Fiction / October 2018 (Issue 41: Writing Singapore)

The Old Man

by Yeng Pway Ngon, translated from Chinese by Jeremy Tiang


The Japanese tie his hands behind his back with wire, along with several other men, and lead them in a line onto an army truck. Everyone’s head is down. In the gloom, he can’t make out their faces. Their keening sobs are like an erhu’s plaintive notes. Like a premonition, he feels he can’t breathe. He is icy cold, teeth chattering. The truck rattles along for a while before stopping. He looks out but can’t tell where they are, there’s nothing in sight but the oppressive sky and sea. The Japanese soldiers shout at them to get down. His mind is murky, his heart full of panic, and his legs wobbly. He tumbles to the ground, more a roll than a jump. The row of people, tied together, can only move in unison like a skewer of meat.

He feels no pain even as he hits the dirt. They struggle to their feet as the Japanese, wielding guns, hustle them to the shore and make them run into the waves. As the captives stumble into theocean, there’s a spate of gunfire behind them. They scuttle like cockroaches being sprayed with insecticide, colliding and getting entangled in each other’s limbs. He feels a sharp pain in his back, and knows he’s been hit. His legs go limp, and he falls into the water. He struggles, but his arms and legs won’t do as they’re told. Salt water enters his lungs, choking him. He is sinking, sinking into the cold and dark, to the bottom of the sea—

Abruptly, a piercing beam of light cuts through the black waters.

“Grandpa, Grandpa!”

Someone is calling him from within the light, and shaking his shoulder.

He opens his eyes.

This isn’t the bottom of the sea; he’s in his bedroom, and the lights are on. No wonder he felt cold, the blanket is by his side.

A woman stands next to him. The light is disorienting, and he’s feels as if he’s still underwater. Her figure wavers. He can’t make out her face. She says something and pulls the blanket over him. After a while, his eyes adjust to the light, but he is still half in his dream, and can faintly hear the rat-tat-tat of gunshots and terrifying cries.

“Are you okay, Grandpa? You were screaming really loudly.” Another woman has come into the room, and is speaking gently to him.

“What time is it?” he asks blearily.

“Four o’clock,” one of the women answers.

The dream is still clear in his mind. It’s a familiar one. He must have had the same dream years ago, more than once. It feels like an old movie that comes back for a repeat screening when he isn’t sleeping well. Each time, he feels the same when he wakes up: alone, sad, regretful. As if the Japanese actually had shot him in the back.

“Why didn’t I die?” He’s confused. The room looks alien in this yellow light. “Turn the lamp off,” he mutters, then shuts his eyes. Even so, he can still see the Japanese soldiers glaring at him.

Didn’t someone say the Japanese surrendered? Have the devils given up or not? His heart is a terrified muddle, and his head is jumbled too. It takes him a long time to quieten down. When he opens his eyes again, the lamp is off, and the two women are moving around the room. In the dark, he can make out a glass of water and small jar of Tiger Balm on the bedside table. One of his shirts hangs over the back of the chair. This is the bedroom he knows. He lives in an HDB flat in Bishan now, not the old place in Big Town.

He misses the flat above Wing Fong Kopitiam. Though the family fled to Hougang during the bombing, they returned when the Occupation started. Uncle Kin and Big Sister Kam passed away one after the other in San Francisco, soon after the war ended. Wing Fong was now his. At the start of the ‘50s, business took a turn for the better. He saved up some money and renovated the second storey a couple of times, turning it into a four-room flat with a large kitchen and a long living room, in which he placed rosewood furniture and calligraphy scrolls. (Later, these would be joined by photographs of his grandson Kim Chau in costume.) A gramophone and some records stood on a little shelf in the living room. He owned quite a few Cantonese opera recordings (where are they now?) that he would often regale visitors with as they drank and played mahjong. Sometimes, he felt guilty: he wouldn’t have any of these things if not for the kopitiam, but Wing Fong was Uncle Kin and Big Sister Kam’s. All his possessions were actually theirs; he was a cuckoo in their nest.

