Fat-Fat Ah Khu (Ah Khu: Uncle in Chinese-Hokkien) placed his bets on Germany for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Final. He watched the game with a box of char kway teow in his left hand and a pair of chopsticks in his right. It was as Lionel Messi kicked the ball over the crossbar that the crowd roared and Fat-Fat Ah Khu’s heart went quiet. His uneven chopsticks smacked the floor as he bellyflopped onto the tiles. The upended noodles held the shape of the container they had come in. When Messi choked that day, he lost his chance at getting even with Germany and saving Argentina from that dreaded empty-stomached symbol: zero, zilch, nil, oh, 0.
‘What do you want to eat?’ They were always his first words when Mum, myself and our luggage had been crammed into his Corolla.
‘Jess, Ah Khu is asking you.’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Curry mee, char kway teow, roti chanai, kway teow teng, nasi lemak, dim sum, asam laksa…choose.’
‘I ate something on the plane.’
‘She says she doesn’t want to eat,’ he muttered to himself.
‘Jess.’ Mum could cram a scolding, an order and a plea all into that one syllable.
‘Kway teow teng.’
At the best kway teow teng shop in Penang Island, Fat-Fat Ah Khu sat us at a table under a ceiling fan. He put on his glasses and dragged the red plastic bucket with its teapot filled with hot water and cups towards himself. He poured water into each of the cups and emptied them into the bucket. After several repetitions he used some paper napkins to dry the crockery. He placed the lid of the teapot sideways at its mouth to signal for some tea.
He tweaked our orders when he relayed them to the owner of the shop. Less chilli for the small one. More bean sprouts for the big one. Not too much oil or salt in all of them.
He watched us as we slurped the oil-shiny broth and slippery noodles, monitoring our reactions. He rated each component critically. You wouldn’t say their noodles are too soft. But they’re stingy about meat. Their prawns were probably frozen. From Thailand. Everything’s from Thailand.
One bowl each was more than enough. Under my mother’s eye, Fat-Fat Ah Khu could never take more than what he needed. He would sit in small-lipped silence as she spoke: Your gout. Your diabetes. What? Do you think medication is magic? And have you been exercising? She would remind him with the kind of anger that is one part love and one part fear.
Fat-Fat Ah Khu was unluckily born at the precise moment when the bottle became available for colicky babies in the kampung. It must have been a relief for Ah Ma. There is nothing sentimental about breast-feeding in the kind of climate where makeup melts to sugar icing. The kind of climate where no one can be bothered dressing up because they know they will be stripping and wringing the clothes covering their backsides within the next few hours. And also, Ah Ma, was the micromanager of a family of eight, owner of a next-door sundry shop and unofficial rice-bowl for rellies with smaller chicken coops. We dare not blame her for shoving a pre-mixed bottle of formula and Woodward’s Gripe Water into Fat-Fat Ah Khu’s mouth anytime he opened it.
This is the story of how my Fat-Fat Ah Khu stretched his stomach with the self-same pride of a storyteller stretching truth.
Five hundred kilometres of dry road spread between us and my uncle’s house. The destination was always food and we measured the time we spent on the road in hunger pangs.
We were stopped at the checkpoint. Mum shook herself awake. Fat-Fat Ah Khu put on his seat belt and dragged the gearstick into park.
‘Why are we stopping?’ I asked.
The Malaysian policemen talked amongst themselves. Anonymous in black shades and a hard-lined black uniform. Oil-shiny hair peeping out from under their wool berets.
‘Don’t worry. The police are my friend,’ said Fat-Fat Ah Khu. ‘My twenty to fifty ringgit friend.’
The policemen slid open the glass window of their booth. Fat-Fat Ah Khu wound down his window.
They negotiated. Fat-Fat Ah Khu pulled out his IC (Malaysian Identity card) wrapped in a fifty-ringgit bill. They gave him twenty ringgit in change and the IC back.
‘Welcome to Malacca,’ the policeman said.
Fat-Fat Ah Khu was born King Huat. The first part of which I don’t know the significance of – I once asked him if he was an actual king and he said no without laughing at me. The ‘Huat’ was part-prophecy, part-semantics. ‘Huat’ means both ‘growth’ and ‘prosperity’ in Chinese-Hokkien and is often spoken to mean both things at once. But to me, Huat referred to Fat-Fat Ah Khu’s cascading belly, his gouty cankles and his face as round and high up in the sky and pockmarked as the moon itself. Way before I was born they must have decided that a better name for him was ‘Fat’ and that was the only way I heard him referred to by friends, siblings and business associates speaking out of his three Nokias.
Fat-Fat Ah Khu squeezed a famous Malaccan rice ball between the splintered ends of his chopsticks and swallowed it. Mum and I did the same, dipping them in sour chilli paste. Fat-Fat Ah Khu placed his chopsticks back on the table.
‘The rice is starched to death,’ he said.
‘Indians probably prepared it. You know how they never wash their rice,’ Mum said.
‘I don’t know how they can charge over 60 cents per rice ball,’ he said, his breath sour with chilli.
‘They think we’re tourists,’ Mum said.
