To the bellows and the
hot electronic sound
to carry whole families on
two wheels and then some
politely tapping on metallic
beasts larger than life
the vision of the coming days elusive
tomorrow tomorrow tomorrow
what it’s like
those were tender times…
I love it; that perfect blend of first world and third world. The fact that you can sit on a tiny stool, elbows resting on knees, have a 90-cent noodle soup thickened with crayfish shells and pig blood on a table balanced precariously on a crooked, potholed pavement, then hop onto a GrabBike and streak across the district, inhaling the sweet petrichor emanating from the tarmac and holding onto the shirt of a stranger so as not to fall off as he makes that final turn only to arrive at a beautiful, refurbished warehouse cafe for Vietnamese coffee brewed in a chemex and order the most American thing – a plate of French fries with Heinz tomato ketchup – all of this in just half an hour is extremely confusing but in a way that makes sense somehow.
Talk about dual worlds, about a divided feeling.
Come to think of it, I know the feeling well because I straddle both worlds from minute to minute as a middle class citizen in my own home country Singapore, an affluent city state that grew up way too quickly and till today isn’t quite sure what to make of itself. I ride the 8:40am train to work from Monday to Friday with thousands of commuters, work myself to the bone in an air-conditioned office until I can stumble home when the sky has turned into an inky blue-black and eat a takeaway subway sandwich in front of my new MacBook Pro. I am divided in unrest day to day, switching roles so often that I’ve become tangled within, reduced to silent screams.
A friend of mine asked me recently if being in third-world countries like Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia and the like energised me or left me exhausted. I couldn’t give her a straight answer because it’s a little bit of both for me.
In every Singaporean lies a scission. Similarly, in a place like Ho Chi Minh City, the old and the new commingle in a shared space of the present and of the mind, which is why I feel that I carry tension wherever I travel to, especially when things seem too picture perfect or utterly dispiriting. But here, here in this city, tension finally meets tension and like a pair of old friends, they hug and link hands and cross the street into characteristic, Saigon traffic, the dusty motorbikes curling around them till they disappear.
Found these old photos of a city that everyone said that I would love but I didn’t. For five days, I felt the grime and grit and noise rub against my skin like a greasy animal, making me more uncomfortable than I’ve ever been in my life. Never again, never again.
I don’t regret it now though. Perhaps I just needed to know that one always has an option, that not all things have to be participatory. Now that I’m older, I realise that I get to choose the experiences I want to have and not just flow along other people’s paths. That means everything. Perhaps, one day I will go back and see the city through a different lens, under another light, in colour instead of black and white.
As we cross
I feel the strings loosen on
the things I knit myself to
what you said two years ago in
the hour so full of days
songs, signals, screens
three bars become
the little rectangle of light dissolves
as we approach the collection of pink neon
& euphonious sound
I could drown.
I was made for stillness
in a world that prides itself on being loud.
& as the sky unhooks itself from the heavens
& settles on its liquid reflection
I see it all now
how it was meant to be-
eyes open wide to see
the beauty in between things
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.
Processed with VSCO with b3 preset
Processed with VSCO with b3 preset
Processed with VSCO with b3 preset
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.
Processed with VSCO with hb1 preset
… & 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.
In 2014, I was browsing through Cereal magazine when I stumbled upon this article about a “Town of Books”. The feature was brief but evocative, & in characteristic Cereal Magazine aesthetic, generously layered with moody, rain-washed images – a spindly chair at the back of a bookstore in dusky light, clothbound volumes stacked against each other, the humble yet majestic Welsh plains. I devoured the pictures as I did the words, & remember being drawn to this particular line: The books of Hay-on-Wye outnumber its human inhabitants by an estimated 6800 to one.
It was a figure that did not make sense, perhaps because all my life I had felt that there was no real limit of how much one could read if he or she was willing. But there it was, the impossible number as stark as day – 6800. If a resident of Hay-on-Wye were to read a book every week, it would take 130.77 years to finish the volumes allotted to him or her, book swaps aside. It was unreachable, astounding, daunting.
