Bee Chin clutched the flimsy piece of paper in one hand while searching for the familiar kasot manek (peranakan bead slippers). Since young she had learnt to identify her mother, be it through the heavy crowd during the Great Singapore Sale or the Sunday bustle of Orchard Road, just by keeping her gaze low she could spot the green and coral blue kasot manek, beaded slippers that her mother insisted on wearing, a discreet act of defiance against the popularity of sneakers and stilettos. Sure it drew curious glances whereever they went, but Bee Chin noticed that mother seemed to enjoy the attention on her.
Ah, target spotted. Today Ma had swapped it for a dull beige pair with a slightly peachy hue to it.
Bee Chin called out as she quickened her steps, smiling distractedly at other students who reached out for pats on the back, offhandedly waving them away. She glanced around at the controlled pandemonium that was the school hall- the sea of students, teachers and parents, expressions of elation, disappointment, oh and anger… It would make a good picture nonetheless if she could capture just the right energy that thrummed in the air-
“Ah Bee! Where you going? Ah ma is here aiyo you ah…” Mother’s exclamation broke her train of thoughts. Bee Chin looked back and found her mother a few feet behind, tiptoeing to be seen. I really must watch where I’m going.
“Wah, not too bad ah bee. Aiyo why you Math only B… Physics A? Never mind your ah GP is okay, better than erjie (second sister)” Mother commented as she flipped open Bee Chin’s A levels result slip.- a piece of paper that contained a few alphabets and numbers. Yet this piece of paper was to dictate everyone’s futures, holding the answers to where they could go, what they could do after school. Bee Chin nodded flippantly, her mind already with her sketchbook that sat waiting patiently at home.
“Ok lah Bee, I think you could have done better. You should have spent less time drawing I tell you already. But it is not too bad lah. Of course not better than sanmei (third sister), but still can, still can…” Mother steered Bee Chin towards the exit, both mother and daughter thinking of what the future might hold as they stepped out of the school gate and into the open, seemingly into new and unknown territory waiting to be explored.
That night, the whole Tan family was present at the dinner table, including all four daughters, as a result of Mother’s incessant nagging.
“So Bee, not bad, 2A 1B, how did the rest of your school do?” Dajie (Oldest sister) asked, as she continued to shovel rice into her mouth in a rather unlady like manner.
“Yah, so-so. Most of my friends got As and Bs,” Bee Chin replied candidly, using her chopsticks to pick up more fatty pork, her favourite dish.
“Aiyah, your result is okay lah, so what degree do you want to get? I think you might be able to do engineering…” Sanmei volunteered from across the dinner table.
“Hm, yah medicine maybe? The healthcare sector can earn money one.”
“Eh, teacher also not bad. We can go to work together like how we walk to school last time” suggested Erjie as she looked up from her plate and smiled at her from across the table.
“Um, I was thinking of majoring in Art. I would like to become an artist. My art teacher said it’s possible, and I’ve looked into a few schools and they all seemed quite promising…” Bee Chin trailed off uneasily as an awkward silence descended. The mouthful of rice on dajie’s spoon hovered mid-air, in between her open mouth and the bowl. It would have been a comical sight had it not occurred in such a tension- filled situation. Everyone turned to look at Mother, and her gaze hardened as she stared Bee Chin down, almost daring her to continue.
“Ma it’s what I really want to do. I’ve thought about it and researched and there’s this school that has this really great art program-” Bee Chin attempted to put forth her point, but it was shut down with a curt and firm “No” from Mother.
Bee Chin looked around helplessly, silently begging for support with her eyes, but everyone else looked away, suddenly fascinated by the intricate blue patterns on the china. Bee knew she should have kept her mouth shut in her matriarchal family, but for once her dream to do art muted her fears of going against Mother.
“You never hear what I said? I said no. You cannot become artist. How would you earn money in Singapore? Start family? You will be nothing. Dajie is doctor, erjie is teacher, sanmei is engineer. Why you cannot be like them? Draw, draw, draw. You will have no money, no future! Don’t waste your time!” Mother interrupted her, enraged at Bee Chin’s retort, and Mother’s black beady eyes blazing with fury. Her outburst was met with an oppressive silence; the tension in the air was thick enough to be sliced with a knife. After a minute or so, Pa (father) picked up his chopsticks and resumed eating, the other three sisters following his lead. Tears of frustration pricked the corner of her eyes, but Bee refused to let them fall in front of everyone.
“I’m not hungry anymore,” Bee Chin excused herself with a curt statement and stalked off to her room, no one followed her. Later, the other sisters would clear up, none of them thought about bringing the leftovers to Bee Chin. Since young, they learnt never to go against mother. You would regret it for sure. And they would wonder, hadn’t Bee Chin learnt that too?
Four months. It had been four months since Bee Chin had received her “A” level results, and three months and twenty- six days since she had received her acceptance letter into art school. The only happy response she received was from sanmei who gave a weak smile in return when she had announced the news over dinner. Was that counted as happy? Bee Chin wasn’t sure. She was looking at Mother out of the corner of her eye as she said this, but apart from Mother’s knuckles turning white due to her death grip on the chopstick, her countenance remained stony, and Bee Chin dropped the topic. Later on, Pa helped her sign the acceptance form, albeit reluctantly. Since then, mother and daughter had skirted around each other in the house though everyone would be puzzled how they could successfully avoid each other in a five- room, two- storey terrace.
