In Singapore, the Malay word ‘leceh’, and its closest English equivalent ‘troublesome’, are part of day-to-day speech. This series on the theme of ‘trouble’, by writers from India, Mexico and the UK as well as Singapore, is commissioned by The Arts House in parallel with the opening of its new feature, The Troublesome Library.
Neither Bud nor I were really into soccer, but the World Cup was a fun reason to hang out after hours. Many live matches were broadcasted late at night or in the wee hours of the morning in Singapore, given the time zone difference with Germany, the 2006 host country. Bud would board the hour-long west-bound Bus 10 from Tampines, alighting at its Tanjong Katong midpoint before the bus hit the flat expanse of Nicoll Highway, wending towards the steel and glass of the business district.
I’d wait for Bud at the bus stop, looking over my shoulder to make sure I was out of the way of the white cockatoo that perched on the corner. Its skinny grey ankle might have been chained firmly to a thick metal bar, but that did little to dampen its mischievous spirit, and it was forever screeching “Hullo! Hullo!” as it attempted to nip at unsuspecting commuters within reach. The bird belonged to the shop just behind the bus stop, from which the fetid odour of feed and poop emanated. I stepped in just once. The shop was so full of caged birds—shelves on the walls, hooks from the ceiling and freestanding even on the floor—that it was dark inside. Sparse bird song is melodic. This synchronous yet discordant clamour was overwhelming. I harboured quixotic dreams of one day freeing the white cockatoo that stood like a lone sentry outside, but I was afraid to get my finger lopped off, and the proprietor had a beady eye. By nightfall, the bird would be stowed away inside the shuttered shop, but muscle memory made me twitchy as long as I was waiting at the bus stop.
More often than not, when Bud stepped off Bus 10, she would be in a cosy sweater. Aircon on those double-decker night buses was extra frigid, but on alighting, the streets were balmy again. I would hold her T-shirt down as she removed her sweater. Then we’d walk to my favourite neighbourhood kopitiam, where the Mainland Chinese drinks stall lady with a frizzy perm knew my order: I’d start with a cold teh c peng and end with a warm Milo. She was friendly to me, unlike the Singaporean Chinese beer auntie in an ass-hugging Tiger-Beer skort who only bussed the tables of bawdy uncles who started every sentence with ‘Kanina’, the Hokkien equivalent of ‘Fuck you’. From what I could hear, they seemed to be using this merely as a placeholder for ‘Let me tell you…’ and the appropriate response once someone had finished relaying his anecdote was a hearty chorus of ‘Lan pa!’, the Hokkien for testicles, which appeared to connote ‘No way!’
The food was only average, but there was an unkempt, spacious outdoor area, with plastic-orange tables and red chairs under saga seed trees. For the World Cup, they’d temporarily erected a huge screen upfront. This coffee shop’s setup was fairly unusual; the compound it was housed on, previously a disused school, had been scrappily refurbished as ‘Katong Student Hostel’. Bud joked that she would get a bed there so she could be my neighbour.
I liked hanging out there after dinner because the regulars who frequented the kopitiam were people I otherwise didn’t get to see much of in the neighbourhood. Almost all the boarders were Mainland Chinese students and all-male Nigerian small business owners. Whenever I visited in the evenings, the Chinese teens were decked in frilly nightgowns or tracksuits with anime prints, some of the girls with powdery streaks of ‘cooling’ rice water on their faces to improve their complexion. The Nigerian men, who always smelled of fresh soap, were in brightly printed, loose-flowing kaftans that billowed around their leather sandals. I felt sartorially embarrassed around them, in my old T-shirt, P.E. shorts and flip flops.
It was Germany vs Argentina in the quarterfinals.
