David Cheng saved the changes he’d made to Shan Shan’s Personal Statement and rose from his desk. He had an hour, and every few minutes he looked at his watch. Except for the plate-glass windows behind him, bookcases took up every inch of wall space. He could read something to make the minutes go by more swiftly, the kind of reading where his fingers would turn the pages whilst his head lagged behind his eyes. The cooler in the corner hummed.
At the sound of knocking, he re-arranged himself at his desk, opening a book and resting a hand on the page. His chin went up and dropped slightly when he saw that it was Jean Wang, her powdered and rouged face rising above the ruffles of her blouse. Her thin penciled eyebrows were two symmetrical rounded arches.
“Didn’t you say you were going to Beijing? This place is a beastly ghost town. Everyone else has gone away.”
He glanced at his watch. He shouldn’t have switched on the white ceiling lights. The lamp by the sofa had a glow that would not have been detected through the gap between door and threshold.
“I leave in a few days’ time.”
“If I had to communicate using only Mandarin for a day, not even a week, I’d go stark raving mad.”
She was like him, she grew up in an English-speaking family with parents who decided for their children that English would be their main language. It was far more practical to receive an English education. At school they and their friends spoke only English. Chinese was a ridiculous and tedious subject that involved memorising stock phrases and copying new characters until fingers became stiff and knuckles turned white.
David was still unable to hold a serious conversation in Mandarin after the one-week course last year, but whilst he was in Beijing, he visited calligraphy galleries and bought vertical scrolls of Tang dynasty poems written in wild cursive script he couldn’t read. He was thrilled by the sight of Chinese characters everywhere, not just in his textbook but in large LED lights on skyscrapers, billboards, TV programmes, advertisements on cabs.
Jean Wang leaned forwards, a gleam in her eyes. He closed the book and stole another glance at his watch.
“We should meet for lunch before you leave. You like the Stables, don’t you?”
He turned to face the monitor.
“I have to finish this paper before I leave. But yes, we could go for lunch.”
“I was at the Stables last week with Milton, he said very nice things about your seminar paper, the one about that Chinese poet and translator who spent some time in England, I can’t remember these Chinese names, you’ll have to remind me.”
“‘An eloquent, elegant thesis’—high praise, I’d say, coming from Milton.”
David tapped at his phone.
“Let’s have lunch when I’m back at the end of the month.”
“Would you be so kind as to drive us there? I would usually book a taxi but since you have a car …”
“Of course, I’d be happy to, no problem.”
Once the door was closed, he turned towards the bookcase right next to it, scanned the titles of books on spines, picked one out and returned to his desk to flip through the pages. He looked at his watch—ten more minutes, Shan Shan was always punctual—and returned his mind happily to its previous engagement. The first time he met Shan Shan was when he’d sneaked out of the auditorium at the National Schools’ Literature Festival during a panel discussion. He had given the keynote lecture after lunch and he was ready to go home and do something more interesting with his time than to listen to an anachronistic debate about the place of the vernacular in local literature. There were publishers’ booths in the foyer. Most of the vendors had gone to the canteen for a quick break before students and teachers spilled out of the auditorium.
He noticed a young woman, her hair pinned to one side with a clip. She bore a startling resemblance to Lin Huiyin, the writer and architect who broke Xu Zhimo’s heart. Before her was a copy of Wuthering Heights, its spine heavily creased. He scanned the covers of the books at her booth, waiting for her to look up.
She looked surprised, nodded, and quickly stood up, looking left and right before she found what she wanted and handed it to him. He was secretly pleased that it was a book of poems. His eyes galloped through the first two poems before he returned the book to her. He watched as she carefully restored it to its former place with her slim hands, aligning the volume with the copies underneath. “It’s better than the first one,” she added shyly.
“The style is simpler.”
David picked the book up again and studied the blurbs on the back cover. Coming into contact with new poets was like colliding into separate bodily presences that had staked their issues and questions through language—too close for comfort. He knew he ought to read them, but here he was, barely able to keep up with all the reading he was required to do as a scholar, how could he be expected to keep up with all these new minor debuts. He himself was trying to write, trying to find his voice as a poet.
