Bird Watching

For years when it rained like today,
I ran from desk to corridor.
Elbows on railings.
Curtains from clouds to grass.
Frogs in my school field in a

concerto for double-bass in E minor.

And always after rain,
at high noon, the kingfisher rested 
on the netball pole. Sniper
in ceasefire. Head cocked,
he held court. Maestro

with beak for baton,
he swooped and turned
musician into meal
while on other days,
Mum warned me to

speak softer!

when the kingfisher arrived
at our window. She loved
his shimmer in the sun,
flash of blue-green as he
swivelled and shook

water off his raincoat. 
Mr Kingfisher studied me
with his binocular eyes
as Mum with hers. Till today,
we fight in different tongues. Mine:

with bad Mandarin 
thrown in. Hers:
get-the-job-done English 
with the melody of our own people. 

Ga ki nang, ga ki nang.

When it rained years ago,
we stood side by side
in whispers to watch 
the kingfisher hunt 
and prayed 

in our own tongues
when he flew away;
glints in our eyes 
and his, like sunlight 
after monsoon rains.

*ga ki nang -- our own people. Teochews use the phrase ‘ga ki nang’ to refer to each other.

TO A DAUGHTER GOING HOME (on the occasion of the burial of her ashes)

If I could send letters to the dead, the Japanese Cemetery Park at 825B Chuan Hoe Avenue, Singapore 549853 would be the address my correspondence could be posted for the karayuki-san buried in Singapore. They were women who lived as prostitutes, mostly forced to work in the flesh trade. Many were sold from Japan as young girls throughout Southeast Asia, Siberia, Hawaii, Australia and parts  of India from the late 19th century.

It took me forty years to discover this little known part of the history of my country and Japan’s, through the book ‘Ah Ku and Karayuki-san: Prostitution in Singapore, 1870-1940’ by James Francis Warren. Over 1,000 karayuki-san are believed to have worked in Singapore from the 1900s, many of whom died under unspeakable conditions. Out of the 910 graves in the park, at least a third belong to karayuki-san.

Unable to pay my respects to the karayuki-san because their tombs are nameless for reasons that I may never fully understand, I wrote a poem to honour the story of the women who had gone overseas, inspired by the true story of three karayuki-san as told in the aforementioned book by James Francis Warren: amaksan Otama, her close friend Ohatsu and okasan (mamasan) Osatsu.

Deeply unhappy and lonely over the three years after her friend Ohatsu had died, Otama, aged 21, cut her throat with a razor about three times on 5 June, 1900. Months later, Osatsu who witnessed the public suicide of her amaksan Otama, went insane and killed herself .

I taught you at eight,
to call me haha,
to tell each and every stranger
that I was your mother.
You hobbled off the ship,
up the gangway to the end of the dock,
the sleeves of your yukata black with coal,
your cheeks grey with ash and tears.
I wanted to tell you, don’t cry.
I am your new family now. Don’t cry.
This is Shinkinzan, the new gold mine.

Here, your onesan will teach all you need to know to keep the table full for your old family.
Didn’t you know? We are born outsiders. No one cares who you are and where you go. Remember the baby girls in winter left by the roadside; a coin
tucked into their folds for passers-by?
Remember and don’t cry.
The melon gruel they call flower soup? Those few grains floating in rice water?
Remember and don’t cry.

From today, you will not have to carry your stomach full of air.
You will sleep and wake
with more than plain water to sip,
the neck of a sweet potato to eat.
Here, you can have rice three times a day, fish everyday! Isn’t that good?

When I saw your flat nose, I told myself: 2,000 yen to give life to a girl
is not without happiness. A small happiness. I am your only guarantee of a future.
You belong to me now. You are my guarantee of a future.

Some call us fallen women but not you, the brightest blossom in our suteretsu.
Other daughters were sold to white men but no, not you.
When our doctor pronounced you sick, I never had you work,
even when Imperial ships came to port. I tied on my plum kimono
and went in your place. Remember that.

There is a saying here in Nanyo that cities are made by people.
But what is a city where our people won’t name us patriots?
I will sing you this song:
“Lovers” chatter is like the dust of any country.
Oh, where will be her grave?”

Otama, I am sorry to bury you without your name.
that I beat you when you turned 13 to make you entertain.
Now, you alone can choose who comes into your home.
But do not invite me. I will come home on my own.
And brightest blossom, you will have new life soon.

amaksan — a prostitute without rights and often, a human trafficking victim
oksasan — mother
mamasan — female brothel keeper
haha — one’s mother, which in this case refers to the female brothel keeper
yukata — an informal cotton kimono worn in the summertime 
onesan — older sister
Nanyo — the Southern Ocean or Southeast Asia
suteretsu — referring to the Malay Street brothel area of Singapore, a colloquial term in Amakusa dialect for ‘street’


I was once a girl on the kitchen floor:
legs crossed, bum warmed 
by her mother’s stove.

I searched for her at the park 
at night and found her 
under a slide, watery-eyed.

I watched her grow up,
a woman who loved 
to sing, soak, 

scent her skin
oak moss mingling 
with Indian jasmine. 

Once I heard her sing 
while a man spinned vowels 
round and around in his throat.

And in sleep, his feet brushed 
her deep-cracked heels.
I called to her in the morning 

when he left nothing but a trail:
a trace of musk
and the smell of hide.

I will find her again:
Peppery smoke.
Orange zest. 

Evenings in the park. 
And always 
after rain.

Michelle Chua Li Ping (蔡丽萍) holds a BA inCommunications Studies from Murdoch University, Western Australia. She currently performs jazz and spoken word in Singapore and Malaysia, with past performances in Thailand and Timor-Leste. Her name 蔡丽萍 Li Ping, chosen by her grandfather, means “she flows with life, beauty and peace.”