“gahmen /gah-mən, ˈgɑmən/ n. [repr. a pronunciation of English: government]”
The island is forty-two kilometers across and thirty kilometers wide, fringed by waxy green jungle leaking into muddy sea. Between land and water is a rich brown swamp, a thick strip of burping soil. The swamp is filled with mangroves, their roots growing upwards, poking through the dense squelching mud like hundreds of tiny arms reaching towards the sky. A foreigner might compare this scene to that of the rivers of Hell. But to those who live on the island, they are mangrove roots and nothing more, a necessity in wet oxygen-poor earth.
The island has seen its share of foreigners. Nestled in the crook of a much larger country’s arm, strategically placed in the bull’s-eye of crossing trade routes, it has long been a destination for merchants, soldiers, princes, thieves. So while the Gah Men say the island is a sleepy fishing village—has always been, for centuries—this is not entirely true.
The Gah Men wear white shirts and white pants that glimmer blue in the tropical sun. Their shirts are short-sleeved; they carry ballpoint pens in their chest pockets, wear shiny black shoes on neat small feet. The Gah Men’s emblem is a white four-pointed star, splitting a red circle.
Lee Ah Boon, son of Lee Ah Huat, eighteen years old and with the pink pockmarked skin to show it, watches the Gah Men descend upon the mangrove swamp outside his house. They have arrived on bicycles, foreheads slick, shirts translucent with sweat. Ah Boon watches them unroll large sheets of paper crossed with grids and arching lines, point to invisible demarcations in the earth, shield their eyes as they squint at the sky. The sun beats down on oily scalps glistening beneath thin black hair.
One of them shrieks as the ground next to him shifts and makes a loud splash. His colleagues laugh as it is revealed to be a large mudskipper, primeval in shape, evil in eye. They return to work soon enough. The Gah Men are industrious; they have no time to waste on the frivolities of the swamp.
“Ah Boon! Dreaming again! Faster finish your work before I smack your head, boy,” Ma shouts at him from inside the house.
They live in an attap house perched on the edge of the mangroves, where the land is just firm enough to drive wooden stilts deep into the earth. Ah Boon sits outside on a patch of grass. He bends his head down, towards the fishnets he is meant to be untangling, and busies his hands.
But he is still watching the Gah Men, entranced by the starched spotless cloth of their shirts, the decisive way they chop their hands through the air, the red plastic clipboards they carry. They seem an impossible sight against the backdrop of the twisted looming mangroves, the dull grey crash of waves on the sandy shore. From time to time, the wind carries their voices over to where he is sitting. Snatches of deep baritones, unfamiliar vowels.
Undoubtedly, they will be speaking English. It is well known that one cannot be a Gah Man without a strong grasp of English. Ah Boon himself does not speak English well. He attended a Chinese school, one of the many whose students had protested against the Gah Men before it became clear they were here to stay. Ah Boon himself has linked arms with fellow middle school students in front of bus stations and government buildings. He has been knocked to the ground by the powerful water cannons the Gah Men used to disperse such rioting. There is a patch of rough brown skin on his left knee where the punishing asphalt ripped into his skin, revealing raw red flesh beneath.
By all accounts, Ah Boon should hate the Gah Men, as all his friends do. He has performed this hatred for his peers, spitting and cursing, Gah Men are the lapdogs of the Ang Mohs—Ang Mohs being the clip-tongued, fair-skinned redheads who for 150 years ruled the island—Gah Men are corrupt, why else wear all white, must be hiding something; Gah Men only want to take your money, fuck your mother; Gah Men are blood traitors, out to ruin their hardworking brothers and sisters.
But Ah Boon cannot tear his gaze away from the men who cross the swampy ground in front of his home with long confident strides. He has seen Gah Men before, of course, but only in the city, amidst imposing colonial facades and candy-colored shophouse fronts. There, they appear unremarkable, office-bound pencil pushers scurrying about the budding cityscape. There, they fade into the background, just another element of a city that is quickly becoming a blur of paved roads and running water and multistory buildings, a city that every day threatens to pass him by.
Ah Boon feels violated by the Gah Men tramping all over their mangroves; he feels anger at their audacity, their invasive cameras and spirit levels and the little orange flags they stick into the ground.
Yet, to his horror, he begins to wonder what it would be like to be a Gah Man himself. He imagines the white starched collar scratching his neck, the weight of the ballpoint pen pulling down on his front pocket. In his fantasy, he wears little black round-rimmed glasses, like those of the Gah Man who was scared by the mudskipper before. His nose is often slippery with oil, and thus the glasses would slip down it often; he would push them up in a gesture he would become known for, a gesture that would belie a dignified and intellectual nature. He would work in an office in the city center, a building with large wide-open windows and overhead ceiling fans that cut smooth circles through the humid air, that wouldn’t squeak like the ones in the local kampong school classroom.
