A Privileged Source of Information


Yeo Wei Wei


It is Sunday evening and the Chans are gathered for their weekly weekend family dinner at the entrance of a reputable Szechuan restaurant. The restaurant re-opened a week ago after being closed for a complete face-lift for three months. It is in the South Wing of The Dorchester, a hotel established in the days when Singapore was still a British colony. The hotel has also been undergoing an extensive renovation that began six months ago and does not look as if it has finished. Sam Chan, an interior designer, notices that the colonial facade of the main building is now obscured by glass cladding that he had mistaken at first for makeshift scaffolding. Inside the restaurant the wind of change has swept away the past like dust on a shelf. A rustic minimalism has replaced the lavish chinoiserie of the past five years, a decor flush with auspicious reds and golds and expensive oriental furnishings. The old look has vanished; gone are the heavy rosewood chairs and tables with dragon and phoenix mother-of-pearl motifs, plump satin cushions with blonde tassels, Oscar de la Renta bone china tableware, crystal chandeliers and the plush red carpeting that extended into the washrooms. Even the old layout has been erased. Instead of a squarish hall, the restaurant is laid out in a narrow rectangle, like a corridor only wider, with tables lined up in single file. The tables are round and made of walnut with circular slabs of inkstone for their tops. There are matching walnut chairs with seats upholstered in the finest Egyptian cotton. Their elegant silhouette is reflected in the black marble of the floor. Drop lights in the ceiling bathe the space in a gentle glow. Some tables are additionally lit by tiered cylindrical fixtures that protrude from the high ceiling like Art Deco lights in jazz clubs along the Bund in Shanghai. The terraces of these columns of light seem to bear into the tables like telescopes from a different place on the other side of the ceiling. The Chans are shown to one of these tables because they have a reservation. Mother sits down. Father sits next to her, Sam is on his other side. May, the eldest, sits beside Sam who is five years younger than her. May’s husband, Da Ming, takes the customary seat between his wife and mother-in-law. The youngest son, Jack, is late, but nobody is surprised. He has gone to fetch the girlfriend whom he has been seeing for two months or so and to whom the family has not yet been introduced. After waiting for half an hour, Father calls the captain over to have the appetisers served. When Jack and his friend Xin Yi finally arrive, chopsticks are put down and the women wipe their mouths hastily before smiling and nodding and shaking the outstretched hand of the youngest son’s latest conquest.


The restaurant’s specialty is served after the emptied plates of the starters are cleared: Zhang Cha Ya, tea-smoked duck. Father bites into a piece of the duck with gusto, he has been looking forward to this moment since the afternoon. After a minute or two, he says with a frown on his face, “It is not as good as it used to be.” Turning to May, he says, “Remember we used to come here every weekend when you were children?” May does not remember. Mother smiles at Xin Yi who smiles back at her as she says in a pithy Mandarin phrase: “Eaten it all and forgotten it all. That’s what children are like.” Da Ming looks at his wife who is pretending that she has not heard a word. She reaches for a portion of duck rolled up in a pancake. Father is talking about the Szechuan restaurant in Hotel New Asia, a hotel that closed down in the seventies. He says to Jack, “We didn’t bring you to that restaurant. You weren’t born yet.” On the day Jack was born in 1981 Father had brought May and Sam to the Mayflower, a popular Cantonese restaurant on Stamford Road. It was famous for dim-sum. The Mayflower closed down in the 1990s when the building it was in, built in 1911 in the neo-classical style favoured by the British, was torn down to make way for the widening of the road. Before lunch Father had brought them shopping. He bought toys and clothes for them. After lunch Father brought them to the hospital to see Mother and the baby. May remembers the lunch because it was one of the rare occasions when they went out without Mother. Most of the time it was the other way round. Father’s business kept him busy. Mother used to make May call him at the office at half six in the evening to ask him to come home for dinner. In the background May could hear the sound of mahjong tiles being pushed around the green felt-covered table that was set up for nightly sessions in her father’s office downtown. When they arrived at the hospital, a nurse was pushing the baby in his cot back to the nursery. May cannot remember if Mother said anything or if Father had to do anything to placate her. She remembers that she and Sam followed the nurse as she pushed the cot out of the ward. They could not follow her all the way into the nursery, so they went to the viewing window and pressed their faces against the glass for a long time even though they could not see their baby brother’s face. They made mists on the glass with gusts of breath, and they wrote and drew with their fingers, wiping everything off and starting over again, over and over, until their palms became red and moist.


The duck is followed by Kung Bao prawns, a Szechuan specialty, prawns stir-fried with dried chillies in a dark sweet sauce. Jack is telling Mother that Xin Yi is allergic to prawns. “All the more reason she should eat them,” says Mother. “That’s how she can overcome the allergy.” Xin Yi says, “It’s just too painful. I don’t know if . . .” May interrupts her, “Mother thinks that all allergies can be cured as long as you are determined and you eat more and more of the thing that you are allergic to.” “I’m just glad I didn’t have allergies when I lived at home,” says Sam. “You did! You were allergic to fruit,” retorts May, drawing quotation marks around the word allergic in the air with her fingers. “And the family physician treated you and cured you,” adds Jack, imitating her gesture with the words family physician. “Her persistence - never underestimate it,” says May. “Why are you all talking so much? Eat, eat. The food is getting cold,” says Father. May is reminded of how when they were children, Mother made them drink homebrewed barley water as often as four days in a week. She doesn’t know how Sam and Jack felt about this but as for herself, she hated the taste and smell of Mother’s barley water. The murky grey colour of the drink reminded her of dirty laundry water. As for the taste, she could not understand it at that time, but something about it made her retch the moment she took a sip even although it did not taste foul. Rock sugar had been added as a sweetener but there was always too much of it in Mother’s barley water so that it made for a cloying suffocating sweetness that coated the tongue and the sides of the mouth for hours afterwards. Years later May unwittingly drank barley water when she was invited to lunch at a friend’s place. She didn’t recognize the drink and was astonished when told that she had had barley water. Her friend had added lemon slices to the barley water, and the tartness and the freshness of the citrus had filled the blankness of the drink, making it interesting or less nondescript. May realized that it was the blandness of Mother’s barley water that provoked her disgust. “A spineless drink with neither zest nor kick to call its own.” Mother believes that drinking large amounts of barley water is an effective antidote to heatiness, so she would pour barley water into tall glasses and make the children drink at least three times each day. The children had to finish a glass each in the morning before school, a glass in the afternoon after school, and a glass in the evening after dinner. When Mother was not looking, May would take her glass to the kitchen and pour the contents down the sink.


Father is complaining about the duck to the captain, a young woman whose figure is shown to great advantage by her uniform, a full-length cheongsam of black silk with slits by the sides up to the thigh. “Your duck tasted much better ten years ago,” he says jovially to her. She offers to bring the dish back to the kitchen. She is sorry that the duck is not up to standard and she is sure that the chef would be more than happy to prepare another duck for them. Father says it does not matter this time but the next time he comes he will hold her to her promise of a better, tastier duck. Certainly, sir, she says, making a slight bow before she attends to the businessmen at the neighbouring table. “Well, their duck was never as good as the one at Hotel New Asia,” Father says. “What hotel?” says Mother. “I don’t remember us going to any Szechuan restaurant other than this one.” Father exclaims, “Hotel New Asia was on Orchard Road, opposite Shaw Centre, don’t you remember?” Mother says, “No, I don’t remember at all.” She smiles at Xin Yi who is bantering with Jack when she notices his mother’s gaze in her direction and swiftly returns her smile. “Is it where Wheelock Place is now?” asks Da Ming. Sam answers him, “Ya, but before Wheelock there was another building there. What was it?” “Before that it was Hotel New Asia,” insists Father. Sam says, “The hotel was sold and pulled down and they built something else there before that was also sold and cleared for Wheelock. What was that building?” Nobody remembers. “There are things that come and go in my head,” Mother says blandly as she chews a piece of duck rolled with a sprig of spring onion inside a small pancake lined with a sweet viscous dark sauce. Turning to May, Sam says in a half-whisper, “Is it age? Or character?” “The last time I went home she asked me the same question three or four times,” he adds. “What was the question?” May asks conspiratorially. “Do you want fruit juice?” he says with a laugh. Mother stares at them. Xin Yi is asking her, “Is Szechuan your favourite Chinese cuisine, Auntie?” Father is telling Da Ming, “Hotel New Asia was doing quite well. My brother and I had shares in the company that managed it . . .”


