My City and Me
Franchesca Liauw (Brunel University London, UK)
The morning starts on the plush burgundy seat of the plane. The flat screen in front of me shows a smiling stewardess walking along a marina before flashing to the company’s logo, Welcome on Board, it winks. A real-life stewardess, one with a face like a porcelain doll—heavy eyes and red lips—walks down the aisle.
‘Champagne, orange juice, water?’ She recites.
‘Can I have some water?’ I reply.
‘Sure,’ She says, pausing to check a piece of paper, ‘Ms. Lee. I’ll go get you a bottle.’
I smile in thanks and watch as people make their way to their seats. Avoiding their eyes, I reach for my phone. A text for Mom telling her I’ve boarded. The stewardess returns with a hot towel and water. Wiping my face, I soak in the smell—jasmine, orange blossom, home. Home is, a non-stop fourteen-hour flight. It bathes in endless sun. Home is, somewhere I haven’t been in four years.
I think of my parents. They’ll be there to greet me when I land—the safety of my mother’s arms, the smile that will catch my father’s lips. I’m not sure how I survive without them. Yet somehow, I can never remain. I wonder how much of my life has been dictated by my family, by the advice of those who’ve ‘made it’. Success is hard work, Dad says. Success is perseverance, follows Ah Kong. Whenever I think of my grandfather, I think of the empire he built—a rubber tycoon born from the jewels he buried in the backyard. Stashed away when the Japanese invaded, unearthed to create a business I will never maintain. Now that legacy is being sold. Four generations in commodities erased. Everything my grandfather built gone in the curve of a pen.
You’re too Western, my grandfather once said, dapper in his white pants, a bright pink polo, his balding head spotted and shiny. Memories of my grandfather are weekly lunches at his favorite restaurant. Waiting for his driver to park outside my parent’s house before sliding into the glossy Mercedes, careful not to knock into the cherry wood of his cane. Ah Kong may be dead, but he’s interwoven in the fibre of my being. The Chinese part, the Indonesian part. The parts I’ve always felt too foreign to claim.
When I look up towards the screen of my television, my reflection catches me by surprise. You’re lost. It says. I smile back. I know.
When I walk out of the luggage area at Changi Airport, my parents are waiting. My mom looks every bit as beautiful as I remember—petite and slender, dressed in a flowing dress and heels. Her thin blonde hair is tied in a loose pony-tail framing her high cheekbones and hazel eyes. There are a few more wrinkles around her eyes, a little more tiredness in the right light, but she’s still Mom, hugging me tight while she asks about my flight. When she finally lets me go, I turn to my dad. He lingers in the back, as usual, allowing Mom to have her time.
‘Hey Mercy,’ he says, taking my suitcase.
‘Hey Dad,’ I echo, pulling him into a hug.
When I was a kid, he would always shy away from hugs. Mom, ever affectionate, had taught me to love without abandon, yet Dad had trouble adjusting. According to him, kids weren’t supposed to hug their parents, they were supposed to respect them. Yet here is, softened by time, letting me hug him as if it’s always been this way.
The air is stifling as we make our way into the carpark, it coats the city in a sense of timelessness. The first taste of home is always the transition from the airconditioned airport into the muggy carpark. For all its change, all its development, at least the weather manages to stay the same. I feel myself begin to sweat, a thin line dotting my upper lip like an invisible moustache.
As we make our way through the lot, I look for our car, but can’t find it. When we finally stop it is in front of a large silver beast, Dad begins to fish for his keys. ‘You like it?’ He asks, knowing what my answer will be.
‘Yeah,’ I say, ‘Really cool Dad.’
Since the sale of the company Dad has been buying all the things he never dared. Assets, he said, when I questioned our new possessions, are essential. Of course, I replied, nodding as if I understood. Now that the in-fighting and backstabbing, all the quirks that come with a family business are over I can’t help but feel like Dad looks a little more relaxed. Like he’s finally found a way out of the past.
