Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Little Giant Me

There's a zinc roof that covered our 'cellar' in Geylang. Well, it's not exactly a cellar but a common landing where our three-storey high back spiral staircase ended. This staircase was our fire escape and led to a back alley downstairs. Its landing had a door to keep unwanted visitors out.

I'd like to say that this back landing was clean and welcoming but it was not. Even though the landlord had built a zince roof over it, water still seeped in creating damp patches on the walls and staircase pillar. Lots of algae grew and became a haven for cockroaches, spiders and other creepy crawlies. Needless to say, we children bolted each time we entered or exited that landing. No point in hanging around to find out what's hiding in the shadows!

On the edges of this zinc roof would grow wonderfully strange feral plants. One of these looked like tiny coconut trees: the same sort of trunk and canopy shape. The leaves were, however, thick and waxy and lilac in colour.

They reminded me more of tiny prehistoric plants than the tall swaying kampong variety. From a distance, they looked positively toy-like.

Near these plants were weeds that were similarly miniature in stature and shout. So, on the whole, I felt as if I was looking at a patch of jungle that perhaps grew in some sort of fairy tale land - Lilliput or the center of the Earth. One time I brought my little green-men toy soldiers there to play. I was perhaps 6 or 7 years old then.

That's not the only time I felt giant as a kid.

My parents would on occasion bring us to Haw Par Villa Park.

There's a 'World Cities' exhibit that's actually a sunken pit with miniature recreations of various popular cities. Standing in that pit made me feel like Ultraman - tall in valor and ability, especially in fighting off gigantic monsters. For us, the monsters in the park were the Hell civil servants with their bulging eyes and long forked tongues. Their wiry hair also make them look positively hardened and unforgiving.

Looking at this bonsai picture brings me back to those times when my world was small but big at the same time.

I remember a neighbour selling eggs from her living room. She had a bonsai outside in her five-foot way as well as in her living room, one complete with tiny mud figurines from popular Chinese folk tales. You know, figures like the Cowherd Boy or Old Man Fishing.

Another 'prehistoric' plant on that zinc roof was not wild but grown by a neighbour. Its leaves were like crepe paper but was actually hairy to the touch. When crushed, it was very effective in healing bruises and sprains. My mom had used it on me before after I got a nasty knock on my ankle playing football.

This cure was something I had learnt from a downstairs neighbour who exhibited an uncanny ability to crack firewood with his bare hands. He told me then that he'd learnt that skill through Chinese kung fu.

He tried to teach me once but Chinese kung fu in those days took at least 10 years to learn... or more if "heng gong" or  Bounding Up A Cliff skill was involved. I usually would just have the weekend so cracking firewood (or toothpicks) was all I could muster. Till this day, I still wonder how he was able to do what he did - split a small log of wood with just his bare hands and being very light fingered.

Perhaps that wild miniature garden atop that landing cellar grew from the careless seeding of my neighbour's plants. Or that the imaginative whims of an Ultraman fan-boy caught the wind and brought them there. In any case, it certainly brought out the little giant in me and in a good way.

[Interestingly, Ah Fatt's aunt was a runner for a brothel (an 'orh kang'), who helped to bring girls to their customers or helped them find a room. My mom didn't like her and found her to be of the gangster type. Ah Fatt's mom was ok, a rather nice lady. One time, Ah Fatt's mom was pregnant and my eldest uncle had come home as usual climbing up the stairs and bringing his bike up to the landing. This gangster aunt came and accused him of bumping into her pregnant sister and causing bleeding. She demanded $300 from my mom as compensation. My mom was not to be bullied and got a friend to intervene on her behalf. The two men (including the pimp) had a discussion, ending with my mom being exonerated. The neighbours all knew Ah Fatt's mom was weak in the womb and would bleed and also miscarriage often. My mom was flabbergasted how opportunistic some of these gangster types were!]

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