He thinks of the rosewood dressing table he bought Ah Yoke, the bed he slept in with Ah Yoke by his side. Yes, Ah Yoke should have been Tak Chai’s wife, but Ping Hung loved her so very much, especially after she died and he truly felt the pain of losing her. He didn’t cherish her enough when she was in the world, but gave her a hard time out of jealousy that her heart belonged to Tak Chai. She didn’t welcome him on their wedding night. At first he thought she was shy, but then realised she was pushing him away. She spent the whole of their first time silently weeping, which made him feel vexed, embarrassed, humiliated, as if he were forcing himself on her. He asked if it hurt, but she shook her head. She must have been thinking of Tak Chai, which meant she must have been intimate with him. The thought drove him near insane, and he grew frantic with jealousy, trying to guess what happened.

He and Ah Yoke were terrible together in bed. She went through the motions as if this were just a bureaucratic hassle, more mechanically than the prostitutes on Keong Saik Road. At least the whores knew how to fake passion. Ah Yoke just lay there, cold as a slab of ice, mortifying him. But he loved her. No matter how angry and hurt he was, the most he ever did was sulk or grumble. He never once hit her. In order to satisfy his urges, he made several trips to Keong Saik Road, but that felt dirty. Over time, Ah Yoke quietly learnt how to please him. Had she acquiesced to her fate? He didn’t know, but tried his best to be good to her too, more caring. Yet whenever he remembered it was Tak Chai she loved, not himself, he’d get angry, and take it out on her. Without mentioning any names, he’d lash out at her with sharp words. He called her a loose woman who didn’t know the meaning of chastity, then regretted it afterwards. That’s how he tortured her: tenderness when he liked her, harsh words when he didn’t.

When she got gravely ill, he felt remorse for everything he’d done. After her death, his guilt and self-recrimination deepened. Had his ill-treatment weakened her body? What a good wife Ah Yoke was, he sighed. She’d quietly suffered through the Japanese Occupation with him. Although the saying goes that a poor couple have a hundred sorrows, they were actually happiest together when they had the least. When they lived in constant fear of the Japanese, trying desperately to survive, he didn’t have energy left over for jealousy, and they managed to be loving amidst this deprivation. Ah Yoke must have been happiest in Syonan-to. In peacetime, their material life got better, and he began picking on her again. Ah Yoke really was a good wife. She hadn’t uttered a word of complaint during the hard times, and painstakingly raised their children whilst helping him to run Wing Fong. Whenever he misses Ah Yoke, he berates himself for being so heartless, treating fine timber as kindling.

He once dreamt that Tak Chai wrote to him after his marriage, with a thick stack of banknotes as a wedding gift. He never told Ah Yoke about this, because he suspected it wasn’t a dream, but something that actually happened. Maybe Ah Yoke knew, but kept it to herself. The dream made him uneasy. He felt like a criminal or a cheat who hadn’t been found out yet. Sooner or later, someone would uncover his guilt. For some years now, he’s been uncertain which of his memories are dreams, and which actually happened. For instance, he’s recently started dreaming that Ah Yoke and the children are still upstairs at Wing Fong, but he hasn’t been back to see them for a long time. This makes him anxious. How are they doing? Who’s taking care of them? It feels so real, not at all like a dream.

The two women stay in the room a little longer, say something to him, and leave.

Who are they? Not Ah Yoke and Ah Lan, surely.

Ah Yoke has been dead a long time. And his children? Kung Man is dead too, he thinks. And there’s Kim Chau, Kim Chau’s dead too. What about Kung Woo? And Kim Ming? And Ah Lan? Is Ah Lan still alive? He thinks hard, growing lost in fragments of time and shards of memory. After a long while, he remembers that he saw Kim Ming in Hong Kong many times. So he’s probably still there. Kung Woo said he was going to China after leaving Singapore. He remembers giving Kung Woo the location of his village, and telling him to visit his uncles and aunts. The bastard left Singapore so many years ago, and there hasn’t been any news from him. Where is he now? Did he ever go to the village? What about Ah Lan? Where is Ah Lan now?

