Poetry / October 2018 (Issue 41: Writing Singapore)

Three Poems

by Alvin Pang


China when I was a kid was grabby relatives who wanted cigarettes in exchange for acknowledgement. Their endorsement seemed to matter to my grands who were born in China. Less so to my Singapore-born parents. Does being raised in another place make such a difference, against the vibranium weave of genetics? My mother-in-law needed glasses; her siblings in Putian did not, ever. China was cheap toys children could afford to be bullied out of in school or have broken to ensure their diligence. It was hairline cracks on vintage porcelain cups, tossed after the grands passed. It was languages we could not afford but hoarded anyway in our mouths: the soft blanket of teochew muay; the cackle of hokkien hay mee. My paternal ah ma swearing “tor jiek heong lou tor jiek guai” whenever we caspered around the apartment, stirring dust and trouble, with visiting cousins. “Zhong nei ga fan shue!” she’d yell if seriously pissed at politics or neighbours or an insolent daughter. China was being smacked with a ruler in school for uttering anything but Mandarin in Chinese class: we learnt early that speech is act, has red welt consequences. China is ah ma with my head on her lap and a chinese-styled ear-scoop deep in one canal, cleaning out wax in the last of the evening light. It is her calling me a good grandson for dropping by her bedside at the hospice, in 1998. China is my ah kong’s bald head and tattoos, which I can no longer remember except that he had them. His white singlet and black kungfu pants; his gouged and homemade toolbox, smelling of singer oil and the musk of his able fingers.  China was the superhero pugilists who came from China but were told to life by Hong Kong, who leapt from roof to roof in pursuit of truth, justice and the Jiang Hu way; from whose palms dragons burst forward like empowered fireballs, or flaming buddhas, or webs of inner mana. And everything had a philosophy of change and equanimity and loss. The world being put right by those a little beyond the pale. The Emperor for all his majesty could not act to save his best friend or secret sibling: the wandering master, replete with insouciant detachment. China was corrupt officials and lone, legendary lawful magistrates defying pressure from upstairs to let be, who stayed felonious princes with gilded guillotines. Was wronged patriots choosing death over political expedience. Was festivals dedicated to the few good men (usually men: women were often longsuffering, fearless, ruthlessly driven tutor-mothers, or else peerless beauties who brought down kingdoms). And always a feasting: remembrance through shape and lip. Dishes cooked up by poets, and Li Bai drunk under the moon. China in the red; in the tannic scrape of tea Wah Kong gulped down boiling with his bak kut teh. China is the schools he built in his home village: the monuments erected in his name; his ancestral muslim graves; his two wives and eight children, one of them my mother. China is his mahjong games and, on a good night thousand-dollar tips tossed at delighted grandchildren like White Rabbit candy. His six-months-to-live liver cancer, extended by TCM in China to years more of benign confusion and his children falling out over the will. China is Asian values and Taiwanese soaps about family feuds and the handwringing hard-done-by pioneerings and soft, acquisitive, ungrateful progeny. China is first generation makes, second generation keeps, third generation squanders. China is Japanese atrocities in Nanking and Singapore. Is refusing to use Sony products until the 80s.  China is being tarred with the same yellow brushstroke. Is go home chink on British sidestreets. Is crosstalk dyed one tongue. Is wayang with no watchers save the dead, stopping by for the month, to keep them out of trouble. Is my sister’s name, now unused, a rabbit on a boat. Is the name I share with the national orangutan. Is Confucius Institute. Is PEN’s I Am Liu Xiaobo event in Cape Town, with no one else able or willing to read aloud his dustsong. Is knots I loved to pick apart as soon as I received them, the itch of their perfection too much to abide. Is basha, hardbought at the marketplace of history, not shichang. China is top grade longjing sent from Scotland by the expatriates I met at a reading, and the afternoon in which we concurred there are many different ways to be Chinese, and no compulsion. China is my daughter weeping defiant rage at being made to study one. China is boiled herbal soup and pig’s brains with rice and red mushroom stew and sea cucumbers and shark’s fin and starvation in the ‘70s. China is mess made do on every continent. China is US dollars on trans-Siberian trains. Is discount pharmacies in downtown Osaka.  China is Mao’s arms ticking off a watchface. China is the welling and walling up of the past. Is the Beijing Olympics. Is Shanghai jazz clubs. Is concubine villages in Shenzhen. Is maglev trains. Is the new golden horde. Is Marina Bay Sands. Is where Singapore is, states the envelope from Liverpool. I can see China from anywhere I sit. I can see it with my eyes closed. China is the us I cannot scrub off. China is not friend nor foe: it is weather, or will be. China made small enough to put in your pocket. To tweet. Will taste of temple ashes. Will stain me to the bone when I am fire. 


Strutting through the Queefdorm, blocking the blue reel of the cloud parade, the Precedent of Flaked Mews dishevelled the last of the old tepees with his blunderbluster, brandished like a megalodon’s peeling tusk, the crowd avenued away, caught in camera derrière. Bigger than geewhiz he was, louder than learning, his mien splitting continents (into toy blocs, but that’s another sorry). His mother skittish and his father muddied, he sought the summit of special from every gorm he lacked, rutting where the blind billet in bills, balls deep in the course of the old club. Syphillitic mayhaps, or sibyllitic. Certainly cutting a figure through the clean cloth of we. A night in shamming bummer. The other side’s the auld syne. Everywhere the wards break, the beast set free. It’s coming home.


In this universe we sip milk tea as the child we can never have gambols on the fine sand of our unfinished pining. What we make in the vestigial night is not love but history. Every dawn we darn our verses by the filmy window while the kettle learns to whistle. This will bore you. You will want marks on paper to cut less cleanly. You want the breath to sizzle in the October air. I will reach for the granulated stevia and ask for a spoon. There is no spoon so I use the blunt end of a pen, something we would never allow our boy to do, had we, say, a boy and not indifferent carnations.  We would have sorted out who was the good cop and who the bad before the third trimester, and not been at this loss on who to grieve and who to drive for groceries half-dazed from sleep. Or Netflix: always cooking shows with knife-work immaculate as habits, and perfect bakes. Every year, a new Disney tune to hum while trimming the wayward hedges. More dirt, more over there to patch the bare roots. Had we a garden.
ImageAlvin Pang was Singapore's Young Artist of the Year for Literature in 2005, and received the Singapore Youth Award for Arts and Culture in 2007. A poet and editor, he is a Fellow of the Iowa International Writing Program and a board member of the International Poetry Studies Institute. Listed in the Oxford Companion to Modern Poetry in English (2nd Edition, 2013), his writing has been published worldwide in more than 20 languages, including Swedish, Macedonian, Croatian and Slovene. His recent books include: When the Barbarians Arrive (Arc, UK), and What Happened: Poems 1997-2017 (Math Paper Press, Singapore).
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