Book 1 : Childhood
I’ve tried to start this thing so many times, cajoling, persuading, teasing and outright forcing myself to write. None of it has worked. I would dream about the times I would finally get started, and the words would flow like water, and I would recount triumphs and tragedies both, and tell the Story of My Life. Frankly I’ve also felt that capitalizing too much makes the writing process harder, not easier.
But here I am, with the Book, the Novel, at The Start (see I’m doing it again!) While I’d like to begin with the events that led to its writing, I think that would only serve to confuse the reader. So I’ll start where all things generally do – at the beginning.
I came to life on June 15th, 1982, in Kandang Kerbau Hospital in the nation of Singapore. Or so I am told. Like most human beings I have no knowledge of my own conception or birth. I was a premature birth and weighed 5.2 pounds. A healthy baby boy!
My parents didn’t have a place of their own when I was born, and so for a time I stayed at my paternal grandmother’s place called Palmer Street, a fetid cesspool of a house completely unfit for human habitation. I would like to say I am exaggerating because of artistic license, but I am most certainly not.
There was a pond outside which looked like the Black Lagoon that a certain creature might come out of. The house itself was cockroach infested and filled with all sorts of junk. Not a great place to live, for a baby or anyone else.
According to my mother, I was moved about a lot (to various relatives’ houses) until my parents finally bought an apartment when I was four. Not the most auspicious or comfortable circumstances for a newborn, the effects of which would make themselves known in my later years. Most books on parenting, and common sense besides, would tell you that moving a baby here and there in his first years is not the wisest course of action. But I was also not a planned pregnancy, and my parents did the best they could with what they had at that time.
From the ages of one to six I spent most of my time after school at my maternal grandmother’s place. While it was not as bad as my OTHER grandmother’s “house”, it was sorely lacking in love, care or attention. You see, my maternal grandmother – I’m going to call her Ma Ma, which is what I called her when I was young – didn’t speak to me at all. Neither did my grandfather. (who we called Gong Gong) My aunts and uncles were busy with work and besides, didn’t really know how to take care of a young child.
It’s at this point that I would like to convince you, gentle reader, that it’s not going to be one of THOSE books. Yes, you know the ones where it turns out Poor Baby has Such a Terrible Childhood that was Full of Pain, and then you cry and weep and get all emotional. My life is a lot more varied and interesting than that.
Of course, growing up I didn’t know any of this. How could I? I was only a kid. And despite all the fallout these things would have on my later life, and how lonely I remember feeling, nevertheless I remember that I was happy. I think all children are. The world is so new and bright and shining, and everything is great and wonderful and nice.
I’ll give you an image to go by. Imagine, if you will, a Chinese version of Charlie Brown, the “little round-headed kid” as my mother used to call me. He is playing with blocks on the floor. Short wispy black hair, a big smile on his face, a faded green shirt and blue pants. Big black eyes and a straight, open gaze.
Dei Po Road was where we lived, and for the longest time I wondered why you didn’t pronounce the “t”. There was a little shop nearby which sold ice-cream, and as we all know, all children love ice-cream. My favorite flavor was lime, and if close my eyes now I can still picture myself licking the emerald lolly on a warm evening while following my parents back home. The harsh lights of the shops around us flickering, the dark night all around us – and my surprise at how the center turned to vanilla.
My parents would come every night to bring me home from my grandmother’s place, and I would wait and wait and wait for them. It was indeed a long way home for a four year old, and they would sing songs to me all the way to keep my spirits up, as well as lift me over the manholes and the broken bits of road I couldn’t easily walk over. There was a copse of trees along the way, and I would always would look for it, because that would mean we were halfway home. The songs they sang were from their time spent studying in England. I remember a “Long Road to Tipperary”, one about a train, and others.
I stayed with a few of my cousins at Ma Ma’s place. Their parents were also all working and so their children were there as well. I would learn in later years that my grandparents always resented the fact that the children of the male side didn’t come to their house, but the female side did – an ancient Chinese tradition from times gone by that would haunt me for years to come. But I was young and all that meant absolutely nothing to me.
