2230 hrs | 14 February 2018
North East Line | Boon Keng – Serangoon
They don’t have anymore chickens at Boon Keng!
No more chickens! I went to two NTUCs already this evening.
It’s an old lady, dressed in a cheongsam top and a slim black pant. She’s carrying many plastic shopping bags, an umbrella and her cracked leather wallet.
Aiyah, my feet hurt, going up and down like that. I’m 64 years old, still have to do this. But what to do? Chinese New Year, right?
She’s looking right at me. Still, I’m reluctant to engage. I’m reading Don Quixote and it’s getting quite exciting. On page 52, the hapless hidalgo is about to be beaten up by a gang along with Rocinante (his horse) and Sancho Panza (his “squire”).
I’m going to try one last time at Serangoon. They have a big NTUC there, some more it’s 24 hours. Do you know what time the MRT closes down?
I tell her that I’m not so sure, but that I did hear that there would be an extension of hours because of the holiday. I don’t think she’s heard me because she goes on about the chickens.
I don’t need an uncooked chicken. Even ready-made one will do. They have that now in NTUC, you know? Roast pork also have. You know, last time when my kids were still around, I would never buy this kind, the ready-made kind. Everything cook from scratch. Roast chicken lah. Dumplings. Pen cai. You like pen cai?
Yes, my grandmother makes it every year.
I also. Last time lah. This kind, can only eat once a year. Long time ago, I will buy how many cans of abalone, you know! Sometimes five cans, six cans, no problem! Will always ask my sons to help me buy early before no stock. All the other special ingredients also. Nian gao, must buy. Also last time, aunty also make pineapple tarts and love letters for all my friends. Good hor?
She’s on a roll now; she won’t stop.
I even know how to make yu sheng myself. Last time where got people buy yu sheng? So expensive now! My daughter loves yu sheng. Nowadays young people don’t like. You like?
You see! But my daughter loves it. I will make big big platters last time for family, to give to neighbours, but especially for my daughter. She loves it, but she isn’t here anymore.
Where is she, aunty?
She stops for a moment, breaks eye contact with me. I think I’ve crossed a line, but her facial expression shifts quickly and she starts to talk again.
Not here lah. All not here. Daughters and sons – all not here. That’s why I just need to buy those ready-made chicken. One can already. Can last for a few days. Don’t worry about aunty. Just need to try at Serangoon. One more time. Okay, my stop already. Bye! Happy Chinese New Year…
1400 hrs | 15 February 2018
North East Line | Outram Park – Dhoby Ghaut
The balloon is in the shape of a cupcake and a little girl is reaching for it. She has blue eyes & strawberry blonde hair and she giggles as she presses her palm against a glass panel riddled with sticky fingerprints, the only thing separating her from her shiny prize. She can’t be more than five.
It’s tied to the bag of a teenager, the pink string looped around the handle twice. Like everyone else on the train, the teenager’s eyes are glued to her phone screen. I peer above the pages of Don Quixote (I’m on page 83 now), transfixed by the girl’s tiny fingers as they make their way towards the stretched, silvery plastic. At one point, they get dangerously close and she turns to her left to grab her brother’s arm. Regarde moi!
The boy, with his wavy blonde curls and toothy smile, looks a lot like his sister but only twice as mischievous. I glance right and see that they come in a set of four – sister, brother, mother, father – blond and pretty, riding the MRT at 2pm on Chinese New Year eve. They look out of place in a train carriage full of people dressed up in stiff New Year clothes, slightly rumpled in their cotton t-shirts, shorts and sunglasses.
I realise I’ve been staring in their direction too long when the boy starts making faces at me. He sticks his tongue out, his fists curled up in two circles around his eyes. He’s making fun of my glasses! The cheek. I close my book, wiggle my face so that my glasses bounce up and down my nose. He giggles.
I don’t know where that came from – I haven’t spoken French properly in years. Even the boy is taken aback. It’s now his turn to tug on his mother’s shirt. She looks at me, smiles and motions for him to speak to me. He says shyly:
Un peu… un peu d’anglais.
Très bien! Et moi… Je parle un peu français…
My French is elementary, but I have their attention now – even the girl has abandoned her balloon pursuit. The kids start speaking very quickly and excitedly and the mother, who can speak a little bit of English, translates the questions. Like a game, and to everyone’s amusement, I try to recall the little French I know from two university classes to answer them.
They ask where you learn French.
J’étudie français… how do you say “in” in French? Er… “dans”? J’étudie français dans mon université.
Fantastique! Oh… they ask, you go to France before?
I hold out three of my fingers to indicate that I’ve been to Paris three times (also, I’ve forgotten how to say “thrice” in French) but it’s too late, the kids make a face at the sound of the capital’s name. Even the father, who has been sitting there silently the whole time with his newsboy cap tilted at an angle, shakes his head. The mother laughs.
We don’t like Paris. Ce n’est rien. We live… à l’est, près de la suisse? Better, much better.
Uh oh. I’m not surprised. It seems that the Parisians are the only French who actually like Paris. I talk a little more with the mother and make faces at the kids in between to keep them entertained. By now, even the people around us are hanging onto our stilted sentences, entranced by this odd encounter, listening in.
I find out that the family has been in Singapore for five days but that they will soon make their way to Indonesia to “hike mountains”. They like the outdoors, especially the boys. They also love how hot Singapore is, but admits that it is too crowded to be pleasant, much too crowded.
Is there like…une fête? La célébration?
The mother gestures around her, at everyone in their best clothes, packed like sardines in a tin can in the middle of the afternoon. Before I can even attempt to explain Chinese New Year to her, we’ve arrived at their stop. Dhoby Ghaut. The mother announces that it is time to go and the father tips his cap towards me. The kids wave at me and proudly exclaim:
To which I respond heartily:
It has been five, very surreal minutes. The atmosphere in the cramped train carriage seems a little lighter. Before the family disembarks, the mother turns to me and says this:
Your French is not so good…. but thank you so much! Au revoir!
Well, one thing’s for sure. They are definitely French.
2330 hrs | 25 February 2018
North South Line | Orchard – Link to Shaw Theatres
Hi, what’s your name?
My name’s Kenny. I’m 74 years old. Do you like The Carpenters?
Of course I do!
You remind me of Karen Carpenter. Very lovely, but I think you should lose the glasses because they make you look old, you know what I mean?
Oh dear. I’ll make a note of that.
Listen, I’ll play a song for you. You know, “On Top of the World”? Maybe after that – and I hate to be a bother – you could help me out with my rent?