The Best(a) of Bestrizal: Mother Nature (Review)

‘Almost Paradise’, 2018, Charcoal and acrylic on canvas (H250 cm x W200cm)

Bestrizal Besta was born in 1973, in Padang, West Sumatra, Indonesia. He made Yogyakarta his home and can be found in this city where he lives and works. I was acquainted with Besta’s art in 2018 at Art Stage Singapore where he was represented by Art Porters Gallery. Hanging in this gallery’s booth, at the entrance, is a substantially large monochromatic canvas with a burst of colour that led my eye to a human face — a smiling female child framed by a bouquet of colourful flowers. She is perched on a suggested make-belief swing made of leafy tendrils, her feet crossed elegantly and both hands clutching a spray of orange flowers and she is beaming. She is accompanied by a parrot and surrounded by flora and fauna, thick and lucious. A mouse deer peers at us, a rabbit peers at the mouse deer and we peer into a busy canvas covered corner to corner by monochromatic prints of flowers, plants, leaves, petals… and then the eye spots a leopard. I stood staring at this gigantic canvas, ‘Almost Paradise’, 2018, (H250 cm x W200cm), for several minutes and drank in its wonder. I let it quench my imagination while I studied the patterns on the leaves, on the girl. Peering closer, I caught sight of a feathery down that covered the girl’s legs – follicles of hair so lovingly and intricately added to embellish the subject. This is beyond Realism. I was in Art Heaven because being up this close and seeing such intricate details made with charcoal sent electric shivers down my spine. An apt title for such a mesmerising artwork, I thought. I was not the only who thought this way. The piece was finally sold but art lovers would drop in for a chat about this eye-catching rendition of what Paradise could be. For a dazzling half day at Art Stage, I found my Paradise. 

Bestrizal Besta is known for his large canvases of hyper-realist compositions, intricate in detail and surrealist by presentation. His works are photographic by nature, hence the term hyper-realism used as a descriptor of his oeuvre. In reality, Besta is a Surrealist: his works are often realistic but dream-like, centring on this world and bordering on one that is other-worldly. 

However, I am not one who is fond of labels. To say Besta is a Surrealist would put emphasis on Surrealism and detract from the fact that he is really a Hyper-realist. But to say that he is a Hyper-realist would veer away from the oft challenging definition of Surrealism and the representation of Besta’s unconscious mind.

Surrealists were artistes who sought to find ways through art, literature and film to channel the unconscious in order to unlock its power to find an unfettered expression of thought. André Breton, René Magritte, Joan Miró and Salvatore Dali were Surrealists.  Surrealism took off in visual art due to artists like Magritte and Dali, who were categorically Surrealists. Surrealist motifs differed from artist to artist and exactly what constitutes Surrealism is difficult to define – like a dream, we can’t quite put our finger on what it is. Yet, we know as viewers that the bending clock in Dali’s work is not real, psychologically, we know that it is an image from a dream. Similarly, we know that Miró’s fantastical depiction of space with biomorphic shapes, representing human beings on canvas is also not real, it is surreal. Magritte’s work also tells us that his imageries are from the land of dreams or from the unconscious because there is something quite unusual, rather disturbing in his pieces. However, we know that these artists are definitely not Hyper-realists, though. 

Hyper-realists are artists whose keen eye for detail and realism mark them out from the rest. But be careful for they are not Realists because the eye sees a different style in Realism. Realism is an art movement that sought to depict real life with truth and accuracy; Realist art is detailed but not photographic, they are paintings and they are unmistakably so. There is nothing pretty about Realism, to tell the truth. Jean-Francois Millet and Gustave Courbet are Realists. What of Hyper-realism? Hyper-realism was developed since the 1970s and are artworks of images that resemble high-resolution photographs but rendered in mediums often associated with paintings. This is where Bestrizal Besta gets drumrolls.

‘Mother Nature #1’, 2018, Charcoal and acrylic on canvas, H80cm x W180cm

Besta, to my eye, is a Hyper-Realist. A quick glance at his canvases will train the eye to notice that his human figures are realistically detailed. They resemble photographic images of somebody we are familiar with. That his works are dream-like, it is true. That they are surreal, that is true too. So, yes, he can be called a Surrealist.

Labels are but categories for better understanding of concepts. In art, better understanding comes from looking. Let’s take a close look at ‘Mother Nature #1’, 2018 (charcoal and acrylic on canvas, H80cm x W180cm), for example. A girl, somebody from a lost world, gazes out, she is holding a doll in one hand, with the other, she clasps a branch. Nature engulfs her. In fact, nature takes up two-thirds of this canvas, with only a sliver of sky topping a mountain chain. The leaves are intricately sketched as we follow their meandering journeys; the animals playing hide and seek in the thick foliage beckons us to find them. These life-forms are so hyper-realistically depicted that I feel the leaves growing and winding their way through the thicket; I hear the sounds of animals as they move through the jungle; I smell the silage of the damp earth. This piece is similar to Besta’s many other pieces – a human figure engulfed by nature seems to be the theme in all his works. Through detailed patterns of flora and fauna, Besta tells the story of how wonderful life would be if we were all to live harmoniously with(in) Nature. Nature is good, he says. So, it is not about being engulfed by Nature but about co-existing as one with a naturally eternal Female force. This is where the artist as dreamer steps into the canvas. It is Besta’s dream that we all co-exist with Nature. He expresses his dream and observation of Nature, unfettered, through the medium of charcoal. Now, we can see why critics have called him a Surrealist. 

Besta expresses what his psyche really thinks about Nature and this is reflected in the exhibition’s title — Mother Nature — which underscores the power of the Feminine. Nature is the giver of Life — our Mother. But Besta goes one step further and tells us that “We are not born of Mother Nature”, “we are Mother Nature” he asserts. There is something so curative about this knowlege. Resistance is futile was the message that I took away from this exhibition. The best way to live is to be one with Nature. I succumbed to this adage as I immersed myself in these monochromatic canvases, meditating on Life and the human condition. I asked the Goddess to envelope me in her soothing balm which only Nature can provide. 

Mother Nature, Art Porters Gallery from 24th April to 30th June, 2019. 


Review: Domestication II by Eva Wong Nava

DH-5 Dolly and Friends – 2009 Coloured pencil & acrylic on panel H173 x W305 cm (2 panels)

“The person you think of as yourself exists only for you and even you don’t know who that is. Everyone else creates a version of ‘you’ in their head. You’re not the same person to anyone. There are thousands of versions of you out there.”

One, No One and One Hundred Thousand by Luigi Pirandello 

I marvel constantly at how many artists seek to find the self in their work. The self is an important constant for those of us who seek self awareness, who seek to be seen for who we are, and for those of us who seek to question the boundaries of self. Where does the self begin? Where does it end, if it ends? And who is the self? 

