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Riot Green

Riot Green

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Riot Green

5/5 (1 valutazione)
265 pagine
4 ore
Feb 20, 2013


When a talented young artist captures the attention of the art world, forces beyond her control align. Power plays pit money, ideals and families against the inner workings of a competitive and closed art world.

In his debut fiction, Woon Tai Ho gives us an insider's look into the creative world he knows well. Set in modern-day Singapore, and drifting between worlds, Riot Green tells a gripping tale that draws on rich Chinese traditions and beliefs. It puts the spotlight on the institution of family, the jade of green that is supposed to protect us, but can prove to be a riot of heartaches and secrets. It is a story of ties that bind and those that divide. Like an abstract painting that buffers the obvious, the story unravels deftly to show love and conspiracies, harmony and conflict, chaos and order.
Feb 20, 2013

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Riot Green - Woon Tai Ho



The longest journey a writer needs to make is from his mind to his desk. Mine started in early 2012 and over a year, characters slowly emerged, conspired, spirited away.

Writing is a solitary process, getting a book out is not.

For this, my debut novel, several real-life characters embraced me and kept the book and me in their gentle care. Some made spaces to read parts of it, others read all of it to turn this into the book you see today.

This novel would have still been sitting as a document on my laptop if not for Tan Swie Hian and Deepika Shetty. Over dinner, one night, our conversation mysteriously drifted towards this. A couple of years ago, when Deepika interviewed me for my first book To Paint A Smile, she left me with these words: Tai Ho, just write your novel.

A few years later, here we were, with a finished novel and she left me with these edgy words: Tai Ho, what are you waiting for? Just publish it. That night, by the time we were done, they had helped me make the call. I was going to publish this book. Over the next few days, Deepika held the manuscript in her hands and lent the critical yet loving care and attention it needed. Without her and her husband Bala, who ensured we ate while we worked, and Swie Hian, there would be no Riot Green.

Alex Soh Sheng Aik, an author who teaches creative writing was an early unflinching cheerleader. A sounding board, critic, editor, he was just the friend this narrative and writer needed.

Wong Choo Han, never far from anything I have undertaken, was always there for me.

Woffles Wu, read, re-read early parts of it and told me to get an editor. The best advice.

There were many moments of self-doubt during the writing of this fiction, and I count myself really lucky to have a friend in Tash Aw, the award-winning writer who read my first book twice and always had the right words to encourage and cheer me on.

I must have done something right to find Rishad Patel. This book’s cover designer did not just ask for a synopsis, he settled for the raw manuscript. The result is this cover that is true to the spirit of the story.

Phoon Kok Hwa of Candid Creation Publishing is just the publisher any writer needs. He believed in it before I did.

Riot Green was written at an emotionally trying time and my family ensured I was never alone. I would not have got this far, if not for my mother, my brother Daniel Yun, my sister, Shirley, her husband Francis, my nephew Aaron and his wife Celia.

Finally, to the reader who picks this up. Thank you for your faith in my words. That is what keeps a writer going.

Woon Tai Ho

January 2013

Chapter 1


June 21st is the longest day of the year. In tropical Singapore, it is also the hottest. Parched brown grass bears witness to the wrath of the angry sun. It hasn’t rained for weeks, and no one knows why it holds such a furious grudge. The clouds have chosen not to interfere and the winds stay clear of the fury. Between sweltering sky and sizzling earth, there is absolute stillness.

For Melissa Soh, the heat is hardly the problem. She seeks something deeper.

Worshippers, soaked in perspiration, push to the shade under the temple roof, only to be blinded by the thick fumes of burning incense. Eyes half-closed, their hands clench three stems. The first incense is for the guarding deity in the courtyard. The second, for the huge, unsmiling figure clothed in ancient emperor’s garb and the last, reserved for the massive Buddha in the third and last chamber. Elevated above the sea of human heads, it reveals seated on an enormous lotus base, the deity everyone has come to pray and pay homage to.

Leave your shoes at the right corner by the window, Ah Por shouts in Hokkien. She leads, her gait at once strong and light. Even as she approaches seventy, she retains the strength and celerity of a forty-year-old. With one hand on the window ledge, she steps out of her worn flat slip-ons. She had told the girls to wear their temple shoes, but they obviously chose fashion over convenience.

