The National Theatre
In the lost photograph the National Theatre
stands, its fives spires rising above
the crescent-boat fountain and its aqueous ribbons
sparkling in the late 60s sun,
to salute the nation's birth, and mark
the year it severed the cord
to the Peninsula, and sailed down
the long chute to the future of leaping towers
jostling to own the country's sky,
the same year the boy in the foreground
was born, caught mid-air in Kodak heaven
leaping from a parapet.
Now the boy teeters on middle age
and the Theatre is gone.
A dollar a brick to build;
the rickshaw man, the samsui woman, the street
hawkers, teachers, clerks and children
pooled their blood money to raise
the gleaming Art Deco edifice.
On the right the Van Kleef Aquarium shields
its twilight gallery of tanked fishes from the tropical blast.
His dad brought him there once, his tiny slippers
slapping on the terrazzo floor, fingers trailing
on the bubbling luminescence, then
the pour of light, as he stepped
out of the fan-cooled silence into the banging cicada
choir, raced up the steps to the liana-and-fern-clad
raintrees, sentinels of Fort Canning drooping over
the mouldering graves of the colonial dead,
names and dates the tropics had all but erased
from crumbling stone crosses and faded plaques.
And entombed in the bowels of the drowsy hill,
like a chamber where the nation's secret lies buried,
the bunker, and the sweating British High Command,
huddled over grim maps, their faces wincing
as the bombs rained, and the hill shuddered, the city
burning under the strafing Zeros, Percival's thin frame
shrinking as the reports trickled in, of corpulent Yamashita
and his bicycled divisions sweeping down the Peninsula.
If only the Sentosa redoubt and its giant guns
had been pointed north.
Someday they will excavate the bunker
and unearth the moment of loss;
the grave-pale men in khaki
will come trooping out
and release the defeated ghosts
waving time's white flag.
They will turn the place into a museum
of wax figures and canned effects
as they have done to Sentosa.
Nothing will restore the Theatre
and the Aquarium. Nothing will revive
the phantom shapes, recall the living figures,
the boy, and the dead father, outside the frame
of the lost snapshot, his debts, the weight
of parenthood relieved for the moment,
watching his son take the leap.
By Boey Kim ChengQLRS Vol. 10 No. 4 Oct 2011