River Road

River Road is one of the oldest roads in the city. It starts at City Hall, but quickly leaves the rarified air of Government for a winding, sinuous journey that takes it through the city’s heartlands, running parallel to the river that gives it its name. The casual tourist knows the road mainly for the old fort that dominates the first third of its length. Once the seat of British power, it is now a museum where the descendants of those sahibs and nabobs gather to ruminate on the final sunset of Victoria’s empire. The final third of the road is lined with mega-malls that terminate at the appropriately named Delta Street, offering another venue where tourists can lighten their purses and enlarge their loads.

But to us locals, it is the middle third of River Road that houses its true delights. For in the central span of River Road there lies a row of shop-houses that have stood witness to two centuries of change and the tragedy of two world wars. Our grandparents spent their childhoods in shop-houses much like these ones, learning and larking and laughing behind those shuttered windows while their parents hawked goods to the crowds underneath.

The shutters are silent these days. The children have long since moved into the high-rise flats that are themselves an extension of the shop-house design; families living in private above while others go about their public business in the void decks below. The shop-houses of today sit in the shade of their descendant, at once the parents of our skyline and a memory of its past.

The shop-houses hold no particular nostalgia for the young, who spent their childhoods behind the gridded windows of state-built flats. Instead, the city’s youth know the shop-houses of River Road for the eateries they play host to; a series of restaurants and 24-hour coffee-shops that serve a variety of local delights. Men and women of all ages and from all walks of life mingle happily in these establishments, for good, cheap food is the great equalizer of urban life. Those who can afford the three dollars for a bowl of noodles or a plate of rice are a customers like any other and will be served in turn. Wealth and status do not matter here: the businessman in tailored suit and tie waits patiently in line behind the off-shift construction worker in his singlet and shorts. When the food comes they join a dozen others at one of the cramped wooden tables and join a ongoing conversation about the weather or football or politics. They spill their soup on each other, jostle for arm space, curse, swear, laugh, talk – and eat. They are equals in their hunger, different stations in life wiped away by a common human need.

If the city has a soul, it is hidden somewhere in this scene.

Understandably, River Road’s shop-houses are now considered prime real estate. On the rare occasions that one of the shop-houses comes on the market, it is sold for an exorbitant price. Even the rent of other buildings around the restaurant row has skyrocketed in recent years, as other businesses seek to take advantage of the customers who descend on River Road every night.

There is one shop-house that bucks this trend. The shop-house at the very beginning of the row has changed hands five times in the last three years alone, each time for a knock-down price. As if that was not strange enough, this particular shop-house stands right on the corner where River Road intersects Kim Leng Street, placing it in a great position to attract customers from both roads. And yet, somehow every tenant restaurant that has tried to exploit the shop-house’s strategic location has failed in one way or another.

In time, many came to believe that the shop-house was cursed. Some swore that the property had once played host to a series of sordid murders; others whispered of a vengeful hex laid by a daughter forced into an arranged marriage with a man she despised. My aunt personally believed that the shop-house was built over a mass grave from the war, and took great pains to cross over to the other side of the street when she needed to walk by that area. Whatever the case, fewer and fewer buyers are interested in the shop-house these days, scared off by the curse and the property’s history of failure.

I am not a great believer in curses. Indeed, I take special pains to eat at that shop-house whenever I have the chance, for I enjoy excellent service I receive when dining in a restaurant with few customers. Over the years, I have made friends with a few of the shop-house’s owners. Like any restaurateur down on their luck, they were all too willing to talk about their woes with any customer willing to extend a patient ear.

Feng owned the tenant restaurant that closed a few years back. He had heard about the curse but, like me, he was a skeptic and did not believe in it. An accountant by training, he would often show me his meticulously kept ledger which dipped week by week into the red as customers tired of his wonton soup that somehow seemed to be a reflection of the man himself – bland, thin and unimaginative. Feng sold the place on for a loss after a few short months and returned to his steady office job, promising us regulars that he would set up his own place again one day.

Dominic took over the shop-house after Ian’s restaurant had closed. Dominic was a fairly ordinary pizza-maker with a faux Italian accent and delusions of grandeur, convinced that his gimmick of giving away free slices on Wednesdays would draw enough customers to beat the rumored curse. He was wrong. The pizzeria was crowded on Wednesdays and empty on all others, bled money throughout its brief existence and closed even quicker than its forbearer. Before he left, Dominic gifted me a case of white wine that he swore would be the best I’d ever tried. I broke out a bottle that night to test his claim, and spent the rest of the night and most of the next morning trying to rinse the taste of vinegar from my mouth.

Aditya bought the shop-house two weeks after Dominic put it on the market. He ran an Indian restaurant that served fine food and seemed set to buck the curse until a mysterious case of food poisoning laid a table of visiting tourists low. Aditya would always maintain that the tourists had contracted their stomach bug from their previous meal – and I believe him – but the restaurant’s reputation never recovered from that incident. Aditya wisely chose to rename his restaurant and move it to a new location in the East, where it has flourished ever since.