As we make our way over the highway I soak in the city. It’s been so long since I’ve seen its manicured streets. Despite the closed down restaurants and newly fronted malls, it feels like I’ve never left at all. Singaporeans have always said I’m not Singaporean, but I feel more akin to this city than the one I was born in.
‘So how is London?’ Dad asks.
‘It’s great,’ I reply.
‘But?’ Dad prods.
Last summer my boyfriend and I went to a wedding in Portugal. It was there that one of his friends, in between drunken laughs, told me that he thinks Singapore is soulless. I looked at him, the way you look at anyone who is trying to pass off an insult as a fact and asked how long he had spent there. A week, he said, but it was enough time. Enough time for what? I wondered. I have lived in Singapore for almost my entire life. The island is half of the blood running through my veins, and even then, it’s not enough to understand. We have a soul, I said to him ending the conversation. It’s just not clear cut, it’s lost in all of its possibilities, it’s young and old all at once, it’s learning.
‘This is home.’ I finally say, before turning back to the window.
It’s a warm and rainy eve when Dad and I go for congee. Mom has her friends over for her book club. Puerto Rican warrior queens in towering stilettoes and bright flowery dresses. I admire the way they arrive, gliding through our front door in long laughs with salon-perfect hair. For Mom and her friends, it’s easy to just be. They bend their limbs in graceful lines that match their long fluttering lashes. They wear their confidence in shimmering diamond rings and endless necklaces that dip into their breasts like the sun sinking below a valley. I can’t help but envy their confidence. Like it’s something I could’ve inherited.
Dad and I murmur greetings, returning their kisses with ones of our own. Puerto Ricans only do one kiss, but sometimes I forget and give two. I dread those awkward moments when my mouth connects with air, wishing I could take a mistake as just a mistake.
Dad and I wait for them to make it to the dining table before leaving. When they’ve situated themselves, Dad turns to me and smiles, ‘Come on, let’s get out of here.’
The ride to Tiong Bahru is quiet. The thoughts I reserve for moments alone with Dad seem unnecessary. For once, our lack of conversation doesn’t feel unwanted. When we arrive most of the spaces reserved for cars are taken, but after a lap around the neighbourhood, we park next to a stark-white shophouse. Leaving the car behind we meander the string of trendy coffee shops and fading hawkers.
As we walk, I try to take in our surroundings with the same nostalgic gloss my father likes to apply. Ageing men smoke cigarettes in flip-flops, expat families cooing at sunburnt toddlers, hawkers with their bright red and blue signs, large block letter numbers promising the lowest price for a value meal. We pause by a Chinese steamboat restaurant lit up in neon. The restaurant’s tables are filled with families, children on iPads, couples clicking away at their screens. We stop to ponder if we should join the crowd before pushing on in search of a place that isn’t gasping for air.
As we walk along the asphalt, accompanied by the gaze of parked cars, of dark, blinded windows I think of the past, of the list of Lees who have made something from and with this city. How my brother and I sit, waiting to write the tail-end of a story.
‘Do you come here with your friends?’ Dad asks, turning to me.
‘Sometimes.’ I reply, ‘It’s a great place to come for brunch.’
‘Sure.’ Dad says, disappointed with my answer, ‘Lots of trendy bakeries opening.’
To be honest, I’m exaggerating for his benefit, and even then, it’s not right. The truth is, when my friends and I meet up at night, it’s to stumble our way across the smattering of bespoke cocktail bars in the old red-light district. And if we do meet in the day, it’s for sushi in a cheap chain or Starbucks for overpriced coffee.
‘So, any idea where you want to get dinner?’ Dad asks.
‘I’m easy.’ I shrug, ‘It’s up to you.’
‘I’m easy.’ Dad mirrors, ‘You decide.’
