Three Vignettes


Langkawi beach late Sunday morning was dotted with mats, umbrellas, tethered Jet Skis. Amidst fallen mangrove trunks, amidst bushes of hoyas and other tropical climbing plants, his eyes were dark rimmed, focused on the limestone islet rising from the strait like a diseased tooth, on top of which unusual tufts of green lured him ever more.

With a sharpened iron rod, he had been grating on a rock, he tore off a square of bulldog fence, then striding up to a fishing boat, harvested a tattered sun-bleached tarp, shaping the wires into a basin, he lashed the tarp over it, making a coracle.

He carried the rough raft out to the waterline, above his head with its frayed dreadlocks. A child was paddling in the shallows with her mother. Lend me your fins, he slurred. He lowered himself into the coracle as a small crowd gathered loosely around, slipping his fingers into the borrowed flippers. You do it, man! Someone cried in a high voice. He pushed off, scooping at the surf with long sweeps of his tanned arms.

It took him half an hour to reach the islet, to feel the sharpish pebblets grate under his bare feet, he dragged the soggy coracle ashore and lay down under a tree with spiny leaves, panting, exhausted. Sunlight glinted through the greenery onto his body. Cool wind rushed through gaps in the limestone hill, he closed his eyes.


The lovers had gathered in the lake garden as the sun went down and the chills came on. Birds on the water left in formations of flight, and he wrapped his long scarf around his girlfriend's shoulders as they huddled around a circle of thick candles amidst the stubby oriental grass. Shadows thickened around the willows and the wild rose bushes, a murk through which couples waded, wobbling flashlights sending beams across the clearing. In her hands, a red crêpe paper lantern, ribbed with bamboo splints and calligraphed with their names, the shape of a heart, all in bold black Chinese ink. Their breath began to frost and with shaky hands, they packed the little burner basket with firestones and set it alight. They held the lantern between them, now puffing with hot air until it could lift its own weight, brushing pass their fingers and palms, twisting in the black of night, rising, spitting firestones giving off orange sparks, to became just another glowing red star of the swarm of red stars hitching onto the currents of the high winds.

She hopped for joy, saying, "too good to be true", and many clapped their hands, muffled by cold-swollen ears, rosy and expectant cheeks pressed against each other's cheeks. He put a hand against her belly and she put her hand over it. Soon they would have this child, soon they would be wed.


If there was a well-kept culinary secret, it had to be Taiwanese sliced noodles. Streaky pastel white with frilly edges, rolled into flat ovals and sealed in a clear plastic pack. Reverently, she cut open the bag and extracted the delicate dried patties, slipping them into the boiling water where they softened and squirmed like live albino eels. A yellowed enameled tin bowl would soon be filled with the severed wheat tentacles, then spooned over with gritty bone soup and green onion shoots and bulbs. As a dip, tangy fermented shrimp and a garden-grown lime.

She had learnt long ago that food was to be respected. That meant attention to time as well as substance. Not so much "what" the ingredients but "why" the ingredients. Not "how much" we eat but "how little" can we eat. Her daughter brought the single enamel bowl to the dinner table, almost embarrassed, and the small dish of salted shrimp she slipped alongside. Her father twirled the slushy noodles about his spork, slurping them down followed by a dab of shrimp. Excellent, he said, unabashed. Everyone dug in. We should buy these again soon, said the daughter. Silence. Her father slapped down his spork and pushed off the table, followed belatedly by her mother. She dipped her finger into the salty pink shrimp and sucked it, over and over.

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