| As long as the traveling carnival committed self-destruction, it could come alive once more in a different place.
September 6, 2023
This piece is part of “The Rainforest Speaks: Reimagining the Malayan Emergency,” featuring art by Sim Chi Yin.
“樂園” first appeared in 道南文學 /第 37 屆, 2018, and is published in《廢墟的故事》（雙囍出版，2021）
A tale should be told from the very beginning, but Kian Kok doesn’t know much about the story’s start. After Father vanished, what Kian Kok thought of as certainties silently slipped and slid too, like buildings erected on sandy soil by heartless developers. People ate in those houses; they made love and cleaned their toilets, days and years passing without incident. One day, they returned home as usual and noticed something off-kilter. Anxiously, they rapped on surfaces and put their ears against walls, sensing budding cracks in the engorged interior. But they couldn’t locate the root of the problem. At night, they went to bed with their hearts in their mouths, and they held back even when spanking their children.
By the time the first crack bloomed across the wall, the house had sunk to its knees, and they realized it was too late.
A problem can only be solved by tracing its origins. That’s what Kian Kok’s many years of experience tell him.
And speed is of the essence. It would be too late otherwise.
The first verifiable fact: Kian Kok’s mother had never been around. Yet a mother’s disappearance can take many forms. Had she died from an illness? Run off with another man? Could it have been complications during childbirth? Whenever the question was raised, Kian Kok’s father would clam up, his face darkening. Kian Kok’s father was always reticent, and he especially disliked bringing up his past. Kian Kok thought this was only natural. After all, the man was a widower almost his whole life, dragging around a sniveling ball and chain. If Kian Kok were in his shoes, he’d be sick of the world, too.
(Could this explain the silent vanishing?)
Where was Father’s hometown? Kian Kok could only venture a guess. Father’s accent hinted at the northern part of Peninsular Malaysia. But for as long as Kian Kok could remember, their home was on the southern tip of the peninsula, Johor. Because Father wasn’t in the best of health, and moreover, had a kid in his care, he could only earn pennies doing casual odd jobs here and there. Kian Kok could clearly recall all the times they had to move. It usually happened at night. Little Kian Kok would be shaken awake from his dreams to discover all his belongings packed away in luggage, a sure sign it was time to go. Of course, more often than not, they were getting kicked out. But even when a kindhearted landlord didn’t mind them sticking around, Father would quietly leave with Kian Kok after a short stay.
They moved steadily south, sometimes switching places every few days, as if fleeing disaster.
Now that Kian Kok thinks about it, that was probably exactly what they were doing.
(And what about now? Isn’t the war long over?)
One day, the carnival appeared along the route of their migration. The story goes that Kian Kok’s father had once again been evicted by a landlord. Little Kian Kok asked where they would go next. Father did not reply. Night had well fallen by then. The two of them loitered on the streets of the unfamiliar town, a big suitcase by their feet.
It was then that they saw a gigantic pillar of light swaying in the air, inflicting incandescent wounds on the dark sky. The whole thing had a whiff of the miraculous about it. Although Kian Kok never became a believer, to this day, he harbors a secret respect for Jesus. “Let’s go there then,” Father said.
So they moved slowly toward the pillar of light. The closer to their destination, the bigger the crowds. People walked, or else rode bicycles or motorcycles, heading toward the pillar each at their own pace. Father and son could now approximate the source of the brightness. A patch of abandoned land lay right outside town, and the aurora sparkled above this wasteland. They were in a rural area with scant streetlamps. People appeared like swarms of flying ants after rain, flapping their wings and scuttling toward brightly lit homes. Muted music soon reached their ears, growing louder by the second. Everyone’s hearts began thumping to the beat of the bass.
They rounded a corner on a narrow path. The scene on the wasteland, larger than life, overwhelmed them.
