Leaving Chinatown

by Joshua Samuel Brown, Jun 19, 2009 | Destinations: Singapore

Equatorial rain lashed the city, sweeping dirt into sewers and out towards Indonesia. Charlie Tan pedaled his garishly ornamented trishaw down Temple street. His head down, he mashed pedals and sang at at lungtop to drown the noise of the downpour:

Rotten Kid, chao kina, go get lost, chaokina!!
chobo, relac one corner be may go fly kite
go fuck spider, Rotten Kid!!!


No one heard Charlie's song. Neither locals nor tourists waited in the street to be cajoled into Charlie's trishaw.  He rode alone, wet and drunk and without a care. Born in a shophouse on Telok Ayer, outside of his mandatory military service he'd spent little time out of the neighborhood of his birth; a Chinatown boy through and through.  Old friends had moved on, some east, others north to HDB flat blocks. One or two had left Singapore behind, emigrating to Vancouver, Sydney or Perth.  Of the old Chinatown gang, only Ah-lio remained, and of late he'd been threatening to leave the neighbourhood.

"Chinatown dying, Charlie," Ah-lio had been moaning for years. "Nothing but tourist, lah. Whoever hear tourist buy four thousand dollar antique dresser meh?  Joo Chiat. That's where the money is now, Charlie."


But Ah-lio couldn't afford to move, not yet at least. Charlie decided to sit out the remainder of the rainstorm sensibly, inside of Ah-lio's shop.  A bell above the door announced his entry.

"Charlie, you damn wet, leh. Stay outside in rain for what, lah?" The shopkeeper approached his friend, partly in congenial greeting and partly to keep the sodden trishaw driver from dripping on the merchandise. 

"Aiyo, Charlie, you stink like Tiger brewery! So early and you damn drunk liao!"

"Drunk no, Ah-lio, only happy lah!  Happy to see you! Drop by see business good or not. Damn weather no good for anybody."

"Yah lah, Yah lah.  Anyway, glad you come by. I have got news tell you."

The shopkeeper draped a towel over his friend's shoulders and walked him towards the back of the shop. On a small table surrounded by the clutter of decades sat an old and well-used tea set.

"So what news you got?" Charlie asked,toweling himself off.

"Eh, sit down, first drink tea."

The two men drank tea and made small talk for a quarter of an hour.  Outside the rain slackened and stopped. Charlie fortified five cups of tea with two shots from a pocket flask. 

"Charlie, why you drink so early lah?"

"Ai-yo, you my mother now? Forget it. You tell me news or not?"

"News, ar. Next month this shop closing."

"Closing? Business so bad, lor?"

"Yah lah, but also I have investor, help me finally move to Joo Chiat."

"Ha? Talk cock lah! Investor what...?"

"Investor...something bakero like you not understand.  But because you are my old friend I want you come with me, help business."

"I move to Joo Chiat for what, Ah-lio? Taxi angmor to Vietnam bar girls, lor?"

"Charlie, Charlie.  Dun lidat, lah. Think! If you move with me you dun have to ride trishaw whole life.  Also man, Chinatown dying. All locals leave liao. Just left tourist!"

"Chinatown dying because all local leave! This is home, mah!  They have to drag me from Chinatown, unnerstand?"

"Charlie, Charlie, calm down, lah. Now got chance..."

The bell above the door rang. A Chinese woman entered, followed by a Caucasian man. Charlie sized the pair up: Downtown banker types; too good for trishaws.

"Eh, you go take care of business, lah."  The trishaw driver slumped into his chair as the shopkeeper approached the couple, scrutinizing an antique Chinese medicine cabinet that Ah-lio had bought from a neighborhood apothecary who'd gone out of business three years ago.

"It's a lovely piece, eh?" Ah-lio said. "Genuine Peranakan antique, real piece of history, lah."

The woman smiled. "It is quite nice. My grandfather was a doctor, and had one very similar when I was a child. My husband and I are looking to do up our new flat in a mixed 'western colonial meets straits Chinese' style"

"Well, this piece would be perfect. Beautifully restored, eh?" Ah-lio's inflection edged closer to that of the woman. "I truly believe that the value of this item can only go up. An excellent investment for a young couple..."

"And just how much will this investment set us back?" The Caucasian man smiled tightly.

"Forgive my husband," The woman said in Hokkien, adding in English "He doesn't seem to value beauty. Especially Asian beauty."

Ah-lio smiled demurely. "As a verifiable antique, with documents and so forth, I would be hard pressed to let an item like this go for less than four thousand Sing."

In the back of the shop, Charlie coughed loudly. Standing on uncertain legs, he made his way towards the door, pausing by the couple.

"Eh red head," He whispered loudly in the man's direction. "You buy, give wife, lah. No money no honey, eh?"

"Ai Si ah!" The shopkeeper grabbed Charlie by the collar and pulled him outside as the bell jangled loudly.

 "Why you want to make me lose sale?" Ah-lio hissed, releasing Charlie on the sidewalk. "You stupid or what?"

Laughing, Charlie stumbled towards his trishaw.

"Ah, that ang mor gao, his wife got him by his ku ku chiao, man. He buy for sure! I want cut of money for help you, arrit?"

"Ai Si ah! Get out!"

"Yah lah! Meet me Kopi Tiam after work,eh?"

Ah-lio cursed again, forced a smile, and headed back into the shop. Charlie mounted his trishaw with stiff and wet legs, feeling his bravado slip.  He pulled a soaked, crushed pack of cigarettes from his pocket and considered the situation. "Everyone is leaving," he muttered.  After scanning for cops, he threw the ruined smokes on the sidewalk.  He pulled out his flask, took two long gulps, and a third for good measure. Feeling better, he knocked beads of water off the trishaw's back seat. Tourists and locals were beginning to emerge.

"ChinAH-town tour! ChinAH-town tour! BuddhaTooth Relic! Yueh Hai Ching Temple! Shopping lah!"


Charlie stood in the saddle, trishaw cutting through damp air, pedals creaking. On Trengganu Street he saw them. Backpacker-types staring intently at a guidebook, seemingly oblivious to their surroundings.  Charlie aimed his trishaw and swerved at the last minute, making a good-natured shark-like half circle around the men.

"Hey, you two...Chinatown tour?"

"Nah mate, no tour for us," said the shorter of the pair. "We're just looking for a restaurant."

"Chinatown so many restaurant lah. Shark fin,dim sum, roti..."

"Aw, Christ, no more fucking Asian food!" The taller one made an unpleasant face. "We've been hiking through Malaysia for a month eating nothing but fucking fish and rice."

"The guide says there's a place that serves German food around here," said the shorter one, showing Charlie the book.

"German food is it? Forget it, this Chinatown!" Charlie squinted at the few lines of Chinese script floating in the sea of small English typeface. The characters indicated a food stall in the Smith Street market with a German-sounding name. It was less than a block away.

"OK, I know. I take you, five dollars"

"Five dollars! Bloody hell, that's a lot."

"Five dollars nothing. This Singapore, not Malaysia."

The short one climbed into the cab. "Aw, for Christ's sake, Marty, stop being so fucking skint, my feet are fucking killing me."

"Christ, fine. But the old man's money is coming out of your half." The tall backpacker jerked his thumb towards Charlie, joining his friend in the trishaw.

Charlie leaned forward into the pedals, stepping down hard. Inertia overcome, he headed back to Temple Street. With a right on South Bridge and another onto Smith Street, he figured he'd given the tourists their money's worth, a short and quiet Chinatown tour.  He braked before a small sidewalk stall serving sausages, boiled potatoes and beer.

"This it, lah."

"Here?" The taller Ang Mo, the one called Marty, said accusingly.  "Bloody hell, mate, it was just a block away. We could have walked. You tricked us."

"Trick what?" Charlie's voice rose. "You ask me to bring you German, I bring you."

"Nah mate, nah." The taller backpacker tried to sound reasonable. Come off it. You knew the bloody place was only down the block. You made three right turns, I counted. We're paying three"

"Three cannot! We say five, you pay five."

The tall man pulled three one dollar coins from his pocket.

"Aw, Marty, for fuck's sake, just pay the man his money."

"Nah mate, he's cheating us. Bloody money grubbers these fucking Singaporeans, just like the Malays. It's the princip..."

With swiftness belying middle age, Charlie leaped from the trishaw and grabbed the backpacker by the throat.

"You say fuck Singapore, is it? IS IT?"

Marty tried to pull away but Charlie held firm.

"You're fucking crazy I..."

The trishaw driver slammed his forehead into the backpacker's nose with a hideous crack. For a moment after, there was silence. 

The trishaw driver released his grip. The backpacker crumpled, blood pouring from his shattered nose.

Then there was screaming. Charlie looked around. People in the restaurant were pointing at him, pointing at the backpacker, covering their mouths.

The shorter backpacker stepped back. "Fuck me, mate....faaack me...."

Someone screamed police! First in Hokkien, then English. Charlie looked around, panicking. The second backpacker knelt on the ground next to the first.  For a moment, Charlie considered jumping back on his trishaw and riding away. Then he saw the cops. They were running, billy clubs out.

"You! Don't move."

Charlie was suddenly sober, the rage gone. Then they were on him. The police knocked Charlie down. His arms were pulled behind his back. There was a metal bite around his wrists,

"He cheat me," Charlie cried weakly. Then, a bit louder  "Ang mor curse Singapura, lah!"

With his cheek against the asphalt street, still warm from the day's pounding sun, Charlie could see the pool of blood spreading out from the backpacker's head.   

"He curse Singapore you do this? THIS? You get caning for this at least. Maybe even hanging."

People were still screaming. There was a cacophony of sirens as ambulance and police car screeched to a near-simultaneous halt.  Charlie, shocked and dazed, was lifted roughly and shoved in the back of the car.  

As the car pulled away, Charlie saw saw Buddha Tooth Temple shrink out the rear window. He realized he was being taken from Chinatown.

"You see, Ah-lio, you see? I tell you already wot!"


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