Lim Oh Kee kills himself in the early hours on the 12th day of December, 1921.
His last meal is rice and nothing. His last words are that by tomorrow (by today), he’ll be gone. He dies by hanging. He cannot afford to buy rope for an occasion like this. Instead, it’s a scavenged piece of cord that’s wrapped around his neck when his son finds him, suspended from a door along the five foot way. He’s blocking foot traffic but it doesn’t matter, because the route itself is barely used.
No one knows whether he aimed to be considerate, even in death, or if he simply picked the nearest available option. His son (little, eleven, and living with his friend, Chuan) was not the first to discover him, only the first to recognize him. In the very short, very brief report on Lim Oh Kee’s death made by the Coroner, it’s noted that he has been out of work (like so many people have been out of work) for some time. It’s noted that he’s been ill (like so many people have been ill) for longer. He has – he had – nowhere to live. The door he hung from wasn’t even his own.
He looked starved. He was starved.
Lim Oh Kee was not the first person in the area to die like this, and he won’t be the last. Plenty of people have beaten him to the proverbial punch. The day before his death, another man hanged himself. A week before that, a woman drowned herself in the river. A month before that, another slit her own throat. Six months prior and there are more crimes, more murders, more deaths. Some are caused by fights between gangs. Some are cheap, stupid ones. Others are planned, deliberate and carefully orchestrated.
No one of any importance cares about Lim Oh Kee’s, though, because no one of any importance knew he even existed.
This is Singapore.
Crime has gone up, but crime is always going up. It’s bad, but it’s not as bad as other, more important things, like the price of food, going up. That’s bad too, but not as bad as the price of opium going up. That’s really bad.
It’s hard to tell if the reason everything is going to what seems a whole lot like hell is because more people are reporting things to the police and everything is getting recorded in greater detail or if it’s because things are actually worse in general. The truth is, things are worse in general.
Seventy-nine years from now, at the turn of the next century, the leaders of Singapore will honour the hardworking men and women on whose aching backs their glorious nation-city-state was built. They were very good people, the leaders will say, who came from their hometowns in China chasing some glorious dream. They were entrepreneurs who planted pineapple farms; they were brilliant doctors who were willing to sacrifice everything they had before (which was next to nothing) for all the opportunities that Singapore afforded them (still next to nothing). They came from every walk of life, besides the ones that Asians weren’t allowed to tread. Museums will showcase exhibitions about their lives and the hardships they faced. Children will be asked to interview their grandparents about them. Their lives will form an integral part of the Singapore StoryTM.
Unfortunately for Lim Oh Kee, this is not seventy-nine years later. This is not even forty years later, or thirty.
This is now, when even opium, desirable as it is, is starting to be a hard sell at sixty out of the eighty cents that the average coolie earns each day.
Lim Oh Kee does not qualify for the Contingency Relief Fund, the Destitute Seamen’s Relief Fund, the Indian Coolies Fund, the Tamil Immigration Fund, the Widows and Orphans’ Pension Fund or any protection ordinances. This isn’t actually a serious problem for him, because even if he did, he wouldn’t have applied for them anyway.
It’d be difficult to do something like that, when he doesn’t even know that they exist.
He does know about the Societies, though, and the various clan Hway Kuans that provide help to people in need. He’s heard of a free hospital for people like him but he doesn’t trust hospitals and he doesn’t think they will help. Sure, a lot of Chinese people go to hospital, he tells his friend Chuan, who has come over with his son, but they’re a different type of Chinese people.
Chuan, sitting next to Lim Oh Kee, listens, nods, agrees, and then asks him: What about the free one?
It’s still a hospital, Lim Oh Kee replies. And he’s not Cantonese, he says, because this explains everything.
It doesn’t, actually – not everything, but there’s enough in there that his friend (whose wife passed away in a hospital a month back, who didn’t understand why, only that she did, who says he wasn’t angry with her and who genuinely never understood why she tried to kill herself) nods and says that he understands. They’re Hokkien, not Cantonese. This matters. He gets it.