Su-en Wong (b. 1973) is a New York-based Singaporean artist who is fascinated with the concept of self, especially in the concept of self as other. I am fascinated by her quest. I am intrigued by her canvasses depicting nude Asian females that replicate themselves. There is power in this repetition; a desire to be seen again and again. My eye was drawn to a particular canvas ‘The Forest I (Playtime)’, painted in 2015 in oil on linen [Oil on linen H138 x W199 cm]. A gigantic tree with pink flowers – frangipanis – take centre stage before we notice a rock garden, familiar to those who understand Chinese landscape art. Then, nude girls fire our imaginations. A pair is sat on the ground, playing a clapping game; a familiar children’s game. I can almost hear them chant the rhyming tune that accompanies this game. Ping Pong, Ping Pong, Ping Ping Pong! Or was Pat-a-cake, Pat-a-cake, Baker’s man? The former a familiar jingle, if you grew up in Singapore, where Su-en was born and raised before she left for the United States at sixteen. The latter, an English rhyming song that children in America and England would recognise. Su-en is able to traverse both East and West in her position as an artist. She does not take her identity nor her heritage for granted. She infuses herself in many of the pieces in Domestication II by playing with the idea of the self as exposed — nude — and recurring. Asian female nudes are rare. The tradition of Chinese paintings does not allow for female nudes. Su-en’s nudes shy away from the pornographic; instead, the repetition is mesmerising, it is rather dizzy-making, forcing the viewer to question the intention of having so many of the same nude female in one canvas. At one point, I wondered if her work could be categorised as queer art: a category of art marked by LGBT themes. In probing further, I came to understand that the female nude is a representation of Su-en herself and Su-en does not identify gay. Yet, there is a touch of the homeo-erotic in the pieces on display: I see the self hugging another self, I see the self crouching next to another self, I see the self in commune with another self. This is encouraging in a time when young girls are self-harming and the pressure to be popular is on the increase as social media takes over our lives. It’s important to advocate self-love. Su-en’s many recurring selves playing, laughing, hugging, being and communing is such a breath of fresh air. These selves remind us of staying in touch with ourselves, with our identities, with our beings. These selves remind us that in everything we do, we need to return to ourselves. 

The Forest I (Playtime) – 2015 Oil on linen H138 x W199 cm

Her figurative drawings are a result of a keen eye, a solid art training and an innate talent. She trained under Liu Kang, a renowned Nanyang artist and one of Singapore’s pioneer modern artist. Under his tutelage, Su-en was able to hold her first solo exhibition at the age of fourteen. This is a huge achievement for any artist and one so young at that.

It is a waste to let talent go! But go she had to. Su-en Wong set sail for the shores of America to pursue her studies in art. She graduated with a B.A., Magna cum Laude, from the University of Puget Sound, Tacoma, Washington in 1993 and then went on to complete a MFA, at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1997. There was a MA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in between the two, which she completed in 1994. She has since held several important positions as visiting artist at renowned academic institutions and museums. 

Domestication II (January 17 – March 17, 2019), an exhibition held at Art Porters in Spottiswoode Park, Singapore, is the second iteration of a previous group exhibition — Domestication — which Su-en took part in during the Singapore Art Fair in 2014. 

On entering this shophouse gallery, founded by Frenchman Guillaume Levy-Lambert and his artologist partner, Sean Soh, I was immediately introduced to Dolly. Dolly is a sheep. She reminds me very much of a Badger Face Welsh Mountain, the Torddu, to be precise, with her black face markings. These sheep are native to Wales, as its name suggests. I love what Dolly symbolises in Su-en’s ‘DH-5 Dolly and Friends’ (2009), rendered in coloured pencils and acrylics. She is the leader in this two part canvas (H73 x W305 cm), with her faithful set of followers. This piece is infused with Su-en’s quirky sense of humour. She’s having a laugh at sheep as much as she’s having a laugh at sheeple — people who follow blindly. A criticism is best ingested with a spoonful of sugar and this is what Su-en is good at. She is provocative in parodying the weakness in our human condition but does so with a trickle of honey. Note some sheep gazing back at you. These represent sheeple, the people who are aware that you’re looking at them. They know that they’re being watched and they’re watching you too. They may look innocent, sweet as a lamb, but they know and you know. Dolly knows. There is a touch of vulnerability in these sheep on canvas. Here, Su-en is making a commentary on the human condition of desire — the wish to lead and the desire to be led. Who do you want to be, the leader or the follower? But hang on a minute! Who is that pig staring out? 

Su-en achieves a depth on the canvas through a technique known as foreshortening. The angled lines of the table allow for a perspectival view and also adds to the depth she is trying to achieve on canvas. There is geometry in this piece, a type of geometry that only draughtsmen like certain Old Masters — da Vinci, Lippi, Raphael and Buonarroti — were able to achieve. 

DH-4 Dildos in Display Case – 2009 Coloured pencil & acrylic on panel H173 x W152 cm

This exhibition sees Su-en Wong taking on the theme of collection, indicated by a series of canvasses depicting objects on display. The parody is on a certain artist named Hirst who renowned as he is must be parodied for making a mockery of found objects and displays. A collection of canvasses are entitled with the prefix DH (Dh-5 and Dh-6), not as a homage to Damien Hirst but as a critique, I would think. There is that quirky sense of humour again. 

Domestication II is an odd display of Su-en’s work; it is a hodgepodge of a variety of canvasses and media: oil on linen, coloured pencils and acrylic, graphite on paper. Running through this varied 2-dimensional display is a constant negotiation with what constitutes our Asian-ness, our human faults, our sexuality, our vulnerability, and how that can be achieved through a western art-form of pop art. What sealed this exhibition for me is in the gallery’s keen desire to represent a female Asian artist whose yearning it is to interrogate the Asian female self and to find a space where serious interrogation can co-mingle with satire and parody. 

Domestication II is on display at Art Porters Gallery until March 17th, 2019. 

The People in the Jungle by Eva Wong Nava

Han Suyin stands in the middle of the cavernous gallery displaying only one painting. The man in a white short-sleeved singlet stands in the middle of the painting. He holds a red book in his left hand, his right arm is extended, forearm raised in an L-shape, with his hand and fingers facing him in an awkward twist. This is a hand that commands attention. His khaki trousers are creased but his young face shines with determination as he recites a poem from the red book. He looks into the distance and not at his audience. The distance is where he sees himself in the future, the future of Malaya. 