A carnival had popped up out of the blue. Ten capsules hung from a Ferris wheel a whole three stories tall. When the wheel turned, it creaked noisily, tiny light bulbs changing colors whenever they blinked. Seven or eight wooden horses circled a pole to the music’s rhythm. Riders galloping on saddles surreptitiously stole glances at the white people painted on the center pole, each naked but for a single leaf covering their privates, nipples laid bare. The paint was peeling in strips from the horses, exposing the rust-red subcutaneous tissue underneath. All around rose the crisp dings of steel rings knocking against glass bottles, the aroma of popcorn, an Indian woman’s voice broadcasting the schedule of events and the names of lost children over loudspeakers in three languages . . . From each and every corner blared white-hot heat, beams of light rubbing against sound waves vibrating thunderously in the air, raising the hairs on everyone’s forearms. It was a world they had never imagined. How could so much joy and excitement be condensed into such a shitty place?
A ticket booth stood by the carnival’s entrance. Father got in line like everyone else and edged closer and closer to the front. Little Kian Kok’s legs trembled with agitation. He knew Father was broke. Still, he couldn’t help wishing Father could materialize a few coins from the seams of one of his pockets. Just once, Kian Kok thought. If he could only brush his fingertips against the colorful spaceships once, he wouldn’t mind sleeping on wastelands for the rest of his life.
When Father got to the head of the line, he asked the ticket seller: “Are you still hiring?”
The ticket seller looked Father over, then turned around to summon the boss.
By that time, the communists had long been chased into the depths of the jungles. The Malaysian economy was taking off; everyone was desperate to spend the cash burning holes in their pockets. This marked the ascent of traveling carnivals. These funfairs were mobile. The drop towers, bumper cars, pirate ships, game stalls . . . all those shimmering beauties could be broken down into huge components and rusty iron racks to be ferried away by four or five cab-over trucks. The fleet roamed the peninsula in search of its next resting place, after which a patch of unused land would be cleared, and everything would tumble out of the truck containers. The reassembled Ferris wheel would revolve slowly. Everyone in town, young and old, would be drawn to the clearing by the spotlights’ alluring dance. To think: just four trucks were enough to conjure a paradise from a wasteland.
Though the carnival demanded lots of manpower, the number of job applicants was lacking. Low wages were one thing. More importantly, not many could put up with the long-term rootlessness, the constant moving around. Yet, this was precisely Father’s dream scenario. He was a perfect fit. That was how father and son made the carnival their home. Of course, Father had no idea that they would go on to stay four decades, bearing witness to the carnival’s slow death as it descended from its height of popularity. Certainly, he never thought he would die with it.
But that’s something that happens much later.
(Among the things Father left behind, there was unexpectedly a little mimeograph with the words “Protracted War” printed in red on the cover. The pages bore smears and blots of ink. The back cover teemed with scribbled notes.)
We’re talking about the early days, when Father had just joined the carnival.
The mobile funfair Kian Kok and his father entered was called Paradise Land, and also Jannah. The owner was about Father’s age, the son of a wealthy Chinese merchant. In his halcyon days, the boss had studied abroad in England, though he didn’t spend much time hitting the books. Instead, he goofed around with a bunch of Malay royalty, kicking soccer balls, chasing women, throwing down poker cards. Upon returning to Malaysia, he found himself frustratingly under his dad’s thumb, but happily the traveling carnival fad came along just in time. Using entrepreneurship as an excuse, the son exchanged a small fortune for a set of secondhand carnival equipment shipped all the way from England. Thus began his carefree days gallivanting about peninsular Malaysia.
Father’s official job description was truck driver (it wasn’t until ten years later that the question of a driver’s license struck the boss, who hastily urged Father to apply for one), but because of the worker shortage he also wore the hats of ticket seller, game stall operator, and haunted house ghost, as the occasion demanded. Later on, his main duty became fixing and maintaining carnival equipment after the boss noticed Father hanging around the technicians sent to perform routine servicing. Occasionally, Father would even ask questions, his hands caressing this or that part. These sparks of extroversion aroused the boss’s curiosity, since Father was usually reticent and aloof. So the boss started having Father take a look when they encountered hiccups with the equipment. To the boss’s surprise, Kian Kok’s father seemed to have an innate familiarity with machinery. Not only could he patch minor issues, but he could also pore over tattered English manuals left behind by the previous owner whenever there were bigger malfunctions that even the hired technicians couldn’t handle. With the manuals as guides, Father could always pinpoint the root of any problem. Soon, all of the carnival’s repair and maintenance work was heaped upon him.
