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Posts Tagged ‘O Thiam Chin’

Swear

January 6, 2010 5 comments

by O Thiam Chin

I was twelve years old, in Primary Six, when I saw the protests in Tiananmen Square on TV during the evening news.

Among the montage of surging crowds and marching rows of green-uniformed soldiers was an image that stuck in my head: a man, burnt to a hardened charcoal-black, tied to a smoldering bus, his wrists bound with wire, white plumes of smoke rising out of his body. His mouth was wide open, in a rigid state of screaming, his face lifted skyward and his eyes reduced to dark empty pits. Around him, a few people gawked and stared, but nobody thought of untying him from the bus.

I couldn’t understand what was going on, or what had caused this violence. I tried asking my parents, but they refused to tell me anything, except to switch off the TV and to finish up my homework.

The next morning, on my way to school, heavy with the images that I had seen on TV, I chanced upon a new scribbling on the wall beside the lift: FUCK. It was a new word I hadn’t seen before and I was curious to know what it meant. So I memorized it, tucking the new word into my head, and brought it to school.

During recess, I asked my good friend, Shi Hao, about the word. He laughed his head off when he heard how I tried to pronounce it.

‘No, you got it wrong. It should sound like duck, like F…uck,’ he admonished. I tried a few more times, but still, it came out wrong.

‘What does it mean?’ I asked, puzzled.

‘You mean you don’t know? It’s a dirty word la,’ he said, and before I could say anything else, our form teacher was standing beside us. With a daunting look in his eyes, Shi Hao dared me to say the word aloud. I uttered the word; my teacher heard it, twisted my ear into a knot, demanding where I had learnt such a word. Then she made me stand in front of the class the whole period, arms crossed, pulling my own ears.

As I stood there, shame-faced and scorching with a righteous rage, the image of the charred man at the Tiananmen Square, tied to the burnt bus, came to mind, and I wondered how he had gotten there, whether it was because of something he had said or done.

Maybe I thought, he had done something terribly bad to be punished in such a way; maybe, like me, he had learnt something new that he didn’t fully understand, and was compelled to use it, by force or circumstance, in order to test its meaning, to know the kind of effect it would have on him, or others.

It was only many years later that I got to know the answer that turned out to be closer to the truth I already knew in my heart when I was much younger.

*

O Thiam Chin’s short stories have appeared in several literary journals and anthologies, including Asia Literary Review, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Best of Singapore Erotica, Silverfish New Writing 6 and Body2Body. His debut collection of short stories, Free-Falling Man, was published in 2006 and his new collection of stories, Never Been Better, came out in 2009.

Categories: Words of Power Tags:

Trance

December 17, 2009 2 comments

by O Thiam Chin

The old man arrived at the kampong much earlier than expected. He had walked for an hour to reach where we stayed, and by the time he stepped foot into the house, he was perspiring all over. My grandfather and uncles were told that he was the most revered medium in the district, one who could summon and talk to any spirit he wanted to, to ask a request or favour, or to seek blessings or placation; his services available for a small token amount of ‘coffee money.’ To me, he was just like any old man — severe, toughened, wrinkled.

My mother told me to serve him a cup of coffee, and when I brought it to him, he gave me a White-Rabbit sweet in return. Then he turned back to my grandfather, his countenance serious, and continued with their discussion. I only caught a few snatches of words, before running out of the house, to join my other cousins at play, the sweet already melting in the heat of my palm.

That night, the old man stayed for dinner and ate at the table with the men of the family. Their heads remained lowered in deep talk, and the old man closed his eyes while he listened.

The wooden sedan-chair was brought in from the storage hut and placed before the altar that was ladled with food offerings and urns burning with smoky, eye-burning incense. The painted faces of the warrior gods and benevolent goddesses flickered with numerous changes of expression as the flames from the candles shuddered with each rotation of the overhead fans. We, the children, were told not to go into the living room for the night, or linger outside the corridor. We had to keep away from the procession.

But we watched nonetheless, peeking from behind tiny slits in the paneled doors, taking turns to observe the goings-on in the room. The old man had put on loose silky red pants, bare-torso, and was sitting in the sedan chair, his face turned down. Then his arms began to move, as if pulled by invisible strings, and he let out a terrible scream that silenced all residual noises from us, who were watching him with a curious intensity. He shook his head violently from side to side, and a voice, deep and alien and angry, fell out of his mouth. It was not a voice I recognized, but I noticed the wide-eyed surprise and subsequent relief evident in my grandfather’s and uncles’ faces. They were fully aware who was speaking to them through this medium-man, a voice they knew, way before my time.

My grandfather started asking questions of the medium, and before we could hear his replies, my mother and aunties came up from behind and swatted us away. As we ran off, our laughter charting down the dark corridor, we imagined a new exciting world where the dead are never actually dead, and the living are always reaching out to them.

*

O Thiam Chin’s short stories have appeared in several literary journals and anthologies, including Asia Literary Review, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Best of Singapore Erotica, Silverfish New Writing 6 and Body2Body. His debut collection of short stories, Free-Falling Man, was published in 2006 and his new collection of stories, Never Been Better, was released last month.

Categories: Words of Power Tags: