HY4227: Sources of Singaporean History was one of the weird, incredibly enjoyable classes I took as a History major at NUS. By zeroing in on just ONE year in Singaporean history, and using every source we could reasonably locate about the year, we were tasked to research on, and present our findings about selected topics and themes. The final assignment of this class required us to utilise our historical imaginations to write a short story.
Being a science-fiction nut, and working with a window of just four days, I produced Flying Solo, a story about a time-travelling bio-anthropologist who comes to Singapore to interview the animals of Singapore (yes, it’s weird – that’s the point right?).
Save the flights of fancy to plug the gaps in the historical and journalistic record, every detail in this story – from the historical personage of Amy Johnson, to her flight schedule, to the 24+ hours she had in Singapore, to the ivory elephant she carried with her, to the pineapple skins eaten by the poor cattle in St. Michael’s Estate, to the weight of the last tiger of Singapore, to the twakow boats which used to ply the Singapore River – has been drawn from newspaper reports, books and photographs. I hope you will enjoy this story as much as I reveled in its writing.
She will tell them it was the weather.
Amie Jon-Son decides this as she banks her Gipsy Moth hard to port. Jason, her de Havilland DH.60 Gipsy Moth, gives an excited shudder as it swings parallel to the northeast coast of Singapore.
The reason why she has taken two days to cover the 1,000 miles from Bangkok, she will tell the press, is the “so absolutely dreadful” weather caused by the South West Monsoon. Yes: the headwinds, very bad visibility and rain.
Not the fact that she had landed in Singora to interview a Siamese buffalo.
It is the 18th of May, 1930, and a warm afternoon breeze brushes against Amie’s face, blowing from the Straits of Johor. So close to the island, there is a faint, vegetable smell underneath the salt tang of the sea. Amie bites her lip, trying to contain the sudden bloom of excitement inside her. Singapore, finally! She feeds more fuel into the engines. She squints hard against the blinding flash of the afternoon light on the seawater, steering the slow, clumsy machine carefully. The Moth was always a difficult beast at low altitudes, and she isn’t going to be complacent now.
Jason certainly wasn’t her dear Beagle, she reflects. But then again, you couldn’t compare a 1925 biplane with a 3015 time-travelling, thought-piloted time-craft. She smiles at the absurd comparison, then grimaces. Well, then again, this trusty second-hand de Havilland machine hadn’t failed her as completely as Beagle had…
In 3016, the Faculty of Bioanthropology at the New University of Singapura (NUS) had finally granted Amie Jon-Son permission to resume her fieldwork, this time to go where no time-traveller had gone before, in the pursuit of knowledge. Unlike casual time-tourists, who treated the past like a foreign country merely to be gawked at, academics at the New University of Singapura had taken time-travel to dizzyingly dangerous heights and directions. Historical bioanthropology had been one of these directions.
Oh sure, the past was a foreign country. It was full of strange peoples, with their alien cultures and bizarre rituals. Understanding them on their own terms had always been the work of the anthropologist, and the historian.
But how did animals in the past think?
In the year 3016, this was no longer an absurd question. The biotranslator had revolutionized human-animal communication and animal studies. It synthesised the olfactory, aural and visual cues of lifeforms into a system that allowed humans fluent communication with virtually any organism on earth. But that had not been enough for the researchers at Singapura. Unsatisfied even with the prodigious leaps they were making, they wanted to find out how animals in the past saw the world.
Amie had thrown herself into the field, going further and further back in time with each bound. She’d published a whole set of papers in the emerging discipline, and she was finally starting to get some attention. She’d told the stories of the Great Bee Die-off; she’d listened to the last penguins before the Polar Extinctions of 2027. She’d allowed the voices of the past to be heard by the peoples of the present.
This expedition had been meant to secure her academic tenure. She had been scheduled to go back to 1888, when Alfred Wallace was travelling in the Malay Archipelago. The intent was to interview both the great naturalist, and to collect the words and viewpoints of Malayan wildlife along the way. That had been the plan.
But then Beagle had malfunctioned and crashed, tumbling crazily out of the timestream into 1903 Yorkshire, England. Following emergency protocol, Amie had gone into hiding, and created a whole new identity for herself.
It had taken her 27 long years. But she was finally back in the Malayan Archipelago, in Singapore under the guise of a “record-breaking solo flight from Britain to Australia”. She had returned, back to her birthplace! Albeit two thousand years prior.
The two seaplanes from the Singapore Flying Club which have come up to escort her peel off from formation, giving her room to circle over, and survey the Seletar aerodrome. From the air the landing site is a fat, verdant oval. The sun is warm on her skin, and Jason is handling smoothly in the thick tropical air.