Of course, the boss understood something was off. Why in the world would a man deft with machines and fluent in English, be willing to lead a rootless life? But put another way, wasn’t it heaven-sent that a man deft with machines and moreover, fluent in English, would be willing to run around with the circus?
Maintaining the equipment was a heavy responsibility. Those unwieldy machines from an ocean away had obviously seen their day. Cancerous rust stains crawled over every inch of exposed metal surface, requiring incessant coats of paint to cover up the machine’s sickly, ancient moans. Where the paint peeled, three or four different shades could be seen underneath, previous incarnations visible, like looking at a cross section of the earth. The machines’ innards laid bare strange marks when stripped of their outer shells, displaying indecipherable words and symbols that had probably been imprinted by previous owners: Wonderland, Happiness, Fairytale . . . The owners exhausted various descriptors of joy to christen their respective carnivals. Then came bankruptcy and resale, followed inevitably by the next owner racking their brains to summon an even more piquant name to paper over the carnival’s ill fate. The title that popped up most often was “EDEN,” which Kian Kok guessed was the carnival’s final moniker before it sailed to Nanyang. As if possessed, EDEN’s owner branded the word, stylized with vines, on every available object. It could even be found stamped over more ancient names, all those different titles melting into gory wounds over the machines’ hearts.
Yet time would restart as soon as night arrived. The carnies flogged generators overspilling with gasoline, coaxing out throaty shrieks as the light bulbs and spotlights were pushed to melting point. When the loudspeakers screamed at the top of their lungs, they erased all traces of the carnival’s dilapidation. Each cog and wheel spun laboriously to sustain the enormous mirage and bring back the glory of the past. It was the traveling carnival’s golden age. Each day brought unceasing waves of visitors as soon as doors opened. White or Malay, there was no difference; anyone who labored and chafed under their burdens could come to the carnival, where there was no aging, only incessant rebirth.
At the core of that fantastical machine lay a haunted house. It was Paradise Land’s biggest selling point. Being its newest facility, the haunted house had only one name, EDEN, neatly embossed upon its motor’s shell. This haunted house was one of a kind. No Jiangshi and hanged men thrown discordantly together with mummies; such rudimentary horrors could not last. Instead, EDEN’s owner had poured heart and soul into creating a genuine fable adapted from the Bible. Visitors were first plunged into total, murky darkness. They’d shove each other, shuffling their feet in fear. Then a voice would say: “Let there be light.” In sudden, piercing brightness, everyone would find themselves within a meadow. On a cloth backdrop was depicted a naked golden cat feeding an apple to a man.
Holding back mounting terror and tears, the crowd pressed forward. They had taken only a few steps when they were ambushed by horned men covered head to toe in red paint. As the creatures howled gibberish, everyone laughed and ran ahead, only to find themselves trapped in a maze of mirrors. All around them jostled red demonic figures. The lights flickered to the roar of thunder pumped through loudspeakers. Whenever the people tried to move forward, they bumped into their own reflections. Timid children began to scream and wail. “Don’t push! Don’t push!” scolded the adults. When they finally managed to exit the maze they stepped straight into a fiery hell full of overlapping shadows. Cut off from retreat by pursuing monsters, the crowd had only one route of escape: a narrow wooden bridge suspended over a scarlet pool of fresh blood. A voice sounded. “Drink this, all of you. This is my blood…”
Dread lingered in the hearts of everyone who walked out of the haunted house. Gazing upon the scenes of joy outside, they acquired the dazed feeling that they had already died once. After leaving Paradise Land for home they jerked awake several nights in a row, harboring deep anxiety about the sins they’d committed in their current life. At the same time, they were grateful for living in this solid, real world.
Thus was the final design by the owner of EDEN.
