The Steel-Edged Skyline of My Home

I

“Welcome to America.”

Smiling, the lady behind the counter handed me my passport and waved me on through.

I returned her smile, but something inside me felt a little disappointed that the whole process had been so… ordinary. I knew that the old climactic welcome to America – the slow sail into New York harbor, gasps of wonder as the Statue of Liberty swept into view – had gone the way of the dodo and the transatlantic cruise[1], but I had watched and read too much about The American Immigrant Experience™ not to feel a little betrayed by the sheer mundanity of passport control at JFK.

But then I remembered the checkmark inside the little box marked “leisure” on my customs declaration form and reflected that I, too, had not been entirely truthful in my dealings with the United States.

II

He was waiting for me in the arrival hall, holding up a sign with my name on it as if I was some relative returning from a trip abroad.[2] He looked older than he had in the file photo I’d been shown back in Singapore, but that was to be expected. After all, no one in the intelligence services had bothered to take a photo of him for the past twenty years.

Still, the resemblance was close enough. The years had put some flab on his face, but they could do nothing to alter his high cheekbones and deep-set eyes that gave him a gaunt, almost emaciated look. Although his hair had noticeably thinned (the curse of every middle-aged man), he had not changed how it styled it – center-parted, with a copious application of gel. His glasses were big, thin, and horned-rimmed, and like his haircut, had gone out of fashion decades ago. I got the feeling that he did not really care.

I walked over to him.

“Mr. Tan?” I said. “I’m Weihan. It was very nice of you to offer to pick me up from the airport.”

“My god,” he said, shaking my hand. “I see why they sent you – you look just like your grandfather.”

I gave a noncommital shrug.

“It is what it is. I can’t control my genes.”

“Well,” he said. “You must be famished. I live about half an hour from here and my wife is making dinner. Would you like to join us?”

I hesistated. Going to his house for dinner seemed on some level inappropriate, but in my briefing I had been instructed to build a rapport with him if at all possible – and besides, I was pretty hungry.

Look,” he continued, sensing my reluctance. “It’s better if we talk after dinner. I don’t think either of us would be very productive on empty stomachs.”

I nodded, convinced.

“Okay, thank you then.”

“Great!”

He paused, a curious expression on his face.

“Oh, I forgot to mention,” he said. “Call me ‘Bobby’. It’s my American name.”

III

Before we proceed, let us review the facts:

“Bobby” Tan Chye Boh and 21 others were arrested in the small hours of the morning on 21st May, 1987. A few hours later, at a routine government press briefing, a roomful of bored reporters was shocked into life by the news that the Ministry of Home Affairs had successfully derailed a Marxist conspiracy to overthrow the state.

The details made for compelling reading – the outlawed Malayan Communist Party had infiltrated key parts of Singapore’s civil society with its brightest cadres, and had only been foiled by a covert operation that had taken months to put together. Even the name of the operation itself seemed to possess an air of theatricality: it had been codenamed “Spectrum” to reflect the extraordinary breadth of the Communist network it had taken down.

Indeed, when the papers eventually released the names and profiles of the Marxist conspirators, few of them seemed to fit the typical mould of a Communist radical. Those arrested were mostly young professionals, businessmen, and social workers, many of whom were well respected in their own industry circles. Most of the alleged conspirators also had strong ties to Singapore’s growing (and increasingly vocal) Catholic church, a fact which would provide much fodder for conspiracy theorists in the years to come. The air of intrigue surrounding the entire case only deepened when the government, citing national security concerns, declined to formally prosecute Tan and his co-conspirators. Instead, they were detained without trial under the provisions of the Internal Security Act.[3]

Somewhat surprisingly – considering that most people back then still thought that Singapore was part of China – the actions of the Singaporean government met with widespread international outrage, drawing protests from over 200 organizations in the United States, Europe, Australia, and other Southeast Asian countries. Amnesty International adopted all 22 detainees as prisoners of conscience, and the American Congress and the Japanese Diet sent formal letters demanding the prisoners’ release.

In the face of this international shitstorm, the Singaporean government remained totally unmoved.[4] The detainees were not released, and the government published new evidence linking them to various terrorist organizations – a photo of Tan brandishing a rifle at the Sri Lankan camp of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam[5] made the front page in all the papers. Other, more sensitive, pieces of evidence were produced in private meetings between government officials and the Archbishop of the Singaporean Catholic Church (who had previously campaigned for the detainees’ release), prompting a sudden reversal in the church’s public stance on the issue.

