Featured Poem

Embroidering Orchids
by Johar Buang


Regarding the tablecloth I just bought from a shop, its surface is embroidered with several stalks of red orchids with green leaves and stems. In the past some hands must have diligently embroidered them. I picture a woman sitting with her legs folded to the side every evening beside the door of the balcony and I had once rested my cheek on her lap or thigh as I was then still a child and curious to see what actually lay behind the cloth that was tied to a round frame for stitching, but what I saw were only knots of entangled and disorderly threads pierced onto the cloth by a needle.

‘What are you doing, mom?’ I asked her and she just smiled. ‘I’m drawing the pattern of several stalks of red orchids with green leaves and stems.’ Then I felt jealous and wondered why would she love flowers and leaves, unlike me who loved the faces of monsters.

‘But mom, on the underside here there are no patterns of orchids and leaves, only entangled and disorderly threads,’ I complained.

‘My child, you should look at the result on the top side of this cloth, not the underside. Go continue your drawing while I get on with this embroidery.’

A few hours later, I completed the drawing of a monster’s face on a piece of paper, a destructive creature who would cause much damage and devour all the people on earth.

She called me shortly, smiled and said, ‘Look, my child, I’ve also just finished stitching nature’s beauty onto this cloth although below it you see those entangled and disorderly threads. Nonetheless, God in the sky above continues to plan what is best for human beings, expanding the heavens even though humans still persist in committing evil deeds on earth.’

As an adult I once asked in a dream, ‘God, what are You doing right now?’

He replied, ‘I’m stitching red orchids with green leaves and stems, made from the threads of your virtuous deeds on earth. Later you’ll see for yourself its beautiful result in heaven as I’ve promised.’


© translation by Shaffiq Selamat, 20 Sep 2008 | 27 Nov 2014

“Embroidering Orchids” (“Menyulam Anggerik”) is reprinted here with the author’s and translator’s permissions. This translation is a slight revision of the version that appeared in Tumasik: Contemporary Writing from Singapore (Autumn Hill Books), edited by Alvin Pang and funded by the National Arts Council of Singapore.



Johar Buang was born in Singapore on January 23, 1958. Though he has written in various genres of literature since 1980, he still regards poetry as his main interest. His poems have been translated into English and French. He has won numerous awards such as Anugerah Persuratan, Golden Point Award, Singapore Literature Prize 2010, and SEA Write Award 2010.


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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