Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei (Lonely Planet Travel Series)
Traveling overseas and living overseas can be quite different experiences. I'd been in Singapore twice as a guest before I moved to the island to live. Making a home in Singapore allowed me to see the place through different eyes.
I had this story published in 1998 at the Babel website, here. It is a true story, one that happened early on in my years in Singapore.
It was dirty. The smell of urine seemed to overpower everything else. I held my breath till I reached the third level.
“Mr. Ho!�" I called. “Mr. Ho! Are you home?�"
There was no answer, but it was obvious he was home. The door was open, the lights were on, and the sound of Chinese music from the radio floated from the apartment.
I stuck my head through the open door. “Mr. Ho! I’m here.�"
The old man got up, against my protests, and shuffled across the room to greet me. I walked into the tiny flat, leaving my shoes at the door.
It was no cleaner inside than it had been outside. The cleanest place seemed to be in the cage with two white rabbits on the floor -- at least their paper was changed each day.
Mr. Ho went to get a cold drink from the refrigerator. No matter how much I insisted that I wasn’t thirsty, there was always something cold for me to drink -- usually left by a church or charity organization.
We sat and talked about the rabbits. The female had given birth a few weeks before. One of the neighbors had heard that the father would eat the newborns, so they were kept in a separate cage. They starved within a day.
The conversation began to wear thin, as it usually did after a while. Mr. Ho started to sing. I couldn’t understand most of the words, but as usual, he got teary-eyed while he sang.
After a few choruses he brought out his photo album. The pictures were all black and more-yellow-than-white. It was old Singapore, like you see in all the museums.
I came across one pretty young girl. “Who’s that?�" I asked, “your sister?�"
Mr. Ho laughed and said, “No, guess again.�"
“Your mother?�" I asked, shocked. “But she’s so young!�"
“No!�" he laughed even harder. “Keep guessing.�"
When I had run out of options, I had to give up. “Who is it?�" I asked again.
“It’s me!�" he exclaimed, now laughing uncontrollably. “I told you I was a lounge singer back then. Didn’t you know we were forced to dress like that during the war? Do you want to hear a Japanese song?�"
I looked at the pretty young girl as he crooned away. Now that he mentioned it, there was no denying the truth. It sent goose bumps as I reflected on what Mr. Ho must have faced during that difficult era. I had read and heard a lot about what the locals had endured under the Japanese occupation, and none of it had been very pleasant.
I looked toward the rabbits again. There was a huge, half-eaten carrot lying between them. I remembered the first time I’d seen those rabbits at Mr. Ho’s house. I had felt so sorry for their poor living conditions. I had spent so much time that day helping Mr. Ho care for the rabbits that I had felt guilty -- and I had left wondering why it was easier to take care of animals than it was to take care of other people.
“Bat Suet Lei,�" Mr. Ho always called me by my Cantonese name. “Don’t be sad. It was a long time ago.�"
“I know, Mr. Ho.�" I tried to smile.
As usual, when I stood to leave, Mr. Ho expressed his appreciation profusely for my visit. I still don’t know why he appreciated it so much. Surely a few moments each week with a foreigner who spoke Chinese poorly couldn’t do much to ease his loneliness.
It was a relief to get out into the fresh air, away from the smell of the neighborhood. But my mind was still in that tiny apartment. Mr. Ho represented the minute portion of Singaporeans in poverty. And even for him, all of his physical needs were met.
I couldn’t help but think how much more there is to life than all of that. He’d survived great horrors and had lived to a ripe old age. He and I both knew he was just waiting for his final day to come when he could pass from this life.
I had asked Mr. Ho before, “Are you a happy man?�"
His answer held all the wisdom of the sages. “I have rice in my bowl and a roof over my head. I have lived a long life. Is there any reason for me to be unhappy?�"
I hope when I am 85 years old and look back on the life I have lived -- a life still untouched by such misery as Mr. Ho survived -- that I can be as determined to see the best in it. I hope to look for the simple goodness in life, and to be at peace with the rest.
For an interesting read about Singapore during WWII, check out Ian Ward's The Killer They Called a God at Amazon.