The government’s stance was further bolstered by the lack of opposition from the local population. Although the Communist-inspired Malayan Emergency[6] had ceased to be more than a minor nuisance to public order, people still remembered the bad years of the 50s and 60s and the bombs that had went off in their streets. And so, even though many Singaporeans still doubted that the detainees had committed any crimes more henious than reading banned publications or handing out a few pro-Communist pamphlets, few found themselves capable of mourning their arrest.

While these events were brewing in the world outside, the 22 detainees were presented with a simple choice: agree to be filmed confessing to their crimes and renouncing Marxism, and they would be released. Refuse, and they would remain in detention indefinitely. 21 of the detainees agreed to the government’s deal – their filmed confessions were broadcast on national television, and they were released at various points in the latter half of 1987.[7]

Tan, alone, refused. He was held in detention for another three years, and became something of a minor cause célèbre for the few human rights organization that had not quickly lost interest in the case. And then, on one bright June morning in the year 1990, Tan’s jailers marched him to the Singaporean border, handed him his wallet and watch in a sealed ziplock bag, pointed him towards Malaysia, and set him free.

There was, of course, one condition to his release: he was not to return home for as long as he lived.

IV

“Paw, can ya pass me the wautah?”

“Wa-ter,” Bobby said, frowning at his son. “You’re not getting anything to drink until you learn to speak proper English. Wa-ter.”

“Water?”

“That’s better.”

Picking up the pitcher, Bobby poured his son a glass of water.

“Would you like some?” he said, tilting the pitcher in my direction.

“Yes please,” I said. The curry we’d had for dinner had been delicious, but it had also really packed a punch.

“The curry’s good, isn’t it?” he said, pouring me my drink. “Lisa gets her curry paste from this little place in Chinatown that supposedly flies it in direct from Singapore.”

As soon as Bobby finished pouring, I snatched up the glass and drained its contents in a single, long, swallow. Bobby watched me, an amused expression on his face.

“Honestly, it’s not quite the same,” he continued. “But it comes pretty damn close. Most of that is probably due to her cooking – Lisa could make anything taste good.”

“Oh, stop that, Bobby, you’re embarassing me!” Lisa’s voice filtered in from the kitchen where she was busy washing the dishes. “Weihan, don’t listen to a word he says.”

“No, your husband’s right,” I said, raising my voice so she would hear. “I really think you could open your own restaurant if you chose to.”

“Don’t go putting any ideas into her head,” Bobby said, chuckling. “I plan to keep her cooking all to myself for a good while yet.”

He made a brief shooing motion at his son.

“George,” he said. “Go help your mom with the washing up. Our guest and I need to talk for a while.”

“Yes, paw.”

George picked up the remaining tableware and brought it into the kitchen, closing the door behind him.

“He’s very well-behaved,” I said. “How old is he?”

“Ten this year,” Bobby said. “Yeah, he’s a good kid. But you know how it is with kids these days – none of them want to learn Chinese, and anyway its impossible to find a decent teacher here. Now he talks just like an angmoh[8] and barely speaks two words of Chinese. Sometimes I worry I’m raising an OCBC, you know?”

“OCBC?” I asked. The Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation was a prominent financial group in Singapore, but I did not see how it applied to our conversation.

Orang cheena bukan cheena,”[9] he said. “Its what we used to call those Chinese who couldn’t speak the language.”

“Oh,” I said. “These days we call them ‘bananas’ – yellow on the outside, white on the inside.”

Bobby laughed.

“I like that,” he said. “I might even start using it myself.”

He started to say something, then paused, and glanced uneasily at the kitchen door.

“Shall we talk in my study?” he asked, rising from the table.

I nodded my assent, and followed him into his study.

Bobby closed the door behind us and locked it securely. Like the rest of his apartment, Bobby’s study toed the fine line between tastefully frugal and worryingly spartan. The only things on his desk were a computer, a lamp and a few writing implements. A black roller chair had been tucked in neatly behind it, and for some reason I remembered that Bobby, in his other life, had been a secondary school teacher. Three documents hung in matching wooden frames on the study’s otherwise empty walls – a portrait of his family, his university degree[10], and what I presumed to be his certificate of citizenship. There was nothing else in the room except an old wooden chair that had been placed, like an unexpected visitor, in the corner of the room.

Bobby picked up the wooden chair and set it in front of his desk. Dusting it off, he motioned for me to sit. Once I had complied, he drew out his own chair and sat himself down.

“I took the liberty of googling you after we spoke on the phone,” he said. His voice betrayed nothing but his fingers, spread out on the desk before, had begun to twitch. “So I know you work for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Now, this could all just be a coincidence and you could really be here just to pass me some of your grandfather’s old effects – but somehow I doubt that’s the case.”

