Translated from Chinese to English by Jack Hargreaves
‘Dutch Beverage’ is one of three pieces collected in Chia Joo Ming’s Reconstructing the Image of Nanyang. Formally, it sits between the other two, a blend of fiction and reflective writing. In that sense, and in its polyphonic approach to its theme, the story serves to epitomize what Chia does so artfully with the collection: examine his chosen themes of identity and fate—and the identity and fate of Singapore and its ethnic Chinese people, in particular—from various distinct angles. The perspectives in this story are separated from each other by temporal, spatial and societal interludes—decades, thousands of miles, social upheaval and intent. This makes for an impressive diversity of narrative voices for such a short piece, even if the differences are only subtle. It’s capturing those subtleties wherein lies the challenge of translating the piece, and especially in doing so while keeping its motifs consistently recognisable as they reappear through shifting times and contexts.
Dutch beverage–Fizzy drinks in the Twenty-Fourth Year of the Republic
- The Sweet Taste of the Twenty-Fourth Year of the Republic (1935): The Time for the Youth is Now
I had been in the village south of the Yangtze a mere few months. The rudimentary school shrouded in drizzle and mist was the only primary school for many miles around. Although not a city placement, any opportunity to train straight out of university was hard to come by, a chance to learn and travel not to be missed. Especially in those difficult times.
While I prepared the lesson materials, my supervising teacher, Mr. Sun Weizhi, stood in front of the classroom window with his arms crossed, facing the morning light outside. ‘We won’t be teaching this again after today,’ Mr. Sun said, solemnly.
Looking at Sir swathed in the first rays of the day stirred mixed feelings in me. Searching for how to respond, I caught myself staring off, my work left unattended on the desk. Sir gestured for me to continue as he let out a wistful sigh: ‘If there is a next time, we should think of another activity.’
Though he clearly could not see me, I nodded in agreement, before writing on the blackboard:
Year Five, Semester One Natural Sciences
Lesson: Making Soft Drinks
War seemed on the verge of breaking out at any moment. Simply holding a lesson felt like a luxury, let alone making fizzy drinks.
Managing to lift himself out of his despair, Sir turned to me and offered some words of encouragement: ‘Give the students something sweet to remember today by!’
I had only drunk soda of any kind a handful of times myself and only ever in Shanghai with my classmates. Sir had demonstrated how to make it in readiness for the lesson. He stressed that the invention had a brilliant future ahead and how I had to make sure students understood both how soft drinks worked and how to make them, to whip up their interest. Sir was a self-taught scientist, but the national turmoil forced him to have to stay at the school and lay his hopes on the next generation.
That was also the objective of the day’s lesson. Teach the children how to make soda water on their own. That’s what was written in the trainee handbook.
The bell rang, and the students filed in. Although I was still in training, I no longer felt as nervous as when I was just starting out.
Pointing to the three words on the blackboard, ‘Making Soft Drinks,’ I explained the lesson, enunciating clearly the title. ‘Hello students, I am Mr. Li Hongxun. Today, we are going to learn how—to make—soft—drinks.’
I had made only one set of notes from the handbook but knew the lesson plan well enough that that was sufficient. ‘As the weather gets hotter, there are times we’ll feel thirsty or tired. But there is a type of beverage which when drunk, refreshes us and cools us down. That’s what we’re going to learn to make today: soda. Or Dutch beverages, as the various kinds are also known. Have the class tried any before? Raise your hand, please, if you have.’
To my surprise, lots of hands went up. There was no need to explain what soda is as the handbook suggested. ‘That’s most of you. So let’s look at how it’s made, okay?’
With that same crisp, childish tone as I always heard outside the classroom, the students chorused, ‘O-K!’
Mr. Sun noticed I had departed from the plan but gave a nod from the back of the classroom all the same.
I remembered the handbook’s note for this point in the lesson: Invite the students to suggest research questions, but keep research time to one class. Make sure the chosen questions address key points, e.g., ingredients, method, uses. With this in mind, I prompted, ‘What would the class like to know about soft drinks?’
When the hand of one quite mischievous student shot up, I relaxed. A teacher’s worst fear is asking a question and receiving no response. ‘How do you make them, Teacher?’ asked the pupil.
The lesson topic right out the gate: method—perfect. Still, a little clamour made its way around the class, the other students probably assuming he was being naughty.
‘That’s a great question,’ I praised straight away. ‘Today we’re going to learn how they’re made. Any others?’
Encouraged by my reaction, quite a few more pupils raised their hands. I picked someone seated on the other side of the classroom, to make sure the whole class was engaged.
‘Sir,’ they asked, ‘what do you make them with?’
Nothing unexpected up to this point, the questions then veered toward where to buy soda, how much it cost or rewordings of either. The only topic not touched upon was its uses.
‘You all seem eager to get yourselves a drink of pop, but don’t you want to know what happens once you’ve drunk it?’
They must have all been thinking it, because the class started to laugh. Mr. Sun, too, nodded and smiled.
I took the chance while everybody was laughing to glance at the handbook. So far so good. ‘Well,’ I continued, ‘let’s start with what we need to make it.’
I read out the ingredients I had written on the board:
Boiled water, cooled – one small bottle
Citric acid – six parts
Sodium bicarbonate – six parts
Sugar – a pinch
Fruit syrup – one cup
Peppermint oil – a few drops
The students’ lack of interest in the ingredients was something I had expected. Thinking of the citric acid and sodium bicarbonate, which had arrived from Shanghai a few days before, I changed tack: ‘Do you know which of the ingredients are the most important? It’s the water, citric acid and sodium bicarbonate. Without these three, you cannot make any soft drink.’
That got them thinking about the ingredients. While I had their attention, I went on: ‘What are the other ingredients for, then—the sugar, fruit syrup and peppermint oil? They give it more flavour and make it tastier.’ Then, mysteriously, I asked, ‘Would anyone like to see them?’
The class didn’t miss a beat: ‘Yes!’
‘Okay! Everyone form a line! But no dipping your fingers in!’
The students made their way to the front, laughing and with smiles on their faces.
Time for the grand finale. ‘You’ve now seen the ingredients, but you still haven’t tried any soft drinks…’ Giggles started up around the room even before I had finished. ‘So let’s make some!’
I picked up a glass flask from the desk and explained, ‘This is the flask we use for making pop. Remember, it must have a glass stopper like this.’ Then, ‘So which of these ingredients do we add first? It’s the cold water, which has already been boiled and cooled. Then the sodium bicarbonate, the sugar, fruit syrup and mint oil.’
After pouring in those five, I looked up to find the whole class staring intently at the flask. I stopped what I was doing and, as if making an official announcement, said, ‘Now class, pay attention. We have arrived at the crucial step.’ I tipped in the citric acid, and the liquid immediately started bubbling. Turning the flask on its head, I said, ‘Can everyone see the bubbles rising? That means our soft drink is a success. But you have to make sure the stopper is tightly in the flask.’
The beverage finished, the students slumped back, and some started chatting.
I clapped twice to get them to focus. ‘OK! We have made our soda. But I asked earlier what drinking soft drinks does for you on a hot day, and it seems no one has answered yet.’ The students glanced around at each other hoping someone else would respond. I put them out of their misery: ‘It cools, and it quenches thirst. It can help digestion too.’
Seeing the students struggle to process this, I posed the question on all their minds: ‘How do you know that drinking soft drinks helps digestion? Simple. When your stomach makes a “heuh” noise, you know it’s working.’ Then, by way of demonstration, I burped.
None of the class expected the teacher to belch. They all laughed. They now knew what digestion is.
‘Does drinking pop really make us burp? Should we test it out?’
‘Yes,’ they said in unison.
I had only made enough for four pupils to try, so I made sure not to pick anyone who’d put their hands up when I asked who had drunk it before.
Those I selected were nervous and excited. After each had their turn, they returned to their seats with a beaming smile on their faces. They will remember that mouthful of soda for the rest of their lives, I thought. I looked at Mr. Sun. He was wearing that same smile, as if he too had had a taste.
There were still ingredients left on the table. I realised that after today, the students might not get another chance to try this, so I asked, ‘Class, would you like to have a go yourselves?’
‘Yes!’ came the answer, as expected.
‘We will split into four groups,’ I said.
The pupils rearranged the seats into the shape of a cross according to my instructions, with the help of Mr. Sun. Once we got started, one student’s burp set everyone laughing, and someone else announced, ‘I guess he’s digesting!’
The students were more playing than experimenting, but they all worked together well and had finished making their soda in no time at all. Each group even presented Mr. Sun and me with cups of our own.
Then Mr. Sun chimed in, ‘Can everybody in the class do it now?’
‘Yes,’ answered the students, tidying their tabletops.
‘If you have another chance to do it, will you remember how?’ he continued.
‘Yes,’ they answered again.
Mr. Sun nodded, satisfied.
This was when the bell rang for the end of the lesson. I had a feeling that the students wouldn’t be the only ones leaving with a sweet memory of the day.
The next morning, I had no lessons. I was in the middle of putting together a report for Mr. Sun when another trainee teacher ran in, looking for me. ‘Hongxun, Mr. Sun has gone. He left without saying goodbye.’
How could he have just left, I thought; wasn’t he waiting for my report? Where could he have gone?
‘He left you a letter,’ the trainee added.
I opened the letter. It was true.
I have left for Shanghai. We must accept the challenges presented us, whether we succeed or fail. The times are testing the youth, who must give them their all. The time for the youth is now.
- 1947 Annual Report: Soda Will Sell in Nanyang
Boss signed off the final page and walked over. ‘Boy,’ he spoke in a thick Hokkien accent, ‘don’t head straight home once you clock off; come eat with the rest of us!’
At a spot near Thong Chai Medical Institution that evening, between generous swigs of beer, he said, ‘Nanyang’s too hot; I’m turning into a foreigner.’
‘What’s so foreign about this?’ someone asked.
Boss burst out laughing. He took off his thick spectacles, wiped the sweat from his face and pointed at his beer: ‘This is their version of refreshing herbal tea.’
Noticing the drink in my hand, he said, ‘In Nanyang, there are three businesses set to blow up, for sure: beer, bottled herbal tea and this, which our boy is modelling for us—soda. So, it’s imperative that the yearbook we have in the works includes these three. If we learn how to produce them and they don’t take off, well, we can make them at home for ourselves to drink.’ Boss looked as serious as at work in the newspaper office. ‘Hongxun, you will write the part about soda.’
Gazing into the round lenses of my boss’s glasses, it dawned on me that I was there that evening to be assigned a task. I imagined my other colleagues who were present had jobs to do too. One explained to me: ‘We are compiling a yearbook and have been looking all over to find the right person. We’ve heard you have some experience with making fizzy drinks.’
In what seemed an effort at encouragement, Boss added, ‘Hongxun, soda will sell in Nanyang, and what a business it’ll be. You write down everything you know!’
I nodded. Boss’s trust was hard won.
I was grateful for it, but I didn’t want to be in business; it didn’t interest me at all. My home country was in dire straits; I didn’t intend to settle down in some far-off place. A week later, I had compiled a report on methods of soft drink production and written a letter for my boss:
Dear Editor-in-Chief Sir,
Thank you for your kindness. Attached is a document on the methods of making soda. My motherland is in a period of turmoil and rapid change; the overseas Chinese have to help build it. Apologies! I cannot contribute to editing the yearbook.
I hope our paths cross again in the future!
- Flea Market (1998): A Two-Part Story
The old man could not resist his granddaughter’s constant nagging. When he eventually caved and went to help her set up a second-hand clothing stall at the flea market, he took along a stack of his old books to sell himself.
He knew ahead of time that nobody would want to buy old books, but he didn’t complain. In fact, it was his granddaughter who did the complaining: ‘Granddad, you didn’t help me at all; it’s just somewhere else for you to read your books.’
When at last a young couple approached, rather than bicker with his granddaughter, the old man turned toward the customers.
The woman handed her cola to the man, who squatted to browse the books while she went to peruse the clothing.
The young man had a keen eye. He picked up New China Textbook: Normal School Trainee Handbookand turned straight to the title page for the date and place of publication.
The old man could recognise a collector when he saw one and tried to strike up a conversation: ‘How about it? Are you interested?’
The young man seemed not to have expected questions and gave a cursory reply: ‘Just collecting a few old things.’
But that wasn’t enough to satisfy the old man. He probed, ‘What’s your interest?’
For the young collector, small talk was nothing more than a distraction from finding a gem. ‘Just curious,’ he replied, to be polite.
Neither said anything more while the young man continued to look over the books. He eventually picked out 1947 New Nanyang Yearbook. The old man was surprised. He had to ask, ‘Have you heard of the daily newspaper Nan Chiau Jit Pao? They published it.’
Courteous as ever, the youth answered, ‘Is that so?’
Noticing the can of soda, the old man couldn’t help adding, ‘Both teach you how to make pop.’
‘Really? So you collected them both?’ the young man asked.
The old man smiled wryly and sidestepped the question: ‘They are a two-part story.’
- Epilogue (2002): Sugar-coating a Past Life
Stories are sugar-coating. Writers write stories not only to give voice to wishes, but to share information they consider valuable, turning their stories into book reports.
A recipe in a trainee handbook from the 30s has become a modern sensation, a drink produced and sold in vast quantities. Putting that ‘book of tricks’ into the hands of the public is an act of conveyance to eclipse what any story can achieve.
For this storyteller, who has respected teachers from childhood, the Trainee Handbook was just that ‘book of tricks’. Yesterday’s students were amazed to find as much detail in its pages as in any script. That it contains dates and times and settings and a whole cast of characters. Dialogue too. That with a little rearrangement, you could have yourself a story.
The writer of this story was under no illusions that his writing would bring back to life what has passed. His intent through spotlighting this ‘book of tricks’ was merely to conjure a thread of a life gone by.
In those early years in Nanyang, besides soda, primary school students learnt how to make soap, firecrackers and much more. Further threads of a past life. The 1947 New Nanyang Yearbook, published in the 36th year of the Republic of China, taught astronomy, meteorology, geology, chemistry, biology and physiology; contained general knowledge about medicine and hygiene, electrical appliances, automobile repair and photography; and gave instructions on how to make perfume and candles.
City living has relinquished our basic survival instincts to supermarkets and department stores. Umpteen stories down, a writer starts to dwell on what happens when cities become lost too? Do we keep two old books in our pockets to survive? But that’s another story for a different day.
Illustration by Tahira Rifath
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