This story is by HUBERT DU and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Myths are old folk tales forming alternative truths. Guiding beliefs that villagers in the old Chinese“kampong”of attap-roofed houses thrived on. Legends are myths conspiring against the change of time. When a legend arrives, a new environment appears and the myth is redefined. Grandpa always perpetuated such myths like a village chief, shaping our childlike, simple lives in his own esoteric ways.
Grandpa was special because of:
– An authoritative but mystical laughter (like ancient Chinese emperors in the movies).
– His black and wide long Chinese pants; long, white eyebrows and a dignified goatee of immortals.
Spirits were the essence of life and they perpetuate lives over cycles of change known as rebirth, becoming animals, human beings, ghosts or even immortals, known as devas, or gods. Some spirits clashed. Like the belligerent tiger spirit who repelled the spirits of the new piglets in one encounter during that last visit to Grandpa.
My young world was made of two parts: spiritual and mundane. “Mundane” was when I went to school with a heavy satchel of books, hunched grudgingly over metallic roads, to be imparted formal, pragmatic knowledge. Spirituality took over at night when we saw things in the dark and hear unexplained noises.
During the primary school holidays, my life fuelled the compositions I could not otherwise write. I was more spiritual and incidentally became the better part of me as I journeyed into nature, enjoying myself in that old loamy and fertile backward village with shrieking and chirpy bushes, called a “kampong,” in the local vernacular.
I vividly remember that last visit to Grandpa. Ah Kong owned a pig sty where two pigs wallowed in the loamy mud with wild water hyacinth fried as food. A hen laid eggs in the morning for Ah Kong. Sometimes he sold them to buy cigarettes and play small time poker games at illegal night gambling dens hidden at locations all over the kampong. His windfalls funded our simple joys.
We were excited when the trip was announced. Ah Hong jumped into a noisy jiggle. Without missing a beat, I was also animated and squealed in symphony “ yea, yea!!!”.
“Behave yourself,” my mother began the same verbal, yearly routine, ” If not, your father will not let all of you stay in Ah Kong’s farm. “Ah Kong always buy you goodies and bring all of you to watch “wayang”. Don’t you like it?”
We never understood the songs and the drama of the Chinese opera called “wayang”. We just wanted to see the weird ancient costumes, the heavily painted makeup that the actors put on and the shrill arias of wayang. Sometimes there were also acrobatic displays. These were entertainment for the gods on their birthdays, and also other spirits when it was the Ghost Month
There were rules though, that we had to follow: “Never occupy the front row seats. They are for spirits from another world.”
“But we have never seen them”, I once pitted my wits against Grandpa’s.
“Oh – they can see you, though. Sitting on their chairs disrupt their comfort, so they may follow you home.” We kept our distance, obeying the wisdom of Grandpa although, I think, we only needed to fear the Ghost Month – which was after the school holiday. It is a popular myth that on the seventh month, hungry spirits from the netherworld were given a respite to roam the world once more. Beside entertainment, the hungry ghosts were given food and drinks and offered ‘hell money’, gold and silver ingots, both made from folding papers. These moneys were burned for them to spend in their afterlife, before the next rebirth.
“Ah Kong” is the dialect for “Grandpa”.
“Hold on to the rails. Sit properly and don’t stand up so that you will not fall and hurt yourself.”
“Ooooh! My butt!” I screamed gleefully, following the beat of the bumpy ride that followed a gallopy rhythm, “Ooh! Ooh! Ahhh! Ooh…ah..”
“Keep quiet and behave yourself. Or no goodies for you, Ah Yan!”
“Look..there is a man over there, riding on a horse.”
“Where?” Ji Ku was agitated. “Don’t imagine things. We only have horses in the race course at Bukit Timah Road.”
Ah Hong’s words reminded me of the paper horses that people propped up during a funeral wake. These would be burnt along with paper other items, like clothes and houses made for the departed, over the customary seven days of vigil.
Soon we were at that old kampong house, with Ji Ku (or “second uncle” in dialect) driving his old jalopy. Mother had gone there earlier to prepare dinner for us.
“Steamed grouper, which Ji Ku got from the market this morning,” Mother welcomed us gleefully, proud of her cooking skills, “Today you have it with soy sauce. Enjoy yourself for you will not get this chance back home!”
Sweet memories begin with such treatment. But Mother was negotiating with us to substitute our space for roaming and exploration. After such good food and treatment, we had to stay near the house and play with the neighbour’s children. Certainly, adults did not know that the kampong was our actual learning place where we grasped the true meaning of life and spirituality, sieved from pragmatism.
One evening, the darkness was quick to capture the night, as they often did in the early days. During dinner, we heard eerie squeals of agonised souls struggling between life and death. Ah Hong, my younger sister was braver than me, and rushed out.
Later, Ah Kong came in, hurtling Ah Hong into the house. He sighed, shaking his head. Then he guffawed : “The two are like newly-plucked fruits. You eat them the moment they are disconnected from the tree.”
Young piglets are a Chinese delicacy. They fetched a good price in the market. Of course, they could sell for more money if they matured but their fates were hastened. I shivered with deeper thoughts: the screams were so piteous a while ago. The two dead piglets that Grandpa was referring to, had called me for help in human voices and I did hear them.
Then Grandpa’s words shook me: “Ah Hong was born in the year of the tiger. Should have been stopped from going near when the sow was giving birth. The spirit of the tiger threatened it.”
Grandpa knew. But he was consoling me when he said that what I heard were the squeals of the sow in the pangs of birth.
Our zinc-roofed home in the urban areas was cleaner. We had well-graveled roads and concrete drains instead of muddy trails, streams and rivulets. In a way, it was the clean life that had countered spirituality, sometimes leaving my memory bleak. Wherever we lived in those days, whether it was urban places or kampong venues – we, children, understood the darkness when crickets, caterwauls, nocturnal whines, uncanny and unexplained laugher hinted to us the existence of beings from a supranormal. Perhaps Ah Hong experienced them more, like the birth event and when she saw the horse rider. (I am not sure, as she never talked about them). But I believe the myths because of Ah Kong, my spiritual mentor.
“Ah Kong,” I asked the wise one, after the incidence of the ill-fated piglets, “We will be able to get more goodies after you sell the piglets and you will buy us new toys and items at the wayang venue, right?”
Nearby the wayang, a moving amusement park was also erected where we could ride on roller coasters and merry-go-rounds. Grandpa bought us many goodies and everyone, including adults, got something.
However, it was the last. In our next trip, Ah Kong slept, in the preparation for a long trip. After he left, the kampong also gave way to modernity and lost its character – together with that, spirituality and its master.
Many people cried when Ah Kong left. I was brave because I hid my sorrows well inside my heart. I was matured and sometimes I wondered if it was maturity that deprived me of spiritual experiences like Ah Hong’s. After the cortege, Ji Ku drove us back home.
Again, Ah Hong shrieked, more in amusement than pain: “Hey, there is Ah Kong, dressed in a wayang costume and riding on a horse. He looks grand.”
“Where, where?” I asked.
The adults kept quiet.
When we were young, we saw and heard things we were not supposed to. As a tigress, Ah Hong had special faculties. I hoped I had seen Ah Kong in his last ride. But I am a rat, as my horoscope says. The rat, according to myth, is a witty animal but he is timid.
Ah Kong was a legend. But I knew he needed to be reborn. Ah Hong lost her spirituality when she became a Christian. My decline happened gradually, after Ah Kong left. On hindsight, spirits can only be appreciated in childhood kampongs when we were closer to nature.