Deep in the maze of memory, he finally dredges up the names of the two women who were in the room earlier: his granddaughter Yu Sau and their helper Maria.

A whole family, dead or dispersed. Maybe he brought the curse on them. Is heaven punishing him? Is this retribution? A tide of desolation sweeps over him.



“I have to queue up first thing in the morning for the inspection. Tat Yan died during his.” The old man turns over, as if Ah Yoke is beside him in bed. “I’m sure his death has something to do with those people, the Nightblooming Drama Society. He spent so much time with them, and they staged anti-Japanese performances. The chap who ran the society and some of the others went for the inspection and never came back.” He sighs long and hard, then rolls onto his back and stares at the ceiling, only it’s no longer the ceiling, but a screen unfurling in his mind. The scrambled memories are sharpening. Something from decades ago, crystal clear before his eyes:

He had a large bag of biscuits and a bottle of water as he made his way at dawn to Upper Cross Street, the gathering point for the inspection. Early as it was, there were already quite a few people there. The road was surrounded by a metal fence and piled with sandbags, on which machine guns rested. In the field where the inspection would be carried out were armed Japanese soldiers, and a tank was parked nearby. He found a patch of grass to squat on. At least he’d gotten there early enough. Soon, there’d only be room on the road, which would grow hot from the sun by afternoon.

He hadn’t considered that as the queue moved, he’d end up on the scalding hot road. They inched along, and were only allowed to squat, not stand. No one was allowed to leave once they were here, not even if they needed the toilet. He was usually a very clean person, but when his bladder couldn’t hold out, he had to do the same as everyone else and pee where he was. After some time, his legs grew too tired to keep squatting, and he had no choice but to sit in his own piss. They were like animals in a cage, their bums smeared with shit and urine. The Japanese yelled orders and whacked them with their rifles to make them move forward. The only thing distinguishing them from beasts was that each held a form containing their personal details.

Terrified, he stood before the Japanese soldiers carrying out the inspection. He stank of piss, which made him ashamed. He stammered out a greeting in Japanese. The soldiers glared nastily at him for quite a while, then barked out questions. “Name? Occupation?” They made him hold out his palms to be inspected, then marked his body with a stamp, and shoved him to one side.

“They put a mark on my shirt. I wore that marked shirt from then on,” says the old man to the empty pillow next to him. “I didn’t dare to take it off or wash it.” He stares at the space beside him for a long time, then rolls back and shuts his eyes.

Many people never returned from their inspection. They were pumped full of water and tortured to death. That’s probably what happened to the drama society members. Anyone who didn’t get a mark on their clothing was dragged into the sea and shot dead. Tat Yan was summoned the same morning as him. When he got home that evening, there was no sign of Tat Yan, not even at dinner time. This wasn’t good. He’d been worried during his own inspection that the Japanese would ask about Tat Yan, but they hadn’t. Still, he remained anxious they’d give him trouble in thefuture. He never told Ah Yoke about these fears.

Exhausted, he went to bed immediately after dinner, but was too scared and uneasy to sleep. The next morning, Tat Yan wasn’t there, but Ah Yoke insisted he’d been back in the night. After Ping Hung went to bed, she did the washing up, and when she came back out, there was Tat Yan in the living room, staring at her without a word. She said, “What are you doing there? You gave me a fright.” His face was stark white. He looked fear-stricken, and very tired.

“I told him to sit down, and turned back to get him a bowl of soup from the kitchen. Before I got there, I heard him say behind me, ‘I’m leaving, Sis.’ I said, ‘Leaving? Where to? Why are you rushing off like a scalded cat?’ He said something about the drama society people waiting for him, they had something urgent to do. I said he should eat first, but he was in a hurry. And just like that, he rushed out the front door.”

The old man can see Ah Yoke saying this, as if it happened yesterday. She went to the door and called after Tat Yan, but he’d already disappeared down the stairs. She ran after him, but found the street silent. No sign of Tat Yan, just the concertina wire blocking the road and the two Japanese sentries. “He’d vanished like a ghost,” she said.

