Monday, 17 Jun 2019

Weiling and the Eighteen Levels of Hell

Beverly Tan Murray


It never mattered what the ailment was. The answer was always the same—Tiger Balm. Every child in Singapore knew the ritual. At the first sign of illness, your mother would place her hands on your forehead, inevitably matted down with fever sweat. Then, she’d run you through a terse list of questions.

Did you sit under the air conditioner or sleep with wet hair, thereby inviting a surfeit of yin qi into your body? Were you responsible for polishing off those durians in the Tupperware, or the leftover pineapple tarts from Chinese New Year, both transgressions which would have surely caused an imbalance in yang qi? Did you allow anger to overtake you, forgetting everything you learned about keeping one’s emotions in check? Then, sighing heavily, your mother would reach for the family-sized tin of Tiger Balm. She’d rub the ointment briskly onto your chest and back, smells of menthol and camphor oil stinging your eyes. She’d blithely ignore the alternating complaints of Tiger Balm burning you (because it did) and making you feel cold (because it did). In the morning, after battling fever dreams and night sweats, you’d stand up, feet planted gingerly on the ground. Strangely, apparently, invariably—you always felt better.

Such was the peculiar magic of Tiger Balm. Long before Chris Rock paid homage to ‘Tussin in “Bigger and Blacker,” two Burmese brothers named Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par had the foresight to package and market their father’s proprietary ointment as a handy cure-all. Their strategy worked. By 1935, the brothers had amassed a fortune sizable enough to relocate their business operations to Singapore. Two years later, at a jaw-dropping cost of $1 million, Haw Par Villa was built. Haw Par Villa would have no rides, no cotton candy, and no anthropomorphized mice. I was a diametrical precursor to the child’s gilded fantasyland that Walt Disney would later parlay into a billion-dollar industry. The Tiger Balm brothers, nononsense Chinese businessmen, conceived of children the way everyone else did in 1930’s Singapore. They were wayward, unformed beings to be sternly taught, threatened, and—beaten into submission. Pandering to their whims was lunacy. No, their theme park would pay homage to Confucian values, the grounds a visual projection of traditional Chinese cultural traits. Singaporean families strolled Haw Par Villa, flanked by dioramas of Taoist gods and goddesses, each replete with the requisite moral allegory. The Tiger Balm statue cast a baleful eye over the masses. All would be well under the Jade Emperor. That was the official story, at least.

The morning of our field trip to Haw Par Villa, I boarded the school bus with the rest of my second grade class. It was 1986. “Like a Virgin” played on the radio. As the bus lumbered its way to the Tanjong Pagar hills, Xuejiao, the class clown, batted her eyelashes, then stuck her fists in her pinafore to pantomime Madonna’s large, unbridled Western bosoms. It took about twenty seconds of sustained giggling before Mrs. Cheong whipped her head around. “Hai zhi men! An jing! Bu yao chao nao!

She did not have to repeat herself. At St. Nicholas Girls’ School (motto: “Simple in Virtue, Steadfast in Duty”), Mrs. Cheong’s nickname was “Mrs. Five Palms,” a grim nod to the devastating staccato slaps used by martial arts fighters in traditional wuxia flicks.—We quieted down instantly. In moments such as these, it was best to blend in, to arrange your facial features in such a way as to avoid accusations of rudeness or impropriety toward your teacher. Mrs. Cheong’s eyes narrowed. These wayward students were surely getting bolder and more defiant with each passing year, she would complain to the younger teachers. It was widely rumored that Mrs. Five Palms had been an exquisite beauty in her youth. My mother said her only mistake was in marrying the wrong man, a gambler, and one knows that a misstep as grave as this would harden even the most tender of hearts. “Weiling, quit staring out the window like an imbecile. Pay attention.” Weiling peeled her beady eyes away from the rolling shrubbery, slowly turning to face Mrs. Five Palms, and blinked. Xuejiao nudged me as a loud titter spread throughout the bus. “An jing!” This time, it took us longer to grow quiet.

Weiling, daughter of a taxi driver father and an absentee mother, was the school enigma. It wasn’t her sloping, ape-like walk or grimy, plastic-rimmed glasses which earned her our ire. It wasn’t even the way she’d show up at school with runny grey snot, or how she’d wait for it to dry before methodically picking at it during class. No, it was more subtle. It was the way she’d hang back during badminton tournaments, lips drawn in a straight line, nostrils flared as if in silent anticipation of a tragedy. It was how you’d never hear her speak, except when called upon by the teacher, or how she’d inexplicably laugh to herself in a hideous, gulping monotone. It was her neck, translucent and unsteady as a baby bird’s, barely supporting an oversized head of greasy hair that draped over her features like a pontianak.*It was the question of her mother. Who was she? Where was she? Why had we never seen her at school? And finally, it was the word “bastard,” the meaning of which I had learned earlier on in the year. A word which, in the relentless cruelty of children, was hurled at Weiling with pointed fingers in singsong fashion. “Baaaastard! Baaaaastard! Baaaaastard!” we chanted. She did nothing except stare straight ahead, eyes blinking rapidly.

