Read time: 8 mins

Unfinished

by Liang Wern Fook
9 August 2021

Translated from Chinese to English by Christina Ng

Translator’s note

When I was translating this story, I pondered a lot on how to translate the word ‘Hong Kong’ which the author Liang Wern Fook used as a turning point in the story. To me, directly mapping the Mandarin ‘香港 (Xiang Gang)’ onto the commonly used English word ‘Hong Kong’ doesn’t feel adequate, even though in the story, the writer did use it that way. There was a twist at the end where the wrong pronunciation of the word in Cantonese became what distinguished a character for Grandpa—whose lifeline was the daily Cantonese news broadcast on radio. Therefore, I felt I had to get the sound right in Cantonese, and how pertinent it was to convey that someone who is more used to speaking Mandarin or/and English (as most of the younger generation of Singaporeans do) could get it wrong. I took the liberty then to ‘translate’ the word into a Cantonese word instead, as this particular aspect of dissonance reminded me of how I could barely communicate with my own Chinese Indonesian grandmother—whom I can only speak a few words to as I neither speak Indonesian nor enough Teochew.

Dialogue was also another sticking point for me. Most of the time, I tried to imagine Grandpa as my own Grandma, how they would speak as someone knowing very little English or Mandarin, regretful and sad at having to cope with the language policy that their own country has made, helpless at having no say on how the country has moved on without them. My priority was to convey these feelings—through my interpretation of the writer’s story and my own experience as a Singaporean growing up in post-independence Singapore—in as close a voice to the narrator’s as possible.

 


 

Unfinished

It was a Sunday when I walked into Grandpa’s room, intending to give it a proper clear-out. As soon as I stepped in, I seemed to see Grandpa sitting in his armchair again, his words fresh in my ears.

‘Don’t go messing with my things,’ Grandpa always mumbled, as he sat in his armchair, the sunlight pouring in like golden honey through the window, softly illuminating the right side of his face, sketching out its contours as his lips moved up and down.

After completing Grandpa’s funeral arrangements, I had put off going into his room for a whole week. Even though the door was tightly shut in the last few days, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that he was inside—that the two of us still lived and breathed together in this house.

I was only 19, still serving my National Service, when my parents died in a car accident. Since their deaths, Grandpa and I had looked after each other for nearly 10 years.

Ailments that come with old age kept Grandpa in his room most of the time. His eyesight had also deteriorated in recent years, making it even harder for him to leave his room and his armchair, a gift that I bought him with my first paycheck.

He muttered that I was a sor zai when I gifted him that chair, chiding me for being a silly boy spending money on unnecessary things, especially when the armchair wasn’t even comfortable. Yet, from that day onwards, it had become an integral part of his life, like a body that held him close, keeping him warm and snug as he leaned into its soft embrace, and slowly became one with him as years went by.

I sank my whole body into the armchair, trying to imagine how Grandpa used to fall into its firm backrest and steady arms on those twilight evenings: all hushed and serene, his eyes gently closed. The way his body would retreat into relaxation, the way his face would withdraw into contentment, as he listened intently to the radio broadcasting the evening news in Cantonese.

A few of those times I stood close by, silently taking in his expression. He would open his eyes suddenly and say, ‘You are here to check if I’ve stopped breathing, is that right?’

I laughed and said, ‘I’m here to see if you’ve fallen asleep.’

Grandpa always replied, ‘Sor zai, I can’t sleep when the news is on. We’ve only got five minutes of Cantonese news every day; I can’t fall asleep and miss it.’

Grandpa never spoke in Mandarin. If anyone spoke to him in Mandarin, he refused to reply. After my parents died, I attempted to converse with him in broken Cantonese. Even if those attempts were inept, they were a surprisingly good way to improve my Cantonese, as Grandpa never hesitated to comment on my inaccurate pronunciation.

My father once confided in me that Grandpa had always withdrawn into himself. After walking became more and more difficult for him, his only solace was listening to the Cantonese news on radio in the evenings.

Knowing that, I made sure to turn on the radio for him every day according to the evening broadcast schedule. It was hard for him to reach it with his failing sight. If I had to be out, I would set the radio to turn on automatically so that Grandpa would still be able to rest in his armchair, listening to the Cantonese news that provided his daily stimulation on the dot.

Today, as I sat reminiscing in Grandpa’s armchair, it became clear to me that his passing was inevitable: old age took him away, and my brooding over it wouldn’t change a thing. He had actually extended his time in this world by a year which should leave me with no more regrets.

*

A year ago, Grandpa’s condition took a turn for the worse. His debilitating health coincided with the termination of news broadcasts in Chinese dialects—including Cantonese—that was to happen in a month. This historic termination didn’t sit too well with Grandpa. When he heard the announcement, he sighed and voiced his dismay in between coughs: ‘Just a month left. Just one more month to listen to my Cantonese news, and then I’m going to have to leave this world.’

