By Alywin Chew Shee Chiat
The rosewood table trembled as the master slammed his fist. Madam Wong and her daughter, Si Min, watched helplessly as the bowl of soup spilled while the bean sprouts jumped in their pool of fish sauce. The servant promptly ran into the kitchen to get a cloth. The soup began to trickle onto Madam Wong's purple cheongsam but she remained as cool as the cucumber that garnished the chicken. With great skill, she surreptitiously edged herself away from the dripping liquid, making sure she didn't agitate her husband any further.
"That brat! I bet he's hanging out with his ruffian friends again!" yelled Master Wong.
"I don't believe it. Those wretched coolies at the dock treat me with more respect than my son!"
Just before the next curse rolled off the tongue, Young Master Wen Jie strutted into the house like a proud stallion at the race turf. With an air of nonchalance, he made his way to his room on the second floor, walking past the tastily decorated dinner table of fish, prawns, pork and vegetables.
"I suggest you sit down and have your dinner with us," said Master Wong with an authoritative voice – one that suggested another imminent outburst. Madam Wong placed her hand on her husband's arm and shook her head.
"Don't make me drag you to the table, son," said Master Wong
"I'm tired. It's been a long day," replied an irritated Wen Jie.
Master Wong clenched his fist. The servant sensed another turbulent disturbance to the dinner table and stayed poised for her entry. Master Wong couldn't bear to face his only son and stare into the eyes of defeat. It was only in his helplessness as a father that he chided his son. He feared that this rift would eventually become too large to bridge and the retributive irony of life would have Wen Jie run away from home and become a rice coolie.
Before Master Wong could muster enough will to further reprimand his son, the sound of a door shutting echoed through the hall.
"Wong, the food's getting cold. Let's eat," said Madam Wong, trying to salvage what was left of a lost battle.
The next day, Wen Jie went about his usual routine. He was up even before the roosters started their daily croon and exited from the back door in the kitchen, skipping his way down Tanglin Road.
The Wong family sat around the dining table around eight in the morning, with steaming congee and you tiao laid out in front of them. Master Wong fiddled with his breakfast, forming thick, white waterfalls as he stared into space. Madam Wong noticed this and said, "Wong, don't play with your food. You need to go to work soon."
Master Wong laughed and dropped the spoon into his congee. The servant slapped herself on the forehead and immediately ran into the kitchen to grab the cloth. "Work? For what? I work so hard to give my family a good living but my son doesn't even appreciate it!"
"Wong..." Madam Wong tried to calm her husband down.
"No! I have to say this. That useless bum doesn't even go to school! God knows what he's doing out there! Fancy waking up before us and sneaking out of the house!"
Breakfast finally ended when Master Wong got tired of his ranting and left for work. The servant washed the dishes and beside her was a cloth saturated with gooey congee. Madam Wong decided that she needed a breath of fresh air and told the servant that she would go to the wet market for the daily groceries.
The servant flagged a rickshaw for Madam Wong and scurried back into the house. The bare-chested man was about to take off with his passenger when the servant dashed out of the house again. She brought a straw umbrella for her mistress. Madam Wong smiled benignly and reached into her bag. She took out a dollar and insisted the servant accept it.
"Go buy your children something nice to eat. Go, go."
The servant bowed her head and walked briskly back to the house in her trademark posture.
The sun shone fiercely down on Madam Wong as she wiped her perspiration with her pink silken handkerchief. The streets were bustling with activity, mainly because everyone was busy stocking up on supplies ahead of the rumoured price-hike. Some British official apparently leaked out information that Singapore was the next target for the Japanese, causing a huge frenzy amongst the locals.
Seeing that the wet market was thoroughly packed with haggling citizens and voracious traders, Madam Wong decided to get her groceries at another market, one recommended by her fellow mahjong enthusiasts.
"Excuse me, can you please take me to River Valley instead?" said Madam Wong.
The rickshaw man rolled his eyes in annoyance as he skillfully towed his carriage with one hand while using the other to wipe his perspiration with the towel hung round his neck.
"Don't worry, I'll pay double. I know it's a hot day", reassured Madam Wong. The rickshaw suddenly accelerated - its horse spurred by the invisible whip of money.
The route to the market was filled with shop houses and the smell of joss sticks and incense paper billowed in the gentle breeze. People were seen praying to idols of Guan Yin along the corridors. Others looked up to the heavens and prayed, slowly moving their hands back and forth, with joss sticks clasped in between. It was a form of spiritual deterrence against the buck-teethed Japanese samurais.
Many knew that the Japanese invasion was inevitable since most of Malaya had already been conquered. There was nothing that could stop the katana-wielding monsters. Praying for a divine intervention seemed like the only way out.
The rickshaw sped past many food stalls and Madam Wong masked her mouth with her moist handkerchief. Her eyes latched onto something.
"Stop!" cried Madam Wong. The rickshaw pulled to an abrupt halt and a gentle sandstorm swirled at the ankles of the rickshaw puller. Madam Wong reached into her purse while still looking at the particular object and placed five dollars into the sweaty palms of the rickshaw man.
The man's jaw dropped at the sight of the money – he never would have made that much in a day, much less an afternoon. He gratefully scrambled into the shade as Madam Wong walked towards an old woman. She hid behind a pillar and observed the old woman sitting on a splintered wooden stool, trying to keep awake while selling chou tofu. Madam Wong shook her head in disbelief and ran off, leaving behind her a trail of cold sweat.
Master Wong returned home to the sight of packet dinner. He ranted at his servant for not doing the grocery shopping and she willingly endured his verbal lashing. Madam Wong came down the stairs upon hearing the din.
"Wong, don't lecture her anymore. It's my fault," interrupted Madam Wong.
Master Wong was puzzled by his wife's comment but in an attempt to save face he turned to the servant and sternly warned her never to forget the daily groceries.
Madam Wong, looking pale as a sheet, signaled to her husband to attend to her. The couple made their way into the bedroom and Madam Wong peered out to make sure that nobody was around before she slammed the door shut.
"Wong! I saw her today!" screeched Madam Wong.
"What? Impossible. She's dead!"
"I swear I saw her! She was selling chou tofu!"
Master Wong unbuttoned his shirt and ignored his wife's cries. "I'm going to bathe now. We shall not discuss this any further."
Madam Wong and Si Min waited at the dinner table for Master Wong to finish his bath. The servant stood in a corner with a towel neatly tucked into her waist band. Master Wong arrived at the dinner table and heaved a sigh.
"When is that rascal ever going to..."
The sound of a door closing was heard. Wen Jie walked towards the dining table and sat down, to the astonishment of his family.
"Can we start already? I'm very hungry," said Wen Jie.
Master Wong was startled out of his shock and replied, "Oh... oh, yes! Let's eat!"
Si Min smiled at her brother as she clumsily ate her dinner with a spoon too big for her mouth. The family laughed and for the first time in months, Master Wong had a hearty dinner. He knew that the Gods had finally answered his prayers.
After dinner, Wen Jie approached his mother and told her that he wanted to start schooling. Madam Wong stood paralysed and squinted at Wen Jie with eyes of disbelief. She only regained her senses when Wen Jie tugged at her blouse for an answer.
"Of course you can start school! You start tomorrow!"
"Erm, can I start next week instead? I want to say goodbye to my friends first."
"Anything you say my precious son!" Madam Wong ruffled his hair with affection.
"Oh, my friends would like to meet you."
"Your friends? Where are they from?" shrieked Madam Wong. Images of burly ruffians wielding parangs appeared in her head.
"I'll show you and papa tomorrow!"
Madam Wong hesitantly agreed. Who could refuse a son who had just turned over a new leaf?
Whilst helping Master Wong to put on his pajamas, Madam Wong told her husband about their son's incredible request.
"I really want to see what kind of people he has been hanging out with!" he chuckled.
"Wong... about your mother, I really..."
"Ailing, she died in the shipwreck. Go to bed."
Master Wong turned his back to his wife and pretended to sleep. But even after his wife fell asleep, Master Wong tossed around bed as if stormy waves were rocking his conscience.
The next afternoon, Master Wong and his wife met their son at Delta Avenue. A chirpy Wen Jie greeted them before the row of shop houses and held their hands. He skipped down the road, leading his amused parents on. Upon reaching the first shop along the corridor, Wen Jie yelled at the top of his lungs, "Uncle Tong! My parents are here!"
"Uncle Tong?" Master Wong muttered to himself. He thought that this could be the ruffian leader and promptly rolled up his sleeves. A stumpy, balding man dressed in a singlet greeted Master Wong.
"Ah! Mister Wong! Welcome to my bakery!"
"Bakery?" muttered Madam Wong this time. Jolting herself back to reality, she began to smell the delectable scent of baked bread. The couples' cheeks turned as red as the coals that were used in the bakery. The group spent a considerable amount of time talking to the friendly baker, who served fresh kaya on crisp bread with cups of aromatic black coffee. The couple learnt that their son had actually been helping out at the shop. The recent rumours of the Japanese invasion scared all their workers away.
Master Wong patted his son's head with endearment as he smiled apologetically. The family of three was about to head home after their fifth cup of coffee when Wen Jie stopped his parents. "Wait! I haven't shown you my best friend!"
With much enthusiasm, Wen Jie dragged his weary parents down to the junction. It was almost seven o'clock and the street lamps still hadn't come on. Master Wong looked up at the skies and prayed that the Japs hadn't already arrived. Wen Jie suddenly ran off towards a silhouette.
The couple, after overcoming the wealth of goodies in their stomachs, finally caught up with their son.
Master Wong's face turned as white as the fresh bread which he had eaten a few hours before. Madam Wong screamed and ran off into the shadows, leaving Wen Jie absolutely dumbfounded. But inundated with excitement, Wen Jie nevertheless introduced his best friend.
"Papa, meet Ah Poh! She makes very good chou tofu!"
Master Wong felt as if he was treading on snow for his toes were numb and the chill was creeping up his body, freezing everything in its way. He tried to close his eyes to the reality that confronted him but they remained widened, frozen by guilt.
"You know papa, Ah Poh very poor thing... she said she was thrown overboard a ship on her way here but her son chose to save his wife instead of her."
Again, Master Wong tried to escape. But he simply couldn't. Tidal waves of guilt started to erode away the delusion that had relieved years of his guilt.
"Ah Poh was the one who told me that I should start school. She also said that I had to be filial to my parents or else my children would abandon me when I'm old!" Wen Jie was oblivious to his shell-shocked father. The empty street echoed with Master Wong's shrills as Wen Jie looked at his best friend and shrugged his shoulders with innocent disappointment.
The Gods hadn't answered Master Wong's prayers.
A ghost of the past did.QLRS Vol. 7 No. 1 Jan 2008