I hated her all the more for it.

At Haw Par Villa, the sun was already remorseless. Singaporeans have developed a calculated indifference to extreme heat. Equator living means that our coping mechanism is borne of futility and is derived from the knowledge that despite your best laid plans, the element—not you—are the ultimate arbiters of well-being. Mrs. Five Palms, a second-generation Singaporean, fanned herself with a pamphlet and jerked her chin toward the towering statue of Sun Wukong, the Monkey King. Xuejiao sulked, peeled her skirt away from her sweat-soaked legs. “How stupid,” she whispered fiercely. “I can watch Sun Wukong anytime I want on Channel 8.” Before us, the famed Monkey King stood on one leg in the classic fight stance, both hands clutching a cudgel to meet the blows of an attacking mob. Flanking him were Zhu Bajie the Pig, and Sha Wujing the Ugly One—three runaways tasked with protecting a famed Buddhist monk during his perilous journey to India. In return for their unwavering loyalty and bravery, the runaways received high commendations from the Jade Emperor.

“Look! She looks just like the Ugly One!” Xuejiao was pointing straight at Weiling, who in all manner of bad timing, was standing beneath the statue of Sha Wujing. She wore his same twisted grimace and defeated, humpbacked posture. Just seeing the similarity ignited our ire like a flamethrower tossed into a wooden shack. A jeer tore through our class. “Ugly One! Ugly One! Too ugly to get married!” Xuejiao, ever the opportunist, seized the moment and jutted her jaw forward in a crude approximation of Weiling’s prominent underbite. She pranced in circles, legs and haunches wide apart in a caveman-like shuffle. I watched silently while a yawning void grew in mystomach, but I wasunable to tear my eyes away. Mrs. Five Palms always said it was wrong to speak ill of others. But Mrs. Five Palms wasn’t 8, with Xuejiao for a best friend, a mini Pol Pot who demanded allegiance in all matters of state, my acquiescence a necessary evil for her schoolyard dominion. I shot a sideways glance at Weiling, whose face belied neither anger nor surprise. She remained strangely impassive. Mrs. Five Palms glared at us until we fell silent, then held the pamphlet aloft. “Eighteen Levels of Hell.” she said tartly. “And not a moment too soon.”

The Eighteen Levels of Hell were laid out in a series of connected dioramas. In Chinese mythology, hell was not the one-size-fits-all cesspool reserved for the dregs of humankind. Rather, each level of hell was delicately segregated, a mirror for the Confucian principles of social order and hierarchy. The do-gooders fared best. Upon death, they would drink a magic cup of tea to erase the memories of their past life. This readied them for the journey over the Golden Bridge, a natural step in the cycle of reincarnation. Mrs. Five Palms stopped to address us.

“As you can see, the virtuous ones don’t have to go on. They’re over there, crossing into their next life.” I nudged Xuejiao and pointed out what looked like a crab with a human face: “What is that?”

“I don’t know,” she hissed back. “But that’s even scarier.” She pulled me toward a sea of severed heads, each one atop a spike, their mouths agape in silent agony. “Everyone stay close together,” Mrs. Five Palms intoned. “We’re entering the First Level of Hell.”

Up close was King Chujiang of the underworld, dressed in a saffron daopao and beaded pearl headwear. He sat behind an intricately painted lectern, features awash in disgust for the wretch who cowered before him. One finger pointed toward the vat of boiling volcanic lava, already overflowing in a tangle of human legs and arms. The other brandished a tablet of the man’s moral transgressions. Mrs. Five Palms jiggled her bifocals before reading the display. “Conmen, robbers, and people who inflict physical pain are tossed into the molten lava.” In the corner, a ghoulish horse-man figure brandished a spiked club, daring the poor souls to escape their fate. Under the flickering diorama lights, I made out Mrs. Five Palms’ small smirk.

Looking back now, I’m reminded of something my mother once said: a memory without proper reflection is like a dragon costume. Before the performer dances life into it, it lies unused, lifeless, devoid of meaning. Only by delving inside can the carcass of the past grow a soul, spiritual limbs akimbo, newly graced with nuance and syntax. And yet, no matter how hard I try, I cannot remember when I first became aware of Weiling’s unraveling.

Was it during the Fourth Level of Hell, when King Huguan stoically sentenced tax-dodgers and crooked business owners to their deaths by stone mallet? Or was it upon reaching the Seventh Level, where underworld demons rendered King Taishan’s verdict for gossip-mongers, the punishment for which was the tearing out of one’s tongue? It could have been during the Eighth Level, wherein surliness toward one’s parents culminated in two ghouls unceremoniously ripping out your intestines, or, if King Dushi was so inclined, sawing your body into neat halves.

The passage of years have provided little insight. Weiling, for her part, has been unable to help with this particular issue. No one at St. Nicholas has kept in touch with her, and a cursory Google search for her name unearths nothing. I know because I’ve tried. Several times, in fact.