Besides, people die in hospitals. That’s not so good. A lot of people die outside of hospitals, too, but that’s natural. That’s different. If they were going to die or if they wanted to die or if they had nothing left to do but to die, then the death houses on Sago Street would have been happy to welcome them, for the price of what they had left. But hospitals . . . hospitals are different. Since they were introduced to Singapore by Europeans, they will always be different. The only thing that matters is how, and why, and whether people can afford to be different.
Right now, not many can.
Lim Oh Kee shakes his head at that, says he heard of a family that ran a store selling paper goods to people who wanted to pay their respects where two uncles and a son died in short succession. It bankrupted them, to pay their respects to the various deceased properly. This, he says, is a bad time to die if you’re rich. It’ll cost you, he says. But if you’re poor and you couldn’t afford anything to begin with, you lose nothing. It’s a better time to die if you’re poor.
Chuan says it’s always a bad time to die.
Lim Oh Kee isn’t so sure about that, but he pats his son on the head and gives him a brief hug before he goes.
He’s not quite starving, but he will be soon.
The thing about Singapore in 1921 is this. If you’re the average person (Chinese, male, somewhere in your twenties or older – but not too much older if you’re going by the median), then you’re probably working an average job that pays you barely enough to get by.
This is not actually a bad life, or a bad salary.
You could live on it, probably. You could maybe raise a family on it. A small family with not too many children. But here’s the thing: the way prices have been looking, the way the cost of everything – from rental and lodging to coffee to night soil – has increased; you won’t be doing much more than just living on your salary. There’s no saving, there’s no sending home, there’s no maybe doing something else in the future.
You have to work because you came here to work. You probably can’t read, but that’s fine, you can find someone to read things out loud for you (for money). You sometimes dream about wanting to go back to where you grew up, but if you don’t have the money then you can’t and if you did have the money, why would you ever want to? If you have the money (you don’t), this place is quite nice.
If you were an average person and had the money, you wouldn’t worry so much about your life. You’d be able to pay for the opium that you need but can’t afford. You’d be able to pay for something that would make a real difference or that you really want – maybe a generator – because you have the money. Maybe an expensive raincoat, just so you don’t get wet outdoors. Maybe chicken, for once. You haven’t eaten chicken in months.
But you don’t have the money. What you are is – you’re a coolie, a physical labourer. You wake up at five sharp every morning and are out of the door by a quarter to six. Your life is drudgery, mostly, there’s very little thinking involved. You get by, because you’ve always got by. You don’t like to think about what would happen if you lost your job or if you fell ill or if you couldn’t work, because every other person you see on a regular basis is a hell of a lot like you, and all they want is the work you’re doing and all they need is half a chance to take your job. If something like that happens, you think, maybe you’ll kill yourself.
Find some rope, loop it around your neck, tie the other end to a doorframe and drop yourself right down. Suspension hanging, as opposed to the long drop method practiced in the prisons. It’s easier to do and there’s less chance of an accidental decapitation. Either way, though, you’d still be dead at the end of it. A miserable corpse for someone else to find.
Meanwhile, you’re still thankful for what you have.
You should be. You’re one of the lucky ones.
You still have a door.
Lim Oh Kee’s son doesn’t want to leave.
It’s not as if there’s much of a choice, though. His son can’t stay with him not because he doesn’t want to be with the boy, or because he thinks the boy is worse off around him. It’s not like that. His son can’t stay because there’s nowhere for his son to stay.
It’s a simple enough problem. Their savings have run out and even the rent for a room shared with five (or six, or seven) other men is too much for someone like him and a child who can’t even earn money yet. Maybe if he had another year, if his son was twelve instead of eleven, someone would hire him.
There isn’t another year.