According to the feature, Hay-on-Wye (commonly abbreviated to just “Hay”) lies just on the border between Wales & England, far away from the capital cities of each country. Up till the 1960s, Hay was nothing more than a floundering market town until Richard Booth – a wiry, 20-something graduate who had gone off to study at Oxford University – returned home & became frustrated at how all his friends were leaving for cities like Cardiff & London for greater prospects. He decided to save the dwindling economy of his rural home the only way he knew how – through books. In 1962, he shipped hundreds of them in containers from the soon-to-be derelict libraries of America & scoured the counties for the forgotten collections of English aristocrats & opened a secondhand bookstore in Hay’s abandoned fire station.
It worked. Tourists started coming, followed by quizzical literati in the years after (it was after all the famed playwright Arthur Miller, who upon being asked to attend the town’s annual literary festival, asked: Hay-on-Wye? What is that, some kind of sandwich?). The sleepy town was finally & thankfully drawn out of slumber, saved from the fate of going out like a whisper like so many others. Since then, many have followed Booth’s example in setting up their own book enclaves, peppered all around town. Fifty-odd years later, Hay is home to two dozen bookstores & something like two million books. It is also hosts the annual Hay festival. Every year in May to June, writers, poets, artists, philosophers & bibliophiles, the likes of which include Alain De Botton & Joseph Heller, descend to the little town for this very reason.
What a story, what a place. I wanted to be there. For 22 years, I had sat on the floor of my tiny “library” & inhabited pages of novels & their fantastic tales. Books had been my world. How would it be like then, to live in a world of books?
“Books are the cumulative livelihood, directly or indirectly, of hundreds living in this town, and the draw for the many hundreds of thousands more who come to visit. They contain every imaginable world within their covers, our sum knowledge, every hope and every fear, in scores of languages by countless hands.”
– Richard Aslan, for Cereal Magazine.
For a long time, the natural rhythms of life intervened. Final year thesis, relationships, fixations with other cities, first job, tragedy. As each year passed, my life became a little messier & confusing & I read a little less until I read nothing at all. The mystical town of Hay faded into the background like a forgotten poet. But then like a miracle, three years later, I found myself in Swansea, Wales under the most unlikely of circumstances & remembered the book town that existed in between the folds of the Welsh countryside. Hay-on-Wye. A whimsical, three-note melody that beckoned me to thee. & so I booked my bus tickets, packed a night bag, & went.
Here’s the story of my 36 hours in the magical kingdom.
From where I am in Swansea, it takes 25 pounds, four hours & three buses to get to Hay, all to visit a town that you can walk across in ten minutes. The morning I leave, the temperature drops to a frigid four degrees & I miss the first bus out & have to wait forty minutes for the next one to arrive. Waiting at the interchange, it’s so cold that I can hardly feel my face. I finally clamber onto the regional bus at 7am. It is just me & an old couple sitting two seats ahead. The radiator is on full blast. I fall asleep almost immediately, unable to witness Swansea City fading behind me.
I wake up a half hour later & all I see is green. This is not the green that I am used to – that gaudy shade caught in jarring, tropical sunlight – but green touched by hues of brown & unbridled rock, an expansive landscape that forms the backdrop of books by Dylan Thomas & Bruce Chatwin. I realise that we are in the heart of Brecon Beacons National Park. There seems to be no horizon to this rolling greenery & a strange feeling rises in the pit of my stomach, swelling like a bubble, a feeling that I’ve only felt a few times before when I found myself in the middle of infinities… what was it? Peace? Bliss? Awe?
I wish I could ask someone about this. The old man turns around & gestures to the top window above his head. He’s asking me if it’s alright to open it. I nod, & he cracks the glass panel wide open & the bus is filled with fresh, vale air. I listen to James Vincent McMorrow & Sam Amidon & Lucy Rose. For more than an hour, we watch the hills twist slowly into roads, the old couple & I; we pass by clusters of thatched cottages, clusters of sheep, all the things in clusters against the sheet of green.
Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.
And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
In the sun that is young once only,
Time let me play and be
Golden in the mercy of his means,
And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
And the sabbath rang slowly
In the pebbles of the holy streams.
Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.
(Dylan Thomas, 1914 – 1953)
I get off at Brecon & catch bus 39 as per instructions from Chrissy, my Airbnb host. From the looks of her online profile, she is fifty or sixty-something, has a doughy, not unpleasant face & wears purple glasses. She says that she will meet me outside Hay Castle at exactly noon. I’m nervous because my phone has run out of battery & I have stupidly not written her phone number or address down.
We pass by a few stone mansions, a few road signs, a few people. Suddenly, Hay-on-Wye bursts into view. I can’t believe it, I’ve arrived. It’s down season here – the literary festival isn’t for a few more months – so the streets are mostly clear with the odd couple or lone traveller milling about at a pleasant pace. The bus stops right outside Hay Castle & seconds after I step down, I meet Chrissy. She is exactly like how I imagined – chatty, kind, warm. Immediately she launches into questions about where I came from, what I was doing in here in Hay, if I’ve had any lunch, etc. Her little apartment sits on the edge of town & when we reach, we trudge up two flights of steps & step into a warm little abode.
She shows me my room – spacious, comfy, big windows with a view of Hay Castle – & tells me where the amenities are. The tour takes two minutes because besides my bedroom, the only things to see are the bathroom (which we both share), a tiny sitting room & an even tinier kitchen. We don’t talk very much because she knows that I have come all this way & am itching to explore the town & its many bookstores. Chrissy leaves me with some food recommendations & retreats into her own room. I take only what I need, including two empty book bags & step out.
I don’t really know where to go so I stop everywhere. I go into The Fudge Shop & get a piece of chocolate fudge to nibble at as I let the streets take me where they may. To get to Castle Road, which is the main vein where most of the bookshops are clustered on, I make a turn into “Back Fold”, an unsuspecting lane, in itself a self-contained world of record shops & knick-knack boutiques & hidden tea salons. Back Fold narrows steadily until one has to squeeze oneself through the opening at the end. As I slide through the two building walls, I think to myself, this is what Alice in Wonderland must have felt like, falling through the rabbit hole.
Castle Street. The store signs are studded with old-fashioned names – apothecary, antiques, antiquarian – spelt out in fading gold letter & winding curlicues. I duck into Hay-on-Wye Booksellers first & lose myself in the first of many shelves of books. I marvel at the first editions locked behind glass boxes in the antiquarian section & talk briefly to the woman behind the counter, who has a shock of white blond hair & is meticulously cataloguing new arrivals, only stopping to make a sale or answer queries.
The next stop is Hay Castle, the crumbling monument that is the heart of Hay-on-Wye. I enter the castle via a small staircase & am surprised to find a dozen shelves groaning under the weight of hundreds of books, abandoned to the raw elements on this cold day.
The Honesty Bookshop is a peculiar feature of Hay-on-Wye, the only one in town that has no till nor owner. It gets its supply from a variety of sources & works like this – 50p for paperbacks, £1 for hardbacks, take all the time you need & leave the money in the little box at the stairs after you’re done. All proceeds go to the restoration & upkeep of the castle. The castle grounds & the sweet, spring air are yours alone to take in.
Hay Castle isn’t much when you compare it to the other massive stone castles scattered across England, but it is here where Richard Booth, the unofficial founding father of Hay, laid down the cornerstone for the first national book town in the world & all the eccentric booksellers to come. Similar to the eponymous, hapless hero of Miguel de Cervantes’ Spanish classic Don Quixote, Booth is a queer enigma with ridiculous dreams. Quixote dubs himself a knight-errant & Booth proclaims Hay-on-Wye an independent kingdom under his self-declared kingship, taking Hay Castle as his throne room; Quixote recruits an unsuspecting farmer to be his squire & Booth establishes a House of Lords made out of ordinary citizens & names his horse his prime minister. They are both driven by the same, unrealistic desire, or in Cervantes’ words: to set out to revive chivalry, undo wrongs, bring justice to the world… & if not the world, at least this little corner of the once mighty Welsh kingdom.
What fools. What kings.