The richer families in the tiny everyone-knows-everyone kampung always took Fat-Fat Ah Khu out to eat when he was young. Whether they were on their way to breakfast Dim Sum or Midnight Mamak. They took a peculiar post-war pleasure in admiring the endurance of his appetite (never mind the children wandering the streets like stray dogs, selling the occasional lottery ticket).
A fat child was a rare sight in those post-war years. From his frame flowed all the abundance that the war had stripped away. It was Fat-Fat Ah Khu’s pleasure to remind his family and his neighbours of those decadent luxuries called Reckless Waste and Joyful Abandon. They would light their cigarettes and bite on them. Watching, they would breathe out the compliment ‘Gau chiat see,’ meaning ‘Smart at eating to death!’ Death being an indicator of the superlative form in Chinese. You ask what it takes to be ‘smart at eating’? Well, you need a glutton’s cavernous stomach, tempered by the discriminating taste of a gourmand. So if Fat-Fat Ah Khu had cracked open the pimply exoskeleton of a lobster leg with his teeth and sucked all the flesh from inside of it like milk from a straw, he would have been ‘smart at eating’. But if all he had wrapped around his chopsticks was the loose blonde perm of the egg noodles in the serving dish, he would have been ‘tam chiat’. Nothing more than an idiotic glutton eating a cheap commodity made from powdered eggs and oil.
It had happened the day that Fat-Fat Ah Khu took me home from the chiropractor. (He had insisted that this spine-cracker was the only one that could set my scrunched-up back straight.) In the passenger seat, I looked down at my thighs and pinched at their excess. I let go. They expanded across the seat like spilt milk.
‘I want to ao.’ I told Fat-Fat Ah Khu. Those two hollowed out letters. The way my body wanted to be. Ao. It sounded like someone choking on their own body.
‘If you want to ao then ao.’
He gave me a wrinkled plastic bag. As I took it from him I turned my head towards the window and threw up everything I had eaten.
I wound down the window violently and sobbed for no reason. I continued throwing up with my head bobbing out the window like a deflated balloon. I was grateful that my mum was not in the car. She would have scolded and scolded, as was her way when she was worried. Fat-Fat Ah Khu cursed the traffic all the way home but left me to myself.
Outside, I watched as he got out his orange garden hose and sprayed down his car. He was meticulous. He wound the window up and the vomit caked inside slid upwards with it. He wiped it with a rag-cloth patiently. When I told him I was sorry that night, he looked at me as if he had never considered the possibility that I had wronged him.
‘Your body can’t help it – what it wants to do,’ he said.
I nodded but I wasn’t so sure. I felt my own body’s rising up against me like it was a betrayal.
This is a story I have heard passed from one mouth to another.
In the kitchen of Ah Kong’s longhouse, the shower is a green plastic cubicle in the corner of the kitchen. No one sings into the showerhead here. Fat-Fat Ah Khu finishes bathing and comes out wrapped in a towel printed with boy-rabbits wearing dungarees and girl-rabbits wearing pinafores. He has only just earned the hard-won privilege of bathing himself without Ah Ma’s help. The smell of red bean soup is as thick as wet cement but there are no voices in the kitchen. He creeps round the cubicle to the gas stove. The fire is off. Ah Ma won’t be back to stir it. He touches the metal lid and springs back. She won’t be back to dish it up till it goes lukewarm at least. Fat-Fat Ah Khu scrambles to the kitchen table and pulls one of the wooden stools towards the pantry door. Sliding the door across, he stands on all ten toes and stretches his arm towards the bottle on the roof of the pantry. He jumps down and sits his bum upon the stool while he slurps with left leg swinging and right eye on the door. But from the backyard, sibling voices. Then sibling arms and legs and mouths. Whole bodies of them. Big Sister One, skin stretched over her skeleton like a greyhound and Big Sister Two, pork-bun head and pork-bun tummy. He jumps up, holding his towel with one hand to keep it from slipping. They run over and yank the bottle from between his lips. It splashes over his chin and chest. He adjusts his towel to keep it from slipping.
‘If you dare do it again I’ll call Ma to come bamboo your bum,’ says Big Sister One.
He feels the liquorice liquid trickling down to the swell of his belly.
‘It’s not getting any cheaper, you know,’ adds Big Sister Two. Always the second to speak and the first to agree.
He wipes the droplets on his belly with his hand and licks his fingers one by one.
‘Do that again.’
There’s isn’t much flavour left on his skin but he does it again. Licking slower.
‘MA. AH FAT IS GUZZLING THE GRIPE WATER AGAIN NOW.’
Mum wasn’t there when Fat-Fat Ah Khu died. She was at the Moonee Ponds Central Primary School quilting fair, voting for her favourite hand-sewn and machine-sewn quilts. She had felt a strange desire to book a flight ‘back home’ that week, but had known it would be difficult now that Dad was recovering from a heart attack of his own. Over the sonic odds and ends that comprise long-distance calls, we heard things. We heard that in the last week before he died he had stopped being so careful. Durian heaped upon durian, pork belly upon pork belly and fried noodles. The fried noodles. Perhaps it was his overflowing generosity towards himself that did it. In that last week he decided to give his body its final wish, without counting up the infinite cost of it. I could not reproach him for this; he had always forgiven the misbehaviour of my body and so taught me to forgive.
Image credit: ohocheese