Bud and I were sipping our teh c pengs and chewing some Wrigley’s Doublemint gum she’d brought. I’m not sure how she got it since chewing gum still isn’t legal in Singapore. I stuffed my wad of gum to the side of my cheek whenever I took a swig of iced milk tea. Germany had my full support because I was crushing on their captain, Michael Ballack. Bud thought my Ballack crush was unforgivably basic. She baulked when I called him ‘beastly’ and was bewildered when I said he looked ‘unaware’. I am never into cheerfully handsome men (e.g. Kaka), and I find men who are preternaturally aware of their good looks (e.g. Ronaldo) faintly revolting. Four years later, with Ballack out of the national team on injuries, my next crush would be on a then-unknown 21-year-old Mesut Özil making his World Cup debut, for his grace and ptosis. (I cannot understand why ptosis and amblyopia don’t get more love, why they’re labelled as defects. To all the ‘droopy’ eyelids and ‘lazy’ eyes out there, I think you’re wabi sabi sexy.) Özil reminded me of Adrien Brody in The Piano the way Ballack called to mind Matt Damon in The Talented Mr Ripley – and my man was going down in an unfair tackle before everyone’s eyes. ‘Kanina!’ the uncles roared, and this time they meant it.
I didn’t even know the rules, but I shouted ‘Red card!’ with such vehemence that the gum flew out of my mouth, landing on the back of my outstretched hand. I popped it back into my mouth. Bud was right beside me and she hadn’t noticed a thing. Then from the side, someone said loudly enough for me to hear: ‘Yucks.’ I turned, and this cute boy was grinning at me.
‘Unhygienic sial,’ he added. I glared at him as I checked him out.
He was lanky in skinny jeans and a black T-shirt that said DISCO. I hadn’t noticed, but aside from the Singaporean Chinese uncles, the Mainland Chinese teenagers and the Nigerian men, there was a table of Singaporean Malay boys in the corner. He mimicked what I’d done with the gum – daintily pecking it off the back of his hand – and I burst out laughing. In the cacophony of the crowded open-air kopitiam, it was improbable that someone had spotted my gum gaffe. The boy and I started heckling across tables. Soon, he sauntered over. His friends whistled just to tease him but he ignored them as he reached my table.
His name was Dean. He lived close by too, at the block of flats just off Haig Road.
‘Near the famous putu piring?’ I asked.
‘Yeah,’ he said.
Dean and his friends supported Argentina. It was a nail-biting match, tied at full-time. By the time Germany won 4–2 on penalties – Ballack took the decisive third and I am embarrassed to still recall the pride I felt when he delivered – and the heated game concluded with a mass brawl in the centre circle, there was no more Bus 10 for Bud back to Tampines.
Dean went over to his friends. He had an easy gait and a self-assured way in which he held his shoulders. When he came back, he said they could give Bud a lift back to Tampines, ‘If you ladies don’t mind a van.’ Of course we didn’t mind a van, I answered for her. Bud got a free ride all the way home, but she didn’t want to talk to me for a few days after that.
Dean became the spontaneous neighbourhood friend I’d always wanted. We met at the hostel kopitiam, the corner coffee shop, the prata joint or the ice cream parlour along the myriad shophouses of Tanjong Katong Road. At that time I was having a fling with a Filipina party girl who was taking French lessons, and I told Dean I wanted to take French too. ‘Eh, girls like you why so leceh?’ He paused. ‘But I like it.’ Then he started singing, ‘Spooky little girl like you’. Dean often made me laugh by interspersing his sentences with random snatches of classic songs. When I first told him about the new girl over coin prata, he mocked me by breaking out into ‘Love Potion Number 9’.
Now he wiggled his brows as he emphasized: ‘Spooky!’
Dean preferred oldies to what everyone else was listening to: emo pop. Bud and I were into Fall Out Boy and Taking Back Sunday; ‘Where Is Your Boy Tonight’ was her MSN nickname and ‘Cute Without The “E”’ was mine. Pete Wentz was a puckish lyricist: I appreciated the references to Casablanca (‘Of All The Gin Joints In All The World’) and Dirty Dancing (‘Nobody Puts Baby In The Corner’) on FOB’s recent album, but Dean couldn’t care less for any of these new-fangled bands. He asked if I was for real about the French lessons. I hadn’t known if I was really going to act on that or if I’d just been tossing it around. But now that Dean was asking, of course I told him I was for real.
He asked if he could join me. ‘Why?’ I demanded. ‘I thought you say I very leceh?’
‘Cos if I didn’t meet you,’ he said, ‘I confirm won’t do this kind of thing.’