“What are you really here for?”

I unbuttoned my suit, and from its inner pocket withdrew the thin brown envelope I had come all this way to deliver.

“It’s been twenty-four years,” I said. “How would you like to come home?”

V

I was tempted to omit this particular piece of family history from my telling of this story, but then again I have always hated writers who do that. A good story, properly told, should tie up its own loose ends. To do otherwise is to violate the basic compact that makes all storytelling possible: the writer promises to be as truthful as they can, and their audience promises to listen – and to believe.

So let me tell you about my grandfather.

My grandfather was, as I believe they say in America, an O.G – an original fucking gangster.[11]

You won’t find him in any history books because he never made the headlines, but speak to anyone who was around during the bad old days of the Emergency and they will tell you that my grandfather ran with guys who did. He “righteously arose” to the Communist cause at the age of 16, and soon found himself in caught up in various student cell-groups in his native state of Perak. Now, these cell-groups weren’t like the ones you see in church today, with all their hand-holding and hymn-singing and praise-the-lording – as far as these guys were concerned, the Party was the Father, Mao was the Sun, and the only ghost they were interested in meeting was that of the bourgeosie state.

World War II would throw a rather large wrench into my grandfather’s plans. The Japanese invaded in 1941, advancing through the dense Malayan jungle on (I kid you not) a fleet of mass-produced bicycles, and the British Malaya Command folded like they were so much wet cardboard. Faced with the unenviable prospect of a Japanese occupation[12], the Communists took a leaf out of Mao’s book and melted into the jungle.

The men who emerged four years later would have been unrecognizable to those who had known them in their youth. At heart, they were the same student activists who had gathered in dusty classrooms to read the Little Red Book, but now they were bitter, battle-hardened, and (most importantly) armed[13]. My grandfather had undergone a similar genesis. Four years of constant promotions (made more rapid by typical Japanese efficiency) meant that he was now high up in the party cadres, answerable only to the Big Man himself.

After independence talks collapsed in 1948, the Malayan Communist Party would turn their guns and bombs on the British colonial administration for the next twelve years. My grandfather was in the thick of the action. They say that he was there at Sungei Siput when the Communists shot three plantation owners in lieu of a formal declaration of war; that he was the lookout for the ambush that killed High Commissioner Gurney; that he had once had Sir Robert Thompson’s mustachioed face in his rifle-sights (thankfully his gun had jammed when he tried to make the shot). As I said before, my grandfather never made the headlines – but like some strange species of vulture he was never too far away when they were being made.

Unfortunately, the Communists ended up on the wrong side of one of those interesting historical tidbits: the Malayan Emergency is the only clear-cut instance of a colonial power defeating a local insurgency in the post-war world. By 1960, my grandfather and the remnants of the MCP were forced to flee to Thailand, where they could only watch powerlessly as the British finally granted Malaysia and Singapore the indepedence they had craved – but in the form of democratic, not Communist, states.

The MCP would carry on fighting a kind of half-hearted insurgency-in-exile until 1989, but my grandfather’s fighting days would end long before peace was finally declared: he took a bullet to the knee in one of the MCP’s regular internecine conflicts in the 70s and never fully recovered. Restricted to whatever sparse political work a government-in-exile could find, my grandfather would spend the next two decades keeping busy by writing letters to the family he had been forced to leave behind and the many students who expressed sympathy for the Communist cause.

One of these students was named Tan Chye Boh.

VI

The door jingled as Bobby walked into the diner.

Catching his eye, I waved to him, and he came over to join me at my corner booth. He looked very different from when I had left him last night – his hair was a tangled mess, and dark circles threatened to overwhelm his already small eyes. In short, he looked terrible, and I told him as much.

“I didn’t get much sleep last night,” he said, by way of explanation. “I had to think your offer through.”

“And do you have an answer for me?” I said.

Ignoring my question, Bobby turned his attention to the empty coffee cups strewn across the table of the booth.

“Looks like you’ve been here a while, huh,” he said. “Like the food?”

“I’ve already eaten,” I said.

“Ah,” he said. “Jetlagged?”

I nodded. I had woken up at 5 am this morning, body sick with fatigue.

“Well,” he said. “I hope you don’t mind if I eat. I’m starving.”

I gave my assent, and Bobby called the waitress over. She took his order (a big American breakfast of bacon and hash browns), cleared our table, poured me another round of coffee, and assured us that she would be right with us if we needed anything else.

Bobby watched her retreating figure with a look of strange resignation in his eye.

“That’s one thing I don’t miss about Singapore,” he said. “The service – is it still as bad as it was in my time?”

