He was born on the streets of Chinatown. Well, across the road at Upper Cross Street in People’s Park Complex to be exact. His delivery was performed by a midwife in KK Hospital to be precise; an impressively easy labour that lasted three hours from the start of contraction for a firstborn. Not a ragtag street urchin was Leonard Koh En, though he liked to tell people he was born in Chinatown just to test their reaction.
Smack in the midst of a cultural tourist spot is the private condominium he calls home and where his parents have lived since their marriage in the eighties. Leonard could always count on raised eyebrows since he was a child when he told his teachers where he lived. When they didn’t believe him, he would show them his key, in the form of a card used for the slot of his main door where the keyhole was.
It was as if he lived perpetually in a hotel. He became the cool kid in school.
Everyone thought Leonard dined on bak kwa on a daily basis. They assumed his house was decorated with red and gold the whole year round since Chinatown was not lacking garish decoration with calligraphic knick-knacks and two-dollar souvenirs. His apartment was unusually pale in comparison.
How come your sofa is so white? Wei Loong, his best friend in primary school, had remarked when he first visited Leonard’s place. Walls also white. Floor also white. Fan also white.
Dunno. Mother likes white. House small, white makes the house look big, Leonard replied.
Years later, the apartment turned vanilla.
Eh, bro, your house not very Chinatown. Beige here, beige there, said Ryan, his best friend in secondary school, when he first entered Leonard’s apartment. They were supposed to prepare for an upcoming Maths test but ended up sitting around playing Xbox.
Mother likes creamy colours, says it’s cosy.
When Leonard went to National Service, on one of his weekend off days, he met a girl who was studying in the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. They started dating after he kept aggressively texting her for days, wooing her using a combination of humorous wit and sentimental one-liner quotes: On a scale of 1 to 10, you’re a 9 & I’m the 1 u need; I would offer u a cigarette but you’re already smoking hot; My love for u is like diarrhoea, I just can’t keep it in.
She relented out of curiosity and a dash of exasperation.
I don’t like yellow. Why is your house so yellow? I want to paint this wall purple. This wall red. Keep the white floor. Change the fan to black, no, bronze better still. This other wall make it light grey, almost sky blue with a bit of grey. In-between colours keep people guessing. Then change all the cupboards to lilac. Hip with a bit of retro, fits the Chinatown skyline nicer. Tell your mother, Leonard. I can help with the sketch, Jesseca said, painting the landscape in front of her with gesticulating hands.
The artist in her saw a challenge and became excited. She also liked to keep people guessing when she went to a lawyer and paid fifty dollars to do a deed change for her name from Ling Ling to Jesseca. It was on purpose that she rebelled against her father’s wishes to have a Western name, and a deliberate snub at the rules of grammar to misspell what was a common name meaning, “what God beholds”. In this case, what Ling Ling beheld was a unique Jesseca, a one-off signature senorita until she discovered there was one Jesseca in the Thai restaurant where she worked during her December school break, two Jessecas in the second year of her art class and three Jessecas among her Facebook acquaintances. She almost burned the Deed Change in a rage.
Mind your own business. Mother doesn’t like loud colours. This is her nest, not a boudoir, Leonard reminded his girlfriend.
Jesseca didn’t know what a boudoir was. She refused to ask, hating Leonard for using words she didn’t know to put her in her place. He was going to be a da shue shen, a university graduate, going to SMU right after National Service having graduated from ACJC. Jesseca’s ‘O’ Levels were never going to let her go down that path, with her Cs and Ds and that maverick A popping from out of nowhere for the Art subject she took.
Leonard could choose any of the local universities with his grades, and even colleges abroad if his parents were willing to sponsor him, but he picked the one downtown, closest to where he lived, which was Singapore Management University, a mere two km down Hill Street from his address. He’d grown up surrounded by a neighbourhood of kitsch and colour and a sheltered roof of neutrals. He couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.
