Fiction / October 2018 (Issue 41: Writing Singapore)

The Missing Clock

by Yolanda Yu Miaomiao, translated from Chinese by Jeremy Tiang


Book-in time was 8.30, he remembered clearly. He wandered around asking, what’s the time? Someone told him three-something, but that had to be wrong. Someone else said seven, but that couldn’t be right either. All of a sudden, time had vanished. Where was the correct time hidden? He searched everywhere, and found his camo uniform filthy and tangled beneath the bed, under his boots. Now what? The setting sun flushed sulky and red, but he only vaguely noticed it. In reality, it was afternoon. He was between wakefulness and dreams, struggling to find time. He ought to get out of bed, but in the process he’d lost all time.

Then he woke and remembered he was only sixteen, still too young for National Service. He must have gotten these NS memories from his brother-in-law. He touched his right cheek, and knew without looking that a shiny round pimple was sprouting there, surrounded by spiky stubble. He spat out swear words like blowing bubbles. This bedroom got the evening sun, whose rays had fallen on him while he napped. As if even the sun had something against him.

Frowning, he grabbed a cigarette, opened the window, and smoked with his wrist on the sill. Below was a moat-like canal, full of sludge the murky green of chicken shit. It hadn’t rained for a long time. A single glance clogged his lungs and made him want to never breathe again. Pigeons, white and grey, were nesting in the waste pipes. This was their fate, passing their days here.

The doorbell rang. He jumped, nearly dropping his cigarette. Calming down, he remembered that his sister was married now. Before, if he’d smoked while she was home, she’d come knocking at his door in less than a minute to scold him. Why was her nose so sensitive? She used to be an air stewardess, and was either gone for days, or around all the time. He’d longed for her to get married, but when that actually happened, the atmosphere at home changed. Now he wanted to escape too.

He reluctantly stubbed out the cigarette and left the bedroom. The door swung open—it was the cleaning lady. He greeted her, “Auntie.” She grumbled in Hokkien, “Why didn’t you open the door? Watching TV, is it? How many hours a day? What’s the time? How come you don’t have a clock?”

He didn’t answer, just put on his backpack and went out while she searched. He remembered when they’d had a clock in their home.



Even now that everyone has a phone, people still need clocks. People get lazy. Their phones aren’t always by their sides. Watches get left by the sink to rest their wrists. Rather than interrupt what they're doing to search for these two items, much better to have a large disc gleaming on the wall to delight the eye when they look at it for the time.

What had this clock looked like? He had a vague memory. It probably came from a Chinese knick-knack shop, one of a billion varieties across the world, most notable for being cheap. Not particularly hardy, but absent disaster, able to weather the years with you. Like many of its ilk, its outward appearance was from a unique aesthetic school that had neither predecessors nor legacy. Able to satisfy the desires of the majority when it come to luxury, tradition, foreignness, modernity and so on. He remembered an old Victorian pattern, modern industrial cast-iron hands, an anchor on the pendulum that brought pirates to mind. The body was plastic, but had been painted dark reddish brown to resemble wood.

His mum would have her eyes fixed on this clock from the minute she got out of bed. If she didn’t hear the door slam by seven o’clock, she’d grumble, “Where’s he gone? Buying 4-D again, that lousy gambler.” She was waiting for Uncle Mang, the taxi-driver. Uncle Mang was actually his step-father, but because they’d been older when he married his mum, he and his sister never called him “Dad”. Uncle Mang used to run a small shipyard that went bankrupt when some bigger outfits came to Singapore, and now he drove a taxi. Mum might have been married to Uncle Mang, but she also looked down on him, and would frequently pinch him, invoking his full name as she called him useless. Uncle Mang was good-natured, and like a durian-seller’s hands, he’d gotten so used to being pricked that the thorns no longer hurt.

Uncle Mang used the clock to decide which soccer match to watch. He couldn’t live without Liverpool. When he was home, he’d invariably be curled up in a corner of the sofa, the exhaustion of more than ten hours of taxi-driving written on his face. Only when his team scored a goal did his features grow youthful and radiant.