May remembers Hotel New Asia. That was another one of those few times when their father took them out without Mother. May was ten and Sam was five. Mother was at home, laid up in bed with Jack in her swollen belly. Father drove to a neighbourhood with wide tree-lined streets and bungalows with big gardens. He parked the car, a Mercedes Benz he had driven home for the first time a few days ago, outside one of these houses. It was the fifth time he had bought a new car in the past year. His business was thriving in those days. May and Sam were told to wait inside the car. They were hungry and hot. Father had switched off the car engine and locked the doors. May wanted to wind down the windows but she couldn’t because in this new car they could not be wound down manually. As they waited in silence, May began to wonder if something bad had happened to Father. She looked up and down the street. It was a Saturday afternoon. There was nobody around. Where could she go for help? She thought about going into the house. Should she let Sam stay in the car or should she bring him along? She looked at him. He was sucking his thumb and she could hear both their stomachs gurgling in protest. It was one-thirty. At home Mother had lunch ready at twelve. May tried to think clearly. She had to decide what to do. Sometimes Mother told her things and asked her what she should do. Once she had asked May, “What should we do when Father goes away without us?” If Father did not come back to the car, first they would need to find a way to get home. They could stand by the road and wait to see if a taxi came by. They would tell Mother that Father had finally left and they would go to their grandparents’ home and ask if they could all live there. It wouldn’t be too bad, May reasoned to herself. May and Sam sometimes stayed overnight at their grandparents’ place and they liked it because Grandmother let them drink coffee and watch television until the national anthem was played and the screen went fuzzy. Suddenly May heard the sound of voices and footsteps. It was Father. There was a woman walking next to him. She had shoulder-length hair and she wore a dress with matching red shoes. Father opened the car door and he spoke in a tone of voice that was new to May’s ears, “Come down, May and Sam. Come and say hello to Auntie Cheryl.” The woman stroked May’s hair and said, “Your daughter looks just like you, David Chan. Big eyes and a cherry blossom mouth.”


In the car Father asked Auntie Cheryl what she would like to have for lunch and Auntie Cheryl suggested that they try out the Szechuan restaurant in Hotel New Asia. Auntie Cheryl and Father talked and laughed on the drive to the restaurant. May was struck by this even though she was struggling not to give in to the faintness in her head. At the restaurant Auntie Cheryly praised the children for being polite when they asked Father and her to eat first, the way they had been taught to show their respect to elders at mealtimes. “It’s their mother’s training,” Father explained to Auntie Cheryl. “She is very strict with them. Sometimes I think she goes overboard.” Auntie Cheryl draped her slender arm across Father’s stout shoulders like the brush of a calligraphy master coming to rest on the inkstone. “Maybe she has to be stern because she has a big child like you bringing disorder everywhere you go.” Auntie Cheryl said everything with an air of self-confidence, even if it was just the name of a dish on the menu. After lunch Father dropped her at her hairdresser’s. Father asked May and Sam what they thought of Auntie Cheryl. Did they think that she was pretty? Sam nodded. “I want to be like Auntie Cheryl when I grow up,” May blurted out. Father laughed and laughed until his eyes were wet. May fell silent, and then she became rapt in her own half-sense of things and the shadows this cast, like the fleeing shapes of the shrubs and the trees on the expressway as the car sped past them on the way home.


“It looks like an oven hood of sorts,” says Xin Yi, widening her eyes playfully at Jack. Sam says, “We are sitting too close to it, that’s why it looks so strange. It looks much better from a distance. Look over there, see how it provides a focal point for that table where those people are sitting?” Father, May, Da Ming, Jack, and Xin Yi follow Sam’s gaze to the table at the other end of the restaurant where a group of six, an elderly couple, a middle-aged man, a young woman, and a toddler, presumably a family out for a weekend meal like them, sits in a circle that seems centred by the light from the tiered column. They are a picture of unity, harmony, and happiness. Mother is the only one not looking at the other group. She is gazing at Xin Yi’s side profile. It reminds her of a photograph that was taken maybe thirty years ago. She was the girl in the picture. Father took so many photographs of her, there were enough to fill three whole albums even after they had discarded the ones that were not so good. Father. He was just David then. Someone whom she had gotten to know on campus. He was a Chemistry student like her. She wasn’t sure why he started taking pictures of her. One day she heard someone behind her and when she turned around he was there with his camera. He asked if it was alright for him to take pictures of her, he was with the photography club and they needed photographs of varsity life for a showcase in their annual exhibition. Later on she found out that it was all bluff, there was no showcase. It wasn’t so much campus life as her life he was interested in. That she also found out soon enough. He asked if he could photograph her at home. She said she had to ask her parents. He rode a motor-bike to her house, a two-storey Peranakan terrace where all fifteen members of her extended family crammed into five rooms, it was the rental her school teacher father’s salary could best afford. David brought a box of an assortment of cakes from Polar Cafe. Everyone had a slice of cake, nobody had to share his or her slice with anyone. That must have been a first time. There’s a first time for everything. Her first time given to him. He had become a fixture in their house, so her parents and her brothers and sisters paid no attention to him as he trailed their sister like a dog. He had a camera that was like his special pass and he never seemed to tire of clicking away at her. One day he photographed her first in the living room whilst she chatted to a friend on the phone. She finished the call and climbed the stairs by the side of the living room. She went up to the second floor and he followed her, feeling a gust of wind from a gap between the floorboards. She walked into her bedroom and he followed her. Three months later after three weeks of fruitless waiting she had to tell him, and he said of course she must keep the baby and so they got married. She, the daughter of an illiterate child-bride from China, a Chemistry graduate at a time when few women went to university, had become a wife and mother before she could put her degree to any use. Her father hid his disappointment so well he forgot about it after a while.


The photograph is in black and white. There is a group of young men and women standing in a circle under a large tree. They are holding hands, some of them raising their joined hands up in the air. There are big smiles on all their faces. The young woman in the foreground has the left side of her face turned to the camera. She does not seem conscious of the lens’ focus, even though the photographer must have been standing quite close to her. “When we were at the university, Father liked to take pictures of me,” Mother explained to six-year-old May when she showed her the photographs. There were bruises on her arms. It was on a day not long after they had moved out of Father’s family home into their own apartment. Mother was unpacking when she came across the albums. The night before Father went back to his mother’s place to pick up some things. When he came back, May was lying on her bed and she heard him shouting. She could not make out the words. There were high-pitched shrieks and screaming. When May was twelve, she made eight-year-old Sam cover his ears and she put her palms over four-year-old Jack’s ears. “You should leave him,” she told Mother more than once. When Father moved to China in 1996 because of the business opportunities there, he flew home for a few days every month and the rages stopped. Mother often asked May, “If Father leaves us, what should we do? Who will help us pay off the debts?”


May picks at the serving of four-season beans that her husband had put on her plate before helping himself to some. “Thank you, dear,” she says. Da Ming says, “The food here is good, huh? Let’s come here again on our own.” Mother says, “Wait till the dessert comes. It’s her favourite, Gao Li Dou Sha. We haven’t had it for a long time. Not since . . . ” May explains to Da Ming, “Egg-white puffs with red bean stuffing. I had them just the other day when I went out for dinner with my colleagues.” She addresses Xin Yi for the first time, “Have you tried my mother’s curry fish head? It’s the best in Singapore.” Mother pipes in excitedly, “Yes, Jack, you must bring Xin Yi over for lunch next Sunday. I will cook curry fish head.” “Mom, make sure you put in lots of brinjal and ladies’ fingers this time,” says Jack. “Yes, yes,” says Mother, beaming. The dessert is served and everybody praises it, even Father and Jack. Sam has to go off, he has arranged to meet his friends for a drink. Da Ming calls for the bill. Mother says, “I need the toilet. May, why don’t you come with me?” “I think I would know if I needed to go, Mother,” says May. “I’ll go with you Auntie,” says Xin Yi. Jack is telling Da Ming about his junket to Vietnam in three weeks’ time so he does not see the hopeful expression on his girlfriend’s face. Mother stands up. She is wearing a pastel top with a cream bow at the centre of the boatneck collar. Her skirt is a denim A-line skirt with studs along the pockets. “Already in her sixties, still dolling up like a girl in her twenties”. Mother stands in the familiar shadow of the daughter’s disgust, her face a darkened space.