As they move into the temple, the consecrated floor feels welcomingly cool to the bare and tired feet. Melissa holds on to Ah Por’s arm, to shield herself against the raised elbows and burning incense while guided at the same time by Ah Por’s unwavering pace. She understands little of this intricate world of Chinese temple gods: the manic angry faces of the first and second are supposed to ward off evils, she has been told; but the countless hands of the Buddha in the last chamber, each holding a sacred object, and what they signify are beyond her young mind. Fighting the fumes stinging her eyes, she sticks her last incense into the gold-coloured cauldron in front of the Buddha, and it quickly gets lost among the many also burning. For the first time, she notices the Buddha wears no shoes.

Kneel, Ah Por tells her granddaughter in Hokkien. Choking from the smoke, her voice is harsh and barely audible as she holds on to the edge of the immense lotus base. Ask for mercy, then tell the lord Buddha you are in danger.

Melissa hands her bag to Chloe, her best friend who has bravely offered to accompany her, even though she is fiercely Christian. With a mix of awe and confusion, she steps into the space of prayer. As her knees fall onto an over-used cushion, her mind is blank. She prays in English—it doesn’t feel right at the foot of what she sees as an oriental immortal. The kindly Chinese eyes stare down at her.

Quick, Precious, Ah Por’s voice is stern. She cannot say Melissa; it is beyond her Hokkien tongue. She named her Precious when she was born. And Precious in Hokkien is the closest name to love.

Melissa closes her eyes. She does this every time she walks into her own bedroom—she can do the same here. The surrounding noise stops abruptly and the closed darkness of her eyes transforms into a bright white, a virgin canvas.

Susan emerges, staring with green eyes. Melissa hears Tom’s bark. The faces of her mom and Chloe appear too, her allies. Her right hand reaches out to her grandmother and her left to Chloe. She squeezes both and releases them in an instant.

The composed stillness of calm emerges, and she sees the Buddha’s face. While she crafts a prayer, she finds herself transported to her room, her domain of peace. Like extensions of her slender fingers, the brushes materialise and the tubes of paints arrange themselves, like soldiers, ready.

She feels disquiet and gently wishes for stillness. In a pure clean space, she hears Green Song. From a murmur it gets stronger, then it echoes through her entire being. The vibration spreads with her every heartbeat.

Ohmmm, ha ha.

Ohmmm, ha ha.

Like a spirit suspended, she is hovering over her room, looking over her possessions. Is she painting? She must be. Her hands feel the familiar touch of the wooden brush and her eyes meet the tempting canvas, her trusted friends. Then as strange as it is surprising, a painting starts to take shape.

The broad brush sweeps across, covering the canvas in a spirit of deep green. Mustard yellow spills onto the dark green, around the corners and near the centre. Blood red attacks and armies of orange follow. Pure white rains hard at the centre. A questioning shade of purple resists the temptation of joining this circus of mass amusement. In isolated dots, the colour stays aloof, preferring to remain pure rather than be part of a muddled rainbow. But the gregarious sky blue mediates, converging with some and trickling away from others. Various shades of olive green begin to circle, overpowering the rest, like a wheel with no brakes. Round and round they circle and circle. Fast, then slow, they circle to the beat of Green Song.

Ohmmm, ha ha.

Ohmmm, ha ha.

The canvas heaves. Like a coat covering the body that has performed the dance of life, every streak and drip of colour perspires from joy. Melissa floats away from the canvas. Then she sees. These colours have stormed into the image of Susan, her two green eyes larger than life.

Melissa. She feels Chloe’s firm hands on her shoulders. Let’s go. Your body is shaking and even your eyes are moving when they are closed. It is creepy and you are freaking me out!

How long was she in her room, painting in her mind? Green Song fades, replaced by the loud murmurs of prayers in Hokkien, Teochew and other dialects. Melissa is back in the temple, wrapped in its loud smoky reality. The exhaust of incense attacks her eyes anew.

Melissa holds on to her best friend. The sensation of painting lingers. I had a premonition, she whispers.

Premonition? Chloe snorts a laugh. With the loud chanting and prayers, you were hallucinating, she adds. Commanding enough strength, she pulls Melissa up. Look at your grandma, what’s happening?

Eyes closed, Ah Por shakes in a trance. As if she heard them through the din of prayer chants, Ah Por stirs. What are you two talking about? she asks in Hokkien as she knows no English.

