Saturday, February 02, 2008

Grasshoppers and Grandmothers (1)

When I was growing up in Singapore, I had a friend called Ah Lau. I was about ten then, and he was slightly older. I used to follow him around because he knew things. And I didn’t. Sometimes I would surprise Ah Lau talking to my older brother but he would stop whenever I appeared. Whatever they were talking about was deemed inappropriate for my younger ears!

Ah Lau used to catch grasshoppers. There were stretches of dried grasslands in Singapore in those days and these were Ah Lau’s hunting grounds. He would prod the grass with a stick and, when a grasshopper jumped from its hiding place and revealed its existence, not realising that it’s grasshopping days were almost over, Ah Lau would crouch, and expertly catch the insect with his bare hands. Being an incompetent grasshopper catcher myself, I would just watch.

Ah Lau would then put his victim into a box that he had made. It was a wooden box with wire gauze covering one side, and it had a small opening that had a piece of rubber nailed around it. This allowed the grasshoppers to be slipped inside but made it impossible for them to get out. It was an ingenious contraption. Ah Lau was an Edison of sorts, in his own small way.

When he had caught enough grasshoppers, we would walk back leisurely to our neighborhood. This usually happened during the school holidays and we had plenty of time on our hands. Ah Lau lived in the flat above mine and, as soon as had deposited the grasshopper box in a safe place, he would come out again, and we would sit on the landing, talking about all sorts of things. Until my mother opened the door and nagged me to get inside.

The next morning, Ah Lau would take his grasshopper box and we would take a walk to a coffee-shop a few kilometers away. Even before we arrived, we could hear them. The birds. In those days, it was not unusual for people to keep birds in cages as pets, just as it is now fashionable to have a dog or an aquarium in the house. For, hooked to the ceiling of the coffee-shop were numerous cages with all kinds of birds singing their throats away. And this was the source of Ah Lau’s business; he came here to sell his grasshoppers to the bird owners who would then feed them to their birds.

Ah Lau would then begin his bargaining. With a few of his regular customers, he would try and dispose of his merchandise as quickly as possible. The transaction over, we would leave, after witnessing some of the birds swallowing the grasshoppers that had been hopping about only the day before. On the walk back Ah Lau would buy a packet of cigarettes with the money that he had earned. But he would never offer me one, saying that I was too young for such bad habits! Which is probably why I have never smoked.

End of Part One

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