In this dream, I am a giant holding the shape of my city in the palm of my hand. Like a volcano, I must remain dormant, silent — lest the children of the land notice me. I don’t breathe, just watch with my twin vision of the macro and micro: a generation cross an intersection; a gardener cupping a red flower and bending down to inhale its sweet sickly fragrance; a sunrise as it blossoms from the ground up and reaches the top of things — a bank building, glowing metallic trees, the vault of the sky. Tenderness in the concrete.
When I wake I will wonder why I didn’t see such beauty all along. In a second I will forget and become minute again. Yes?
Once, I was a giant.
The past few weeks and all of today, I’ve been telling people how beautiful I find Singapore. I used to dislike it — detested everything, from the shiny Central Business District area to the HDB-riddled landscape, where the air was tense and greasy from one life forcibly rubbed against another and another and another.
Always inherently drawn to the romantic and the juvenile, skylines and spaces would form in my head as I read more and watched movies about foreign lands. I unwittingly started to create my own perfect city: beautiful gothic skyscrapers, the openness of the Santa Monica Pier, cobbled streets of some nameless European small town. In this frame I drew a ghost of a place, a bric-a-brac of stolen scenes, and when the time came for me to seek out this mystical city, I went. If I dreamt it, surely I could find it.
But of course I couldn’t. Not in Paris, not in Stockholm, not in Sydney or London or San Francisco or Athens or Rome. No matter where I went and how beautiful things were — from the monumental to the footsore particular — all I saw was semblance after semblance of my painted city. Where was this? Where was that? Where was home?
A deep sense of dissatisfaction grew with the world.
A strange thing started to happen. Each time I stepped off the plane at Changi Airport, a realisation grew steadily — that the shape of my city was never meant to be confined to the orderliness of a New York City grid or the curlicue of Parisian arrondissements; never the subject of a Commissioner’s Plan or Haussmann’s renovation.
As a young nation, we’re only just deciding what we’re supposed to look like. It took me a while to come to terms with that. Singapore was never meant to be romantic or orderly — it is what it is. A jumble of things. The feeling of beginning.
“For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.”
Just like that, my eyes were open to the beauty of an ever-evolving landscape. Listen, structures and scenes change, but our call to the important things stays the same. The old bones of the city remain — prayer, worship, love, hope, wonder.
I’d like to think that God really was the giant in my dream, holding Singapore in the gentle crest of his open palm as it shifts. In the verses of Psalms 139, King David talks about God forming his inward parts, knitting him together in his mother’s womb, intricately weaving him into the depths of the earth. In the same way, God is shaping the city as surely as he is shaping you, me, us.
Wonderful are your works; my soul knows very well.
I feel it all now, the keen sense of home. I feel it when I am crossing the humble intersection between Hougang MRT station and my 5-room flat, and I feel it when I am in a cab hurtling down the East Coast Parkway and watching giant metallic flowers crown from the ground in a distance. Strange how this needle prick of a country can evoke mountains of emotion in a person.
It all comes down to this moment. Sitting in the backseat of my friend’s car as she cruises down St. Andrew’s Road, framed by the lights of the National Gallery on our left and the pitch blackness of the Padang on the right, I sigh and say one more time: Gosh, Singapore is so beautiful.
Silence. No reply from either of my friends.
Of course we know this; we knew it all along. We sit quietly, watch the silver cross tchotchke dangle above the car dashboard, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth…
For a while now it’s been coming. I am spent I am so many people I know I must leave right now but where to? Wherever my book bag can take me. To the sierras of Andalusia. To the blue-green islands on the Indian Ocean. To the Danube river, the Norwegian fjords, the Himalayan mountain ranges. I’m on the upper deck of bus 80 as the colours of a thousand Tibetan flags fill my eyes. Damn its not easy to sit still with the feeling of “now” grinding at your temples. Don’t blink don’t move don’t blink don’t move don’t blink. Just you and the book in your lap. Familiarise yourself with the nomenclature and don’t let the sentence leave your eyeline.
Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty.
As we cross the painted shophouses of Geylang the details open up I see it all suddenly the carved stone flowers the garish pink and green paint dirty and flaking and oh God it’s so beautiful and just like that the tears are streaming down onto the pages of Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows, the black ink lines spreading like blood from a bullet wound.
If light is scarce then light is scarce; we will immerse ourselves in the darkness and there discover its own particular beauty…
An hour later I am at a table with friends having steak bagels and coffee, the thick, acidic ambrosia, a gift from God, surely. The only marks of the feelings past are the faint tear streaks I tried to rub away with the back of my hand but they don’t quite fade away enough. Do they know? I’m looking at life happening outside the glass windows and suddenly everything is alright I’m supposed to be right here within and without sipping a flat coke with a cockeyed beagle sitting at my feet. I’m right here but I was not made for here.