They never saw Tat Yan again. Oh yes, the old man remembers now: the night after the inspection, he had a bad dream. He was tied to some other people, forced into a truck, and driven to the sea, where Japanese soldiers fired at them from behind. But the “him” in the dream was actually Tat Yan. Later, he told Ah Yoke what he believed: that Tat Yan had been killed during theinspection, and was already dead when she saw him that night. Ah Yoke burst into tears. For many years after that, whenever she remembered that night, she’d say, “He came back just to give me a fright,” and start crying again.

“You can’t bring the dead back to life, no point howling about it.” The old man’s dried-out eyes stare into the darkness of the room as he mutters, “I told him not to spend so much time with those theatre people, didn’t I?”



“Ah Sau!” During lunch, the old man wants to talk to Maria about Syonan-to again. He often calls her Ah Sau. “Back when this was Syonan-to, every front door had a Japanese sticker. If not, you were in trouble. The Japanese would come and hassle you, and if they suspected you were in the resistance, that would be the end of your life.”

Ever since National Day, the old man has been babbling about Syonan-to, mostly to himself, sometimes to Yu Sau and Maria. He often calls Yu Sau by her Aunt’s name, Ah Lan, and at some point he started calling Maria by Yu Sau’s nickname. Yu Sau corrects the old man each time, reminding him that she’s his granddaughter, not Aunt Yeuk Lan. Maria doesn’t mind what he calls her, she can’t understand a word. Now he’s done it again, and Maria stares dubiously at him, saying in her rudimentary Cantonese, “Eat! Eat!” The old man ignores her. His hands are shaking so much that the bowl of rice in his left hand is a little boat in choppy waters, while the chopsticks in his right hand are like the elongated beak of a bird, pecking at something in mid-air. “You think we had such good rice to eat back then? I ate broken rice, adulterated rice, rice with sand in it. Even then, we had to queue up with our ration cards.”

The old man scoops up some rice and stuffs his mouth. As he slowly chews, his muddy, dried-out eyes are fixed on the stir-fried pea shoots on the plate. He slips back into his shattered memories. Just before the Japanese surrendered, prices had soared to unbelievable heights, while the value of banana currency fell, sometimes several times a day. You had to bring a sack of banknotes to go shopping. Even though life was extremely hard on Syonan-to, Great World and Happy World amusement parks stayed open, and were filled with gambling stalls: chap ji kee, word flowers, dominoes. Early in the Occupation, there was no way to open the kopitiam right after the looters had taken everything, so he worked as a guard at a gambling den for a couple of months. The old man chews vigorously, and finally manages to force down the mouthful of rice. His eyes are wide open, and he says to Maria as if in a dream, “Luckily Uncle Kin warned me not to gamble or go near opium. I saw it happen with my own eyes, so many people ended up in the street.”

He thinks of Wing Fong after the looting, of his father-in-law’s provision shop picked bare, the stalls that sold old clothes and other goods on Market Street. Someone told him their stolen possessions ended up at one of these stalls. The old man blurts out in rage, “Damn them, everything they sell is stolen, we should steal it back!”

Maria smiles uncomprehendingly. “Grandpa, eat!” she says. That’s about the extent of her Cantonese. The old man looks at her, confused. He gets angrier the more he thinks about this. Most people were very poor back then, yet there were those who caroused every night: gouging merchants, or straight-up traitors. How else could they have made their money? He shakes his head and sighs at the injustice of it. His existence in Syonan-to actually wasn’t too bad. The money and jewellery he and his wife brought when they fled were enough to restore Wing Fong, and he was able to re-open before too long. After a while, they could even afford to watch Cantonese operas at New World and Great World. He heard performances by the likes of the scholar-warrior Chan Yin Tong, the ingénue Lau Lai Ho, the female impersonator Lee Tsui Fong. Of course, they’re all forgotten now. Swirling through his mind is Yoshiko Yamaguchi singing, “So few chances to be drunk, why miss this one? After we say goodbye tonight, when will the gentleman come again?” Yes, she was often on the radio, that’s probably why he can still remember her songs. He hums to Maria, “Beautiful flowers seldom bloom, beautiful times quickly pass.” Then he mutters, “I used to hear this every day. The singer was famous, but I can’t think of her name. That’s what happens when you’re old!”



