Les Petits Contes

About life's little observations, which matter. About hilarious situations, which illuminate. About stories which offer immense possibilities, open endings, different interpretations and perspectives.

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Location: Singapore

A nature lover; sun-worshipper, manic book-collector, dessert-devourer and a magnet for hazards

Friday, September 23, 2005

Unconnected Thoughts at Lunchtime

The time registered at my laptop says 12.44 pm. It is lunch hour. Most of my colleagues have already poured out of the office long ago for lunch. Yes, lunch is a sacred, not-to-be-missed time in Singapore. Stress or no stress. Work or no work. Crisis or no crisis in the office. Lunch cannot be skipped, unless you are on a diet.

This sacred obsession has turned out to be a good thing for me. It means I have the whole office to myself. And I can play my romantic Italian love songs a little more loudly.

I still have my box of half eaten fruits, meant for lunch yesterday. Why not just eat it up now, so that I can take the box back for next week’s use.

Galaxy of names
Something Yannick wrote yesterday about the Malay Village reminded me of my dad’s poetic streak. Stardust.

What about Duststar instead? That’s my brother’s Chinese name – Chen (dust) Xing (star).

What about my own Chinese name? I am never quite convinced of my dad’s explanation, but it sure sounds very, very beautiful and poetic, in Mandarin. It’s Chen (dust) Jie (purity). Pure dust. Sounds aweful in English translation, which is usually the case anyway. But my dad says the phrase is the exact opposite – like an oxymoron in a poem.

Still, trying to be logical and prosaic (a necessary requirement for career success here, which I had developed even at a young age!), I persisted (when you are a kid, you are very persistent in your questioning), ‘’so what if it’s the exact opposite – what does it mean?’’ ‘’No meaning lah – just special, unique and beautiful, like you,’’ he said. ‘’You can never find pure dust – dust is dirty, you see, so pure dust is very different lah,’’ my poor dad tried to explain poetry to me.

‘’I wanted to name you ‘chen meng’ (dust dream) – the word ‘meng’ is even more romantic, but thought the Hokkien pronunciation would sound aweful, so I settled for ‘chen jie’,’’ he continued. Good thing he did not choose ‘chen meng’. Otherwise I will never understand why I am a ‘’dirty dream’’!

‘’Then why is my brother ‘chen xing’? What’s so great about a dusty star?’’ I guess I was not in the mood to let my father go. ‘’Ah – I was playing on the two different meanings for the same word,’’ my dad said proudly. ‘’’Chen’ can also mean ‘town’ in ancient Chinese. So your brother is the star of the town – a hero!’’

Great. So he is a hero. And I am just different and unique….

Longing for the old
Yannick mentioned vintage cars. Colonial houses. Old shophouses.

What about old photos in old photo studios? I suddenly remember a beautiful part of my growing up years. It was those ‘’painful, aching’’ type of beauty – at 17 and 18, when your hormones were raging, and when I discovered literature in a big way. Or was it those years when I was 15, 16? I don’t quite remember the exact years, but I do remember the experience and the vivid pictures in my head.

Those were the years I had to travel from my school to another make-shift school for my French lessons. Those were the days French meant nothing to me – I could not appreciate the poetry of the language, nor the culture, nor the customs. It was just a subject that my hero-brother chose for me and had to study and pass in school. Not to mention the reflexive verbs to confuse me, and all those bloody conjugations and tenses. The Education ministry finally realised, after two decades, that, once you make someone ‘’study’’ something, you kill the beauty of the subject.

Anyway, it was not the French lessons in hot humid afternoons in non-aircon classrooms that gave me pleasure.

What gave me immense, inexplicable pleasure was the ‘’after’’! After class, I would have to walk a pretty long distance in the mad chaotic narrow streets and traffic of Little India (yes – French lessons in Little India – ha ha) to a bus stop, to take a bus home.

Without fail, I would stop at an old photo studio, sandwiched between the many old shophouses, and be spell-bound by the display of old, sepia and black and white photos at the window. I was so curious. Why did the shop still exist? It looked dark and deserted. But I never dared knock on the door. I just wanted to be able to stand outside and admire the photos, and lose myself in reverie. Their clothes looked so 30’s. The women’s hairdo – bee hive, piled up high. The qi pao with 3-inch Mandarin collar. The chubby women and womanly curves, and sharp pointed chests – they didn’t have push up bras then, but very sharp pointed cups! Those days, stick-pencil figures were unheard of; curves were in.

There were so many family portraits, all posed stiffly. The men’s baggy pants, and the boys’ longish shorts and skinny legs, ha ha. The little girls’ bows on the forehead. I stood there to look and dream – and tried to imagine what each character would be like. Some of the portraits of the women looked like my mum’s. I used to admire, and dream, about my mum’s black and white studio portraits too.

It made me so happy just looking and dreaming. Maybe my dad should have gone ahead and called me ‘chen meng’ after all. Mandarin songs would be playing in my mind. Yes, I remember now – at that time, a new genre of Chinese songs were a la mode – we call it ‘xin yao’. Not the sentimental ‘’wo ai ni’’ type love songs. But just as sentimental anyway, about dreams, aspirations, nature, and even snails!

And then, with xin yao playing in my heart, my steps would have an added spring as I continued my walk towards my bus stop. And if there is a new xin yao album release, I would drop by an old shop house nearby, to buy the cassette tape. And get a free poster of the idol to go along with my purchase.

Life was simple then. Yes, the French lessons were damned difficult, and it was difficult to concentrate in the heat. And yes the temperamental French teachers were a torture.

But the old photos, the walk, and the xin yao, made up for it all.


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