But I do remember the sobbing. The soft blubbering of Weiling’s breath, cresting and falling as we advanced deeper into the bowels of this mythological hell. Her crying was oddly comforting at first, a reminder to us that the outside world still existed. And in that outside world, the real world, there were no ghouls or Heavenly Judges, no hapless individuals impaled on stakes for their transgressions. There was only us—the entitled centers of our own luminous universe—and Weiling, the bastard child, The Ugly One, forever estranged. Her cries were unlikely succor for our discomfort. That is, until they grew louder and more belabored. Xuejiao rounded on her instantly. “Shut up, shut up, shut up! You’re acting like a baby. Retard. Hun dan Ben dan! Imbecile bastard!” Weiling blubbered incoherently. “I said you’re a bastard!” And with that final pronouncement, Xuejiao shoved her hard in the chest.

Weiling, taller and stockier than the rest of us, was caught off guard and stumbled backward. She landed rump first on the ground, crumpled like piece of onionskin paper. Her glasses were knocked askew; she made no effort to adjust them. Xuejiao looked contemptuous. “Say something,” she growled. “Or you’ll be sorry.” Weiling had stopped crying, but her face now wore the mask of abject terror. “Say something!” Weiling, still silent, blinked rapidly. She shook her head rhythmically, as if in a trance.

“I…I can’t get up.”

“Why not? Zhan qi lai!”

“I can’t….you can’t make me.”

Moments passed before someone sounded the alarm. “It smells like shit in here!” Almost instantaneously, we caught a collective whiff. The stench, coupled with the stale air in the covered diorama, was overpowering. Xuejiao retched in disgust. Weiling refused to move until Mrs. Five Palms pushed her rotund frame into view. She yanked Weiling up by her armpits and pivoted her toward the nearest bathroom. We watched as she staggered away, limbs tangled as a colt’s, shit streaming down her legs. We took no pleasure in this. Something felt different.

What I remember about the bus ride back: diesel fumes, mid-afternoon sun, silence. Xuejiao gazed out the window the entire time, seemingly deep in thought. When the bus pulledup under the St. Nicholas school crest, Weiling was the first to alight. She shuffled toward the MRT station in her trademark slow, unsteady gait. My last memory is of her battered metal canteen hanging from her book bag and her shit-stained skirt, flapping in the wind.

We never saw her again. Yet as the years passed, she’d reappear in unexpected places, a lingering Pontianak who refused to be relegated to the ghost realm. I heard her odd, baying laugh ringing out at a UC Irvine Young Democrats meeting. Caught a whiff of her sweat-and-tumeric odor while boarding a train at Penn Station. Once, I thought I saw her in a park ranger’s uniform in Yosemite, patiently directing hikers toward the nearest bathroom. I was so convinced it was her that I waited until everyone else had left, clearing my throat to finally deliver the Great Apology Speech I had mentally rehearsed all these years. It wasn’t until she walked toward me that I realized my mistake. The real Weiling would never saunter this confidently, never move as though she deserved to take up space.

Absolution eluded me that day, yet her ghost retreated without fanfare. Within that vacuum, an uneasy peace emerged. Two weeks after my thirty-second birthday, I sat waiting for my dentist in Huntington Beach, California. I sifted through the stacks of Redbook and Good Housekeeping before extracting the lone dog-eared National Geographic. The first article was about the global demand for rhino horn, and the corresponding spike in South Africa’s illegal poaching industry. The lead photo, grainy and unfocused, was from the early 1930’s, but you could still make out the smiles of the hunters. Some leaned on their shotguns, others cocked one fist on their hip while brandishing their rifles with pride. At their feet—a dead rhino. A young male, reasonably well-fed, blood congealed around its mouth, eyes vacant and glassy.

Such a strange animal, that rhino. So aesthetically unpleasing, eminently unsuited for a world of predators, its very existence an aberration of God. And yet, those eyes. Staring up into the camera lens, they looked almost human. A jolt of familiarity went through me. I put the magazine down, sat back, and did not speak for a while.

Later, when the pain in my chest finally subsided, I thought about what my mother would have said. That true absolution is a child’s flight of fancy. That we all live under our own shroud of mistakes, woven and embroidered by time and distance. That I had to be patient, because there was no telling when Guanyin would hear my heart’s cries, reach down from her celestial seat, and beam compassion on my adult soul. Mother would say this with conviction, because the Goddess of Mercy had never failed her.

It’s a stretch. But it’ll have to do for now.

*A pontianak, in traditional Malay folklore, is a female vampire who died during childbirth.

Beverly Murray is a Chinese-American author who was born in Singapore and moved to California at age 16. She now resides in Miami, Florida with her husband, and a terrier-mutt named Larry David. Beverly is a VONA/Voices fellow, and writes short stories about life in liminal spaces.

Photo from Tiger Balm Gardens by Kathryn Greenhill.