We look at each other, waiting for the other to put their foot down. It makes me want to laugh. Awkward, stumbling moments like these used to leave me wondering if Dad listens when I speak. If it matters that most of my words are said to please him. I look at my father’s face, the expression he wears, speaking without words. I hate how easy it is for my own words to turn into smooth, practised lies. I don’t even have to think; they just fall out, tumbling so fast that even I believe them to be the truth.
Dad, I think. Growing up, I always tried to be as Singaporean as I can for you. Now, almost grown, walking around the neighbourhood with you, I’m still trying.
‘Let’s go for congee.’ I finally say.
‘Good idea.’ Dad replies, perking up.
Going for congee means we have to loop back around the neighbourhood homes. As we pass, I notice that some of the windows are covered in thick black bars. It’s strange that in a city so safe, so sheltered, its citizens would need to sequester themselves. It makes me think of the neighbourhood I used to live in Boston, Puerto-Rican flags hanging from barred windows, bullet-proof glassed corner stores, but I guess people had reason to be scared there. Here, in a trendy neighbourhood, the past only feels out of place.
‘I love walking here.’ Dad says, ‘You know my grandmother used to live here.’
‘Really?’ I say, walking next to him, ‘I didn’t know that.’
‘She was such a nice lady, shame you never got to meet her.’
I let Dad continue, surprised at his sudden openness.
‘Anyways, I’ve always thought this is Singapore at its best.’
This tidbit, like all insights into his past, leaves me curious, unsatisfied at how much, yet how little I actually know. Another note to add to the mental fact list I’ve started to compile since that summer where Dad admitted to the family that he was thinking of selling his company and I acknowledged that I wanted to know more about his life. Mom already knew about the sale, her tired face keeping the family together, always listening, never arguing. For my brother and I, it came as a shock. Even though we have never expressed interest in taking over the family’s rubber business, it was always something we thought we would have—a possibility to toy with without consideration.
When we get to the hawker that sells porridge, Dad pauses before ordering his with minced meat, and mine with tofu. After paying he makes his way over to an empty table. I fill a couple of the little blue bowls that are stacked by the side of the till with sambal and chopped chilli before joining Dad on the black plastic chairs placed on the side of the road.
As soon as we sit, I can feel the eyes of the people around us. Ang moh, their word used to describe foreigners. Why can’t people tell that I’m his daughter? Mixed families aren’t uncommon in Singapore these days, and everyone says I look like him. Some days I almost become him. Both of us hiding behind a smile that nobody questions, both riddled with countless worries. Granted, Dad’s troubles seem more pressing than mine. But still, people ask him, is that your daughter? Yes, Dad will say as I cling to his arm, of course.
As we sit and eat our porridge, Dad tells me of his latest fishing trip. About the crabs they caught and cooked. The monitor lizard that knocked its head against his window in the morning. I smile and laugh when required, but inside I am dying to talk about his past. I feel inspired by our short conversation earlier, less afraid than usual to try and speak with him about the things that keep us up at night. When Dad pauses to reach for a piece of chicken, I blurt out the first coherent thought I can grasp.
‘Do you miss the factories?’
‘Sometimes,’ Dad takes a moment before continuing, ‘but it was the right thing. We couldn’t continue. It’s a different world now.’
If I was brave before I am running now, ‘What do you think Kong-Kong would say?’
Dad shrugs, ‘Like I said it was the right decision.’ He turns back towards his food, popping a wonton in his mouth before washing it down with a large sip of diet coke. ‘What’s with all the questions?’
It’s my turn to shrug, ‘I’m just curious.’
He laughs, ‘Why? It’s not very interesting.’
Now that it’s out in the open, it feels silly, being so nervous, so ashamed that I want to find out about a family I barely understand. Of a business, I’ve spent my whole life trying to avoid. Thinking of my father’s business always makes me feel strange—an enterprise construed of rigid men steeped in custom, of back-breaking labour worsened by the inescapable sun. It feels like an ancient song of the past, impossible to be understood beyond the myth of its time. Yet my father’s business, and the stories that accompany it, are a legacy that haunts me, something I can never live up to.
