maternal cousin. His parents had separated and he was now living with his mother. But, he wasn't happy at home. His mother had a male friend who was staying at their home in the block behind San Yun's. Because of this, Jingshun found every opportunity to get away from his home. The man did not have a job and was home all day. Jingshun couldn't stand the sight of this freeloader and had, on many occasions, fallen out with his mother over the man.

  The threesome kept a leisurely pace as they crossed the main road separating their neighbourhood from the town centre. Hougang Mall stood in the background ahead. It would be a few years before Orchard Road fever bit and enthralled them. Until then, they were satisfied with just hanging around Hougang Mall. It had everything they ever wanted in its six storeys of shopping -- supermarket, library, Popular Bookstore, electronic game shops, Neoprint machines, the works!

  The children made the electronic game shop their first stop. Sanyun could not keep his eyes off the new transparent Digimon Five model that beckoned to him from the glass case to the left of the shop"s entrance. That little thing cost a hefty $39.95 and there was no way he could save enough money from his daily allowance to buy it, not in a million years. His entire pocket-money was spent investing in his big belly just to keep its shape at status quo. Sure, he could save forty-five cents a day if he walked home from his school. But the sacrifice would be enormous as Parry Primary School was kilometres away from home. San Yun worked out the figures in his head. He would have to walk home about eighty-eight times over the next four months just to come up with this amount. By then, Digimon Five would have become obsolete! He gasped and shook his head. Big Sister, who was beside him, pressed the nape of his head with the palm of a hand. 

  "Wishful thinking, Little Brother."

  "There's no way you're going to land your hands on that Digimon."

  That day, the threesome could only browse around. Between them, they only had four dollars -- good for three drinks at McDonald's with spare change left over. And that was just what they did with the money afterwards. Today was Sunday and McDonald's was crowded with youngsters and families. Every seat was occupied. The three of them ordered their drinks to go. They were glad they made this choice. It was almost noon when they left the cool comfort of the shopping centre. But, as they trod back home , drawing ice-cold Coke into their mouths, they felt really cool inside their skin although the heat from the sun was searing. When San Yun and his sister entered their flat, they found six dollars on the dining table. They understood at once that they would have to get their lunch from the coffeeshop downstairs. 

  Mother wasn't around. The whiff of perfume in the air told them she had gone to town and would not be back until evening. San Yun had until two o'clock to finish his lunch for his tuition teacher would be arriving then. He liked this new teacher, his third in a year. The previous two had given up on him after only one or two lessons. This one, so far, had lasted three whole months. He addressed this teacher as "teacher" not Mr Tan which was the teacher's last name. Teacher was thirty-something but San Yun never felt there was any generation gap between the two of them. Teacher, for one thing, never scolded him. Teacher also never set his hands on him even when he was naughty.

  Somewhere along the line, San Yun understood that Teacher genuinely wanted him to try his best not for Teacher's sake but his own. San Yun allowed himself to go as far as feeling guilty for not doing his bit in his last exam. Teacher had said it was all right to fail this time, that San Yun would grow out of his indifference. Teacher hoped this would happen pretty soon, for San Yun was now in primary five and only had another year left to repair whatever damage was done over the past few years. To be fair, San Yun was now beginning to try to put in more effort. To be honest, it would take a lot more effort for San Yun to kickstart himself. He was now showing interest in his schoolwork. Teacher had noticed the slight change in his character. For one thing, San Yun was now able to last one and a half hours in the tuition lesson without going to wash his hands. During the initial lessons, San Yun had this habit of excusing himself at least ten times during each lesson to wash his hands. San Yun was now also attentive. His face would beam each time he got a Maths sum correct. Teacher could feel an air of confidence in San Yun. Is it possible for San Yun to turn his marks around during the next few months? San Yun's face and mannerisms these few lessons showed promise.

  Mr Tan was a full-time tutor. He had seventeen students under his care, most of whom lived in Hougang. All seventeen, boy or girl, had come to like this slim soft-spoken man who never got angry with any of them no matter what they did. Mr Tan would peer at them from behind his spectacles and play out his favourite phrase: 

  "Of course, you may .....(do something Mr Tan didn't quite like) ........... in your dreams!"

  That remark would send everyone into stitches. San Yun was no exception. In fact, he had rehatched this phrase on unsuspecting schoolmates several times with good effect. Today, Mr Tan caught San Yun using a cliched expression when San Yun was relating an incident which happened in class earlier that morning.

  "Heng-ah (lucky), Mr Samy didn't catch me bringing my Digimon to school today or he would have confiscated it."

  "Are you Mr Heng?" retorted Mr Tan.

  That remark tickled San Yun's ribs. His lips widened into a grin.

  "Uncle San Yun," Mr Tan began.

  "Have you ever forced me to do things I don't like?"


  "Have I ever forced you to do things you don't like?"


  "Good. We know there is no point forcing anyone to do things against his will. It may work once or twice. But it doesn't work forever."


  "Are you Mr Yah?

  "No." (chuckles)

  "Good, I will wait for you to wake up from your dreams. I know a primary four pupil who used to fail her exams every year without fail. Till primary five, that is. Suddenly she changed for the better and from then on, she never failed an examination."

  "Teacher, is she your student?"

  "No. She's my wife. It was she who recounted her primary school days to me when I confided in her your problem."

  "So, the thing to learn from this is, people do change. There comes a time when we decide to hit back at those people talking behind our backs about our grades. I hope this year is that time for you, Uncle San Yun."