He pats the boy on his head. This is simple; it’s a matter of priorities. Lim Oh Kee doesn’t expect his son to understand, but that doesn’t matter. Right now what matters is keeping his son alive and as well as is possible for him. Paying rent means money that he can’t afford to spend, and what’s the point of having a place to stay when you don’t have food to eat? Even that is limited right now because he can’t work. And assuming he could, who would hire him? There are younger and stronger men with no jobs and no sons.
Sure, there are the triads and the societies, but if he’s too sick then he’s not much use to them either. In any case, he can’t even claim to be able to read or write. His main asset was his strength. Right now, he doesn’t have that.
So he ruffles his son’s hair and sends him off with his friend Chuan and tells him to come by every evening to see him. His son promises he’ll do that. Chuan promises to send the boy over and to come over himself if he can. For a while, Lim Oh Kee gropes for something to say to his son. There isn’t much that comes to mind. He’s already told the boy not to be a bother.
Drink milk, he says, finally. It’ll keep you healthy.
Chuan says, when he comes by a few days later, come live with me, it’s better than out here. Your son already does. You’re not working anyway; don’t you want to be closer to him?
Lim Oh Kee looks at the money he has left. There’s not much.
I can’t pay for anything, he says.
You pay for opium, Chuan replies.
There’s a pause and Chuan sighs.
Of course life isn’t like that for everyone.
This is the early 1920s. What an exciting time it is! Newspapers, previously the domain of the Western colonial, are starting to be written and set up by Asians. The Fookien Times, in the Philippines and the Malaya Tribune in Singapore. For Asiatics, by Asiatics is the slogan and all across the region there’s never been anything like this before.
Somewhere in there is a story staring Dr Lim Boon Keng as he struggles to set up a paper that caters to the English-speaking Asians. He faces challenges and difficulties of all sorts but with the support of the Chinese community behind him, he successfully challenges the way newspapers cater only to Europeans with his new publication. This fledgling start-up, the Europeans who believed in it and worked for it, the negotiations they had to undertake and the audience they had to please, all of that makes a good tale.
Somewhere in there is another story about the colonial subject who struggles with his ethnic identity and his place in a society that calls him second class and will allow him to rise above that due to his birth, and which expects him to fit himself comfortably into the social order. Writers in the future will touch on the strange dichotomy that exists between creating a sense of belonging and forging a national identity where none existed before. They will expound on the slow realization about the inherent injustices that lie at the core of colonial society.
This is all very important to the future. When countries are created based on the legislation and nationalist arguments that the colonial powers have inadvertently introduced to the region, narratives have to be constructed, stories have to be told of the past, linking the people and places and joys and sorrows to the present. Everything that happened built up to this. The nationalists were our nationalists, the coolies were ourcoolies, their stories are our stories.
It’s all very dramatic. But that’s good, people like drama, especially when it’s drama about themselves and it makes them out to be the heroes, or the sons and daughters of heroes – which definitely sounds better than the children of people who never really thought about the future because just getting past the day was good enough for them.
Of course, the important thing to keep in mind is that while all of this is unquestionably important, whether or not the people of that era were aware at all that they were labouring away in someone else’s story is another matter altogether.
The thing about caring is that it doesn’t always go the whole way. Coolies, that’s one thing. The coolies, the people who came, who worked, who suffered so that future generations could survive, those hardy belaboured, labouring men. They’re easy to care for.
That’s another thing entirely.
Lim Oh Kee is not a rich man, but he’s doing well enough. He’s a normal man in many respects – no wife, but a child he feels responsible for and takes care of as best as he can. He doesn’t earn much, but there’s enough for him, his life, his child, his child’s life, and his opium habit.
It’s not a bad habit, he thinks.
Before he came to Singapore, he’d never smoked opium. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t heard about it, of course he had. It was a big issue that important people talked about using big important words. But it was a big distant issue, not one that ever really affected him. Not until he came to Singapore and started working every day until he was tired to the bone, and finished working every day only when he was tired to the bone.