Of course, such a tale could never take the stage in Malaysia. To attract tourists, and also to avoid “those meddling Malay authorities sticking their snouts in,” the carnival’s latest boss had no choice but to revamp the haunted house. But the house was configured in an interlocking way, such that any change created ripples throughout. Just when the boss was out of ideas, Father suggested a renovation plan that would forever alter the carnival’s future.
Father’s idea was very simple indeed. The haunted house’s original machinery and mechanisms were left untouched. The only element that changed was the voiceover, which now came with translations in three languages. In the Malay version, the narrative was transformed into the Quran’s tale of genesis: Eden became Jannah, Satan turned into Iblis, and Adam acquired the Nabi honorific tacked in front. In the blink of an eye, the house became a Muslim pilgrimage. The nation’s very first Islamic-themed haunted house caused quite a stir whenever it arrived in Malay-majority areas. Once, a crown prince of some Sultanate even booked the whole place for him and his attendants. On this occasion, the boss rolled up his sleeves to take on the role of an orang minyak, a performance so convincing that the prince’s entourage immediately knelt on the ground and started praying as soon as they exited the haunted house. The royal outing even made the regional section of a national newspaper.
From then on, the haunted house attracted snaking lines every evening. It wasn’t just Malay people. Chinese people and Indian people too descended in tidal waves upon the haunted house. Inside, they each heard the version they wanted to hear, after which all three major ethnic groups scrambled out, leaking pee and farts from being scared silly. Thus a tiny little haunted house managed to harmonize Malaysia’s various ethnicities. TV and newspaper reporters arrived to conduct interviews. Flush with cash and prestige, the boss grinned from ear to ear.
But Father grew only more silent. He neither smoked nor drank. Besides an occasional grocery trip, he never even left the carnival’s entrance. Each day, he buried himself in work, brow furrowed. And each evening, he helped out with the carnival’s operations well into the night. While the other carnies slept in, he woke up at the crack of dawn to putter around, toolbox in hand. His banging and tapping drew everyone’s ire. They called him “stupid old monkey” and “grandpa turtle” behind his back. They’d have confronted him if he weren’t so important to the boss. Kian Kok didn’t know whether Father was aware of everyone’s dissatisfaction. Even Kian Kok seldom heard a peep out of his father. It might be why Father never remarried, staying single into his eighties. He led his life as if he were an ascetic monk, no hint of desire upon his person.
Kian Kok was a different story. As the only child in the carnival, he was the apple of everyone’s eye. There was, of course, no way for him to attend school while wandering about with the carnival. But he did learn multiple languages from various people. His main teacher was the carnival’s Indian announcer, Saraswati, who knew a total of twelve languages including dialects, and could accurately mimic many regional Chinese accents. (They used to play this game when Kian Kok was little: If a child with a Teochew father and Hakka mother were brought up by a Cantonese grandma, how would said child pronounce, “My butt wasn’t washed after I pooped?”)
(Ah, where could Saraswati be now, aged and wizened?)
As he grew older, Kian Kok began to climb everything in sight. First, it was the bumper car canopy, then it was the carousel pole, until eventually he reached the very tip of the Ferris wheel. To remain atop the spinning wheel, Kian Kok had to sustain a speed faster than its revolution. His ears rang with the roiling of his blood. Bulky muscles popped from his arms, while far below the huge crowd screeched. He accepted the public’s adoring cheers as he made his slow descent, dangling upside down from a Ferris wheel capsule.
The carnival was Kian Kok’s dominion, a place he could zip and fly through freely. It was child’s play for him to shoot out the left eye of a game stall doll from ten meters away, or to snag four or five plastic duck prizes with one sweep of his rod; not to mention tossing a ring right onto a glass bottle in the dead center of the formation, all while standing on his head . . . Like a man raised in the jungle, Kian Kok was brawny and spry. His audience grew drunk on his performances. They cheered him on from start to finish.
In due course, quite a few young mothers giggled their way to the shadows looming behind the haunted house with Kian Kok. Sometimes girls in school uniforms took their place, younger brothers in tow . . .