I also had more than my fair share of childhood mishaps. My mother tells me that by the age of four to five I had yellow fever and jaundice, as well as breaking my head. (more on that below) I can’t remember any of it of course. I also had this horrible ear infection which cleared up on its own that I do recall a trip to the doctor to deal with, but nothing else. This isn’t to mention a host of other flus and blocked sinuses and other things besides. I must have been a tough kid!
In Japanese they say awareness of yourself and the world around you is “knowing the spirit of things.” and that was I was four. Most of what I can remember starts from that time.
One of my cousins who was with me at my grandmother’s was Chen Guanling. He was around my age and really naughty, running around all the time (and getting beaten by his mother for doing it) While we were there I was the Good Kid, and he was the Bad Kid. I actually wanted to play with him but at the same time I was kind of scared of his behavior. He could be quite out of control at times, once even climbing the window grilles and almost falling out of the apartment.
Then there were my other two cousins, Andrea and Mark Lau. They were the offspring of my eldest aunt and were there for a few years with me. My clearest memory of being with them is lying on the straight flat bed in my grandmother’s room and all of us slapping our feet against the wall. We made such a racket that another of my aunts came in and told us to stop it.
I also almost broke my head when I was around four or five. I was jumping around on the bed with my cousins and I hit my head on the steel bedpost. Everyone was worried and with good reason. They called the ambulance and the hospital called my mother and father. I don’t have a clear memory of this, but I can remember my mother standing over me and crying at the operating table. I still have a scar on the side of my head where no hair grows.
What are my earliest memories? Loneliness. Happiness. Being read to. Being scolded. I would wait patiently and silently the whole day for Mum to come home, and I was so happy when she did. But when I got home sometimes she would scold me for no reason and I would be so sad and lonely. As I child I had no way of knowing what demons lay inside her. I loved and I cried in equal measure.
Oh yes, I went to kindergarten, which I also don’t recall that well. My mother tells me stories of the teachers making fun of me because I wore underpants when I was only five or so. One of them asked me what God looked like (it was a convent school) and I said that he looked like a genie with blue skin. They seemed to really find that funny and laughed a lot. I didn’t see what the big deal was.
The second kindergarten I went to starting when I was age six (Wingham something or other) was better. The teachers were nicer and actually spoke English, for one. I didn’t speak any Chinese despite my biological origins because my parents didn’t either. They told lots of interesting stories too, like how one of them used to trek through the jungle and catch and eat snakes for dinner. Whether they were made-up or not, I couldn’t tell – I was a kid, remember? But I do remember that story time was definitely the highlight of the days spent there.
It was about this time that my maternal grandfather (we called him Gong Gong) passed away. I don’t remember him very well. He used to wait for me downstairs after I was driven back by the kindergarten driver. He would walk with me up the stairs in silence, and that was that. I don’t think he ever spoke a single word to me in his life.
I don’t remember the funeral clearly, but I do remember my mother clinging to me, weeping, and me trying to console her as best as I could. I remember looking out the window and trying to be… strong? Calm? I’m not sure, but I don’t think they were the emotions of a “normal” five to six year old.
In the absence of playmates and parents (i.e. when my cousins were not around) I watched a lot of TV. My grandparents didn’t talk to me much (if at all) and my aunts who lived with them were working most of the time. I was lucky to have some of the Very Best of British TV for Children to mitigate the loneliness. I watched Noddy, (quite a cultural institution back in its day) Gumby, the Wind in the Willows, (which I think to this day has a beautiful, beautiful opening song) and Supergran. A little old lady turning into a superheroine when she eats oatmeal – only the British would think of that!
My grandmother’s house is much the same today, though she is no longer around. The dusty bookshelves lined with books that no one read. The clunky garbage chute at the back. And the small plastic cup that I always drank from when I was younger – which amazingly looks the same after thirty odd years. It’s a faded, chipped little thing, barely big enough to hold in your hand…but just the right size for a child’s fist.
So that ends the days of my early childhood. The years that followed would be some of the best of my life.