Creative non-fiction / December 2013 (Issue 22)

Ancient China: Post- (Almost) LKY Singapore

by Pavle Radonic

Three dozen playing; ten dozen perhaps congregating. Some of the games have a dozen looking on from the sides, two dozen closely focused, attentive eyes. The men soundless and mostly standing, studious in their regard. Within the walls of the nearby temple worshippers are less concentrated. (Reminds one of those mythical books said to so grip a man that he might read it through standing, leaning on a post. The Montenegrins say a person would listen to something truly captivating while rain poured behind their ears.)

Chinese checkers one side; chess the other. The latter fifty cent-sized flat disks carrying an identifying character. An inner city square of the usual size. Toward the reconstructed, highly ornate carmine-red temple there stands a stage where a concert was held a couple of weeks ago featuring old songs in a vaudeville-like presentation. On that night there were perhaps a couple of hundred people on plastic seats that had been arranged for the event—families, elderly, lovers, the lot, singing along, clapping, marvelling. These board-games took place during the height of the afternoon heat. Middle-aged and older men in thongs and tees down from the HDB towers. There were no women, only the occasional passer-by. The large food hall at the base of one of the towers; stalls of various kinds to the side; tourist aisles close-by, always thronged. This quiet centre of Chinatown a little oasis.

On all sides calm, patience, deference to age, a little larking at success and once or twice small gasps at errors. Numerous old leathered grandmasters heavily afflicted by their smoking, taking the habit full term. An outsider moving among them gets no notice whatever, such is the level of interest.

Nothing comparable, nothing of a similar order imaginable in any Western country for the last how many decades?


On the road in unfamiliar territory one can still encounter the extraordinary, the fantastic and barely credible. Even in this age of globalisation, uniformity and mimicry. Even in one's own regional neighbourhood.

Take the following as given. No joke or leg-pulling. A reliable witness, gotten from her friend on the spot who personally participated in the matter. Second-hand, but entirely credible.

China Eastern is the largest airline in China—therefore the whole Asian region presumably, maybe getting close to BA and United. Has to be a big operation. Government enterprise. Money being made and creamed by who knows how many princelings and middle managers, captains, crew and ground staff. You can imagine the profits if proper fiduciary controls could be instituted. The leakage possibly not much more than anywhere else ultimately. The episode to follow doesn't give an indication either way.

There is a Singaporean office naturally. Down in the recent Australian market the airline unknown, not the merest mention. However that be, the biggest airline in China. The office here in Sing'pore wouldn't be small. Let's say a dozen employees in the particular office concerned. Rather bloated as these Red enterprises usually prove. The witness didn't say it happens in all the China Eastern offices throughout the world. Might be a particular local or regional manager behind it here. At least in the Singapore office this is how it goes.

Companies the world over now no doubt have regular bonding exercises, happy hours, dinners, functions, fancy dress, camping trips, white-water rafting, paint-ball fun days—you name it. Naturally. Pressures on jobs, on profits, competition, new players with new ideas. Must take a lot to maintain edge, precedence. Stand still you're dead. Growth imperative; &etc. &etc.

Team building, unity of purpose. Treasuring one's opportunity, one's great good fortune to have a job at all. An unending task to keep up to the mark. Must be innumerable ways and means devised for it across the globe. You name it. Like this reporter you couldn't get within a bull's roar of some of the strategies.

How do they do it at China Eastern in Singapore? Sounds like something from a manual devised back on the mainland and dispatched to every branch office. Seven forty-five AM, before the herbal teas, a quart hour before the doors and phone lines open, a gathering in the Function Room. Fresh-eyed and bushy-tailed, all together now, after me: Chapter such-and-such, verse number so-and-so. From memory it seemed to be. Had to be. Inculcation was the point. The employees had to get it.

