Beneath the Gingko Tree

Cheryl Till
Content warnings: drug use and addiction, child abuse, war, racism, and child separation.  

From the tree of life springs forth many branches, each intricate as can be.
Interwoven and interlocked, they form the family tree.
 



1926
He had done it. Up until this moment he wasn’t sure that he would. He tugged at his left earlobe. An old, nervous habit. Too late to turn back now. Hurrying down the dock, an image of the wife he had met just hours ago waiting for him in her red silk cheongsam fleetingly crossed his mind. Swallowing the guilt, he handed over the wad of cash and boarded the merchant vessel. A stowaway in the hold, surrounded by crates of fine porcelain and bolts of silk. It would be clear that he had left on the day of the wedding. It would be embarrassing but she would be fine. Unconsummated, her family could take her back, arrange another marriage. Whims of the wind allowing, he would soon arrive in Nanyang. It was a new start for them both.  

The Lion City
 
The muggy mid-morning heat was utterly suffocating. Every inch of her skin was drenched, drops of sweat rolling down her back and thighs, the backs of her knees clammy as a fevered child on his deathbed. She longed for stinging cold, so sharp it ached in your bones.  
Everyone said family was the most important thing in the world. But right now, she would gladly never see a single one of them again if she could just escape the sweltering heat of this claustrophobic city and go home to cool eucalyptus shade. She ran her tongue along her lower lip, brushing the ridge of the white scar, as if it might cool her off like a dog.  
The throng of traffic, a cacophony in the concrete jungle, mocked her every step as she trudged her way past high rises and evenly planted trees each exactly eight steps from the next. Even the nature here was unnatural, less an urban sprawl than an orderly military outpost. The city never slept and the gods in the stars had abandoned her. Within the buildings and the cars and the buses, the masses continued on.  

The Kopitiam Boss’s Daughter
 
The air tasted delicious, filled with the heaty scents of fried foods. Crispy fish balls and prawn paste coated chicken, mingled with salty-sweet soya sauce and an array of delectable spices that flavoured the dishes they sold.
The auntie in the stall over to the left specialised in sweet treats, and she loved nothing more than biting into a crunchy goreng pisang. Letting the piping hot piece of battered banana dance on her tongue. Enjoying how the heat amplified the sweetness of the fruit. So soft, so gooey. The deep-fried batter seemed to be the only thing holding it together. 
Sitting at Mama and Baba's zhu chao stall, dehulling a mountain of mung bean sprouts, the little girl would sneak glances at the uncle and his sons in the stall to their right. Deftly flipping and folding roti prata. Stirring up spicy smells from gargantuan pots of fish curry. Mesmerised. 
Even in the heavy humidity of April, there was something comforting about being surrounded by orange-blue flames that leapt from the stove with every clang of the steel spatula on the round bottomed wok. Long hours, hard work, and grease settling in layers on her skin always called her home.  

Letters Home  

He hurried down the street, hoping to catch the scribe before day’s end. It cost a pretty penny to pay someone to read and write his letters, but it was a small price to pay for the worry that his midnight disappearance and months of silence had no doubt caused.  

娘,对不起。不要担心。
(Niang, dui bu qi. Bu yao dan xin.)


***  

Two seasons since his first apology and paycheque were sent and still no word back. Perhaps it hadn’t yet been read. Those educated enough to do so seldom strayed out to the farms. Or perhaps he had simply been ignored for shame. Still, he felt it necessary to tell his Niang of his marriage. His new marriage. It was selfish to even think it, but he hoped in some small way that his mother might learn to be happy for her only son.  

***  

His guilt was immense and he averted his gaze, affecting not to have noticed the scribe’s surprise as the words left his mouth.  
I must show my gratitude the only way I know how. The baby who accompanies this letter is yours to name and raise. My first-born son will call you Niang and care for you in old age.  
Taking the note from the scribe, he made his way with wet nurse and child down towards the docks. Pressing his lips into a hard line, he whispered a blessing to the boy and fought the urge to tug at his earlobe.  

The Crazy Rich Asian
 
In theory, he disagreed with nepotism and flashy displays of power, but his principles didn’t hold up against a charmed life offered on a platter. The theme park Aba built was a little gaudy, but it furthered the Feng Huang company name which was always good for business. And good business paid for private jets to Europe and a lavish three-storey mansion in a city where whole families were crammed into tiny yi fang ban ting one room flats.
He couldn’t complain. Especially as one of three adopted sons, bought to replace the boys Aba had lost in the war. All he had to do in exchange was sit in as a figurehead for one of Aba’s newspapers and show a little respect. Still, some nights he couldn’t shake the feeling that he wasn’t really loved. As it turned out there were things that money couldn’t buy. Sometimes he wondered if his real family missed him. If he might have been cherished and happy, even if not crazy rich.  

The Family Disappointment
 
He flipped the token, making it dance across his knuckles. Palming it in one hand, then nestling it behind his fingers, making a show, ‘vanishing’ it. Making it disappear, just like his ten years of sobriety. The chip, he could bring back. Pull it out of a little girl’s ear. If only the other thing was that easy.  

War and Other Cruelties  
The angmohs couldn’t tell or didn’t care. They saw a man with chink eyes, at night, carrying packs of rice and labelled him a thief. He couldn’t speak English and anyway the angmohs didn’t care to understand. White was right, as far as those Brits were concerned.
He escaped Communism, arrived a stowaway on a boat. Worked to the bone to support three children, gave away three more. Lived through the war and survived a Japanese occupation. Only to be picked off the streets when the British returned to reclaim their abandoned colony. Thrown into Changi Prison, forgotten alongside Germans and Kempeitai.  
He had been on his way to share food with family. He sat in filthy darkness, subconsciously fidgeting with his earlobe. For a year he wondered if they were starving.  
In the crowded damp he grew grey and thin and developed a ceaseless racking cough that shook his bones from within. Then when he was so ashen and sickly he could barely walk, they let him go.  
No charge. No apology.  
He died two days later, in the same bed where his six children had been born. Of pneumonia or TB or cholera or something a doctor could have diagnosed or cured if he had had the money.    

Open Ocean
 
The ship was being churned in the roiling waves of the open ocean. Sails flapped violently against the mast in the roaring wind that drowned out the smashing porcelain. Footfall thundered above. Unconsciously brushing his fingertips against the curve of his ear, he imagined the crew fighting to steady the vessel. In the dark below deck, he listened intently for any sign that there was an end in sight. Cowering amongst the cracked crates and fallen bolts, soaked and heavy, he prayed to his ancestors that they might make it through the night.  

The First Son

Eighteen hours of labour. The mattress was soaked with blood and sweat. She had been physically split in two.  
Just one more push
, the midwife had promised. One more push and you’ll have a baby.
And she did. And there he was. Scrawny and wrinkled and beautiful. And she wanted to hold him close forever.  
Just one more minute, she had begged. But the baby came late, and there was no time to savour him. No time to spare.  Passage was paid for a ship leaving that same morning.  
The wet nurse wrenched him from her arms, gentle but forceful. And she was split in two again. Sobbing and reaching for a son who was no longer hers. A son who would call her husband’s abandoned wife Niang and never know his real mother, sent across the oceans, half a world away.  
He might as well have been sent to the moon. At least then she would see him in the sky each night.  
But she had no say. And they took her baby away. Not six hours after he was born.  

Amah
 
It was a snail-paced crawl. She stepped carefully, shifting weight from one bowed leg to another. Yet every step was sure and confident, giving the withered woman an air of command, though she looked as if she could blow away in the wind. Small and fragile as she was, a fiery tongue could make her seem larger than life when she unleashed her fury in a guilt-inducing barely intelligible jumble of Hokkien, Cantonese, Mandarin, Malay, and a smattering of broken English.  
Still, as she leant back into the black leather couch, I noticed her vacant eyes and couldn’t help but feel a pang of pity for a woman who had known no better than to beat her children. Shaming and guilting them for every choice they made. It wasn’t a surprise that she’d turned out so bitter, with no mother to save her from being put to work young to fund the habits of an addicted father. She’d never been a warm or maternal figure. Now she stared, uncomprehending, at the television. The cataracts had been removed years ago, but the newspaper next to her lay untouched. She had never learnt to read. Too frail now to cook or clean, too deaf and too stupid to have a real conversation. She sat there, a husk. A bag of bones in sagging, liver spotted skin, simply waiting to die.  

Chasing the Dragon
 
Swimming in a haze of thick blue smoke, he could forget what a useless deadbeat he had become. It wasn’t even that he enjoyed the high. But once he’d had a taste, it was near impossible to function without. Deep down somewhere, he felt bad about putting his three boys to work, using them to fund the habit. Perhaps his daughter too. He couldn’t even remember.  
Then again, what else was he supposed to do? It wasn’t like he could just give it up cold turkey. Besides, it was hardly his fault that the angmohs had encouraged them to try it, and for so cheap the first few times too.
All the thinking made his brain throb behind his eyes, and he reached again for the bamboo pipe, breathing in a lungful of sweet intoxicating vapour.  