“You like poetry?”
She nodded. “I read whenever there are no customers.”
“That’s a nice perk,” he said.
“The nicest thing about this job is being surrounded by books.”
“You have Chinese books, too, I see.”
“Do you read Chinese? These two are very good.”
“I like looking at Chinese words.” He was going to tell her about the scrolls he’d brought back from China, but he stopped himself. He hadn’t had time to figure out what was written on them. There were too many to choose from in the first place, and the gallery owner’s accent made his Mandarin as viscous as a Szechuan sweet-and-sour soup. But he was certain they were Tang poems.
“My boss is bilingual and likes to support the Chinese community.” She paused. “He’s my publisher.” Another pause. “For my book of poems.”
“I didn’t know I was speaking to a poet. Which one is yours?”
“My book’s not out yet. Would you like to join our mailing list? I can send you an email when it’s out.”
He gave her his name card.
“Dr. David Cheng, assistant professor, English department. Oh, I didn’t know! Sorry! Oh, wait, please give me a second.”
“Shan as in mountain?” he asked as she wrote her name on a scrap she’d torn from a paper bag.
“No,” she said. She wrote two characters and circled the first character. “Shanfrom shanhu, coral.”
“A Chinese poet … Chinese must be your mother tongue. I wish my Chinese wasn’t so appallingly… I went to Beijing for a course and that was excellent. I’m going back again.”
“Why is my Chinese so awful?”
“No, why do you need to study Chinese in Beijing?” She smiled as she asked the question, and again he was reminded of Lin Huiyin, how in her photographs, she looked and smiled confidently and generously at the camera as if all her intelligence and beauty was being offered to the viewer. He’d always wondered what Lin Huiyin’s voice was like.
“It’s taken a while, but I see it now, being Chinese is part of me. Especially when I was studying in England, I realised that I’d never be an Englishman, no matter how fluent I am.”
“You can practise your Mandarin with me.”
“You have a nice accent. You sound like my teacher, the one in China.”
She laughed. “Our Chinese is not the same as theirs.”
If she thought he was a fool, she didn’t show it. The next day they met for coffee. Shan Shan’s father was a cook with his own zhichar stall in a hawker centre in Jurong before he died two years ago. She was the eldest in a family of six and had recently finished her diploma at Singapore Polytechnic. Apart from the two youngest who were both still schooling, the other siblings worked as cook, sales assistant, waitress. She was hired by the publisher after he heard about her father’s death and he remembered her from her internship at the company.
It was four o’clock. The knocks at the door had to be her this time. He stood up and pulled her gently by the hand to his side of the desk so that she could see the latest version of her Personal Statement, what he’d kept on the screen for her to read before she clicked “Save” and attached it to the rest of her application materials to the university. She had her back to him so he couldn’t see her face. She turned around and hugged him.
“Thank you,” she whispered into his chest. That silenced any doubts he had.
They continued to hold each other. He was about to tell her what this reminded him of—a scene in a Taiwanese New Wave film he’d watched when he was an undergraduate—but she pulled away from him at that moment and turned towards the buzzing sound that came from the phone inside her bag.
He looked at her as she spoke to whoever was on the other line, her shoulders raised and taut. He guessed that it was one of her siblings because she spoke in Mandarin and her manner was familiar and brusque. When she put down the phone, she sat down on the sofa, took out a thin blue notebook and wrote something in it.
“Zhe me la? Fa shen shen me shi? What’s the matter? Did something happen?”
“My sister says there’s a government letter saying that they want to take back the land of the cemetery to build a MRT depot.”
He first learnt about the old Teochew cemetery near Kranji when Shan Shan asked him if he knew any gardeners a fortnight ago. Someone had called to complain that the grass at the cemetery was overgrown. Her brothers were supposed to take care of this. Their family had looked after the cemetery since her great-grandfather was appointed as curator by the Teochew Association. After he passed away, the responsibility fell upon his only son, and then to Shan Shan’s father. After Shan Shan’s father’s death, it had become Shan Shan’s responsibility to respond to phone calls and text messages from families who wished to engage them to tidy up the graves before Qingming, Ancestors’ Day.
