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I once lived in a three-bedroom unit in an elegant condominium with white paint in Simei, in Singapore. My two flatmates were also Filipinos like myself: Antonio was an engineer, while Roberto was a chef. I was here to write a book about the rivers of Southeast Asia.
On our left lived a Chinese family, the Cheongs, who sometimes had relatives visiting them. They would play mah-jongg until the wee hours of the morning. But the clackety-clack of the ivory tiles did not bother me. In fact, they even reminded me of my aunts who also played this game.
On my right lived an Indian family, and the smell of their cooking – curried meats and the chicken makhana – also wafted into my bedroom. But I was also not bothered, for I devoured the Indian food in the restaurants near the station of the metro rail system.
In front of me lived a Malay couple, very quiet indeed. When I first saw the husband, he asked me if I was a Filipino. When I said yes, he said that they have Filipino carpenters in Sabah, Malaysia. “But in the Philippines,” he sniffed, “they claim to be engineers.” I just gave him my fake Filipino smile.
The one who talked to me often was Mrs. Cheong. I first met her the day after I moved in. I was leaving the flat at nine a.m. to go to the National University of Singapore to do research when I saw her entering their flat. I gave her my genuine Filipino smile and she smiled back. “Ah-yah, sorry-lah. We were noisy last night with the mah-jongg.” I told her why I was not bothered, and she just smiled back.
The next week I met her when I was going to the pool to swim. She had just finished swimming, her short, gray hair still wet. “Nice day for swimming,” she said.
I smiled back at her, “Yes, Ma’am.”
“Ah-yah. Just call me Auntie-lah. You remind me of my son in Boston. Tall and thin, with glasses,” she smiled sadly.
“How many children do you have, Auntie?”
“Only two. Alvin in Boston, Christine in Sydney. Both of them studying. I hope they come back.”
“I’m sure they would,” I said, thinking who wouldn’t want to come back to Singapore? It had clean and tree-lined streets, and its trains were cool and always on time. Everything is green here, I thought, everything is measured. The forests are gone, replaced with neat theme parks, and the dirty rivers had been cleaned of dirt and debris.
“Oh, you never know with the young ones. They think differently from me and your uncle.” Uncle I rarely saw, for he worked long hours at a bank near Clarke Quay.
One day, Auntie invited me to have lunch in their flat. She said she cooked a lot but their relatives could not come at the last minute, so we should eat up. Her flat had furniture from Ikea and we ate her soft Hainanese chicken.
We were having chamomile tea in delicate cups when she told me what happened in her former flat. They used to live in Sentosa Cove, an expensive enclave of the rich in Singapore. One of her neighbors – a tall Chinese woman whose husband also worked in the same bank as Mr. Cheong – turned up her nose at everyone. “Maybe because her husband is VP in a bank and mine is just a senior manager,” she said, eyes rolling.
“The Goh family lived in the penthouse, the most expensive one in the condo. She always snubbed me,” Auntie cackled. “But I just ignored her, too. Who cares? But one afternoon, I heard her screaming!”
“She knocked on my door. She said she was about to use the loo when she found a snake – a thin, green snake, one foot long – in her toilet bowl.
I was incredulous. “How did it reach her penthouse?” thinking of the high-rise and expensive condominium in Sentosa Cove. There was no forest for many miles around the enclave of the rich.
Auntie just looked at me with her glazed eyes. “Ai-yooo!” she said. “How would I know, lah?”
Danton Remoto studied at the University of Stirling and Rutgers University, as well as at Ateneo de Manila University and University of the Philippines. He was a Fellow at the Cambridge Summer Seminar as well as a fiction participant at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. He has published more than 10 books, the latest of which is "Riverrun, A Novel" (Penguin Random House, 2020).
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