Iron and Ash
 
The Mark VI had rolled onto the tarmac at Butterworth three hours late. Part of the beauty of owning your own plane, the crew supposed, as they watched him climb out of the Bentley, all pomp and circumstance. He had a laugh about it with the other six passengers, already seated, while he got settled. Why shouldn’t they wait for the heir to the Feng Huang empire?
But truth was, he’d had a bad feeling about getting on the flight today. The Douglas DC-3 with Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp engines was a fourteen-bed sleeper, and quite a luxury for 1951 – even for their family. Still, the inevitable turbulence of a propeller plane had him leaving half-moons on the soft leather arms of the seat. He just couldn’t shake the feeling that he was about to die.  
The crushed hunk of metal was found on the side of Bukit Besar mountain, four and a half weeks later, all ten bodies burnt to a crisp with not so much as a finger left to bury.  

Murder in an Oriental Home
 
The rusty maroon stain on the carpet wouldn’t shift. Of course, it had to be her mother’s favourite Chinese silk carpet. White too. She’d tried everything from bleach to steam cleaning carpet treatments, and still the bloody spot stared back. A mocking reminder of her weakness.  
Maybe it wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t run,
it laughed, maniacal.
 “I had to get help,” she muttered, scrubbing at it furiously.  
Go on, just throw me away like you abandoned your own mother, it taunted.
She clenched her jaw and scrubbed. She couldn’t tell if the ache in her arms was from the bruising of the bonds or all that cleaning.  
Get rid of me, you still won’t forget. You left her with him and now she’s dead. It’s your fault and you know it. All your fault.
She bit her cheek ’til iron filled her mouth, and scrubbed ‘til she wore a hole in the damned carpet.  

Guilt
 
The second born was a daughter. Girls weren’t of much use, but after making her give up their son, he didn’t say no when she begged. He didn’t mention it was because no one would take her at the time anyway.  
A year later they had another boy. This one they did want. But bills were high, and babies were expensive. They sold him to one of the rich Feng Huang brothers and never saw him again.
The third son came nine years later. He was raised with a mixture of overbearing love and transferred guilt. Kept when his two older brothers and the little sister that followed the next year were not. She was given to the childless couple who ran the Kopitiam food court down the road. The family visited sometimes and shared a meal.  
The last was another boy, six years later on the first anniversary of the Japanese invasion. No one wanted another mouth during a war, but at least by then their girl was grown and married. Both working for their two boys, they thought they might just make it.  

The Nanny
 
Born in the kampongs somewhere in the late 1930s. With three older brothers they hadn’t expected complications. But her mother was twelve years younger the last time, so it shouldn’t have been such a surprise that she died in childbirth.  
Ba kept it together long enough to remarry before getting lost in the dens. Some point before she could remember, he pulled her brothers out of school and put them to work, funding his addictions. She didn’t even get a chance at school –  then again not many village girls did. She might’ve been smart if she’d been given the chance. But they’d never know now.
At eight her stepmother put her to work. After all, there were bills and mounding debts to be paid. She had to earn her keep. So she slaved from the crack of dawn ‘til long after dusk. Cooking, cleaning, and raising babies for families who paid her stepmother directly. She never saw a cent.  
Eventually she married and raised her own babies. And then the grandbabies, who now have babies of their own. They don’t let her touch the babies now, though. Maybe they think the illiterate stupid might rub off.

The Writer
With a chubby fist, she pushed the sweat soaked tendrils out of her muddy, almond shaped eyes, restlessly resettling her head in Mother’s lap. Mother reached down and stroked her fine light brown hair and lightly traced the lines of her gently arched brows, snub nose, and thin lips, brushing against the fine cut on her lower lip that would almost certainly scar.
“You know, my grandfather came here from China. He ran away, hidden in the belly of a ship, on his wedding night…” Mother began.
She was staring at the waving autumn gold leaves overhead, tracking their lazy movement with her eyes and fidgeting her feet as Mother’s words washed over her. Later that afternoon as she played in the sun, hair glowing almost auburn, she would hardly remember the details of the stories.
Not that it mattered. Three generations down, anything beyond basics was already fuzzy. And as she heard the stories time and time again over the next twenty years, her ample imagination would fill in the gaps. Moulding and reshaping stories like the clay she played with beneath the gingko tree.