Next is Addyman Annexe, complete with a book passage & thousands of penguin paperbacks. Then Rose’s Books, all pretty in pink, a children’s books specialty store stocked with hundreds of out-of-print Tin Tin magazines & Grimm compendiums & beautifully illustrated fables. Then Francis Edwards, whose name sounds familiar until I remember that this is the “same” bookshop that I stumbled into four years ago in London’s west end when I was wet & cold & beginning to feel the first pangs of loneliness in that big, English city. As I stepped into this sister bookshop, I felt a rush of familiarity & recalled that moment from years ago tenderly. Francis Edwards welcomed me then & it was welcoming me now.
Quinto Bookshop & Francis Edwards
The sheet tacked on the front door reads Open till late for midnight browsers so I enter just after eleven
& even when the stinging spring chill blows
through the narrow shop space
nobody lifts their head to look, nobody notices
In a second everything is stock-still.
The first thing I see is an old man in a corner
apart from the rest, tenderly touching the book spines
& I want to cry from the beauty of it
from the realization that this city
is not of love or light or sin
but of little moments & things;
the shelves like billowing arms
& I can’t help it, I let myself fall
You’ve felt like this before, haven’t you?
Battened. held. safe.
(how well you know it
though you’ve never been before)
like maybe you could settle your words down into the dust
like maybe it would keep your secret for you
The rest of the afternoon passes in a salubrious haze. Lunch at Oscars – a ham pie & coffee with cream unspooling slowly in its warm centre. Broad Street Book Centre. A sundae at Shepherd’s Ice Cream Parlour, listening to Willie Nelson. I finally arrive at Richard Booth’s Bookstore, the grandest one in town by a mile with two massive storeys, a cafe & a cinema. One can spot it from far away with its red lacquered front & huge glass windows.
Here, I take my time. I order a beer & an English muffin from the cafe & read some poetry; I melt into one of the plush chairs on the second floor, light streaming in from the open ceiling as I navigate worlds of botany, sailing, history, & philosophy. I’m beginning to taste the edges of that feeling of being battened, held, safe, the feeling of finally settling into the skin that I was always meant to be in, like a fitting book jacket. Ah.
That night, after a quick dinner at one of the two open pubs in town, I go back to Richard Booth’s 47-seat cinema, where I’ve purchased a ticket for that night’s showing of “Jackie”. Here, going for a film feels like you’re going to the opera, & rightfully so, in a town where the weekly film is the only form of entertainment besides the local pub or watching TV at home. At the foyer, there is a man in a trim vest & bow tie that serves wine, ice cream & candy from big, glass jars. I get gummy bears & a glass of red, feeling a little sheepish.
At 730pm sharp, me & 46 other people troop into the theatre & nestle into the plush red seats. We watch Natalie Portman on the big screen in all of her lithe beauty, watch her go into a catatonic state of shock & nearly mad with grief as Mr Kennedy is assassinated. We marvel at her polished, mid-Atlantic accent & her expressive brown eyes. We see her go from devastation to gracefulness in seconds & then back again, feeling our own hearts skip a beat at the tumult of raw emotion.
When the credits roll, everybody claps. It is a very good film. I sit in my corner seat for a little while longer while people get up to leave. I realise that I’m tearing up. From what? It has been months since I’ve watched a movie & enjoyed it, but it goes beyond that. Something about community, or home. I can’t be too sure.
The next morning I get up early to spend a few more daylight hours in Booth’s kingdom, but before I venture out, Chrissy prepares breakfast for me – three kinds of cereal, fresh fruit juice, & a really delicious toast that has all kinds of nuts & fruit in it. She brews me a cup of strong, Welsh tea & while I devour my bowl of sweet oats on a foldable table in her tiny living room, we talk about life & people & books. Like me, Chrissy isn’t a native of Hay-on-Wye. She’s not even Welsh. She is a welcome stranger in the land, who left a bad marriage, stumbled upon Hay after traversing the English countryside for days & then decided to stay.
“I came across this little town, & I know this sounds strange but when I arrived at Hay, I just felt it sort of… embrace me, you know? There was such an air of love in this place & somehow I knew that I would fit right in.”
Strange, I felt it too.
