Quarterly Literary Review Singapore
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Vol. 1 No. 1 Oct 2001

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In Search of the Lotus Land
Page 3

When the ship bumped against the dock, kids in Mickey Mouse ears laughed their way toward the Lady, who glowed emerald in the soft, autumnal light. I merged with the flock, and we trotted down the tree-lined walkways. Couples linked arms and began their slow, twined walk toward the end of the line that slid into the dark opening between the Dame’s limbs.

I had thought lines like that existed only in the former Soviet Union. I asked the tour guide how long it would take to get to the top. “Three hours,” he said. Having come so far already, I decided it would be silly to turn back now, so I planted my feet on the first of the three hundred and fifty-four steps.

I cringed, my face inches from a fluorescent Texan buttock. This was what I had to look forward to for the next twenty-two stories: blubber in pink polyester eclipsing my view, and the threat that the burrito-fed belly might belch a stink bomb into the cavernous hole.

As I climbed, I occupied myself with fantasies of the wondrous places I planned to go to. I would live in every corner of the world, in all sorts of dwellings – in mud houses, stone houses, brick houses, tree houses, houses that floated on lazy waters inhabited by fanged fish, cardboard houses, bamboo houses, tents, concrete houses, hammocks swaying beneath mosquito nets, houses in jungles and swamps and deserts, maybe even the back of a Chevy. I would sleep in mosques and caves and sewers and churches, in safari parks and car parks, on fire escapes, in desert cities where the flesh-toned walls stretch star-ward.

Meanwhile I was stuck in the statue, trudging toward the crown at an average rate of three-quarters of a step per minute. Much of the time was spent standing still, choking on the miasma that rose from the damp armpits around me. I looked at the black void that spiralled beneath. This was not my idea of a good time, stuck like a foreign body in the heart of a tin lady, standing still in her womb, a lifeless foetus that would never see the light.

I sat down, but blubber-butt immediately pounded up four steps, and I had to follow to avoid being lynched by the mob below. I felt like a lamb ascending into hell, the oven heat boiling my blood and melting my bones. According to my watch, I’d been imprisoned within Liberty (hah!) for over two hours, in a fog emanating from millions of moist hairs, caged by Liberty’s stainless steel ribs. I climbed three steps, then stopped (those idiots!) again, surrounded by weary bones and wet flesh, trapped inside this hard bosom, behind these cold breasts that never cradled a man or fed a child. Maybe I could leap from the stairs like Lara Croft, I thought, and escape down the Lady’s wire veins.

Finally a gap appeared above, and I could see it – I had reached the crown.

The place was unbelievably small. If I’d dropped a Kleenex, it would have had wall-to-wall carpeting. The windows were tinier than the screen of my PalmPilot.

“Is this it? Can we go up to the torch?” I asked the guide. “What are we supposed to do?” The guide told me that the torch was closed to the public. I squinted at the windows. The glass was so scarred and lacerated that I could hardly see anything outside, especially since the famous Manhattan skyline was wallowing in smoggy gloom.

I was depressed. I’d had hopes of seeing a celestial sky over a coral city, and instead I had ended up in this vacuous skull, this bimbo head. There was nothing between Liberty’s ears, only a black hole that had never loved or dreamed, a brainless cranium that never wrenched wisdom from a lighted page, that never echoed with the mattress moan from a lustrous horn. I was surrounded by visitors from around the world, all looking cheated, a rainbow of unsmiling faces. We had slapped down mucho-money to fly mega-miles, and our only pay-off was a view of a ship coughing smoke on the gray, petrified waves.

I walked all the way down in silence, joining the solemn, creeping procession, hundreds of chests made hollow by the hope-killing sight in the crown.

We boarded the ferry, and it ironed its way through the wrinkled water. The copper woman would not miss us, for she could not even see us, her icy eyes sightless, bored at the clouds, as if willing the sun to burst forth and illuminate them. Her verdigris skin made her look nauseous. She stood, her feet glued to her concrete pedestal, like a mob victim about to be pushed to a watery death.

I turned toward Gotham, but there was nothing to cheer me. The city looked like a crowded pincushion, bars of iron, copper and steel stuck recklessly here and there, high and low – the architecture of angles and anguish. Unlike trees, which grow towards the sun, these rootless buildings rose lifelessly, casting dead shadows on the gray waters.

