by Khor Hui Min
Dried leaves fluttered lightly to the ground, carried by the rising winds, as menacing dark clouds gathered above her, while she waited alone in the twilight. I looked at her with interest from my window on the first floor of my grandfather’s shop. Since the holidays started, I’ve caught sight of her occasionally at this little neighbourhood park, always sitting at the same bench. I have always liked the classical Chinese fashion of the good old days, when dainty cheongsams were worn by respectable ladies. The good old days when Ipoh Old Town was the thriving centre of trade and entertainment.
“You know, she looks gorgeous in that blue cheongsam. It’s got some sort of flower pattern embroidered all over it,” I said to Mo. Mo was busy playing her game of the moment on her smartphone and didn’t hear a thing I said. I took a pillow from the rickety chair next to me and flung it at her head.
“Hey, watch it!” Mo said in her distracted tone. Sometimes I wondered about my friend. She made an effort to put her smartphone down, albeit unwillingly. “Are you talking about that chick in the park again?”
“Yeah,” I said in a flat tone. I know when Mo was being patronising.
“It’s your eighteenth birthday today. You should wear one at your birthday party tonight,” she offered an unexpected suggestion. I vaguely registered the old fan clanging feebly in the hot and humid evening, while I tried to envision myself in a pretty little cheongsam. The image my mind formed was amusing.
“The rain’s going to pour down in torrents soon and she’s still sitting there, all alone. She’ll be drenched,” I said to Mo, concerned about the young lady all of a sudden.
“Well then, be a good Samaritan and bring her that huge black umbrella you have downstairs. The one at the porch,” Mo said, amused at my concern for strangers. Usually, I would tell her she was a smart alec and we would pick a fight. But today, I thought better of it. I rushed downstairs and pulled out the umbrella from its resting place in the large antique vase at the porch. Then, I ran over to the park.
Just as I reached her, panting, large raindrops started to gush from the blackish sky above. I opened the umbrella above her. In that instance, she snapped out of her reverie and looked up at me with a surprised expression.
In a split second, she recovered her composure and a smile blossomed on her dainty lacquered lips. “Thank you for bringing an umbrella for me.” She gestured at the umbrella above with a delicate hand. “It is most kind of you.”
“Don’t mention it,” I said, feeling amused. I saw you from my window up there. I pointed up at my room. She gazed up at my grandpa’s old shop. The blue paint was peeling off sections of the walls, but I still love the place.
“We should get you out of the rain or you’ll catch a cold,” I said to her. Then, I realised something. “Oh, I forgot to introduce myself. I’m Lee Ann. Today’s my birthday and there’s going to be a party at my house. You can join us, if you’d like.”
“Happy birthday, Lee Ann! I’d love to attend your party. I adore parties.” she brightened up at my invitation. “You can call me Lin.”
We made our way towards the house, large droplets of water splashing all around us. I ushered my guest into the house awkwardly. I was not the best hostess, but she was very gracious. I thought she could not be more than 20, but her eyes looked far wiser, beyond her years. For a fleeting moment, I thought I glimpsed sadness in them, until she realised I was looking at her. Then, it was gone.
Lin found a comfortable seat by the window and reminded me that I should get ready for the party. I realised that my mother and cousins were already starting to arrange all kinds of food and treats on the long table they had borrowed from Mr. Ramesh’s shop. I hurried upstairs.
The guests arrived slowly. My friends from school came, and so did some of my childhood friends from around the neighbourhood. My parents invited all the relatives and neigbours, of course. I put on my favourite blue denim dress and came down at 7 o’clock.
Mother and grandma’s cooking was delicious as usual. They made all my favourite nyonya kuih too. Madam Lee from across the road even brought her signature mantou and pau. I noticed Lin looking at the steaming hot mantou and pau in their bamboo container longingly. I realised that I was neglecting my part as hostess, and hastily arranged a few mantou and pau on a dish and placed it on the little marble antique table next to her, along with a hot cup of oolong tea. She thanked me politely and pick up a mantou lovingly. She ate it slowly, relishing each bite.
