In conjunction with the year of the dragon and Chinese New Year, here's a short story I wrote and performed at the Butterworth Fringe Fest with Readings@Tanjong last year.
HAIR THE DRAGON
They say that the tunnels under George Town are where the dragons used to live. I don’t know about that. It’s 2023, for God’s sake. What dragons? Have you ever seen a dragon? They’ve probably been hounded—or hunted—to extinction by now. It’s not like we’ve seen any in recent decades. Centuries, even. The stories still stick around, though.
Like the one my uncle’s uncle’s uncle once told my uncle’s uncle, who told my uncle who told me about this dragon that he used to know. Yeah, but unlike the song, it wasn’t a breakup. It wasn’t even a romance. More like a…threat?
Anyway, back in ye olden days, we used to have wells. There’s one at Kuan Im Teng—The Goddess of Mercy Temple—if you want to know what a well looks like, though no one uses it anymore. It’s like this deep hole that’s all dried up and probably filled with rubbish, but that’s where people used to get fresh water and stuff in the past, no kidding. They didn’t twisty-turny or pushy-pully, yay clean water! You had to work for it by going out to the garden, to the well, and pull up a bucket of water on a chain. Then boil it or something so you don’t die. The water, not the bucket. You reuse the bucket.
If I lived back then, I would have lots of muscles. Or I would be dead of dehydration. Probably dead.
So, there’s this network of wells, and obviously they’re connected by tunnels, all the way from Fort Cornwallis through to Masjid Kapitan Keling. Or not so obviously because they’re hidden underground. I haven’t seen them myself and I don’t plan to. I don’t think half of them are even accessible now, so I really don’t think we have dragons living in Penang anymore. Where would they even stay?
I’ve been trying to imagine this, but the best I can come up with is like the underground sewer network, which eww, why would a dragon live there? Aren’t they supposed to be majestic creatures of death and destruction and all that?
But lots of the old stories say that dragons like caves, so I suppose this was maybe what they were used to. I dunno, I thought they’d hoard enough money to buy themselves a mansion or two. Maybe dragons are just weird that way.
This dragon that my uncle’s uncle’s uncle used to know was called Hair. Not because he had a lot of hair—dragons don’t have hair, they have scales. I definitely have the intonation wrong, but it’s something like the Hokkien word for prawn? Ha, He, Heh, Her, Haaaaiiir. ANYWAY. It probably means something else and may not even be Hokkien so who knows what his name is actually supposed to be? Hair is easier to say for a banana like me.
Right. Back to the story.
Hair is an ancient dragon, because all dragons are ancient, and my uncle’s uncle’s uncle was ancient, so everyone I’m talking about is very old right now and mostly dead. Except the dragon, because dragons don’t die, and my uncle, because well, he’s only seventy-ish. He still has a strong heart and he’d be here telling you this story except he doesn’t speak much English and he says his legs get tired, but I know that’s a lie because he always goes for these long walks to the apartment on the next road to see his mistress. (Who he thinks we know nothing about.) Now, if there were tunnels in Butterworth, I’m sure he’d be all for using them so that no one could follow him to her place.
I wonder where I can find that info...
I met Hair once. Or at least, I think it was him. My uncle wasn’t really clear in the introduction, but I think my Chinese was passable enough to understand that he said, “This is Hair the Dragon,” instead of “This is Prawn the Loan Shark.” Which is what I hate about Chinese languages, you know? Everything could be another word if you say it wrong and it should be so pretty and witty and poetic but really it’s not. Plus, I can’t really tell the difference between Mandarin and Hokkien and Cantonese and whatever else. So, who knows what my uncle really said?
The guy I met is now a Facebook friend, which is kind of cool, assuming I met the dragon and not the loan shark. If they even are the same person. He looked like a human, which is a thing I’m told dragons can do. Maybe you should prod your neighbour and see if they’re really human. They could be a dragon in disguise.
Anyway, next year is the year of the dragon, which is Hair’s year. He hates it, apparently, and says it’s supposed to be mine. Because Rats and Dragons get along or something like that. Don’t ask me the specifics, it’s not like I believe in it anyway, but I believe in knowing stuff. Knowing stuff is always helpful. Maybe that’s why Hair likes me. I know a lot of stuff.
