Edited by Verena Tay, Balik Kampong is an anthology of short stories that taps into Singapore’s current wave of nostalgia. Balik Kampong is Malay for go back home, or, more literally, go back to the village. As Tay has it in her introduction, she was wandering around the new Marina Bay downtown, conjured out of the sea, when it hit her how alienated she felt from the new development in her country. In reaction to the impermanence of things, she sought to collect the writings of authors who, having lived at least ten years in the same district of Singapore, drew inspiration for their writing from their long-time habitation. The result was Balik Kampong, a bestselling anthology of eight short stories, from Math Paper Press.
Inspired by the past, the stories went beyond mere nostalgia. In Tay’s view, they “evoke a strong sense of time and place of certain parts of Singapore. They sketch the features, desires and attitudes of powerful characters. They highlight values that the respective authors hold dear. They speak not just of the past, but also address the future. And above all, they underline that one’s environment does shape one’s outlook.”
SP is pleased to bring you a fine short story from the anthology. In “Seven Views of Red Hill,” Dora Tan uses multiple points of view to bring out the contradictions in the construction of home.
SEVEN VIEWS OF RED HILL by DORA TAN
When people think of Redhill they think of the romantic legend of the boy who saved his kampung from the sword fish. They think of this boy who was killed by the jealous king and of his blood which subsequently stained the hill. I lived in Redhill for 24 years and I never heard that legend. Redhill, for me, has never been romantic.
In 1956, when Seng was promoted to Assistant Manager at The Endau Timber Company, we could afford to move out of our rented room in the Geylang kampung where there were more rats than people, to a brand new SIT flat in Redhill. Our Redhill flat was like a luxurious hotel! It had concrete walls, concrete floors and a concrete ceiling! We had piped water and a squatting toilet which actually flushed!
When we first moved in, I was 21 years and already had two sons. Many of the residents, young families like us, moved in about the same time. Many of them also came from slums and we continued the same kampung closeness. Our doors were always open and everyone knew everyone. Many of the women were housewives and we would gather at Hai Soh’s place to play si sek in the afternoons after our work was done.
Our neighbours would invite us to their homes for Hari Raya or Chinese New Year. During the mid-autumn festival, if the moon was not full, all the people in the surrounding blocks would take out pots and pans and beat them. We had to make noise to chase away the demon who was eating the moon! Wah! It was an experience that brought us together—everyone on the common corridor clanging away.
Every Christmas, Seng would throw a big party. Everyone was welcome! I would cook for two days and there would be a pig roasting downstairs. But even though our friends had a good time, I never enjoyed it. Seng always ended up drunk and would vomit all over the place before he passed out. Those were the good years. At other times, he would start a fight. Though I fought back, Seng was more than six feet and weighed more than 200 pounds. I was less than five feet and weighed less than 100 pounds. You can guess who usually won and who ended up hurt.
You would think that this would make me hate Redhill but I don’t. Some of my happiest days were spent there. The children, when they were children, would look for me. They would ask me to tell them stories, pluck my white hairs, lay down quiet while I dig their ears. Even though I didn’t have any education, the children looked up to me. They thought I was the best cook in the world. Hui and Siew always asked me why I didn’t open a restaurant. Although I was flattered I couldn’t show them. I said: ‘If I opened a restaurant, who’s going to help me? You? You?’ I pointed to both of them. But now, none of them want to come home to eat my cooking.
As for my friends, none are left. Many have moved out with their children. I don’t know where they are. Since we couldn’t write, we never took down addresses. I think most of them, since I’m already 78, are dead. Leng saw Hai Soh’s obituary and showed it to me. And you know what? I didn’t feel anything. Leng thought I would feel sad but I just looked at the photo and thought: The others would have had their obituaries in the Chinese newspapers.
The other day, Hui asked me if I wanted to visit Redhill. I didn’t. We had moved out almost 40 years ago and nothing was the same. I don’t want to go back. None of my children do.