Suddenly, a gust causes the debris at Han Suyin’s feet to spin like a whirligig: insect carcasses, dead leaves, brown and shrivelled, twigs of all lengths circle around her, rising over her head and disappearing into the massive jungle above. Monkeys shriek, crickets chirp and snakes swish amongst the tall lalang grass, the cacophony deafens her. Mosquitoes prick her sweaty calves as she swats away the rest threatening to suck blood from her arms. The foliage is so thick that Han Suyin can’t see the wall of black clouds forming above. But she can smell the imminent rain, its humid vapours mingle with the stench of mud, mulch and madness. The wind dies down and the air becomes oppressively still—a sign that the skies will soon crack open. She’s inside a white cube yet she feels the tension. There’s danger everywhere but the comrades have told her the jungle is the safest place right now since the jipun kia, the Japanese, have left bringing the British red-haired devils back. Her distant future seems as bleak as the tarpaulin tents she’s forced to sleep under. The white cube disappears. 

Suet Ling is fanning a fire where a blackened pot hangs above. She is squatting, legs splayed by her swollen tummy, her bottom almost touching the muddy ground. Mei Ching squats next to her, plucking feathers from a recently slaughtered jungle fowl whose death was caused by decapitation. Its severed head lies nearby, tossed aside as Mei Ching held the flapping bird down so that its headless body will not escape. She doesn’t wait for it to stop flapping before she plucks away at the bird. It’s a rare treat to be having fresh meat for dinner. Rice is rationed, brought in pocketfuls or hidden in the rubber tappers’ shoes which is then passed on to the People in the Jungle. Communist Terrorists as they’re known. It’s sweet potato leaves for fibre again.

Suet Ling lets out a groan, hands holding her stomach, she attempts to stand up. Her legs wobble and a gush of liquid pooled around her feet. 

“I think baby come,” she says to Mei Ching who throws the naked chicken into the pot.

“Quick, quick, we get doctor,” replies Mei Ching as she runs off to untie Han Suyin.

The men are all on guard duty and will not be back until night breaks; two have been sent to punish a traitor who will be beheaded in a ceremonial execution. Han Suyin, Suet Ling and Mei Ching are the only people left in the camp. The latter two are watching over Han Suyin, the doctor whom their comrades had kidnapped from the clinic in town along with medical supplies.

Han Suyin tremors while she looks into the frame catching the eye of the girl in white sitting by the speaker’s feet. Can that girl really be Suet Ling who died while giving birth to her breeched son? The comrades had blamed the baby’s death on the doctor, on her, and she was punished severely. What about the girl holding a piece of paper? Is she Mei Ching? She must be. Han Suyin thinks she recognises those fervent, determined eyes looking up at the speaker who she thinks is Comrade Lee Loke Wan. He would have executed her if not for Mei Ching’s interference. 

“What for kill doctor? She can help us.”

“Don’t interfere, woman!” a rifle cocks. “She lucky I not hacking her with a parang. I waste one bullet to kill her because she is a woman. Don’t say I not kind! My woman and son are both dead. I want revenge.”

“Suet Ling unlucky, lah. Who can say why baby feet come out first? Not the doctor’s fault, Ah Loke. This kind of thing is heaven send one. Suet Ling never pray to Guanyin, that’s why. Killing doctor will make Guanyin Mother more angry, then our camp cursed. Cannot like this, Ah Loke.”

Han Suyin listens, hands tied behind her back, blindfold over her eyes. She is kneeling as another male comrade holds her still. Mei Ching’s voice is soft, reasoning, determined to win Comrade Lee over to her side. Han Suyin realises that her life is in this woman’s hands. 

In this cavernous space, she wonders what has happened to these people in the jungle. She shivers as she remembers those dark days. 

When the Malay police officers found her, Han Suyin weighed only 32 kilograms. After Suet Ling’s baby died, her meals were reduced down to one a day. Her menses had stopped and she could no longer tell the time from day to day. The people in the jungle had lost faith in her as a doctor. But it was Mei Ching, the nurse, who managed to keep her alive. Mei Ching had only worked a few months at the clinic where Han Suyin was abducted. It was Mei Ching’s idea to have a doctor in the camp. But without the right medical supplies, Han Suyin couldn’t do much. Suet Ling bled to death as her son remained wedged between her legs. 

The camp was dismantled as the commanding police inspector, Leon Comber, rounded up the men and women of the jungle and loaded them into a truck. They will be dealt with by the Crown courts later; some will hang for murder. Special Constable Comber held Han Suyin, his wife, tight. It had taken the British administration six months to find her. She allowed her skeletal frame to lean into Comber’s tight, secure chest, relieved that her ordeal is now over. 

About the Author:

Eva Wong Nava writes Flash Fiction to find catharsis. She is published in various places, including Jellyfish Review, Peacock Journal and Ariel Chart. She founded CarpeArte Journal as a blog to publish her own work and to give a platform for others to do the same. Since then, the Journal has grown to include writers and poets from around the world. 

Eva is also a children’s book author. Her book, Open: A Boy’s Wayang Adventure was written to help readers be more compassionate to people on the autism spectrum. 

Eva’s Comments:

As the managing editor of this growing journal, I’ve not had much time to write recently. Submissions are flowing in, thanks to many talented writers in the Flash Fiction community. There have been poems ebbing in too, thanks to the many prolific poets out there. 

This story had to be placed on the back burner for a few months as I sat on various writing projects and researched Malayan history for a book I’m writing. I have been toying with the idea of introducing a character who is a real person but giving said character a fictional space within the form of flash. 

Han Suyin was the pen name of Elizabeth Comber, a China-born Eurasian writer who wrote the 1952 book, A Many-Splendored Thing which was made into a movie entitled Love is a Many-Splendored Thing in 1955; many old enough will remember the song with the same title. Her second novel, published in 1956, also with a poetic title, And The Rain My Drink, was set in British Malaya during the Malayan Emergency. This novel and her political convictions cost her her divorce from her second husband, Leon Comber, a British officer in the Malayan Special Branch. 

About the Artist:

Chua Mia Tee remains one of my favourite Nanyang artists who paints in a style known as Social Realism. Although Chua is not included in the list of Nanyang artists who gave their name to an eclectic art style known as the Nanyang style, Chua’s works are still important documents of Singapore’s history and commentaries on the social fabric of the country, its people and its politics. I don’t think Chua meant to be overtly political as this was not his focus; he was more interested in documenting how the people lived and bonded during a turbulent period in Singapore’s history. Identity was an important concept to him and to most Chinese emigres of his time: are we Chinese or Malayans? Chua explores this notion in another painting, ‘National Language Class’ which he painted in 1959, the year Singapore gained self-governance from the British. 

His subjects were mostly the people he knew intimately, like his wife and close friends. He believed that art’s function was to educate by sharing ideals and visions that will lead to changes for the betterment of society.

Epic Poem of Malaya’ (1955) depicts a scene where a group of young Chinese students from Malaya are seated around a young man reading from a book. These youths were keen to develop a sense of Malayan identity during this period of Singapore’s and Malaysia’s history, a period during which guerrilla wars were being fought in the Malayan jungles against the British administration. The guerrilla wars were organised by mostly Chinese speaking and educated emigres who saw Communism as the best form of governance and ousting the British as a goal towards gaining independence. A Malayan identity was important for the unification of a predominantly Chinese people, who were neither natives nor Malayan-born, and who had no wish to return to China although they identified Chinese.