Nothing, Melissa pacifies in Hokkien.

She does not look convinced, The lord Buddha can make you see things. Did you see what you wanted to see? She feels the smoothness of her granddaughter’s arm. You asked for protection right? She holds Melissa tight. This is only the start; her granddaughter’s innocent soul will need a whole troop of angels to ward off what’s coming her way. Looking up at the unruffled calm of the lord Buddha, her wrinkled eyes close and her hands leave Melissa, meeting vertically in prayer. She is young and pure but shrouded by evil and greed around her. Protect Precious, my lord and help me to protect her too.

As they wrestle their way out, the smell of incense is soothing. Melissa turns to look at the gods, but they are barely visible now. Thick fumes swirl and piles of colourful offerings have mounted around them. Ah Por stops, struggling with her purse she ties inside her pants. She pushes a ten-dollar note into the slit of a wooden box. With resolute strides she reaches the door, turns and bows again. Lend me the gift of sight, let me see her enemies. With that, she leads the girls out of the temple.

Let’s get our shoes. Ah Por knows the rich girl doesn’t understand her. She cannot say her fancy English name just like she can’t with Melissa, so she calls Chloe your girlfriend in Hokkien. Poor girl, Chinese in every aspect, yet she doesn’t speak a word of her mother tongue. Not connected to her roots, her heritage. She’d need to be strong in other ways. Ah Por has seen enough disconnected souls. When a strong wind blows, their illusive identities are swept away like fallen leaves.

I leave now, Ah Por walks out into the glare of forceful sunshine. As usual, she sees hurt in her granddaughter’s eyes whenever they part. Remember what Master Chua said, Precious, no fear. You are normal like anyone else. Open your windows wide and allow the fear out.

I will, grandma, Melissa quells a choke. Childhood memories rush back. She remembers the time when Ah Por was her life. She hears Ah Por’s Hokkien lullabies and amusing stories of her life in Fujian, China. Melissa rarely saw her parents as a child; they were always busy with work and travel. Now Ah Por doesn’t even visit; her dad does not allow it.

Paint, you have a gift. And wear green, your auspicious colour. It will protect you. She leans and hugs her granddaughter.

With that, she walks to the bus stop. She insists on taking the bus. Melissa knows she will not turn back. Ah Por never does, even the day when she walked out of their home for the last time. Firecely independent, she has been a seamstress since she came to Singapore, and had saved enough to buy her one-room flat without any help from a bank.

Superstitious about goodbyes, she doesn’t fuss when she has to leave. It has something to do with how her grandfather died, a chapter of her life in China she is not prepared to share.

Melissa looks up at the cloudless sky. The air burns. There is no sign of rain. Despite the outpouring of offerings, nothing seems to have appeased the sun. The scorching sky looks set to punish.


The light assaults the room, then the familiar symphony of crickets. Morning has broken.

Morning—her early morning is gone. The time of the day that is fresh with promise of surprises. Her heart aches a little. The day will repeat itself without surprises. Surprises, she lives for them.

It’s still there; she feels the throb. There must be another way to get it out if it doesn’t like the windows.

You are normal like everyone else.

Am I?

The iPhone says nine. She has fifteen minutes to herself. No surprise there, clockwork precision is their way. Certainty. Of course they mean well, all of them. But she’d rather be left alone to deal with it. Who knows, it could be another surprise. But no, they have taken over; taken charge, made decisions, prescribed how she must live. She is their certainty, they like certainty.

The mobile vibrates. George.

Ready? Here goes. She needs to remember. Ready? Ready for?

Hi, is all she manages.

Melissa, he says with that suspicious, irritating question mark in his voice again. You slept well. George asks by making a statement.

Why is her sleep any of his business?

You remember, don’t you? The question cuts in sharp. She sees his striking face and that trendy, ridiculous haircut. Everything he does or says is to prove that illusive something, and accompanied with that zeal to act older than his age. And with that nervous energy, George is just a younger version of her dad.

Yes. She has absolutely no idea.

I’ll be there in half an hour. It’s hot, so wear something light. What else, George? He likes things his way and sees planning as an art. And he… Melissa, are you there?

Yes, something light. Why should she listen to him? Ah Por never said it, but she never liked him. Ah Por has sharp instincts about people and her intuition, almost psychic, is always right.