If I find in myself desires nothing in this world can satisfy, I can only conclude that I was not made for here
This is my memory of mass from my twelve years of Catholic school.
We are in the main square, 400 girls categorised by the names of flowers and lined up in neat rows, the hot sun beating down on all of us. Me, with my forehead against my friend’s back, her uniform sticking to her skin. The saints are watching, their bronze faces shiny and unwavering as they peer over the bannister from above.
Father Benedict stands on the balcony, wrapped in white robes. He has a magnificent singing voice. I recall a story my Catholic friend once told me about the Pope addressing crowds from a window of his house every Wednesday in Vatican City. That was very nice of him since he seemed like a very busy man.
10, 20, 30 minutes. My ears prick up at my favourite part, at what I think is the most beautiful melody of the entire mass. Through him, with him, in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honour is yours, almighty Father, forever and ever…
Soon, it will be time for communion. My Catholic friends will sleep right up till Father Benedict asks them to rise. They will march down the aisle, stretch up their arms as if begging for alms, take the wafer and make the sign of the cross. We crane our necks to see them saunter back to their designated spots. Later on, they will cross the road and smoke cigarettes near the dumpster at Block 96. I once asked my best friend Sarah Anne what the “broken body of Jesus” tasted like and she just shrugged and said: like cardboard. I was not expecting that at all.
It’s almost noon. A spot of my perspiration falls onto the asphalt tile, forming a dark spot before seeping and disappearing into its bleeding redness. The blood of the lamb…
This is how mass was like last Tuesday.
We step into church at five minutes to six, wet from the sudden torrent of rain. The weather has been bipolar lately, much like the day that has just passed, made up of a string of good and distressing news. I don’t know what I’m doing here, except that I felt a strange, involuntary stirring in my spirit when Mitchell told me that she was going for mass and before I knew it, I hear myself asking if I could come too. So here we are, at the 6pm weekday mass at the Church of St. Bernadette.
We try not to drip too much as we sit down. I look around at the half-empty pews, arranged in a semi circle around a curved, marble platform. We are the youngest people here, children exempted. Before I have time to contemplate what that means, a soothing, female voice chimes through the speakers, informing us in crystal clear tones that mass is starting. Soon, a priest and two altar boys emerge from the inner folds of the sanctuary.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Up, down, and then up again. I sit down a tad too late or say the lines stiltedly. I wonder if people can tell that I’m not Catholic. Mitch tries to help me along but things are moving too quickly and besides, I don’t mind just following.
May almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins, and bring us to everlasting life.
The words come in dribs and drabs but it’s amazing how much I remember considering how many years its been. The Lord’s Prayer, Hail Mary, the Doxology. Dormant but alive, they have left indelible marks on my memory. The sensations – the weight of the hymnal resting on my palm, the feel of the leather against my knees as I kneel to pray, the murmuring of the congregation – are ones that I am accustomed to. The order of it all is comforting, bittersweet.
The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give Him thanks and praise.
I know what’s coming up next: communion. Mitch asks me if I would like to go up but I shake my head, sit back down and close my eyes. I am back at St Anthony’s Canossian again, eleven-year-old me, with pigtails and in a pinafore two sizes too big. Somehow it is hard to reconcile that image with the person that I have become. God, where can I find you in all of this? I imagine a thin wafer dissolving on my tongue, absolving me of all my sins.
Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.
Say the word. As people shuffle around me to receive communion, I realise that I’m blinking back tears. I’m reminded of that e.e. cummings poem that I love so much – it is so long since my heart has been with yours – and I nearly keel over from the feeling of familiarity, the feeling of being well-acquainted with the one who knows my heart the best.
Time is relentless it casts long, tremulous shadows & we, we are always in transit fleeting & flitting between light & dark & translucence always fickle always whisked away by loftiness by that crumbling feeling or the lift away. We don’t study the minute details but we take in beauty in spoonfuls, gallons… What ephemeral creatures we are. We must tread lightly on this earth.
Time is indeed relentless. Each calendar year folds us in without our volition, without countdowns or resolutions, without eyes squeezed shut at a wish being prayed in the middle of a street glistening with rain, praying for better, for more, for an expanse of white happiness to spread into the hours & days & months that will trudge on. When do we stand still long enough to let our souls catch up with our bodies that are always going places? When do we repave?