What I love about this painting are the minute details, like the fly sitting on the bare shoulder of the man on the right, for example. Check out the facial expressions of his characters/subjects; I love the gobsmacked expression of the boy at the back. Can you see a man whose drink is almost spilling because he’s so engrossed in the recital? Note the peanut shells scattered on the ground. 

Its title reads like an ode because the painting is indeed an ode to Malaya. ‘Epic Poem of Malaya’ evokes a sense of nostalgia in its viewers. For many who remember this not so distant Malayan past, this painting brings back a lost sense of idealism. British Malaya no longer exists. Made up of British protectorates of the Malay States and the Straits Settlement under the British, this geographical entity has morphed into Malaysia and Singapore, with Singapore independent from Malaysia since 1965. Have Malaysians and Singaporeans lost their ideals? 

Chua Mia Tee was born in 1931 in China and emigrated to Singapore (British Malaya) in 1937 with his family who was fleeing the Sino-Japanese war, not realising that the Japanese forces would infiltrate Southeast Asia in a few years’ time. Being one of the many people from the pioneering generation of Singapore, Chua Mia Tee experienced the Japanese Occupation of Singapore, the return of the British after the war, the Communist war against the Empire, and the nation’s fight for independence during the 1950s, culminating in Singapore’s independence in 1965. He documented this turbulent historical period in oil paintings that can be found at the National Gallery Singapore today. 

Chua, Mia Tee (1955), Epic Poem of Malaya, Oil on canvas, 112 x 153 cm, Collection of National Gallery. 

The Man in Shades by Tiffany S L

The man in shades walked into our car porch as my aunt Lily was on her way out to catch the bus to school. He sauntered in, head erect and entered the front door, left ajar for Ahmed, our driver, to come in to tell Papa when the car was ready.

I was three years old, playing in my room when the man in shades strolled in. He tousled my hair and asked me to play police and thieves with him. I didn’t answer. Then he took off his shades and pulled a balaclava over his face, leaving his eyes exposed.

“Ready to play?” he asked menacingly.

I stared mutely back. His eyes were the sort that you didn’t want to look long into; they bored into mine. The corner of his lips curled in a smirk, the glint from his gold tooth mesmerised me. Time hung in the air for a few seconds before he put his shades back on over his face cloth. I felt much better.

“Where is Papa?” he asked, pointing a revolver that he’d retrieved from his overalls at my temple.

The cold steel of his gun made an impression on the side of my head.

I leaned against the door jamb and stared up at him, half wondering if he really meant to play with me or was just being polite like the many adults who came often to see Papa. The steel revolver was still pointed at my head when another man in a balaclava appeared.

“Bang!” the man in shades said and winked at me. He pulled the gun away and blew into the mouth of the pistol as if blowing out a flame. Years later, I would remember this image when watching cowboy movies.

“Take me to your Papa,” he coaxed, smiling, putting his gun back into the front pocket of his overalls. That golden tooth again.

I ran to my parents’ room with both men following.

In the room, I saw Mummy seated at the edge of her bed. When she saw me, she went berserk, shouting to the man in shades to leave me be.

He laughed a kind of bemused laugh, winked and nudged me towards Mummy. She held me tight and told me to be quiet.

Loud banging was followed by lots of shouting.

“What are you doing?” she screamed at the man in shades, pounding his chest with clenched fists. “How can you? We trusted you!”

He laughed again, amused, took hold of her right wrist and led her back to the edge of the bed. She didn’t put up a fight.

“Sit,” he commanded and she did.

“Come out, Ah Lee!”

“No!!!” screamed Mummy. “Stay inside.”

Diam, you damned woman!” the man in shades retorted, taking out his gun.

She shrank into the bed.

More loud banging before Papa shouted, “NO!!! What do you want, Ah Fook?”

Papa had locked himself in the bathroom when he heard Mummy shouting hysterically. He is a man who always thinks on his feet. Both my parents would giggle in glee like two school children in cahoots when retelling this part of the story, Papa proud of his wits, Mummy proud that she stood up to the man in shades. I would feel the coldness of steel against my temple.

Bent double in a quaking heap, right in the corner between the built-in wardrobe and the bedside table, was Ahmed the driver. His knees were propped up, his bare feet in a puddle of water.

“I’ve got a gun, Ah Lee,” the man in shades spoke loudly into the bathroom door while tapping it with the butt of his gun.

Papa finally emerged, with a towel around his waist. He still had his pyjama top on.

The next thing I remember was being lifted over the fence and placed in the arms of the neighbour’s helper. My nanny said something I didn’t understand and scurried away quickly.

I was too young to remember the entire tale of how we were robbed in daylight. Many years later when a pair of sunglasses on my boyfriend’s face triggered a memory of that day, I asked Mummy about the robbery. She rummaged through some papers in an untidy drawer and found a newspaper cutting which made headlines in the early 70s – “Family Robbed at Gunpoint by Trusted Contractor”.

*

We moved to another part of Singapore soon after the burglary. The experience had traumatised everyone. Father hired security guards to stand vigil at the new house. This house had a long driveway which the Feng Shui Master had advised against because it meant that Wealth would have a long way to travel before He could enter the front door. Unfortunately, Papa did not heed this piece of precious advice. Seven years later, he declared bankruptcy. This changed our lives, my life, profoundly because for the years until I turned sixteen, we became homeless: we had to live with one relative after another, with whoever would take us in. It was the year I turned 10 and I learnt quickly what goodwill meant.

*

My maternal grandfather was the first to give us a home. He lived with two of my unmarried aunts in a terraced house. In that house, also lived my uncle, his son, and his young wife. Another daughter, Aunty Su, lived about a ten minute cycle away in one of the many streets off the main road that led to the Catholic church at the top of the hill.

My most favourite thing to do every evening before dinner was to take the Chopper – my pride and joy – out for a cycle around the neighbourhood. I loved my white Adidas shorts which made my legs longer; it was the only pair I would wear. I am twelve and growing breasts. But I could still wear a T-shirt over my bare pre-pubescent chest without attracting untoward attention.

I cycled along the roads to the park at the top of the hill next to the Catholic church. I’d stop outside the park where I waited with baited breath. There, I’d hope to catch a glimpse of him – my first crush – leaving the church to go home after choir practice on Thursday evenings. What joy it was to be young and in love. How wonderful it was to feel the wind in my hair, to feel my body in action. My periods had started two years ago, making me feel more a woman than a child. Mummy was awkward in accepting my bodily changes. I felt uncomfortable in myself too. Years later I learned  that ancient communities celebrated this female rite of passage with a ceremony. I lit a candle when I turned 45; menopause was on its way, this needed celebration too.

