Growth Spurts

As children, whenever we saw him, we would run away. Our parents thought we were playing our fantasy game – at the signal of “Gui!” (Our codename which meant ghost or monster in Chinese), all of us would scatter off to hide. Uncle Hock was really scary – there was an eerie way his eyes penetrated yours whenever he stared at you from their corners. Unlike the rest of the retirees who’d sit at the void deck to play chess or checkers, read the newspapers and share stories, Uncle Hock much preferred to keep to himself. In his late sixties, the only time my neighbours and I got a glimpse of him was each afternoon at 3pm, when he would walk slowly to the neighbourhood provision shop to buy bread and milo. This was the time that everyone was indoors escaping the scorching sun; time for mothers to give their babies their afternoon nap; most able-bodied men were at work; many of the older folk stayed home tuned to the local radio station that played Cantonese Oldies karaoke style during this hour.

Nobody really knew him well. The adults kept a respectful distance from him and to us kids, rumours created by who knows who spread that Uncle Hock had some disease whose germs spread to those who’d go too near him. As primary school children we could barely understand their adult talk, besides it was more exciting living in our imagination. To us, it was only natural to pick up our school bags and run away whenever we saw Uncle Hock wearing his usual faded blue stripped pyjamas, walking with his hunched shoulders and old brown sandals to the provision shop just next to our playground. It was the kick that we got from this game of hide and seek that seemed to bond us – someone pretending that he was there and yelling “GUI!!!” and us running away – almost a kind of forbidden pleasure since most parents didn’t allow us to be out in the sun at that time of the day. You see, many Chinese considered children to be beautiful when they were fat and fair, not skinny and sun-tanned.

One morning, my downstairs neighbour Xiaomei and myself were in the provision shop choosing some marbles and red rubber bands so that we could play with together in the evening. We were admiring a marble with a red and blue design when suddenly the shopkeeper called out “Ah zek! Early today!” (Ah Zek is a respectful and informal way of addressing old man)

Before I could react Xiaomei glanced up and saw Uncle Hock’s head bobbing above the shelves.

“Quick! Gui! Pay and run!” she shrieked “later kena eaten!” (which means Quickly pay up for the marbles and bands or else we will be eaten up by Uncle Hock)

I hastily grabbed a few marbles, tossed some coins over the counter and dashed towards the exit.

But it was too late! The monster was there, standing in front of us, blocking our way! Out of fear, Xiaomei and I retreated to a corner where we were cowering. Just don’t see or touch us I could hear myself muttering. Uncle Hock bought his bread and milo, and this time a green box which contained medicated oil – I know as I saw mom rub that smelly liquid on my father when he felt unwell. As soon as he had appeared, he had disappeared.

We heaved a sigh of relief and once Uncle Hock stepped out we quickly unwiggled ourselves out and cautiously inched towards the exit. Halfway through our tracks the shop keeper called us back.

“WHO is the Gui?” He demanded. “Ah Zek is your elder. Quiet man but suffer a lot. You small girls cannot anyhow say! Very rude you know or not?!…”

Uncle Hock was actually a pilot if the Second World War, during which his twin brother, a fighter jet pilot, had lost his life in a suicide mission. After the war, he was reunited with his bride whom he was match-made to before the war. A few months after marriage, she became pregnant with a boy – a very joyful piece of news. This was because the war had made her increasing age an area of concern (which did affect how many children she would eventually bear). Also, boys were favoured over girls as they were the ones who would carry on the family name.

However, when the baby was due, she went through a very painful labour and lost a lot of blood during the delivery. Knowing that she was facing impending death, Uncle Hock bravely donated his blood for immediate blood transfusion to save her life. Little did he know that this would cost him a big part of his life and hers too. Due to the poor sanitation and medical equipment during those days, the needle used on him was contaminated with the HIV disease that was now slowly taking its toll on him. He was actually considered a very lucky man as he still was able to support himself as this old age.

So Uncle Hock had lost the love of his life and had sunk into depression, preferring to keep his pain to himself and only a few of his closest neighbours who still recall his wife as being the prettiest girl with the sweetest voice who could cook very well and get along with her late mother-in-law. The only consolation was, that he had a healthy son who was now working abroad supporting him, although all that took place even before I was born.

For myself, it was those few minutes of scolding and explaining that suddenly made me feel that I had grown a few years older.

Growth Spurts

knightingail

Joined October 2007

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Artist's Description

A fictional piece that I wrote a long time ago and edited little bits to put it up here.

I do hope you’ll like it – some of the language here is Singlish.

Singlish is basically Singaporean English. We often frown at ourselves for not speaking proper English, and yet we celebrate this speak as being a part of our unique multicultural identity.

As there are Malay, Indians, Chinese, Eurasian and other ethnicities in Singapore, our English is often a mix of all the languages and dialects put together. In my little story there is barely enough diaogue to illustrate the depth and diversity of Singlish as it is used in Singapore.

Artwork Comments

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