“I don’t know what it was like in your time,” I said. “But service here is definitely better. I guess its because you tip.”

“And what about the rest of the country?” he asked. “Do you like America as much as you like its service?”

“Yeah, I guess its pretty nice,” I said, halfheartedly.

“You don’t have to be polite,” he said, sensing my lack of conviction. “Tell me what you really think.”

“Okay,” I said. “You want the truth? I hate it. Everything here is dirty, and apart from the service staff people here are incredibly rude. This morning, I went out for a run, and everywhere I went I saw homeless people sleeping on the streets. What kind of first world country treats its citizens like this?”

Bobby smiled.

“Alright,” he said. “Since you’ve been honest with me, I guess I’ll be honest with you too – I feel the same way.”

“Then come home!” I could not see why Bobby was taking so long to make up his mind. As far as I was concerned, the government’s offer was astoundingly generous – a full amnesty in exchange for a simple pledge not to engage in any more political activities? I’d have taken that offer in a heartbeat.

“Just sign the papers, and if you want you can be on the next flight out of here.”

Bobby made no reply.

I groaned inwardly. I liked Bobby, I really did, but my boss was breathing down my neck and this reticence of his was really beginning to get on my nerves.

“Here’s your order, sir.” Our waitress had reappeared with a thick plate of grease. “And would you like more coffee?”

I nodded, and my cup was refilled from the seemingly inexhaustible pit of coffee she carried in her hand. Free refills – now that’s something about America I guess I could buy into.

Bobby broke off a large chunk of his hash brown and ate it, chewing slowly. He finished his mouthful, then took a long pull at his cup of coffee. He swallowed, and set his cup down with a contented sigh.

“You know,” he said. “Your grandfather and I corresponded by mail for many years, but for many years I didn’t have the courage to go up to Thailand to see him. I was afraid that the government would use it as an excuse to have me arrested.”

He chuckled.

“Hindsight’s a funny thing, isn’t it?”

“But anyway, after I was released, I finally paid him a visit. We spent a good few days in Hat Yai together, talking about old times. He was a remarkable man.”

I snorted. I had no love for my grandfather. In his later years, he had come to believe that his wife and children should have fallen on their swords and followed him into exile, and their refusal to do so had gnawed at him for the remainder of his life. I had only seen him a few times in the flesh – he had stopped talking to me altogether once he learned that I intended to join the civil service, and my parents had seen no point on taking me with them on subsequent trips to Thailand. I had not mourned the loss of his company. He had been a bitter old man who spat venom and bile with every word, and no one could stand to be around him for long. My abiding memory of our visits to Thailand was of my mother crying quietly after one of his hate-filled rants, wracked with guilt over the man her father had become. No, I could not love him.

Bobby shook his head.

“I know your grandfather could be… taxing at times,” he said. “But try to remember that he was once a great man. If you had been born when I was you might have seen him differently.”

“Could you just get to the point?” I said. “I really don’t see what my grandfather has to do with this.”

“He has everything to do with this,” Bobby said. “I don’t know what they told you, but I’m not the first exile who has been offered amnesty to – before he died, the Malaysian government offered your grandfather the same deal, and he turned it down.”

“What an idiot,” I said. “And you’re an idiot too if you don’t take the deal.”

I was a little surprised to discover that I was getting angry.

“Do you really think you’re going to make any difference spouting your Marxist crap from the other side of the globe?” I asked. “I hate to break it to you, but people these days barely even remember who you are. If this was still 1960, then fine, maybe you could change something. But this is the 21st fucking century! It’s over – you’ve lost. Just give up and come home.”

Bobby did not respond. For a long while, there was a silence between us and I grew worried that I had pushed him too far.

“Let me tell you something,” he said, eventually. “If I had a choice, back then, I would not have come to America. Everything about this country goes against what I believe in – its crass consumerism, its jingoism, and above all its tolerance for inequality. It’s shocking how little class conciousness Americans have. They say that every American, even the very poorest, think of themselves as millionares in the making: and it’s true. It nauseates me.”

“My first few months here were hell. I tried handing out pamphlets at the local Walmart but people just thought I was crazy. Then I thought I could get involved with organized labor, but the unions here? They’re even worse than the corporations. Eventually my American handlers told me I had to find a job or risk being deported. No other country would take me, so I signed up to teach economics at a local high school – just for a few months, I told myself, until I find a way to make a real change.”

“But things kept happening. I met a girl: we got married; I had a son. And now here I am, still teaching AP economics, spouting right-wing bullshit I know is wrong in the hopes that they won’t fire me when someone younger offers to do my job for less pay. Some days I don’t know how I live with myself, but then I tell myself that it’s okay not to try because this is America – this isn’t home.”