*

I was relatively happy although we had no permanent home. I grew up with plenty of freedom but lots of responsibilities.  Every Thursday evening I had to cycle form Grandfather’s to my Aunty Su’s to pick up my cousin, Meredith, and take her over for dinner. Of course, I would make sure to cycle past the church. Meredith would sit pillion and I would ride the Chopper, hovering off the seat because really there was only space for one person on this bike. It felt good to feel the strength of my limbs as I cycled us home.

One Thursday, a man in shades walked out of the front door when he heard the metal gate rattling. Aunty Su had said I could wait in the car porch for Meredith’s school bus to drop her off, then take her to Grandfather’s. Both Aunty Su and Uncle Bill were usually at work when I collected Meredith. I hadn’t expected anyone to be home.

“Hi, I’m Paul,” the man in shades said, extending his right arm for a handshake.

I blushed at this intrusion.

“Hello,” I replied, remembering my manners, shaking his hand.

It turned out that Paul was Uncle Bill’s younger brother who had just returned from Australia. He was staying at the house now but nobody thought to tell me this.

I was smitten by Paul’s youth and good looks.

I waited in anticipation for Thursday to come round again. From waiting in the car porch, I graduated to waiting for Meredith in Aunty Su’s living room. Uncle Paul would always let me in but never before a hug or a soft caress of my cheek. His touch fanned the embers of many teenage fantasies that had been ignited by the myriad 50-cent Mills and Boons novels borrowed from the second hand book store near the local cinema. His shades would hang on his head like a hairband girls wear to keep their fringes up. They were Ray-Ban, I discovered. He looked divine. Uncle Paul always asked me something about myself. He wanted to know if I liked school, what books I was reading, about my friends. His attention to my waffling meant the world to me. Papa never asked about my day.

During this period, my parents were preoccupied with many things. Papa with bankruptcy and Mummy with looking for part-time work. Papa was at work somewhere, a place he seldom mentioned because this period were dark times for both of them and all of us. He’d leave work in the morning with a brooding face and return home in a cloud of thunder. I was left on my own daily while Mummy spent whatever energy she had left on my youngest sibling who was still a child of seven. I learnt to parent myself. As for my second sister, she tagged along with me when she could or was left to her own devices too. I learnt to parent her. We seldom speak of the days when we used to live with Grandfather.

One Thursday, Uncle Paul let me in as usual. After a warm hug and his usual caress, he invited me into his room. He stroked my bare legs lovingly and told me how pretty I was as I sat on his single bed. Then he moved closer and kissed me gently on my forehead, then proceeded to kiss my left cheek, the top of my nose and then my right cheek. I sat there, frozen from the weight of his body against mine. I was also pinned against the wall by his bed. I didn’t know whether to push him away, to stop him, because he was my uncle. At the same time, I was enjoying his amorous touches and full attention. I started to feel the prickle of his growing moustache when he got to my lips. His breath tasted of coffee and cigarettes. Soft kisses were followed by the probing of his wet tongue prying my tightly closed lips open. At this point, I could feel panic and bile rising from my stomach to the base of my throat. The metal gate made a noise as Meredith unlatched it to let herself in. Uncle Paul moved away from me and led me out of his bedroom. It was time to take Meredith back to Grandfather’s. I hurried away as Uncle Paul scurried back into his room.

The same thing happened again the following Thursday but this time, the bile came up from the base of my throat and I had to run to the bathroom to throw up. I locked myself in there which made him panic. I only let myself out again when Meredith arrived; he knocked on the door to let me know this. I walked out of the bathroom without looking at him, took Meredith’s hand and headed for the Chopper.

Thursday rolled around once more. I unlatched the metal gate with trepidation. His bedroom was both a foreboding and attractive place. I wanted to know where the kissing would take us: Mills and Boons never specified and the movies weren’t very telling either. At this point, I knew something was not right yet I couldn’t get away from him. He didn’t stop me either, beckoning me to come inside, flirting with me throughout. “I won’t hurt you” he promised and I was ensnared. He played me along for months. The petting and caresses had started to make both of us lose control. His kisses were accompanied by heavy breathing and grunting as his hands moved greedily over my body. Physically, I was like a feline on heat, yielding to his every touch. That day, while kissing me and fumbling at his zip with one hand, with his other groping me, his hand settled on the padding of my sanitary towel. He pushed me away gruffly, “Why didn’t you tell me?” he growled before walking away, leaving me bewildered on his bed, wondering if I had done something wrong. For years, I would blame myself. How I hated the M-word.

The next time I saw him again, I was fourteen. It was at the golf club. Mummy was with me.

“How are you?” he asked and smiled at me after saying hello to Mummy. He reached out his hand automatically. I moved away.

“You’re practically a woman,” The awkwardness was unbearable.

Charm is his middle name, I thought bitterly. By now, I’ve heard all about his girlfriends as the relatives speculated about his choices. Each speculation drove the knife deeper into my aching, confused heart.

Years later, at my psychoanalyst’s practice, I learned what ‘grooming’ meant. I learned also to move on. I had kept this shameful secret for over 30 years, sweeping the shame, hurt and betrayal under the carpet of my unconscious. Teetering on ‘my fault/his fault’, I spent my adult years blaming myself, then blaming him, but mostly blaming myself. I’ve finally come to accept that in cases like mine, the fault always lies with the adult, never the child. It has taken me decades to reach forgiveness: I’ve learnt to finally forgive myself. The #MeToo movement of 2017 finally gave me courage and a voice: no more victim blaming.

Yet, when I see a man with a pair of shades on his head, I would remember that icy sensation of a gun to my temple, like the sensation of opening Aunty Su’s metal gate that allowed me into her car porch—a sensation mixed with trepidation and curiosity. Remembering both events, a knot would tighten just below my stomach where my uterus starts. When my skin touches metal every so often, my muscle memory would remember this sensation of cold steel against warm skin. I would remember a particular man in shades, someone I called Uncle Paul. I no longer call him uncle.

Eva’s Comments:

This story touched my heart. It is longer than the word count stipulated for this journal but I’m publishing it because the story resonated with me on many levels. (Flash Fiction can be between 100 – 3,000 words, in some cases. CarpeArte Journal has chosen to stop at 1,000 and to accept 1,500 maximum in exceptional cases.)

I love this story for its balanced portrayal of loss—the loss of innocence and the loss of trust in an adult who did more wrong than right. The narrator has not conveyed bitterness nor hatred for the person responsible for her loss but has told the story with all the elements that entail story telling: beginning, middle, end, with conflict and then resolution, although ‘yet’ provides for an open-ended conclusion and not so much a resolution. The resolution can be found in the narrator’s capacity to forgive herself, in my view. This is also a story of trauma and remembrance, of nostalgia and yearning. The pull and tug of the subconscious forces at work to repel and recall traumatic experiences are the marvel of the human psyche.