Before his sister got married, she’d been transfixed by the clock too. She was always rushing out of the bathroom midway through her make-up, face half-white and half-yellow, to glance at the clock. “Oh no, I’m going to be late, oh no.” She’d started dating and sneakily wearing make-up when she was in poly. After graduating, she got hired by Emirates as a stewardess. In fact, she was neither tall nor thin enough, but her eyes were large and clear, bright as a child’s, and her voice very gentle, although the way she treated him wasn’t gentle at all.

As for him, it felt like he was the only one in the family with no use for this clock. He was always staring at his computer or smartphone, and had a sports watch for when he went out. With so many devices to remind him, how could he ever lose or forget time?



The night his sister announced she was getting married, the atmosphere at home was tense. Their mum didn’t approve. Sis and her boyfriend had been dating for more than a decade. When she’d become a stewardess a few years ago, her boyfriend enrolled in the flight academy. He’d always envied the boyfriend, and dreamt of becoming a pilot himself.

Mum sat on the sofa, so impassive it seemed the sofa had become part of her body. “Only know how to fly, want to become pilot, who doesn’t know the flight academy looks good but it’s useless? School fees so expensive, swallowed up all his dad’s savings. And now you see, can’t even find a job, what will you two eat?”

Sis had just got home and was still in her uniform, the colour of weak tea. Her eyes reddened at these words. “We’ll find a way. I’ve been with him for so many years.”

Mum waved that away, her voice sharpening. “It’s not I want to say him, but if it’s so easy to find a pilot job, he would have found one long ago. Like me, I found your Uncle Mang, now every day when I see him, I feel angry! Doesn’t have a proper job...”

Uncle Mang was huddled at the other end of the sofa, trying to make himself as small as possible, so small he’d be invisible. His eyes stared blankly into space. There was no match that day, and life without soccer is empty.

Sis was agitated. “He, he won’t always be like this. He graduated, he’ll become a pilot sooner or later.”

Mum was agitated too. “Not yet married already speaking for your husband, is it? Not to curse you, nothing good will come of this marriage.”

As soon as she said those words, his sister’s tears breached the dam and flooded out. She sobbed, “What good could come of it? A mother who curses me. How could any good come of it? I’d stay with him even if he was a taxi driver or a karang guni man! I’m not like you. I won’t be with someone I look down on.”

He didn’t dare interrupt. In this household, his mum had the highest status, then his sister, and Uncle Mang was the lowest. He was only a little higher than Uncle Mang. When the top two were having an all-out war, he and Uncle Mang could only watch.



As the wedding approached, their home remained overcast. Mum was prepared to use cold war tactics, but then found her opponent could be every bit as frigid. In the end, it got lonely at the top, so she thickened her skin and helped Sis with the preparations.

On the morning, the groom was supposed to turn up with a bunch of people to “breach the door”, while Sis and her bridesmaids gave the invading troops a hard time. Sis spent the night before at her good friend Huiyi’s flat, and would do her hair and make-up there before coming over after they’d tided the flat.

It was still murky dawn when he was startled awake by a flurry of knocks on his door. His mum yelled, “I’m going to the market, we need more red paper! Quick, get up, your sis and the others will be here soon!”

He rubbed his cheeks a few times, and bounced out of bed. Uncle Mang was nowhere to be seen, but the living room felt melancholy, as if infected by his mood. Uncle Mang often drove the night shift. At 6am he’d hand over his car, buy a newspaper, go to the kopitiam for coffee mixed with tea, and stay out till he’d finished his paper. But no, Uncle Mang had deliberately not taken a shift thenight before. Who knew where he was now?

