The story has also been on my mind for the last two weeks since every evening here in Borneo we have been hearing firecrackers. My six-year-old son Jason asked me why, unlike our neighbors, we don’t have any lanterns up and why visitors don’t come to our house. “We’re not Chinese,” I told him. (His best friend, Jun Han, who lives across from us, asked his father the same thing when he saw our Christmas tree last Christmas.) Then a couple of days ago, another Chinese neighbor gave our boys some sparklers to play with, their first. Watching their terrified and delightful expressions sent me back 25 years to my first Chinese New Year, which triggered the writing of this story.
Yeoh stares at the surrounding hills of Penang as if searching for a way to escape. The pervasive stench of incense and charred gunpowder are everywhere. He can even taste the bitter dryness on his lips. A soft scraping sound catches his attention. Two palm-size red envelopes are stubbornly being pushed along the concrete driveway by a persistent breeze.
Sitting on an old wooden bench in front of his granddaughter’s terrace house, Yeoh coughs and spits and grinds out his cigarette. He lights another just as the sky erupts into brilliant hues of red, pink and orange, as if illuminated by a gigantic torch. The colors grow in intensity before gently fading into the soft darkness of dusk, the first evening of the Chinese New Year.
Across the street, the four Ong children scamper out of their white-stuccoed, red-tiled terrace house. Laughing and shoving one another, they hurry to the gate, unlock it, and dash between two parked cars. A passing motorist honks them back nearer to the curb. One after the other, the children light and toss firecrackers into the street. The others jump and shout with glee. So do several Malay and Indian children who react vicariously as they peer through their respective locked gates.
While backing away from a series of explosions, a toddler from the Lim family next door stumbles and falls. He lets out a piercing wail. The other Lim children, too engrossed in setting off their own fireworks, don’t take notice. Yeoh glares at the child as if willing him to stop his wailing. The child’s older sister finally picks him up and deposits him inside their house. She rushes back to the gate and reclaims her position.
A firecracker explodes beneath Yeoh’s mailbox attached to the front gate. His eyes, mere slits amid folds of skin, burst open.
“Hey! Hey! Stop that! Stop that!” he shouts, frantically waving his hands at the Ong children.
They pay him no attention. The next-in-line Ong tosses another firecracker, and it too lands in front of the mailbox.
“I said stop that! Stop that!”
The Ong children huddle together and whisper among themselves. Occasionally they glance his way.
Yeoh’s granddaughter, Li Lian, appears at the door.
“Grandpa, let them be. They are playing. It’s Chinese New Year,” she says. “Come inside. Su Ling and Lee will be here soon.”
Yeoh grunts, but stays put. He wants to keep an eye on the Ong children. He knows exactly what they’re up to. They’re mocking him. Always they call him names when they think he can’t hear them. They say his eyes are like the sun and moon combined—nothing escapes them. And that he reigns over the street, night and day, like an undying emperor who refuses to relinquish his power. They even have a special name for him. They call him “The One Who Watches, or The Watcher.”
Li Lian pushes back her long black hair and sighs as she withdraws into the house. In her place, her husband, Khoo, stands at the doorway picking his teeth with his pinky nail that he has let grow to nearly an inch. When he notices Yeoh looking at him, his chubby face breaks into a grin.
“I tell you, this year is going to be a prosperous one. I can feel it in the air.”
Yeoh does not reply. To him, this year will be like last year, and the year before, and the year before that. Every year is the same. There is nothing for him to do except to sit on the bench and watch. The Ongs interrupts his thoughts by lighting three packets of firecrackers strung together. The firecrackers explode in rapid succession, sounding like machinegun fire, while the strands bounce up and down off the pavement as if performing a miniature lion dance.
Khoo chuckles with approval. “Wasn’t that something?”
Yeoh coughs and spits. No matter how loud the firecrackers sound, they can never compete with Japanese bombs. He heard those bombs. He saw them, too. He turns his attention back to the hills as his gaze begins to mist. When the Japanese came, he and his family were forced to flee the soldiers and hide in those very hills. Food was scarce then, and his two sons died before they learned how to walk. Only their older sister, Li Lian’s and Su Ling’s mother survived. With the promise of jobs, the Japanese lured Yeoh and an uncle to Thailand, only to be put to work on the infamous death railway. His uncle died of dysentery, and it nearly claimed him, too. In his mind’s eye, he can see the young man he used to be, now a distant stranger who’s watching him like everyone else, it seems, and waiting for his life to end. He glances back at Khoo, but Khoo is no longer standing in the doorway.
A car pulls up in front of the house. Lee’s thin, pockmarked face glistens beneath the streetlight. He flashes a toothy smile and calls from the window, “Grandfather, you sleeping again?”
His wife, Su Ling, waves as their three children cry out, “Gong Xi Fa Cai! Gong Xi Fa Cai!”
Two of Lee’s children rush past him, eager to join the two Khoo boys inside the house. Lee shakes hands with Yeoh. The youngest child, Andrew, clings to his father’s leg like a scared puppy. He accompanies his father into the house, but before he disappears inside, he casts another look, a look of innocence, back at Yeoh.
