C I R C U S A L L E Y
J E S S E H A N G
It was ages ago, yet the old man insists it was only yesterday. Those magic moments, those times when everything is possible; when we can find joy in the simplest things or events; when the rain, the sun, the moon, the animals, the rivers, the rocks... everything and anything is a part of our blissful life, and the spirits too.
We spoke but a few words then, and yet we communicated. Not a day went by when we didn't find joy in the things we did. We did not differentiate between days and nights, let alone months or years. We did not bother with the past nor were we concerned about the future. Every moment of our life we savoured like it was our last; while we knew we would never die. We were alive then, and we were eternal.
It was just an ordinary town with about half a dozen streets, a dozen rows of pre-war colonial shophouses, a railway station, a post office, a cinema, two primary schools, two secondary schools, a police station, a market, and a football field next to it where we used to play, and which also served as a venue for various community events. Adjoining a part of the town was the Chinese New Village with its maze of narrow alleys and decrepit wooden houses with rusted zinc roofs. On the outskirts of town lay some Malay kampung with its beautiful wooden houses on stilts and its lovely gardens and fruit trees; and the rubber estates from which many Indians would converge in town at the end of every month to stock up on provisions. Also within sight of the town centre was the tropical rainforest with its rivers, streams, lakes and waterfalls; and where dwelt all sorts of wild animals and mysterious spirits. All in all, a fairly ordinary town like any other you'd find all over the country.
Like any other young children, we were not aware of states, countries, or continents then. Our immediate surroundings were our universe. And what a universe it was. Everyone we saw, and those mysterious spirits that we didn't; every cat we chased, and every dog that chased us; the rocks that we threw and broke, and the rocks that broke our skin when we fell from the trees we climbed; the wind that carried our kites way up in the sky, and the breezes that came swirling by; the bicycle that provided us all those thrills and spills, and those spirits that dwelt up in the hills; the rain that came and provided the puddles for us to play in, and that swept our sandcastles away; the dreams that saw us performing incredible feats, and those that startled us from our sleep; all these were a part of our universe and we a part of theirs. We made no distinction between plants and rocks, humans and animals, birds and fishes, dreams and reality, physical and emotional, or material and spiritual. In fact we made no distinction at all between anything in our universe. We were whole, we were pure, and we were happy.
We were just as happy to play in the rain as we were in the sun. The alley between the back of two rows of shophouses was our primary playground, which we shared with the resident chickens, ducks, pigeons, plants, cats, and all the other kids on the block. Occasionally some stray dogs, goats or cows would wander down the alley and be a part of our circus. This alley between two rows of shophouses was always bustling with activity from sunrise to sundown. From the moment the cockerel crowed at dawn to announce the arrival of the sun, you could discern each and every sound: of someone opening a door, boiling a kettle of water, children running down wooden stairs, the clanging of pots and pans, mothers emptying chamber pots, washing clothes, waking up their children, and preparing their breakfast before they set off to school; all culminating in an indistinguishable din of activities.
There was never any lack of activities in our circus alley. Step out of the back door and you could end up on the moon. And how many times did those mysterious spirits chase us back to the comfort of our family room? Fortunately, most times they left us alone and let us play our games; games with all sorts of rules and games with no rules; games where everybody knew the rules, and games where nobody knew the rules. And there were those games with names, games with no names, and those with many names. Nobody knew when a game would begin, and certainly nobody knew when it would end. It could start with one player, and it could end with fifty. It could end in a minute or it could last for days. It could begin in our circus alley and end up in the field in front of our house. It could begin with a ball, a stick, a rope, a stone, or just our imagination alone.
And the manner in which a game ended was as varied as the types of tin cans. It could end when the shuttlecock got stuck on the roof; or when an adult parked his car and refused to move. It could end with a mother's call; it could end when someone had a fall; or it could end for no reason at all.
We didn't need any reason for doing anything then, and we didn't need any reason for doing nothing at all. If we wanted to play, we would just step out of our back door. We never needed to plan anything when we ventured into our circus alley, because our universe was full of people, animals, plants, stones, sun, rain, wind, and spirits ~ all with an agenda of their own. We could step out with our skipping rope, and the other kids would be playing hopscotch on the road. We could be catching some centipedes, earthworms or houseflies, when the Punjabi man on the bullock-cart would come by, and we would all climb on board and have the ride of our life.
Sometimes, while we were playing with paper aeroplanes it would rain, then we would make paper boats and float them down the drain. Sometimes while we were playing marbles or spinning our tops, another kid would come by, and we would end up hunting for frogs. At times we could step out with a rubber ball, and there would be nobody at all. Most times we stepped out with nothing at all, and ended up having a ball. If we had a plan and insisted on following through with all our plans, we probably would have ended up disappointed, all alone and without any friends.
Circus Alley was the centre of our universe. The resident chickens, ducks, cats, kids, adults, flowers, clotheslines, garbage bins, houseflies, pigeons, spirits were a familiar part of our life. Circus Alley was linked to every other road in town that we knew of, and countless more that we didn't. From these other roads would come all sorts of people, things, animals, or spirits that would add more colour to our already colourful life. Those mysterious spirits: they didn't seem to come from any road. We could be happily playing with our friends and suddenly be aware that they were there! We could be walking down the road, and though they made no sound, we would know that they were there! They came from nowhere; they were everywhere; and seemed to appear and disappear like the thin air!
Circus Alley didn't exist all on its own; it was only the back alley of two rows of shophouses with a circus of their own. The activities that went on in these shops were closely linked with those in Circus Alley. From these shops would emerge the kids that we played with, the cardboard boxes, bottles, wooden crates, rubber tyres, old pots and pans, plastic containers, empty tin cans, rotten vegetables, cats, chickens, broken chairs, old clothing, newspapers and magazines, and all sorts of known and unknown objects that we could play with, and which have always been an integral part of our life. The activity that went on in these shops was the reason why some of the people and animals from the other roads came to our Circus Alley.
Among the people that came from the other roads to add more colour to our life was the Punjabi man on the bullock-cart. We never knew when he would come as we were not aware of time then, and were happy and carefree. Sometimes while we were helping our sisters hang the washing on the clothesline, we would hear some kids cry: Mangkali!! Mangkali!! In an instant the entire alley would burst into activity. We would forget about the washing and rush to the Punjabi. Mangkali!! Mangkali!! Kids would pour out of the rows of doors and surround the Punjabi. Mangkali!! Mangkali!! More kids would pour out into the alley with empty bottles and old newspapers for our Mangkali.
He was a kind jolly old man, our dear Mangkali. A gentle giant he was, with white turban, flowing white beard and hairy chest. Dressed in his usual white singlet and baggy pants, he looked like a genie that came out from a magic lamp. The sight of our dear Mangkali on his bullock-cart pulled by two giant bulls with huge horns instantly transformed our Circus Alley into wonderland. The two giant bulls were the biggest animals we ever saw, and none of us dared to get too close to them from the front. We always hurried to the back and tried to be the first one to climb on board. It always amazed us how our gentle giant could make those bulls move or stop whenever he wanted. Our dear Mangkali would usually come with his bullock-cart laden with firewood. Very few people had gas stoves then, and most of us did our cooking with charcoal or firewood. We would help him unload the firewood to whomever had bought them, and also give him the empty bottles and empty cans. Then we would insist on our payment and climb on board for the ride of our life. Plod, plod, plod... the bullock-cart would amble along slowly, and yet we always felt it had gone too fast when we had to get off at the end of the alley. Plod, plod... our dear Mangkali would amble along, leaving us with fond memories all our lives long.
From these other roads too, came an assortment of pedlars with their various goods. There was the Tikam man who would come on his "Layli" bicycle. His whole bicycle was so completely laden with goods that the only way you could know there was a bicycle underneath was from the telltale front wheel, the pedals and the brakes on the handlebar. The back of his bicycle was like a treasure-chest overflowing with sweets, chocolates, chewing-gum, biscuits, kites, marbles, siang pien, toy snakes, centipedes, spiders, windmills, and much more. Hanging over the handlebar were all the Tikam games from which he got his name.
The Tikam games consisted of rows of colourful folded slips of paper glued to a piece of cardboard. It was a game of chance where, for five cents, you got to peel off two of these slips, unfold them and see if you had won any prizes like toys, sweets, or money. Occasionally when you had spent ten cents or more, and did not win anything, the Tikam man would give you an extra chance with the slips. If still you did not win, he would give you a sweet lest you weep.
Siang pien is actually the Mandarin word for picture cards. They were about the size of your normal playing cards, and had pictures of airplanes, trains, demons, superheroes, gods, fairies, and all sorts of characters from movies or comic books. "Layli" was actually "Raleigh" pronounced inaccurately by the Chinese; and Tikam is the Malay word for stab, used loosely to mean chance as in stab in the dark. Tikam, Layli, siang pien, or Mangkali; it made no difference to us what language they were, or whether they were pronounced accurately or inaccurately. We were still whole, we were still pure and we were still happy.
There were many who came by our Circus Alley daily. Two of these were the vegetable ladies. Every morning they would come, each with two bamboo baskets full of vegetables hung on both ends of a wooden pole balanced across her shoulders. They looked like two walking human scales. From these two ladies our parents would buy some of our daily groceries. They would haggle, they would gossip, complain and curse each other good-naturedly.
These potatoes are great for curry. My third son is now studying in the city. How much for a catty of choy sam? Eighty cents? Too expensive. Did you know that Mei Lee is now married? That brocolli doesn't look fresh. It's ninety cents at the market. Do you want the potatoes or not? How come your tomatoes are never fresh? June Lee got married to a teacher in the city. Complain, complain, complain... why don't you grow your own then? I just harvested them this morning. How much are they? What? The potatoes. How many people were there at the wedding? One dollar for the whole lot. Whose wedding? Here's your change. You still owe me forty cents from yesterday. It was twenty cents. We agreed that the long beans cost forty cents, the cabbage sixty cents, and the chillies twenty cents. I did not buy any chillies yesterday. Ask her! When was the wedding? Whose wedding? It was three days ago when I bought the chilies. How about seventy cents for the choy sam? Cheapskate. Has anyone seen Mrs. Wong yet? It's been a week since she disappeared. Which Mrs. Wong? What happened? Seventy-five cents, and don't waste any more of my time. I won't buy anything from you anymore. I won't let you owe me anymore. The proprietress of the turtle soup shop. The stall that opened a few months ago? I've heard that she ran away with a lorry driver! Are you sure? Maybe she's just gone back to the city for some other purpose. Highly unlikely! Everyone knows she fought with her husband regularly... and the way she dresses and talks to the customers...
Nobody was ever in a hurry. These ladies knew the history of every family. In fact, the whole alley seemed like one big noisy squabbling family.
Usually, in the morning, there would be at least a few families that would be doing their laundry beside the drain outside their backdoor. Surrounded by a few bucketfuls of clothes and water, squatting or sitting on small wooden stools; our mothers and sisters would scrub the grime and dirt from our clothes using a brush and wooden washing board. Nobody used washing powder then, and everyone was using the same brown soap. Our parents bought these long bars of brown soap and cut them into about a dozen handy cubes. While washing they would be chatting with the neighbours. Us kids would be playing with the water and foam. We would also help them hang up the clean clothes on the clothesline. The clothesline was made of wires strung across two wooden poles leaning against the back wall of the shophouses. The entire alley was lined with these clotheslines and everybody shared in their use.
Everyone that came from the other roads in town always created a flurry amidst our daily din of activities. If some other kids came by, there always would be some excitement as to whether they would join our games and have some fun, or inform us of other interesting things happening at the other alleys. When some big lorries came to deliver goods to the furniture and provision shops, we would be very excited, curious, and happy. We enjoyed watching these men unloading goods; wondering what was in all those huge gunny sacks, tins, boxes, crates, or baskets. There would be rice, flour, onions, apples, oranges, cooking oil, condensed milk, and much more. Some of these we could see, some we could smell, some we could never ever tell. These sweaty, strong men in dirty torn singlets and baggy shorts were always fun to watch. They shouted a lot, cursed a lot, joked a lot and laughed a lot. We would mill around or play nearby, anticipating all the fun we would have with the empty boxes and cartons they always left behind. Sometimes they would give us a slightly damaged apple or two, if we didn't bother them when they were unloading their goods.
Animals, be it a cow, dog or goat, were a very welcome intrusion into our Circus Alley as they never failed to create a ruckus among the children, chickens, ducks, in fact, all and sundry. Even the garbage truck we were happy to see. The moment it turned into our alley, all the men on board would jump off and proceed to carry our rattan garbage baskets and empty them into the back of the truck.
The cendol man, the tau fu fah lady; the little girl who was always skipping down the road, and the old lady with bound feet ambling down the road; the chicken seller pushing his bicycle laden with chickens in rattan cages, and the scruffy old man in his drunken rage; they and many more came from the other roads and were a part of our blissful alley.
THE GREAT INSURRECTION
As the pure water from the ground surfaces in a spring to flow as the stream, we grew up in our Circus Alley and flowed forward into the mainstream. For many years to come school was to be a big part of our universe. Our parents dressed us in school uniforms, equipped us with pencils and books, and told us to obey the teachers and the school rules. We had to read and write, though we didn't really know why. It had something to do with the future and a better life. We never understood what that meant, but we accepted life and all its offerings. The future for us meant absolutely nothing; and a better life than our Circus Alley we couldn't imagine.
For days before we first set foot in school, we were aware that there was to be a big change in our life. Our parents started discussing things like book-lists, school uniforms, school fees, acceptable shoes, length of hair, and cost of things rising everywhere. They were also overly eager to please us, and we could sense anxiety in the air. They kept telling us about the fun we could have in school and we began to suspect that we were about to be fooled. Some of us heard them wondering if we would cry, and that really made us wonder why.
Then the big day arrived! Accompanied by our parents, uncles, aunties, or older brothers and sisters we were about to begin our first day in school. As we approached the school gate with mixed feelings of anxiety and excitement , nothing seemed very amiss and all seemed fair. In fact, the scene inside and around the school gate did resemble a fun fair. There were lots of schoolboys, schoolgirls, adults, buses, cars, bicycles, trucks, motorcycles, hawkers selling drinks and sweets, and excitement everywhere.
All the children were in school uniform, but the adults were quite a motley crew. Dressed in shorts, long pants, singlets, shirts, dhotis, baju kurung, rubber boots, slippers, saris, shoes, and clothes of all colours; they weren't any different from those that passed by our Circus Alley. On a few occasions, we saw a white turban among the crowd, and were dissapointed it wasn't our dear old Mangkali. Malays, Indians, Chinese, or Punjabis; the adults were mixing around quite freely.
An army truck suddenly arrived and that created quite a flurry. Two soldiers jumped out the back of the truck, lowered the back-siding, secured a detachable ladder; and scores of school children clambered down to join the din of activities.
Our feelings of anxiety were slightly allayed when we saw some older children returning from school holidays coming to school on their own, or with a friend or two. We were further reassured that no great harm was going to befall us when we saw some other children skipping ropes, playing marbles, chasing each other, squealing with delight, buying sweets and drinks from the hawkers, or running to greet friends they hadn't seen for weeks. And we were especially glad to see some older kids from Circus Alley too. A few younger children were crying, and their parents were anxiously placating them, but we were aware that it happens at fun fairs too.
And then the school bell rang!
Instantly, all the children stopped playing their games, and any semblance of a fun fair dissapeared into thin air. All the older children seemed to know exactly what to do, and headed straight to the assembly ground in front of the main building of the school. With the help of some prefects and a teacher or two, our parents herded us to join the older children too. Standing in line two by two, we faced a flagpole, a headmaster, and about twenty teachers who were all set to rule. Two prefects went up and got hold of the flag-string; and as the older children began to sing, the national flag was raised, and began flapping in the wind. Then the headmaster made a long speech in a language we did not understand; and when he finished, the older children marched to their classes, hand in hand.
We weren't sure what we should do; but before we knew it, our parents and appointed teacher had herded us into our classroom to teach us a few basic rules. About forty of us kids from four major races and five major dialects with no idea what to do; the teacher tried to rule, and inevitably, chaos ruled instead. In a language we did not understand, the teacher told us where to sit, keep quiet, stop playing, and pay attention to the matter at hand. On and on the teacher went, though none of us could understand. None of this made any sense, and that's when the Great Insurrection began!
A few of us started screaming, a few of us tried to run out of school;
Some of us started crying, and one wanted to hit the teacher with a stool;
One suddenly got sick, and the whole room began to reek;
One ran out the back door, one started pissing on the floor;
Just when we thought we had the upper-hand,
A few parents lent the teacher a helping hand.
With coaxing, threatening, ridiculing, bribing, and even beating,
Our Great Insurrection was reduced to nothing.
A few of us continued shouting, and some resorted to sulking;
A few parents couldn't stand to see their children cry;
So they took their child home to explain why.
Some thought the whole thing was rather silly;
And only wanted to return to Circus Alley.
Some decided to turn the other cheek, some will always be soft and meek;
A few just didn't understand, and even gave the teacher a helping hand.
Most of us were just too confused, and just didn't know what to choose.
The teacher wasn't really cruel, and didn't seem to enjoy the hullabaloo;
But those were the rules, so he had to do what he had been told to do.
Having done all this before, he knew exactly how to keep his cool:
To prove that he wasn't cruel, he let us all home early from school.
On our way home our spirits rose; we had nearly suffocated in school but we didn't really know why. Our parents explained to us a few things, but we never really understood what they meant. Now that we were out of school, we didn't really want to bother with their silly rules.
We went back to Circus Alley, hoping to catch a glimpse of our dear old Mangkali. He was nowhere to be seen, but we saw the Chinese man on his bicycle selling ice-cream. We asked our parents to buy us some, and knowing what we'd been through, she would have given us the sun. As we sat on a bench enjoying our ice-cream, watching two little girls playing with their skipping ropes and a neighbour washing some clothes, some goats wandered into our alley; and we were happy as can be. The goats were still in our alley rummaging through the garbage when we finished our ice-cream, so we yelled and screamed and proceeded to chase them down the alley.
At the end of the alley we saw the drunken man stumbling along in a daze, so we decided to tease him and started acting silly. We circled around him, made funny faces, called him names and he flew into a rage. We got frightened, so we ran to our neighbour who was washing clothes and she told us that's not how we should behave. She also told us that if we make funny faces, a spirit might posess us and our faces might forever remain that way. We looked at each other's faces, felt relieved and guilty, and decided to mend our ways.
Looking towards the end of the alley, we saw some children returning from school. Some of them walked through our alley and we observed them as they passed. One or two ambled by looking tired and frayed; most were generally happy, excited and couldn't wait to play.
Later in the afternoon, a mother was collecting laundry from the clothesline. Another was doing the same a few doors away. An older sister walked out of another door, and within seconds a conference was taking place. The main topic today was about school; especially about those of us on our first day. Who had done this, who had done that; who behaved well and who had cried. Pity the poor mother whose child had pissed on the floor; maybe next year they should lock the back door. My poor child almost cried, and I almost did the same too. We were just playing a few feet away, and could hear every word they said. Another two adults joined in the fray, offering all sorts of advice; they had a lot to say.
Last year my child cried, but he got over it in a day or two. I wish there was another way; the teacher was too strict with the rules. The new teacher was not cool; she didn't really know what to do. Once in a while they glanced our way; giving us some advice and some praise. Of course, the children don't like going to school, but we have to think of their future too. Mrs. Lim sent her daughter to kindergarten, and she didn't cry; maybe we should do the same as she did too. We couldn't afford to pay the price; what else can a poor man do? I'm not sure the whole system is right; maybe there's something we could do.
We don't even know how to read and write; I'm sure the teachers know what to do. The British ruled the world and left us such wonderful schools; if we don't make use of them, we'd truly be fools. Anyway it's already getting dark, and I've got to round up the ducks! Wow! it's already so late, and I still haven't washed the plates. Looks like it might rain tonight; the thunder last night gave me such a fright. The price of rubber is at an all-time high, and the weather refuses to stay dry. If not for this bloody monsoon, we'd have an economic boom. I wonder when the Mangkali is going to come by, I'm already runnning out of firewood. I still have so much to do, and I've got to get the children ready for school.
THE GREAT DIVIDE
As the days went by, we were resigned to the fact that we had to go to school. Against the wishes of our parents and all those voices, we really didn't have any choice. They talked about the past, the future, the sufferings, and many more things; it all sounded very confusing, and none of it ever sounded convincing. Go to school, you'll learn many things; but we were no fools, to us it didn't mean a thing.
In no time we did learn to read and write. And also how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide. Now we were the older children in school, and we knew all the school rules. When we heard the school bell ring we would gather at the assembly ground to sing; and then march to our classes hand in hand as the younger children yelled and screamed.
From knowing no time, we were now vaguely aware of time. Certain times
were allocated for History, Geography, Arithmetic, Physical Education, Art, Civics, English, Chinese, and Malay. The only time we were really happy was recess when we could eat, drink, rest, and play. All the other times in school, we had to sit in our classroom and listen to what the teachers had to say.
To make sure that we learned the things we were supposed to learn, the teachers had to do what they'd been taught to do. Some heaped praise on those who did well; some ridiculed those who failed to excel. Some treated us very well; some made our life a hell. Some weren't even interested in what they did; some went overboard with their rules. Some made our classes fun; some only made us want to grunt. One or two beat us regularly; they also graded us unfairly. Some taught us a thing or two; some didn't know which or what from who.
To ensure that we did well, we memorized every word we had to spell. Trying to understand all those maths; some of us almost went mad. Remembering all those places in Geography made some of us dizzy. Memorizing all those dates in History drove some of us crazy. To make sure we finished our essay, some of us had to forgo our play. To avoid some of the beatings, some of us resorted to cheating. Suffering humiliation week after week, some will always remain soft and meek.
All those years they had also given us tests, dividing each of us from the rest; who's stupid, who's clever, who's the best. Among all the subjects in school, there was ranking of importance too. Certain subjects could get you into engineering or medical school; spend time on certain other subjects and you'd be called a fool. A few subjects were crucial too; fail those and you won't get into high school.
Once on our way home from school, we saw a few children around our age playing in the field in front of our school; their clothing torn and tattered, they
had no shoes. We realised that they could not afford to go to school, and they realised that we could. Our eyes met, and without a word they left, knowing that we were divided; we all felt bad.
Listening to our teachers day after day, our knowledge expanded but our universe was divided. We now had less time to play; and most of us had forgotten that in Circus Alley everything had a say and a part to play. From a complete universal being we were divided and taught to divide everything.
Around this time we were spending less time in Circus Alley as we began to explore beyond our immediate surroundings. One of my friends had discovered where we could catch fighting fishes. For a while now we had been playing with fighting spiders, and catching them was a relatively simple thing. All we had to do was spend hours looking for leaves that were stuck together, peep in to see if there was any spider, cup those leaves between both our hands, and hope that it was a male. (The female spiders have bigger rounder bums and they don't fight.) The males we put in matchboxes with a few leaves; brought them to school and somehow always found someone somewhere with another male spider to fight with. Releasing the spiders from each end of a matchbox or pencilbox, the opponents would approach each other and fight. Sometimes it would last about ten seconds, sometimes only one, and sometimes there'd be no fight at all. The loser was easy to detect as it would run about helter-skelter.
Fighting fishes are much more interesting, and they do fight a lot longer. These fishes have incredibly bright colours ranging from red, blue, green, to purple; and some are multi-coloured. They are normally about two inches long and we keep them in separate glasses. When you put them together, they extend their gills to the maximum, arch their bodies into an 'S' shape, sometimes tangled up like a ball; their colours get brighter, and they start biting one another. The fight normally lasts a few minutes, but can range from a few seconds to nearly an hour. The loser swims about helter-skelter; amazingly, it loses all colour and becomes so transparent that you can see its skeleton.
Catching fighting fishes was a different matter altogether compared to catching fighting spiders. It wasn't the process of catching them or the equipment required. All we needed to bring along were a few rusted tin cans and a discarded rattan school-basket. The biggest problem was the location. One of my friends told us that in the jungle on the outskirts of town there were a few streams, and in them we could find fighting fishes. We knew our parents wouldn't allow us to go in there, but we could easily not tell them. We also knew that, along with the fighting fishes, there could be snakes, tigers, wild boar, bloodsuckers and all sorts of other wild animals in there; but some of our elder brothers owned fighting fishes which they didn't have to buy. So, not to be outdone, we decided to give it a try.
One thing we were all aware of, but did not discuss, were those mysterious spirits. They had been with us all our lives and we had no doubt whatsoever that they were there in the jungle. However, somehow, somewhere, someone had told us that if we showed them some respect, they would not harm us and would leave us alone. All we needed to do was say a simple "Excuse me" in whatever dialect or language we knew. If we were afraid to walk down an alley at night or walk through a jungle path, all we needed to do was say: "Excuse me, spirits, I want to pass through." And we didn't need to say it aloud. Those mysterious spirits, they understand all languages and hear things that none others do. One thing which we must never ever forget is to say, "Excuse me" before we piss anywhere in the jungle, or wherever they are likely to rest ~ like under a big tree or some shady area by the roadside. They would definitely be very upset.
One afternoon after school, two friends and I found a discarded rattan basket and decided to go catch some fighting fishes. When we found the little track that lead into the jungle I said my "Excuse me" silently and noticed that my two friends were muttering something under their breath too. We were full of fear and spent a lot of time looking left and right while expecting something to attack us from the rear. The sound of cicadas was terrifying and every branch looked like a snake. Danger lurked behind every bush and we were alert for anything that moved. We didn't need to go far before we found the first stream; tested the depth of the muddy water with a branch, and started scooping for fish. Within minutes we caught our first fish, and though it wasn't the fighting fish that we were interested in, we were happy as can be.
There were holes and cracks along the banks, so we put the basket in front of them and stuck a branch in. This way we caught another spotted fish, and a fighting fish which caused us to scream with delight. We put our basket in front of another hole, and having lost our branch in our excitement, I stuck my hand in. I instantly let out a yell; something had bitten me and it hurt like hell. We saw something swim away; whether it was an eel or a snake we couldn't tell. One friend said that if it was a snake, my face would turn blue and I would die. I was so afraid I just cried. We hurried home as fast as we could, forgetting our fishes in the tin cans. All the way home I kept asking my friends if my face had turned blue, and if it did what we should do. We did get home safely and spent the rest of the day in the safety of Circus Alley.
Then came the Light Blue Brigade. From their very first arrival they stirred up sentiments bordering on hate. A van arrived in our Circus Alley, and out poured a half dozen light-blue-coated ladies. A dozen plastic bottles in a rectangular rattan basket in each hand, they hurried down our alley like a marauding band...
Promising new things that were better than our old,
Repeating the same story at every household;
Doing everything as if they were in a race,
Then disappearing into their van without a trace.
Following close behind were the ladies in white
With baskets full of solvent that would resolve every plight;
Always without a moment to spare
And never a moment for which to care;
Promising new things that would fulfil our every need:
Spotless, soulless, and smelling of greed.
Everytime they came it was the same old thing:
Immune to children, animals, indeed to all beings...
We had seen them in our alley recently. There was much that we did not understand, but we knew that things were begining to get out of hand. All sorts of pedlars had come through our alley before; but these blue and white brigades just charged into our house through the back door. Auntie! Auntie! they would scream; ignoring everything, they would just barge in. They would pester, they would insist, and leave free samples which some of our parents couldn't resist, and some thought that was just what they needed. Somehow these blue and white brigades in their immaculate uniforms and baskets full of detergents, solvents, and disinfectants meant to purify our household managed to contaminate our universe ~ which none of the other sweaty, dirty, scruffy humans, children, and animals ever did. Whenever I saw them coming in through the back door, I wished we had never let them in before, and it always made me run to the front door.
At the front door we were on Main Street, where our parents conducted their business and all sorts of other activities. It wasn't that much different from Circus Alley though they were more serious about their activities. All the parents of the kids in Circus Alley were a familiar part of Main Street. We would wander from one end of the row of shophouses to the other, and observe the things they did.
At one end was a Chinese medicine shop with its wall of tiny wooden drawers filled with herbs and medicine of all sorts. A sinseh sat, holding the wrist of a patient, feeling the pulse and flow of ch'i and contemplating the types of herbs to recommend; making some calculation with the fingers of one hand, and then proceeding to write down prescriptions of herbs based on ancient knowledge in his possession. As his assistant searched for the herbs amongst the thousands of drawers, he would counsel his patient on the importance of rest and sleep, and the qualities of the food we daily eat, and then calmly sip his tea. The prescribed herbs had to be paid for; for the diagnosis and consultancy, you paid what you could afford or not at all.
A heated discussion was taking place next door, and it was over the price of a chair. A customer had bought the same chair before, and now the price had gone up and that wasn't fair.
The smell of rubber filled the air at the rubber dealer's shop.
And you can still smell the curry from the Indian restaurant a few doors away.
A young boy refuses to cut his hair and starts crying in front of the Indian barber shop, attracting the attention of a dozen people who are waiting for the bus outside the Chinese coffee shop. The sound of bells ringing from the bicycle shop can be heard amidst the cacophony of sounds that issue from the Chinese coffee shop...
"Yes," the old man says, "I remember Circus Alley."
© Jesse Hang, 1999
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