Title: Asian Anthology, New Writing Vol. 1
Editor: Ivy Ngeow
Publisher: Leopard Print London
Spring Onions by Yang Ming
Like most devotees, Ning’s mother, Suyin, spent her Saturday afternoons visiting Singapore’s Chinese temples. For the past year, she had meticulously listed them on a piece of neatly folded foolscap paper and visited one each weekend after closing her steamed bun shop for the day. She arrived at the temple each week with two red plastic bags containing fruit. Ning stood next to her mother, hands clasped, observing her overturn the bags: apples and oranges tumbled out onto the table. Suyin assembled them on two paper plates in groups of five and placed them at the altar. It was done so mechanically that Ning swore her mother could have done it with her eyes closed.
* * *
That Saturday, Ning had accompanied her mother to Thian Hock Keng for prayers. Ning was a month away from an examination that had the potential to define her future. After learning about her daughter’s dismal mid-year test results, Ning’s mother had found it hard to sleep. Ning’s older brother, Ren, on the other hand, had fared much better in his academic studies. A student highly regarded by his peers, Ning’s mother did not need to worry about her son. Ning had never wanted to be part of this prayer nonsense but, at her mother’s insistence, she dragged her feet to the temple. She considered it a waste of her time; she would rather film a series of life hack videos for TikTok than standing idly at the temple.
“Ma, why do you offer spring onions to Confucius?” Ning asked. Instead of fruit, Ning’s mother had prepared a plate of spring onions and steamed buns as offerings to the Confucius statue. Outside, heavy rain fell on the ground like water gushing through a drain. Ning cast a glance at the temple’s rooftop, its curved ridges and elongated eaves with upturned swallow-tail decoration blocking the grey skies. Fat raindrops began to whip Ning’s legs, causing her to retreat further into the temple’s statue shelter. Ning’s mother had followed her usual practice of waiting for fifteen minutes for the gods to ‘eat’ the offerings before clearing them away. Ning wondered if they liked spring onions; she certainly did not.
“Spring onion is 聪 in Mandarin. Cong. It means intelligence. You will need it for your exams,” Ning’s mother replied, folding her arms across her chest.
The smell of the incense coil burning in the main hall spread through the air. Ning was surprised to find the smell soothing and she likened it to sandalwood incense sticks from her favourite aromatherapy shop.
“My friends say praying to Confucius will help you in your exams,” Ning’s mother said as she rummaged in her bag for her phone. She fished it out and began to tap away.
Ning wanted very much to tell her mother that she was going to fail her upcoming examinations, and no amount of prayers or offerings to any deities would work but she couldn’t summon the courage.
“Time to clear the table,” her mother said, walking towards the altar. Putting her hands together, her mother uttered a few inaudible sentences and bowed to the statue three times before shoving the offerings into the plastic bags. Ning followed suit, bowing grudgingly.
Under the minimal lighting, her mother had a pallid face; her yellow-stained nails and dark circles sagged under her eyes. She wondered why she hadn’t noticed those hands and face marked with endless strife and pain.
On a one-way street, a solitary car lumbered past them. Ning sidestepped puddles of water scattered along the pavement while swinging the bag of spring onions recklessly.
“Stop that,” her mother said, her voice echoing through the empty street.
“It’s just spring onions!” Ning exclaimed in defiance.
Her mother slapped her daughter’s head lightly. “I need to cook these tonight. You think what, I’m going to throw it away, is it?” her mother said, gripping a half-smoked cigarette between her forefinger and third finger. Ning heard her mother mumbling some words in Hokkien as she turned away. She rolled her eyes at the thought of eating a plate of stir-fry spring onions or any dish with spring onions in it.
If Ning could harness any power from a higher being, she would remove every stalk of spring onion from existence. Her mother’s phone rang as they turned at the corner shophouse. Ning stepped back to give her some privacy. A group of young, giggling girls traipsed past them, enthusiastically discussing a hip coffee joint. Ning surreptitiously crept closer towards her mother, trying to listen in on the conversation. But she could only hear laconic replies that consisted of, “yes”, “no” and “I understand”. Her voice seemed restrained.
“Who was that?” Ning asked.
“Just somebody. Why so kaypoh?” Ning’s mother asked, clicking her tongue.