Then, the dreaded singing started. Uncle Yap turned on the karaoke and started crooning all his favourite retro hits. The only problem was that he couldn’t hit a single note. Then grandpa took over the mic, and it went downhill from there. But out of the blue, Lin was next to grandpa, offering to sing. He gave her the mic gladly, and helped her to select her preferred song. When the music started, I was cringing, expecting the worst, but when she opened her mouth, I was taken aback. She could actually sing, and sing very well! I felt like we had been transported back in time, to the good old days. She entertained us with old hits, and loved it when people clapped after each song.
At the end of the evening, as people started to leave, Lin told me she had not enjoyed herself like this for a very long time, and was very happy that I had invited her. She promised to chat with me again, and then disappeared into the night.
As I closed the front door and turned around, I saw grandma looking nostalgically at a few black and white photos on the piano. She picked one up and touched it fondly. “You know, your friend reminded me of a girl I once knew when I was no older than you. She was one of the best singers in town. Her name was Lin,” she said, with a faraway look in her eyes.
That’s impossible. Grandma was 92.
Lin was not born into a privileged life. Her mother was, but she ran away from home at the age of 13 when her father was forced to marry her to an abusive 50-year-old businessman because of the debts he owed. She travelled from the north, and eventually ended up working in a kitchen of a dim sum shop in Concubine Lane.
Lin was born into the colourful landscape of the Concubine Lane, but her mother brought her up carefully so that she would not be easily taken advantage of. All too often, her mother saw the heartbroken and lonely lives of the ‘concubines’ living in the Concubine Lane, and did not wish that for her daughter.
From the age of four, Lin’s parents found that she could sing well, so they sent her for singing lessons. At the age of ten, they managed to get her apprenticed to Lisa, one of the notable singers at a popular club nearby. Lin was brought up to sing, and she loved every minute of it. She loved to dress up and perform.
When Lisa finally thought that Lin was ready, she was allowed to perform at the club as one of the acts. She was sixteen. She loved the entertainment scene. She adored singing to attentive crowds every night. She was delighted when her fans sent her bouquets of her favourite red roses. But she was always very careful when men offered to buy her drinks. If they insisted, she would accept. She would pretend to sip to appease the club’s customers, but discard the drink when the patrons were distracted.
He was tall, but had a gentle air about him. His hands looked like the soft, delicate hands of an artist, rather than the rough hands of a tin miner or the firm hands of a businessman. He was very polite and offered her a bouquet with a bow. She liked the smile in his eyes. She felt that he was different, unlike the typical boisterous club patrons.
After he left, Lin went into the dressing room to pack up for the night. To her surprise, she found Lisa sitting in her favourite armchair in the dark.
“He’s the eldest son of Tauke Lim. His father wants him to take over the business, so the family will surely find a strategic marriage for him. Perhaps Tauke Foo’s eldest daughter.”
“Why are you telling me all this, Lisa?” Lin asked carefully. She felt what was unsaid was even more important than what was being said.
Lisa stood up and straightened the creases in the fabric of her dress by habit. “I don’t want you to get hurt, darling. That’s all. Five years ago, I wouldn’t have given a damn. I think I’m just getting old…”
“I’m not worried about old lecherous men who can’t keep their hands to themselves. Or the fat, balding taukes with clammy hands. You handle all of them with good grace. But I’m worried about young handsome men who will steal your heart away and break it into a thousand pieces.”
For the first time, Lin noticed the dark circles under Lisa’s eyes and the pain in her voice. She walked over and gave her mentor a hug. Surprised, Lisa stood rigidly rooted to the ground, but after a while, she softened and hugged her protégé back.
A week later, Lisa was leaving the club at night when she found him waiting in the shadowy alley beside the exit. She was afraid at first, but he swiftly assured her that he was not going to do anything to her. Instead, he asked her to have tea with him on her off-day.