“It’ll be Qingming in a month’s time,” she said slowly in Mandarin. “There will be families coming to the cemetery, quite a few groups. They’ll have to be told about this.”
“It’s not your fault,” he said, stroking her face. He’d chilled a bottle of white wine, thinking that they could have a drink after she submitted her application. She had not been able to sit down in his chair to log into her account and complete the process. He wanted her to do that whilst sitting in his lap, and he wanted to open the bottle and taste the wine on her lips.
“I’ll have to go this week to do some maintenance. The families give us money to do the work and my brothers said they can’t take leave. They’re always leaving it all to me. My sisters too. I can’t believe the government is taking the land back. They did the same thing with our house at the kampong. We had so much land and they took it and made us, a big family, move into a tiny flat.”
“I’m sure the families will understand.”
“Can you help me when I go there this Saturday? There’s a lot to do …”
Her eyes seemed to slant even more downwards at their outer tips whenever she was preoccupied with something. He cupped her cheeks with his hands and slid them down to the nape of her neck.
“Of course,” he said. “Fang xin, don’t worry.”
They turned off the road into a dirt track. From the side, a lone sign rose above flourishing weeds: the name of the cemetery in three hand-painted Chinese characters. The first one was guang, meaning broad, the third one was shan, meaning hill. He couldn’t remember how to read the middle character. They drove on until they came to a rusty lopsided gate padlocked with a heavy chain. On both sides of the track were narrow ditches; beyond these, an unruly dense greenery made up of tall grass, weeds, wild tapioca plants, and trees entangled by creepers and climbers.
Shan Shan jumped out of the car and ran up to the gate to unlock it. There was no road, just a mud track, and their bodies jerked and bopped as the car crawled forwards. He’d never been to a Chinese cemetery before. Years ago, an English friend of his lived in Stoke Newington and they went for walks at Abney Park, a Victorian cemetery that’d been converted into a park. There were stone crosses, statues of angels on sarcophagi, ivy-covered pillars and red brick walls. It was peaceful, a fitting place for souls to rest. He’d known that the Teochew cemetery would be different, but the absence of asphalt disconcerted him. After they parked the car, Shan Shan went to the boot and he stood by the side of the track, looking up and down anxiously, wondering if there was sufficient room for other cars to pass through.
He joined her at the boot where she was putting small cans of paint, brushes, a spade into a large red plastic tote. He grabbed hold of the cumbersome green bottles of bleach, a sickle she’d brought from her home and a long wooden stick. The sickle belonged to her great-grandfather. She gave him the bag, took one of the bleach bottles and the sickle from him and moved quickly to the side. He watched her as she paced forwards, pressing the thick grass down with the sickle. She seemed to be searching for something.
“Here!” she finally called out to him.
He joined her and saw what she’d been looking for: thin wooden planks across the ditch.
“Did you bring the food?” They’d bought fried bee hoon and black coffee from the food centre near his place. He’d left them back in the car, thinking that they’d drive somewhere else to eat after they were done here.
She went to the front and came back with the plastic bag bulging with two Styrofoam boxes and balloon-like bags of coffee. Picking up the bottle of bleach, she crossed the ditch. He hurried after her, feeling the thin planks sag under his weight.
He was startled by a sound she made as she hacked at the grass to clear a path for them, “Siam! Siam!”
The grass and weeds reached up to his shoulders. Shan Shan strode ahead with confidence, slashing away with her sickle as if she had been doing this all her life, parting a way for them through a sea of thick coarse grass, not being able to see what was ahead beyond two hand spans. He caught glimpses of the bright green of the bleach bottle swinging by her side. He beat the ground in front of him with the stick before he took each step even though she was a few steps ahead of him, stepping on the same ground. Large butterflies with iridescent wings hovered around them.