Jesseca, on the other hand, hated everything about her three-room flat in Woodlands where none of the furniture matched and the walls hadn’t been repainted since 1994 when she was born.
The walls, once baby pink, now bore a sickly fetid salmony shade, made worse with the ash brown curtains bursting with white chrysanthemums her father had inherited from his late mother. The shelves were overfilled with crockery and faulty electronics that once had their use but now had become dusty artefacts adding to the apartment’s claustrophobia. The altar with the Guanyin statue, shrouded by a thick layer of ash from fallen incense, hadn’t been cleaned for years. Her late grandmother’s portrait hung beside the statue, morosely looking upon the unkempt household in which junk accrued.
Her father, who worked two jobs as a cook and an illegal 4D runner, was hardly in the house, only availing himself to an annual spring cleaning prior to the lunar new year. Jesseca, always alone in the apartment since she was in secondary school—her mother having remarried and relocated to Penang—now found herself spreading her wings outwards as her mature, independent self grew. She was the latchkey kid tucked up in the leafy suburban heartlands, unlike Leonard, the downtown mummy’s boy, fussed over from his combed coif to his double-knotted laces.
Jesseca couldn’t remember her mother combing her hair or tying her shoelaces. She couldn’t, in fact, remember her mother at all.
Leonard didn’t know her exact address; she would never tell him. The last time she had a boyfriend when she was 16, she brought him back for dinner and he called her apartment “ang zhang”. Yes, it was dirty but it was her residence; she dumped that boyfriend not long after. No one was going to rub salt in her wound.
My mother wants you to stay for dinner, Leonard said, returning from the kitchen with the siu mais his mother had bought from the renowned dimsum eatery across the road. Jesseca took one and bit into it. The warm juices from the shrimp, pork and water chestnut pooled into her mouth; she melted with a soft sigh.
I have to finish my project, she replied, taking her second dumpling. Her stomach relaxed. I don’t want to hand it in late. Again.
You can eat and leave. She’s starting to cook.
The smell of cinnamon, anise and cloves filled the air, commingled with a robust smell of meat. She recognised it as bak kut teh. In the absence of her mother and the busyness of her father, Jesseca sometimes cooked the hearty dish to feed her father and herself.
Don’t make excuses, Leonard warned her. You don’t want to stay, you tell her yourself. Leave me out of this.
Jesseca rose from the sofa for the kitchen. Mrs Koh was wearing an apron, leaning her face into the vapours of the pot. She closed her eyes, savouring the aroma of the comfort soup. She stirred the ladle.
Auntie, Jesseca started to speak, I…
Bring me that soy sauce, Ling, Mrs Koh interrupted.
Jesseca stopped and stared. Her mother used to call her that. Not Jesseca, not Ling Ling. Just Ling.
Come, bring it to me. My hand can’t reach.
Her eyes sought for the object where Mrs Koh’s finger was pointing. It was on the other side of the kitchen counter, closest to Jesseca.
I’m cooking bak kut teh tonight. Luo han zhai too. Later, I’ll steam a red grouper. Bought it this morning. Very fresh! And you can try some of my neighbour’s homemade kimchi. It’s the best, Leonard’s mother continued, her hands and eyes busy with her cooking.
Jesseca remembered she had entered the kitchen to state her refusal.
But Auntie, I have school projects I need to finish.
Never mind, Ling, you eat quickly then you go back. Must have dinner then you have strength to work, right?
Jesseca steered her resolve, Cannot, Auntie!
Mrs Koh put down her ladle, looked right into Jesseca’s soul—or so the art student thought.
Girl, my boy only comes home once a week. Army is difficult, and I haven’t seen him for a week. We would like you to have a meal together. That’s not much to ask, is it?
No, Jesseca thought. What Leonard’s mother didn’t know, of course, was that Jesseca had started devising ways to break up with him. The last thing she wanted was to sit and dine with the woman who adored and protected the man she was attempting to hurt.
How about next week? Jesseca offered, softening.
Next Friday his father is coming home from Tokyo.