The Di Zi Gui translates as "Standards for Being a Good Student and Child," written during the Qing dynasty (1661–1772). In three-character verse and based on the Analects of Confucius, memorising would not be difficult, even for Cus-Serv. people with shaky Mandarin. (The level of Mandarin among the Singaporeans a cause for concern for the government. Business opportunities escaping; other nations that aren't even of Chinese heritage getting a cut of the action above their own. Hokkien and Cantonese more common here.)

Judging by Wikipedia some lovely olde-world type moral instruction: dutifulness to parents; standards for younger brothers when away from home; cautiousness, reverence in daily life… Gob-smacking some of this beauty! Trustworthiness; loving all equally; learning from people of virtue and compassion…

Heady reading. Space travel sci-fi. Could bring a tear to your eye if you let your guard down.

Xi'an—Terracotta Army territory—Laverne, who told the tale she heard straight from her friend, was greatly surprised at the choice of text at the China Eastern office. The group chanting every morning prior to the commencement of work was one thing. But the Di Zi Gui?... Back in Xi'an Laverne had it at primary school.

Sure beats Dale Carnegie and Trump this writer reckons. (For those ignorant of such matters have a look at the pic of Donald on the cover of his books on the Self-Enhancement shelves, as they're called here, in your own cities. Lion of a fellow. In one particularly taking cover shot he's got his gob open and finger pointed over at either an imaginary opponent, or else a fellow in the audience who needs to be brought along the last little bit. Master ring-master you can tell at a glance. No wonder he walks out the door. For all that he couldn't out-sell Dale. You didn't know Dale had another ten titles beside How to Win Friends... Found in his garage by his widow and Lit. Executor who later married and built a casino in Vegas. Maybe. All, each and every single volume, available off the shelf of any of the bookshops in Sing'pore. Not a difficult guess.)

Girl-friend of Lav's had worked at China Eastern a fair term, a year or two. A Mainlander like Laverne. Come to think of it, there wouldn't be a Cus-Serv. here who could get their head around even three-character Mandarin verse. Drove the girl concerned crazy it seems. She'd be doing drugs now if this wasn't Singapore. God save the darling from Dale and Donald.

The Civics they wanna get started back home—couldn't do better than the Di Zi Gui, all jokes aside. The churches would kick up a stink of course. Pastoralists, Blainey and Howard. (Not miners.) Possible Turnbull could carry it through if he challenged for leadership of the Labour Party...

Last night beers at Double Bay, at the base of Raffles City, a huge shopping tower beside the quaint old hotel. High wicker chairs for the smoking area. Marko landed from Prague, where you can have a fag with your drink in the Palace of Culture if you want. Not so here. Health care costs leaking. A few heavily leathered old ex-pats at the bar. Little Creatures stubbies (in Fosters holders), guess how much? Go on, try for it... Not five or even ten a pop. Keep going. Gorgeous Geylang supper at Shan Dong Seow Tu again—"Shandong Little Kitchen," Lav keen to see the famous "paradise for men." Telling working gals from the others had Laverne stumped; Marko likewise. Always nice to show natives their own towns. (Four years Lav's been here.) Girl serving at Shandong a marvellous scamp. Came out with a little arithmetic puzzle she had written out on a bill stub. Chap sources goods at such-and-such a price; sells at such-and-such. But in this case given a fake $100 bill. What are his losses?... Laverne and Marko at a loss why she would come out with that, the dear. And Lav concerned too when the girl started out with some unseemly berating… A darling from the interior mountain country.


Even from a distance out of the corner of the eye the young man's oddity was apparent, his gait unbalanced in some unusual way. Standing beside the first table he seemed to sway somehow. First one arm, then the other became visible. Standing side-on at the tables it took a few moments to receive the full impression. The diners seemed to take a long time fishing out the coins, keeping the man awkwardly waiting. A long time he stood at each table, one table after another the same. No one turned this beggar away, and little wonder.