I thought about this logic: that a compelling reason to do something was simply because you otherwise wouldn’t have gone through with it. I’d heard and used ‘leceh’ – the Malay word whose closest English approximation flitted about the semantic shades from ‘troublesome’ to ‘tedious’ – often enough, but most times with regards to minor inconveniences. Filling in a form was leceh. Standing in a queue was leceh. But I had not heard it used on a person before. Why so leceh? I myself wanted to know too, and what was a girl ‘like me’ anyway? Chinese? Queer? A sucker who was toying with the idea of French lessons just to dazzle a fling that wouldn’t last beyond the summer monsoon?
Dean’s use of leceh reminded me of something Bud had once texted me: ‘You are a tiki girl.’
Because it was a text message and there was no tonal inflection, I read ‘tiki’ in my head the Māori way, before I realized that Bud must have meant ‘tìkǐ’ in Hokkien vernacular. ‘Tìkǐ’ was related to ‘máfán’, the Chinese analogue of ‘leceh’, but it also seemed to hold certain nuanced differences: it was closer to rabble-rousing, mischief-making, trouble-causing. I asked Bud if that was what she meant. My phone remained silent as Bud thought about it.
‘You are a tiki girl,’ her text came back shortly after, ‘but I don’t think you know that you are causing trouble.’
Dean and I decided on a foreign language school at Peninsula Plaza for our French lessons.
We met at the bird-shop bus stop to wait for Bus 32 together. I introduced Dean to the nippy white cockatoo and told him to be careful when he tried to pet it. ‘Hullo! Hullo!’ It didn’t bite Dean, just raised its yellow-crested comb as it bobbed its head up and down. Bus 32 arrived. All the way there, Dean ended his sentences with ‘. . . Mademoiselle’, and I rolled my eyes. Though we took the backseat on the bus, we sat at the front of class. I can still feel the harsh afternoon light through the window, still see Dean wearing a close-fitting, faded light pink T-shirt and a silver chain, still hear him enunciating to the sweaty teacher: ‘Je m’appelle Dean.’ His French accent was way slicker than mine. I watched him scribble his name on the vocabulary worksheet. That’s when I realized his name was Deen, not Dean.
I told him all the while I’d thought it was D-E-A-N, like James Dean.
‘James Dean!’ He laughed and flicked my nose. ‘You think I angmoh or what?’
After class he told me his full name, three syllables. Deen was the third syllable. His nenek had called him Deen for short since he was a kid. I could tell they were close because his smile was gleeful but his eyes were soft when he talked about her: how she scolded him but couldn’t stop giggling whenever he propped her on the back wheels of her wheelchair and whizzed her up and down their corridor like a one-man roller coaster ride.
Deen knew me, of course, by my English name, Amanda. But since he’d told me his full Malay name, I felt that I should tell him my complete Chinese name as well, which he had not known before this, Wanting. He didn’t know the Chinese tones and characters, Wǎn Tíng, so it rolled off his tongue English style with a slight American drawl, wanting.
He said it was an apt name for me. I asked what he meant. He smiled like it was obvious.
‘Cos you don’t know what you want, but you want everything, Wanting.’
When the Filipina party girl started seeing a part-time bartender who wore denim shorts cut so high you could see the rise of her butt cheeks, I stopped going for French lessons. You could still smoke inside clubs back then, and the part-time bartender had burned a hole in my dress but she was so pretty I didn’t even mind. Je ne sais pas if Deen went on with classes, but we lost touch little by little. Bud asked what happened between us, and I shrugged.
‘Nothing,’ I said.
‘I liked his DISCO T-shirt,’ she said would-be nonchalantly.
I wanted to tell her that his name was spelled D-E-E-N, not D-E-A-N, but I didn’t.
One day, I’d ordered a Hawaiian pizza, and the doorbell rang, so I went to collect it.
When the delivery boy turned around, it was Deen. This must have been what Humphrey Bogart felt in Casablanca: ‘Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.’ It was a few years later but I was still a stubborn, tech-loathing, social-media inactive wannabe Luddite at that point. I didn’t have a smart phone with data, I had a vintage Polaroid 600 and refrigerated film, which meant Deen and I had not seen each other in the interim, digitally or in real life.
I was in my home clothes, the usual: old T-shirt and P.E. shorts.
Deen had a motorbike. He was wearing a red-and-black Pizza Hut uniform and a cap.
We’d always met outside and neither of us knew exactly where the other lived, so Deen couldn’t have known that this was my delivery address. But for some reason, he didn’t seem too surprised to see me. He looked good but somehow unreal to my eyes in his pizza boy uniform, like Winona Ryder playing a cab driver in a Jim Jarmusch film. Later, I bit my tongue for even thinking that: I knew I could afford to romanticise what I saw from a distance only because I didn’t have to earn my own keep to put myself through school. Delivering a hundred pizzas all over the east side doesn’t feel anything like Winona Ryder playing a cab driver in a Jim Jarmusch film. The hours are long. There’s sweat in your helmet. In a thunderstorm, you’ll have to decide if you’re going to ride in the rain or risk an angry customer who wants a refund because the food isn’t hot enough. And there I was, waiting to pass Deen a $50 bill my mum just gave me to pay for the pizza from her purse. There was so much to say but there was no good place to start. I fumbled with the lock on the gate.
‘Wanting,’ he said simply, as he passed my order over. ‘Deen,’ I said, as I took it from him.
Our silence was painfully awkward until Deen added playfully: ‘L’addition, s’il vous plait.’
It was one of those rudimentary basics we’d been taught in the first few sessions of French class, ‘May I have the bill, please.’ Witty, and Deen’s accent was still impeccable.
I smiled as I gave him the cash. He smiled back at me, but said nothing more. This wasn’t Casablanca, it was Tanjong Katong. We didn’t say goodbye, he just started to walk away. The way he held his shoulders was still exactly the same as before. I went back inside.
In a while, I was able to see Deen from my window. He went over to where his motorbike was parked, buckled his helmet, released the brake lever, revved the engine and rode away without looking back. That was the last time I saw him.
The over-crowded bird shop behind the bus stop burned down. I don’t remember exactly when. One day it was there, the next it was gone. Hundreds of song birds, sun birds, love birds, thrushes, bulbuls, parrots beating their wings in cages as they were charred to ashes, unable to fly to safety because humans were trapping and trading them as playthings. I would never hear the white cockatoo say ‘Hullo’ again. Till today I regret not trying to free it, even if I know I would have failed in this endeavour. For a long time to come, whenever I waited for the bus, I continued to look over my shoulder out of sheer habit.
‘Katong Student Hostel’ isn’t there anymore either. For a while, apparently, it was a giant trampoline gym. Now it seems to have been trussed up into the Singapore Canadian International School. The Chinese teenagers and Nigerian men have been replaced by expat children in preppy uniforms and domestic workers who come to pick them up and carry their schoolbags. Gone with the hostel is the kopitiam, and the drinks stall lady who makes the best teh c peng. On a slow night when no one was around, I’d asked her why she came to Singapore. She cried as she told me her story, which made me cry too. When she was done, she told me no Singaporean had asked her something like that before. Then she made me a soft-boiled eggs, kaya toast and warm Milo breakfast set, but refused to take my money for it.
I miss everything, but I’m accustomed to the necessity of forgetting.
One learns not to hold on too tightly to anything in Singapore; it’s senseless to put down deep roots when anything can be pulled out from under you at any minute.
Whenever I’m back in the neighbourhood and I pass by that stretch of Tanjong Katong Road, I wonder if the drinks stall lady is working at another kopitiam, and if her teh c peng still tastes the same. I wonder if the Chinese teenagers finished their studies, and the Nigerian men succeeded in their ventures. I wonder if Bud watched the last World Cup, and whether she’s chewing on bootleg gum. I wonder if Deen still lives a stone’s throw away from here, and whether he continues to have a penchant for oldies. I wonder if the land developers who chopped down those towering saga seed trees dug out every last inch of them, or if there are still oblique remnants of tap roots and heart roots tunnelling beneath, waiting to sprout again.
This piece was commissioned by Arts House Ltd, with a project team of Rupert Thomson (Director), Joelyn Yep and Shridar Mani (Managers), in editorial collaboration with Ted Hodgkinson, Head of Literature and Spoken Word at the Southbank Centre.
Image © Justin Zhuang