Born in 1985, Lee Jing-Jing grew up in a public housing block similar to the one
described in her debut novel, If I Could Tell You. She moved to Europe in her early
20s and eventually gained a Masters of Studies in Creative Writing from Kellogg
College at Oxford University. Her poetry and short stories have been published in
both Singaporean and international journals. She is currently working on a new book
that continues the story of Cardboard Lady from her first novel.
My hair wound itself into a tow chang one night.
As if it had enough —
the smoothing of it by male hands.
I kept it, resting my neck
on a wooden pillow to keep it untouched. Took the boat southward
not long after.
from the side of their mouths,
the men. Telling us
the work will be hard,
as if we'd sat in a boat
expecting candied apples on arrival,
They forgot we came from Samsui.
Grew up falling on rock,
watching our mothers
wither away to nothing, flesh
stripped by the flood
that swept homes out to sea.
This? This black mud
We fed ourselves
with jook and choy sim —
the roots and hearts of vegetables;
bitter, sold cheap in armfuls.
All of it boiled three,
four times over. We drank our food,
rims of the bowls meeting our teeth.
We would eat tin and clay
if it filled us,
if it did us good.
Everything we owned
lasted us years.
Sandals, put together from cloth
and rickshaw tyres.
wide-brimmed to keep out the sun
and stained red to guard
against cars and men —
you could see us
from streets away.
There were folds inside
for things to keep safe. In mine:
coins, rolls of tobacco,
a photograph of my family
Ah Mui, who slept on one corner of our bed,
cut rubber sheeting
after rocks got too heavy.
The way her hand grew around
her iron shears:
wrist arched, bones wrapped around eye rings
we had to pry them from her in the end.
'Samsui' or 'Sanshui' refers to the Guangdong province in China from which large numbers of women left between the 1920s and the 1940s to go to Singapore in search of construction and industrial jobs.
'Tow chang' refers to a hairstyle worn by Chinese women to indicate that they have taken the vow of celibacy.
'Jook' is a Cantonese word that refers to Chinese congee.
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