I’m publishing this story in support of #MeToo because the #MeToo Movement has given many women a voice and platform to courageously come forward to name and shame their perpetrators. It has certainly given this writer an opportunity to come out and write her story down. Now, it must be noted that I don’t know if this is fiction or memoir. Many times, memory can be both.

**Disclaimer**

The illustration, a wall mural, by an anonymous artist, was the image that accompanied this story. I have asked Tiffany SL where she found this piece of artwork and who the artist is. She was unable to give me more details, other than she took a photo of it in a restaurant. She told me that when she saw this mural, she was immediately taken back to a forgotten past in Singapore where children cycled freely on the streets and when Singapore was still filled with innocence. She was inspired to write her story down after seeing this piece of street art.

Indeed, the children on the mural is a picture of happiness. Their faces resplendent with joy; childhood ought to be like this. The mural also reminded me of my own childhood in Singapore where I did cycle freely and where life was much simpler and happier.

For legal reasons, I am inserting a disclaimer here to say that in publishing this piece of artwork, the journal’s intent is to share art, in this case, public art, so that art enthusiasts can learn more about different genres.

On murals

Murals are artworks that have been painted  or applied directly on walls, ceilings or any permanent surfaces. Art historians say that the earliest murals date back to Upper Palaeolithic times which make mural paintings one of the oldest art forms in human history.

Murals are found in many places from caves to tombs to temples to churches, and in people’s homes. During the Middle Ages, murals were painted on dry (secco) plaster. It was not until the 14th century, circa 1300 CE that artists started to work on fresh plaster, leading to what we know today as frescos. Painting on wet plaster meant  a higher quality of mural painting could be achieved. A famous example of a fresco that has lasted since the 13th century is Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’ (1490s) at the Convento di Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan.

In the 1920s, an art movement called Mexican Muralism, where murals were used to send social, nationalistic and political messages of reunification under the post Mexican Revolution government, saw to the huge production of murals with overtly political messages. This lasted up until the 1970s and was headed by Mexican artists like Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco. The Mexican Muralism Movement impacted many artists in Mexico where the tradition of painting murals calling for activism in the political and national arenas has become part of the art scene in the country.

There are many murals found on the walls of heritage buildings in Singapore where this image is from. Street Art has become a commodity in this nation-state where muralists are commissioned by the authorities to paint images of a Singapore that no longer exist

On my travels to North Vietnam, I saw murals along a stretch of busy road. This indicates that mural paintings are found everywhere from North America to Europe to Asia.

Rice

Recently, some people are saying that rice contains arsenic, so be careful when eating rice, especially white rice. At least, this was what an article that was shared on Facebook had advised. Then, there are other people who say that brown rice becomes poisonous when not washed properly before being cooked and that one should avoid consuming brown rice in large quantities. Dang! I thought when I read this. I had just managed to convince the family that brown rice, being of a higher glycemic index is better than polished white rice, staving off hunger pangs more efficiently and is better for losing weight with. Diabetics are better off eating brown rice than white, so the author writes. Since my mother’s mother was a diabetic and died from blood sugar poisoning, I thought it wise to heed this latest advice on brown rice. My younger daughter shed some genuine tears when I told her that we are no longer eating white rice at home.

The very first time I saw my mother crying was the day that Grandmother died. Mother never cries. She shouts and curses, hits and smacks, but cries, never! It was a hot night, I remember; the air was stifling and my bedroom still warm from facing the afternoon sun made sleep difficult; the electric fan did not bring much respite, only the desperation to fall asleep. I got up to take a pee and that was when I spied a crack of light escaping from my parents’ room. I pushed the door open and saw Mother, dressed in preparation to go out; she was wiping away tears while putting on some green eyeshadow.

“What happened?” I asked, concerned. It’s strange to see her crying. She wasn’t sobbing nor were her shoulders heaving in grief like how someone cries in the movies. There was no sound to her crying, only tears forming in her eyes and spilling down her cheeks as she went through the motions of putting on her face. I could hear the shower running as Father was getting washed. It is very late at night. I know this because the curtains were drawn and the street outside was quiet.

“My mother died tonight,” she answered softly without looking at me, her voice strained but not giving away much emotions. She was wiping away tears with the back of her left hand and trying to apply make up with her right at the same time, one eye was shut voluntarily as if winking so that she can smear the green powder on its lid.

It’s funny how she didn’t say ‘your grandmother died tonight’. After all, this is how she always refers to Grandmother. The possessive ‘my’ next to ‘mother’ added a new layer of meaning to grandmother: she is my mother’s mother and belongs to her. But she is my grandmother and belongs to me but she is not my mother, yet somehow, we are all joined in unity: ‘My mother’ connects me, Mother and Grandmother in one unbreakable blood chain that goes backwards beyond life and forwards beyond death.

Grandmother was a stranger to me for most of my life. As far as I can remember, she was ill throughout my childhood and then she died. When I was eight years old, she became paralysed from a stroke caused by ingesting a glass of glucose which someone in the family had made her drink in the belief that glucose water would cure diabetes. Cure like with like was the advice that Grandfather’s third wife proffered, the advice that he heeded. Mother seldom spoke of her mother but this was the only story she would tell. Without saying much, Mother did the dutiful thing of visiting her ailing mother once a week to check that everything was as it should be: her mother was being fed, washed and kept comfortable by the rest of the family and that nobody was giving her any more glucose water. Grandfather’s third wife never visited again. My mother is the eldest of sixteen children by Grandmother, wife number one, and it was her duty to see that things ran smoothly in the house, even though she had stopped belonging to her mother’s household as soon as she got married, as dictated by Chinese customs. Still, duty-bound, she went on looking after her mother until the day she passed on. The Chinese call this duty filial piety. Not even death can terminate this obligation. Filial piety ensures that the dead continue to exist amongst the living and that life carries on into eternity. Ancestor worship is a traditional Taoist custom combining a sense of magic realism keeping the dead alive through veneration by the living: every human soul can become divine but only in death.

Grandmother was fond of rice. She loved the watery rice porridge that was eaten with pickled mustard greens and salted duck’s egg; this was a typical Teochew diet. The salted egg was a luxury in poverty stricken Malaya during the Japanese Occupation and continued to be so many decades after liberation. When eggs were scarce and money insufficient, Grandmother would fry pieces of pork lard until they became brown and crispy. She would drain the oil from the crispy pieces and use it for stir frying vegetables later. These morsels-of-heart-attack would accompany her daily gruel of rice porridge; there would always be enough to feed her children and husband when he felt like coming home for a meal. Sometimes, she would drizzle some oil from the lard onto her gruel to take away the blandness. My fourth aunt never tires of telling me this story for she loved the crispy pork crackling that Grandmother made often.

