Everytime I visit the Central Library in Bugis, I drop by Killiney Kopitiam on Purvis Street for a cup of coffee or lime juice. Mostly lime juice, and sometimes french toast with butter and kaya. Parked on Killiney’s functional chairs and tables set on the five-foot way, for less than 2 dollars, I get to brush up on my dolce far niente while enjoying an unobstructed view of a narrow street hosting rows of colonial shophouses on either side. If you discount the fact that these conserved historical relics work as hotels, swanky restaurants, bars, and boutiques in the current scenario (instead of being obliterated, I’d say that’s a good compromise), and just focus on their restored exteriors displaying Chinese Corinthian style* – the facade bejewelled with Chinese symbolic features such as vases of peonies, fire breathing dragons, bat-headed keystones; colourful louvred windows with fanlight and the wide arched entrances – you’d know that they’re still a great sight to rest your eyes on in this uniform black and white concrete and steel jungle.
So I come here often. Mostly during late afternoons when we – the retirees and I – can have the kopitiam to ourselves. From time to time, cheerful flocks of students and suave, important looking people in dark suits and starched dresses that don’t seem to wrinkle, swing by like migratory birds – always in limbo, sitting alone in a corner, minding their business and never staying too long. Untill the other day, the very subset of this group, approached me from behind in a deep baritone voice – Is somebody sitting there? ‘There’ meant the empty chair opposite me. I was knee deep into this sketch and just waved my hand saying no, without even looking.
‘Well, can I sit there?”. An early 40-ish man of athletic build, with a tapered face sporting long sideburns, slick hair combed back and set in place with hair gel, dressed in a dapper grey pinstriped suit and thick framed glasses was standing in front of me, holding a can of chilled Tiger beer and a pack of cigarettes. I may have mumbled an indecisive ‘sure, go ahead’ out of politeness, because the next moment he was shuffling himself opposite me and putting his knick-knacks on my table. Had he approached few minutes early, this guy – probably on a gluten-free, carb-less, high-protein diet that requires him to eat exactly five and a half times a day in precariously measured quantities – would’ve witnessed me hogging my greasy french toast with a cube of butter in quick mouthfuls. Glad I saved him that image. I moved the empty plate and cutlery by an inch to make room for him, or may have just nudged the plate to give an illusion of my intent as well as re-iterate who’s the first occupant and who’s the ‘tag along’.
He lit his cigarette and was quiet. He may have been staring at my sketch but I didn’t look. I kept drawing thin lines, thick lines, curvy lines, wavy lines, squiggly lines but I didn’t look. I kept looking at the shophouses right past him, across the street for reference but not at him. He cleared his throat and took a long swig of the beer. My peripheral vision figured him shifting in his chair, feeding spiral cigarette smoke to the small potted plants on the steps. I casually swept my eyes across the kopitiam’s corridor to check if the other chairs were taken. None was. Well, what do you want? I screamed. In my mind.
More wavy lines, curvy lines, squiggly lines, this time with greater diligence and feigned honesty. I was like a mean drawing machine working towards an irresistible piece-de-resistance that would somewhow prevent apocalypse. The weight of the world was on my shoulders. How could I deflect? I dug deeper into my sketchbook and didn’t look up.
He said, ‘Hello’. So I looked up. He was turned away from me, and was balancing his phone between his ear and the shoulder, while his hands caressed the cigarette and thecan of beer. What followed was not one but several calls, one after the other- advising, pleading, negotiating, sweet-talking existing and potential clients on investment opportunities with the bank that employed him and probably helped finance the Armani frames balanced on the bridge of his nose. Talks of floating and fixed interest rates, and millions of dollars escaped his lips in casual banter. ‘Have a great weekend’. I looked up again. He was still on the phone.
Then just as discreetly as he’d come, he left. I’ve never witnessed anyone leave like that. Effortlessly. Without the sound of footsteps. Like a frightened gazelle. If vanishing into thin air seems hyperbolic, I’d say he glided into thin air – the posture of getting up, adjusting the body and taking the first step to walk off merged into one single mellifluous move, almost like a nubile dancer.
He even took away the acerbic smell of his perfume mingled with the cigarette smoke that I loathed in the beginning but was beginning to disregard.
* I gathered more information about this particular architectural style ( commonly mistaken for Straits Baroque architecture) seen on Purvis street, from an exhaustive exhibition on Shophouses at the URA centre : “Interestingly the working drawings for these twin arcades of two storey shophouses which were designed by Almeida & Kassim for local worthy Seah Peck Seah in 1902, gives no indication as to how the facade was to be ornamented. The elevations simply defined the principle dimensions of the building, but the detailing was left completely blank – no cornice, no architrave (the moulding round the windows), no secondary pilasters, no fluting, not even a keystone, let alone one with a bat’s head on it! Evidently, the style and choice of imagery was left completely to the artisans who carried out the work, who, in this instance, have opted for a remarkable synthesis of Chinese and Baroque aesthetic sensibilities to arrive at a very singular Chinese ‘Corinthian’ style of ornamentation. “