She tells me about her life, the whole unfiltered version of it too, all without asking, & I listen. She talks about how tough it is to make ends meet, but how she knits little hats & scarves to sell at the main square on Market day & rents out the second room & gets by. She says she’s happier then she’s ever been. I don’t know how to respond to the stark openness, but I buy a red knit cap from her & promise I will take some photos of her apartment with my DSLR camera so that she can put them up on the site.
Oh that would be so nice! I’ll need to clean up the place first though…
I decide to leave her to it, & so I thank her for the wonderful breakfast & go out. It’s another morning of the same – Hay Cinema Bookshop, Clocktower Books, Hancock & Monks Music. I do a little shopping in The Old Electric Shop, a space flooded with natural light & odds & ends.
I love this, the quiet tinkering. Two feet away from me, there is a couple sitting in silence on a couch, just holding hands & bathing in the glow of early morning. A few more people scattered around, reading or writing. I don’t know what it is that draws writers to cafes, to coffee & wine, but I love it – you know you are with the like-minded. Here, the gentle whir of the espresso machine will keep you company; here, the muffled conversations will inspire you. You will inhale, sigh with relief, & perhaps if you are lucky, the word will start flowing.
One rarely has days like these in Singapore. I treasure the effervescent moment.
It’s eleven – time to go.
After half an hour of walking around, I finally find The Poetry Bookshop, a quiet space in a back alley run by Chris & his wife, where I have a lovely conversation with him & find a rare, first edition poetry collection by Elizabeth Smart aptly titled “A Bonus”. Smart, like most other poets, was unknown & unappreciated in her time & only achieved relative fame years after she died with the prose-poetry volume titled “By Grand Central Station I Set Down & Wept”, a pivotal piece of work for me in my late teens, writing that joined two worlds that I never knew could touch. Her poetry though, is very different, but lovely all the same, & true.
How I used to long
For silence and solitude.
Because in a day or two
Out of the blue
Angels descended then
Connecting me with heaven
In a constant consummation
Independent of men
and things and events
All day and night
A long long amen.
Is This Pain Justified – Elizabeth Smart, from “The Bonus”
In my reverie, I realise that I’m blocking someone from making an actual query. I make way for a man in a beautiful navy blue coat who asks Chris a question about an author I’ve never heard of before & Chris says that while he does not have any copies, Richard Booth’s might have some. He writes down a few things on a scrap of paper & the man leaves happy, hopeful, his leather satchel bouncing behind him as he exits the bookshop & makes his way to the bookseller down the street.
Booksellers. I realise that this is the company that I am in – booksellers – people who have made it their life’s work to hunt down gems of the written word, who have driven for hours or days in search for their favourite author’s work. Next to them, I pale in comparison when it comes to a singular love for books. I can only peer through the looking glass, my fingers grazing the cold illuminated surface, in wonderment of these bookshops & their inhabitants.
Two o’ clock. My time in Hay has come to an end. I pick up my things, say goodbye to Chrissy, & catch the 39 out of Herefordshire. I settle into the seat, thinking about the hours that have passed in a tranquil fury. It was everything hoped for & more. It has been a rough year & I feel like maybe these 36 hours in Hay-on-Wye have done a healing work, that maybe something that I’ve been holding within me has broken like a dam. Lo, the Magical Kingdom.
Hay is a town that is full of dreamers, & not the kind of dreamers that sit around all day doing nothing. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Sylvia Beach, George Whitman & his daughter, Richard Booth… these booksellers are men & women of greatness because they know & believe in the magic of storytelling, of print, of curation. Booth just decided to do something, & a bunch of people then did the same.
In his memoir, The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, the poet Lewis Buzbee says this: I am fatally attracted to all bookstores, & I identify with this gravitational pull well because in this day & age where we see the world through pixels & screens, there is a certain comfort & romance to reading with unadulterated eyes. By reading, you partake not only in your past, but someone else’s, or maybe even a whole civilisation’s. It is a necessity & a privilege.
So go ahead. Open the door, dip your finger into the jar, let your eye linger on the page. It’s all waiting for you.
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.