“Couldn’t you have asked me when I was in the club, before closing? You scared me just now.”
“Well… you were busy…” He did look apologetic.
“Tea?” Lin asked curiously.
“I noticed you don’t really like to drink liquor,” he said shyly.
“You are an observant man, I see.”
“So, you will have tea with me?” He looked hopeful.
“All right. How about 3 o’clock, Monday afternoon?”
“Sure,” he beamed.
Tea was harmless enough, she thought.
On Monday evening, I gazed out of my bedroom window again and saw Lin sitting on her bench. At that exact moment, she tilted her head up and looked straight at me. She smiled her most enchanting smile and waved for me to come down.
I skipped down the stairs two at a time and pilfered the fruit basket deftly as I passed the dining table. Then, as an afterthought, I took the photo grandma was fondly caressing two nights ago off the piano and put that in my knapsack too.
When I got to Lin, I whipped out a shiny red apple from my knapsack and offered it to her. She was very pleased. I sat down next to her and watched her devour the apple slowly and delightfully.
“Do you come here all the time?” I said, as she finished nibbling around the apple core.
“Yes, I like this park a lot. I lived two lanes away, at Concubine Lane.”
I noticed she used the past tense – lived.
“Do you always come alone?”
“No, sometimes Leong comes with me.”
At that question, she blushed and looked down demurely. Oh, must be her boyfriend. I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself. The happy expression in her eyes was fleeting though. It turned to sadness in an instance.
“What’s the matter, Lin?”
She hesitated, undecided on what she should do.
“It’s all right. You can tell me,” I tried to sound reassuring.
After a few minutes of silence, she began in earnest. “I’ve been waiting for Leong here for a long time. He was supposed to meet me here, but he never came. I don’t know what happened to him. I don’t know if he’s all right. I don’t know where he is.”
Tears welled up in her eyes. I fumbled for a crumpled tissue in the left pocket of my jeans and offered it to her. She dabbed at her eyes gently and paused. I waited for her to continue.
Finally, I opened my mouth, feeling I was getting myself into trouble as I did. “Can I help you in any way?”
She looked up hopefully. “Can… can you help me find him?”
“Err… well… I can try,” I said. “What does he look like? Do you have a photo of him?”
At that, she opened a little purse and took out a brownish black and white photo. It was crumbling at the corners. I took a look. He looked oddly familiar. Suddenly, I remembered the photo I had taken from the piano and took it out from my knapsack. I put the two photos side by side. Same face. Same man.
I showed my grandma’s photo to Lin, pointing at the man. “Is this Leong?”
“Why yes, that’s him,” she said in surprise.
Then I pointed at the lady next to him in the photo. “And is this you?”
“Yes, we took a photo together while we were having English tea. He thought I’d enjoy it, and I did.”
How could this be? My mind reeled at the possibilities. My grandma knew the lady in the photo when she was my age. And the Lin sitting next to me looked only 20. I sat there silently, waiting for Lin to say something, not trusting myself to open my mouth. Finally, she began, fingers gently caressing the photo.
“Leong was my first love,” she said shyly. “My mentor Lisa advised me against seeing him, because he was the son of a prominent businessman who owned one of the most lucrative tin mines in the Kinta Valley, as well as some of the opium dens around Concubine Lane. Our relationship would never be accepted by his hot-tempered father.”
“Oh…” A love story. I tried not to roll my eyes.
“We spent our time together in gardens and parks. He brought me to quaint cafes and restaurants, which were private and out of the way. I enjoyed the English tea the most, served with scones, clotted cream and jam.”
I offered her a pear. She thanked me absently and held it lightly with her slender fingers on her lap.
“I knew the day would come. One day, he sent me an urgent message, telling me that his father had arranged for him to marry the only daughter of a rich tycoon from Johor in the south. He asked me to pack my belongings and meet him here. We would disappear together.” She dabbed at her eyes again, clearly tortured by the memory.