Rely, rely, rely, rely Behave, behave, behave, behave (spent all of that time not wanting to…) Decide, decide, decide, decide Repave, repave, repave, repave (spent all of that time not wanting to…)
Alaskans – Volcano Choir
Now’s as good a time as any. Here are some highlights – with lots of pictures, because sometimes words just don’t do enough justice.
Swansea / Hay-on-Wye/ Cardiff / Paris / Berlin / London.
Six places in five weeks. A pilgrimage like none other.
Bible school & moody coastlines.
The world’s first national book town.
A harrowing experience.
Wordlessness in my soul city.
Contemplation in the concrete.
Lightheartedness & the going home.
& yet all of that didn’t mean I had any real answers to the biggest question… What next? It’s not easy picking up the pieces when what you thought you would be doing your own life suddenly grinds to a halt. Coming back home, I prayed hard & knuckled down, steeling myself for a lengthy, vigorous search.
Turns out I didn’t have to. I went for an interview for a job that I don’t think I was even qualified for, got an offer a few hours after, & started at a new workplace two weeks later. & while the first few months were incredibly tough (still is, most days), I cut my teeth at whatever task I was given & tried to positively impact the people I was surrounded with. Ministry in the marketplace. & while I’m still making mistakes & learning fast & furious on the job, I’m more convinced than ever that this is where God has placed me in this season.
Another huge curveball was ministry. What was supposed to be a year of rest turned into a year of shock, struggle, & anger. This came with the painful leaving of many lifelong friends as well – planned or unplanned.
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But finally, things came to a head & all the shock & struggle & anger turned into an acceptance of new responsibility, of new calling. Where did it come from? I suppose from the realisation that what mattered at the end of the day was the people & knowing how precious each of them were to God.
Break my heart for what breaks yours Everything I am for your kingdom’s cause
Even though I could walk away from a ministry, there was no way I could walk away from its people. I will serve the church – my church – with as much strength as I have & for however long God grants me the grace to.
Ministry is such a joy, anyway. Like when I got to see three new people from my lifenet get baptised:
The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.
Psalm 16:5 – 6 (ESV)
My Dinner with André.
For the longest time, I dreamt about eating food like this. I spent hours poring over Lucky Peach & Bon Appétit magazines, devouring the column inches & holding the glossy images close to my nose. People who know me know how much food means to me (somewhere between the extremes of gluttony & gastronomy, I hope). I read about restaurants like The French Laundry, Eleven Madison Park, Per Se, Noma, El Bulli, Fäviken, D.O.M., Osteria Francescana, Blue Hill, Alinea, Atelier Crenn & André. André. I never thought I would be able to eat at one of them. Last year, I finally did.
29 courses. 16 glasses of champagne & wine. 5 hours. A dizzy night full of curiosity & surprises. A night redolent with memory.
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… & speaking of good food.
In 2017, I ate…
& ate some more…
& so the pattern continues on, well into 2018.
Concerts / Festivals / Exhibitions
Totally blew my entertainment budget but loved every single minute spent at a gig or museum.
Singapore Writer’s Festival. Highlights included getting to meet my ex- creative writing professor Jennifer Crawford, the teacher who impacted me most in my university days & whose double-book release we celebrated together, attending a Simon Armitage poetry reading session & taking a picture with him after (sublime, & then not so much), & all-in-all, remembering how far Singapore has come in the literary world – how after decades, poetry is a luxury that we can finally afford.
Century of Light – An exhibition of impressionist works curated by the National Gallery. So happy to have gotten a taste of the Musée d’Orsay in the most beautiful museum in Singapore.
& last but not least… the little creative things I managed to accomplish last year.
Because I’ve already written so much about the importance of creating, I won’t go into another spiel. It’s been an incredible year with a few sparks of inspiration. All glory to God, my creator. Among all the little essays & poems & sketches, here are a few of the bigger milestones.
An accompanying photo exhibition – another fund-raising effort, made possible mostly because of my talented photographer friend Faith. Loved how much effort was put into this & how so many people supported this artistic endeavour. To think that our photos of doors & elephants & trees & all the other little things we found beautiful are having in people’s homes, right now.
Another fun photoshoot that I did for a client. Was pretty stressed about it, but thank God it turned out okay!
A second little gig – opening for Jean Tan, one of my favourite local songwriters & friend, who officially released her Hideaway EP that night. It was a three-song set but as usual, it’s daunting to be in the presence of such great talent. But this gig did force me to write a song that I ended up spontaneously singing with Jawn Chan that night. Such a magical moment to sing a line & hear a roomful of people chiming in after, singing back to me – I am a writer, I am gone / tell me your story, oh come to me…
Storytelling. That’s what 2017 was about. Come to think of it, it’s been a year spent repaving, a restoration of joy in the search of all things beautiful.
Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
(Gerald Manley Hopkins, 1884 – 1889)
Therein lies cities to be traveled. Lines waiting to be written. A hundred things to be made with one’s hands, conversations to be had, love to be lost & then won again. Newness in a page turning. Hello, hello.
“How stationary life has become, & the hours impossibly elongated… & in the end all that we can do is to sit at the table over which our hands cross, listening to tunes from the Wurlitzer, with love huge & simple between us, & nothing more to be said.”
By Grand Central Station I Sat Down & Wept – Elizabeth Smart
These days, I’m finding it quite difficult to get into the right space to write. It is near impossible to write well when one does not have time to read, time to sit in the nook of comfort & silence & soak in time, sublime. Now that the end of the year is approaching, I look back at the resolutions I made at the beginning of 2017 & as usual, feel despondent at how many I’ve let slip between my fingers. Write three new songs. Read at least 20 books. Learn to sketch properly. Take better photographs.
These unmet resolutions far outweigh those I’ve managed to complete. It’s a little disappointing. For some reason, being creative has always been extremely important to me; an act of worship unto God, like how someone else would connect by singing a praise song or reading the bible. It’s just the way I’m wired & without the luxury of time, I end up being restless, uneasy, frustrated, which is why this year feels so long & so challenging.
At work, I’m surrounded by the most passionate, driven & highest-functioning people that I’ve ever met, which are basic traits since we work in a competitive industry with near impossible deadlines. I love my work & the people I do it with but it’s no doubt that the nature of the job is changing the way & speed at which I process things, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. Sure, one might become more efficient but there’s a great cost. Even after I clock off, I leave the workplace with my mind still ticking, ruminating on a deadline to meet, a schedule to plan, the next task to check off on a very long list of things to do, up till the time I fall asleep. Sometimes, work even invades my dreams. Every minute where I do slow down seems like a minute wasted. It is as if this increased efficiency has robbed me of my ability to look at the world with wonder. Some days, I just exist.
It’s worrying what can happen when you let your sense of awe slip away. Creativity, or rather, the want to create, comes first from wonderment at a world that is filled with beautiful things, created by a beautiful being. & because we are made in His likeness, we then seek to create similar things of loveliness, things that help us interrogate & reinforce truth, celebrate momentous and minute events, encapsulate the feelings that ebb beneath our very skin.
Have you ever seen the wonder In the air of second life Having come out of the waters With the old one left behind If you have so say
I see the world in light I see the world in wonder I see the world in life Bursting in living colour I see the world Your way And I’m walking in the light
(Wonder – Hillsong United)
A wise friend of mine once said that we each have our own “non-negotiables” & it’s up to us to figure out what they are & how to protect them. It took me a long time to recognise that being creative was my non-negotiable & an even longer time to realise that it wasn’t secondary to other people’s, whether their’s might seem more noble (taking care of family, doing church work) or more socially-appropriate (having a relationship or an active social life). For me, being creative equates to basic self-care, the bare bones of your humanity. & time should be carved out for the things that make you human, no?
I feel like it’s been such a long time since I’ve written something good, but as the year draws to a close, I feel like it doesn’t really matter as long as I try. Begin again, as they say. So I’m starting with lists to rekindle a sense of wonder, to remind myself that things of beauty do exist, if only you’d look hard enough.
An apricot danish, warmed in the oven for thirty seconds, the fruit cradled in a little bubbling pool of custard, puff pastry & a ring of icing sugar.
Hearing a French accent in the middle of the day, soft & delicious, jolting me back to streets of a certain city.
The company of a friend, two coffee cups between us & unabashed laughter at a shared memory.
A church spire extending above a green horizon of trees, its tip like an arrow, pointing to answers in the blinding sky.
A solitary bus ride with my mind pleasantly blank – oh, it has been so long – marvelling at a huge life shared with the rest of the universe, who leans in & says: Darling, I’m listening if you tell…
Light ended the night, but the song remained And I was hiding by the stair Half here, half there, past the lashing rain And as the sky would petal white Old innocent lies came to mind As we stood, congregated, at the firing line
Night ended the fight, but the song remained And so I headed to the wall Turned tail to call to the new domain As if in the sight of sea, you’re suddenly free But it’s all the same… Oh, but I can hear you, loud in the center Aren’t we made to be crowded together, like leaves?