Su Ling crouches down beside Yeoh and wishes him a happy new year. Her short black hair sways like curtains as she shakes her head.
“Grandpa, are you in a foul mood again?” Again she shakes her head, her hair swaying back and forth. “Andrew has been asking about you. Please try not to frighten him this time with any more of your ghost stories. He had nightmares for a week.”
Moments after Su Ling enters the house, Li Lian steps out and hands Yeoh three red envelopes. He stuffs them into his shirt pocket.
“Try to pretend you enjoy giving these,” she urges. “It means a lot to the children.”
Yeoh gazes at the golden lotus flower imprint on the envelopes. He thinks of his two sons who died. They would’ve been grateful just to have a bite to eat. He checks the progress of the empty ang pows that he gave to the two Khoo children earlier. They’re still being pushed by the breeze along the driveway. One hovers at the edge of the grass, while the other is almost to the gate.
Three houses away, the Ng children cheer as their father launches a mini fireball. All along the street, Chinese children emerge from their houses, carrying fistfuls of sparklers, firecrackers and other fireworks; some sophisticated enough to be sent careening over the red-tiled roofs of terrace houses into a neighboring row.
Parents assist the younger children and teach them how to light the firecrackers and how to throw them quickly by flicking their wrists. Occasionally, a firecracker is dropped unlit, or explodes inches away from a child’s hand. Cars passing through the gauntlet of fireworks wisely keep their windows up, while others are forced to honk and brake to avoid hitting a straying child.
“Go outside,” Li Lian urges Lee’s three children, “Great Grandfather has something for you.”
Andrew lags behind, pausing at the door, as his brothers race outside with their hands extended, calling, “Ang pow! Ang pow!”
Yeoh takes his time and begrudgingly hands over two of the red envelopes, one to each.
The boys remove the crisp ringgit notes and toss the empty envelopes onto the pavement. They dash into the house calling for firecrackers, and then hurry back out, led by the two Khoo boys. The last boy nearly knocks over Andrew, who remains standing at the entrance. Both sets of parents reprimand the boys for running.
Moments later, Lee squats down beside Andrew, who’s leaning against the door. He places several sparklers into his hand. He turns to Yeoh and says, “You wouldn’t mind helping him, would you?”
Su Ling crouches down beside her husband and says to Andrew, “You want Great Grandpa to help you, don’t you?” She smiles at Yeoh. “On the way over, you were all he talked about. Do you mind? It will be good for both of you.”
“Sure it will,” Lee says, and hands Yeoh a lit candle to help light the sparklers.
Lee and Su Ling go inside and leave Yeoh alone with the boy. Yeoh glares at the boy who cowers further into the door. The two regard one another with mutual suspicion. Yeoh grinds out the last of his cigarette and waves the boy to come closer so he can get a better look at him. He stuffs the last ang pow into Andrew’s pocket.
Shouts of joy ring out from Andrew’s brothers and cousins as they launch a round of firecrackers. The Ong children wave at them from across the street and invite them over. In their haste to join them, the boys leave their gate ajar.
Yeoh grunts to his feet and snatches the sparklers from Andrew’s hands. He studies the sparklers as if they were a lost artifact, a key to a long forgotten childhood memory, a mystical time and place that he thought never, truly existed. Using the candle, he lights one of the sparklers. His eyes open wide as sparks spring into the night. He hesitates, unsure of what to do next. He flicks it and a bright line appears, only to evaporate. He flicks it again. And again. He makes circles and squares and figure eights. He marvels at their fiery paths. When the sparkler fizzles out, Andrew looks up at him with full-moon expectant eyes.
Embarrassed that the boy has been observing him, Yeoh lights another sparkler and hands it to the boy. He also lights another for himself. This time, he writes several Chinese characters in the air. After the sparkler dies out, he lights two more; and two more after that. Each time, he loses himself in his fiery creations.
Andrew’s brothers call Andrew from across the street, wanting him to join them. Yeoh pays the boys no attention. Once again, he raises the sparkler like a baton and orchestrates the night.
He’s about to light another set of sparklers when he realizes the child is no longer beside him. He looks around and notices that the gate has been left open. He spots Andrew standing between two parked cars, about to cross the street. Coming down the road, its headlights glaring, a car approaches a little too fast.
Fearing for the child’s safety, Yeoh calls after the boy. He drops the sparklers and the candle and hurries to the gate. He calls again, louder. Only a faint moan comes out of his mouth.
Fireworks continue to explode all along the street as Yeoh presses his hands to his chest to ease the silent explosion within. Still moving towards the gate, he falters and collapses onto the concrete driveway, inches away from one of the discarded red envelopes.
He doesn’t see Andrew circling around him, nor does he hear the child calling, “Great Grandpa? Great Grandpa?”
Lying still, Yeoh feels oddly comfortable, as if he’s floating. . . . In his mind’s eye, all he can see are those beautiful hills of Penang.