The first time he tries smoking opium, he’s not overwhelmed. It’s a bad drug, he’s heard a lot about how it ruins lives and ruined a country (or helped it along its way to ruin, but that isn’t much better). And yet, all he feels is . . . mellow. Good. Comfortable. All right.
That’s it, he asks, leaning over and looking at his friend. That’s all?
That’s all, his friend says. It’s good.
He can’t disagree with that. Opium isn’t a scary drug; it’s soothing. It doesn’t make him want for things, or put himself in danger, or have visions and bad dreams; it doesn’t scare him or lure him into believing he’s fine when he isn’t, it just calms him. That’s all. And the next day when he wakes up for work he doesn’t hurt as much – it’s not like that one time he got drunk and couldn’t walk straight the following morning – all he feels is OK.
And ‘OK’ is better than ‘normal’.
It isn’t even that expensive, really. Just a few cents here and there, he still has enough of his daily pay left over to buy food and supplies and to save a bit of money. And what else is there for him to do? He has to work hard, for the sake of his son. He never touches alcohol these days. Hasn’t even thought about it for a long while. Opium, though, opium is all right.
He works better on opium, rather than worse. He doesn’t feel sad, doesn’t feel tired, doesn’t hate his life, he’s OK. He can wake up in the morning and go to work, he can come back and smoke opium and tell himself that he can get up the following morning. He can smoke opium and go to work and come back and smoke opium and he’s OK. He can love his son, and opium, he can live like this –
And he’s OK.
Then the few cents-worth of opium isn’t working any more, and he needs money, but it’s no problem. It’s no problem at all. He can afford this. It isn’t that much of an increase, not yet. It will be, in another two months, another three months, but not yet, and when it increases then it’s not going to be that much of an increase compared to what he would be paying by then. It’s not much.
He’s just a normal man, anyway, no wife, one child, enough money, some savings and maybe he has to dip into them now and then but it’s fine if he has opium, everything’s fine, he thinks.
Everything’s fine, he says, when his son asks him how things are. Don’t worry.
The thing about the past is this: no one is really special, unless someone makes them out to be.
At the very start of 1921, a man murders another man over a pot of curry. The case is notable for the detailed investigation that went into it, all of which was recorded in the Coroner’s report on the man’s death. It’s very exciting It has all the elements of a good tragedy. People coming to Singapore to work, the struggles they face in their lives, the hopes and dreams they had and all of that shattered by a senseless, reckless act of violence.
The thing is, that’s it.
Looking over the reports and cross referencing them to several other sources reveals a few things. The first is that there isn’t mention of it in any of the papers. It’s very exciting, but at the time no one wants to read about it, or wants to read about it enough that anyone else would want to write about it.
No one is even sure how old the victim is, or how his name should be written. No one is entirely sure whether the murderer was drunk at the time or not or whether or not it mattered. Time passes, and all that remains is the crime and the records.
It’s a good crime, as crimes go. Saucy, dramatic, tragic, exciting, but there really isn’t much more if it that has been recorded since then. If Gopal (or Gobaloo or Gopaloo or Gobalu) is special in any way to anyone alive now, it’s because he died in a spectacular way over a pretty stupid thing. No one can reasonably claim to know for sure what he dreamt of, or what he wanted to be, or what he hoped for, or what he loved, or if he ever loved, at all.
. . . Unless, of course, someone starts to lie.
Lim Oh Kee comes to Singapore in the early 1900s with nothing but a small package and the clothes on his back. In the package is everything he owns and once he steps ashore he finds friends and contacts and societies that will help him find a job and find a home. The process isn’t easy, but he works hard, he makes friends, he survives. Some years pass, and he finds love, he has a wife, he has a son. He’s happy.
Lim Oh Kee comes to Singapore in the late 1900s with some money and a letter in his pocket that he can’t read. He knows what it says, though, it’s an introduction. He’s supposed to pass it to a person his family knows and they’ll help him find a job and find a home. After a long while, during which he’s young and foolish and does stupid things and makes up for them, he finds love, he has a wife, he has a son. He’s happy.