But you’d think that you’d like your own year, right? I thought so too, because I always thought that if it was your year, they would favour you, right? Your greatest cable, right there. Boom! Direct connection to the gods or whatever. But he told me that having the same year as your zodiac animal was actually bad because then you would clash with them. The only way to resolve that is by signing a “peace treaty” with your “zodiac animal general”. Which is stupid. Like, we’re Chinese, we’re buddies, right? We’re Penangites, we’re buddies, right? So if you’re both dragons, you should be buddies, right?
The problem, I was told, was that whilst Hair is a dragon, he’s not one of the dragons of the zodiac. There are five elements in the cycle, like earth, fire, wind, water, heart, by your powers—no, that’s Captain Planet. This makes me feel old, but I don’t think anyone remembers who Captain Planet is anymore. The shiny white guy with green hair? That anti-pollution campaign cartoon? Oh well.
The five, um, Chinese elements, which I don’t remember, means there are five different dragon generals, and Hair isn’t one of them so I suppose that puts him in opposition with all of them. Unless I’m getting this wrong and all this applies only to humans and not to dragons.
All that aside, Hair used to live in the tunnels under George Town for whatever reason. I’m actually still not convinced there are tunnels. Or that dragons lived there. Though I was told that if you visit the Pinang Peranakan Mansion—you know, that light green building where they filmed The Little Nyonya—there’s another well leading to a tunnel right there. I remember visiting once, but I can’t for the life of me remember if I saw a well. But they might have filled it in and covered it up because, well, tourists. You don’t want things falling in that might awaken something scarier than a dragon.
They say the tunnels of George Town were used for other nefarious reasons in those days, besides potentially housing dragons which are not Balrogs. One of those reasons was to smuggle drugs like opium and other, um, illegal items, like guns and weapons. There was a gang war going on, after all. And a war against the British. I could be getting all the years wrong, so don't quote me on this, but anyway, another place where you’re supposed to be able to find a dragon—or THE dragon—in the tunnel network is at the Cheah Clock Tower, which was built to summon a dragon to save Penang from the Big Bad Mat Salleh. I guess it didn’t work because it's now called the Queen Victoria Memorial something or other.
So, the supposed tunnels somewhere under George Town is where my uncle’s uncle’s uncle met Hair, because dragons were honourable creatures who very much did not like smuggling going on in their homes, even if those homes were smelly old tunnels. I mean, I would be upset too, if someone were to use my house as their gang’s hideout and potentially get me into trouble. And obviously, my uncle’s uncle’s uncle was one of those involved in the smuggling.
It was kind of how my family made their money back in ye olden days. It’s not like all the stuff they smuggled was bad, just controlled, kind of like if you bring chewing gum to Singapore now. Smuggling things like spices and tea to evade taxes was quite A Thing back then because He Who controls the Spice controls the Universe… It really was just that the British wanted to own all the things and didn’t want anyone else to have the money. And my family wanted to get in on that money, at least, until Hair frightened the living daylights out of this ancestor of mine so much so that he avoided the tunnels from then on and went back on the straight and narrow for pretty much the rest of his life.
I’d like to say that my uncle’s uncle’s uncle never saw Hair ever again, but that’s not the truth. Hair kind of stuck around and checked in on him every once in a while to make sure he didn’t go back to smuggling things in tunnels, which is why, I guess, this story kept getting passed down through the generations. Plus, the story goes, after meeting Hair one too many times, the whole family just up and left George Town and moved to Butterworth.
Actually, I should ask Hair whether he really lived in the tunnels of George Town or if all that was just a stupid story my uncle’s uncle’s uncle told my uncle’s uncle to entertain him, who in turn told my uncle, who in turn told me because I like knowing things and maybe I’m just gullible like that. I guess I’ll message him when I get home. He’ll probably laugh himself silly and say that everything my uncle’s uncle’s uncle said was a lie.
He’s probably Prawn the Loan Shark anyway.
Originally written for and performed at: