When I was little, I was alert to the chimes of our pendulum clock. Its metal plate was stamped Made in Occupied Japan. I hated it when it struck six times every evening, that was the wordless instruction for me to close the louvre windows in the front room upstairs.
I grew up in a shop house, the penultimate in a link of twelve shop lots. From the upstairs stone balcony at the back of it, I could see the Blue Mansion across the muddy field from us. Built in the style of the Imperial Era, this was a stately mansion belonging to a Manchu mandarin, a Consul general to Singapore, Cheong Fatt Tze. The only common feature our shop house had with this impressive building was the age (completed at the turn of the 20th century) and the vernacular timber louvre windows. Oh, do not let me forget the other common feature the houses shared. Both were haunted.
To get to to the upstairs’ front room at six pm was a daily ordeal for me. By that time, all the workers would have already left for the day. When I looked upstairs with sad eyes that showed a great reluctance and regret of my task ahead, I could feel the foreboding heavy cloud descending the stairs, the silent command that no one was to walk past the middle landing. It was not uncommon to sense the sudden whiff of floral perfume wafting from upstairs. A sibling many years later echoed the same suspicion I had, that the alluring scent came from the direction of the Blue Mansion.
To get past the middle landing, I had to run up the staircase at full flight, to break past that heavy invisible barrier. That was the easy bit, I could feel the dark barrier but it never harmed me. To get to the front room was a lot more daunting. The last room never posed a threat, it was basked in warm sunshine for most of the afternoon. The middle rooms were always menacing. In front of the third room’s door was an altar table. The brass joss stick urn was never empty of red stick stumps. Hanging a foot above the altar table which was usually covered with a faint layer of joss ash, was my paternal grandmother’s black and white photo. A handsome woman, the matriarch was unknown to us except for her official status and the commanding stern gaze she gave. A creepy corner, it never failed to make the hair on the back of my neck stand as I ran past her photo. You just knew her eyes followed everyone’s movements. The second room was the scariest. It was forever dark and had that dusty, musky smell of death. It was the most dreaded room, used as a store room for excess kitchen utensils, cutlery, glassware for the dead ancestors improperly mixed with exquisite Japanese tableware. Festive occasions were most enjoyable, with the reappearance of crates of Sarsi and F&N’s but they also meant some of us would have to face the agony of being sent into that room to fulfil the list of required glassware and tableware. A dark room not just in terms of light intensity, equipped with a 5W globe, it would remain dark and menacing even with the lamp on.
What I must not look into as I rush into the front room is the dressing table mirror. I cannot describe what I saw in the mirror, maybe that’s due to the blurry apparitions that caught my eyes or maybe my eyes had the wisdom not to see them clearly. Shutting the louvre windows was usually a breeze unless a breeze catches one and it refuses to shut properly. I’d quickly tell myself it was just the wind, as my back felt as if it was being pierced by a penetrating gaze by something in the room.
Recently, a friend shared his experience with me when they visited the Blue Mansion. Today, it operates as a heritage Straits Chinese eclectic hotel-museum, and has appeared in many movies including the Crazy Rich Asians. With its wonderful architecture and elaborate fittings it is no wonder that my friend and his travelling companions took many photos of their stay there. All those photos have since been deleted, they contained some graphic images of them with people from the early 1900’s, some headless, and some too grotesque to repeat here.
Two years ago, I went back to the building that was the old shop house. Nearing sixty years old by then, I just wanted to see the place where I grew up in. It is now a bar. I asked the staff if I could venture upstairs, just to see the front room. I said, “Is that alright? I shan’t be up there long, just a quick browse and I’ll leave, thank you.” It was a hot mid afternoon, just a couple of tourists were drinking at the bar. The Bangladeshi worker gestured to me to use the staircase which was no longer a timber one in colonial style. Carpeted and awful looking with metal balustrades, I eagerly went up the stairs. Upstairs was dimly lit, smelt of stale tobacco, empty of life, poorly maintained, crammed with empty tables and chairs. The layout resembled nothing that I had kept in my memory, no middle rooms, no front room, no altar table. But the timber louvres were still there. As I gazed at them, I could see that little boy struggling to close them all those years ago. I rushed downstairs as quickly as that little boy did when one of the louvres violently slammed shut by itself. I became the foreboding dark cloud that descended the staircase. Urghhling, it was just the wind, again.