He gripped the sink with both hands and let his head droop, to wake himself up. Blearily, he looked up at the mirror, and saw a pimple with a white tip on his forehead, the size of a bean. Sturgeons instinctively swim against the current, and human beings automatically squeeze whiteheads. Without a moment’s hesitation, his fingers flew to his face, but it wasn’t as ready to pop as it looked, and took him quite an effort to get rid of it.

A noise outside made his heart thud. “Oh no!” What time was it? Could his sister and her friends be here already? He was still in his boxers! He hurried out and glanced into the living room. Phew, fifteen minutes to spare. He started back to the bathroom, then thought he ought to get dressed first. He dashed into the bedroom and slammed the door too hard. The room shook as if from an earthquake. Why two bangs? He opened the door warily and looked out. What was that on the floor over there?

He rushed over, and froze in shock.

The grandfather clock was lying on the living room floor, broken into several pieces.

Would they think this was a bad omen for the wedding? He scoured his brain for superstitions to do with clocks. It was bad luck to give a clock as a present because “timepiece” sounded like “rest in peace”, but what if there was no clock at all? “No peace”? Nothing worse for a wedding. He gritted his teeth. No matter what, they had to get through the day before dealing with this.

In the store room, he found a Lim Chee Guan paper bag, and with a surge of relief, quickly scooped up the fragments of clock and dropped them in. The anchor poked out like a crab’s claw protesting its death. Fine. Clutching the bag, he slid gingerly into the bedroom.

Only now did he realise how cramped this flat was. He couldn’t find anywhere to hide the evidence. His old guitar case took up most of the space under the bed, and track shoes filled the rest. Half the wardrobe was occupied by winter coats from the family’s trip to Europe, and next to them were the dresses his sister seldom wore. His own T-shirts, jeans and underwear were stuffed in haphazardly, and pulling out any garment would cause a landslide. Above was a tennis racket like a giant spider’s web.

The flat was so quiet he could hear his own heart thumping, as well as his sister and Huiyi’s footsteps coming up the stairs. He hugged the bag and stared wildly around, like a general whose city was about to fall, unable to find anyone to hand over the orphan heir to.



After the wedding, his sister left for her honeymoon in Phuket, while his mum went to Penang for a three-day-two-night holiday with a few other aunties, claiming she needed to relax. He and Uncle Mang were the only ones left in the flat. Using ‘O’ Level revision as an excuse, he stayed out until Uncle Mang left for his shift.

He was anxious when his mum came home, but nothing at all happened, until one day he overheard a vicious argument.

“So ugly and you still want find women outside. Have your balls finally dropped?” screeched his mum from the kitchen.

“Where got? Where got women interested in me?” Uncle Mang, normally so silent, was raising his voice too.

“Then I ask you, how come there are long hairs in the bathroom? I was gone two days, so you forgot your own name, is it?”

“Huiyi and Little Sis showered here, the day of the wedding.” That was how Uncle Mang referred to his step-daughter, “Little Sis”.

“That was how long ago? Didn’t Auntie come and clean up? How could they still be there?” Mum retorted, hot on his heels.

“How would I know? She never cleans properly.” Even as his armour was being stripped away, Uncle Mang remained defiant.

“Okay, another thing, where’s the clock? You brought some woman home and got up to don’t know what nonsense, right? She broke my clock and you don’t dare to say?”

“Your head! I say don’t have means don’t have!” Timid Uncle Mang was now shouting, the veins on his neck sticking out.

“Say until like that, you must be in the wrong, right?” Mum said smugly, as if she’d just got hold of a key bit of evidence.

“Don’t anyhow accuse people!” There was a sob in Uncle Mang’s voice. “You want to say me, anything also can, but don’t accuse me of something I never did. I told you a thousand times already, I don’t know where your clock went!”

“Then you tell me how? The boy is studying, the girl is on her honeymoon. You think I took it to Penang with me?”

He heard an earth-shattering bang: the wooden front door slamming. Then a crash: the metal gate. That’s the sort of person Uncle Mang was. Even when storming out in a rage, he was responsible enough to close the security gate.