One arm was severed half-way along the forearm, the skin bundled together and stitched somehow invisibly, perhaps behind. A kind of scalding texture was apparent around the crook of the elbow and lower down, with the stump left protruding outward. The other arm, the left, was contorted below the elbow. It too had taken a twist that couldn't be righted, leaving the hand turned inward in what seemed an unusable claw. In this case the stitching was prominent along the wrist and extended out around the thumb in bold, jagged line.

The man would have been still in his twenties, thin, dark-haired, a little handsome. There was a suppleness and elasticity in his body that had survived what had befallen him. Moving along the row he paced quickly, lurching a little with a leading shoulder. When he stopped and made his petition he stood more or less straight, feet firmly planted, swaying slightly. Waiting for the coin he held his stance without shifting from foot to foot. Rather, something like the equivalent movement passed like a current through his upper torso, producing an odd twisting and rolling of the shoulders, a little lolling of the head. One might have concluded impatience or restlessness; medication or illicit drugs. A large travel bag that hung around his neck and sat longways on his chest added to his troubles. It was in the unzipped front pouch of the bag that he collected his alms.

The lame, hobbling and legless, the wheel-chair confined, are common sights in Geylang, casualties of the motorcycles in most cases. It couldn't be anything else. This man was the right age for it, and coming from the relevant class. But in his case a motorcycle accident was unlikely. There was catastrophic speed involved here too, but some other kind of machine. A motorcycle crash would not have left the man so nimble on his feet for one thing. The rest of his body seemed completely untouched. These injuries could only have come about through some kind of industrial accident. The man had got his hands caught in some kind of factory machine at one of the industrial estates on the island, or at one of the building sites.

The first couple of tables had presented their offerings, before the man moved to the Batam girls next in line. These Batam women come over to Singapore on the ferry on seven-day visas. Many have friends or relatives settled or working in Singapore. Often the gals do a little scamming of various kinds, earn a few dollars to take back home. Less than an hour from Singapore, average monthly income on Batam is something like $100. Still, with the sight of this man before them, both the women were digging into their bags. They no doubt needed to dig deep to fetch up their coins. No words had been exchanged. The man might have mumbled something at the outset. Certainly these lasses would not have understood anything other than the most basic Mandarin. There was no need for words. Again the man seemed to be listing oddly, his shoulders working spasmodically like an oarsman's might. When some coins were finally produced, the man spoke again, but his thanks came most clearly in the depth of his bow, a crooked kind of vigorous jerk from the waist that made his hair flop and must have produced an internal shudder in every recipient.

It was not possible to observe the man too closely, the sight was too gruesome. Somehow the Batam women managed better. There seemed to be no reeling shock or horror in their faces.

At Mr. Teh Tarik it is usually a Malay crowd at the tables. Kampung Malay, a cluster of buildings from the sixties in faux traditional Malay style, stands directly opposite. The food all along this upper end of Geylang is halal Muslim. The local Chinese patronise the eateries too, but the majority is clearly Malay. The occasional beggars pass here in the usual way, quietly enquiring. Often they get short shrift from the diners. Perhaps they do a little better at Mr. T. T. than elsewhere. They do not come too frequently and never press or pester. This man was altogether different. For one thing he was clearly not Malay. All the others before him here, women in every case, had been Malay. One older woman who might be blind has done the rounds more than once, escorted through the tables by a younger, middle-aged woman. Even this elderly woman in her scarf and long covering does not get coin at every table.

Something of a surprise in the begging here in Singapore is the by-passing of the ang moh by the beggars. In every single case, when beggars have worked a particular room or gathering, this ang moh can report he has invariably been given a wide berth, each and every single time. The old tissue-pack sellers, sometimes crippled and bent themselves—one is deaf and mute—give it a try. Not the beggars. The Indian lads selling wallets, belts and socks table to table at the eateries are likewise anything but shy. For the beggars it is a different matter. The half-blind old lady with the chaperone, the others too, go from one table to the other. Always with the ang moh omitted. On Cup Day last night the terribly maimed young Chinaman the same.

