Home > Writing > Shop-house on New Bridge Road, c. 2010

Shop-house on New Bridge Road, c. 2010

Sergeant Derek, in military dress, has just stepped off the train. He is deciding whether to head northeast or to take the walk home. The iPod goes into the small, useful-looking brown canvas pouch slung at his hip. He slings his black duffel on his other shoulder and sets off in another direction altogether.

He surfaces at one of those other exits, this one near the beginning of Chinatown. He knows there is a bus stop somewhere ahead and veers in that direction, but after a few steps he decides he is quite hungry.

By now, he is a little further down the road, and he sees possibility in the sprawl of tables overflowing onto the already narrow-ish sidewalk. Some of the tables are occupied. Only one of the four shop-houses is open.

With three days of having eaten oily canteen food in mind, he ignores the incongruously offered nasi padang, chicken cutlet and oyster omelet, and orders pei dan chok. There are steamable-looking fish swimming around in the tanks near the entrance of the coffee shop, but Sergeant Derek isn’t feeling quite that adventurous, despite how his feet have carried him to where he is. There is a table by the wall.

As he waits for his porridge, Sergeant Derek wishes he had a camera, or, alternatively, prodigious writing talent. He is trying to put his finger on what strikes him about his surroundings, but he can’t quite manage it, so he starts with the apparent. His table is by the wall, and on the wall there are three rows of framed black-and-white newspaper clippings and photographs. They have captions like ‘South Bridge Road with Elgin Bridge in the background, 1941’ and ‘New Bridge Road, circa 1960’. The wall is browned and watermarked, but the prints are new. The frames are black plastic, like those on Sergeant Derek’s spectacles.

His food arrives. They are generous with the you tiao, and he tries one. It is a bit too soft, and he decides he won’t finish the bowl. On the other hand, the porridge tastes good. He suspects the you tiao would have been better earlier in the day.

There is a Channel 8 drama on TV, one of those current ones with young, smiling actors. ‘Channel 8 drama’ used to mean something else, and Sergeant Derek has the strange feeling that the drama on TV is an intruder on the space of the coffee shop, the only thing out of character, or from the wrong era. That was strange as well, because he realizes that everything else in the shop couldn’t exactly be said to match either. The shelf of wooden pigeonholes (eight by eight) for food orders clipped with wooden pegs was next to the Super Cold beer fridge, at -6.1ºC according to the digital readout. The double row of grease-yellowed power sockets were connected to a closed-circuit television system as well as electric altar candles. He is struck by the lack of concept, and struck again by how ridiculous the notion was. What a ridiculous character, this notional Derek in smart No. 4.

He is nearly done with his porridge. They were generous with the century eggs too, and he doesn’t finish the last one. He closes his notebook.

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