A Bowl of Soup
a short story by Hong Wee Tan
About the Author
Hong Wee Tan writes mainly for the entertainment of his wife (who is also his greatest motivator). When he is not slogging at the day job, he is either writing, swing dancing, or hurting himself while playing football. He has a degree in mathematics from Cambridge University (UK) but hardly uses it. He is at present living in Singapore. His stories have appeared in Silverfish New Writings (Malaysia and Singapore), the Quarterly Literary Review of Singapore, and Gen X Zine.
At six o’clock in the morning, the sun had not yet risen, so dewdrops sat on leaves, unaware of their fate. The world was already half awake with school children who faced an hour-long bus journey, mothers who packed them off, and fathers who had started to worry if the economy would take a turn for the worse. After a night of respite, though, they were all at least ready for the battle.
Others were less fortunate. For Lin Poh, who sat reading a magazine in the cafeteria of a Jurong Town electronic components factory, eyes tired from hours of glare and fingers aching from endless soldering, six o’clock marked the halfway point in her midnight-to-noon shift. Hard work, long hours, and sleeplessness had aged her beyond her thirty years. Lines of maturity had begun to spread across her oval face; the skin that was once smooth and rosy had taken on the qualities of parched land. The magazine was borrowed from the canteen manager, and it featured an article on the Grand Palace Restaurant and its renowned “Buddha Jumps Over the Wall.” A glossy, colorful photograph of a bowl of steaming soup was what caught her eye – the text read, “shark’s fin, shark’s lip, fish maw, abalone, sea cucumber, duck chops, pork tripe, mutton elbow, dried scallop, ginseng and mushrooms, seasoned and steamed separately, then double-boiled with superior cooking wine and a dozen pigeon eggs.”
Lin Poh closed her eyes. She could smell the soup and feel the steam gently caressing her face. Mmmn… if only she could afford it; but, at a staggering sixty dollars, all Lin Poh could afford was to laugh and to dream about it. Sixty dollars could feed her family for two weeks, and heaven knows how her family needed to be fed. Two years ago, her husband, Lye Soon, had a motorcycle accident, and things have looked bleak and impossible ever since. He was paralyzed from the waist-down and instantly turned from sole breadwinner to main medical expense. Even before the accident, Lye Soon’s job as a clerk did not allow for much in life, let alone the luxury of an insurance policy. The family savings, whatever little of it, was soon drawn down. Lin Poh, armed with only a primary school education, could not afford to be choosy about her job. The 12-hour shift had meant the life of an owl and little time with the family, but it paid the bills. Under the circumstances, there was not much else for which she could have asked. Lin Poh had the kids, Sim Bae and Sim Khoon, to think about. Her hope laid squarely on their shoulders, for she and her husband had long ago decided there would be no more prospects for a couple of poorly educated adults, and therefore, they should make every sacrifice necessary so that the kids could get a proper headstart in life. Every sacrifice.
Lin Poh opened her eyes. Under the harsh fluorescent lights, her head ached from the continuous six hours of work and even more from the prospect of the next six. It was like this seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. Later, at home, she would have to cook a decent meal out of a near empty fridge, clean the kids up, and make them do homework that she herself will not understand. She will then nap, prepare dinner, and when everyone is sound asleep, kiss their sweet, peaceful faces goodbye and return to the cold, chemical-stenched factory line. She was sick of this routine, sick of this job, sick of not having enough money and sick of not having fun in life. Her eyes came back to the glorious “Buddha Jumps Over the Wall.” “Nutritious, invigorating and keeps you young,” promised the article. Suddenly, that bowl of soup became an unreachable goal in her life, as if someone or something had ordained that Soh Lin Poh would never enjoy the luxury of good, nutritious, expensive food.
She felt the acid gnawing away at the walls of her stomach. Why should she accept that unfair decree? Had she not slogged hard enough in this life to justify a proper bowl of soup? Did she not have the right to a little pleasure? After all, it would be her 30th birthday in two weeks, and she did have some seventy dollars in savings stored in the biscuit tin. Her logical mind sprang into action. Lye Soon had made wonderful progress and now paints ceramic pots, sold through a local charity. It wasn’t much money, but it had at least sustained his smoking habit. If Lye Soon was entitled to burn his money away, wasn’t she entitled to some nutrition? Would it not be in everyone’s interest that she should finally eat something “nutritious” for herself, so that she could work harder for the family?