The shop-house remained vacant for months this time, for no one was willing to buy the lease despite Aditya repeatedly lowering his asking price. And who could blame them? Even the most skeptical buyers found it hard to ignore the fact that three previous tenants had closed down in as many months, and so the shop-house stood unoccupied for several months as would-be restaurateurs turned their attention to other, less cursed, properties. So when Aditya called me to pass along the news that he had found a buyer at last, I could not help but wonder who had proved brave or foolhardy enough to take on ownership of a shop-house that had played home to so much misfortune.

I made it a point, therefore, to stop by the shop-house the next time I was in that part of town. The shop-house was swarmed by workers moving in fridges, tables, chairs and the assorted paraphernalia every restaurant seems to need. A man wearing a pair of long-sleeved overalls stood on a stepladder, taking down Aditya’s old signs. As I watched, he replaced them with a large placard that read “Jonah’s Wharf: Fresh Seafood All Day”. I chuckled. Only someone with a particularly perverse sense of humor would think of naming a seafood restaurant in a cursed shop-house after the most nautically troubled of men.

The man finished hanging the sign and dismounted the stepladder. I raised a hand to catch his attention and introduced myself as a regular customer of the previous tenant restaurant.

“Any chance you could tell me who owns this place?” I asked.

The man extracted a towel from a pocket and carefully wiped his hands.

“I do,” he said. “The name’s Guan. Nice to meet you.” He offered me his hand. I shook it, and felt a mass of callouses rub against the smooth skin of my palm.

Guan certainly did not look like any restaurateur I had seen before. He was solidly built, with hair that was dyed an artificial shade of brown and noticeably darkened to black near its roots. He seemed comfortable in his workman’s attire, and carried himself like one used to manual labor. As he moved his hand back from the shake, his sleeve rode up a little and I caught a glimpse of a brightly tattooed forearm.

He saw me staring and laughed.

“Looking at the ink, eh?”

Guan rolled his right sleeve up to reveal a tattoo that stretched from his shoulder to just above his wrist.

“Go ahead and take a look, I’m not shy. I just keep it wrapped up most days because some people seem to take offence at body art.”

I had seen tattoos before on some of my friends in the army. They had been simple things, inked in faded grey or black  – a girl’s name, a skull and crossbones, the symbol of a street-corner gang – monuments to a drunken night or teenaged rebellion. Guan’s was nothing like that. His tattoo depicted a carp in mid-jump, its back arching as it leaped over a waterfall that wrapped around his entire arm. At the very top of his shoulder, near the collarbone, the waterfall merged into a picture of a single lotus flower in full bloom. The whole tattoo was inked in vibrant reds, greens and blues and rendered in exquisite detail.

I whistled.

“It’s beautiful,” I said. “It must have cost you an arm and a leg.”

He smiled, evidently pleased at the compliment.

“Two thousand dollars, but it was worth every cent.” Guan flexed his arm and the carp seemed to wriggle like a live thing.

“Why’d you choose a carp though? Does it mean anything?” I asked.

Guan chuckled and clapped me on the back.

“If you want to find out,” he said. “Come to the opening night tomorrow.”

I agreed, intrigued, and the next day I returned to Guan’s restaurant to attend his opening night dinner. The restaurant was crowded and the food was good, although the décor was a little too garishly nautical for my taste. As I finished the last bite of my excellent crab, I reflected that Jonah’s Wharf had as good a chance of beating the curse as any restaurant I’d seen in my long acquaintance with the cursed shop-house of River Road.

As the main courses were cleared and desserts were served, Guan emerged from the kitchen to polite applause from the gathered diners. He was wearing a sleeveless shirt that fully revealed his tattoo, and from the whispered murmurs and glances that greeted his entrance I surmised that many of his customers had not seen it before.

Guan bowed theatrically, obviously enjoying the attention. Picking up a wineglass and a knife from the tray of a passing waiter, he pinged the two together a few times in the time-honored signal that a speech was in the offing.

“First of all,” he began. “I’d like to thank all of you for coming. If you’ve heard about the reputation that this place has you’ll know I need all the help I can get – at the very least, I promise I won’t poison you like the last place did.”

His last comment drew an appreciative chuckle from the crowd, and Guan paused for a moment to acknowledge it.

“Many of you have asked me why I chose to set up my restaurant in this shop-house.” Here his roving eye caught mine in the crowd, and he gave me a little nod of recognition.

“And a few of you have also asked me to explain why I got my tattoo,” he continued. “So bear with me a little and allow me to tell you a story that will hopefully satisfy your curiosity on both these accounts.”

“A long time ago,” he began. “There was a young man from a good family who found himself in trouble with the law. He had been raised the right way, but there had been a girl and a fight and before he knew it he was sentenced to live the next nine months of his life behind bars.”