Ning knew her mother deployed this snappy attitude to fob her off whenever Ning became too much of a busybody for her own good. The skies had finally cleared, releasing an earthy petrichor — a scent Ning secretly adored. The afternoon sun peeked out of the grey clouds, creating a golden halo with glorious rays of light around them.
Ning watched snippets of TikTok videos on the train home. Images of a mother and daughter duo swaying and jumping in one frame and morphing into each other in the next frame. A muscular man struggling to tear into an apple with his bare hands while a young man used a knife to cut an apple. A middle-aged woman synchronising her dance moves with a little girl. These entertaining yet addictive videos usually amused her, but Ning couldn’t seem to shake that mysterious phone call off her mind. Why did her mother lower her voice? Or why did she sound so serious? The ‘whys’ inundated her mind throughout the entire journey, until her mother nudged her elbow to motion her to get off the train.
“Make sure you finish up all the spring onions later,” Ning’s mother remarked as they ambled through the housing blocks.
“I’m not going to eat any spring onions,” said Ning. Those words had rolled out of her mouth faster than her mind could stop them.
Ning’s mother glared at her with an expression as stiff as a starched uniform and Ning knew what came after this was going to be torture.
“Ma, I’m going to fail my exams next month. There’s no point for me to eat those awful vegetables,” Ning said, pursing her lips. She cast her eyes on the ground as though something incredible had just skipped across her feet. A group of boys ran past them, yelling, Eh, where are we going ah? Let’s go to the playground. Their voices echoed through the communal void deck.
“And what are you going to do if you fail your exams?”
“Ma, I want to make buns, just like you.”
Ning’s mother closed her eyes and clenched her hands into fists. The last time Ning had witnessed this inscrutable face was three years ago when she returned home from grandma’s place, and had seen her mother sitting on the kitchen stool, staring into nothingness. Ning had pushed open the door to her parents’ room, only to find it in a chaotic mess — a smashed family photo frame was on the floor.
Before Ning could say anything else, her mother walked towards the lift lobby. She was surprised her mother hadn’t rebuked her for speaking out.
* * *
In the kitchen, Ning quickly tore the omelette apart, only to discover an absence of spring onions. She grinned quietly to herself, thinking she had convinced her mother to exclude that awful vegetable.
Later that week, Ning parked herself at the side table in the bun shop, working on her Maths assignment. The afternoon news on the radio blared loudly in the background. She stared at the Pythagoras Theorem question and doodled aimlessly on the foolscap paper until her mind was drawn to her mobile phone. She tapped her TikTok app when, out of the corner of her eye, she saw Mrs Lim peering into the shop.
“Eh, ah girl, so hardworking! Where’s your mummy?” Mrs Lim asked, raising her voice above the static crackling noises.
“Hi, Mrs Lim! She’s in the kitchen making baos with Chen,” Ning replied, pointing towards the back of their tiny shop, where their cramped kitchen was located. “Do you want your usual Char Siew Bao or Big Chicken Bao?”
Mrs Lim, a regular customer of Tan’s Bun Shop for years, beamed upon hearing those words. Ning gave her a wide smile. Mrs Lim rarely hesitated to buy more steamed buns whenever she patronised the shop.
“Just give me five Char Siew Baos and five Big Chicken Baos,” Mrs Lim said.
Ning pulled out the second tier of the bun steamer display cabinet and used a pair of silver tongs to pick those flavours. She enjoyed giving those soft and fluffy buns a little squeeze on the side as she placed them into the polystyrene boxes. She felt that was the least she could do as a daughter – assisting her mother and, at the same time, learning the trade. Halfway through, she heard a series of quick footsteps from behind her and before Ning could turn around, her mother was already standing next to her.
“Go and do your homework. I will help Mrs Lim with her order,” Ning’s mum said as she smoothed away a few strands of hair from her eyes. Ning gently placed the tongs on the table and nodded silently at Mrs Lim, whose face had already become annoyed. Ning grabbed her phone from the table and slunk away.
Inside the kitchen, a stack of large bamboo steamers formed a tower on an industrial stove. They were probably the last batch of assorted steamed buns that would be sold for the day, Ning thought. White steam swirled up in the clammy air.