After so long, she reflects exultantly, she can finally return to the field.
St. Michael’s Estate
“Yesterday…after giving a few words of instruction regarding her plane Miss Johnson followed her host into a two-seater and was driven off to the Officer’s Mess…after she had partaken of a much-needed meal, Miss Johnson was anxious to get done with a vast amount of work.”
– The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 19 May 1930.
The trees are golden in the late afternoon light. The thick, dense smell of greenery hangs heavy in the air. Safe for the gentle murmurs of buffalo and the resonant clanks of their crude bells, the tranquillity hangs like a heavy blanket over the moment. A cow moos contentedly.
In the distance, there is a growing tremor, a ripple in the fabric of the late afternoon, a deep thrum beneath the susurrus of the day’s calm. The tremor grows into a growl; the growl grows into a roar, and suddenly the beast comes into clarity: a sprightly, excited animal set on four wheels, whining like a mosquito, sprinting down the crude dirt track. The pastoral peace fractures into kinetic noise, and the acrid odour of hot rubber.
A few cows peer over nonchalantly.
The quivering, growling bus disgorges a small, sun-burnt figure clad in shorts and a white jacket. Her face is hidden by a huge pith helmet. The passengers of the vehicle cannot help but gawk at this strange vision. Such a well-dressed angmoh, on a mosquito bus! What a sight! And a female one at that! She rummages for a moment, and then passes ten cents distractedly to the bemused bus driver. The fare was three cents, and Gopal Veerasamy would have charged her six. Being magnanimous, however, he settles for ten with a grunt.
Amie notices the puzzled, awed stares of the other passengers, but she has no choice. There has been no time to put together a disguise this time. She would need to leave Singapore by dawn, if she were to keep to her schedule. There was still so much land (and sea) to cover. With the self-maintenance sub-routines she had implanted into Jason, the Gipsy Moth would repair itself. But data collection would require more time.
She has come to interview the buffaloes living in the great cattle sheds of St. Michael’s Estate. Already she has collected the experiences of Siamese Cattle in Singora, where she’d put the plane down at 2.45pm yesterday, claiming a loose engine cowl. Now she needed the words – if words were the right term– of a buffalo from 1930 Singapore. She could already picture the comparative thesis: “The Experiences of Siamese Cattle in 1930 Singora and Singapura”. Once she got back.
If she got back.
Amie bites her lip, trying to choke back the momentary stab of homesickness. It has been twenty-seven years since Beagle stalled and crashed. The time-craft is still repairing itself. But in the meantime, there is still work to do. She grits her teeth and takes a deep, trembling breath. She is an academic, after all. And this is what you carry on with. When in the Field, record.
An image of little Damian, just three months old, and his little grasping hands, bawling his head off, as she’d clambered into the cockpit of the time-traveller. She should have held him longer, that one last time. She should have breathed in his baby-smell and remembered it better. She should have –
Amie stops. She takes a juddering breath. No. When in the Field, record. Plenty of time to collapse later. There is work to be done.
She grits her teeth, and clutches the biotranslator even more tightly. She steps into the fields briskly, striking for the biggest cluster of buffalos she can find. Someone will speak to her.
This two-leg says that its glowing stone can allow me to speak to you. That it can record a message home. I do not know how true that is, because we all know how dishonest two-legs can be. I was afraid of her, just like I am afraid of all the other two-legs. But she spoke to me in our language, and told me about her strange powers. I have never heard a two-leg speak in our language. I thought there can be no harm in telling you about my life at this new home.
Mae, the first thing you must know is that I am fine. I am safe here now, although life here is not very easy, nor very comfortable. There is no need to worry. The two-legs who guard over us and prevent us from running away, some of them are cruel. Some of them hit us very regularly, and then they laugh. It seems to give them pleasure, to hit us. I have been beaten several times now since I arrived.
When we first arrived, after so many days across the Big Water, we were driven across the city. It was a terrifying experience Mae, and I still remember it. This was the biggest, noisiest place I have ever seen. If we didn’t want to move, the two-legs that were near us would twist our tails until we continued moving, or hit us and call us names. I remember being hit then, because I was so terrified. The two-leg next to me beat me with his hand, and with his stick, although I could smell his fear. So many noises, so many smells, so many different two-legs with so many different skins! Every time I stopped, they would hit me. But, wow, I saw so many things Mae, I think you wouldn’t believe me now even if I told you!
