Poetry / November 2011 (Issue 15)

The Hong Lim Suite

by Tristan Coleshaw

i. Sweet coffee and potted palms

Hong Lim block wakes bean curd soft
through the steam of morning's first rice,
the steely beat of pak choi diced
and gossip flavoured Hokkien
sizzling sharp with galangal root

and splintered chicken feet chippings.
As the hawkers call the start of day,
a Singapore dawn spreads gin sling pink
on door glass and twitching curtain backs.
Merchants raise their shop guards, stack out

wads of temple money, sandalwood
sticks and prayer beads. On the first
floor, doctors sniff their herbs,
grocers open up sugared drinks
and unwrap today's fresh moon cakes. I

wander through the meat market,
the stench of blood as strong as
bleach, shivering ornate flesh stains
adorned on butchers' aprons.
From the balcony I spot the

Mah Jong players grouped at
plastic tables, withered and torpid
seniors rattling through a slow old age
with symboled tiles and their daughters'
flasks of cha in hand. By ten o'clock

the stalls are heaving, the poor flock here
for three dollar dining, monks
wander, trading braids for coins.
Travelling whites come to break
their breakfast rules: bacon and toast

swapped for dumplings and noodles,
their cereal traditions cornflaked
into bowls of coconut milk, curried
in their foreignness. I order
from Coffee Station and take

a seat by the plant beds, am tutted
by locals five metres away for taking
the smoking table. I watch the tai-tai
pour the coffee jug to jug, add the sugar,
a layer of condensed milk. I had asked

for black. She brings the chipped cup over
through the roar of clucking Hakka,
Malay, Telugu, Cantonese, Tamil, not
a broken word of English. "Xie xie,"
I mumble, endeavouring Mandarin gratitude,

I should have known from the menu
she was Teochew. She rolls her eyes
at my faulty Chinese and leaves. I sit there,
sweating in the Peranakan heat
that steams the emerald leaves

of potted palms and rides on the spitting
flames of vinegared woks. I breathe the fumes
of pungent pans of shrimp broth and
Peking duck ovens, my elbow by a piece of onion,
dropped from some diner's clumsy chopsticks.

ii. Homeland

Sudden claps of monsoon
thunder mute the food hall's
neon buzz, a congee rain
falls thick and tacky through
the gaps between the levels.
From New Bridge Road,
old Zhìxin burrows through
the sheltering shoppers,

he stops at Lok-Lok Tao Foo
for a cheap feed and a cigarette.
Taking the prize seat by
the rails and overlooking the lawns,
he vents a yawn and opens up
his paper. 'Shandong farmers
water their fields with hoses
he reads aloud; news from home,

he scans the page for names of towns
that as a boy, he'd known; he stares
at paragraphs, skipping characters unremembered,
unlearned. A keen breeze flicks the downpour
at his dusty sandalled feet, soaking,
quenching the dry cracks in his skin.
He recalls now distant rains of Shandong past,
followed by the rich mud scent of Spring.

iii. Speaker's Corner

Crowds gather in Hong Lim Park, the voice
in Speaker's Corner billowing out from under
pink umbrellas. Girls, Apollo handsome,
link their arms and cheer the megaphoned

speech; boys stamp their shoes to Western
pop beats, grinning porcelain pretty, their mothers
in tow and revelling in their gaiety. Policemen
line the borders plain-faced, watching gatherers swell

into a guava pink dot beneath the soup-warm
drops of rain; they separate the flowering
of the first male kiss and lead the culprits away.
The hissing crowd, dismayed, dissolve their circle,

decree in loud letter-shaped battalions, L-O-V-E.
In the tower block, Chinese throng the railings,
jeering the loving mass below with fire and
brimstone wording. I rise to go, pink dollars

in pocket, piety burning in my ears; I pass a female couple
queueing for the toilets by the stairs, bowing to a
Buddhist nun who hands them paper daisies, one
who knows too well how hard enlightenment is won.
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