On 16th June 2017, Fleet Foxes released Crack-Up, their first full-length album in six years. I have just finished listening to it in its entirely in my bedroom, under the covers & with the lights off, & I am flush with feeling & memory. Music has such a powerful transportive ability; it can take you anywhere, anyplace, if you let it.
Listening to Third of May / Ōdaigahara brought me back to almost a decade ago when I wandered into HMV at City Hall & was drawn to this slim, paper sleeve with the most intriguing cover – a composite of two strange images, gothic yet modern, speckled with neon spots of colour & the notion of motion, like a technicolour medieval film framed within a 5″ square. I was reeled in even by their name, the “f” consonants light & fleeing on my tongue. I imagined their songs would feel like smoke, slipping seamlessly out of a room & back in again. I bought the five-song EP on a whim, not knowing how much this record was going to change me & how I related to music. I was only fifteen years old.
I remember listening to Mykonos for the very first time, not unlike how I just listened to Crack-Up, plugged in & with my eyes squeezed shut in the dark, & even though I had not been to the tiny Greek island (I still have not, but I am hopeful), I felt all at once wrecked & known. I thought, perhaps if I could write a song like that someday that could make someone feel so intensely (like how Mykonos was for me), all that time spent saturated in music – all the hours & days of intent listening & furious writing & practicing the guitar – would not have been wasted… No, they wouldn’t have been wasted at all.
And you will go to Mykonos With a vision of a gentle coast And a sun to maybe dissipate Shadows of the mess you made
I didn’t know much about folk music then, but Fleet Foxes made me feel like it was okay to be into the folk music that I did know about – Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, Crosby, Stills & Nash – & not feel so ridiculously old-fashioned about the music I was dreaming about making one day. If you are a curious person, music is like an infinite series of rooms waiting to be discovered – genres & artistes cascading into another – & Fleet Foxes was my backdoor to modern folk acts like Bon Iver & Laura Marling & Feist. I learnt how to harmonise by singing along to White Winter Hymnal, how to finger-pick by practicing with Ragged Wood, & about the intricacies of arrangement by listening to Grown Ocean & Helplessness Blues. I listened to Quiet Houses when I was becoming somewhat disillusioned with the Junior College literature syllabus & marveled at how poetry could be derived from six words, sung over & over in majestic crescendos:
Lay me down… Darkening… Come to me…
Nearly ten years later & having a little experience in music-making, I still find myself crying whenever Oliver James comes on, & I inevitably wander back to my shelves again to pick through the weathered record covers. In Sun Giant, the only thing you’ll find in the sleeve besides sparse album credits & the CD itself is a lengthy note jokingly credited to Thomas Jefferson but actually written by Fleet Foxes’ frontman Robin Pecknold. It is essentially a long preamble about the magic of music but it holds so much truth & remains relevant to my existence till this day. I don’t know if Pecknold is a religious man, but this piece of writing speaks to me deeply about my faith & I suppose to a greater extent, the expression of that very faith – worship. The music of Fleet Foxes has inadvertently taught me how to host my sense of wonder well, & along with it, whatever gifts God has chosen to bless me with.
Here are portions of that note:
Sometimes when driving, or riding the bus, or walking around some park, I will try to get an image in my head of what the land around me would have looked like 400 years ago. The same hills, the same landscape, but in my mind I’ll cover it with nothing & wonder what it was like to be the first man to chance upon it. This is always useless to me. There is so much wonder in this world, but I always have trouble getting past our influence, our disasters & clumsy systems. & even in those places where there is some real beauty, like down at Golden Gardens or on the Olympic Peninsula, or in my grandparents’ cabin in Wenatchee when it’s deep in snowdrifts, all I have to do is take one look at the skyline in the distance, or the cement path I’m walking on, or the white car parked in the gravel driveway to take me out of the tenuous illusion & put me back in reality.
We are constantly tethered to some safety line. There is always a lantern, or a map, or a screen, or a cell phone. These things guarantee that whatever experience we’re having is just an attempt at connecting to something foreign & old, that it’s not real, no matter how real it looks. We’ve sketched out a new world over the old & they are in two separate universes. The old is lost despite the remnants of the everyday. If properly prepared, one could live entire decades indoors, in a world of their own creation.
A very smart & gifted friend of mine told me once that music is a kind of replacement for the natural world that, before civilisation or whatever, the world must have seemed a place of such immense wonder & confusion, so terrifying in a way, unthinkably massive & majestic. & that feeling of mystery & amazement, is somehow hardwired into us. Once the world became commonplace, mapped, & conquered, that mystery left our common mind & we needed something to replace it with & then came along music. I think she’s right, music is magic to me, transportive & full of wonder in a way that I have trouble getting from the natural world. All the human things that make the natural world so hard to connect with just aren’t there with music… Music to me is just as awe-inspiring as the world maybe once was, & I just love it a lot.”
Another one, & a lasting favourite.
In that dream I’m as old as the mountains Still is starlight reflected in fountains Children grown on the edge of the ocean Kept like jewelry kept with devotion In that dream moving slow through the morning
Wide-eyed walker, don’t betray me I will wake one day, don’t delay me Wide-eyed leaver, always going…
Aunt Lisa, or “Ah Yi”, as I call her, has invited me out to lunch.
The more accurate term would be summoned, a word that almost always induces a sense of foreboding & fear. Once every few months, & more often since I’ve been freelancing, I get a phone call from Aunt Lisa telling me that it is time we meet for lunch. Each phone call never lasts more than twenty seconds. The last time I saw her, I had been similarly summoned to her law office at Circular Road & I had walked in on her yelling at one of her two secretaries & throwing down files on the floor… so, you can understand the foreboding feeling a little.
We agree to meet at Wakanui at noon, an upscale steakhouse which is our usual lunch place. Nothing but white tablecloths & an extensive wine list for Aunt Lisa. Once I tried to buy her lunch at a nice Italian cafe & she scoffed before booking a table at Fairmont Hotel’s Prego. A cafe, really…? She says the word “cafe” like one would say “baby vomit”.
So Wakanui it is. She has a permanent reservation on a back table there, & more importantly, the staff simultaneously fears her & understands her. By the time I reach, I see that she has already started on a bottle of white wine. She is wearing a little black dress & with her gamine features & slight build (I am a whole head taller than her), she reminds me of Audrey Hepburn, walking down Fifth Avenue, Manhattan, regarding Tiffany gems with a rarified air on a quiet morning. She is smoking long, slim cigarettes out of the gilded case I’ve seen her carry since I was a child, going through them like candy, the blue smoke rising around her like curling wings. She sees me & her expression loosens into a smile. She reaches her hands out to hug me & tenderly asks:
How are you, dear?
Like always, I order the steak & she orders the fish. When Mario the head waiter has left, the quick-fire questions begin. As all conversations with lawyers go, she doesn’t bother with small talk & immediately starts asking me questions of both a professional & personal nature at bullet speed: How was Europe? Isn’t Wales a bloody hole? Haven’t you gotten a job yet? What trouble are your sisters in nowadays? Thank God I’ve come prepared & shoot back at her like an old pro (or a defence attorney for that matter): Europe was great. Wales isn’t a bloody hole but you wouldn’t have liked it. Yes I have. Well, there’s been some trouble, but nothing for you to worry about. Kapow!
We then talk about movies, music, food. Aunt Lisa eats like a bird but loves food all the same. She is the only person I know in the world who appreciates food like an art form & who isn’t bored to death when I obsess over culinary trends or fine dining. When I tell her that I was considering going to Alain Passard’s three-star Michelin star restaurant L’Arpège for dinner when I was in Paris, she scoffs & insists that it is “bullshit” (just because you sprinkle black truffles on everything doesn’t mean it’s good food, she says). She likes dining at Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry, Alex Atala’s D.O.M & Gunther Hubrechsen’s Gunther, but detests Scandinavian cooking because she thinks that it’s all smoked fish & potatoes. I tell her about the things that Sweden’s Magnus Nilsson is doing in Fäviken & Denmark’s René Redzepi in Noma but the jury is still out on that… her jury anyway.
This is the part of lunches with Aunt Lisa I love most, when we simply talk about the things we like, when she is out of her “lawyer” mode & we slip into something resembling pleasant conversation. Aunt Lisa is from another time, old-fashioned & classy. She uses the most archaic expressions. Like a character out of a Miller or Lawrence novel, her eyes light up when she talks about a jazz band she saw a few weeks ago: This place was really something, quarried away on Club Street & when we went in, it was perfect – not too crowded but just right, you know? The band was absolutely ripping, & everyone was loving it & responding to them in just the right way… Uncle Richard & I loved it, so fantastic, so bohemian…
I love it when she talks like that.
Aunt Lisa is my mother’s older sister & the eldest amongst the four children. Growing up, my mother was the cheery one who was well-liked among all the relatives because of her sweet tongue & amiable character, while Aunt Lisa disliked noise & had a bad temper & preferred to spend her afternoons holed up somewhere, reading a book. Family is a fickle thing, isn’t it? The way we turn out different from our siblings.