Another two months, since she had last eaten at the dinner table. She had noticed that whenever she was present. Apart from the occasional remark on the weather and the clatter of chopsticks against porcelain, dinner was a tense and uncomfortable affair, and Bee Chin soon decided to bring her meal upstairs to save everyone the misery of being in her company. In some ways, she didn’t mind- it did provide her with more time to spend on her canvases. Yet the lack of family warmth seemed to affect her more than it should…
There. Bee Chin stared at the canvas in front of her. This term, they had been focussing on abstract art- the random blobs on canvas that ‘brought out the emotion, the essence, of the artist’. Paintings like those, had sold for more than ten grand, and just for a few strokes and blobs that ‘captured the artist’s inner torment’. Bee Chin did not understand it. She wanted to stick to plain ol’ sketches and still life and portraits… But art school required every freshman to go through a term of abstract art module.
So caught up in her flashbacks that Bee Chin had not noticed she had been letting her brush fly freely across her canvas. Once snow white and smooth to the touch, the canvas now had its own black streaks deposited haphazardly in her turmoil. Bee Chin cringed at what she had done- mutilated a perfectly new canvas that is. But… this assignment’s theme was on ‘Feelings’. Struggling with her inner perfectionist, Bee Chin finally decided to turn in her canvas, that she hoped had captured enough of her ‘innermost torment’ as seen at her most vulnerable state.
Two weeks later, the canvas came back. She had an A grade for it.
Bee Chin removed her three-year-old smock and hung it up. She was late. Slipping into the maroon gown hanging behind the door, Bee Chin smoothed her hair down and grabbed her purse before stepping outside. She kept her hands clasped tightly as she walked, hoping that the stains on her fingers would not be obvious.
Numerous exhibitions surrounded the room as she made her way across the gallery from her studio, accepting a flute of champagne and nodding at familiar faces. The array of colours hanging from the white- washed walls set off by the orange glow from the LED lit up the canvases, magnifying their beauty and hiding their flaws (if the paintings even had any). Bee Chin rounded a corner, and there she was met with resounding applause as she stepped into a small alcove with its title hanging on a modest sign displayed above the entrance: My Future, and in smaller words: Works by Tan Bee Chin.
Around her, people reached out for congratulatory handshakes, and her lecturer gave a small speech on her tenacity and talent to the small crowd. All these Bee Chin accepted with a flushed look and a small smile on her face, not used to dealing with so many compliments at one time. After explaining her exhibition to the growing crowd, Bee Chin was finally free to wander around her own exhibition, which consisted of seven artworks. She had never thought that the offer to showcase her works in this prestigious gallery would come through, and yet it did just three days after she had sent in her portfolio. As Bee Chin fingered the rough edge of one painting absentmindedly, she remembered that moment of unadulterated joy as she sat alone in her room, the slip of acceptance clutched firmly above her beating heart. She was alone, but that overwhelming sense of achievement needed that right amount of isolation. A genuine smile tugged at the corner of her mouth.
15:16. Bee Chin kept her gaze low. The invitation to her family had been sent out last week. Dajie had a doctor’s appointment that could not be changed (so sorry I wish I could be there.) Erjie had a teaching course to attend (You understand right? This is too last minute) and Sanmei was… busy. (Sorry lah… I really very busy cannot ah). No reply came from her parents. It was expected- their relationship was still strained even after four years, yet Bee Chin still latched upon the dream that one day it would all change…
It was 16 minutes past the time stated on the invitation. Mother was always punctual for every appointment.
17:55. Five minutes before the gallery was to close. Bee Chin had kept her eyes peeled to the floor. She knew how to identify Mother since young, as the kasot manek was a dead giveaway. Mother would show up, she had to. It was the opening of her first art exhibition. Bee Chin’s heart sank.
18:00. The last few art enthusiasts left, not before giving Bee Chin a firm handshake, and complimenting her on the originality of her ideas. Bee Chin’s smile did not quite reach her eyes. No call, no text. Nothing. She gave up. There was no more kasot manek. Truth be told, it had not been in her life for quite some time. Was she the only who missed that out? She allowed a few tears to fall. Although she knew she had no one to blame but her own delusional thoughts. The realisation spread through her veins like ice water- cold and harsh, slowly muting her senses.
As the last rays of sunshine ebbed away with the echoes of the pigeons’ coos in the distance, Bee Chin waved goodbye to the security guard uncle as she stepped out of the art gallery. Acceptance. That was all she had been seeking all these years. Bee Chin adjusted the smock that was draped over her right arm as she soaked in the orange hues of the horizon, her heels hitting the sidewalk as she let her mind wander to a girl who was bent over an old sketchbook deep in concentration, and a lady in traditional blue beaded slippers who smiled at her genially from behind.