No doubt one can only hope for compassion from those of one's own kind. Otherwise it can be a stretch. Yet here the Chinaman was among the Malays. And it seemed unlikely in fact that the man was Singaporean. Almost certainly he had not a word of English, rare in a man of his generation. A Mainlander, a foreign worker, come to grief on these shores, you would have bet. The words of thanks that came with his unnerving bowing carried a strange note, as if the man might have suffered other damage too. Possibly that impression was mistaken.

Earlier that afternoon at Bugis Laverne had been chanced upon. She had not been seen for a couple of months, during which time there had been a short holiday in Thailand with her mother. Thailand's poverty had been a shock for Laverne. There had been an attendance at some kind of half-comic, half-sad show put on by a troupe of lady-boys that left little to the imagination. Laverne had not expected anything so confronting, and certainly would not have subjected her mother to anything of the sort had she known. The poverty, the sex-trade, the begging—for Lav the whole experience had been more than a little unsettling.

—Even I am Chinese, I feel guilty—Laverne said, endeavouring to explain her reaction.

Days and days later her words continued to ring in the brain.

Ang moh is literally "red-haired" in Hokkien, the language of south-west China, from where the largest portion of the Chinese had emigrated to the Straits region. The Dutch had been the earliest colonisers of that area of China. Subsequently the English who came fitted the same tag sufficiently well. Now we blameless others are indiscriminately tarred by the same brush.


Two old street scavengers slumped at the corner Starbucks table behind the pillar getting some shut-eye. Almost noon. Beside the palm their trolley mounted high with flattened cardboard[i], contours of the aluminium cans in the black garbage bags on top. Early seventies the man, fine black coif combed back, spare frame. The woman younger, stouter, abundant thick hair down her back almost to the waist. Being taller she is slumped further in her chair. The hard iron of the Starbucks veranda seating she softens with a piece of cardboard torn to fit, the remainder on the table for her head. Hair tamed behind by a thick elastic band; he has one around a wrist. They use them to tie off the bags. To hold the bags on top of the pile they use dangerous bungee cords. The woman's hair flows out from the band, wide across her back and streaked with grey. Such a mass of hair on an old woman. Years back she must have kept it in a queue. A man's black shirt, black slacks. At a number of points there was some doubt about her gender, but she is a woman alright. Her hair was about the length that she could bring it round to the front under her arm-pit and scissor the ends herself. For all the grey, the black still predominated.

The man regularly visited a barber. A number of times he stirred from his slumber, on one occasion just in time to catch an office girl attempting to stuff her used tissue between the cardboard sheets on the trolley. The young woman was gruffly told where to get off, dark looks following. The disturbance woke the woman and she looked after her too, without matching annoyance. At no point was there any communication between the pair. When he goes to move the trolley he does so abruptly without a word. The woman rises from her seat looking after him. After a minute or two she resumes her seat; another minute or two he returns. The face the woman shows is almost Amerindian. Nut brown in this case, not red; thick-lipped, a broad brow and long face. Among the office crowd and tourists she presents a startling figure, much the more striking of the pair. Directly in front of them people stop to photograph the windmills and dear installed in the corner of the small square. On the other side there is a mechanically spurting fountain that draws children under the water and other photographers. In the course of waking the woman had revealed the cigarette lighter she had been clutching, its sudden emergence like a magician's trick. Now from the pocket of her shirt a little bundle drawn which she bends to scrutinise. The colour and size suggested money, tightly bound. Likely it wasn't money. A small pink-framed magnifying glass used in her study. The bundle went back where it had come from. Hidden before, in the action she showed the two bangles on her right wrist. Simple plastic bands, one black, one white—ying and yang. Large circular silver earrings, larger than fifty cent pieces, swung when she looked after the office lass. The woman was part gypsy, part Amerindian; Chinese of a form that hasn't been seen at Bugis Junction for an eternity.

[i] An item in the Straits Times gave the price of recycled cardboard as nine cents per kilogram in 2011. S.T. 24 Dec. 2011 p. C10.

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