Then it happened; something I could never have dreamed of. The sun sputtered at the edge of the horizon, igniting the waves. Divining the coming darkness, zillions of windows flickered to life, and the torch unfroze its copper flame. The red-tipped whitecaps skipped like tongues of fire over the molten mercury sea, enflaming the cold water until a candlelight fog rose from its phosphorescent body. In that moment, the world was caught in vaporous light. Everything flared into an incandescent glory.

Never had I seen such a sight: the perfect fusion of artifice and nature. Whitman’s city of spires and masts. Tongues of fire, Pentecostal, like the spirit descending on the apostles. The obelisk towers of the Brooklyn Bridge. The seagulls above, confusing the sky with white rings of chaos. The Chrysler Building piercing the soft, rose mist with its silver spear. The metropolis, the sea, Liberty’s baton, the birds, the sun, the stars, the moon – all was luminous in unison. Before the chained city, the starry waters trembled under the mackerel sky – an undulating mirror.

“Holy hat of Confucius!” I exclaimed. And in that moment, I was hooked again on being a tourist, because this was the typical pilgrim experience. Whenever you travel, there will be long periods when you’ll be tired, pissed off, and bored, but just when you think things can’t get any worse, something happens to make it all worthwhile. Like this. You see something beyond what you can imagine, something so beautiful that your brain explodes with insight and your heart with awe. That view of Manhattan at dusk was the ecstatic epiphany I’ve been describing.

The greatest tourist sights are awakenings. Each one is like a revelation God has specially chosen for you, one you could not have experienced anywhere else in the world. Being a tourist is like being a pilgrim. A part of me wants to seek out the special place, the place that’s different from any other, where I’ll see the vision, which will be unique and so stunning that it will make all the suffering and effort of getting there worthwhile. It will wipe away pain. For one moment, I’ll feel chosen, special, because so many people living in other parts of the world will never get to see this, never feel what I’m feeling. On the water’s edge in New York City, I saw a garden of glass burning in everlasting neon. In that moment, I felt chosen by God, like Moses gazing at the burning bush.

Last month, I just got a job as a journalist for a technology magazine – my first full-time office job. I’ve been in graduate school for the last five years, and so have taken for granted that I would have at least four months every year to travel. I find the prospect of having only ten days of vacation extremely depressing. There are so many places that I want to explore – fantastical escapes far from New York’s steel prisons. I want to go to swamps where statues weep blood, and high mountains full of smoky huts and blinking Mongols; I want to visit desolate mausoleums where vampire bats dangle from domes and red ants tunnel through the white sepulchres. I want to sit by mud wells, miles from the nearest diesel engine, listening to sounds I’ve never heard before – gypsy xylophones, Arab bagpipes, drowning pigs. I want to walk up gentle, dusty stairways and smell air I’ve never smelled before, the air of a desert city, thick with cloves and incense and wood smoke. I want to laze on hot banks where crocodiles yawn, startling butterflies with their jaws.

But sometimes I wonder if my need to travel is a spiritual weakness. A part of me seems forever restless. I’m like a drug addict caught in a fever, always longing for his next fix. My soul aches and finds no relief until the next adventure, the next stunning vision, one so bright that it will blind me to the pain inside.

Saint Augustine once wrote, “O lord, thou madest us, and our hearts are restless until we rest in thee.” In these times, I wonder if, instead of looking for that special spiritual place, I should work on putting my soul at rest. There is a part of me that longs for the serenity of the Zen monk, a soul so peaceful that I could be happy anywhere, happy having nothing, happy just sleeping under a tree or on a stone.

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QLRS Vol. 1 No. 1 Oct 2001

This essay was originally read at the eighth annual Image Conference, “Habitations of the Word: Art and the Spiritual Ecology of Place”, held at Seattle Pacific University in October 2000. It was subsequently printed in the affiliated Image Journal


About Tan Hwee Hwee
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Return to Vol. 1 No. 1 Oct 2001

  Other Essay in this Issue

Unsettling Ways of Exile
Eddie Tay on Wong Phui Nam.

Related Links

Mammon and the Discipline of Writing
Interview with Tan Hwee Hwee, also in this issue.

Tan Hwee Hwee's home page
External link.

FEER on Tan Hwee Hwee
External link to the Far Eastern Economic Review.

Tan Hwee Hwee visits the library
External link to the National Library Board.

Soundbites on Foreign Bodies
External link.


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