Anyway, it was no doubt that Aunt Lisa was massively intelligent & driven. She breezed through junior college, went to law school & cut her teeth at a top-tier law firm for a few years before setting up her own in the early ’90s. Till today, Lisa Chong & Partners remains a successful, largely one-woman show because – & this is verbatim – she doesn’t like answering to any assholes & likes going where she likes, when she likes. That was a huge feat in the late 1980s, back when female lawyers weren’t common & her male peers weren’t too fond of a woman telling them what to do. Now of course, things are different. People in the law circuit know who she is – that Lisa Chong, she’s a badass.
She then moved out of the family home, met & married Uncle Richard (a good-natured, American oil engineer from southern California who claims to have moved to Asia because he loved noodles & stuck around because he met Aunt Lisa. He is an amazing jazz drummer who introduced me to artistes like Dave Weckl & Buddy Rich & The Yellowjackets, but that’s another story for another day.). She turns 55 this year & even though that’s seven years to official retirement, she is by no means letting her age slow her down.
I didn’t always like her. I used to find her mean & condescending & prideful. As a sensitive child, I watched her carefully from a young age, despising it whenever she used cutting words to speak to her siblings or her own mother. She always lost her temper with service staff, was curt with her peers, & impatient with children. I would never have gotten close if we did not share a mutual love: books.
Aunt Lisa had an impressive library, a proper one – wall-to-wall oak shelves, thousands of books & that rolling wooden ladder that helped you reach the ones stacked on top – in her old house & whenever she hosted our weekly Sunday night family meal, I would run to the reading nook straight after dinner & spend two hours rifling through her collection while my two sisters spent their time in her walk-in wardrobe, trying on her clothes & pieces of costume jewelry. I was such a different child back then from my sisters, so quiet & timid & always sick & crying but I remember how those books would make me feel as hours passed in that magical place. In the sweet solitude of the library, I went on adventures with writers like Rudyard Kipling, Jules Verne & Alexander McCall Smith who had travelled to faraway places like Africa & India & ate exotic foods with the locals & danced with them till the night dwindled away. I read true crime stories like In Cold Blood & had nightmares for weeks afterward. I delved into the landscape of the American south when I read To Kill A Mockingbird & I was Scout, the brazen tomboy who unwittingly saved Tom Robinson’s life, who loved Calpurnia’s crackling bread & who managed to encapsulate all I felt about books as a young child when she said: Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.
Often, Aunt Lisa would join me & take out a hefty, square book on Greek Mythology & tell me all about the ancient gods – Chaos, Gaia, Uranus, Cronos, Zeus, Heracles, the whole lot of them – & their stories. She named one of her seven cats Calypso, after the nymph who kept Odysseus captive on her own island for several years until Athena & Zeus intervened, always wishing that the Homeric Hero would one day love her the same way she loved him. Aunt Lisa loved that story. From there, she would slip into this state of dreaminess, talking about her travels to Greece & South America & Italy with Uncle Richard, visiting everything from ancient ruins to elephant jungles, touching the worn stones of history & walking on the hearths of our ancestors, where there was once eating & drinking & sleeping & breathing… & I, I so young & inexperienced, with nothing but the waxy pages & their glorious illustrations laid out before me, all those Gods with bodies cut from white marble, fiery chariots, & of course the mere mortals themselves, often so beautiful that they could sometimes bewitch those whom they were supposed to worship. I breathed in whole worlds like that on that library floor. When I think about it now, it was a gift, all that time amongst books & my Aunt Lisa, pure & unappreciated.
My reverie is broken when Aunt Lisa calls over Mario & snaps at him for more ice. That’s her for you, able to switch between complete cordiality to a cantankerous, Anna Wintour-ish nightmare in a matter of seconds. It’s something I’ve gotten used to & I let it slide. She decides that we’ll be taking dessert & the rest of the wine outside so she can have a good smoke. Mario materialises like a ghost & whispers, yes, madame, & soon we are seated outside with fresh glasses & our chocolate soufflés.
Stories shift into ideas. We talk about philosophy, faith, religion. I know this is when things can go either way. She doesn’t deny that there is a God but she doesn’t like the Christians that she has met (she is quick to tell me that this group excludes me & that this faith I have seems to have served me well, unlike many others). I don’t know what it is – the thumping pace of the conversation we seem to be having, or the three glasses of wine I’ve had so far – but then somehow in a burst of courage, I ask her for the very first time in my life, what then, do you believe in?
She gets very quiet. Two long puffs of her slim cigarette. She doesn’t answer immediately, but then when she finally speaks, she tells me something she’s never told anyone before.