“It was 1941. I came at sunset, as he had instructed. As I waited, hidden behind some trees, pandemonium broke loose without any warning. There were screeching tyres, gunfire, explosions, screaming and shouting. As if hell had opened its gates and spewed out chaos. The Japanese had invaded Malaya.”
“He didn’t turn up?” I asked sympathetically.
“No, I don’t know where he is,” she said, distraught, as if it had just happened yesterday. To her, the memory was so vivid; it was alive in her mind, every day.
I cleared my throat awkwardly. “I will try my best to find him for you. You can be sure of it.” Then, I made my way back to the house.
Grandma was preparing to make steamed cakes. It was one of her specialities. Her customers could never get enough of those. Active, hale and hearty at 92, that’s my granny. I stood in the doorway watching her at work.
“What do you want, Lee Ann?” Grandma was so busy, she never had time for small talk.
I took out the photo from my knapsack and showed it to her. “You said you knew Lin, who’s in this photo, right? Do you know the man sitting next to her?”
“Oh… that’s… erm… I think his name is Leong. It’s been such a long time, you know.”
“Do you know where Leong is?”
“Well, no. The last time anybody saw him was during the Japanese invasion in 1941. Madam Lee saw him near the river. She was rushing home to her children, so she didn’t ask him where he was going. There were soldiers everywhere. People shut their doors and windows and hid at home. You can ask Madam Lee about it. She’s the one who makes mantou and pau.”
With that, she ushered me out of the kitchen and continued her work.
I walked over to Madam Lee’s little coffee shop at Concubine Lane. The usual customers were sipping their morning kopi-o and Chinese tea, reading their newspapers and discussing headlines and gossip, while nibbling on dim sum, pau and mantou. I know they are all called dumplings, albeit different versions, but I still like to think of them in their traditional Chinese names.
Madam Lee was sitting at the cashier counter, taking a breather. She got up at 4 o’clock daily to prepare all the food in time for breakfast at 7 o’clock. Now that it was 10 o’clock, the breakfast crowd had thinned, and it was the ideal time to ask her about Leong and Lin.
I went up to her. “Hi, Madam Lee. Thank you for coming to my birthday party last Saturday. It was really nice of you.” I gave her my best smile.
“It was a nice party. I got to catch up with my friends and enjoyed your mother and grandma’s food. And the music was wonderful. That girl reminded me so much of a childhood friend of mine.”
“Oh, really? Why is that?” I was trying to appear casual in my conversation. This private investigator deal was entirely new to me.
“Same voice. Same songs. Those were her favourite songs.”
“What was her name, this childhood friend of yours?” I asked.
“Her name was Lin. She was a good-natured girl who loved nothing more than to sing. She was our nightingale. She lived just a few houses away from me and your grandma. We used to play together when we were children.”
Madam Lee continued on her monologue. “She became a popular singer in Ipoh. Then, she became the girlfriend of the son of one of our richest businessmen. Although he would inherit his father’s business one day, he only loved books and art. He only wanted to study and paint. I think his name was Leong, Lim Kit Leong.”
“What happened to Leong?” I asked.
“The Japanese had invaded the town and I was hurrying back home to see if my children were all right. It was then that I saw him beside the river. I never had the chance to ask him where he was going. Nobody ever saw him after that.”
“What about Lin? What happened to her?” It was a question I dreaded asking, but I had to do it anyway.
Madam Lee’s smile disappeared, wiped off her face, only to be replaced by a deep sadness. “She waited for him every day at the park next to your house. She even lost interest in singing. But she had to sing to entertain the Japanese officials at the club anyway. She pined for Leong. She didn’t want to eat or sleep. She became thinner and thinner. She just wasted away. Died of a broken heart. Poor thing.”
