I saw Kuala Lumpur through different eyes now. The last time I was here was ten months before, when we celebrated my father’s forty-ninth birthday in the Spotted Dog Club just in front of the cricket ground. The ground was busy now and the sun cast shadows across it. I heard the thock of the ball hitting the bat and then cheers as the batsmen ran. It was a typical afternoon in the biggest town in Malaya: the English would leave their sweltering offices, go to the Spotted Dog to have a gin and tonic, play some cricket, and then return home for a bath before coming back to the Club for dinner and then dancing. It was a good life, a rich life filled with ease and enjoyment.
The Japanese Embassy was a converted bungalow on a hill just behind Carcosa, the Governor’s Residence. The road leading up to it was cool and shady, the old angsana trees littering the way with leaves and pods and twigs which crackled under the tyres. The sentry at the gates saluted us through.
A youth in military uniform brought our bags to our rooms. The fan was switched on immediately. Then we went out on to the verandah where we were served glasses of iced lemon tea.
The Embassy looked down a wooded slope thick with flame-of-the-forest trees. I stood drinking my iced tea and thought about the concept of duty. It was so confusing and, it seemed to me at that moment, so pointless. Where was the freedom that each of us had been born with?
Endo-san had told me, at the beginning of my lessons how strong the duty of teaching, once undertaken, was. It was never offered freely or haphazardly. A prospective student had to provide letters of recommendation in order to convince a sensei to accept him. Teaching could never be accepted without all its burdens and obligations and I had come to understand this eventually. Yet in my mind I heard Yasuaki’s words, warning me about duty and generals and emperors. A moment of unease made me finish my drink in a single swallow.
“We must pay our respects to Akasaki Saotome-san, the Ambassador to Malaya” Endo-san said, and led me downstairs.
Although the bungalow was built in the typical Anglo-Indian style, with wide wooden verandahs and large airy ceilings, it had been decorated strictly by a Japanese hand. The rooms were partitioned by paper shoji screens, scrolls of calligraphy hung at well-lit positions and a faint smell of incense cleansed the air as we passed. Stark, skeletal flower arrangements stood on low tables. “These are Saotome-san’s personal arrangements,” Endo-san said. “His ikebana has won prizes in Tokyo.”
Another youth in uniform slid a door open and we placed our cotton slippers outside before entering. The room was bare, save for the photograph of a sullen-looking man. Endo-san knelt on the straw mats and bowed to it. I did not, but I presumed the portrait to be that of Hirohito, the Emperor of Japan. We sat with our buttocks on our heels and waited for Akasaki Saotome-san to join us. He entered and there was a flurry of bows before we were at last comfortable, sitting in front of a low wooden table.
The Ambassador was a handsome, almost haughty looking man, except when he smiled. Then he looked merely handsome and ordinary. In his dark hakama and black and grey yukata robe patterned with silver chrysanthemum blossoms he appeared much older than Endo-san, although his movements were just as graceful.
“Is this your student I have heard about?” he asked in English, smiling at me. His voice was as thin as rice paper. I could picture him as somebody’s grandfather.
“Hai, Saotome-san,” Endo-san replied, indicating to me to serve the hot sake.
“How is his progress?”
“Very good. He has made tremendous advances, physically and mentally.”
Endo-san had never once commented expressly on my studies. Now, to hear it before the Ambassador, was immensely pleasurable. It added to the warm glow left by the sake.
They switched to Japanese immediately, the older man looking intently at me to see if I could follow. His accent was slightly rougher than Endo-san’s but after a few sentences I sailed with the flow of their conversation.
We were served dinner, which came on little porcelain plates, each with just one or two pieces of food. I enjoyed the marinated eel, the sweetened chicken and the little rolls of raw fish wrapped in rice and seaweed. The Japanese ate daintily, examining their food in the chopsticks, commenting on the taste and colour and texture, almost as though they were making an artistic acquisition. I was famished and had to restrain myself from eating too much, too fast.
“How is the situation in Penang?” Saotome asked, placing his chopsticks on an ivory rest.
“Quiet and peaceful. Our people are contented, and there are no distressing matters,” Endo-san replied. “We have found a suitable house on The Hill to lease for our staff and their families. I will show you some photographs later. Apart from that, I have almost unlimited free time and we have been travelling around the island.”
Saotome-san smiled. “Ah, such splendid days, hmm?” he said in English. I stopped eating, knowing it was a direct reference to me. Suddenly the old man did not seem so benign. I felt like a mouse before a tiger.
“You seem to know a lot about me,” I said, disregarding all the lessons I had learned and facing him directly.
“We make a point of knowing our friends,” Saotome said. “I hear your father is the head of the largest trading company in Malaya?”
“Not the largest – that would be Empire Trading.”
“We have some businessmen interested in Malaya. Would your father be interested in collaborating with them? To be partners with these people? They are keen to obtain a share in your father’s company.”
I thought of what he wanted to know. Deep down, I suspected our future could depend on the answer I gave. I said carefully, “I think he would be willing to listen – after all, he has nothing against your countrymen – but I cannot speak for my father. You will have to ask him yourself.”
Saotome leaned back and said, “Oh. I suppose we would have to.” He picked up another piece of fish. “Would you consider working for us, once you have finished your studies? I understand you have only another year to go.”
I gave Endo-san a questioning look. “In what capacity?” I asked.
“As an interpreter, a person to liaise with the Malayan people. A goodwill officer, you might say.” Saotome saw my uncertainty. “You do not have to reply now. The work will be interesting, I can assure you.”
I promised Saotome that I would consider his offer and he smiled and said, “Now, would you like to have more of that eel? I saw you were quite, quite hungry.”
The shoji door opened, and a soldier knelt and bowed to Saotome. Next to him was a young Chinese girl in a robe, her hair tied into two lacquered balls.
No words crossed the space between the kneeling figures and us, until Saotome said, “Lift her face to me.”
The soldier put his fingers under the girl’s chin and brought it up.
“Open her robes.”
The same hand dropped from the girl’s chin and pulled her robes open to one side, revealing a single breast as yet uncertain of its shape, still breaking into womanhood.
Saotome studied her and gave a smile, tiny as a cut. His throat pulsed, and his tongue touched briefly the corner of his lip, an artist’s brush adding the final, perfecting stroke.
I found that the eel no longer tasted so sweet.
© Tan Twan Eng 2006