  There was silence in the kitchen where the lesson was taking place. San Yun's legs stopped giving the football under the table another whirl.

  "Uncle San Yun."


  "Did you hear what I just said?"

  "Yes, Teacher."

  With that reply, the lesson continued. With the message digested, the football resumed its whirl. Progress in San Yun's grades was slow but noticeable. His marks inched up in the Semester Examinations. Now, he only needed six or seven marks to be rid of that disgusting red mark set against his English, Maths and Science papers. He never had a problem with Chinese, though the marks were not exactly high.

  San Yun was now battling himself. He had no external enemies. It was his laziness he had to fight. It was his indifference that he had to conquer. It wasn't easy for him. This was his first try at ridding himself of a bad habit. But, he didn't want his mother to continue to nag at him. He didn't want his school teachers to ridicule him in front of the class again. Most of all, he didn't want his tuition teacher to be sad again. Not all tutors were bad after all. San Yun was lucky this time round. He had found a tutor who was genuinely concerned about him and took the pains to change him.

  This change in San Yun did not go unnoticed at school. His teachers found him most willing to raise his hands to answer questions either verbally or by writing on the blackboard. One July morning, San Yun was called to the principal's office. He shuddered at the thought of seeing Mr Wong. By now, San Yun was a regular visitor. Each time he left the office, he would flap both arms downwards behind him, one red palm nursing the other and he would purse his lips as if breaking into a cry. But the cry never got out. San Yun would never allow himself to show he was fallible. 

  "What could I have done wrong this time? " he thought to himself.

  He had no inkling why the principal had sent for him. Nervous and hesitant, he entered the principal's office after getting a reply to his knock on the door. San Yun's hands grabbed the flanks of his dark blue shorts. He tilted his head downwards, and could not see the principal's face.

  "Good morning, sir."

  " Ah, here you are, San Yun." 

  "Don't worry. I am not about to cane you again."

  "On the contrary, I've heard from your teachers the dramatic improvement in your behaviour and studies. I just want to say this. Keep it up."

  "Th..Thank you, sir."

  "You may go back to your class, San Yun."

  San Yun's hands stopped fidgeting. Once out of the room, he tore off to the toilet. He needed to regain his composure after this meeting. He peed into the toilet bowl. He could just about see what he was doing now. Over the past four months, he had lost six kilograms, thanks to Teacher. Mr Tan would ask San Yun to stand on the bathroom scale every lesson and would implore him to cut down on his weight. Apparently, this method had worked on San Yun.

  His shorts weren't so tight nowadays. He had no problem buttoning his shirt anymore. And, in the process, he had saved about fifty dollars. San Yun beamed to himself in the mirror. He was delighted at the way things had turned out. San Yun still kept one of his bad habits -- talking to himself. Somehow, he could not quite grow out of this habit, not yet anyway. He spent the next few minutes in conversation with the image in the mirror, then combed his hair and returned to the class. 

  Soon, it was report book season again. San Yun, who previously would delay giving it to his mother until the very last minute, this time had reason to smile. The page for primary five showed passes in English, Maths, and Science, finally. The passes were borderline ones. Still they were passes. It was the first time since primary one he had passed. He was in a jubilant mood that day. He went on the rounds, telling one and all his feat. That evening, when he placed the opened report book on his mother's laps, she managed a smile. First a little one, which then widened considerably and in so doing betrayed the wrinkles on her face. But, she was glad the wrinkles showed this time. Not that she was glad to look old. Her only son had done an about-turn in his grades and she was the happiest woman in the world. There was hope after all. Perhaps, her son would not take after his father after all. The elder Ong had left school without completing his PSLE. He never had a stable job. It was she who took the burden of bringing up the family in her stride. It was she who slogged long hours of overtime just to make ends meet for the family and, of course, she was the one who paid San Yun's tuition fee. 

  There was a reason to celebrate that day. San Yun's mother took him and Wei Ting out to KFC restaurant for dinner. The family seldom went out together. As far back as he could recollect, he hardly went out with his father. His mother, too, was seldom seen together with his father outside the flat except during the Lunar New Year period when they were visiting relatives. That night, while everyone was watching television, San Yun sat at the main doorway, with his back against the door, peering out into the corridor through the grille gates. Things were not as bad for him as they were for Jingshun. Jingshun was alone. His estranged father didn't want him. His mother thought him a nuisance and an obstacle in her relationship with her live-in lover. That freeloader hated him to the core. Jingshun was left to wander outside in the neighbourhood most days.

  On the other hand, San Yun had a mother who cared for him and about him. He could not have asked for more. All things considered, his life was not so bad after all. Previously, San Yun would think of his father and compare himself with him secretly. He would feel he still stood out a better person than his father. Now, his yardstick had a different measuring unit. Now, he was up against his tuition teacher. He had started comparing himself with his tutor some months back, and perhaps, because of this, his life took on a new focus. He had higher expectations of himself. He had a loftier wish -- he wanted to be a doctor when he grew up. He didn't want to end up like his father. He didn't want to be one of these hoi polloi.

  San Yun wasn't talking to himself now. He was thinking to himself, and these were good thoughts, he admitted to himself. At last, he gave a sigh and turned his eyes to the television set. His favourite programme, Phua Chu Kang, was showing. He had missed the opening.

The End.

Please sign my GUEST BOOK. Thank you.


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