Good. Like her father, George ends every phone call with a positive word. Good, fine, wonderful—seventeen, just a few months older than her, and he acts like he is a decade or two older—a man of the world. He is smart, but not quite as much as he thinks he is.

A squeak. It is 9:15. The door opens slowly. Strange.

Excited? Her mom is speaking in her lowest octave. She is careful this morning. No fuss. I heard the phone, George just called?

Yes, and yes. It is always easier to be agreeable.

It’s a brilliant morning. Both of you will enjoy the climb. A climb? Melissa feels her mom’s eyes, searching for clues. She administers a smile.

Where’s dad? Every morning without fail it’s been both mom and dad. Where is he?

Her mom paces in her room. She is obviously trying to find the right way of telling her something that will not hurt, or surprise. Pacing is her way of biding time. He sends his love. I spoke to him on the phone earlier. He should be back from Bangkok by three this afternoon.

That uncontrollable sensation strikes again. Melissa’s fingers move, her left leg shakes. The nerves are in charge now. She is lost. She gazes at the glare of the sun and sees nothing, remembers nothing.

Mom, what climb?



Maybe ‘climb’ is a stretch considering you and George are only going up Mount Faber, she says, her voice still low.

I don’t remember, mom. And it kills me that I have been waking up late. I miss the early mornings.

You must have been sleeping late then.

I sleep late all the time.


There is still the possibility of a miracle, a surprise, and no one needs to know. Life should be one big surprise, pregnant with countless little ones.

Isn’t that why everyone loves her…well, her work, so full of surprise? When the blank canvas stares at her, she never knows what she will do to it. Nothing is ever planned. Her completed canvas never fails to surprise. But she has long known for the rest around her, their surprises are measured by how much her own are worth.


Yes, mom.

She hesitates. There is something in her mother’s mind but she hasn’t found the words. There is so much of Ah Por in her mother’s face. Her eyes, they gaze with the same gentleness and concern for her. Without her dad, Melissa feels safe. Why did her mother marry him?


Yes, Melissa.

I am afraid of dad. Melissa surprises herself. The words just came out. They’d been waiting for a long time now, and it was impossible to keep them in any longer.

Her mom walks to the open window, I know.

The rising humidity hugs her as she walks to her mom. Outside, the leaves dance. Are you?

Am I what?

Afraid of him?

Her mom continues to look out, We live with the consequences of our decisions. The sun is stronger now. Melissa.

Yes, mom.

Do you remember you were out with Ah Por and Chloe? She turns looking Melissa in the eyes.

Yes, Saturday.

Her mom’s gaze turns into a stare. There is something she is not saying.


Don’t be afraid.


She knows?


Who else, Melissa.


Her condition.

She is confused and nervous.

Good, everything is going as planned.

So far so good.

Does anyone else suspect anything?

I am wary of her mother and her grandmother. They are intuitive, we need to be extra careful with them.




It’s the students’ chatter she remembers. Even when in class, they are never totally silent. A continuous hum, a distant disturbance to the whole idea of creation. The afternoon sun falls on her face through the glass window and she allows her eyes to close. It feels good; the air-conditioned lobby is a tad too cold.

Mrs Soh. A female voice, low and smooth.

A youthful face, probably in her mid-twenties, greets her as she looks up. Sorry, Catherine is amazed. She is used to a fifteen, twenty minute wait to see the principal. She has barely sat down.

This way please, she is told. Her heeled walk is economical, and her face at the cusp of a smile. You are always so punctual, Mrs Soh.

Call me Catherine.

She nods.

I miss this place. Catherine takes in the smell of the familiar corridor. A tall student walks by, stealing a glance at her. They all look so grown up. How long has she been away?

The young secretary pushes the door open and a stream of colder air rushes out to embrace Catherine. It must feel like an icebox in there. Catherine wonders why Singaporeans like air-conditioning so much. Aren’t they conditioned enough in this very conditioned city-state?

There she is, Priscilla Fernandez. And she wants everyone to call her Pris. Nearing retirement, Pris just doesn’t sit well with her age. But who can tell Pris anything? She loves her voice and only listens to it.

You always look so calm and collected. Pris presses the charm button. She has many such buttons. Charm could just as easily be followed by sarcasm.

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