Monday, June 17, 2013


When I was much younger, while waiting to enter military service, I followed my father around in his work for a couple of weeks. He was a sub-contractor who managed all the woodwork that were required to erect a building. In those two weeks, I learnt how tough it is to earn that pay, how hot it can be under that sun. I also learnt about camaraderie and teamwork and wood, and a lot more about my father.

He is no longer with us, he left early. Maybe the years of toil has taken its toll. But I can still remember, those calloused hands of his, can write the most lovely of calligraphy, the words flowing like a gentle stream.

This is one of my favourite poems. It has appeared in this blog before, and was also published in a local literary ezine.

image from imageafter

Construction site, Punggol fields, 1972

It is my job
to fill that soot-blackened kettle
with water,
throw in a handful of tea leaves,
put it over a fire of disused wood
and watch it boil
in the early light blues of Punggol.

My father is in that toolshed
poring over blueprints
of a farm,
briefing his foreman,
as dust and insects floated
in the harsh light
of fluorescent lamps.

Soon my father will amble over,
pour himself a drink from that kettle
into a grimy metal cup.
I will offer him a cigarette
and we will squat there by the wayside
smoking, the sweet wisps of Camels
swirling in the cool morning air.

Then we will go over to the toolshed,
collect our claw hammers, plumb lines,
nails, tape measures,
light up some joss to the earth god,
as Blackie, the mongrel guarding the shed,
darker than Cerebus from Hell,
comes over sniffing our heels.

We haul planks, measure, hammer,
in the uncompromising sun,
sometimes seeking solace
in the shadows of the wooden moulds
jutting out of mud and rock like pruned tree trunks.
The smell of sawn wood clings to us
like a stigma.

When the day is done,
the sun painting streaks of gold and crimson
on the clouds, we dust
ourselves of sawdust and wood shavings,
feed the dog,
and gather at the toolshed,
lingering, for a final smoke in the fading sun,

as did our forebears before us
in America, in Hong Kong
building railroads, harbours,
hunched over camp fires,
drinking tea from grimy cups
swopping stories about home
in Canton half a life away.

Then we pile into
our cars and bikes
for the weary journey home.
The stars are coming out
in that vast bowl of sky,
the cirrus clouds rolling
dark angry strips of floss

in the darkening light
over a plain of wild grass

the exact centre of our universe..


Shared on the Poetry Pantry at Poets United.

Notes : Punggol is an area in northeastern Singapore. It used to be a rural area with poultry and pig farms. But it is very different now, with a township of high-rise residential apartments and developments for recreational activities and sea sports.

© cheong lee san ( dsnake1 ) 2013

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Blogger Brian Miller said...

dude this is beautiful...makes me think about my great uncle who had a tool shed....and i spent a summer watching him work in it....endearing write man....happy fathers day to all the dads in your life...

17 June, 2013 22:53  
Blogger dsnake1 said...

thanks, man!
your comment really means a lot to me. I learnt much from my dad during those couple of weeks. about an honest day's work, friendship, buildings, and generally about life.

this poem took much longer to write than most of what i wrote, partly because i did a lot of revisions, and partly i was submitting it to a publication.

thanks again, Brian. :)

18 June, 2013 00:21  
Blogger R.K. Garon said...

Whatever it took to pull this out I would find it again; that perfect spark, to warm your writing "tea" with :-) A very fine piece.

18 June, 2013 05:55  
Anonymous Ravenblack said...

This is one of my favorite poems of yours too. It's a snapshot with so many layers to it.

18 June, 2013 10:45  
Anonymous Lisa Williams said...

This poem really hits home. My dad was a woodworker, carpenter etc. I spent a great deal of my childhood alongside him as he worked and he would tell me stories of his life. I miss those days. Beautiful write!

18 June, 2013 18:38  
Blogger dsnake1 said...


thanks! but i am not too sure what my writing "tea" is. :D


i remembered you and Alson had given me valuable feedback when i was writing the revisions. :)


so your dad was a woodworker too? one thing i know, they take great pride in their work. some of the furniture in our home were made by my dad, and boy, were they sturdy!

thank you for the comment. :)

18 June, 2013 23:48  
Blogger dsnake1 said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

18 June, 2013 23:48  

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