‘It’s not just you,’ I say, ‘It’s about Ah Ma and Ah Kong too. About their lives during the occupation, about them fleeing the massacre in Indonesia…’
The words come out in a rush, making me realize just how much they needed to be said. I wait for Dad to respond, half expecting him to just get up and leave.
‘They were never a part of the massacre in Indonesia,’ he says finally.
‘They weren’t?’ I ask, ‘But weren’t they living there at the time?’
I can see Dad begin to close up, it’s in his smile, disarming and aloof, in the distant look that crosses his eyes. ‘Ask me some other time.’
‘Okay,’ I pause, thinking of a way to restart the conversation, ‘What about further back? Weren’t our ancestors from China?’
Dad sighs, whether it’s the night itself, or the fact that we rarely get any time together, he gives me one last moment. ‘They came to Indonesia by steamship with only the clothes on their back.’
He stops. We look at each other. It’s an unfamiliar dance.
Usually, I fill our dinners with rushed words. Yet tonight an equilibrium has formed. Give and take—the closest resemblance to a conversation we’ve had in a long while. I begin to tell him of the thoughts that have taken over my mind, the story I feel I need to know every time I think of my future, every time the past rears its head to greet me in the mirror.
Dad nods as if he understands but I know that we are coming from it from different angles. I’ll always be more Western than Chinese, always be working to understand a past that he wishes to leave behind.
A week later Dad and I walk towards the ocean. Two bodies stuck in time, wanting to be something more, never knowing what that actually means. The dock isn’t empty when we arrive. There are couples pushing strollers, maids walking the family dog, bright sticky joggers weaving their way through the crowd. They say big cities disconnect people, that as things grow, they lose their connection to the past.
‘I’m sorry I’m not very talkative.’ Dad says suddenly.
‘It’s okay Dad.’ I smile. ‘I talk enough for the both of us.’
He laughs. ‘You really do.’
The lights from the ships that trail just beyond the harbour glow in the coming dusk. Dad’s scent of burnt earth and soft cologne wafts through the slight breeze. The oil refinery blazes in the distance, it’s flame large and disconcerting.
I close my eyes and try to imagine the lives of the people that were here before, their journey, their feelings. I try to imagine my grandfather’s face. I can almost see it, almost grasp his likeness, but imagination invents kindness, memories change the contours of a face. Family can break you, I think. But it can also build you.
Dad turns to me. ‘Why did you want to come?’
I shrug, looking to the ocean stretching before us. I think of the absorption of my family’s business into a conglomerate. Of the people that make my history, that I turn to when I think of the future. There are a million answers, each laced with notions of home. Of return. Of a family’s past, inescapable and all-encompassing.
Somehow none of those answers seems right.
‘I just want to understand.’ I say looking towards the ocean.
‘Understand what?’ He says, following my gaze.
The lies we’ve told to keep us together, the truths that have kept us apart. The ghosts I’ve inherited from his memories—the ones he’s shared, the ones he never will. The memories that warp my imagination, the violence I’ll never be able to understand. All of it, pushing and pulling me in like the ocean before us.
‘Why,’ I finally say. ‘How.’
I wait—I know, I’m always waiting. Wishing there to be more, wanting things to have a greater meaning, a reason. Together we look towards the ocean. There are ships as far as the eye can see. A thousand blinking lights set out against the sea.
‘You know,’ Dad says, placing his hand on my shoulder. ‘I used to wonder too. Used to need answers. But maybe that’s our problem. Maybe there are no answers.’
Franchesca Liauw is currently undertaking a PhD in creative writing at Brunel University in London. Though born in California, she was raised in Singapore and is half Chinese and half Puerto Rican. Along with writing she also freelances as a graphic designer and illustrator.