And oh, how strangely they smelled. I could smell so many things in the air that hot afternoon they drove us across the city! Manure, urine, the emotions and desires of two-legs – those we are familiar with, we have smelt them in our fields. But there were other things: the stink of petrol (blood of those shiny beasts), the smell of open flesh (the blood of ours), the odour of open drains…the first time, it was all so confusing, Mae. There were so many of their shiny, wheeled vehicles, growling and roaring away, like the tiger we heard some nights out in the darkness, the one that took Older Mother so many months ago. It was so difficult not to panic, and I wished you were there so I could be less frightened.
After that first time, it was not so bad. We have become used to it. Now, we live some distance from all that noise and fear, in attap sheds. The place we live in here, it is not so good, but there is nothing we can do.
For example, the food is atrocious. The grass is more worms than grass! It is disgusting. Sometimes they feed us with pineapple skins. Have you ever eaten pineapple skins? It is a strange thing I have not tasted until I came here. I am not so sure I like it so much. When I eat it the two-legs come and squeeze my udders more, and it hurts, so I do not want to eat so much of these strange skins.
We are bathed here only every two weeks, because sometimes there isn’t so much water here for us to wallow in. We are hence filthy. The weather is very hot, and because there are not so many trees, we just sit in the sun, hoping for some clouds. At night, when it is cold and dark, we go back into the attap sheds, driven by the two-legs inside. The attap shed smells very bad, because everything we pass out, it is still there, and the two-legs do nothing about it. It is difficult to breathe inside our sleeping area, but I have learnt not to complain too much.
I hope you are well, Mae and not missing me! Life is not too good here, but don’t worry too much. One day I will come back and tell you more stories about my time here in this strange place, with the two-legs. One day, I will cross back over the Big Water to find you again.”
Amie nods in satisfaction as the recording replays in high-fidelity on on the biotranslator. The device is shaped like a small ivory elephant, and it glows as it completes its task. That meddling Free Press journalist had even noticed that, so she’d had to tell him it was a memento from her mother, a factoid the fool had gratefully scribbled down. Let thee Press believe what they wanted.
She looks at the fading light, and then at the rain tree growing along the side of the track. Its myriad little leaves are closing, even as she peers over at them. Pukul Lima, the Malays call this Central American tree, imported here by the British in several decades ago. Five o’clock, for the way the leaves of this tree closed at sunset. There is time enough to interview one more creature.
Choa Chu Kang
The great beast’s eyes glow in the darkness, and Amie has to fight a primal horror in her lizard brain to run. The cat growls in such a deep rumble that Amie struggles to hold back a scream. She can feel the goosebumps all over her body rise, unbidden.
She is sitting in the thick jungle with the last tiger of Singapore. Several kilometres distant lies Choa Chu Kang village, and she can see it from this hill. A while ago, she saw the distant lights of the village flicker out, one by one. It is almost midnight, and she is speaking to one of the last great beasts of the forest, illuminated by a waning moon. She had watched the moon rise only about twenty minutes ago. The night’s chill is sharp on her exposed arms, but there is a part of her that is exhilarated and alive. She is speaking to a tiger, a long-extinct apex predator!
In the last extant forests of Singapore, Amie has just foretold the fate of its last tiger: it will die on the afternoon of 26th of October, 1930, five months from now, not far from this spot in the jungle; Death will come to this beast by gunshot. Instead of rage or contempt, she is surprised that her words are met with only an inscrutable silence.
A night-bird murmurs in the velvet darkness.
“What you are telling me of my future. I… am not surprised,” The beast growls softly, snapping Amie out of her reverie. “It was only a matter of time. It has been years, a long time now, since I have smelled, heard or seen many other tigers on this island. Our homes have been vanishing. Our food has been vanishing. And slowly, we have vanished along with all these things that make us tigers.”
“Could you…could you tell me more?” Amie asks timidly.
The tiger turns its colossal head to look at her. Amie knows from her research that it will weigh no more than 130 kilograms and measure about 2.5 metres in length at death, months from now. But up close the animal is massive. In the moonlight it dominates her whole vision. She can feel the fierce heat of its breath. The dank odour of rotting meat makes her choke back her nausea. Its eyes are piercing, deep pools of cold light as they contemplate her.
“Tell you more? Child, you carry that glowing stone, and I see that it gives you wisdom. Can you not see this simple fact?” There is a long pause. Amie looks away.
“I am the last of my kind. We have lived here for longer than your people have been here. In the past, when the forest was young, we would take the form of your people, and live amongst you sometimes. The orang Melayu recognised us for who we were.”
Amie gives a start. So the myths were true. She had read legends of were-tigers in Javanese court records and shamanistic rituals, yes. But to hear it confirmed by a tiger too…it was incredible! Her academic curiosity trembled just beneath her reflex terror.
