By Durva Gautam Kamdar
In response to “Seventh Month” by Yong Shu Hoong
hoigwan woke up sitting in the middle of an mrt cabin with no idea of how he’d gotten there.
that was a lie. he supposed he had some idea of how he’d gotten there. the smoke in the seventh month always fogged up his already deteriorating vision, making it deceptively easy to board the wrong train at the platform of the dead. hoigwan looked around. aggressively colourful advertisements lined the mrt windows. fluorescent light blinded him, mingling with the distinct scent of air freshener. someone played Tian Mi Mi (Not that song again. I’ve always thought Yueliang Daibiao Wo De Xīn was the better Teresa Teng song.) out loud and hummed along. he was definitely on the wrong train. namely, one that was in the realm of the living.
a student in a polka-dotted uniform (Why were uniforms still so ugly?) sat on top of him. rather, she sat right through him. hoigwan had never gotten used to the fluidity, the lack of physicality that came with being a ghost. the pain of his long, craning neck had become almost unbearably familiar. he’d even become accustomed to the debilitating hunger and the sound of an unsatisfied, aching stomach.
hoigwan looked around. not everyone was as inconsiderate as the girl with the ugly uniform. it was much of the same—a child whining about tuition, some girl in a dry-fit shirt dozing off onto a stranger’s shoulder, and an older man reading a newspaper. he stared at the newspaper. ah, the straits times. some things really did never change. he squinted at the date. he paused. hoigwan blinked and looked again. the date stared back at him. 4th september 2020. how had so much time passed?
there was hope and there was foolishness. that much hoi gwan knew. he couldn’t remember the exact date when he’d died anymore, numbers were too concrete for the liquidity of his ghostly body. there were memories, of course. his last ones—hands stretched around a hospital bed, antenna sticking out of the ward television, murmurs of the advent of the new age—the year 1990. he had died in 1990. thirty years in the ghost realm. thirty years without anything being burnt for him. thirty years where he had been unable to return to the realm of the living.
“next station, tampines,” the announcer’s cool voice rang.
hoigwan jumped. he looked up to see the mrt map. when had it started having lights? (Aiyah, children these days so dumb issit that they cannot read station names?). hoigwan shook his head. his children were smarter than this, surely. he’d raised them to be smarter. they wouldn’t need some stupid light. all they’d need was what their father had taught him.
hoigwan squirmed. having the weight of the girl on top of him had gotten uncomfortable. she was rather inconsiderate for even sitting there. (Eh, she don’t know choping, issit?) then again, she probably couldn’t see him. hoigwan simply got up and floated away. the doors of the mrt parted to make way for him. in some ways, it felt like the train hadn’t changed at all. in some ways, it felt like everything was the same.
the station, however, seemed like it had changed. low-speed fans seemed to line the ceiling. there were now lifts oscillating up and down rapidly. even the doors seemed different, now at half height. he’d remembered so much of this mrt station. when the hunger threatened to overwhelm him (Depressing, leh, how I couldn’t simply tapao Laksa when I was dead.) back in the realm of the hungry ghosts, he’d held onto the memories of this place. he had ached not for food, at first, but for home. for all the memories he’d made. the maiden voyage of the mrt, dropping his children off to school, going to work—all the memories were so clear in his head that the station’s current state felt almost dissonant.
the next train to the ghost realm wouldn’t leave till the sun rose again, he realised. and he was hungry. so, so hungry. hoigwan would just go visit his kids. surely, this time, they’d have some food for him. that’s why he was there, right? someone had burnt something for him this time. someone had remembered him.
the force of the wind blew right through hoigwan as he left the mrt station and moved to the hustle and bustle of the makeshift market outside. the strong smell of bread filled the air. hoigwan’s stomach grumbled in response, desperate to be filled. he was starving. a korean pop song played distantly and cellphone shops were lined up where there were once chinese bakeries. gone were the buskers and mandopop hits. gone were the wafting scents of dow sah soh and png kueh. gone. it was all gone.