He bowed his head.

“We all need our fictions to survive,” Bobby said, very quietly. “This is mine. I can’t go home – I can never go home. Do you understand?

“Can you?”

I looked away, for I had no desire to see Bobby cry.

VII

My mother never talked about my grandfather much, but once (when slightly drunk) she did tell me this:

When my mother was maybe nine or ten years old, my grandmother finally decided that the situation on the Thai border was calm enough for the whole family to take a trip up to Thailand to see their father. My mother had only been a few weeks old when my grandfather had left Malaya, so this was in effect her first time meeting him.

Naturally, there were many tears and much rejoicing at the family’s reunion, but it was their farewell that stuck with my mother all these years. My grandfather had driven his family part of the way home – but when they got to the Malaysian border he had got out and let my grandmother take over. And then he had stood there, watching, as his family drove away.

My mother would always remember the look on his face.

It was not his family he was watching. He was looking through them, beyond them, gaze piercing the trees and buildings around them until he could see the horizon and, beyond that, that line, so thin on a globe, so thick in real life – that line seperating home from not-home, past from future, me from you.

“And in that moment,” my mother said. “I could see everything he was leaving behind.”

I don’t know why, but when I think of Bobby I want to believe that he did something like this. I want to believe that after he bid farewell to my grandfather, he rented a car and drove for 10 long hours down the Peninsular until he reached the Straits of Johor. I want to believe that he found a deserted beach somewhere, got out of the car, and then sat there for a whole day, looking out across the water at the steel-edged skyline of his home.

And most of all, I want to believe that what he saw was what I saw when my plane broke through the clouds and the pleasant voice of an air stewardess reminded me that I was, at last, coming home.

[1]To be fair, the TV screens in the queuing area had shown us stock footage of the Statue in between short infomercials on how you could avoid being arrested while clearing passport control (present a valid passport, do what the officers tell you, declare all firearms, drugs or suspiciously large sums of money – no shit, Sherlock). On the whole, however, I had thought the whole experience somewhat reduced.

[2] Which in a way, I suppose, I was.

[3] If the President is satisfied with respect to any person that, with a view to preventing that person from acting in any manner prejudicial to the security of Singapore or any part thereof or to the maintenance of public order or essential services therein, it is necessary to do so, the Minister shall:

  1. a) make an order directing that such person be detained for any period not exceeding two years

– The Internal Security Act (II.8.a)

[4] This would become somewhat of a standard response. Seven years later, an obnoxious American brat by the name of Michael Fay was caught vandalizing cars with hot tar and paint remover. In accordance with local laws, he was sentenced to four months in prison and four strokes of the cane. Despite the personal involvement of President Bill Clinton and the threat of a trade embargo, an officer of the state gave Fay a good thrashing on the 5th of May, 1994. This remains the only major diplomatic incident sparked by an American’s ass.

[5] For those of you not familiar with South Asian history, the LTTE were a really fucking dangerous terrorist organization who were responsible for the assassination of not one, but two world leaders – the Indian Prime Minister in 1991 and the President of Sri Lanka in 1993. So you can understand why the government considered this photo to be something of a slam dunk.

[6] Officially labeled an “emergency” instead of an “insurgency” because rubber plantation owners were worried that their insurers would refuse to pay for damages incurred due to acts of war. The old communists I knew found this very ironic.

[7] Nine of the ex-detainees would later issue a joint statement claiming that their confessions were false and had been extracted under duress. They were re-arrested and only released after they issued another confession reaffirming their original ones.

[8] “Red-hair”, part of a colloquial phrase used to describe all things Western (the full phrase translates as “red-haired devils”, but the second part of the phrase is no longer considered PC and has fallen into disuse). Some speculate that the term arose due to the disproportionate number of Scots in the old colonial administration. When I was studying in Oxford I used to joke that we were a colony of a colony – England colonized the Scots, and the Scots colonized us.

[9] “A chinese who is not chinese”

[10] From the LSE, that bastion of communist thought.

[11] What was his name, you ask? Oh please, I’m honest, not stupid.

[12] Keep in mind that the Japanese Army at the time was engaged in a kind of atrocity one-upmanship with their Nazi allies – “I see your Auschwitz and raise you a Nanking”; “Mengele’s been doing what? Fuck, better tell Unit 731 to hurry up with those vivisections.” For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, do yourself a favor and turn Google SafeSearch on when you’re looking it up online – there are pictures floating around that no human should see.

[13] Funnily enough, by the British themselves, who had smuggled arms to the guerillas throughout the war to aid their resistance against the Japanese.

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