Thwack! His head jerks forward, exploding in pain.
“How many times do you want me to shout at you?” Ma stands over him with a rolled-up newspaper in hand. The Chinese characters on grey paper blur before his eyes. He blinks and rubs his head.
“Stare so much, be careful your eyes don’t fall out of your head. Why? You want to join the Gah Men now, is it?”
Ah Boon shakes his head and drops his eyes to the fishnets in his hands. Ma has the infuriating habit of exposing his innermost thoughts in her throwaway comments. Even if she doesn’t mean what she says, Ah Boon has inconveniently inherited his father’s thin skin that flushes deep red when embarrassed or lying.
Thankfully, Ma does not notice this time. She too is distracted by the Gah Men. “They doing what now?” she mutters in Hokkien. “Goddamn Gah Men. Always up to no good.”
Ma nudges Ah Boon’s arm, and when he looks up at her, she is holding out a cup of water.
“Drink more, boy. Today very hot.” Her voice is gruff.
She is neat in her matching blouse and pants, faded but clean. Her face is raked with deep lines, copper-hued and liver-spotted from the sun. The way her hair rises from her scalp, a familiar tight helmet of a perm, makes something inside him ache.
“Thanks, Ma,” Ah Boon says, taking the cup with both hands and gulping the cool water down quickly.
He was not thirsty, but suddenly he is, and the water in his throat is blissful. The day beats down on the back of his neck, the trill of cicadas hum in his ears, the muscles in his shins burn from squatting. Ma’s hand is on his shoulder, her fingers worrying the fabric of his singlet. When he has finished the water, they watch the Gah Men together in silence.
Before the Gah Men, there were the Ang Mohs. Pale freckled white ghosts who smelled of baby formula, with bleached hair and eyes drained of color. They wore impractical outfits for the 30-degree heat and 90-percent humidity: long-sleeved shirts and pleated trousers, charcoal blazers that ended at the hip, ties knotted around flabby necks. It was said they founded the island in the nineteenth century. Founded, as if it had not been there before.
When the world broke out in war, the Ang Mohs lost the island to the Jipunlang. The invincible Ang Moh, learned and civilized, had the guns pointing the wrong way. They thought the Jipunlang would come from the South, but they crossed over from the North, and by the time the Ang Mohs set the marshland straits on fire it was too late. Miles of mangroves consumed in a wall of flame, black clouds billowing over the island for days.
“Asia for Asians!” the Jipunlang proclaimed, before beheading Indian soldiers, bayoneting Chinese babies, filling Malay guts with water until they splattered and burst. The island was given a new name: Syonan-To, light of the South, eerily close in pronunciation to Shou Nan Dao, Mandarin for island of pain.
After the war, the Ang Mohs returned. At first the island welcomed them gladly, for after all the years of subsisting on thin sweet-potato gruel and having to hide female relatives in closets when the Jipunlang came knocking, the Ang Mohs seemed like familiar benevolent gods in their pressed suits and bumbling polite ways. But it was never the same. The island remembered. Guns pointing the wrong way, falling back to positions, a white flag waving as bombs rained down on Lunar New Year. A procession of bedraggled Ang Mohs, once mighty, now prisoners of war, marched in their Sunday best to a remote prison camp at the eastern end of the island. The spell was broken. The island could not forget, could not bury what they had seen.
When the Gah Men appeared, unlikely visions in their all-white uniforms and slick black hair, promising homes and jobs and freedom, the island was transfixed. For while the Gah Men spoke perfect English, winning the respect of the Ang Mohs, they also switched effortlessly among Chinese, Malay, and Tamil. The Gah Men were from the island. They were at once of the people, but not the people. The Gah Men used their Oxbridge training on one hand, earnest rabble-rousing speeches on the other, to broker a deal with the Ang Mohs.
It has now been six years since the Ang Mohs left and the Gah Men took over. Like many other places that the Ang Mohs lost after the war, the island rules itself now. The island has its freedom, yes, but freedom means little to the samsui women balancing baskets of bricks on their heads, to the orang laut hauling straining nets of silverfish at dawn. The island is the island is the island.
The Gah Men come back to their swamp every day. Ah Boon watches them from the grass in front of their house as he folds nets, sorts fish, hoses down his brother’s yellow rubber boots.
But one week, his brother is sick and Ah Boon has to take his place at the market. He sets off with his uncle a little after four in the morning, in the passenger seat of the family’s rusty blue lorry. The fish are packed in the back, crate upon crate of bright-eyed, red-gilled bodies smothered in ice. They drive slowly, making their way down dirt roads hemmed in by sprawling ferns and bowed Tembusu trees. Blackened coconuts rot in the mud, treacherous in the dim moonlight, and Ah Boon’s uncle takes care not to drive over them. The lorry is old and rattling, but together with the fishing boat, it is the family’s most valuable possession.
The market is a frenzy of shouted dialects and grubby wet banknotes. Ah Boon helps his uncle spread the fish across their allocated block, taking pains to line them up neatly, black beady eyes all looking the same way. He stops when his uncle smacks the back of his head and tells him to hurry up.
Ah Boon does not like the market. It is not that he is unaccustomed to the smell of fish, for it is a smell as intimate as that of his own perspiration. But he is used to it mixed with the salty ocean breeze, with the breath of trees and the squawk of ever-hungry birds circling overhead. Here, in the market, the air is tinged with rot, a sweet, stifling smell that turns his insides and makes his nostrils flare.
“Boy! Wah, you’re even more of a dreamer than your Ma said. Help the aunty, please, faster!” Uncle slaps a tilapia against Ah Boon’s forearm playfully, leaving a cold wet mark that will dry sticky.
Ah Boon helps the housewife pick out the fish she will steam for her grandson tonight. She chooses an expensive one. He imagines the strands of cut ginger and red chili, the silver skin steamed soft and paper-thin, the white tender flesh that flakes open with the prod of a chopstick.
What do the Gah Men eat, he wonders suddenly. Where do they shop? Do their wives visit wet markets? No, they must have servants for that. He cannot imagine the wife of a Gah Man, in her Western clothes and watered down dialect, setting one neat sandaled foot into the market, where the tiled floor shimmers with dirty grey water and the occasional splatter of animal blood.
Ah Boon wraps the expensive fish in paper carefully. When he hands the orange plastic bag to the housewife, he smiles shyly, flashing a row of white, even teeth.
“Such a nice boy you are! Keep the change, hor,” she says.
“Got a way with the aunties, haven’t you, boy!” Uncle roars, clapping him on the back. “You should be a politician!”
Ah Boon grins again, then stops. He has never thought he has a way with anyone. He has never thought he could be anything but a fisherman’s son. Yet the image of the bespectacled, white-shirted Gah Men crossing the swamp still lingers in his mind, the stench of the market rotten in his nostrils. In the midst of the shouted orders, the splashing filthy water, the budding heat of the morning sun, Ah Boon seems to see, for the first time, a crack in his life. An opening.
There is a bulletin board at the market, where flyers in all colors and languages are haphazardly tacked, one upon the other. They advertise: men with lorries willing to transport goods, cheap laundry services, a secondhand power generator. Ah Boon studies the bulletin board while Uncle is in the toilet. One flyer catches his eye. It features words in glossy, jet-black ink, unlike the faded gray type of the dog-eared flyers that surround it. Ah Boon reads the flyer with interest. It advertises a job.
For the rest of the week, Ah Boon is a changed man. He helps Uncle load the lorry with gusto each morning, taking care to strap the crates of fish tightly to the blue railings in the back, so they do not slide around as the vehicle’s wheels bump over uneven ground. At the market stall he is friendly and charming; he banters with the aunties, rebuffing their attempts to haggle with compliments about their hairdos. He befriends the other stallholders; the butcher gives him some bones for his mother to make broth that night, the vegetable man presses clear plastic bags of fresh bean sprouts into his hands.
Uncle is amazed at the change, and at the end of the week, he suggests to Ma that Ah Boon take his brother’s place in the market. The older boy can get another job somewhere else, bring in more money for the household.
“What do you think?” Ma says, turning to Ah Boon’s brother.
Ah Hock is surly-faced, stung at being outperformed by the boy he has always thought was a wimp, but nods. He has a friend who works at a construction site in the city center; they are looking for strong young men, and the pay is good.
“Then it’s agreed,” Uncle says, pleased. His eyes crinkle in his nut-brown face, a rare sight. He sits down at the dinner table, and the rest of them sit as well.
There is the usual congee, thin and flavorless. But Ma has steamed the bean sprouts that Ah Boon brought back from the market, and they are stringy and soft, perfectly salted, a delicious side dish. Ma spoons bean sprouts onto Ah Boon’s bowl.
“Eat, boy,” she says, staring at him with stern eyes.
Ah Boon places a spoonful of congee in his mouth. It is too hot, and his tongue burns, but he keeps his mouth shut and smiles at Ma.
He waits until the family finishes eating before telling them.
“I’m not going to help at the market,” he says, as Ma is gathering up the empty bowls.
“What are you talking about, stupid?” Ah Hock says.