The Hungry Ghost Festival comes soon after National Day. During Ghost Month, the old man and his daughter-in-law used to burn offerings on the pavement outside Wing Fong Kopitiam. They did the same even after moving into the flat. After his son died, his granddaughter came back to live with them, but she never took part, probably thinking it was just superstition. Then his daughter-in-law took a turn for the worse and couldn’t get around easily, so when the old man made his offerings that year, the granddaughter had no choice but to help him. He told her to bring everything down to the side of the road: cooked food, fruits, joss paper, hell money. She resisted at first, maybe because she’d studied overseas. This probably seemed ridiculous, or even embarrassing, to her. She initially agreed only to help him bring the things downstairs, but when she saw what a hard time he was having, she helped him lay them out too, then set the joss paper alight. Out of reluctance, she was moving as fast as she could, as if she was doing something shameful.

When his daughter-in-law died, that seemed to change the girl’s mind. She even said to him that Ghost Month was like the Grave Sweeping Day, an occasion to remember the dead, nothing superstitious about it. And sure enough, at Ching Ming, she went with the old man to pray at her parents’ and grandmother’s grave. Like her mother used to, she now talked to the dead, begging her father’s forgiveness for not taking better care of him, asking her parents and grandma to protect her and Grandpa, and give them good health. Now the old man sits in his wheelchair, watching his granddaughter kneel by the side of the road, chanting as she burns joss paper. Ash dances through the smoke like a flock of black butterflies.

He says to her, pausing between sentences, “When the Japanese devils were here, so many people were killed. They all became restless spirits, and to this day I’m still praying for them. Did you know? The day they surrendered was the Hungry Ghost Festival. We all burnt Japanese money for the dead, like it was hell money. Japanese currency had become worthless, you see.”

His granddaughter listens quietly. This is all very strange. Ever since National Day, when the fighter jets roared past outside, her grandpa returned to the Japanese Occupation. Although he’s confused, he remembers the period with perfect clarity. Of course, she has no way of knowing if his memories are accurate. All this happened before she was born. Still, she believes everything he’s saying about the Occupation. Just as she’s wondering why his mind is sometimes so sharp, he shouts at her, “Ah Lan! Do we have any more Japanese money? Burn it all!”

Editors note:
This is an excerpt from Costume by Yeng Pway Ngon, English translation by Jeremy Tiang
forthcoming from Balestier Press, 2019.

ImageYeng Pway Ngon is a poet, novelist, playwright and critic from Singapore who has published twenty-six volumes in the Chinese language. His work is noted for its examination of the modern human condition, and has been translated into English, Italian, and Malay. He received Singapore's Cultural Medallion in 2003 and the SEA Write Award in 2013, as well as being a three-time recipient of the Singapore Literature Prize, for his novels Art Studio (2012), Trivialities About Me and Myself (2008) and Unrest (2004). Costume was named one of the top ten Chinese novels of 2015 by Yazhou Zhoukan, and won a 2016 Singapore Literature Prize merit award. The English translation of Costume is forthcoming from Balestier Press.
ImageJeremy Tiang was born in Singapore and now lives in New York. His translations include novels by Yeng Pway Ngon, Zhang Yueran, Chan Ho-Kei and Li Er; plays by Xu Nuo, Wei Yu-Chia, Zhan Jie and Quah Sy Ren; and, most recently, Jackie Chan's autobiography Never Grow Up. Tiang is also a playwright, and the author of State of Emergency (winner of the Singapore Literature Prize 2018) and It Never Rains on National Day (shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize). His translations of Un Sio San and Zou Jingzhi have previously appeared in Cha.
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