“But the forest is gone, and so is our magic. My people have all been trapped, shot apart by your sharp sticks and fire sticks. I don’t know what new tuju-tuju you have found. But a great calamity befell us sometime in the last hundred years, and your people started coming into our sacred spaces. The more we tried to oppose you, the more you only returned, with greater weapons. Do you know there is a… a Zoo on this island now? They snatched my tiger cubs from me, and put them in that wretched place. They took my children,” the tiger rumbles in a soft voice wracked with grief. “I couldn’t even comfort them. I don’t know where they are now.”
Damian. I didn’t even get to comfort Damian one more time too.
Amie’s throat is full. She feels so tired suddenly. She doesn’t want to listen anymore, but the beast is not finished yet.
“You come into the deep forest, and tell me the exact day of my doom. Well, Child, I have lived with that ghost for a long time now. They shot my mate earlier this year, when he dared to go into your suburbs and your homes. I watched them destroy him with fire sticks. I watched them etch the moment with flash boxes, weigh him. From a distance, I saw them cut him open, and butcher him, squabbling over how much he was worth. Do you know how that feels, Child?”
Somewhere, the frogs have begun to chirrup incessantly.
“You tell me that I am the last. You are only telling me something I already know. Now be gone. Enough! I have listened enough to things I already know!”
The tiger gives a roar that knocks Amie backward with its power. Even without the biotranslator she would have recognized the note of raw distress in it. There is a sudden, pungent musk in the air that stings her nose. Automatically the biotranslator tells Amie the odour is one of…of grief-anger. Some emotions are too big to be spoken.
After a while, a night-bird burbles again in the velvet darkness. The frogs resume their cheeping.
Slowly, tentatively, Amie gets up to go. But the tiger barely notices. She turns to look back one last time at the magnificent animal. She will never see this animal again, in the forests of the night: its distinct, hot odour, its ragged panting.
In daylight, its stripes would have been jagged, fierce strokes against a rich, saffron-khaki coat. In darkness, all she can see is an indistinct shape melding, fading into the impenetrable night as she stumbles away.
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
Mouth of the River
The crack of dawn has spilled a bluish tinge into the inky firmament. The moon has nearly waned to a semicircle; in a few days, the earth’s shadow will consume its brilliance fully into half. From where Amie sits, the horizon is beginning to lighten, daubed by a few clouds and serrated by the masts of a hundred ships, slumbering in the Outer Harbour. Even in her undergraduate days, back in 3002, the mouth of the Singapore River had always been a favourite place to contemplate the sunrise. Some things didn’t change so much, even if you travelled more than two thousand years back in time. She has come here to bid farewell to her birthplace.
She sits under the angsana trees, listening to their animated murmurs in the wake of a sudden dawn breeze. Anderson Bridge sprawls behind her, linking this side of the river with the newly-minted Fullerton Building, only two years young in 1930. The monstrous, towering structure seems to glare back sullenly at her, looking for all the world like the colonial artifice that it represents. Amie smiles. Sometimes even buildings and things acquired a personality, given enough time and history.
She turns back to gaze out on the harbour. All around are the sounds of a Singapore awakening. There is the distant clank-clank of punt poles, accompanied by the soft, peaceable growl of Hokkien being spoken. She recognizes the accents in the pre-dawn darkness. It is perhaps four in the morning, and the lightermen of the River have already started another day of backbreaking labour. In a few years, Amie reflects, this serenity will vanish, as they begin fitting motors into their twakow boats.
She takes a deep breath: taking it in, taking it all in. Even the acrid stink of the polluted river. She had landed only yesterday, on the 18th of May. Today, she must take to the sky again. The 19th of May will be a clear day. She knows this with the benefit of knowing the future. But she can see it too. There are only a few vague smears in the brightening sky. In a few hours, she will need to leave Singapore.
The newspapers think she will alight in Surabaya, East Java. But she has already marked out a sugarcane plantation at Tjomal, near Pekalongan. There is a Javanese tiger waiting to be tracked down, and interviewed there. This time, she will blame a lack of petrol. She has planned it all out.
In a few hours, she will need to leave Singapore again. She wonders when she will return.
Damian. I didn’t even get to hold Damian one more time.
“You will return, you know. Stop wallowing.”
Amie nearly falls over in surprise. The ivory elephant is gripped tightly in her hands, but she nearly drops it in her astonishment. It is a crystal voice, a voice made of a thousand other voices: of the labours of the lightermen, the songs of the Bugis sea-traders, the chorus of the klings.