On the other side, Chen, the ever-loyal shop assistant, was cleaning a dough mixer as he whistled and swayed to a catchy Chinese tune. Originally from Johor, Chen had been crossing the Causeway to work at the shop since Ning was born. Two small portions of leftover dough and a small bowl of barbecue pork were left on the table. Usually, these remnants would be thrown away at the end of the day, as Ning’s mother believed in the freshness of ingredients.
Ning whipped out her phone and filmed the first part of a video, cut out a tiny piece of the dough, flattened it with a wooden rolling pin and filled it with a spoonful of barbecue pork. For the second part, she slowly gathered the pleat of the dough to seal up the filling, but the pleat looked odd. Chen glided towards Ning and commented, “Not bad. But still need a lot more practice.”
Ning hushed him as the video was still recording.
“But you are getting better now. In the past, your baos looked so funny. If I have more time, I can teach you more things,” Chen said, dousing the floor with warm water.
“I’m free on weekends or when Ma goes out to buy Toto,” Ning said enthusiastically.
“No point. I’m going to look for a new job.”
“Why? Has Ma found someone to replace you?” Ning asked, giving a quizzical look.
“She didn’t tell you anything?” Chen asked. Ning shook her head. “Your ma is going to sell this shop.”
Words became trapped in Ning’s throat. The air grew cold. Sell the shop? Why would her mother even consider selling it? Those questions whirled in her mind like a gale barrelling through an open field. Ning’s mother had barely scraped through her secondary school education. In her teens, she had repeatedly failed her exams and, like any hot-headed teenage girl with raging hormones, she got involved with boys and bad company. She eventually left school at the age of 15, much to her mother’s chagrin. No amount of words could persuade her to return to school, until her grandma received a call from the police late one afternoon, informing her that her granddaughter had been involved in a gang fight which had led to the accidental death of an elderly passer-by.
Ning’s mother was sent to a probation home for girls for two years. It was at that place where she had encountered a God-loving youth worker who persuaded her to think about her future and about the people who loved her. Upon her release from the girls’ home, Ning’s mother trudged home, only to discover her family wanted nothing to do with her. Out of kindness, they provided her a bed in which to sleep. Due to her bad record and a lack of qualifications, she worked several odd jobs to get by, until a kind elderly man who owned a steamed bun shop had taken her in and imparted his bun-making skills to her.
Those thoughts were interrupted when she heard a loud shriek floating from the shop front. Ning stepped out of the kitchen and caught Mrs Lim flinging her arms at her mother, remarking, “Crazy woman! You think your bao shop is the best in Singapore, is it?’ If not for your daughter, I wouldn’t even step into your shop.” Mrs Lim spat on the ground before stomping off.
“She thinks she is a big shot! Everyone must kowtow to her,” Ning’s mother fumed, slapping the thick receipt book on the counter. It didn’t come as a surprise to Ning, as Mrs Lim was probably one of those disgruntled customers her mother had offended on a regular basis. Ever since Ning’s father had abandoned the family on the day her mother stared into nothingness, business had gone downhill. Multicoloured graffiti had repeatedly been sprayed across their shop’s rolling shutter with words like, O$P$ and Go to hell! Ning’s mother had surmised the vandalism was the loan sharks’ doing.
Already bestowed with the moribund steamed bun shop and heavily burdened with two young children, Ning’s mother balanced her life between reviving the shop and paying off her good-for-nothing ex-husband’s mounting debts. Ning witnessed the relentless spirit of those loan sharks sauntering into their shop on random sultry afternoons. The men, no younger than twenty-five years old, had blond hair and a uniformed phoenix tattoo on their forearms. They appeared harmless at first but what came out of their mouths was nothing but coarse language. This had led Ning’s mother to a nervous breakdown, and she eventually became short-tempered.
As years went by, customers dwindled. Ning found herself greeted by bags of cold steamed buns at home every day. Ning’s mother always shrugged it off with, “We made so many baos today. These were the leftovers.”
* * *
“But Ma, Mrs Lim was just…”Ning protested, still holding on to her phone. Her mother quickly interjected.
“Stop playing with your phone. What’s the point of doing all those videos? Can earn money or not? Ning, my friend just recommended me a tutor for you. She said he’s a very good tutor. Can teach you Maths. I know it’s too late but at least he can teach you what he can.”
Ning gasped. Tutor? But how could her mother afford it?