Ju Yang’s view (second child, son):
As far as I can remember, I always wanted to get out of Redhill. Dad was always drunk. Ma was always tired and angry. Once I didn’t go home straight after school because I wanted to play with my friends. Ma was so angry, she took a cane, went to my school—Bukit Merah Primary just behind our block—found me and chased me all the way home with the cane. Ma used to cane me a lot in those days. She said I was playful. The teacher said I was stupid. But the truth was: I was just bored. I never concentrated in class. While the rest of the class was listening to the teacher, I would look outside the window, at the big field, the trees swaying and shedding their leaves in the wind and dream about another life; another place where I didn’t need to study, where I could do whatever I liked, eat as much as I liked, wear clothes that weren’t worn by two other people.
Up till the time I went to National Service (when the army gave me a uniform worn by nobody else), I never had new clothes. Dad always told me not to complain: ‘Think of the poor in Africa.’ But I always wondered why I should think of them when I had enough problems to worry about at home. The poor in Africa didn’t need to worry about doing well in school—they didn’t need to go to school! They didn’t need to worry about their friends making fun of them wearing their brother’s taped-up shoes—Africans don’t wear shoes! They didn’t need to worry if everything they did was going to get them caned—the children had guns!
I was sick and tired of having to share everything. I never had enough to eat. When Ma opened a can of longans, it was divided among seven of us. Each of us would have about four pieces. One piece was just slightly bigger than a human eyeball. I used to dream I could buy as many cans of longans as I wanted!
When I looked out my classroom window, all I saw were identical blocks of flats. Inside, they were all the same too—puddles of urine in the lift; dark concrete stairwells where boys like me gathered to smoke and dream about what we wished our lives could be; common corridors which looked into dark airless homes stinking of hopelessness and rancid oil. I felt trapped. I thought of my everyday life where nothing changes—Bukit Merah School in the day; Bukit Merah community centre at night; Redhill market where I had to follow Ma to buy vegetables and fish with eyes that stare into nothingness. As far as I can remember, I always wanted to get out of Redhill.
Ju Peng’s view (eldest child, son):
People thought the difference between Yang and I was just 11 months. It was much more than that. It was a whole value system. Two brothers could not have been more different. I worked hard to get what I wanted. Dreaming doesn’t get you anywhere.
I was able to study in UK through a scholarship. I remember the day I received the letter congratulating me for being the recipient of Singapore’s Colombo Plan scholarship! In the 70s, Singapore was still a developing country and the government came up with the Colombo Plan scholarships to train Singaporeans for the government service. Only a handful received the scholarships every year. I was excited! Joyful! I showed Ma the letter even though I knew she couldn’t read. She said I was lucky to receive it. I said it had nothing to do with luck but everything to do with hard work. Hui wanted to see the letter but I didn’t pass it to her because I was worried she might tear it.
The letter said I would have to leave almost immediately. I could defer the rest of my National Service. I spent the next two months racing around, preparing for the trip. Ma brought me to Tiong Bahru to buy ginseng, to Chinatown to buy shoes, to Tai Hong Emporium to buy gloves and woollen sweaters though I found out later, shivering in -5 Celsius, that this made-in-China ‘wool’ was synthetic.
I should have spent those two months just hanging around in Redhill. I should have played football in the common corridor one last time, ate the tok tok hae mee one last time, said goodbye to my friends who were all gone when I came back.
My teachers and the principal from Tanglin Secondary School were so proud of me (I was their first and only student who received the Colombo Plan scholarship), they bought a small camera for me to take photos of life in UK. I should have taken pictures of life in Redhill instead. I should have taken a picture of Susi, the kueh kueh woman who always gave me a free ondeh ondeh. I didn’t know her name but I called her Susi because every afternoon at 3 p.m., like clockwork, she would walk through our corridor with a basket on her head, crying, ‘Bun Susi! K ueh chang babi!’