The river chuckled at the woman’s surprise. It wasn’t a metaphor. Through the biotranslator, Amie listened as the waterway spoke, its many voices momentarily melding into one when a thought surfaced. Sometimes even buildings and things acquired a personality, given enough time and history. The river chortled in pleasure at her realization.
“Yes, Child. I am here. I can speak, and I recognize you. Did you think that only you orang botak could travel back in time?”
Amie is speechless, as the biotranslator weaves smell, sound, sight into meaning, meaning that flowed into her mind. It cannot happen. It should not happen. A river…but why not? It had its arteries, its little internal systems, its secret rhythms, after all. Meaning streams in like a deluge.
“I have seen you a thousand years hence, sitting by my banks. I recognise you, child of the universe. You have always been a sensitive one, a special orang botak to me. And I want to tell you that things will be alright. I sense a great melancholy in you, yes? Yes?”
Amie nods tentatively, a rising glow in her heart.
“Let me tell you a story, Amie Jon-Son. A story of me. My banks, which you like to sit along, did not always look like this. Once, they were draped with a blanket of greenery. There were crocodiles and otters and heron here. Mangrove swamps. Elephants. The harimau stalked my shores for deer.”
“Then some orang malayu came, and they built their kampongs, built a wall. They made kings of themselves, and left a great stone. Then they left, and after that the orang putih came, just several decades ago. They have changed my face dramatically. Then more orang…orang from all over the world started to come to my banks. First the orang india with their dhoni boats, and now the orang cina with their twakows, swarming up my entire length with their hopes and dreams and fears, like a great colourful blanket over me, even as they poison and pollute my body. But I am still here. In a thousand more years, I will still be here. My point, child, is that…”
Far away in the Outer Harbour, a ship’s horn blares. She can hear a hawker now, bawling his trade to bleary customers. A seabird wheels in the changing sky. Dawn is coming.
“My point, child, is that I still persist. And so will you. I know you have been too long in this strange place. I know the past is an alien country. But as the river returns to the sea, so too shall you one day. Do not mourn for Damian, Amie Jon-Son. He is still waiting for you. Take heart. There’s a place that will stay within you, wherever you may choose to go.”
Amie blinks back tears, nodding. She recognises the ancient song that the bard Dickli had composed, unsurprised by now that the river knows them too.
“Thank you. I -I must go.” Amie stuttered, her heart too full to say anymore. The river gurgled its assent, its colour already being dyed by the hues of the rising sun.
The river would always flow.
At eight o’clock on 19 May 1930, Amy Johnson and her Gipsy Moth took off from the Seletar aerodrome. After several delays due to bad weather and fuel shortages, Johnson finally reached Port Darwin, Australia on 24 May 1930, completing a solo flight of 11,000 miles. She was the first woman to fly alone to Australia from Britain.
On 5 January 1941, while flying from Prestwick, England, Amy Johnson’s aircraft reportedly ran out of fuel in bad weather, crashing into the Thames Estuary.
Johnson’s body, and the ivory elephant she always carried with her, was never found. The reasons for her death remain a government secret to this day.
Again, as in May 1930, she would tell them it was the weather.
This story’s protagonist was inspired in part by a class presentation on air travel in 1930 Singapore. Further research turned up details from the Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, which followed Amy Johnson’s audacious solo flight from Britain to Australia closely. What initially began as a search for an anchoring character developed into an obsession with gaps and silences in Amy Johnson’s odyssey across time and space. This story presents another dimension to that epic voyage across space and time. The story of the cattle was drawn from “Filth”, a letter written by a concerned citizen to the Municipality on 12 June 1930 that described the abject conditions which cattle were living in. The story of the last tiger(s) of Singapore are drawn from several sources: Barnard and Emmanuel’s essay on the “Tigers of Colonial Singapore” in Nature Contained, a newspaper article on five tiger cubs at the Punggol Zoo in January 1930 and two newspaper reports from the Malayan Saturday Post (on 1 March and 8 November, accompanied by photographs), about two tigers shot in Singapore. I have refrained from giving human names to my animal characters deliberately. The details of the Singapore River and its lightermen come from Dobbs’ The Singapore River: A Social History. The photographs used are taken from the National Archives, and were used as inspiration for where Amie would contemplate the sunrise. The lyrics of song by “the bard Dickli” come from the National Day song written by the Singaporean composer, Dick Lee, while the closing lines of the ‘Tiger’ scene are drawn from William Blake’s poem, “The Tyger”.
So if you care to find me
Look to the Western sky!
As someone told me lately
Everyone deserves the chance to fly
And if I’m flying solo
At least I’m flying free
To those who ground me
Take a message back from me:
Tell them how I am defying gravity
I’m flying high, defying gravity
– Elphaba Thropp