Happy is the man that findeth wisdom, and the man that getteth understanding.

    PROVERBS 3:13

Merchants of pain

Posted: 04 July 2011


I must not leave this page without further elaborations of life along the five foot way, or" go kaki" in Fujian dialect. On our right as we come out from the main hall was the temple. I seldom go to my left but I remembered there were a pawn shop and a dental practice 2 house numbers down. I dreaded that place as it caused me much pain and anguish. To be fair to this shop, I really don't remember whether it was the one or the other opposite the road round the corner where the traffic lights were. Because as I looked at the old version of dental chair in the following picture, the one my closer neighbour had was even an older and simpler version. Well, perhaps the fear it projected had really obliterated my memory of it.

Every visit to the dentist there was an exercise of faith. Did he really enjoy inflicting such pain in a young kid? The motor hunged from a hooked pole and as he stepped on the pedal, it kind of gave an evil twist as it grinded ever so slowly. 

The injecting needle to our tender gums were of stainless steel, blunt and hooked. The pain pulsated from my brain to my thighs and you could not help but jerked in pain. "Never mind, never mind, be a man and bear the pain", my mom anxiously cajoled as she must be thinking, she got a sissified boy unable to endure the slightest of pain.

Anyhow, the tooth extracted did offer some immediate relief but in the night, the trobbing and swollen pain slowly creeped back into full agony on the now toothless gums as if it would just burst out to relieve the tight pressure. 
I vowed when I grow up, I won't to be a dentist. Merchants of pain they are. My adult life experiences with the dentist continued the same saga even with modern technology, sharpest of needles and finest techniques. Just by thinking on the fears of those days was enough to trigger the revulsion of such a visit.

Victoria street was a busy street with her many side lanes, each with its unique hawker plying their differnt trades. I could not remember what I enjoyed to eat most, except the fun of sitting on one sngle wooden piece of chair and furnitures created an atmosphere of belonging there. Plastic containers were not available then, and most of the food sold, hot or cold were kept in two or three aluminum containers sunk into the large table surface. Hot food kept hot by a charcoal stove underneath and desserts were sold in Chinese pottery bowls and spoons. The ubiquitous preserved fruits stalls. I loved the preserved onions and small sourish sweet pears or xiao li.

One distinct moment inprinted in my mind was when dad brought me to see a circus show in Kallang. I enjoyed the show much but I remembered I don't like the clowns because their faces were painted and mysterious. So instead of eliciting laughter, I was wondering were they even human? They appeared to be of different worlds? But the juggling, monocycle tricks, human pyramids and trapeze acts were awesome and indeed they inspired and fired the young imaginations to be able to imitate them and be acrobats. And of course who could forget the elephants standing on her hind legs the caged lion and tiger acts. 

The walk home after the show, all 2 kilometers of it across the Kallang River with my dad left an everlasting impression though my feet were aching and I longed to be carried. He finally did even though he himself was tired having worked without any rest days in between providing our sustenance and spending time to amuse us. Indeed, that was that one precious moment for me to become so close in contact with my dad, heart to heart.

Another kind of shop in the five foot way I avoided was the coffin making shop. It just reminded us of the temporal of life that death caused many griefs and heartaches. We have to turn away from looking inside the shop because it will bring bad luck. Shouldn't we simply avoid death as we avoided the hospitals? Of course the fascinations of the shops are the many elaborate paper mache replicas of lifestyles of the rich, with great big motor cars, servants in western styled clothing, multi storied houses and colourful paintings and decorative awnings. I knew at that age how silly these adults were thinking that such inanimate objects could be converted to be priceless bungalow houses after they were thoroughly burnt with their bamboo stick frames so that the dead could enjoy lifestyles of the rich.

Didn't they  know it was too small for the dead? Or how could the dead shrink fit into those houses? Or the paper mache "servants" becoming alive on the other side after being burnt to ashes? In that sense I connected with one of Catherine Lim's short stories on the man who died dreaming for a kidney shaped swimming pool and the satirical narration ended with the dead man's widow burning such a pool as part of the offering for the departed husband in the paper mache form. Or as I learned much later in life when my own brother in law died hardly two years into his marriage to my older sister was the realisation that such "must do" events was to appease the dead and served to occupy the grief stricken spouse left behind so that they won't feel guilty or have the time to feel guily about not dying along with the dead such as the evil practice of "suttee", of the burning the living widow alive in some Indian cultures.

It was really sad for me to try to reconcile the loneliness and boredom that crept into the ordinary people's lives those day when everything kind of stopped during the 15 days of the lunar new year celebrations. Even with the lively  beating of drums and clashing of cymbals did not bring back the dead to the living. Those atheletic lion and dragon dances of pugilistic groups in various formation and colours of their clans and groups grew duller under over exposures in the real world and people receded into their mahjong tables and gambling dens so prevalent those days amongst the migrant chinese communities. Shop doors were closed except for a small gap to view any visitors knocking on brass rings. There were no electronic door bells or CCTV then. I witnessed of beggars, of old men in crutches, of vagrants covered with thick layers of unwashed dirt, of pimps, snatched thiefs and con-men mixed with the industrious retailers and small but honest businessmen intertwined like a multi-coloured fabric and it was hard to tell how such tapestries of disunities and choas have an order of its own. {"C'est ne pas la vivre, mes amis, il doit y une meilleure mode de vie."

So in contrast, Victoria street during those few days were totally lifeless and silent except for some occasional and customary visits for some social exchanges of food and ang pows. Meagre those days but my mother spent precious hours wrapping the little red packets with a cent and five or 2 cents and ten to give away on her visits. Yearly, it became a routine for me to follow her house to house and my belly was full of pseudo squash juice and sashi drinks from morning to night. Idling, the red and black melon seeds were devoured with relish, together with  coconut candies and red dates. We walked great distances as good transportations were few and also expensive so each stop was a respite except most of my relatiives almost always lived in the upper floors and we had to climb two to four stories of wooden and dark stairways, each level offering different smells but some mostly of opium heated over small bunsen burners and smoked by wry and thin men with porcelain blocks as pillows.

Why can't they find something better to do rather than being couped-up in the shops and houses all day long?

Questions after questions came fast and furious with no answers from anyone so the young mind just wander into other concerns. 


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