The priest whom the family consulted had advised a ritual of feeding the deceased during the funeral. The extended family was a mix of Buddhists, Taoists, Christians and Atheists but all were willing to go through the ritual for none knew what to do for the better.

Some people came to set up a marquee in Grandmother’s front porch a day before her coffin arrived home. A wooden table, covered with a piece of cloth that had the Eight Immortals embroidered on it, held a ceramic incense jar filled with sand and was placed in front of the opened coffin which lay in wake under the marquee right outside the front door. On the same table, someone had put a fruit bowl, dishes filled with food, and a bowl of rice; there was a dish filled with crispy pork crackling next to the bowl of rice. As soon as Grandmother came home, Mother and her siblings had to light a joss-stick each while calling their mother. The priest explained that her spirit needs to know where to come home to and the joss-sticks and her children calling for her would show it the way. I asked Grandmother if she minded sleeping outside. She never answered which was normal because even when she was alive, she never spoke to me. She had given up speech the day she discovered that Grandfather’s third wife wanted her dead.

I watched from the living room window as my aunts and uncles busied themselves over where things should be set and what they should be doing during the funeral. There were many people on Grandmother’s front porch in constant motion. The day’s events seemed very chaotic to my child’s eyes. It seemed that the adults didn’t know quite what to do and we were left to our own devices since the adults were too busy to supervise us. I sat under the dining table covered by a white table cloth too big for it. The overhanging material made for a good hiding place where I could read and sketch; I had my own little marquee.

The scent of cooked rice filled the air. Mother was calling for me. I popped my head out from under the round dining table with a marble top and heavy rosewood legs. Mother took my hand and led me towards the coffin. I resisted, afraid of the body lying within, afraid that her spirit would wake her up. Mother pinched me hard on my right thigh and dragged me where she wanted me to go. The priest was chanting a prayer in a language I didn’t understand and my uncle Philip, the eldest son, was at the head of a line that had formed at the top of the coffin where Grandmother’s head was placed. The adults had formed a line and the grandchildren, ten in all, had to form another, behind my youngest aunt. I was at the head of the line for the grandchildren because I was the first grandchild.

The priest handed my uncle Philip a blue and white ceramic bowl filled to the brim with rice rounded at the top to resemble a mound. A pair of chopsticks was subsequently handed to him too. On the priest’s instructions, starting with uncle Philip, all of Grandmother’s children and grandchildren had to feed her a chopstick full of rice and say this: “In life, you fed me, in death I am now feeding you” as they stuffed her mouth with some rice.

Grandmother’s eyes were pressed shut with a silver coin on each lid, a Taoist ritual. By the time it came to my turn to feed her her chopstick of rice, grains of white rice had already spilled from her stuffed mouth, sticking to her chin and collar. She was dressed in her favourite samfoo, a blouse and trouser suit worn by many Chinese women in Malaya. Although this was not the traditional way to bury the dead in Taoist customs, it was all the family could do as Grandmother did not have a funeral outfit made during her lifetime. If she had one, it was lost during the war when many homes and villages were looted by Japanese soldiers.

I looked in wonder at Grandmother’s ashen face and her mouth that was filled with rice. There’s nothing as macabre and fascinating as the death mask of a loved one, especially from the point of view of a child. Some people would say that this was a gruesome ritual to put a child through. Others would defend the ritual’s tradition and heritage.

Rice is an important staple to billions of people in the world. Rice is a measurement of wealth, of success and of life because in life we are fed as in death with this grain that some other people have said contains arsenic.

Eva’s comments:

This artwork entitled Clockwork Moons (time waits for no migrant man), 2017, (48 cm x 48 cm) is part of a series of eight kinetic artwork by British contemporary artist, Nicola Anthony, who is based in Singapore. It is made with light, ink, incense, embroidery loops and Korean paper. Anthony has a unique method of working with paper, using an incense stick to perforate the paper stretched out in a frame made of embroidery loops. In this piece, she has written a Chinese character symbolising the word ‘grain’. The image is then illuminated from behind by a light source, lifting the character from the parchment, stimulating the viewer’s visual senses. This work was commissioned by the Singapore Art Museum in 2017. You can read more about Nicola Anthony and her projects here:

https://nicolaanthony.co.uk/gallery#/clockwork-moons/

Anthony was inspired by a migrant worker, Mr Wang Jixing, from China, who had been laid off due to a stroke that paralysed him and rendered him unable to work. He was earning S$500 a month as a cleaner at one of Singapore’s many outdoor food courts. The meagre amount of money he was earning ensured that he could ‘put rice on the table’ for his family in China. Being disabled meant that his job was no longer tenable and because of Singapore’s strict immigration and working regulations, he was repatriated to China, paralysed and unable to work. The burden of his care is borne by his children, the youngest of which is 12 years old. You can follow Mr Wang’s story and help him on:

https://simplygiving.com/appeal/cleaner

The Chinese character burnt onto the paper is the symbol for ‘Grain’ and when cooked becomes ‘Rice’ which is written with another character and pronounced as ‘fan4’ (fourth intonation of the sound ‘fun’). The Chinese differentiate cooked rice from uncooked grains with a different character and sound because both are different entities and each represents different energy values.

In order to understand the importance of rice as a staple in Asia, one must understand the significance of its symbol which is made up of the characters eight and ten. It takes 88 days to grow rice from start to harvest and much respect has to be given to this number and to the farmers whose back bending work puts rice on the table for more than a billion people throughout Asia.

‘To Put Rice on The Table’ is a phrase used frequently in many parts of Asia as one would use ‘to put bread on the table’ in Europe and the English speaking world. ‘To Break One’s Rice Bowl’ is synonymous to stealing someone’s job or to cause someone to lose their job. ‘To Stack up Rice Bowls’ means to increase one’s worries because the sound for ‘rice’ is homophonous to the sound for ‘worry’ in the Cantonese language. Hence, it is bad form to stack one rice bowl on top of another when clearing the table. Because rice is such a necessary food crop in Asia, proverbs using the character has become part of its people’s linguistic references for communication.

Rice was inspired by Anthony’s artwork which triggered a childhood memory of loss and enlightenment.

 

 

Singapore – The Lion City by Raffaella Nava

During the fourteenth century, a prince named Sang Nila Utama was out on a hunting trip when he caught sight of an animal he had never seen before. He then founded this little island where he had spotted this magnificent animal, and had named it “The Lion City” or Singapura, from the Sanskrit words “simha” (lion) and “pura” (city).

Soon after that The Lion City’s busy markets had fine craftsmen and merchants who sold goods like hornbill, cloth, spices and porcelain, but fierce battles broke among The Lion City and their neighbouring kingdoms. In one of these battles, The Lion City got defeated and was burnt to the ground. The only things left in the city were some coins and ceramic bowls. Over time these goods became buried in sand and dust.

