The River’s Song

SP brings you the first lyrical section of the new novel The River’s Song by Suchen Christine Lim, winner of the inaugural Singapore Literature Prize in 1992, and of the South-East Asian Write Award in 2012. The publishers Aurora Metro Books (UK) provides a synopsis:

“Ping, the daughter of Chinatown’s Pipa Queen, loves Weng, the voice of the people, but family circumstances drive them apart. While Ping goes to university in America, Weng is sent to prison for his part in local protests.

Many years later, Ping returns to a country transformed by prosperity. Gone are the boatmen and hawkers who once lived along the river. In their place, rise luminous glass and steel towers proclaiming the power of the city state. Can Ping face her former lover and reveal the secret that has separated them for over thirty years?”

The work of fiction begins with two contrasting epigraphs, one from Singapore poet Toh Hsien Min, the other from the first and longest-serving Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew.

the-rivers-song

 

Here, years ago
we didn’t say a word, though I could tell
you couldn’t hold it in. How could I know
there would be stronger feelings yet to quell?

-Toh Hsien Min, “On Cavenagh Bridge”

“My most ambitious plan was to clean up the Singapore River and Kallang Basin and bring fish back to the rivers.”

-Lee Kuan Yew, former Prime Minister of Singapore, From Third World to First: The Singapore Story

The man had come to play his bamboo flute. No one knew why. The ceremony was over; the workers were already putting away the chairs and tables. They didn’t pay him any attention initially, but their chattering stopped as the first long note of his flute floated over the Singapore River. Bleak and desolate in its longing, the music drew their eyes to him.

A bank teller and a secretary trotting on high heels across Cavenagh Bridge stopped to listen. They pointed him out to their colleagues. The man was standing at the spot where the Prime Minister had stood a while ago. In his white shirt and trousers, his bamboo flute held horizontal at his lips, he was still as a crane.

“See the white headband around his head; he’s in mourning,” the bank teller said.

“What?” her friend laughed. “By playing the flute?”

There was a long pull of breath. And another long note, a sad mewling cry followed by three sharp trills. Two old men, seated under the angsana tree, turned to each other, their hearts stirring. They knew that sound. It was part of a forgotten song. The man’s flute played on. The old men heard the clang of boats once again, the shouts of coolies and lightermen, the heaving and hawing, hammering and clattering in the boatyards long gone. The man’s music choked their hearts. Their old eyes turned watery. They gazed up at the steel towers of the banks with names they could not read, with offices they had never entered, and remembered their hawker stalls along this river where their food had once fed hordes of hungry office workers every noon. Today the Prime Minister had declared his Clean River campaign a success. Ten thousand tons of flotsam and jetsam, two thousand tons of rubbish and forty-one thousand cubic metres of putrid mud had been removed from this river, along with the squatters and hawkers.

The grey skies started to weep.

A light rain fell on the small crowd of listeners on the bridge, and they ran for shelter in the restaurants and pubs on the other side. A few turned back to look at the man in white. He was still playing as a wind rose and whipped his hair. Raindrops the size of twenty-cent coins splattered onto the red plastic chairs and tables. The cleaners huddled under the tent used for the ceremony earlier.

“Ack! That flute player. He must be crazy to play in the rain. Who can hear him now?” a woman cleaner grumbled.

“The dead can hear him.” The man next to her blew a smoke ring and stubbed out his cigarette in the rainwater flowing into the tent. No one spoke after that. The workers squatted on their haunches, their eyes trained on Weng and his flute.

 

from The River’s Song by Suchen Christine Lim. Excerpt used with the permission of the publisher. The novel is distributed in the USA via Consortium.

About Jee Leong Koh

My book of poems Steep Tea (Carcanet) was named a Best Book of 2015 by UK's Financial Times, and a Finalist by Lambda Literary. I also wrote three other books of poems and a book of zuihitsu. My work has been shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize, and translated into Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian and Latvian. Originally from Singapore, I live in New York City, where I edit the arts blog Singapore Poetry, and run the Second Saturdays Reading Series and the Singapore Literature Festival in NYC.

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