“Now, in prison, every offender was offered the possibility of an early parole for good behavior, and as this young man was determined to get out as quickly as he could, he was always on his very best behavior. And one way to show how good a prisoner you were was to attend weekly counseling sessions where a doddering old retiree with a too much time on his hands and a penchant for fables would scold you for having been a bad boy and tell you how to get your life back on track.”

“This young man, like most of the prisoners there, paid no attention to their old counselor. He spent the sessions dreaming about what he would do once he got out, and thinking about the girl who had got him there in the first place. But on the final day of the young man’s sentence, the old man sat him down and told him an old Chinese fable that he found impossible to forget.”

“The fable tells of a school of carp that live in a waterfall at the mouth of the Yellow River. For years, the carp have swum upstream against the flow of the descending waterfall, and as one might expect, they usually make little progress. But every once in a while, a carp comes along that manages to swim to the top of the waterfall and jump over its peak. And in the middle of its jump the gods would reach down, touch the carp, and transform it into a dragon.”

“That, the old man explained, was why he returned to the prison day after day despite knowing all too well that the inmates paid little attention to his teachings. The old man believed that life was ultimately fair and that everything was there for a reason, and it was only by taking the long path, the hard path, that one could reap the greatest reward.”

Guan paused, his voice trailing off, and I could see his chest heaving as if struggling with some great emotion. Presently, he composed himself and resumed his tale.

“Life after prison was not easy for the young man,” he continued. “He had made many friends in jail who would lead him down dark paths, and there were few employers willing to hire someone with a felony on their record. But through all this, he never forget that dragons were once carp and sometimes even fish can scale a waterfall.”

“So when the young man nailed down his first steady job and finally put some money in the bank, he bought the cheapest place he could find, opened a restaurant and named it after the old man whose words had changed his life.”

“As you have gathered by now, dear guests, I was the young man in my story, and Jonah was the name of my old counselor. I would have liked for him to be here today, but many years have passed since my days in jail and Jonah was a very old man.”

Guan paused again, then took a deep breath and drew himself up to his full height.

“This shop-house; my history; my restaurant’s inauspicious name – these are my waterfalls. I would be lying if I said I was not intimidated by this place and its reputation, but like Jonah I believe that one must face great challenges to deserve great rewards. It may take a while, but I truly believe that with your help I can make this restaurant succeed, and make the leap from carp to dragon.”

His speech over, Guan bowed, and was met by rapturous applause.

I was a regular customer at Jonah’s Wharf for a good while after that. As I have said, the food was good, and I enjoyed hearing Guan regale those who asked him with the story of his tattoo and others tales from his chequered past. But in time, the changing currents of my life took me away from the city, and I lost touch with Guan and the shop-houses of River Road.

I returned months after I had departed to find that the shop-house stood empty once more. A friend informed me that while I had been gone, a routine spot-check had found traces of salmonella in the food served at Jonah’s Wharf, and the authorities had forced Guan to shut his restaurant down. Guan, it seemed, had returned to his old job as a sous-chef at a local hotel.

When I next had a free evening, I called Guan to commiserate him on his loss. He was cheery as always, and seemed touched that one of his old customers had taken the time to contact him so long after his restaurant had closed.

“Don’t worry about me,” he said. “I enjoy what I do and the pay’s pretty good. You should come eat here some day.”

“But surely you don’t plan to stay for long?” I asked. “Don’t you still dream of owning your own place?”

“The lease on the shop-house cost me everything I had,” he said. “It’ll take years for me scrape together enough again, and even then I doubt I’ll find a place as cheap again.”

His voice grew wistful.

“But you know what?” he said. “For a little while I truly believed that I could be a dragon. That, I think, is enough.”

Then there were voices calling for Guan in the background and he hurriedly apologized and hung up. It was just as well, for I had not known what to say. It pained me to think of him, swimming so hard against the inexorable pull of adversity and with nothing to show for his efforts but an empty pocketbook and elaborate tattoo. Sometimes, I suppose, a fable is nothing more than a beautiful story and life is not always fair.

And yet, I have come to realize that there was much wisdom in Guan’s parting words. He was one of the few who recognize that dreams must sometimes fade a little to make the transition to reality and can content themselves with something less than perfection. How rare a gift this is! There are far too many who spend their lives grasping at shadows, seeking a perfect end that does not exist. I have seen little of Guan since, but I do not doubt that he is happy.

The city is changing these days. Rumor has it that River Road’s shop-houses will soon be earmarked for redevelopment, to be replaced by more modern structures that can house more people and increase the traffic its restaurants receive. The cursed shop-house, still empty, will be the first to go, and with it will go its history of failure, bad luck and broken dreams.

Many of our elders bemoan these changes. The city is dead, they say, for the young do not know its soul as we do. They may be right, for they are old and they have seen more than I. But when they come to me and tell me that the city of their youth is dead, I will tell them of River Road and Guan and those who came before him. Our city of hopes and wonders is alive, at least, in their dreams.

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