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Chapter One

The migrant bird longs for the old wood,

The fish in the tank thinks of its native pool.

                         DAO CHIEN, ABOUT 400 A.D.


“So this is Singapore city, boy!” said Boon Jin’s uncle.  “Very big, very modern!  You have nothing like this in old China, eh?”


     Boon Jin and his uncle stood on the deck of a P & O liner.  Uncle waved across the harbour, at a skyline of white domes and spires and columns rising against green masses of jungle.  “Nothing like China, eh?” Uncle repeated again.


     “No Uncle,” Boon Jin replied politely.  He remembered the huge foreign buildings in Amoy city, where he had gone to school.  Didn’t his uncle realise that China was rapidly entering the new age?  But he listened respectfully to his elder relative, as a Confucian student should do.


     “You will have to get used to modern ways Boon Jin!” his uncle continued.  He looked at Boon Jin’s hair, tied in a long tail down his back.  “You’re still wearing your queue, so old-fashioned!  My son and his friends at the Anglo-Chinese School have all cut their hair in the Western style.”


“I shall certainly do as you say uncle, if my father approves,” Boon Jin said.  This reply was a little too clever, because Boon Jin’s father was extremely old-fashioned.  He was descended from thirty generations of Confucian scholars, and you couldn’t get any more old-fashioned than that.  Any suggestion of queue-cutting would have infuriated him.


     Uncle knew this perfectly well.  He blew out his cheeks and pursed his lips.  “Boon Jin, in his letter to me, your father says that you are wild and disobedient at home; you have displeased him, and grieved your mother.  You have run with bad company, and spoiled your chances of getting a good government job.  He has sent you to me so that you can learn something useful, and perhaps reform your way of life.”


     Uncle said this in his loud voice, not caring if anyone overhead his criticisms.  Boon Jin listened, screwing up his eyes against the sun, staring at the bright city of Singapore.


     It was the third of February, 1906.  To Tan Boon Jin it was the second day of the second month in the thirty-first year of the Emperor Guang Xu.  Boon Jin was sixteen years old.  The only world he knew was the China shaped by Confucius, which the Chinese Emperors had ruled for three thousand years.  He had no idea that six years from that day, the last of the Emperors would fall from his Dragon throne.


     Boon Jin only knew that it looked as though this strange Southern Ocean country was going to be no better for him than China.  However during the past weeks he had heard so many lectures on his bad character, that when Uncle stopped talking he could make the correct reply in soft tones.


     “I have made grave mistakes, because of youth and ignorance.  With a fortunate opportunity before me, I hope to amend.”


     Uncle seemed satisfied with this.  He talked jovially as he led Boon Jin to a small boat.  They were rowed through the harbour, which was crowded with many steam ships and sailing ships, European craft and Asian.  They approached a large white terminal building jutting out into the sea; they clambered out of the boat, across a space of green water, and climbed up slippery steps to the pier.  So Tan Boon Jin set foot in Singapore for the first time.


     Boon Jin looked around as he mounted the steps, excited to be stepping onto foreign land, though he showed nothing on his face.  There was a long shadowy hall, crowded with men of many races in exotic costumes.  The strangest thing to Boon Jin was that the colours of their faces varied so much, some dark and some very pale.  Their languages hummed around him as he followed Uncle through the crowds.


     Beyond the pier Uncle’s carriage waited, drawn by two stringy horses.  Their driver was a dark-skinned man in a white tunic.


     “Get in, get in.  We’ll go to the house,” Uncle said.  The carriage, after standing in the sun, was a hot leather-stinking oven.  The shades were pulled down against the glare.  Boon Jin could see a little, and with his uncle watching he was not going to peer about.  He sat back and listened to the sounds of wheels clattering and voices shouting.  The hot air was thick with smells, of horse dung and human waste and river mud, and spices sizzling in oil.


     The carriage stopped for a while; Boon Jin saw that it was beckoned on its way, by a tall dark man wearing a turban above a Western-style uniform.


     “Is that a British soldier?” he asked.


     “That’s not a soldier; he belongs to the Englishmen’s Police Force,” Uncle replied.


     “They have police?  They had laws and justice here?” Boon Jin asked.  He knew that this country was ruled by the British; it had not occurred to him that they would have set up a civilized structure of government, with magistrates and law and order.  But his Uncle misunderstood why he asked the question.


     “Listen, boy.  Even though this land is beyond the Chinese Emperor’s rule, don’t think there is no law and order here.  You must behave better than you did at home.  You got into trouble with the police in Amoy!  You should have been thrown into jail for running about with those rebellious students.  You were lucky you were not arrested.  You would have been a disgrace to your family and your father would have disowned you.  Instead of disowning you, he has been so good to you!  He has found you this opportunity to come to a new country, which is under a different law than the Emperor’s, so that you can make a fresh start here.  You should be most grateful to your father, Boon Jin, instead of thinking of being disobedient.”


Boon Jin listened quietly as Uncle continued like this for most of the drive.  Uncle’s tirade was less impressive than the lectures that Boon Jin got from his father, full of quotations and classical allusions so that he felt as though thirty generations of Chinese scholars were all criticising him together.

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