was this singapore? hoigwan floated through the once familiar, now foreign streets. it didn’t feel like singapore anymore. the singapore he had grown up in had history lining the pavement, a mark of evolution from colonialism to independence. his singapore was loud, screaming in dialects and diverging tongues. hoigwan’s singapore had tried to run forward but remembered to look back. he looked at the silent, clean-shaven streets in front of him. one would think this was the ghost realm with how quiet it was.
there had been longing for this place, back in the ghost realm. this place, so alive yet so different from how he’d remembered it. every night, before he went to sleep (Of course, ghosts go to sleep, lah. Don’t anyhow say one.) he’d held onto the hope that he’d wake up and everything would feel real. that the pain would disappear and he would feel something, anything, but that ache once more. as the moon had waned, though, so had his hopes. until now. until today.
hoigwan craned his neck to try finding something familiar. something had to have stayed completely the same, right?
a recognisable voice reached his ear.“so tonight, first, we have…”
it was gokchong. going to gokchong’s getai shows had been somewhat of a tradition during hungry ghost month for hoigwan’s family when he was a kid. he’d dragged his parents to go with him every year, relishing in the bright lights and humongous crowds. there had been something so alive about those moments, so anchored deeply in the vitality of being human. he had missed it, that feeling. wang lei was still doing shows. maybe he would feel it again. hopes surged. finally, something familiar. he’d make a stop first. just one stop. then, he’d go see his kids.
hoigwan floated to cross the street and saw the getai setup. flashing lights hung from the ceilings and illuminated the stage, casting a searing glow over the performers. they weren’t the bulbs that hoigwan had remembered, though. they were a different kind of light, blighter, more colourful, directional almost where it had been wide-reaching before. cloth ran from the base of the metal structure to the top, alternating varying shades of red and gold. it looked grand, much grander than he remembered. vaguely, he could even smell the incense burning behind the stage.
he looked at the seats. as per tradition, the first row was empty. but even beyond that, there was no crowd. just a few older chinese women scattered haphazardly along the rows of plastic chairs, one of them holding a crying baby that drowned out half the host’s commentary. besides the crying and interrupted emcee, silence seemed to reign over the buzzing sense of festivity that the showcase had once held.
“citizens of singapore….”
distantly, a booming voice rang through the air, followed by a cacophony of cheers. what could be so noisy now? it was disrespectful to make noise when someone was performing, especially if it was a traditional performance.
filled with a somewhat morbid (No pun intended) sense of curiosity, hoigwan drifted ahead to see what the commotion was about. men in red and white shirts with red trees on them spoke into a microphone to a crowd of people who watched them eagerly. another party? he’d never seen this one before. maybe it was new. he was sure he’d remember the logo—a person raising their arms to form a tree—if he’d seen it before. periodically, the men in the red shirts would pause and the crowd would hoot and cheer. the blue glimmer of the moonlight illuminated their determined faces, painted in crimson and white. several of them held large singaporean flags. hoigwan grimaced as he could feel the light whir of life and excitement. compared to the getai performance, the rally felt like a rock concert.
ironically enough, the flags, the excitement and vermillion-white palette, the rally felt distinctly singaporean. he had remembered the rallies (I’m not that old, okay.), of course, just not like this. not as an interruption to tradition, taking away from the sounds of the past for the songs of the future. it was singaporean, all of it, but in a way that was foreign to him, a way he never remembered.
hoigwan was filled with an enervative ache in the pit of his stomach. he bent forward, clutching his body in pain. he couldn’t tell if it was hunger or longing anymore. longing for life. the same longing that had accompanied him throughout his death. the textures and tastes of both felt the same in his slightly citric mouth. he needed to see his children. this was not the world he knew. he needed to leave. he needed something familiar. he needed to leave now.
hoigwan knew where his children lived, vaguely. there wasn’t much to do in the ghost realm except starve and want (You think wanting is not painful? Sometimes it hurts just as much as hunger.), especially for someone like him. someone with no money. he’d scoured his memory regularly to try remembering conversations he’d had with his children. one of hoigwan’s sons has mentioned a place in the east. some estate called mandarin gardens. he hoped his children were living well but knew that they likely weren’t. if they were, then why would he be so hungry?