As Grandpa’s health continued to decline, I was more and more anxious to keep him upbeat. I struggled to string my reassurances together in coherent Cantonese: ‘Perhaps the radio station will change its mind, Grandpa? I can always buy more Cantonese CDs for you to listen to?’ But Grandpa kept silent, shaking his head.

As luck would have it, glad tidings arrived two weeks after the termination announcement. The radio station, during one of its Cantonese news segments, announced that it would be postponing its dialect news termination as many people had petitioned against it. In a strange turn of events, Grandpa’s health was also restored along with the Cantonese news. I thought to myself then, those five minutes of Cantonese news a day are better than any elixir in the world.

*

One year has since flown by.

Just 10 days ago, I found Grandpa’s body motionless in the armchair. His breathing had come to a halt. The news announced its presence in Cantonese as usual, but Grandpa had shut his eyes tight. He had, however, set his mouth in an upward crescent, offering me my only gleam of consolation.

As the memories came flooding back, a fervent desire arose in me to relive all those days of Grandpa sitting in his armchair, listening to the Cantonese news. My sight fell upon the radio that I had tucked away in the inaccessible spot.

I reached into my pocket and took out an audiotape, intending to put it into the radio that had faithfully played and recorded numerous segments of Cantonese news for Grandpa. I had become a master in this for the past year.

It was then that I felt a lump on Grandpa’s pillow. Something was underneath.

Moving the pillow aside, I saw a box of audiotapes different from those that I used. Out of curiosity, I played one of those tapes instead and was surprised to hear Grandpa’s voice: ‘Sor zai, so you think Grandpa doesn’t know how to turn on the radio myself? You really think I don’t know that you made up the news and recorded it in Cantonese? Your youngest uncle always pronounces the Heung in Heung Gong differently; he keeps sounding like he’s saying Hung. Just that strange pronunciation alone already tells me that he’s the one reading the news.’

Oh my, Grandpa was smart. I thought I outsmarted him, but he was the one with the wits. Even my youngest uncle was fooled.

This youngest uncle of mine had been estranged from the family as a youth when Grandpa kicked him out of the house after they had a fight. My dad used to see him secretly, but when he died in the accident, I continued their tradition and stayed in touch with my uncle.

He was indifferent when I approached him to record the news for Grandpa. Firmly declaring that he didn’t want to have anything to do with him, Uncle went as far as to say that he wouldn’t even be attending Grandpa’s funeral when he passed on one day. But no matter how vehement his refusal was, he succumbed to my pleas and grudgingly agreed to do the recordings in the end. He turned out to be so committed that even I fell short: looking for a voice changer, taking pains to revise the Mandarin news script into Cantonese. Unfortunately, all that zeal only fit into the span of a year. He exited from the recordings when he exited from life: lung cancer took him away last month. Just like he prophesized, he really didn’t manage to pay his last respects at Grandpa’s funeral.

However, he had managed to rush out a whole month’s worth of news recordings in his remaining days. The content was made up: the Singaporean government considering the reinstatement of dialect TV programmes, a happy reconciliation between China and Taiwan. They were all the good news that Grandpa had wished for. The news recording that I would have played today for him would have been the very last piece that Uncle recorded, but Grandpa left before he had the chance to hear it.

My fingers ran over the radio set and clicked play. The news came on, and the familiar intonations of Uncle’s newscaster voice filled the room. An uncertainty suddenly came over me: was I grieving over the loss of Uncle, or Grandpa? Perhaps I was just clinging on to memories of being Grandpa’s sor zai?

In the background, the news announced: our Cantonese news broadcast will take a break from tomorrow onwards, but rest assured, it will resume very soon. Stay tuned.

I stayed seated in Grandpa’s armchair, listening to the Cantonese news that he didn’t manage to hear. It then occurred to me that the smile on Grandpa’s face when he breathed his last breath was a response to Uncle’s voice over the radio; in the end, Uncle did pay his last respects to Grandpa. As his voice flitted into my ears, I caught Uncle mispronouncing the Cantonese word Heung in Hong Kong as Hung again.

Grandpa’s smile sneaked onto my face, unravelling itself like an untold secret that was known only to both of us.

* Published as《未完》in the book 《左手的快乐》by Liang Wern Fook (梁文福). Copyright @ 2006, Global Publishing


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Illustration by Nadhir Nor

About the Author

Liang Wern Fook

Liang Wern Fook is an iconic singer-songwriter of Singapore and was voted ‘Person Who Best Represents the Xinyao Spirit’ in a public poll (2003). Dr Liang has received both the Young Artist Award (Literature, 1992) and the prestigious Cultural Medallion (Music, 2010) across different arts genres. He has over 15 literature publications and has over […]

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