Not Great, But At Least Something

A pirate in the waters off Indonesia confronts her past and an unwanted pregnancy. Coffeeshop denizens puzzle over an elderly Jewish man's attachment to a piece of soap. A Chinese typesetter gets swept up in political winds of change in 1950s Malaya. A prosthetics engineer falls in love with a dancer, both of them outsiders in Boston, dreaming of taking flight. This new short story collection from a Singapore Literature Prize-shortlisted writer is a panoply of surprising voices.

Excerpt from Not Great, But At Least Something

Once upon a time, there was a man whose wife was a bar of soap.

He took his soap wife wherever he went. In the mornings, he brought her to the coffeeshop at Lorong 1 Toa Payoh, where he bought his fried beehoon from Uncle Lim’s stall and sat with it in front of him like a collage. Lingering over a cup of kopi-C, he gazed into the distance, as cars and motorcycles zipped by. Occasionally, he would look down at his liver-spotted hands, slowly turning them palm-up as though seeing them for the first time, then look up in wonderment at the people dashing by to catch the MRT to work.

Encased in a wrinkled Ziploc bag, the hardened grey lump that was his wife sat on the table by his right elbow. 

From afar, she looked like a small chunk of concrete. Nothing was engraved on her face. She was a marker without a name. Age had given her a chalky appearance. Even though the old man went to great pains to put her down gently and gather her up lovingly, being carried around inflicted damage; left dinks and scars. 

Uncle Lim was the one who first spoke to the man, who had started coming to his stall one day in June. Uncle Lim remembered the day well: it had been an unseasonably cool and rainy June, and the North-South line had broken down again. Delayed commuters spilled out from Braddell Station, seeking shelter under nearby housing blocks. They made impatient tsk-tsk noises while trying to keep dry. Uncle Lim himself made the same tsk-tsk noises as he wove between and edged past these commuters with four plates of beehoon on his arms. His customers got damp in the semi-al fresco corridors.

The elderly foreign-looking man came up and considered everything behind the clear glass of Uncle Lim’s stall with the seriousness of a scholar. He calmly pointed a wrinkly finger at the mounds of luncheon meat, curried vegetables, Taiwanese sausages and mock char siew. Miming a scooping action, he indicated to the beehoon seller that he should not hold back the green chili and belachan on the side.

“你坐先,” said Uncle Lim, with a sweeping gesture toward the empty tables. “我拿过去给你。”

The man – ‘angmoh’ being a misnomer, as he had jet-black eyes and a shock of white hair instead of red (but then again, like all racial labels, it was applied without care or accuracy) – nodded, as though he understood Mandarin perfectly. Clutching his plastic-swaddled soap, he shuffled off in search of a table in the corridor, the hordes of stuck commuters parting automatically to let him through.

Hermit Press
2021

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Clara Chow

Clara Chow is the author of fiction collections Dream Storeys, Modern Myths (shortlisted for the 2020 Singapore Literature Prize) and Not Great, But At Least Something; the travelogues New Orleans and Caves; and bilingual poetry collection 几首烂情诗/Lousy Love Poems. She has been writer-in-residence at Toji Cultural Center in South Korea and an honorary fellow of the University of Iowa's International Writing Program. Having started her career in journalism, she now runs tiny indie Hermit Press.