The Island of Death Behind Pulau Blakang (Malay)
by Sunita Thind
Singapore seemed electrified, fizzled, the wailing brightness, smacked itself against the screens of cars. Oh the grotesque tragedy of not being allowed to live in this micro paradise permanently. My dad had seven sisters, six of which resided in Kuala Lumpur and my mother had cousins in Singapore. Being from a Punjabi, Sikh background, Singapore was like an Eastern Pandoras Box I would open throughout my childhood and life. Away from the bleak and featureless Isle of Queen Lizzie and the cultural constraints of familial life as a young South Asian girl/woman.
Everywhere were rippling wet foreheads, domes of moisture and fluid dripping sticky down torsos, inside shirts and soiled petticoats. It had been my second home for a long time, I adored riding the air conditioned and immaculate monorail, smelling the exotic diets of the indigenous people wafting through the carriages. There were solid jade blockades of greenery and phosphorescent, vertigo inducing buildings rising towards the heavens. Everywhere seemed to sizzle and boil, this kind of shimmery and frustrated heat made you exhausted, even before you had reached your destination. There was a stampede of too sultry days and a lurid light in the coming days. I noted the solid blockade of jade green trees where everything sizzled. The climates apparent problem was it glimmering heat.
My mothers family had emigrated to Singapore from Malaysia some decades ago and owned a string of compact sugar cube like flats. This was a cosmopolitan city, a cultural hot pot of many different races including Punjabi (my family), Tamil, Indian, some Malay people, but a largely Chinese population.
In Singapores Chinas Town I would find a secluded spot to peruse the shops and restaurants. Cooing at the jewel tones and imperial and oriental architecture. Wedging myself in an intimate restaurant watching the supremely flammable dishes being brought out to slobbering customers on steaming platters. I usually ordered gallons of Oolong and Jasmine tea, and just people watched, I was on good terms with the owner and would order dim sim: dumplings, sauces of variant colours, bite size wontons that were crêpey and translucent creams, noodle rolls and egg tarts.
Sometimes I would consume all the delicacies and other times I would nibble on them. Sometimes the people that I would observe would be glossy as a photo or they would seem dulled and sullen of youthful or glittering with curious eyes. They could have an old innocence or a young innocence it did not matter about the age. So many colours, honey melon yellow, razor blade silver, garnet brightness, vulva pink just vivid.
I recall the white day, the sun was spawning its rays into the sky and they bounced off ruinous buildings that had opulent histories. I wore a dress that was a shade of blood burgundy, with amazing black crystal encrusted ankle boots that showcased my elongated limbs that people said seemed to go on forever. I was not accustomed to the sparkling humidity.
You could see the sunburnt injuries of the sun inflicted on my mothers face.
The heat smacks you in the eyes, liquefying your innards, brain and all. Frying your genitals. I also had consumed seafood that day, in Singapore at a food stall, it was cheap there, it was fried some sort of Stingray washed down by sugar cane water, then some star fruit with drizzled honey and an Asian Beer. I remembered the juicy slice of orange dawn that had met me at the end of the evening.
How to decipher this jewelled hotness on the magnesium white sands of Sentosa Islands Siloso Beach, where I had fried my body for some many summers to a chocolate hue. The cyan water seemed to be carbonated and the fizzy waves would slush along the beach leaving in its wake seaweed and occasional dead jelly fish and shells. It was a long sheltered beach, when I was eight and we would have any celebrations on the island I would be dressed in a short Chinese silk jacket and white pleated skirt, we would eat food and set off firecrackers and get ang pow, money in red envelopes from our Punjabi and Chinese relatives, interracial marriages were not as uncommon as some may think in South Indian culture.
Sentosa meant peace and tranquillity in Malay, which originated from the Sanskrit term meaning contentment. I never really knew this, what was more disturbing was when it was a British Military base once and a Japanese Prison of war camp it used to be referred to as Pulau Blakang which in Malay means Island of Death Behind. Maybe there were lots of hungry pow (prisoners of war) ghosts driven by such impassioned emotions ambling and dawdling along the beach. I felt this shrill chill, as I sensed their animalistic and ancestral eyes boring into me with a kind of deviant glistening shine. Almost in their sad damnation they were not venerated any more by their relatives. There was reclamation of the land from the sea and seventy percent of the island was covered by rainforest with monitor lizards, screeching monkeys, rainbow bright parrots and vanity driven peacocks.
The crystal bright musical fountains would cavort around with watery glee and were a prized attraction. The prismatic attraction seemed to publish the sky with delight and abstract shapes of wondrous luminosity. My cousins and I would stay until the oily darkness of the night would gag a golden and weary sun smudged by an upset lipstick sunset. We would let our honey coloured toes subside into the crumbling sands and try and catch lava orange crabs in cheap, neon bright plastic buckets to release, sometimes my uncle would spike and fry them on a small beach fire to have as a snack. It was a macabre sight to see my uncle consume lobster and wonton soup. He would select a ruby bright lobster from the fish tank of the food stall near the beach for his meal. I remember wanting to emancipate this crustacean victim. Protruding was the monolithic stone, white Merlion, this cultural edifice, a mythical creature with a lions head and a fishs body, it embodied Singapore. Singapores original name was Singapura meaning lion city.
Gon Xi Fa Choi a sharp scream that had reached a new octave, it was Chinese New Year. A swirl of amethyst and kaleidoscope bronze fizzled between fireworks .
Oriental faces scrutinised the illuminating and dangling lanterns, they seemed to be multi coloured, crepe paper and crinkling. The sky seemed a glossy blue...
I wore a Cheongsam (Chinese Silk Dress) of shimmering turquoise, it almost had a metallic haze around it. It was embossed with sewn golden floral detail and the odd, red fire dragon. The silk sheen seemed appropriate in the almost Chinese tea room that also had bamboo green matting and Oriental silk screen paintings. There were some porcelain Chinese deities adorning various shelves behind where we were. It also doubled up as a restaurant for a new years feast. I adored all the trinkets, a new dimension of pepper red and pomegranate diffused into the room. My cousin Jaswinder had obsidian hair, night coloured hair, he was chomping on a juicy candy floss pink prawn. The crowds outside were rowdy and my aunty put a protective arm around me. We feasted on coconut rice with soy sauce, fermented tofu and stir fried greens with chilli chicken and thick stick noodles.
The skyscrapers, broad leaved parasol trees, colonial spires, Buddhist and Oriental gardens and architecture personified the exoticism of this urban jungle. The Singaporean night seemed like a glittering oddity to me, I had come many summers from infancy, adolescence, to teen hood and now adulthood. The moon was frosted, I felt more at home here and in Malaysia where my much of my extended family had resided more than the bleakness of England. The streets seemed studded with Buddhist temples and trinket shops. The Eastern dimensions of the strewn Buddhist temples I liked to languish in, this psychotic break of glitter.
Was I a cultural leech in this micro ethnically diverse cosmos, I adored one specific Buddhist temple it was the Kwan In Thong Hood Cho Temple om 178 Waterloo Street. It was built in 1884 and was dedicated to Kwan Im (Guanyin) the goddess of mercy and was a refuge for the sick and destitute during the Japanese Occupation. I would go there to meditate quietly among the holy shimmer and the flurry of people. I would pray for sick relatives but more recently myself as I had a metastatic body, I had Ovarian Cancer. I would kneel on the prayer carpet in front of the Buddha this lapsed Sikh girl, melancholic hazel eyes and toffee skin. I didnt want any tumors to be wrapped around my remaining ovary and commandeering my body. I prayed for Guanyin for compassion, this Bodhisattva. The temple was bustling with luckless devotees.