“Oh, that’s just terrible…” was the only thing I could come up with. Then, I remembered that I had two persimmons left in my knapsack. I took them out and gave them to Madam Lee.
“I love persimmons,” Madam Lee brightened up. “You know, Lin used to love the mantou I made. She would have one for breakfast every morning.”
The next day, I went to the river. Ipoh Old Town is located to the west of Kinta River. There is a bridge that links the old town with the new. I thought I would look there first. I was not sure what I was looking for, or what I would find, but the riverside was the last place Leong had been seen.
I walked along the riverside slowly, looking at the benches, the trees, the landscaped flower beds and the people. I spent hours wandering around in the sweltering heat of the afternoon sun. When I finally gave up and decided to head back, I saw a familiar silhouette at a bench almost hidden by old trees next to a deserted river bend.
I approached slowly and carefully. When I almost reached the bench, he turned around and looked at me. It was Leong, all right. But there was an ugly bruise on his left temple. He looked at me enquiringly. Then his eyes widened.
“Yes, I can see you,” I said uncomfortably.
“I don’t know how. Are you Leong?”
“Yes, yes, I am. How did you know my name?”
“Lin asked me to find you.”
At the mention of her name, he jumped up. “Lin! Do you know her? Have you seen her?”
“She said she couldn’t find you. What happened to you?”
“I was on my way to meet her. I was almost there. Then, two Japanese soldiers on motorcycles appeared and asked me to stop. I was in a hurry to see her and had no intention of stopping. The officers became angry that I was ignoring them and we fought. One of them hit me on the side of my head with the butt of his gun. I lost my balance and fell into the river.”
A thought occurred to me. “I think I can try to bring her here. Will you wait for me?”
“Lin? You are going to bring my Lin here?”
“Well, yes. But don’t get your hopes up yet, because I’ve never done this before.”
Lin was sitting on her bench in the park, as I knew she would be. I walked up to her slowly and broke the good news to her. She was in disbelief. She was dumbfounded. Then, she stood up and hugged me tight. When she finally released me, I saw that tears of joy were streaming down her face. I automatically fumbled for more tissues, a reaction that she found greatly amusing.
“So how are we going to get you there?” I said to her. “Remember the large black umbrella…?”
“Yes, that’s right,” Lin said enthusiastically. “Go and get that umbrella.”
I went to get the umbrella dutifully. “Are you ready, Lin?”
“I’ve been waiting a very long time for this. I’ll be as ready as I’ll always be. Here, can you help me to carry my purse too?”
“Of course, che che,” I said.
She was delighted to hear that. Che che was hokkien for sister.
I opened the umbrella above us. We both held on to the handle and started walking down the road in the glow of the setting sun. Half an hour later, we arrived at the river, and Leong was there at the riverside, as he promised he would be.
She was so happy to see him. They hugged and kissed each other. I felt somewhat embarrassed to be there. Under the old trees with branches and leaves that blotted out the sky, I had closed the umbrella and Lin appeared to be fine. She was not going up in a puff of smoke or ball of fire, and that was good enough for me.
At that instance, a flock of pigeons flew off the bridge nearby, in the middle of a disagreement with a few noisy crows. I was momentarily distracted by them. When I turned back, Lin and Leong were gone. I turned round and round, but there was nobody in sight. In the last rays of the setting sun, I hurried back home with umbrella in hand. When I finally reached home and placed the umbrella into the large vase, there was a little clang. It was then that I realised that the strap of Lin’s beaded purse had wound around the umbrella’s handle.
I had her purse! I took it in my hands. It was the same purse, sans owner. When I opened it, a little note fell out, along with a bejewelled antique ring. The note said, “Thank you for everything. We are together at last. Please accept my ring as a belated birthday gift from the both of us.”
I put the ring on the middle finger of my left hand. It fit perfectly. Thank you, che che.
Editor’s Note on Lost and Found:
Lost and Found is not Khor Hui Min’s first work to appear in Eastlit. Her previous published pieces are: