Life is a river


My parents' history together began one night outside a cinema in Queenstown, where my father saw my mother for the first time in his life. The year was probably 1980 or 1981. At that time Queenstown had not just cinemas but also malls and a bowling alley and young people would spend all their time hanging out there. My mother lived in one of the one-room flats there, a few blocks away from the cinema, with her parents and seven other siblings. Every weekend she would dress up and gather with her friends outside the cinema, and there they would light up cigarettes, talk, dance, dream, make friends with everyone, because it was the good old 80s and everything was gold and everything was possible.

After they got married and gave birth to me in 1986, my parents moved into a three-room flat in Bukit Panjang. My father grew a mustache and my mother permed her hair. Together they put out a small advertisement in the newspaper and set up a new business, doing everything from plumbing to repairing roofs. Meanwhile I went to kindergarten a block away, graduated, then went on to primary school. Our lives - both individually and as a family - rolled on towards the future in the most ordinary way possible.

My sister and brother arrived in 1989 and 1992 respectively. By then my father had traded up into a Mercedes, but those were still the days of shoulder pads and bad haircuts and nightly SBC dramas. On birthdays our entire extended family would squeeze into our little flat and we would do stay-overs and my aunt who has since died would smile in her usual understated way and hand out $50 to the birthday boy or girl. On other weekday evenings we would gather at my Dua Yi's (my mother's eldest sister) house in Bishan for dinner and I would still be in my school uniform, insecure and naive and smelling like sweat and erasers.

When I was 11, we finally swapped our three-room flat for a five-room flat in Woodlands. Every move took us further away from that night in Queenstown, when my mother was 15 and my father was 18. In fact, suddenly it's 30 years later, and Queenstown is not quite the same place anymore. Most of my mother's neighbourhood has been torn down. The flats are gone. The young people have left. The cinema where my parents had first met was later converted into a church, but today even the church has closed down.

So time, like they say, is a river, and as the river flows, places disappear and people leave, like my aunt who died of cancer before she was 40, or my classmate who killed herself when she was 17. Maybe soon it will be another 30 years, and where will we find ourselves then?

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This essay was written for the exhibition "We speak so much of memory because there's so little of it left", held currently at Crazyworld Cafe until 8 Dec 2012, in collaboration with By 1985.

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