After my first Chinese New Year in Malaysia, unable to sleep that night because of all of the fireworks, I went jogging the next morning and the stench of charred gunpowder was everywhere, as were the red remnants of the fire crackers, some strung from the roofs of many of the terrace houses the previous evening. Discarded red ang pow envelopes were being pushed across the road by a breeze. I wrote these details into my journal, knowing that they would eventually end up in a short story --the third in this collection that began that way, a bunch of jumbled ideas. Later, when I began to write about it, after reading some firsthand accounts of the Japanese Occupation, I thought I could combine the two.
Having no one person to base my character on, as a model, which I sometimes do, I had to come up with my own unique characters (though based loosely on a composite of several people I've met over the years), an elderly Chinese man, still embittered about the war, and his two granddaughters and their respective husbands. For their children, I used my observations of my neighbor’s children, who every Chinese New Year, would huddle around their respective gates and launch fire crackers. I tried to mimic their actions, including the non-Chinese neighbors who would watch and react vicariously.
I also imagined I was Yeoh, who was watching them and wondered what they would think of me, someone so old that they could no longer relate to. I’m sure they would have a nickname for him and eventually I came up with “the one who watches”, or “the watcher” which then became the title of the story.
As with many stories that I begin to write, I’m not all too sure about the ending. I knew it would involve sparklers, which I had recently played with during Hari Raya at my ex-wife’s kampong. I tried to capture that sense of rediscovery, that child-like feeling of pleasure, of wild-eyed wonder and passed it on to my Chinese characters, both the elderly man and his great grandchild.
In Lovers and Strangers, I originally named the main character Yeo, but later I discovered that the spelling of the name, without the ‘h’, lives in Singapore. So I added the ‘h’ and he became a Penang Yeoh. I had also changed the great grandson’s name from Kim to Andrew. In the first collection, I also made a careless error by referring to the boy as his grandchild, when in fact he would be the great grandchild. I was surprised the editor I was working with or the proofreader never caught it. I don’t know how I missed it either. Sometimes you get so close to the story it’s easy to overlook obvious details.
For the setting I used the terrace houses where I then lived, which made it convenient. We had a cushioned bench in front of our house where we would sit to put on our shoes, so this was where I had Yeoh sit (though I took away the cushion) as he watched the goings-on of his neighbors, the children in particular, because he knew they were always up to something; and with fireworks, they were utterly reckless. A disaster waiting to happen. In the distance I could see some hills, but these weren’t apart of Penang Hill (in the center of the island at Air Itam), just hills that served as a backdrop and as a catalyst for his memories of hiding in the hills during the occupation and how some of his children had died before they could learn how to walk. A common occurrence. My former mother-in-law lost five children, some miscarriages and others from lack of food and nutrition.
Over the years, the story did not change all that much, just moving from general to more specific details as in all of my stories, and the beginning and the ending. In the early drafts I started the story with an elaborate, overblown description of a sunset. I was trying way too hard. The description seemed to go on forever. Then I toned it down and began the story with a line about Yeoh. In the second paragraph, I added in the sensory details that I had mentioned earlier, about the smells and seeing the firecrackers and the discarded ang pows.
Later, while revisiting the story for the Silverfish version, I realized that the sunset was too rushed, introduced too soon. I needed to get a fix on the main character first, anchor him in the story. So I rearranged the opening paragraphs. I kept the opening line, but all that followed now came from the second paragraph, and the sunset was placed in the middle of the new second paragraph, so it flowed better. I also tied it to his lighting a cigarette, which I felt was more effective. I also fixed quite a bit of the actual details.
Compare the first published version of the opening of “The Watcher” and the final MPH version where I delayed the sunset:
1) Yeo stared at the surrounding hills like he was searching for a way to escape. Suddenly, the sky erupted into brilliant hues of red, pink and orange, as though illuminated by a torch. The colors grew in intensity before gently fading into the soft darkness of dusk on this first day of the New Year. The first, and the last, if Yeo had his way…
He coughed and spat and ground out his cigarette as the smell of incense and charred gunpowder came on strong. A scraping sound soon caught his attention. Two small red envelopes were being pushed along the concrete driveway by a persistent breeze.
2) Yeoh stared at the surrounding hills of Penang as though searching for a way to escape. The pervasive stench of incense and charred gunpowder were everywhere. He could even taste the bitter dryness on his lips. A soft scraping sound caught his attention. Two palm-size, red envelopes were being pushed, stubbornly, along the concrete driveway by a persistent breeze.
Sitting on an old wooden bench in front of his granddaughter’s terrace house, Yeoh coughed and spat and ground out his cigarette. He lit another as the sky erupted into brilliant hues of red, pink and orange, as if illuminated by a gigantic torch. The colors grew in intensity before gently fading into the soft darkness of dusk, the first evening of the Chinese New Year.
In the first version I didn’t even mention that he was in Penang or whose house it was, or whether he was standing or sitting. I even gave it away that he was going to die with that big, clumsy hint. I was also not very specific about which New Year and the time reference was wrong, calling it the first day when it was already evening. Careless minor slips often cause needless confusion, so I was glad I had the opportunity to get the details right. Notice that I also changed the word “small”, a relative term, to “palm-sized” which is easier to picture.
In the early drafts, I ended the story with both Yeoh and his grandchild playing together with the sparklers. I wanted to add some tension at the end, so I had Andrew wander away and then Yeoh noticed that the child is gone and that the other children had left the gate open. At the end of the MPH version, I reversed the final two paragraphs so the focus doesn’t shift to Andrew, but remains on him until the very end. By mentioning the hills, I also tie the ending back to the beginning.
While revising this for the French edition, I kept stumbling and it didn't feel right until I tried switching it from past to present tense, to give the story an immediacy that seemed lacking in the past tense. It was the only story that was significantly changed.
* Here is a link to the new revised version.
Lovers and Strangers Revisited is now getting translated into French as Trois autres Malaisie. Here's a link to the French blog set up by the publisher Éditions GOPE.
Here are three reviews of Lovers and Strangers Revisited: The Star (MPH), The Expat (Silverfish), and NST (Silverfish) and a link to the other story behind the stories for Lovers and Strangers Revisited.
**Update, the 20th anniversary
of Lovers and Strangers Revisited
***Here the link to my website, to MPH online for orders for all three of my books, including my latest, Spirit of Malaysia and for Trois autres Malaisie.