Chilli Bawang

They needed a virgin, they said. They had already prepared the offerings – red chillies and white garlic impaled on satay sticks. Most were Christians of some denomination or other, but all were Singaporean theatre practitioners, so they swore by it, wouldn’t let the show go on without it. But you had to have a virgin do the planting, they said. The four corners of the Sports Hub would do it.

Why you build a frickin’ Death Star of a stadium with a giant hole in the middle in a rainy tropical country still escapes me. But rain would ruin the opening ceremony, and spoil the show, and it really wasn’t so much about the taxpayers’ money as the feelings of the hundreds of volunteer performers and imagine if it rained on their parade, but who am I kidding, yes, it was all about the taxpayers’ money. So chilli bawang at the four corners of the Sports Hub, and the hands of a virgin.

Except we couldn’t find one. I mean, Singaporean theatre practitioners. So they looked at me. I wasn’t one. But close enough, right, they said. Whatever that meant. So into the back of the buggy I went, with two giggling girls holding bunches of satayed chili and garlic.

In Jeremy Tiang’s critically acclaimed short story collection, It Never Rains on National Day, characters discuss why it never rains on national day. Short answer: cloud seeding. But no, Jeremy – it’s virgins. Doing seeding of a different kind. The satay sticks broke as we tried to poke them into the soil and so we had to do little diggy bits and then pile soil around the precariously perched chilli bawang to make them stand.

I mean, it surely didn’t matter that I’d had sex before, right? All my action had gone on north of the Tropic of Cancer, which is also where we wanted the rain clouds to stay. But just in case, while trundling on a buggy around the stadium, I tried to forget that I’d ever. Every time ever. Just in case.

The dingy mattress with only my bookshelves for privacy, presided over by prized copies of 90s Sing Lit hand-carried overseas. Your dorm with the too-thin walls. The music room in the basement of Harnwell where we barricaded the door with the sofa. That stairwell where your butt nearly froze to the steps. My roommate’s bed. The first time we came together. When I nearly drowned in the shower. The pretense of massages. Under the covers the morning after, with five other people in the room. You need to itemize before you can delete – you need to remember before you can forget, right? A pristine virginity of the trash-emptied mind. Select, select, select, delete.

When you’re poking chilli sticks in the ground to ward off rain as a grown man with a passable understanding of the nature of precipitation, you can maybe imagine that everything else serious that happened in your life before that moment was just a dream. A blank slate. You never happened. To me. As if a subconscious experience, as if a sleepwalked-through rite of passage, as if a dream that you wake up from three years older.

It didn’t rain. The ceremony went on without a hitch. Were all the memories false, then? You do it for your country, they say. You undo it for your country too. What amount of forgetting makes things real and unreal? Some men are born virgins and others rise to the occasion. Later that year I would do it for the first time with someone else, awkwardly, with that strange sense of discovery, the fumbling fingers and knocked knees and elbows. When she asked me if I was, I said, no, not anymore, I don’t think.

Joshua Ip is a poet, editor, and literary organiser. He has published four poetry collections with Math Paper Press, won the Singapore Literature Prize for his debut, sonnets from the singlish, and placed in three different categories of the Golden Point Award. He has edited nine anthologies, including the A Luxury We Cannot Afford and SingPoWriMo series. He co-founded Sing Lit Station, an overactive literary charity that runs community initiatives including SingPoWriMo, Manuscript Bootcamp, and the world’s first wrestling/performance-poetry hybrid, Sing Lit Body Slam. He received the Young Artist Award from the National Arts Council (Singapore) in 2017. His website:

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