500g of air dray clay and some acrylic paint yields pretty results. I’ve gotten a commissioned to do a few more clay cigarettes. It is the healthier option after all. Plus you have a cigarette that will last far longer than a 5 minute nicotine high.
Your mother’s vagina – says A in a Hokkien so richly vulgar, so warmly familiar. He steps forward and in the darkness there is only a golden glint of his spectacles perched on the emptiness above his striped collared shirt.
I don’t owe you dog shit, you fuck – B returns in the Mandarin that still long retains the pollutive stench of Hubei. And unlike anything you see in the movies, B merely staggers back, hammered once in the face. It could have been a drop of blood, red on the tarmac, but all is black at 3am and memories too are fugitive.
Vagina! I told you the bitch was playing him – says C in mesmerising splotches of Hokkien, Mandarin and English. So too is the eclectic brands that he parades like ugly tattoos which are more manifestations of a rootless psyche than mere fashion choice.
Man-U is the red of his jersey, Xiaomi is the red melamine of his phone, TVB is the sound and fury that blasts from his screen unto his lighted face.
D leans back against the red of the plastic chair, now black in the 3am incandescent. He sighs in English – How the fuck I know? This episode is a fucking twist.
Made in China is the pollutive red of electric lanterns than hang above them – just a drop in the sea of artifice and cringe-dollars of Chinatown.
You love her or you love me – E screams. E is what we call an Ah Lian, a fierce one at that. Golden hair, blood lipstick, blue eye shadows – now shades of grey in the 3am alley.
I only love you – F says and a slap lands against his pimpled cheek.
My homeostatic functions have collapsed catastrophically at 5am. I am cold and yet I am burning. The fan drones on a croaking clockwork in the gusts of frigid wind but I am coated in the stench of perspiration. Wet with the churning, nausea of nightmare.
It is the same nightmare. It has always been the same nightmare every night. The same pockets of imagery and absurdity that comes to the fore every time my insomnia recedes. Fire ants of red crawling on my hairs, they don’t bite, they don’t hurt, they merely threaten by virtue of existence. I am a claustrophobe, naked in a rusty, algae-stained shower cubicle the size of a coffin. A caterpillar more wrinkled than phallic crawls and survives along the straight edge of the pillow.
This has been the third night I’ve gone to sleep in a drunken stupor. When I am not inebriated, I am an insomniac. When I am inebriated, I am schizoid. I can’t hear the dashes of conversation of the girl sitting across the bar. I serve her drinks, with the caustic liquids spilling over the brims with my parkinson-ed hands. I can’t even see the bus numbers when my shift ends. I have my spectacles on but my myopia has transcended even that.
I am a cynic. I live in perpetual and uncompromising anomie. I have no faith, no love, no emotion, no hope for my future, no optimism for humanity or any political process, nor regard for what I will be. I simply do not have the capacity.
I believe there is a threshold age by which if you do not display indications of greatness, or otherwise, have accomplished things that are precursor to greatness, you will never be destined for greatness. You will not be great, you will not be granted grandiosity, not even a footnote in a history book. Your death will be as light as feather, your life even lighter.
I am rapidly approaching that threshold, with nothing to show. Destined for mediocrity and fated to be of little quality, far in face of a twisted upbringing and ignominious personal narcissism that has promised nothing short of greatness.
I don’t think I will ever be satisfied with life. I’ll always find inauthenticity and artificiality in whatever I have and whatever I have achieved. In the same vein, with or without religion, with or without love, with or without ever finding meaning, I doubt I will ever be truly happy in life. What the hell is “truly happy” even supposed to mean?
Grandmother is dead.
A tigress in her life,
Now taxidermied in a coffin.
A family of unfamiliar cousins have been mustered.
Peanuts and melon seeds are the pills
that ease the pain of conversation,
The saliva for non-consensual laughter.
Fourth Uncle is the recalcitrant streak
of an insolent red shirt
in a void deck of white –
chrysanthemums, tissue, fluorescents.
The chants of nam myoho renge kyo
harasses the embalmed sleep of grandmother.
The fragrance of morphine lingers stiffly.
But her lipsticked lips are the prettiest
I’ve ever seen on her face.
Sixth Uncle is asleep at 4am,
I am alone in the vigil.
For the only time in our common existence,
Grandmother and I start conversing.
First in my crippled attempt at Cantonese,
The only tongue she knew;
And finally in English,
The language of my generation
that she’d never understand.
Have you eaten? Is it too hot in the coffin?
Are the lights too bright?
Do you still remember my name?
Would you like to hear about my dreams, my life,
my moral complexities and existential anxieties?
How was it growing up during the War?
Was there ever a moment of happiness with grandfather?
Did you find life meaningful and are you glad to go?
And as always and forever now,
There can only be a reply of utter silence.
Not even a crackle of a candle or a buzz of moth.
This is Singapore after all:
A void deck of exhumed roots and unspeaking history,
Of a phobia of the nostalgia and a poverty of memory.
I am a walking defect. Without warranties nor guarantees nor replacements. I have a deformed left clavicle from a fracture 7 years ago. A deformed 5th metatarsal from a triple fracture that I’m still recovering from (it probably worsened because I mistook the fracture for a sprain and continued haphazardly trekking, motorcycling, swimming, partying and getting wasted for 5 days in Southeast Asia before treating it at a clinic). I have a myopia so bad I would have long since died if I was living in the Stone Age. CMPB tells me that my thoracic cavity, restricted by a deformed ribcage, cannot sustain me with enough oxygen to engage in strenuous activity. I also probably have quite a lethal dose of cholesterol in my blood stream from sometimes eating five KFC 2-piece meals a month vis-a-vis an indolent lack of exercise.
Some things heal, and the many scars and scabs attest to that. Most things don’t. Like my well-worn two decade old skeletal system.
Fragility. Frailty. Futility. They epitomise the human body and and its uncompromising lack of longevity. Accumulative damage to the physical body is the driving force of ageing and old age will be the death of us all. We are all born with eventuality of death stamped in the nucleus of every cell, as much as I shy from that reality. I will never heal from these damages I’ve incurred in just two decades of existence. And I will incur far more for the years to come.
For all my prideful intellect, it is but a mere effect of this 1.3kg organ sitting underneath my skull. A hundred currently known viruses, bacteria or other illnesses would spell the death of this miserable mass of flesh and blood – the site of all this ego and existential consciousness. God, just one minute without oxygen is irreparable damage to my brain cells.
It is pathetic that humans will cease to exist, for all the generations of trying to make heroes of ourselves, for the all the long years of constructing meaning and fulfilment. It is precisely because the body will die that constructing meaning takes on such a huge preoccupation in human society. And it is this very obsession with physical fragility that creates massive buy-in to the social construct of the soul.
But there is neither soul nor a priori meaning.
We are all destined to cease to exist some time in the future and our bodies are just empty cages.
On a side note, it is both depressing and humbling to have spent the last month on crutches. Nothing creates more empathy for the disabled than being one yourself. Our handicapped-friendly architecture isn’t friendly. The Singaporean public isn’t the nicest. And I would never again blame the elderly or disabled from risking life and limb, trying to take the shortest paths, when the overhead bridge or the traffic junction is just a step away.
I was born under the shadow of its light,
Doomed to the chill of its restless heat.
To forever prostrate myself in acquiescence
To the soundless music of the life infinite
It bestowed and it possessed.
I could not listen. I would not hear.
I turn away from the light that immolates
Regardless of my blaspheming eyelids.
Blood rays, fiery orange.
The light is all that is pain.
And I would surrender myself
To the deaf and blind.
That disables the soul.
That breaks the better angels of our nature.
The highway from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng is a dusty dirt road. All the people I’ve talked to say it requires more courage than a human heart can have to brave those roads. I found only beauty in it. Clouds are like a river that spreads its tributaries through the green peaks of Laos. The sun is a gold hue that teases the soul.
Vang Vieng too is said to be an ugly town. But when you hurtle away to the countryside, you find instead an unparalleled beauty in undeveloped poverty.
People tell me not to die in Laos. No, I haven’t felt more alive here.
I’ve met with backpackers from over 20 countries (more than I have in my life), with promises to meet again either in Singapore when they come over or in wherever place there is in this world. Its a culture founded upon our common ennui and love for the world (as well as a hatred for Chinese tourists).
But for all the romanticised wistfulness of being away, my watch and phone is still on Singapore time. I had never actually left home.
We call them ang mohs not just because they are merely the white men but because they are a whole package of unbridled arrogance and willful ignorance towards local dignity. Apart from the colour of my hair, the slant of my eyes and a slightly lower level of blood alcohol concentration, I have very much been an ang moh myself two days here in Vang Vieng.
Vang Vieng was a village set on the idyllic Song River. Vang Vieng now is everything that is wrong with tourism. These white people jump naked into sacred pools. Crushed cans of dirt cheap Beer Lao, moonshine whisky and cigarette stubs churn in a cesspool that is the river. You could ride on an abused elephant for far cheaper than anywhere else in the world. Lao children grew up under the shadow of debauchery: they spend their days chasing after tuktuks laden with half-naked tourists; and, they spend their nights playing at the billiards table among the fog of a Malboro cloud. The Laotian cafe owners play re-runs of Friends, neither knowing what is so amusing about 6 decadent people living in an apartment, nor knowing if they’ll ever even have a taste of the standards of developed world luxury espoused therein.
A festering ankle injury from two days ago meant I had to spent my second day in the town floating down the river in an inner tyre tube with a bottle of moonshine whisky in my hand, together with R (an Aussie friend I made the night before) and alongside a dozen other ang mohs from all over the globe. Admittedly, it was guilty fun floating from bar to bar downriver.
We had a Laotian guide, he sat on the kayak, splashing us with the cold Laotian water or blasting us with techno from a huge speaker mounted before him. He’s like the goddamn guitarist from Mad Max, with all the post-apocalyptic madness. Apocalypse: it must have felt like one to the elder villagers that have seen the decline of the town over a decade. They would stand idly by the banks at makeshift bamboo bars, hawking more alcohol and chips. I see entertainment in the eyes of their children but a deflated frown in the eyes of the elderly: they have no other choice.
If one peers past the haze of drunkenness and techno, one would see an engulfing sight of sheer green-clad cliffs, blue running waters, and the lazy afternoon sunlight that wafts about. But there is no space for beauty in our intoxication. Not in my heart or in R’s despite our attempts to savour it. (Thank goodness I had yesterday to myself on the motorbike exploring the beautiful countryside.)
On the way back to town, we are bikini-clad, half-naked sardines packed into a tuktuk, and the same techno music is blasted through the tiny evening streets. The inebriated Laotian guide is pounding the roof of the tuktuk to the beat. R and I and a German couple with us all concur he’s probably in his late twenties, but he has the wrinkles of a man aged by two packs of beer and cigarettes a day. The villagers we zoom past would again look on with a certain drowning dejection, however used they are to this.
R and I together with A, a North Carolinian teacher are having a drink and a joint at a bar later that evening. A French guy stumbles pass our carpet: I can see the whites of his eyes and his epileptic hands. He collapses on his face two seconds later. A few ang mohs jump in to check on the French man. He OD-ed on opium, this Brazilian dude who joined us for a cup of an opiate-laced tea explains. The stoned waitress doesn’t do shit, she can’t count notes properly, nor even open her eyes fully. A, having already had a bad trip on that joint, bails back to her hostel, having just seen a man OD just an inch in front of her.
Sometime in the evening, two Dutch girls I’ve returned to the hostel with from another bar don’t want to pay their share of the tuktuk fee. He’s cheating us, they exclaim with giggles and with gin of their breathes. Every inch of my soul is on the verge of exploding, “What the fuck is 10,000 kip to your wallet? What is 10,000 kip to his livelihood?”
But long before I muster the indignation to do so, the tuktuk driver accepts a French kiss from Girl A as payment. God fucking dammit. Girl B walks away drunkenly from the negotiation for her payment, leaving Girl A to continue teasing the half-smiling, half-quivering driver.
“No, no! We having fun chat chat”, says he, when I step in and try to gently convince her to just fucking pay what is essentially one bloody US dollar.
This town is fucked.
I surrendered her away at Tekong: Tekong was the first time in my life that I had ever seen such stars in the night sky. Mandai gave her back to me: Mandai was the first time I had ever heard eagles cry.
How could such a piece of plastic, pink and flimsy, be the enduring object of such yearning and envy?
“Quand il me prend dans ses bras
Il me parle tout bas
Je vois la vie en rose”
Dawn is breaking upon the revelry of drunkards.
They yell all they can
Against the dying tenebrous night
That has yielded them not a denouement.
This beach is cold and nebulous
Dismal and obfuscous.
A bird is screaming out her lungs
in squawks of tuberculosed anguish.
Have you seen the morning tide?
It is a relentless murky blue
Melancholic and ceaseless
They lap these rubbish strewn shores.
The cleaner peddles a soiled dustbin
Dressed not for tropical heat
But the cold drafts of this alien land.
Strewn like cacti in a vast desert
Of sanitised street fluorescent:
The crushed plastic cups and emptied gin bottles
Of decrepit sorrows and buried pains.
There will be no sunrise for this morning.
It does not deserve one.