“I’m going to be a Gah Man,” Ah Boon responds.
Ma freezes. Uncle places both hands palms down on the table.
“I’m eighteen. I can’t just stay—here, my whole life.” Ah Boon’s voice breaks a little, and his heart is pounding, but he forces himself to raise his arm, gesturing at the house around them. The gaps in the slatted wooden wall where chinks of light come in each morning, the attap roof gone black with mold, the living room that is also a kitchen and where Ah Boon sleeps at night on a thin mattress. His arm is heavy.
“Suddenly our house not good enough for you? What, you think you can do better?” Ah Hock sneers. “You’re a fisherman’s son, not even a good one, too scared to even go out on a boat. Gah Man? Dream on.”
The kerosene lamp on the table casts a harsh, flickering light on one half of Ah Hock’s face, leaving the other half shrouded in darkness. Ah Boon stares into the face he knows so well. It is a craggy, unappealing face. Ah Hock’s cheeks are pitted with acne scars, his pores engorged and black. Ah Boon imagines taking his thumbs to his brother’s skin, pinching the slippery surface of it between his nails until the blackheads pop out one by one, little dark seeds of old dirt and oil. He imagines pinching, squeezing, until blood oozes from the surface.
“I already applied. I start work on Monday,” Ah Boon says. This time his voice is steady.
“What are you talking about, boy?” Uncle’s voice is more curious than angry.
“The local CC. They just opened, they need an admin assistant. The aunty who works there likes me, she gave me the job on the spot.”
“CC? You mean the Community Centre?” Uncle pauses. “How much are they paying you?”
“Fifty dollars a week,” Ah Boon says, staring straight at Ah Hock. His brother’s face doesn’t change, but Ah Boon detects a slight tensing in his neck, a subtle flick of a tendon.
“Fifty dollars!” Ma exclaims, leaving the dirty bowls in the washing pail and coming over to Ah Boon. She rubs his back as if he is unwell, slowly, meditatively. “Fifty dollars! Sure or not, Boon?”
Ah Boon nods proudly. He nearly fell over when the bespectacled aunty at the CC told him how much they would pay him. And after looking him up and down, she said they would pay him the first week in advance, so he could buy some new clothes.
Ah Hock makes a noise with his mouth that sounds like the swamp releasing air trapped beneath mud.
“Working at the CC doesn’t make you a Gah Man,” he says. “You’ll just be a lowly office worker.”
But Uncle and Ma are smiling now, and Ah Boon knows that whatever Ah Hock says, he has won. Fifty dollars a week means that, with some careful saving, they can soon replace the roof. Or that they can have meat more than once a month. Or that Ma can give up washing clothes on the side to make a few extra dollars a week.
“Even better,” Ma says, touching the back of Ah Boon’s neck. “I don’t want any son of mine to be a Gah Man, speaking like the Ang Mohs, acting high and mighty in their white clothes. Being an office worker at the CC is not the same. If the Gah Men want to pay you fifty dollars a week to do that, well, we’re not stupid. Everyone has to eat.”
The morning of Ah Boon’s first day of work, Ma makes him breakfast. When he sees the little blue bowl filled with orange yolks floating in gelatinous whites, Ah Boon feels a dangerous prickling behind his eyes.
Half-boiled eggs doused in dark soy sauce and finely ground pepper, the dish his father used to eat by lamplight every morning before going out for the day’s catch. Ah Boon can see his father now, sitting at the table in his graying singlet and the navy pants made of a tarpaulin-like fabric, waterproof for the boat. His left ankle hooked over his right knee, bony shoulder blades making sharp angles in his back as he leaned forward to slurp the liquid eggs from the bowl. The little blue bowl that is now sitting on the dining table, after ten, eleven years of being kept in a dark cupboard somewhere in their small, damp house.
“Need to get a good breakfast in you, boy. Can’t go to work hungry,” Ma says.
She is standing with the window behind her, so her face is dark. Ah Boon cannot see her face, but her voice is as matter-of-fact as always.
He nods and sits down at the table. The yolks are perfect spheres in the translucent swirling whites, like tiny suns suspended peacefully in outer space. He doesn’t want to break them, but Ma is watching, so he picks up his chopsticks and nudges them open, watches them yield their bold, bright insides to the watery fluid. There is something sad about this, something Ah Boon can’t quite put his finger on, so he swirls the eggs with his chopsticks until they form a slick pale yellow mixture. He adds the dark soy sauce and pepper and mixes some more, and then it is ready.
“Your Pa would be proud,” Ma says, so quietly that Ah Boon isn’t sure if he’s imagined it.
He doesn’t know what to say, so he tips the mixture down his throat. The eggs are salty and slippery in his mouth, warm but not hot, as if fresh from a hen’s feathered bottom.
Like all the others, Pa died during the war.
He survived the shelling and scurvy, cursing the Ang Mohs for the rising taxes on rice and the worsening shortages the whole way through. When the Jipunlang bicycles rolled through the island’s streets, followed by trucks blaring military music, Pa took Ah Boon to watch, hoisting him onto his shoulders so he could get a better view. Ah Boon had never seen Pa so excited as the day the Jipunlang arrived.
Finally showed those damn Ang Mohs, Pa had exclaimed in Hokkien, triumphant. Not so high and mighty after all.
When the Jipunlang made the announcement, requiring all Chinese men aged eighteen and above to report to registration centers island-wide, Pa was one of the first to go. Ah Boon doesn’t remember the morning he left, for he had been asleep, and Pa saw no reason to wake him up to say goodbye. He assumed it was an administrative matter, a population census of sorts, an easing into the new and better way of things. Jipunlang organization, efficient and superior, the same organization and discipline that had won them the war.
What Ah Boon does remember was that night, when the sun had sunk below the sea and Pa still hadn’t returned. He remembers the way Ma’s bony fingers worried the loose wrinkle of skin on her left elbow, a gesture that took root that night and would become a lifelong habit. He remembers the shrill screech of nighttime insects, the brown-winged moth that fluttered around the kerosene lamp at the front door, the smell of burning. The island had been on fire for weeks by then; first from bombs dropped by Jipunlang fighter planes, then from explosives planted by Ang Mohs in the naval bases once it became clear the war was lost.
He remembers Ma growing frantic as the days went by and Pa still hadn’t returned. He remembers that after about a week, she stopped being frantic and became very calm, telling the boys in an even voice that their father would not return. She packed Pa’s clothes away, along with chipped enamel mug he drank coffee from and the blue bowl he took his eggs in.
Many fathers disappeared that night, grandfathers too, sons, brothers. Ah Boon would learn from snatches of conversation here, whispers there, that Pa had been one of the thousands pulled arbitrarily from the registration centers, chained together and put in lorries, taken to distant beaches and summarily shot. Sook Ching, it was later named, the great cleansing.
When he thinks about this, Ah Boon imagines Pa standing in a row of strange men on a distant beach. Perhaps he is next to a younger man, who is crying quietly as the Jipunlang tell them to walk to the water’s edge. Pa would not be crying. He would not attempt to swim away as some other men did, only to trip over the chains around their ankles, sputtering and flailing without dignity in the shallow water.
While the others wailed around him, Pa would be standing tall and still. Perhaps he found the rhythmic roar of waves comforting in the moments before the bullets entered his back and mangled his spine. Pa had, after all, only ever known a life by the sea. Ah Boon wonders if the sand was soft and warm as Pa’s knees sank into them, if the piercing cry of sea birds overhead was in any way familiar. Ah Boon likes to think so, for the alternative is too painful to bear.
The CC is a building of bricks in the middle of the kampong. Most of the kampong is red earth and dusty scraps of grass, but the land directly around the CC is impossibly green, an obedient lawn, tidy and lush. The CC’s external walls are painted white, its doors and window frames bright blue. Like the Gah Men in the swamp, the CC is an odd sight in the muddy kampong, where flocks of thinly feathered chickens peck the soil and skinny dogs lazily swat flies with their tails.
Neighbors greet Ah Boon as he walks through the kampong, waving to him from kitchen windows and front yards.
“Boon! New job ah! Wah, very good, when you going to treat me to dinner?”
“Tell your Ma I want you to come for lunch one day, okay?”
“Working for the CC, huh, Boon? Now you can tell us why the Gah Men spend our taxes on this useless building.”
“Ah Boon, boy! Heard from your Ma about your CC job. Good for you. But job is just job ah, don’t come back speaking Ang Moh to us!”
“Wah, Boon. Dressed like a Gah Man, only missing the white pants. Big shot now, huh?”
Ah Boon smiles back, waving shyly and fending off the sharper jeers with a good-natured laugh. Having known most of his neighbors since he was a baby, his ear is attuned to the subtle folds of their voices, and he knows now that they are only teasing, mildly jealous and somewhat proud.
When he steps into the CC’s cool interior, the woman who greets him at the door is not the aunty he spoke to about the job. This woman is dressed in the pressed whites of the Gah Men, the same ballpoint pen in her front pocket, her long black hair tied up in a neat, perky ponytail. She is young, no more than a few years older than his brother. Her skin is smooth and poreless, faintly pink around the cheekbones, her black eyes wide and impossibly shiny. Ah Boon feels the sudden, unsettling urge to bring his hand to the woman’s neck and check her gills.
“Good morning, Ah Boon,” the woman says, flashing a row of even teeth at him and stretching out a pale hand. “My name is Natalie. I’m the regional manager for all CCs in the Northern region. Welcome to CC E14. We’re very glad to have you with us.”
“Good morning, Natalie,” Ah Boon says.
He wipes his hand on his new navy pants before shaking Natalie’s. Her hand is small and warm and very soft. He drops it quickly, snatching his arm back, feeling the blood rush to his cheeks.
“Now, I’m not sure how much Julia explained to you about the role when you spoke to her,” Natalie says, seemingly unperturbed by Ah Boon’s awkwardness. Met with his silence, she goes on: “Your official title will be Outreach Coordinating Officer. What this means, really, is we want you to carry on doing what you do best.”
He stares at her blankly, suddenly becoming aware that his lower lip is drooping. He closes his mouth.
“You’ve lived here your whole life, haven’t you, Ah Boon?”
Ah Boon nods.
“How well would you say you know the kampong?”
He swallows. His tongue feels ungainly in his mouth, mudskipper-like.
“Very well, ma’am.”
She laughs. The sound of it sets the little hairs on Ah Boon’s forearm standing.
“No need to call me ma’am, please, call me Natalie,” she says. “Anyway, your job will be to interact with the kampong community. Invite them to the CC, organize buffet lunches, ping-pong games, TV show viewings. Use this space to really bring the community together.”
Natalie waves her arm at the room around her and, for the first time, Ah Boon tears his eyes away from her face. He sees the little round tables inscribed with Go boards, the soft-drink station, the ping-pong table. He squints at the black box with a shiny glass panel at the far end of the room. The glass bulges like the gently curved surface of an eyeball.
“Have you seen a TV set before?” Natalie asks.
Ah Boon shakes his head. But he’s heard about them from his friends who work in the garden of the local towkay, a plump man with a palm-oil business across the border. The towkay has a TV in his living room. His wife’s friends gather at four o’clock every day to watch the latest episode of a drama involving a gambling aficionado and his underground dealings. Ah Boon’s friends watch surreptitiously from outside the window while pretending to trim shrubs and scoop algae from the koi pond.
Natalie walks over to the black box and pushes a button beneath the glass. It buzzes to life, a flurry of sandy grey light, no picture. Ah Boon cannot see what the big deal is. But then she presses another button, fiddles with the two metal sticks emerging from the top of the box, and the image of a grayscale woman with full lips and big hair appears. She is sitting at a desk, reading from a piece of paper.
“The Gah Men have proposed an ambitious new coastal land-reclamation project, encompassing sixty percent of the Northern shoreline and spanning ten years of work. The new project will be voted on in Parliament later this week,” the newscaster on screen says.
Ah Boon is captivated by the flickering image of the woman. He doesn’t understand the words she is saying, but the moving picture is riveting nonetheless. It was exactly as his friends said: perfectly lifelike, yet somehow ghostly and unreal, backlit.
Natalie reaches over to press a button and the screen goes dark.
“Perfect timing,” she says. “Your job has been made possible by this very land-reclamation project. It still has to be finalized, of course, but the Gah Men are confident it will pass. Hence the outreach program. Hence your important work in the community.”
Ah Boon has no idea what she is talking about, but he nods fervently, thinking of the fifty dollars a week, the ping-pong competitions he will organize for the kampong, the seat he will save for Ma at the nightly TV viewings. She will have a chair in the front row, an unrestricted view, and as she watches the flickering screen, she herself will be watched enviously by the neighbors.
When Ah Boon leaves work that evening, he takes the long route that winds past the mangrove swamp. Through the twisted trees, the sun is a fiery salmon ball hovering over the gleaming horizon. The island is quiet. A faint breeze brushes Ah Boon’s face, sea-salty and feather-light, and for the first time in his life, he feels like he is on the cusp of something. He looks around the swamp, but there are no Gah Men to be seen. He thinks they must have gone home for the day.
The first week of work at the CC passes slowly. Ah Boon is given a desk in the corner of the office, next to Julia, the aunty who recruited him. Natalie has a desk too, but she is not often there.
He is not entirely sure what his job at the CC really is, but he is afraid to ask. As far as he can tell, Julia’s job involves pointing the passersby who wander in to the modern toilet at the back of the building. She spends her days flipping through the collection of Chinese newspapers they have in the reading lounge, dusting the seats in front of the TV, and filing forms that she says Ah Boon does not need to worry himself with. Whenever he asks her if she needs help with anything, she brushes him off with a loud clucking laugh.
“Natalie will tell you what to do, boy. Did she tell you what to do?” Julia says, shuffling a stack of forms between her plump hands.
He thinks for a moment. “She said to ‘interact with the community.’”
“Then do it!”
He decides he will begin organizing that ping-pong competition they talked about. Ah Boon spends the rest of the day painstakingly drawing up a large poster announcing the event. This Friday at YOUR local CC! Free Ping-Pong! Free Soft Drinks! Below the inked words he carefully etches out the CC logo, a white four-point star in a red circle. He tacks the poster to the exterior wall, drags up a chair next to it and waits.
The midday sun is out in full force and before long, his pants are sticking to his thighs. The kampong is quiet; most people are indoors, napping after a morning’s hard work. But his job is to interact, and interact he will.
He spots Aunty Hoon, the wife of a fisherman who had known Pa well, coming down the road. From the empty pail in her hand, he knows she is heading for the kampong’s communal tap.
Ah Boon cups his hands around his mouth and shouts: “Aunty Hoon!”
She shields her eyes from the sun, squinting from under the roof of her palm. He waves her over and she obliges.
“Ah Boon! Wa, look at you, wearing shirt and pants. Look so smart. Aiyo, but not hot, meh?” She tugs at his shirtsleeve and the sweat-soaked fabric comes unstuck from his forearm.
“Aunty Hoon, do you like playing ping-pong?”
She laughs and shakes her head. “No lah, aunty so old, play what? These games are for you youngsters, not us.”
“Please, I’m sure you can beat me easily. Look at those muscles!”
Ah Boon tweaks her biceps playfully, setting her off into a giggling fit. He points to the poster behind him. “We’re having a ping-pong tournament this Friday. Free drinks. You should come, okay?”
“Okay, okay. I’ll come support. But no playing for me.” She laughs.
“Ask your sons to come!” he shouts as she walks away. She waves him away, which he takes for a yes.
Ah Boon spends the rest of the day like this, chatting to anyone who walks by, cajoling them to come to his ping-pong tournament. The whole time he thinks about Natalie, the way her glossy black hair swishes at her neck as she walks, so neat, so clean, the satisfied nod she will give when he tells her about the tournament.
Friday morning, the air feels dense as warm breath. It rained torrentially the night before, and while the skies are clear now, the sun draws a relentless heat from the soaked earth, filling the air with the smell of manure and wet grass. The ground is studded with tiny snails that crunch underfoot.
Ma, Uncle, and Ah Hock are the first to arrive at the CC, bright and early. Ma is in a blouse and pants in matching maroon fabric, patterned all over with tiny cream and yellow flowers. Uncle and Ah Hock are also in the New Year clothes they save for special occasions.
Ah Boon welcomes them warmly, offers them plastic cups of iced Milo, and pulls up chairs for them next to the ping-pong table. He signs Ah Hock up as the first contestant in the round-robin. Soon, more people start to arrive. Aunty Hoon brings her whole family, five daughters and one son. Neighbors, friends, even a few people from outside the kampong show up. Ah Boon rushes from person to person, balancing slippery plastic cups of cold drinks and scribbling down names for the tournament. Soon all the slots are filled—less than a third of the people there would get to play—but no one seems to mind. People are milling about, the youngsters sitting down for games of Go, the grandparents taking their spots in front of the TV and marveling at the afternoon news. The electric fans whirl busily overhead, and despite the usual afternoon heat, the air in the CC feels cool and light.
Someone touches the small of his back. Ah Boon turns to see Natalie, her shirt collar crisp, her small nose as perfectly formed as a shiny button. She is standing close enough that he catches a whiff of her soap; a synthetic, powdery scent.
“What a wonderful job you’ve done, Ah Boon,” she says.
The small of his back where her hand is resting burns, and he flushes at the thought of her delicate fingers on his damp sweaty shirt.
“Perfect timing, too, for the reclamation project has just been approved, as well as a very exciting piece of legislation. Would you call everyone to attention so I can make an announcement?”
Ah Boon nods. He climbs up onto a chair, stooping slightly for fear of the ceiling fan knocking him down, even though he isn’t quite tall enough for that to happen.
From where he is standing he can see Ah Hock at the ping-pong table, delivering a killer serve that his opponent flubs. His brother serves another, just as brutal as the first. The boy he is playing against does not stand a chance. His lip juts—it is clear that he is no longer enjoying himself, but Ah Hock does not care. Ah Boon knows that his brother will humiliate the boy thoroughly, in front of all his friends, without as much as a good-natured laugh to soften the defeat.
“Everybody!” Ah Boon says, cupping his hands around his mouth. “Can I have your attention please!”
Conversation dies down, and the silence is filled by the screech of cicadas coming from outside the building. The insects are always louder after the rain. It’s the humidity—the waterlogged air stirs something inside of them, draws them out of the ground and trees and makes them sing their fervent song.
“Thank you everyone for coming today, and welcome to CC E14!”
Applause, some whoops and whistles. Ah Boon feels his brother’s eyes on him, for once not envious, for once, maybe proud.
“I hope you’re enjoying the ping-pong, the soft drinks, and the TV. The CC is a space for us all to share, a place for our kampong to meet and—” He pauses. “Interact.” The unfamiliar word rolls off his tongue smoothly.
Ma is watching him in the crowd, and Uncle too. Ah Boon thinks of how he must look to them, in his pressed white shirt and navy pants, his new haircut with the sideburns shaven clean. He feels a flicker of pride. It is tinged with a darker pleasure, an unsettling sense of superiority. He feels himself standing straighter, squaring his shoulders and smoothing his shirt.
“Natalie, our regional manager, has an announcement to make,” he says. “And then we’ll let you get back to having fun!”
Natalie helps him down from the chair, but she doesn’t get up.
“Hello everyone,” she says. “It’s so wonderful to meet all of you.”
The room is quiet. They don’t cheer or heckle like they did when Ah Boon was talking. Natalie’s clipped English words rise above the swell of the cicadas coming from outside.
“Some of you, no doubt, would have seen the news today about the new land-reclamation project, and the Foreshores Act that’s been passed in Parliament.”
Silence, still. Ah Boon wants to tell her that no one in the room follows politics; not with the endless slew of Directives and Initiatives and Acts that are constantly being passed.
“I’m sure you have concerns, being a coastal settlement yourself. But I am here to assure you that the Gah Men will do everything in its power to make the transition as smooth as possible.”
A murmur ripples through the room. What is the Gah Woman talking about? Why would they be concerned?
“Should you choose to relocate, you’ll have three months to do so, which we expect will be plenty. The reclamation project will begin shortly after. First the foundational work, driving cement piles deep into the seabed to prepare it for landfill. Then the actual sand, imported at great expense from our neighbors. And in five years’ time, this remote coastal swamp will be flat, usable land, the heart of the island’s New Downtown! Just think about it: sparkling modern buildings, concrete roads, electric streetlights,” Natalie says brightly.
The room erupts.
“What transition? What Downtown? Speak clearly!”
“Hah? You’re kicking us out?”
“What’s she talking about, Ah Boon?” Uncle says calmly, his steady voice cutting through the chaos.
Everyone falls silent and looks at Ah Boon.
“Tell them, Outreach Coordinating Officer!” Natalie twinkles.
Ah Boon looks around at the faces of the people has known his whole life, people he has brought here for a good time, only to be told they would be losing their homes they’d known their whole lives, the coastal waters they depended on to live. He sees Ma in the crowd, her thin eyebrows drawn together in confusion, her mouth half open as if to say something. He sees Ah Hock, whose fingers are wrapped so tightly around the ping-pong bat that his knuckles are white. He sees Uncle, his lips a thin colorless line, his wiry liver-spotted arms folded across his skinny chest.
“Uh,” Ah Boon says, the syllable falling like a stupid, heavy pebble into the hostile silence.
The room erupts. Neighbors shake their fists and thump tables, sending cups of Milo skidding to the floor. Ah Hock is shouting at him from the ping-pong table, spittle flecked at the corners of his mouth. Uncle is shaking his head, staring at Ah Boon with unblinking disappointment. Aunties surround Ma, grabbing her wrists and shoulders with urgent hands, gesturing at Ah Boon, telling her to say something, do something, put her son in his place.
Ma’s eyes are closed, her fingers gently stroking her temples, as if trying to imagine herself in a place far, far away from here. This breaks Ah Boon’s heart. He steps off the chair, hanging his head. He will go to Ma, deny it all, blame everything on Natalie. He will quit his job. He will reassure the neighbors, organize protests, protect the community from the Gah Men’s heartless plans.
But as Ah Boon steps towards Ma, he sees the city, gleaming and spotless, rising like a dormant volcano from the sea. He sees it all: sparkling modern buildings, concrete roads, electric streetlights—as Natalie says—and it is a beautiful, impossible sight. He sees Pa, chained at the ankles, kneeling in warm sand as hungry seabirds screech overhead. He sees himself in a white shirt, white pants, round-rimmed glasses perched delicately on his nose. Clipboard in hand, planting flags in the ground, directing the barges and trucks carrying tons and tons of freshly dredged sand.
Fill it up, he would say, pointing to the swamp and sea.
Make it all new again.
Ah Boon stops in his tracks. Ma’s eyes are still closed, so she won’t see him turn around. He hesitates for a moment, then climbs back onto the chair.