By Rocco Hu, Yale-NUS College ’17 – See bio

June 30, 2012,  by bananafish in Competitions, Fiction, World Shakespeare Festival

He jerked like a marionette as the bus coughed and growled its way across the simmering gravel. Around him wobbly, gelatinous office-wear clad workers bowed and undulated in perfect harmony with the movements of the bus. Tan arms revealed themselves under a stained polo tee. Not the orange burn born of Orchard Road tanning salons, but the thin, splotchy, paper-bag brown evocative of sweat-filled labour in forgotten fields. His eyes held dying embers that he flared in quiet desperation into the distance-sputtering searchlights. He had some fight left in him, unlike the white collars either spacing out or chained to bright screens that they pressed convulsively like lab mice.

Interest piqued, I got off my seat at the rear end of the bus, and took up a standing position beside him near the rear exit.

“Hi Uncle, how are you doing?” I asked in mandarin.

He seemed not to hear.

“Uncle, how are you?” I repeated.

He turned his searching eyes quite suddenly into mine, surprise registering for a brief moment on his dry, rough face.

“Ohh, I’m good, I’m good. Only I’m a little lost” He said, voice inflected with gruff Hokkien[1].

“Where are you headed? Perhaps I can help with some directions” I replied, taking out my smartphone and gesturing at the screen.

“I’m going to see my daughter. She lives in Ang Mo Kio HDB.” He replied, not noticing my offer of a phone navigation application.

“Wah! Uncle you are very lost indeed. We are in the Chua Chu Kang area now- and heading further west. You need to go in the opposite direction.”
Though it was impossible for him to have not heard me, he ignored me completely.

I began to worry. He might not be mentally sound. What would befall him if I were to leave off and allow him to wander aimlessly into the wild grassy West of Singapore?

“Uncle, please get off the bus with me now, I can bring you to Ang Mo Kio. Just tell me the address. We can taxi.”

Again, silence. I became more vexed. The bus stopped just at the edge of the HDB flats and emitted most of its passengers. I thought of grabbing him out there and then, but decided against such manhandling. The bus continued.

“You know I used to live in a farm area before the government forced us to relocate. It looked just like that” He said suddenly, pointing to the tree-spotted fields that were beginning to appear on the horizon.

Then his eyes brightened as he said:

“Wah I tell you, every morning we’ll wake up to the sun and the rooster’s cry. We grow and pluck our own caixin, shoo away hens for their eggs, and rear our own pigs. The work can be very xiong, but we were kings on the land, self-sufficient.”

“I’m sorry. You must have been devastated when you had to leave it.”

His eyes dimmed almost immediately.

“Yes, it was very hard. I didn’t just raise plants and animals-they raised me. My hands- You see my hands!-they were made for shovel and plough. Sitting in a flat, what was I supposed to do? I almost became siao[2] ok.”

He continued.

“But though some things can never be repaid, the government compensated me well. With that I sent two of my three daughters to university. But those rarely come back now. Only Mei, Mei stayed and didn’t go, even though she was very smart. She knew that I was broken and lost after relocating, and needed care. That’s why I go visit her.”

He rang the bus bell and stepped out. I stumbled out behind him and recognized Lim Chu Kang cemetery.

The old man half ran, half staggered, arms open in a ghostly embrace, to a trio of grey tombstones, and sobbed himself broken on the middle, slightly larger one of the three.

[1] A Chinese dialect, originating in the Fujian province of China from which many ethnic Chinese migrated to Singapore.

[2] Crazy (in local patois)


This piece of mine won the top prize in Writing The City’s (a subsidiary of British Council Singapore) World Shakespeare Festival writing competition. The competition takes writing (prose, poetry, drama) inspired by The Bard and interpreted within the modern Singaporean context as its theme.

One comment

  1. kk

    “Wah I tell you, every morning we’ll wake up to the sun and the rooster’s cry. We grow and pluck our own caixin, shoo away hens for their eggs, and rear our own pigs. The work can be very xiong, but we were kings on the land, self-sufficient.”


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