Feeling bad for getting Uncle Mang in trouble, he quietly said, “Ma, you’re wrong about Uncle Mang. Actually, it was me. I accidentally broke the clock and threw it away.”

His mum looked at him in surprise. “So mature. You don’t want me to have problems with Uncle Mang, so you take the blame. Too bad I have the proof in my hands. No matter how mature our Jiahua is, that old idiot can’t escape.”

He kept trying to explain, but his mum batted the words away. “How much money is a broken clock worth? If I don’t hantam the old idiot, he’ll forget his own name. I’m sure he has a woman outside, otherwise why would he stay out all night? I don’t believe he’s working so hard.”

All he could do was stare in silence at the empty place where the clock used to be.



A day ago, he made an excuse and left the table halfway through dinner. His sister tried to seem strong by talking loudly and insisting she was doing well, but when she was alone... He thought of her sorrowful face.

The other day, she came back and started ransacking every cupboard and drawer. He didn’t dare ask what for. After half an hour, she seemed to find whatever she’d been searching for, and sat heavily on the bed. “No school today, Jiahua?” Didn’t his sister normally call him “hey, you”? When had she become so polite? He felt the distance between them growing, but at the same time straightened up a little, as if this show of respect had turned him instantly into an adult.

“Mm-hmm.” He didn’t want to tell her he was playing truant again.

“Jiahua, since I left, has everything been okay at home?” she asked carefully.

For a moment, he couldn’t find a response. Was this family still okay? “Everything’s all right,” he heard himself lie. “And you?”

“Me? How can I put this. I didn’t use to believe in all this, but ever since that clock... so many things happened.” She lowered her voice. “You know, on my wedding day, Ma hid the clock.”

He tensed up, and beads of sweat appeared on his forehead. “How do you know it was Ma?”

“Who else would it be? It can’t be Uncle Mang. Are you telling me it was you?” she snapped. “I couldn’t believe my eyes. It’s fine if she doesn’t support my marriage, but what’s the meaning of hiding the clock? I can’t understand it.

“This whole thing left a shadow in my heart. A clock going missing can’t be good luck. My husband doesn’t have a job, so he’s always in a bad mood. I try to encourage him, but he’s a gambler. When we got married, he gave me a necklace and ring. Now he’s pawned them and gambled away the money. I’m wondering whether there were signs... She cursed me from the beginning, when she said nothing good would come of this... Maybe hiding the clock meant the same thing... But she’s my own mother, how could she...” She buried her face in her hands and started sobbing.

“Sis, that clock...” he blurted out. “I was the one who broke it and threw it away, not Ma.”

“You can’t even lie properly. The clock isn’t broken, someone just hid it.” She produced an object from the cardboard boxes she’d been searching through: the missing clock.



He’d stood by the window countless times, staring at the canal. The water level was high because of the recent rain. If he didn’t know it was normally a sludgy mess, he’d have been fooled by the roiling green waves. What is real, beneath the surface of life?

Back when they’d had the clock, it had been their sole authority. Now, his mum was always asking Uncle Mang for the time, not trusting him, and asking her son instead. If they told her different times, she’d grumble that their watches were wrong, and no one could believe them. But actually, it didn’t matter what they said—everyone only believes their own version.

He looked at the time. Twelve o’clock exactly. The only moment the hour, minute and second hands come together.

ImageYolanda Yu Miaomiao was born in northeastern China and has been living in Singapore since 1998. She has received multiple literature awards, including Singapore Tertiary Chinese Literature Award, Golden Point Award 2017 (1st place, Chinese Short Story), and Golden Point Award 2015 (1st Runner Up, Chinese Poetry). Her collection of poems was exhibited in the joint photography exhibition “Meandering with Medina” with Shivaji Das. Her work has been published in anthologies, and magazine & newspapers such as the New York Times Travel Magazine, Guangxi Literature, Zuo Pin Magazine in China, Lianhe Zaobao and Bukit Timah Literature in Singapore.
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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