By WONG KOI TET
Translated from Chinese by SHANNA TAN
Dakota Crescent, Singapore
The body of water that runs by the neighborhood is in fact a river, but everyone used to call it longkau—a storm drain. The Hokkien word has a crispier edge than the Mandarin longgou. Calling it a river would require a proper name, a division into upstream and down. Nobody knew about that stuff, so we went with what was the easiest. Anyway, a name is just a name, and it was kind of endearing after you got the hang of it. The neighborhood does have a proper name: Dakota. There’s a place called Dakota somewhere up north in the States, but that’s not what we’re named after. No, our origin story is local and commemorates the crash of a Dakota DC-3 aircraft nearby. Maybe by giving the neighborhood a name tinged with disaster and exoticism, we were also foretelling its premature demise.
Even though I was born in Dakota, my parents were outsiders. They moved to the neighborhood with my paternal grandparents and uncle. They had to walk half a day under the weight of a canvas bed laden with all their worldly possessions and climb three storeys before reaching our two-bedroom unit. My grandparents left the world before I could form memories and soon after, Uncle met his first love and moved out to start a new family, leaving Father and I to take turns sleeping on the canvas bed.
Red bricks, red roof tiles. Up, down, left, right, the blocks of flats all looked the same. Every door hid a similar tale of survival and struggles, like leaves overlapping on the majestic tree that once towered over the neighborhood. Bushes lined the opposite bank of the longkau, whose flowing waters not only brought over a strong stench but an assortment of objects—shoes, chairs, tables, boxes and rubbish—from a bigger neighborhood further up.
Monitor lizards made themselves at home in the longkau, crawling out to sunbathe in the afternoons. The tongs lying beside the charcoal stove at home doubled as a weapon to pinch the lizards’ hideous heads. One of our neighbors, an old man with short white hair and a deeply lined forehead, was a child diviner at the temple. We secretly nicknamed him Tua Pek Kong, after the Earth Deity. Tua Pek Kong loved eating those four-legged snakes, so whenever we nabbed one, we would sprint to his house (each of us grasping a struggling limb) to trade our fresh catch for orange ice pops.
All of us Dakota kids attended the neighborhood primary school, our pockets bulging with glass marbles that clinked with each step. There was a small airport slightly south-west of the neighborhood, so there was always a plane rumbling overhead. The teacher had to holler over the roar to instruct the class to start working on their compositions. Heads bent over the desks; pens scribbling furiously. Everyone wanted to be a pilot when they grew up. That, too, had been my dream, although my first taste of adulthood came in December that year.
One night, we all huddled on the stone steps that descended to the longkau and carefully turned the pages of a magazine my classmate had stolen from his father’s stash as dirty water flowed beneath us. The wobbly torchlight illuminated the blonde women and the smooth, stark-naked flesh on the glossy pages. We jostled for a turn to get the best view; eyeballs glued to the magazine. Meanwhile, the longkau water rose rapidly to reach our toes, mirroring the hot blood coursing through our veins. Very fast one, someone said. When we grow up, we sure can find such women for ourselves.
Soon enough, we were a little more grown up, and color had come to the neighborhood’s black and white TVs. Things didn’t feel the same anymore. Dakota grew noisier as construction started on the empty fields, conjuring up apartments taller than before. I started to walk around the longkau, a fresh routine to a new school. For a while, a girl named Shu Qi would appear on the other side of the longkau, saying, I came here to wait before sunrise, shall we walk to school together?
Even as Shu Qi went from wearing her hair straight to getting a perm, I never got the chance to see if her breasts were as perky beneath her white uniform as the blonde models in the magazine. Just like that, before I could even blink, my secondary school days came to an end.
It was around then that Tua Pek Kong fell really ill. The doctors at the hospital declared he was beyond help and sent him home. Rumor had it that his overindulgence in four-legged snakes had turned his body yellow and dotted it with rashes and scabs. In the night, the neighborhood was as quiet as a brooding cat, which amplified Tua Pek Kong’s weak moans as they clung onto the stifling humid air and seeped through even the tiniest cracks and gaps in the flats. When the air was finally fresh and cool again days later, we learnt that Tua Pek Kong had breathed his last the night before. Mother said that the government didn’t allow the neighbors to scatter his ashes in the longkau, so in the end Tua Pek Kong had to be put to rest in the neighborhood temple, behind the statue of the deity that inspired his nickname.
Before long, in the name of progress and prosperity, Dakota was forced to adapt to the changing times. First to go was the temple, and with it went the older generation of neighbors called Ah this and Ah that, who moved away one by one. Abandoned, the aged bricks and tiles were mercilessly knocked down. This marked the beginning of supernatural encounters in the neighborhood. There were several late-night sightings of Tua Pek Kong loitering around the longkau, as if searching for something to satiate his hunger.
I scoffed at these rumors. Some time back, the thick layer of black mud in the longkau had been scraped clean and concrete railings erected on both sides. The longkau even acquired a proper name. With such pristine waters, the four-legged creatures had lost their home long ago.
Wong Koi Tet (Singapore, 1973) has worn many hats in his writing career: a journalist with a local Chinese newspaper, an editor of literary magazine Afterwards in the nineties, a drama script writer for the local television channel and now, a part-time creative writing lecturer at Nanyang Technological University. Since 1995, he has published several books of prose, poetry, short stories, and cultural commentary. Dakota was published in Chinese in 2018 and won the prestigious Singapore Literature Prize in Chinese Creative Non-fiction in 2020.
Shanna Tan is a Singaporean translator working from Korean, Chinese and Japanese into English. She was selected as the Korean prose mentee under the UK National Centre for Writing’s 2022 Emerging Translator Mentorship. She was also selected for the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) 2022 Emerging Translator Mentorship Program, translating a work of Singapore literature from Chinese to English. Her translations are forthcoming in The Southern Review, Azalea: A Journal of Korean Literature and Culture.
Images by the author.