We had already moved when I came back from UK. But I went back to Redhill just to take a look. All the blocks looked the same (except for the ridiculous new façade) but I felt something was different. I just couldn’t tell what. Then, in the stillness, I realised what had changed was the busy-ness—hardly anyone was walking about. The government had cleared the hawkers. The corridors were empty. Most of the windows were shut; doors closed; no children were playing. Redhill is like a ghost town now.
Kim Hui’s view (fifth child, daughter):
Redhill, for me, is divided into two periods: the time I was fostered out and the time after I came home. I was fostered out when I was three because by then Ma already had six children and my eldest brother, Peng was just 13.
My foster parents lived a few blocks away, closer to the market. They were poorer than us and had to take in foster kids to supplement their income. Apparently Ah Pek doted on me and spent the most time with me. I don’t remember Ah Ee much. My days were spent playing with their three children who had snot continuously dripping down their noses. I used to think they must be very poor if they couldn’t afford hankies. I never went to kindergarten. Instead, every afternoon, my foster siblings and I went on urban adventures, pressing our faces against slatted glass windows in neighbouring flats. We discovered strange and wondrous things like the man who had an extra finger who lived at the end of the corridor or the sinister flat below which housed pictures of demons and monstrous statues lit by flickering candles.
After two years, Ma brought me home. I think it had more to do with financial consideration than motherly love. In any case, it was Peng who looked after me then. I was five and he was 15. When he came back from school, he would let me go through his stamp collection while he did his homework. He taught me how to separate the fragile stamps from the envelope in warm water, how to sort and insert them into the papery sleeves of his albums. He showed me, from an atlas, where countries with strange names like Yemen and Czechoslovakia were.
Peng also taught me to pay chess. Before I learnt the alphabet, I learnt the various chess openings. I learnt about the two World Chess champions, Boris Spassky and Bobby Fisher: ‘No one could beat the Russian grandmaster Spassky till Fisher, a young American upstart came along!’ I hung to his every word. At night, he would put me to sleep with his harmonica. In the moonlight, I could see his fingers fluttering, playing one soulful Chinese tune after another. And if that didn’t work, he would carry me in his arms, walking up and down the common corridor singing, ‘Michael, row your boat ashore.’
He was playing chess with me when he received his scholarship letter. He jumped up and down, waving the letter in the air. I didn’t understand why he was so happy but I felt happy with him. I remember this clearly because after he left for UK, things were never the same. At night, when I missed him the most, I would imagine the melancholy tunes weeping from his harmonica.
Kim Yin’s view (third child, daughter):
When Hui was fostered out, Dad tried to kill Ma. I was nine.
He came home one day, drunk as usual, and found me and Leng playing by ourselves at the foot of the block. When he discovered that Ma was gambling instead of looking after us, he just lost it. He was so furious, he rushed to Hai Soh’s house to confront her. They fought all the way back to our flat. Peng and Yang, scared like shit, hid in their bedroom. Dad ran into the kitchen, took the parang. Leng quickly shut the other bedroom with Ma in it. Dad, waving the parang, kept shouting, cursing, ‘I’ll kill you! You useless bitch! I’ll kill you!’
Behind the bedroom door, Ma shouted back, ‘You think I’m scared? You think just because I’m pregnant I can’t fight back?!’ At that time, Ma was heavily pregnant with Siew. I could hear Leng crying behind the door, trying to prevent Ma from opening the door. ‘I’ll kill you before you kill me! I’ll cut your lanchiow off and then we’ll see if that bastard will take you back!’
Furious, Dad hacked the door. It was just as well he was drunk because his hands were unsteady. He only managed to hack it three or four times before he dropped the parang. I quickly snatched the parang, hid it in the toilet cistern.
When I came back, Dad was on the sofa, head buried in his hands. After a while, he vomited, then fell asleep. I told Leng she could open the door. By that time, Ma had calmed down. Her eyes were red when she came out. She didn’t say anything, just wiped the vomit.
When we left Redhill, the chopper marks were still there— little slashes on the green paint.