They passed a Flame-of-the-Forest tree with a luscious crown of crimson flowers. Soon they were in a clearing where the grass looked mown and the land sloped downwards into the shape of a large oval. Within this recessed area stood three tombstones, each with a headstone placed at the centre of a semi-circular stone and cement structure. Behind each tombstone rose a grassy mound like the shell of a giant tortoise.
“Li Jiayun, Li Jiasheng, Li Jiale,” Shan Shan called out each name with affectionate familiarity, as if she was at a school reunion greeting former classmates. He slapped at his arms to shoo the mosquitoes away. There was already insect repellent on his arms and neck, he’d made sure to spray himself thoroughly before he left the house. He could feel the sweat beading on his forehead and the dampness of his shirt at the back and near his armpits. He should apply more repellent. He groped for the spray in his rucksack and realised, stifling the groan that almost escaped from him, that he’d left it back at the house or in the car. Shan Shan was inspecting each of the tombstones with a spade in hand, kneeling down to pull out weeds that had sprouted up in corners or along the edges where the stone met the ground.
He stood and stared at the Chinese characters on the tombstones. He could see the small black and white photographs but he didn’t want to look too closely. He didn’t want to see the faces.
“What do the words say?”
“Their village and province in China. They were from the same village as my great-grandfather. Rich people, very very rich. You can tell from the size of this, right? See, they even tiled this front part. Can you pour the bleach and I’ll scrub? Some of these words need repainting. I’ll do the red ones, you can touch up the green.”
They worked in silence, their nostrils filled with the smell of bleach mixed with the smell of sap and earth from uprooted and broken weeds and the greasy odour of fresh paint. He had wondered why she showed up that morning in a long-sleeved blouse with a high collar and buttoned cuffs, why she looked as if she was dressed for cold weather. The back of his neck and his forearms already bore the telltale reddish bumps of mosquito bites. He had told himself to stop looking at his watch, but when she asked him if he was hungry, he glanced at it and was surprised to see that it was only a quarter to twelve.
They sat on the tiled space in front of the tombstones. They sat with their backs to the tombs, facing the Flame-of-the-Forest tree. Shan Shan handed him one of the Styrofoam boxes and a pair of chopsticks. His hands were wet; he’d rinsed them with water from her water bottle. He took out a handkerchief and passed the water bottle to her but she shook her head. He opened the box and started to eat, keeping his eyes on the food or on the flowers of the tree.
“There’re so many big butterflies here. Heavenly for a lepidopterist,” he mused as a butterfly with purple and black wings fluttered past.
“See how big the trees are? They’re older than this place, you know. They’re proper trees, not like the ones in town.”
“I’ve not seen a Flame-of-the-Forest tree in ages.”
“I wrote a poem about that tree. ‘Qingai de huoshu’, ‘Dear Fire Tree.’ ”
“Send it to me?” he sighed. “These trees used to be everywhere until NParks chopped them down and stopped planting new ones because the flowers made a mess on the roads. You’re not hungry?”
“The grass cutters will be here soon,” she explained.
As if that was the cue, her phone buzzed. He watched her as she read the new message and texted back. When she looked up, he looked away. He felt an itch on the bare skin between his sock and shin. He slapped at the spot. Hiking up the trouser leg, he could see two spindly mosquito legs and a faint trace of blood.
“I have to go out to the road, they don’t know the way in,” she said, picking up the sickle. She tied up her coffee packet expertly and placed it next to him.
“Watch out for snakes,” he thought of saying but she had already disappeared into the thick grass. He looked around him. The chatter of cicadas had grown to a deafening pitch. Before he went to the UK for his Masters and PhD, he accompanied his mum to the temple on Qingming, to pay his respects to his father and his grandparents. Their urns were in a columbarium within a sprawling temple complex. He was in charge of arranging the food they’d brought on bright red plastic trays. His mum poured coffee into three mugs. They lit joss sticks and bowed their heads before tiers of urns arrayed behind sliding glass doors. When he was a boy, he imagined his prayers as a laser beam aimed at the urns with his family’s remains. He could make out his name from his mother’s muttering in Teochew (the only Teochew he knew was his name). After they’d made the offering, they sat around and waited for a bit, perhaps half an hour, and after that his mother would approach the urns again, holding two wooden crescent pieces. They were painted red, but the colour had faded from their being held and thrown over time. She held the crescents between her hands and asked in Teochew, Ah Pa, Ah Ma, David’s father, have you finished eating. She shook her clasped palms and opened them, allowing the crescents to fall to the ground. She crouched down, even though there was no need for that. One rounded side facing up, one flat side facing down was a “yes”. When both pieces landed with their flat sides facing up, it was a smile, not a “yes”. Sometimes David’s mother had to ask the spirits three, four times, before they could pack up the food, go home and have the offerings for lunch. She never got David to do the asking.
It was his job to fetch the crescents from the main altar and then to return them. There were at least four pairs, lying in a jumble beside the censer with its miniature forest of used and lit joss sticks. He picked up one piece and spent some time pressing it close to each of the other remaining pieces. If they were to work well, they had to be an exact match. He liked their worn smoothness. How humble they looked, these crescent lips that carried a resolute yes or no from the dead.
When Shan Shan came back, she was alone. The whirring sound of grass cutters started in another part of the cemetery.
“Where’re they?” he asked.
“I’m getting them to cut over there today,” she pointed to the right. “They did this area last week. Can’t you see, the grass here’s not that long? They can do a trim next week. I have to go back to check on them later.”
“What were you shouting earlier on? When we were walking through the grass?”
“Siam! Siam!” She grinned. “I’m telling the snakes to shan kai, get lost. Oh, and of course, other things too.”
“Are your family’s graves here?”
“Only my great-grandfather. After the seventies, no more burials.”
A loud rustling sound came from the tall grasses. Two men and a woman who looked like construction workers except they were not wearing protective headgear emerged. One of the men had a hoe slung over his shoulder. They wore long-sleeved shirts that looked unwashed. He could tell how tanned they were from their hands, necks and faces. They were so brown they could pass off as Malays if he’d seen them from behind. As they came closer, he had an inexplicable sensation that their swarthy complexion was due to more than just too much sun. They disappeared into the grass on the other side of the clearing without acknowledging his or Shan Shan’s presence.
“They’re caretakers, for the graves on the other side,” Shan Shan said, adding with a loud sigh, “Those will have to go too.”
They continued eating and after they finished the food, they had coffee as if they were on a picnic at the Botanic Gardens. He allowed himself to be amused by this thought. He looked at Shan Shan, her shoulders relaxed. Behind them the tombstones had been cleaned and the fresh paint was drying. She stood up and reached for his hand.
“Want to see something crazy?”
He followed her, moving in a direction that seemed to be going back the way they came, but he wasn’t certain. The vegetation seemed to be thicker, but she was moving steadily forwards, brandishing her sickle. He gasped when she cut down a tapioca plant that was in their way, and he was looking behind him when he felt a sudden tug and his face and body was pushed through a curtain of leaves and twigs. He thought for a second they had been swallowed into the stomach of a green giant made of plant matter, but Shan Shan drew his hand forward to touch a large blade, and that was when he saw them. The most enormous pandan plants he’d ever seen. They were three times his height.
“I went to my great-grandfather’s grave earlier on, and I told him I’d applied to go to university. I’m going to be the first university graduate in my family.”
She swung her sickle at one of the offshoots.
“Want to bring this back for your mum? You can grow it in a pot, pandan is very useful for all kinds of things.”
David shook his head. On their way back to the three Li graves, he saw how the skies had become overcast. At the start of low rumbling sounds, they packed their things quickly and headed back to the car. Once they were inside, he pulled her to him, putting his hands between her legs, kissing her hard on the lips. The rain pelted down. Her tongue was in his mouth, making deft flecking movements around his tongue.