* * *
Ning’s head weighed a ton when her best friend, Farah, rambled on about her latest TikTok and Instagram videos during recess. She raved about the number of views she had garnered in a day. Farah’s monologue suddenly changed subject, and she asked Ning if she’d like to study for their upcoming exams with her after school. Ning knew Farah was the more hardworking person of the two of them. Even her social media videos yielded more views and likes than hers. She forced a lop-sided smile. She wanted to tell her about the shop and the sudden change in her mother’s behaviour, but she couldn’t form the words in her mind. Before Ning could say anything, she saw their form teacher, Madam Nadia, walking towards them. Farah greeted her like any obedient child before slinking away.
Madam Nadia pulled Ning aside to a quiet section of the corridor. She interrogated Ning about the Maths assignment — Ning had completely forgotten about it. She sheepishly replied and said she left it in the shop but it was a lie. Madam Nadia raised her eyebrows sceptically, and with a straight face, she broke the news to Ning that, if she failed her upcoming exams, she would have to repeat another year. Ning acknowledged it with a nod and disappeared, but not before Madam Nadia requested to see Ning’s mother, to which Ning lied that her mother was too busy.
At 8 that evening, Ning’s mother returned to their modest three-room flat with a bag of assorted steamed buns. She was on the phone, speaking in a low voice. She didn’t notice Ning sitting on the sofa watching a variety game show where contestants had to guess the price of household items. Ning quickly lowered the volume of the television, when she distinctively heard her mother saying, “The price is too low. I will consider selling it if the price is higher.”
Ning was about to confront her mother when her brother, Ren, shouted at her for stealing his favourite blue gel pen. Ning glared at him, grabbed his pen from the coffee table and tossed it to him. Ning’s mother untied the bag of buns and passed her improved steamed Pork bun to them to try. But Ren scrutinised the bag before settling on the lotus flavour bun instead and disappeared into his room. Ning obediently picked the lukewarm bun off her mother’s hands.
She sank her teeth into the bun. The more she chewed, the more she felt a strange and bitter taste on her tongue. She spat out a morsel of the filling and discovered a slimy green vegetable — spring onions! Ning’s mother scolded her for wasting the filling as she and Chen had spent the whole afternoon improving the flavours. A strange feeling inexplicably invaded Ning, and in one swift movement, she ripped the bun apart and threw it on the floor.
About the Book: Crocodiles in the city, street food fandom, a psychic club meeting in a Penang beach resort. Asian Anthology: New Writing Vol. 1 is a showcase of short stories and place writing by both new and more established prize-winning writers. Some unexpected, a few surreal and others traditional, these are 23 compelling stories of irony, humanity and satire, exploring a range of subject matter to reveal a glimpse of modern Asian society and culture: a funeral in India, a hotel encounter in Japan, a sleepless night in Hong Kong. Modern themes such as the chilling consequences of the environmental impact of logging, deforestation and the barbarism of the shark’s fin soup delicacy press on our collective conscience. In the pieces on place writing, the outsider’s view gives insight into the white-guy-in-Asia trope: backpacker, courier and expat company manager. But no Asian fiction is complete without stories of food, family conflict, redemption and reconciliation. Surprising and entertaining, this anthology captures the paradox of richness, diversity and humour that is Asian culture.
Contributors: Rumaizah Abu Bakar, Patrick Burns, Cheung Louie, E.P. Chiew, Mason Croft, MK Eidson, Marc de Faoite, Jenny Hor, Nenad Jovancic, Lynett Khoh, Doc Krinberg, V.S. Lai, Ewan Lawrie, Winston Lim, Y.K. Lim, Yvonne Lyon, Sandeep Kumar Mishra, Ivy Ngeow, Krishnaveni Panikker, Sylvia Petter, Shafiqah Alliah Razman, San Lin Tun and Yang Ming.
Editor/Author’s Bio: Ivy Ngeow was born and raised in Johor Bahru, Malaysia. She holds an MA in Writing from Middlesex University, where she won the 2005 Middlesex University Literary Press Prize out of almost 1500 entrants worldwide. Her debut, Cry of the Flying Rhino (2017), was awarded the International Proverse Prize in Hong Kong. Her novels include Overboard (2020) and Heart of Glass (2018). She lives in London.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL