Exercise based on John Jin by Rose Tremain
Have an older narrator look back to a special place in his childhood. Have something happen to that place as a foreboding for the real story. Though the real story is not revealed yet, there should be hints of it throughout the story.
I often held my auntie’s hand whenever we walked to the hawker center, a few blocks from where we used to live in Singapore. Once we arrived however, I would yank my hand free and run off while my auntie would struggle to keep up, zigzagging between the countless tables and stools and evading the hordes of hungry people, while I explored the little stalls that went around the entire hawker center. There were hundreds of them, thousands or maybe even millions, with every single one of them holding the delightful promise of a delicious treat. Shall I go for the Mee Goreng today? Or maybe the Hokkien Mee? Or do I want Otah? No, no, wait! I see Roti Paratha! I want Roti Paratha!
There was one dish I loved above all the others however: the Hainanese Chicken Rice, or ji fan as we call it in Chinese. We always visited the same stall whenever I wanted ji fan. The stall was owned by an old man and I remember being afraid of him at first. He had yellow crooked teeth – or at least the ones he still had left – and a large pimple just to the right of his chin out of which grew several strands of coarse white hair. He loved to cackle loudly at his own jokes, a sound so horrific it would send goose bumps to my skinny forearms. The old man seemed to me more like a fantastical monster out of a fairy tale than a real person. But he always gave me an extra drumstick to go along with the rice, and in the end, the temptation of having more chicken to eat was stronger than any fears I held for him. In time, I even grew fond of the old man, and I always looked forward to my many visits to his stall.
In the summer of 1988, a couple of months before my tenth birthday, a new and larger hawker center opened a little bit further away. At first most people did not give it a lot of thought, except for a few individuals who felt they could do with a change of diet. When those pioneers returned from their first trip, they gushed enthusiastically about how good the food tasted at the new hawker center. Especially the ji fan, they said. If nothing else, you should go there for the chicken rice. Slowly more and more people found their way to the new place. Not us though, at first. We kept going back to the old hawker center and especially the old man’s stall, if only because of my incessant nagging. Shortly after however, there was an article in the newspapers that reported that they found a cockroach infestation in one of the stalls, and my auntie refused to go back there again despite my many, many protests. “That place is filthy,” she would say. “It’s not good for you. Now stop complaining.”
I received unexpected assistance when my parents came to visit us during the school holidays. “Let the boy have his way,” they told my auntie. “And besides, we prefer to go somewhere quiet anyway so we can talk in peace.” My auntie relented, nodding her head silently.
I skipped ahead of my auntie and my parents as we made our way together to the old hawker center. When we arrived I immediately headed towards the chicken rice stall. The entire place was now almost empty, so I could run in a straight line unlike in the past. When I saw the old man, I waved wildly with my arms as I approached, but he remained sitting on his stool, failing to see my frantic gestures. It wasn’t until I called out to him that he finally noticed me. “Hey, ah gong, give me an extra drumstick, lah!” He looked up and smiled when he saw it was me. “You naughty boy,” he said while cackling loudly. “Haven’t you learnt to show proper respect to your elders?” But even as he was saying this, he was already bustling around preparing the rice and chicken for me to enjoy.