When he wasn’t performing, Kian Kok apprenticed with his father in machinery maintenance. As always, Father kept up his silence, going about his business mutely, letting Kian Kok learn from example. Although they never followed any theories or syllabi, Kian Kok picked things up quickly, as if he had an instinctual sensitivity. How to describe it? He could feel the machine’s inner temperature with just one touch. The carnival was imbued with life. When a machine part broke, it was not readily discarded. Since they couldn’t obtain new parts from Europe either, all they could do was craft replacements with whatever materials they had at hand. Slowly, the carnival began to take on its own look. With enough spare bits, sometimes it even sprouted new toys.
Very early on, Kian Kok sensed that the carnival had a life of its own. It could expand, twirl, and breed, which of course, meant it could also die.
Death was, after all, the carnival’s true form. People visited precisely because they expected demise. Behind the scenes of each ecstatic ascent and screaming plunge, people were actually rehearsing how they would face death, while those cumbersome, ancient machines worked to prop up such incredible happiness. Then after a few visits, the adrenaline receded. Suddenly death became mundane—it was as though people finally found the courage to face reality again. Any object at rest for too long would meet its end. As the crowds thinned, so the carnival’s life force leached out. But the traveling carnival was not afraid. As long as it committed self-destruction, it could come alive once more in a different place. Even if it returned to a previous spot, the memory of an earlier generation would have long since paled, while a new generation would rediscover elation, so on and so forth until time itself was depleted.
The carnival never would die. When the worn cogs and wheels from England gradually broke down, Kian Kok and Father used local materials to reconstruct them. And as long as this reconfiguration kept taking place, they had on their hands an infinite carnival, full of infinite possibilities. So Kian Kok never grew tired of the funfair. He was deeply mesmerized by its cycles of death and rebirth. He actually thought he’d spend his whole life in the carnival, just like Father.
And then, time abruptly seemed to be depleted.
The ranks of mega theme parks grew ever larger after the nineties. People ceased to be dazzled by traveling carnivals and their primitive equipment. Then came successive news reports about fatal accidents in mobile funfairs, which led the public to question carnival safety (did they really have engineers on staff?) Soon there were no willing visitors. The boss was older now, married with kids. After inheriting his family’s fortune, he no longer had reason to give two shakes about this money pit. But now that the carnival had been reduced to a gigantic mound of metal scrap, there was no way he could sell it to somebody else, either. Luckily, the boss was a sentimental sort. He parked the carnival on a piece of wasteland deeded to his family, and allowed Father to continue living there.
Kian Kok knew it was time to leave.
He was almost forty by then. With no employable skills or diplomas to speak of, he couldn’t find work in the theme parks. Then he thought about becoming a street performer. He’d barely started scaling the KL Tower before the police dragged him right off and slapped him with a fine of several thousand ringgit.
Luckily, Kian Kok had boundless physical strength. Real estate was just heating up then, new construction mushrooming all over the country. Kian Kok could handle welding, cement work, and carpentry. He was as strong as ten undocumented workers, and more importantly, he didn’t have to make for the hills when the police came knocking. For this reason, he was the darling of general contractors. A few years on, Mainland Chinese investors descended to sweep up the entire capital, buying swathes of real estate in cash as if shopping for groceries. Kian Kok was so busy with work he didn’t even have time to think about women. Roaming all over Peninsular Malaysia, he seemed to have reverted to a previous life, except now he was traveling to erect his fatherland.
It had been a long time since he thought about Father. When that figure next crossed Kian Kok’s mind, it was because the boss called to say something was wrong with the carnival.
Kian Kok felt a vague unease. When he had a moment’s downtime he returned to the carnival’s final resting place. The hulking Ferris wheel had disappeared, as had the pirate ship and wooden horses. The only thing standing was the haunted house, which had grown larger than its original size, incongruous layers and outcrops protruding as if it had swallowed the rest of the carnival whole.
Kian Kok pushed open the haunted house’s door. It was pitch dark inside.
His voice echoed emptily. Kian Kok finally remembered he was an orphan.