He didn’t call Shan Shan after he returned from Beijing. He thought about her a lot during his time away, but after he got back, he banished the idea of seeing her. In the weeks running up to his trip, he went back to the cemetery twice with her. He had lunch with Jean Wang after he came back, and during the lunch there was a text message from Shan Shan. A week had passed since then and still he hadn’t replied. Jean Wang had commented on the knot of pandan leaves on the rear dashboard of his car. She said there were different varieties of pandanaceae, and the ones in his car didn’t look like pandan wangi, the type they sold at supermarkets. He’d shrugged his shoulders, saying it was his mum’s idea to put the leaves in his car because her helper, whom he paid to wash his car every Sunday, had seen a cockroach. The second time he accompanied Shan Shan to the cemetery, she’d made a knot of pandan leaves and put them in his car. She said she needed some for a dessert she was going to make later that evening, but she’d cut too many leaves.
It was probably on his third visit that he noticed many of the tombstones had been spray-painted with numbers. Some numbers were on the sides, some of them were close to the photograph of the deceased person. They made the tombstones look like makeshift props marked for disposal. There were also red and white barrier tapes cordoning off some of the graves. He was waiting in his car for Shan Shan when a lorry drove past. The ghoulish caretakers were in it. When he mentioned this to Shan Shan on their drive home, she said that she was walking out to the road and the trio had stopped her. It was the first time she’d had a conversation with them.
“What did they say?” he asked, catching a glimpse of her face as he checked the rearview mirror.
“They’re starting to exhume the graves on their side a week after Qingming. They asked me to introduce them to the families on our side.”
“Are you going to do that?”
“Of course not! The graves on our side are ours. They can take care of their own graves. There’re plenty of graves.”
“Who’s going to exhume the ones on your side?”
She looked at him.
“Me and my family, of course. Who else?”
“I don’t want you to be involved in that,” he said, panic rising in him. He could see her standing in the dim light and mist of an early hour, witnessing the uncovering of long buried coffins and what remained in them. How could he go inside her after that? What would he taste on her lips?
“Why?” When she saw that he wasn’t going to say anything, she turned towards the window on her side of the car. “We can earn up to two thousand dollars for each grave,” she said finally.
They didn’t speak for the rest of the drive. He dropped her at the car park beneath her block of flats and drove home. He couldn’t wait to get inside the shower. He put his clothes into the washing machine even though there weren’t enough to make up a full load.
The day after that she came to his place for dinner. Nothing was said about the cemetery. After dinner she carried their bowls and chopsticks to the kitchen. She came back to the table, glanced at her phone, and went back to the kitchen, closing the door behind her. When she re-emerged after a few minutes, he looked at her, a questioning expression on his face.
“I had to return a call,” she said softly. “My brother texted to say that one of the families called him.” She bit her lower lip. “I’m the eldest. I have to make sure everything is done properly.” She came close to him and reached for his hand.
Two days after that, he left for Beijing. It was spring over there. When he came back, he got out of the taxi and felt the suffocating heat, the closeness in the air. How could the difference in temperature bother him so much when he’d only been away for one week? He thought of texting Shan Shan to say he was back. He took his phone out and put it back into his pocket. Above him the skies were dark with wisps of pinkish cloud. He brought his luggage inside and turned on the light in the living room. He’d bought more calligraphy on this trip, and the pieces of delicate mulberry paper were rolled up in two thick poster tubes. He thought about where he could display the calligraphy after he’d had them mounted and framed. He was going to have to look up the inscriptions on them, study the poems, before he invited people around to see them.
Later that evening, flying ants flew around the ceiling light in his bedroom. Some of them landed on the round convex surface and moved slowly, pressing their bodies close to it. It was a sign, rain was coming. He left the windows open, but slept so deeply he didn’t hear anything. In the morning there were dead ants and discarded wings on the floor. When did the wings fall off? He called his mum to ask if the helper could come over, but when she said his place had been cleaned just the day before, he forgot that he’d made the call because he was bothered by the ant wings in his bedroom. He brought the poster tubes to his car and placed them on the backseat. The knot of pandan leaves on the rear dashboard had turned brown. He bagged it in a plastic bag and chucked it into his neighbour’s rubbish bin outside the front gate.