And so the old and beautiful kingdom was forgotten.

A British colony

The Lion City stayed hidden for over 200 years until one day in 1819 when an Englishman called Stamford Raffles was sailing up the river and came across the old lion city. Raffles liked it so much that he went to ask the two rulers, Sultan Hussein and Abdul Rahman if he could set up a trading post.

Soon enough The Lion City became a British colony, this meant that The Lion City belonged to England.

With his friend, Colonel William Farquhar, Raffles started building roads, shophouses, streets, markets and even a free port for ships and boats to come and trade.

Syonan-To

Everything was going great, until one night when all the people of Singapura where fast asleep, war paid a visit. The Japanese dropped bombs from up high and marched into the city with frightening swords and guns.

The people of Singapura were not prepared to fight but tried as hard as they possibly could, but still it was not enough. Quickly Singapura was defeated! And so Japan took over Singapura, changing Singapura’s name to Syonan-To.

Japan ruled very cruelly for three and a half more years, they started killing and torturing the people of Singapura, making them not feel safe anymore.

After three and a half cruel years, Japan lost to Britain. Singapura was free at last! Everyone was happy! Can you believe that even the children were excited to go back to school and be with their friends?

Lee Kuan Yew

After the war, people became unhappy. They didn’t want to be a British colony anymore. They wanted to be free. A young man named Lee Kuan Yew and his friends wanted to turn this dream into reality. They asked the Queen for independence and she granted Mr Lee and his friends their wish.  In 1965, Singapura became Singapore when it parted with Malaysia.

Singapore is now a sovereign country, we have now celebrated fifty-one years of independence.

Photo credit: Zheng Lai Ming.  To read more about the artist go to:

http://www.zhenglaiming.com

Lee Kuan Yew, 2015, oil on canvas, 230 x 192 cm. Private Collection.

Eva’s note:

Raffaella is only 10 years old; she has a big imagination.  This was an essay she had to write in class. She picked Singapore as a topic to research about because “The Lion City” is her home. Knowing the story of the city in which one calls home is important for self-image and identity.  As a Third-Culture Child, home is wherever her parents choose to live; for now, Singapura is home.

Every city has a story; nations are built over time and learning about the history of Singapore made Raffaella realise that hard-work, people and love are the important ingredients that nations are built on.

Zheng Lai Ming is Eva’s art teacher. She has been taking lessons sporadically from him. Hyper-realist oil portraits take talent, hard-work and lots of dedicated love. The colossal canvases that Zheng paints on require skill and a good eye for the minutest of details.

Working with Zheng has made Eva realise that artists are both born and made; they are born with an innate talent and are made to be keepers of this talent by a divine design.

The Belachan Loving Cat – by Jasmine Adams

As a child, I was nicknamed little Miss Butterfingers.  Even though I was the sole owner of a family of imported dolls, I never had the pleasure of playing hostess at their tea parties.

Entrusting me with the responsibility of pouring the tea would inevitably result in miniature teapot cover flipping off or a misdirected spout resulting in a spreading stain on Barbie’s pinafore.

Given my propensity towards accidental slips, I was not deemed to be kitchen assistant material and banned from the exciting arena of smoke and smells presided over by the women folk in my family.

My earliest memory of food in its semi-original form brought memories of a high pitched yell. “Yau Siew” was a Hokkien vulgarity, and emanating from my sedate and ladylike grandmother, most surprising indeed!  She accompanied that heart rendering curse with a frenetic waving of a feather duster in her attempts to thrash the cause of her unhappiness.

Preceding this outburst, there was a crashing sound of bamboo and metal and the swish of a furry tail belonging to an accursed feline who will, undoubtedly henceforth, be destined towards a difficult and foreshortened life.

Excited by the cacophony, I finished on the home square of the hop scotch game and rushed to the scene of the crime.

My untrained nose detected a pungent odour totally disproportionate to the dismal mess which confronted me. Mud cakes lay flattened into unmentionable shapes on the pock marked and dusty cement five foot way. The bamboo tray which was their most recent residence bore few marks of their existence having toppled down along with the supporting poles meant usually to hang laundry.

This unsteady contraption which rested on odd chairs worked well for drying less tempting products but my neighbour’s cat was undeterred by the challenge of this precarious perch when it came to belachan.

My absence from the hallowed walls of the kitchen was a primary cause in my lapse in understanding the direct connection between these disintegrating slabs to the most important condiment on every Peranakan’s dinner table.

My grandmother’s precious patties of belachan had become shapeless forms which would not have the opportunity to harden and mature into solid grey rocks. Our family recipe for belachan was “purist” and made from the freshest miniature shrimp known as grago.

These tiny shrimps were deeply ingrained in our historical and cultural beginnings. Not just an insulting word for Eurasians who incorporated them into their daily diet, they were also associated with Portuguese colonial masters. Another but not often used name for belachan was Melaka cheese.

In her book ‘The Golden Chersonese’, Isabella Bird explained how this association between tangentially disparate but acquired tastes could be made:-

…The boatmen prepared an elaborate curry for themselves, with salt fish for its basis, and for its tastiest condiment blachany – a Malay preparation much relished by European lovers of durian and decomposed cheese. It is made by trampling a mass of putrefying prawns and shrimps into a paste with bare feet “


Given that true blue Peranakans have paternal Chinese origins, the use of this ubiquitous condiment was a strong influence from their maternal Malay roots. A likely by-product of the remnants of a day’s catch left out too long in the baking sun which evolved into food, many South East Asian cuisines have their equivalents. The Thais have their kapi/ kapee, the Filipinos, their alamang and the Indonesians their terasi, humble essentials which elevate simple repasts of rice and vegetables into memorable meals.

These days, making belachan from scratch in Singapore may be an insurmountable task. These miniature shrimps have become an unprofitable product to sell to the retail customer and are not available even in the most esoteric seafood market.  Understandably, making belachan at home according to secret family recipes is now an extinct practice in our city state.

From start to finished product, there are many steps in the production of belachan. Fortunately for all of us, compressed bricks of ready prepared shrimp paste are easily available in any Asian supermarket. Those who prefer a more authentic and rustic taste can still venture into fishing villages in Malaysia as they are still made by fishermen’s wives. Seawater and fresh sunshine may make for less stringent hygienic production standards than the cottage industries which export far and wide but according to connoisseurs yield a taste sensation comparable to none.

Image credit: Brian Adams; to read about Brian Adams, go to:

http://www.artitute.com/2017/02/20/landscapes-of-memories-in-the-paintings-of-brian-adams/

Eva’s notes:

This is a mouthwatering story of loss; loss of a traditional method of making a condiment that is so dear to every Peranakan’s heart.  It is also a tale of regret; regret for the passing of an epoch when life was simpler in Singapore as indicated by the drying of belachan patties on a makeshift perch.