he wandered through the streets. hoigwan knew that singapore had plans to grow even bigger. he had never considered what that would feel like. the city felt vast, conglomerate buildings stretching in every direction (A bit too cheem in my opinion.) hawker centres were littered throughout the suburbs. their effusive scent seemed to call to him, pulling him by the navel. as he moved eastwards, he could feel the salty smell of seawater and oil fill the air, only to mingle with the dark smoke. singapore felt so big. he had no idea if he was going the right way at all.
hoigwan decided to follow the smoke. back in his day (Wah, I’ve become so old. Later someone call me ah gong), the smoke had covered the country like a shield during hungry ghost month, blurring the lines between the dead and the living. the smoke wasn’t as prevalent anymore. better for him, though, he could just follow the smoke to apartment buildings and hope that one of the buildings was his son’s.
surprisingly, (Eh, why surprising, ah? My plan quite smart one. Not like you. You blur like sotong.), hoigwan did find the estate. he had to admit, it was a pretty one with tapering towers and strong foundations (That estate quite atas. Take that, Junjie from the Ghost realm, my son got more money than yours!). outside the building lay the red bins where the offerings would be burnt. mandarin gardens. he was here. his son was here. he could eat. his hunger could be quenched. his yearning could be met. he could do it—feel alive again.
hoigwan foraged through the red bins, grasping for anything he could eat, anything his son had burnt for him. hoigwan tore through one bin and then the next, trying to ignore the hunger that threatened to overtake him. the first few bins came out empty. no matter, he’d look through the next few. nothing. he continued looking. nothing. nothing. nothing. nothing.
that wasn’t possible. his son was living in luxury. it wasn’t like he couldn’t afford to burn food. no, maybe he’d missed something. he should check again. hoigwan had just reached out to the first bin when he heard a familiar voice. he turned around to see who it was. dark hair, a sharp nose (My nose.), and a figure much taller than he’d remembered.
“chloe, come on,” said hoigwan’s son, “it’ll get too dark for us to walk later. you’re the one who asked daddy to come walk with you.”
his son held hands with a small girl. the little girl had his eyes. hoigwan’s eyes.
“but, daddy, what are those red bins?” she asked. her voice was sweet. cute.
she pointed to the red bin that hoigwan was angled towards. her eyes grew wide with curiosity.
“nothing,” said hoigwan’s son, tugging her forward, “it’s for the hungry ghost festival. you burn stuff for your ancestors that have died.”
“do we have any ancestors we need to burn for?”
hoigwan paused. the world stopped for a second. the crashing waves distantly at east coast park held their breath. time itself waited to listen. hoigwan’s son looked at the bins. for a second, it seemed like he made eye contact with hoigwan. could he see him? his son looked away. he looked at his daughter (My granddaughter.). this was it.
“no. besides, it’s just an old tradition,” his son said, “nobody follows it anyways. there are more important things to do now. i bet the ghosts have more important things to do, too.”
with that, they walked away, and with them, they took everything hoigwan had hoped for. his son did not care. no, that was not true. his son did not remember. he had simply forgotten everything hoigwan had taught him, every value that he had instilled.
and his granddaughter—a girl he would never meet, never know, who would never remember him. his blood ran through her veins, absent of any muscle memory of her past, of her ancestry. would she ever taste the tanginess of tradition? hold hands with home? smell the scent of singapore—the real singapore—the singapore that he remembered?
hoigwan had assumed that the world of the living would be different. it would be like he remembered. not like the realm of the hungry ghosts, where everything operated on the prosperity of those alive, on the cold, hardness of money. not like the realm of the hungry ghost where constant comparisons on “whose son is richer?” or “how much food did your son burn for you?” plagued him in a constant competition. he had crossed over a realm but nothing had changed. he had crossed over into a world he no longer recognised.
hoigwan looked up to the sky. it was still dark. hoigwan would wait. he would wait, hungry, to go back to where he belonged in the realm of the hungry ghosts. he would wait in this world where he remembered, but everyone had decided to forget.
Durva Gautam Kamdar is a 16-year-old student currently studying Literary Arts at the School of the Arts, Singapore. When she’s not panicking before an assignment or cramming for a test, she enjoys reading fanfiction and listening to Korean pop music. Her hobbies include mindlessly crocheting squares, drinking bubble tea on student discount and shopping for clothes she’ll never buy.