The treat was set to be on Tuesday. Lin Poh left the house early in the evening, on the pretext of running an errand before going to the factory. She hopped onto a bus full of workers going home to a hot meal. All through the journey, she could only think about the excitement of the soup, drummed up by the imagined hunger of the others on the bus. Her rapid walk from the bus stop enabled her to cover the remaining kilometer in less than 15 minutes. After a stop at the shopping mall toilet to change out of her grubby factory uniform and into a proper dress, she took the elevator to the second level. She made a right turn, and there it was – the most majestic restaurant Lin Poh had ever seen. A pair of rosewood doors, with inlaid mother-of-pearl above, framed the entrance, and a signboard read “The Grand Palace Restaurant” in large, loud, gold letters. On the left side of the entrance, a large poster shouted at passers-by to try out the famous “Buddha Jumps Over the Wall: nutritious, invigorating and keeps you young.” On the right side, as if a living testimony to the potency of the soup, stood a tall, well-groomed head usher, impeccably suited and made-up. It was she who smiled at Lin Poh..
“Table for one?” she asked with a trace of concern in her voice.
Lin Poh moved toward the woman and nodded hesitantly. She was about to exchange four months of savings, two weeks of family feed for a single, minuscule bowl of soup. But there was no time for pondering and wavering because the busy head usher had shown her to her table and an army of waitresses had begun to fuss around her, pouring tea, setting the napkin, and removing the extra sets of cutlery. The sheer momentum of the events had left Lin Poh almost breathless and fuelled her excitement.
“Just one bowl of Buddha Jumps Over the Wall, please,” she said when the commotion had settled.
This was going to be the best bowl of soup. It was going to be the crowning glory of her life, something she could look back on and say she’d done. She would remember each sip, each bite, and each taste, along with every color, every ripple, and every droplet of the soup. Henceforth, she would only have to close her eyes and the Buddha would jump over the wall for her again.
Afterward, Lin Poh sat near the back of the factory bus, alone. Her hair, normally tied into a ponytail, hung untidily, scattered by the wind. Her emotionless face sat propped by her left hand, her large brown eyes hazy with a far-away look. The track of a single tear ran down the left side of the bridge of her nose. The breeze from the open window had dried it, but a few strands of hair stayed glued to her face.
The soup had been excellent, worth every bit of the sixty dollars. It had color, fragrance and taste – the three yardsticks by which Chinese food is scrutinized. The abalone melted in her mouth, the fish maw warmed her heart, and she could easily imagine that the ginseng had improved her blood circulation. Everything about it was perfect. No, it wasn’t the soup; it was the act of drinking it alone. She had been selfish enough to want to enjoy that one good thing in her life, and that selfishness had struck back in a most direct and blunt manner. At the restaurant, families were all around. Mothers were urging grandfathers to eat more, fathers were admonishing junior for not sitting still, husbands were listening to wives complain about their day. They were all together, and they were all happy. She, on the other hand, had left a half-paralyzed husband and two underfed kids at home while she stole the bowl of delicacy for herself. She wasn’t the only one to make sacrifices in the family. Lye Soon had stopped his social drinking. Sim Khoon had not asked for any toys for as long as she could recall, and Sim Bae never ate more than half of his fried egg, so that he could leave her the remainder because he knew she loved fried eggs. What exceptional boys she had.
These thoughts made each spoon of the superior soup more bitter and sour. As she ate, her heart ached and longed for the comfort of the one-room flat called home. She saw the faces of her sons, happy, despite their hunger. Their shallow breaths had sent shivering ripples across her soup. How she missed them, as if by drinking the soup she had lost them forever. Her heart wrenched, and her hand trembled. She remembered every spoonful, just like she said she would, though not in the same way she thought she would. Every sip turned out to be a scalding of a cold heart, every bite, a gnaw at a selfish core. It was a soup of love that retaliated in a magical manner. It made her realize how she loved her family more than herself. She would have enjoyed it had Lye Soon and Sim Bae and Sim Khoon been there. One bowl of soup shared by four would have been worth four bowls of happiness.
With this, she closed her eyes and really saw the Buddha leap for her.
“A Bowl of Soup” Copyright ©2002 by Hong Wee Tan.
All Rights Reserved.
No part of this story may be used or reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without the written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations for the purposes of critical reviews or articles. Educators who wish to print or photocopy in part or whole this story for classroom use, or publishers who wish to include this story in an anthology should send inquiries by email to the author.