All our neighbours heard the fight. Because of the thin walls and how the blocks in Redhill were built so close, you could even hear fights from another block! You could hear what TV shows the people in the opposite block were watching. When I walked home one night in the 70s—by then almost everyone owned a TV—I heard the Chinese drama serial in stereo.
I hated to be home. Every night in bed, when I heard the door open, I would hold my breath, wondering if Dad was going to come home drunk. That’s why I went out so much. I joined as many Extra Curricular Activities as I could—Squash, Red Cross, Canoeing, the Interact Club, the Debate Club. When the activities ended, I would go to a friend’s house to study and they would invite me for dinner and I would come home late at night. Ma, always angry, would ask where I gallivanted to. I’d refuse to answer her.
I’d unfold my bed, close my eyes and pretend to sleep. In Redhill, while the two boys had a room of their own, the rest of us had to share one room. Dad, Ma and Siew slept on a king bed which was next to a double-decker where Leng and Hui slept. I had to sleep on one of those foldable camp beds because there just wasn’t any more space. When I woke up in the morning, I had to fold the bed, tucking it behind the door. It was as if I never existed.
Ma was no better than Dad. Her way of improving our lives was to sit by the window every evening, wait for the ma pui po boy to come, hanging her hopes for a better life on 4D lottery. If I had answered back, I would have said something I’d regret, like: ‘I hate this house! I hate my life! I hate you! You’re the reason Dad’s always drunk!’
Kim Siew’s view (youngest child, daughter):
I hardly saw Yin when I was a child. She was never around. When she went to the University, she stayed at the hostel so we saw her even less. When she came home about once a month, it was an occasion! She was a burst of energy, vivacious and happy. Hui and I would follow her, updating her about what had happened. I always looked forward to her coming home, thinking our problems would be chased away. But she would go back to the hostel, and like quicksand, the heaviness would suck us back into Redhill again.
Unlike Yin, the rest of us didn’t go out much. I didn’t go to friends’ homes because no one invited me. Once when I was ten, I invited a school friend to our flat. I didn’t think much about it until she came, and I saw our house from her eyes—living room crammed with a tired brown sofa, a long wooden table with its cheap laminate peeling, a cupboard with sliding glass doors, one of which was broken and taped up, a fridge (because we couldn’t fit it in the kitchen) with Ultraman stickers and peeled-off sticker marks. All surfaces—table tops, sofa, cupboard tops—were covered with the detritus of our life: books, stationery or tins of food. Everything looked old and tired. I never invited anyone again.
I was even too embarrassed to admit that I lived in Redhill. Just after that episode, I was in the school bus when it was weaving among the palatial houses off Holland Road. It was heading to the house of Siu Mui, a rich Hong Kong schoolmate. She asked me where I stayed and I randomly pointed to a house and lied that I stayed there.
I didn’t mix with anyone who didn’t live in a flat. My best friends were my neighbours Ah Yong and Ah Tee who were the same age as Hui and I. On days when there was no school, we would climb over to their house just before dawn. We lived on the fifth floor and our back balconies were only separated by a three-foot wall. In the darkness, we’d creep softly so as not to wake the rest, go to their bedroom and wake them up. Then the four of us would run to the school field behind the block. In the pre-dawn coolness, the adventure was exhilarating! Often we’d bring a ball or Frisbee and some snacks. It was the best time of my childhood!
Kim Leng’s view (fourth child, daughter):
Although I was just two years younger than Yin, I don’t remember playing with her. She was never around. I didn’t play with Hui or Siew, unless Ma forced me to, because they were so much younger. I played by myself a lot. There was a secret place I would go to whenever I was angry or upset. Downstairs, just in front of our block, was a drain just wide enough for me to climb in. There was a spot just under the pavement where the drain was sheltered and nobody could see you. I’d bring some newspapers to sit on and play masak masak with Lulu, my imaginary friend. I didn’t own a doll or stuffed toy. But that’s okay because Lulu was a good listener and didn’t make fun of me. I’d play house, chatting with her, cutting up leaves and flowers. When someone walked above or sat on the stone railing, Lulu and I would keep quiet. This way, we would be invisible and no one would see us. We’d live in our own little world and that’s how I spent my childhood in Redhill.
