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  • Down to the River
  • Colin Cheong (bio)

Grow up among concrete blocks of government flats and you grow up in a soulless, sterile, pre-fabbed world without the sound of roosters waking you to mist-shrouded mornings, without the feel of grass tickling bare soles, without the taste of morning mouth and the smell of fresh shit from the outhouse.

Lamentations of loss. Haven't we heard them all at least once? All kinds of people are sorry the kampongs are gone: from those who lived there and loved and hated them to those who never left their footprints along the kampong dirt tracks. But I never missed them—not as a boy, not as a man, not even when it was fashionable to mourn the death of a lifestyle. And this urban urchin never envied the kampong children, because what they had, I had too, with modern sanitation to boot.

Take the mornings, especially those that came with the year-end holidays. Mornings come to all but the dead, and who was more alive than a child on holiday? Those year-end mornings were good because they came after nights of rain. Awakened by the sounds of the coffee shop downstairs opening for business, I would get out of bed, shivering with delight, to the smell of cold, fresh air. As the sky lit up, dawn light would fall on green hills behind the blocks and lift their airy veils of mist. Perhaps all mornings in kampongs and elsewhere are the same to children, the only distinction being the question "Do I have to go to school today?" And perhaps it is not the kampongs we miss but our childhoods, which, like the villages, are only memories sailing further and further away to horizons we only reach in death.

There is one December morning that I remember painfully well even though there was no need to go to school. The clattering crockery, the tortured squealing of metal concertina doors sliding open, the dragging of tables and chairs out onto the five-foot passageway, the grinding, turning, rumbling of the coffee roaster with its heavenly scent of caffeine in heat—nothing woke me because I had stayed up late the night before. But the cold morning breeze that fluttered through the curtains had its effect on my bladder, and I was eventually forced to get out of bed. [End Page 103]

Downstairs, the grass was still wet from last night's rain, and taking off my slippers, I slid my feet through the rain-brightened grass, letting the glistening green blades graze my small feet. In my hand, I held the fruits of last night's labour: a tiny racing boat made from ice-cream sticks sanded down to a race-winning—I hoped—hydrodynamic shape, coloured red with pencils because Magic Marker would run, and waterproofed with a rubbing of candle wax.

A kampong boy would have had a stream, they say, but I was happy enough with my drain; among the boys who lived in the surrounding blocks, we called our drain the River. We often went down to the River to catch little brown fish or the black tadpoles the younger boys called fish. The River was little more than a metre across and, at its fullest, came only halfway up my thighs. When it was dry, we sometimes rode our bicycles up its length in Indian file, from the bottom of the hills behind the blocks to the great monsoon drain that ran beside the main road outside our little boys' world.

The Trench, the Abyss, the Bottomless Pit, the Black Hole. Now, I have a grown-up's vocabulary and a thesaurus on the shelf to describe the awesome thing that, to a small boy, was the End of the World. When it rained heavily, the water would come rushing down from the hills in frothy white cascades, turning brown as it churned up the sediment and rolled to the End of the World, where it would slip over the Edge and crash into the Beyond.

How many "suicide ships" had we hastily made in an hour or two while it rained...