The one thing from my childhood I remember the best is the smells.
In the mornings, the scent of freshly baked bread from the confectionery store across the road would assail my nose when I was waiting for the school bus. In the afternoons, it was the smell of food from the hawker center, in particular, the sweet scent of fried carrot cake, the kind doused with a saccharine black sauce.
At another corner of the neighbourhood it was the aroma of spices that came from a shop selling flaky, triangular curry puffs. In the evenings, the neighbourhood was always filled with the smell of home-cooked food and burning joss sticks.
Every day around the time my favourite Aksi Mat Yoyo variety show was screened, Grandpa would plant three joss sticks in this bronze container that hung outside the window of the living room. I was always fascinated with this container – it looked as if two mythical creatures were attempting to charge out on either ends before its heads were fossilised by a sudden downpour of rapidly cooling lava.
When Grandpa was done with this, he would plant more joss sticks into another container in the cabinet above the television that also housed some sort of deity. Then, without fail, I would hear him light up a cigarette in his room. Around this time, Grandma would be nearly done with her cooking. We would know because she always yelled for Grandpa to set the table.
The tantalising scent of sesame oil, the aromatic but pungent smell of sambal belachan, the dense and slightly acrid smell of incense and the strangely comforting odour of cigarette smoke would then begin their dance, each twirling around one another as they vied for my attention.
I learned to associate this smorgasbord of smells with happiness. It meant that the day was winding down. It meant that night was about to fall. And all the fun things usually happened at night, like the free mobile clinic that my Grandparents used to take me to all the time. I used to suffer from asthma.
I found great joy in stomping on the narrow metal steps that led up to the entrance of the white medical trailer, as if I was adding drum beats to the droning buzz of the nearby diesel generator. Inside, I revelled at the sight of the countless medication bottles that came in all sorts of colours.
I also found the smell of medication very calming. It made me feel safe. It made me feel that everything was going to be alright. Well, at least that was what Grandma kept telling me.
“Sir, are you still smoking in the house?” asked the doctor, a diminutive Chinese man who had spectacles so large and thick it seemed like he was wearing goggles.
“I know you are. I can smell it from here,” he continued, without looking at Grandpa.
The doctor’s eyes were magnified by the lenses, which reminded me of those weird mirrors I’d come across at the monthly fun fair in the open field. I giggled to myself but ended up in a coughing fit.
“Second-hand smoke is not good for your grandchild, especially since he has asthma,” said the doctor, who was busy scribbling words onto a small white card.
Grandpa did not say a word. He just nodded.
“And you should quit. Smoking kills, you know?”
Grandpa and I left the trailer shortly after with a small plastic bag containing a bottle of cough syrup and slender tubes of black liquid made from medicinal herbs. On the way home, we bumped into Grandma, who had just finished perming her hair at the salon two streets down. She looked like Ronald McDonald, though I never did dare to tell her that.
“So what did the doctor say?” asked Grandma.
“Take the medicine on time. Quit smoking.”
“Not like you’re ever going to quit.”
He just shrugged his shoulders.
Grandpa was a man of few words. My interactions with him were generally non-verbal. I liked it when he lifted me up from behind and placed my two feet onto his before walking around the house. I felt like I was character from Exosquad and he was my exo-skeleton. Together, we were invincible. He also liked to pass me phone cards that could be used at pay phones, knowing how I was utterly fascinated by his massive collection, stored on the shelves hidden behind the mirror at the dressing table.
Once every few days, I’d swing open this mirror and take these cards out to admire all the different designs. I would also pull a cigarette out from his golden packet of Dunhill Red and run it along my nose.
I loved the sweet seductive scent of tobacco. This was my favourite smell during my childhood.
“Can I try one, Grandpa?” I said.
“No. You’re too young.”
I hated the answer. I didn’t understand why people had to be of a certain age before they could do things. It was silly. I was desperate to grow up and be an adult.
“The doctor said that smoking kills, is that true?” I asked.
“I’m still alive, right?” he sniggered.
I guess that made sense. After all, things only died after they were hit on the head with a slipper, like cockroaches and wasps. No one in the Ninja Turtles ever died. Not the heroes in a hard shell. Not the bad guys like Shredder and Krang. It was the same for He-Man. And Tom and Jerry. And Mighty Mouse. I suppose people just get bruised. Only insects died. I’m not an insect. And neither is Grandpa.
One day when Grandpa went across the road to buy TOTO and 4D, I revisited his collection of phone cards. I laid them on the bed in a 10 by 10 square and stood back to admire the grandeur of the scene. I then took a cigarette and placed it between my lips. Then I struck the matchstick against the dark brown side of the box. Nothing happened. I struck it again, creating tiny sparks that looked like how the National Day fireworks would during the last few seconds of the show. The third strike produced a flame.
As the end of the cigarette started smouldering, I held the stick just like how Grandpa normally would, with the tips of his thumb and the “rude” finger, and sucked on it. The taste in my mouth was nothing like the smell I was used to. It made me cough and retch.
“Ah boy, why are you coughing again ah? I told you not to drink cold drinks, right?” said Grandma as she walked into the room
“Yao mou kao chor ah?!” she shrieked.
I didn’t know if she was mad at me for messing up her bed or being topless (it was a really hot day). But I had never seen her so mad before.
She snatched the cigarette from me, left the room and returned within just a few seconds, with a cane in hand. That was the day I found out that smoking came with painful consequences.
But despite the searing sensation on my arms and legs, I lived. Just like all my favourite cartoon characters, I survived. Just like them, I had bruises to show for my exploits. I was still alive.
Grandpa was right. Smoking doesn’t kill.
But boy oh boy, I reckon Grandma could.