Fifteen over years ago, when she shifted her office to a little street in Boat Quay, she started a ritual of buying her daily newspaper every morning from a little old man from across the road. The old man had sat behind a desk with glossy tabloids & copies of The Straits Times fanned out before him – one of those old-fashioned vendors you don’t see anymore. They didn’t talk very much for a long time but one day after purchasing the paper, Aunty Lisa noticed that the old man had a bloody patch on his head. She asked him what had happened in Cantonese & he told her that he had fallen & his leg was all swollen up as well. Where are your kids? Who takes care of you? It became clear after a few exchanges that there was no one. Immediately, Aunt Lisa took him to the hospital.
At the emergency room, she then finds out that not only does the old man have no money or insurance, but that he has no form of identification. He had come from China to make a living in Singapore a long time ago, has no family & didn’t even know his own birthday. Thus, even though he had a fractured hip & several other injuries, the system prevented him from receiving any form of government help. The bill came up to several thousand dollars & Aunt Lisa paid it off without a second glance. She then started the excruciatingly long process of helping this old man get registered & recognised by the state, putting together papers & going to government offices to yell at poor administrative assistants & their terrified bosses. She succeeded, of course. The old man started to receive medical subsidies & monthly welfare from the government.
After his leg was properly healed, he went back to selling his papers every morning & Aunt Lisa went back to buying them, except that things were a little different. One evening, she went out for dinner with her bunch of rich girlfriends & announced that she was taking up a collection for this old man that none of them even knew. Come on, I know how much you’re spending on these salads & martinis in just one meal. Cough up! & they all did, whether it was from shock or fear or reverence. For many months, she used that little fund as a type of allowance for the old man, giving him fifty dollars every week to make sure he had money to get food, to get medicine. When that fund dried up, she started to give him money out of her own pocket. A hundred dollars a week. Two hundred sometimes. She gave him her name card so he could get in touch with her if he was in any trouble, & gave instructions to her assistant to continue giving him the usual weekly amount whenever she was on vacation. That cheeky bastard, Aunt Lisa says at this point. He was so happy, he sat behind his little stand like a big towkay ever since I started to give him money, as if saying to all of his friends, see I have a benefactor!
A few years ago, Aunt Lisa got a call from a policeman out of the blue. The old man had passed away in his one-room flat & the officer had found her name card on his person. Does he have family, he asked. No, Aunt Lisa replied. Just me. She didn’t feel like explaining their complicated relationship to the officer, so she just asked what he wanted her to do & he told her that if no one claimed the body within thirty days, the state would “take care of it”. So she did, of course she did; paid for his cremation & all. & that was the end of a very long, bizarre, sad, beautiful relationship between the unlikeliest of parties.
So what do I believe in? I’m not sure. But I do believe in universal goodness. We encounter situations in life & well… it’s up to you what you choose to do with them. & if you choose right, you choose goodness. It’s the weirdest thing isn’t it… Life.
She trails off, looks away, takes a long drag of her cigarette. It is a long story & I’m filled with a confluence of emotions. The strange thing is that I know this about my aunt; that beyond the prickly demeanour & no-nonsense attitude, she is someone who secretly gives & loves generously but who hates talking about it. This is one of the rare instances that she does & I am astounded by how simple the decision was for her, to help a man she barely knew for so many years. I ask her what his name was, & she says it immediately without thinking. The two syllables, the two Chinese characters carry so much weight & it sits between us on the table, like an unsaid prayer.
After an extended silence, I tell Aunt Lisa that she reminds me of Audrey Hepburn. She breaks out in laughter & says, what the fuck, I’m trying to tell you an important story here & all you can think about is a New York prostitute. I correct her – I didn’t say Holly Golightly, but Audrey Hepburn. I tell her that what I admire most about Hepburn isn’t her repertoire of wonderful movies & the memorial characters she played, or her beauty & timeless fashion sense, but her unabashed grace & her love for humanity. Audrey Hepburn wasn’t religious, but she was kinder than most religious people. & that’s kind of like who you are, Ah Yi, I whisper.
She shakes her head & then smiles, & then does a little shrug. She pushes her cigarette stub into the nearly-full ashtray & stands up abruptly, breaking the spell. Mario comes over & she pays the bill & we walk out onto the street, squinting in the jarring, midday sun. It’s nearly four in the afternoon & that’s how the lunch meeting ends, as sharply as it began. She holds her palm to my cheek as a goodbye like she always does & quite suddenly, I realise that I love my Aunt Lisa very much.
I tell her that the next time she “summons” me for lunch, I will have read The Man Who Ate Everything & I will bring her Jonathan Safran Foer’s latest novel & that I will be paying the bill & treating her instead. She rolls her eyes, slaps me on the arm & waves me off.