I didn’t mind being alone. I didn’t mind not having many toys. I never felt deprived or poor. Everyone in Redhill was poorer! We were one of the first in the block to own a TV. In those days, it was black and white but every time it was switched on, our neighbours would crowd outside our window on the common corridor, looking in.
In spite of being relatively better off, I envied my neighbours. I thought Ah Hong was lucky that her father was a cook because on many nights, her father would bring leftovers back for their family. Once in a while they would give some to us but more often than not, because their family was just as big as ours, we made do with smelling the aroma of fried noodles or roast pork.
To make ends meet, the members of her family including the youngest Ah Tee who was just seven years, worked as part time cleaners for public buses. They would leave at 11 p.m. every night to go to the bus terminal to clean the buses. Sometimes they would only come back at 3 a.m., catch a few hours’ sleep before they had to wake up for school. It must have been incredibly hard and dirty work but when Ah Hong came back from school, she would show me her treasure from the night before—an umbrella someone left behind, a canvas bag that was still usable, and several coins trapped in grooves or under seats. The bus company usually allowed them to take home what they found. The coins usually added up to quite a bit and their mother would divide it among the children for their work.
I stopped envying them when Ah Hong told me this divided- up money would be their pocket money for recess. If they found nothing the night before, they would have nothing for recess that day. In Redhill, nobody had much money. What we had was lots of time—time to play, time to make friends, time to be bored, time to dream about what we wanted our lives to be. I often wonder how many of us—my neighbours and friends in Redhill—managed to achieve our dreams.
As the years went by, newer housing estates came up. HDB took over SIT and the shiny new flats had sitting toilets and sliding glass windows! But they all looked alike and were built closer and closer to each other. But nobody cared as long as the MRT, markets, shops and schools were nearby. People flocked to these new estates.
Ma doesn’t know anyone in Redhill anymore. Everyone we knew has moved out. Bukit Merah Primary School, and its field we used to play in, is no longer there. The small community centre is now triple its size. Or is it the same size but just looks bigger because, unlike the previous open design with a basketball court, the whole CC is now a concrete block.
The Redhill blocks themselves have been ‘upgraded’ supposedly to give them a more modern look. Instead, each block looks like an old woman wearing a chunky belt—it only makes her look more desperate.
When I went back last month at midday, I walked around the whole estate and saw no one. No hawkers in the streets. No hum of traffic. No children playing. The young have left. It started to rain and I went to the bus stop. Just before the bus came, I saw the faded curtains parting from a window across the street. An ancient face looked out, eyes empty. I imagined what she could have been thinking: When will the rainy season end? Why does my back ache only when it’s cold? She would have stopped wondering why her children don’t come back.
Reprinted with the author’s permission
ABOUT DORA TAN
Dora has written short stories, screenplays and stage plays. Her stage plays include 41 Hours, Just Late (2008 Wild Rice Singapore Theatre Festival), I Think I Do (finalist, Short and Sweet 2009), Why I Don’t Take Ma on Holiday, and most recently Getting Married with Dad Dead in the Next Room. Her short stories include ‘Selling Your Daughter for a Pig and a Carton of Cigarettes’, which won 2nd prize in NAC’s Golden Point Award 2007; she also wrote ‘When Frangipanis Don’t Smell’, ‘Dead Eyes’ and ‘No Fairy Godmother’. Her screenplays include Every Breath You Take and Home for Christmas which she wrote under British Council’s First Draft programme. She was in the Mentor Access Programme 2011 when she worked on a novel. She is currently writing a telemovie and a stage play.
ABOUT HER CONNECTION TO REDHILL
Dora was born in Redhill Close, one of six children. She lived there till she was 15. One of her dreams is to have as many cans of longans as she wants. But even though she’s achieved it, she keeps them in the pantry, unable to open them.