The temple was an example of ancient Chinese courtyard architecture, its rainbow bright craftsmanship, its emerald light and melancholic tinkle brought me peace, away from this mental and emotional mutilation. In the prayer hall kowtowing to the Goddess of Mercy, yellowed swastikas adorned the roof, the ridges embellished with calligraphy and decorations signifying good omen which I could suckle up like sacred godly breast milk. The aroma of incense stagnated outside the temple in an urn, the incense sticks would stain the temple ceilings with soot just like those cancerous cells were tattooed on my body. My fertility was dying like the scented smoke of the I-ping sticks .
The glazed beams of a bronze flourish seem to electrocute the air at my cousins Punjabi wedding, she was marrying a Caucasian man, much like I had in the UK. Weddings were generally the reason why we came so often to Malaysia and Singapore. Guests of caramel, macchiato, chocolate and coffee tones seemed to multiply in the luxurious banqueting suite. Everyone was pollinated in sequins, crystals and diamanté, jewelled saris, parrot coloured stalwart kammeez (Indian Suits), rhinestone sherwani, festive turbans and Indian gold and Anarkali jewellery and industrial quantities of cosmetics plastered on sweaty faces including my own, my false lashes were half off my clown painted visage and the I had sweated off my gold eye glitter.
A poem I wrote best describes the wedding and set the scene:
Indian Wedding Party
This plethora of swollen jewels tattooed to her skin.
In this peculiar procession of arresting silks.
Sari-emblazoned and oozing gold jewelry swelling caramel bodies.
Sweating like drenched fish in this bedazzled, break dancing Bhangra festival.
Dola is drumming with its gunpowder beats.
This flashy fish scale wives, gyrating, thrusting with sparkle pop dexterity.
This rainbow screeching and streaking.
The luminous lashes jewel spun bride
This tripped oriental delirium.
Caked in cosmetic artistry.
Quaking elders shriveled with their husband and turbans and head scarfs.
Hideous coughs of glitter.
Flame curling curries, thigh deep infuriating sabjis and crackling poppadoms
Chomping at the bit for methi (sweet -in Punjabi).
Oily orange Jalebi dribbling.
Dazzled in a crown of flowers are the unwed sisters.
Reveling in heavy handed flashes of Nikon.
Lakes immolating gemstones.
Sodden in crazed tears of loss grappling at her fathers shoulder.
Eyeballs like pickling onions.
Levitating on gold thread.
To foster the bonds of matrimony
Clogging her dainty mouth with egg less, wedding cake.
Enticing hands drew her in, frail, glittered bridal body into
a boa constrictor crush of affection
Plying her, feeding her.
A reservoir of bronze bodies, feasting, swiveling, and frolicking in Hindu melodies.
The altitude of the Far East, this juxtaposition with her bleached bridegroom.
Salivating Auntie-Jis cooing over cobalt blue eyes, oozing over his creamy agelessness.
And how his genes will prettify the Asian gene pool.
His luminous beauty against this dusky daughter.
Out of her doll shell this bride panting into her new western reality.
Imperial white and Sanskrit dark.
Chewing on her twinkling chuni (headscarf) now caught on her scintillating nose ring.
I presented this poem as a present in golden calligraphy on an ornate card to my Singaporean cousin Yasmin as wedding gift. I was weighed down in a regal gold and hot pink crystal studded lengha (Indian occasion/ceremonial top and skirt). Before my airport departure I sponged up the sedated nostalgia. The droppey eyed western guests were bedazzled by the strobe lights and the sun-these pale figurines were lobster burnt and almost scorched to the skin. Suspiciously navigating the ethnic and cultural borders, the ambiguous customs. Borrowing countries and cultures from each other. I grabbed a delicious plate of fish curry and a plate of Dosa (a flattened, layered piece of rice batter) noted the high sari count in the area known as Little India, a renowned part of city.
The aroma of greasy parathas and sweet cardamon tea wafted up the vibrant street to my nostrils giving me a tropical sense of deja vu.
More stories from Winamop
Copyright reserved. Please do not reproduce without consent.