Lim Oh Kee is born in Singapore in the mid-1880s into a moderately well off family. His parents are merchants. They have him as their son and they’re happy. He knows the basics of reading and writing. When he’s young, one of his uncles dies, then his father dies, then his cousin dies. The family is bankrupted by the expense, and his mother takes him and leaves. He struggles to support her, then, when she dies, he struggles to support himself. Eventually, he forgets everything he learned, remembering the past only in vague terms. Eventually, he finds a new home, a new life, a new job. He even has a wife and a son of his own. He’s happy.
Lim Oh Kee is . . .
Dead, and it’s sometime in December in 1921.
That’s about all anyone can be sure of.
It doesn’t matter how his story starts. This is how it ends.
Lim Oh Kee isn’t special.
He could have any one of a dozen different origin stories, each of them dramatic in their own way. It’s hard to say which would work best for the sake of plot.
Maybe he’s the Struggling Independent Coolie who Dreamed of a Better Life, or the Bearer of his Family’s Dreams who Dies Alone, or even the Tragic Once Rich Son who on His Deathbed Thinks About Everything He Could Have Been. The last one is definitely the most dramatic, the first the most tragic and the second the most bittersweet.
None of that is ever recorded.
The only facts about Lim Oh Kee’s life that are known for sure is that he was forty-five years old when he died, had a son, was starving and hung himself by tying a cord around his neck then tying that to the door of a house on the five foot way where he slept. He was sick when he died, and starving. He had a friend called Guan Chuan who offered to let him stay with him, but refused because he was too ashamed – or so his son says. He worked as a coolie, when he was still healthy. He had a wife, but she died some years before he did.
We don’t even know if he was ever happy at any time ever. I just made that bit up.
I like to think he might have been, once. It makes for a better story, for him to have been happy once and then to lose it all. If his whole life had been miserable, that would just have been a bore to read through. A societal tragedy; not a personal one.
But everything about him here was made up (right down to the opium addiction). It’s not real, but here’s the thing: it could have been. For some people, it was. Maybe not the part where he was married, or had a son, but maybe the part where he had a friend whose help he turned down. Or maybe not that part, but the part where he faced the choice between food and shelter. Or even the part where he had to plan his own death and genuinely thought that it was the right choice.
Lim Oh Kee isn’t special as himself. As someone who symbolizes destitution and poverty, though, he does a decent job, but lots of other people and lots of other stories would do good jobs at that, too. His story doesn’t even have to be set in 1921. Lim Oh Kee could be thirty, in America, in 2012, he could be twenty, in Singapore, in 1980, he could be fifty, in London, in 1840.
But as himself? He’s a man whose last words to his son were ‘tomorrow you will find me gone’.
So here’s the real story of 12 December, 1921.
The weather is (more likely than not) rainy. It’s the monsoon season, after all, so people who sleep out on the streets are miserable. Early in the morning, people are struggling with questions of identity and nation, furiously writing down their thoughts. In some places, they’re waking up before 6 a.m. to head out to get to today’s work, which is exactly like yesterday’s work, which is exactly like the day before yesterday’s work. A man starts on his real breakfast, which is not the same as his morning tea or his tiffin lunch.
As the day rolls on into afternoon, newspapers are sold for five cents and ten cents to a small group of readers who are automatically set apart from the vast majority of people for the sheer fact that they’re buying newspapers. A woman heads to the market to buy food for her family and then instructs her Cookie on what to prepare and how exactly to do it. As the day rolls on into evening, another man tries opium for the first time, and feels good. A movie theatre puts on the latest show, preceded by a few minutes of newsreels. Hawkers pack up their stalls and head home, if they have homes, and to their families, if they have families.
And Lim Oh Kee looks at the cord in his hands, ties it to a doorframe, and decides to kill himself.