Leonard hadn’t seen his father since six months ago. He never talked about him. It was always about his mother, the woman who was a goddess in his eyes in every way. His father’s work as a regional sales director took him out of his country many months in a year. Now he was in Japan. Previously he was in Korea. Before that he was in China, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia. From the little that Jesseca knew, Mrs Koh was a married woman who raised her son not unlike a single mother.
I suppose I could eat a little bit, Jesseca found herself caving in.
Good girl! I’ll start cooking the rice now. This rice cooker takes sooo long to finish cooking. Ling, you like sambal chilli? I made some yesterday.
Jesseca walked back to Leonard weakly and sank into the empty space beside him. She stared at the creamy curtains flitting back and forth idyllically to the incoming breeze. Her shoulders and back moulded into the leather cushions, leaving an imprint of herself on the re-upholstered furniture belonging to the Koh family. She couldn’t stop the sigh that escaped her. Above her, the white fan spun without sound. In her own house, the seven-year old standing fan cranked gratingly with each turn of its blade. Every revolution was burdensome. Even her beaten black PVC sofa was shredded in corners and smelled of something pungent and expired.
So did you tell her? Leonard asked nonchalantly, chuckling at a repeated episode of The Noose.
I tried. She didn’t let me. I’m staying for dinner, Jesseca sighed a second time. Then she perked up. By the way…
Why does she call me Ling?
That’s your Chinese name, isn’t it?
Well, yes, but I don’t use it anymore. And anyway, Jesseca said, it’s Ling Ling. Not Ling.
So what if she shortened it? Leonard yawned. The credits on The Noose rolled, he switched the channel then added, She used to call me Leo.
There was a funny feeling inside her. Something that grew furry and warm in ways she had forgotten what it was called.
What time later do you want to leave? I can send you back, Leonard asked.
Home. That was the word. Her single father had tried his best to create a space she could return to, cubes of concrete that fed and housed her, roofed her, sheltered her, gave her room to grow and learn and unlearn and revolt and leave when she would finally outgrow it all. He gave her the space to become what she was today.
But why the solitariness in her heart?
Ling, no Jesseca, didn’t know—had forgotten—how a home looked, felt and smelled like, until the mother of someone else had reminded her with a gesture so simple it cracked her hard-won shell.
At dinner, Jesseca was halfway into a land of comfort and conflict. The more she slurped away at the soup, the more she felt she was selling herself out for a meal ticket. Ling, Ling, Ling was all Jesseca heard at the table. Have more fish, Ling. You must try this kimchi, Ling. Enough rice for you, Ling?
Under the table, Jesseca curled her toes till both feet were two hermit crabs hiding in their shells. Leonard devoured his meal like a pig. Mrs Koh fussed over the twenty-year old like he was two. She selected the choicest part of the fish for her son, picking out the bones.
Very yummy, Auntie, Jesseca paid her the obligatory compliment. Fact was, her father, a professional cook, was so skilled in the culinary arts of Chinese cooking he could make pedestrian bean sprouts taste gourmet.
Oh, happy you like it, Ling! Mrs Koh beamed. That produced more shiitake mushrooms on Jesseca’s plate.
Enough already, Auntie. I’m very full.
Only mushrooms. Your stomach is bigger than that. Look at my boy. Not a grain left in his bowl!
Mother, you’re the best, man! Leonard patted his mother’s back.
I’m not a man. I’m a woman, please, Mrs Koh waved her chopsticks at him.
Leonard, I really need to go, Jesseca whispered to her boyfriend. The experience was, strangely, making her homesick. She wondered if her father had returned from work.
Come again next time! Mrs Koh sang breezily to the young adults as they prepared to go. Jesseca called out I will! Thank you! as Leonard and she closed the door behind them and the last of Mrs Koh’s Ling tingled in the air like a wind chime that wouldn’t stop. Not my mother, Jesseca reminded herself, boyfriend’s mother, not the mother who left me and my father for another man.
In her bag, Jesseca dug for her keys. She fished them out jangling, tucked them in her pocket to save time searching for them later. Leonard opened his wallet and checked that he had his key, the rectangular card squashed next to his supplementary credit card, his EZ-Link card and his pink IC.
Found your keys? Leonard asked, adding cheekily, I’ve got mine. He waved his bulging wallet.
Hao lian, Jesseca scoffed at him. Calling him arrogant made him burst out laughing. He enjoyed teasing her just to get a reaction.
You say, to-may-to, I say, to-mah-to.
What are you talking about?
Nothing. You won’t get it.
Yeah, I don’t get why you are a stuck-up, rich, spoilt kid.
I’m not rich. I might be spoilt. And stuck up, maybe. But I’m not a kid, Leonard suppressed a smile. He lunged towards her with a kiss. Jesseca swiftly averted. He tried again, blocking her movement with a bear hug.
You’re an idiot, Jesseca growled. Move! she barked, trying to walk. She could see a taxi with a green sign.
Leonard moved. They both hailed the cab. She scrambled inside. He followed. She gave her address to the cab driver. This time, Leonard managed to plant a quick kiss on her lips. She pushed him away lightly.
Are you going to ask me to your house? Leonard asked with a wide grin, wrapping an arm around her back.
I don’t know, Leonard smiled slyly then added unconvincingly, To see your father?
Jesseca pondered over the question. The dinner with Mrs Koh had changed her heart somewhat. She wasn’t so sure about Leonard or Mrs Koh or his family anymore. In fact, she wasn’t so sure about herself or her father or her family now.
It was as if the soup had some transformative medicinal quality in it that treated some ailment she didn’t know she had. As if the luo han zhai, a vegetarian Buddhist dish, had some secret zen ingredient that mixed all her confused feelings into a holistic, coherent whole. As if she had ingested abundant blessings from the steamed yu. Or that Mrs Koh’s sambal chilli had awakened her, spiced up her dull, monotonous existence. Or even that her neighbour’s kimchi, stewed for days in an earthen pot with spring onions, ginger, garlic and chilli flakes, had extracted the flavour of the domestic kitchen and sucked out the embittered marrow in Jesseca’s unhappy bones.
Or that her birth name had rung like the misplaced bells of Ling Ling’s childhood. It was coming back to her now. There was a bell on a bunny named Ting Ting. There was a bell on her tricycle. There were bells from the ankle bracelet she used to wear when she was a toddler. There was a baby rattle with a metallic tingle her mother used to wave in front of her face. There was her mother’s silver necklace that jingled when she grabbed at it with her chubby infant fist.
And the best tingle of all, was the dulcet voice of her mother as she cooed the loveliest sounds of Ling, Ling, Ling, Ling over and over again.
Hey! Dreaming, are you? Leonard’s voice brought her right back.
We’re here, Leonard saw her eyes were red. What’s wrong?
As they got out of the taxi and watched it leave, Jesseca leaned in to Leonard, put her head on his chest. He drew her close, stroked her head gently.
What’s wrong? he murmured.
I’m going to call my father, Jesseca said, lifting her head. Let me check if he’s in and you can meet him.
Why not. I’ve seen your house many times. It’s time you see mine, Jessica said, as she dialled her father’s number. I’m not ashamed of my home.
On the other side of the line, Jesseca’s father answered her call.
GRACE CHIA is an author from Singapore who has published a novel, The Wanderlusters, a short story collection, Every Moving Thing That Lives Shall Be Food, three poetry collections, womango, Cordelia and Mother of All Questions, and two non- ction titles. She is the editor of a prose anthology about alternative families, We R Family, and her writing has been anthologized for publications in the US, Australia, Germany, France, Serbia, Hong Kong, Macau and Singapore. She has been awarded writing residencies in Korea and Macau and was the national Writer-in-Residence for NAC-NTU in 2011-2012. A former journalist, she has taught creative writing, judged poetry competitions and is currently editor of educational resources.