Revision of the exercise based on John Jin by Rose Tremain
Even though I missed two previous sessions, I decided to do a revision of the Tremaine piece instead of bringing one of the exercises I skipped, because it is definitely a piece I want to develop into a real short story. I’m not too unhappy with how the piece is developing; I think this version is already stronger than the previous one, and I’m starting to get a real sense of direction on where I am heading with the story. I do believe the final draft will deviate from the original exercise, but that’s ok. The exercise has given me the structure to develop the initial ideas, but now I just have to work out the story according to my own vision.
Although there are some autobiographical elements in the story (as people close to me will undoubtedly notice), I would like to emphasize that more than 95% of the story is fiction, and thus have little bearing with the situations and characters in real life!
I often held my auntie’s hand whenever we walked together to the hawker center, a few blocks away from where we lived in Singapore. Once we arrived however, I would always yank my hand free and run off. My auntie always struggled to keep up, shouting at me not to run, while I was zigzagging between the many tables and stools and evading the hordes of hungry people, while I explored the stalls that went round and round the entire hawker center. There were hundreds of them, thousands, millions, as far as the eye could see, and every single one of them held the delightful promise of a delicious treat. I want the Mee Goreng! 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 treasured above all the other dishes however: the Hainanese Chicken Rice, or ji fan as we call it in Chinese, which is typically served with white steamed chicken of which the broth is used to cook the rice with. We always visited the same stall whenever I wanted ji fan. The stall was owned by an old man whom I was terrified of when I first met him. He had yellow crooked teeth – 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. However, he would always serve the rice to me with an extra drumstick and a big smile, a smile so disarming I often marveled at how such an ugly face could ever produce something so wonderful. In the end the smile and the temptation of having more chicken to eat was able to overcome any fears I held for him, and I always looked forward to my many visits to his stall.
In the summer of 1988, a few months before my tenth birthday, a new hawker center opened within the neighborhood. 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 first pioneers returned from their journey, 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. Word got around, and slowly more and more people found their way to the new place. Even us. My auntie and I had an uneasy compromise at first, as we alternated between the old and the new place. My auntie always wanted to go the new place as she argued the food was better over there, while I always insisted on going back the old place. Besides, the owner of the chicken rice stall there was a grumpy man who just glared at me whenever I asked for extra chicken. One day my auntie became exasperated by my incessant nagging. “Stop complaining!” she said in a threatening tone. Stubborn as I was, I complained anyway, using several words children should have no business knowing of in the first place. A few seconds later, I was crying my lungs out while I rubbed my left cheek in an attempt to soften the sting. After that incident, we stopped going to the old hawker center.
I received assistance from my parents when they came to visit us from the Netherlands during the Christmas holidays in the same year. I took advantage of their presence to start my nagging again. My auntie was about to protest again before my parents interrupted. “Let the boy have his way,” they told her. “Besides, we prefer to go somewhere quiet anyway so we can talk in private.” 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. The hordes of people were now gone and there were only a small number of patrons scattered throughout the entire hawker center, so I could now run in a straight line to reach the chicken rice stall. I picked up my pace as I approached, eagerly anticipating that familiar cackling laugh which I used to be so afraid of. Instead I was greeted by silence when I arrived. Where the white steamed chickens used to hang behind the glass counter there were now only four empty metal hooks. And where the old man used to stand around working busily there was now only a cracked red stool.
I stood there stunned, staring at the stool when my eyes were drawn to a mouse scuttling around the stall just before he disappeared into a tiny crack in the wall. Was the old man really a magical creature from a fairy tale after all? Had he now transformed back into his true form as a mouse, just like the coachman had in Cinderella? An unfamiliar feeling welled up in my chest and my lips quivered while I fought back the tears. I felt my auntie wrap her arm around me and hold me close to her. “I’m sorry, but sometimes these things happen,” she said in a choking voice, barely audible, as if she was fighting back tears of her own. “Sometimes people just disappear from our lives and there is nothing we can do about it.” I couldn’t believe my ears. Wasn’t she the one who always wanted to go to the other hawker center? Why would she be sad that the old man did not exist anymore? I pushed her away and ran towards my parents who were just standing behind us, leaving my auntie all alone.