The 10-storey apartment block in Queenstown, Singapore has been our family home for over 50 years. It was among the very first government flats built by the Housing Development Board (HDB) during Singapore's fledgling years in the 1960s. We were fortunate enough to have a corner unit on the 7th floor, which meant that my parents were able to cordon off the end of the corridor with an outer security gate and gain some extra space for us.
Entry to the flat is via the outer gate from the corridor and then past the collapsible, accordion-like inner gate, through the front door and straight into the living/dining area. The two bedrooms are situated on the left, leading off from the living room. Past the bedrooms and living area are the narrow gallery kitchen/laundry and the bathroom/toilet. Wide windows spanned the entire back of the kitchen area. On laundry day, Mum would roll up the bamboo blinds and lean out the windows to hang the wet clothing or bed linen on long bamboo poles. The pieces of laundry would flap and 'snap' in the wind like many irregular-shaped flags.
This particular incident happened when I was about 4 or 5 years old, before I started kindergarten. I remember it was during the day, possibly afternoon as my older sister wasn't home yet from school. I was playing by myself out the back in the kitchen of our flat. It was the coolest part of the flat for that time of day, when the sultry heat of the sun was fading. The blinds were up to let in the afternoon breezes to freshen up the place.
All at once, I felt the nape of my neck prickling as if unfriendly eyes were on me. This was strange as I was sitting on a low 'kiddie' stool on the kitchen floor. The flats are positioned a fair distance apart, separated by tall trees, a small playground, playing field or car park. From that angle near the kitchen floor, I should not be in anyone's line of sight, nor would anyone be close enough to fix a hostile stare on me from beyond the kitchen window.
I became panicky for no discernible reason. My heart was pounding, I felt close to tears and the feeling of being threatened was very palpable. One moment I was playing happily, the next I was quite hysterical, pelting out of the kitchen and into the living area. Mum came out of her bedroom to see what was wrong. I kept babbling in Cantonese that I was very scared, very scared. Of what, I couldn't tell her. I just had this weird, overwhelming fear.
Mum managed to settle me down after a while. When Dad came home from work later, he called me to him after dinner. He had lit a terracotta incense burner (I think it held frankincense - the pebbles were light yellow-grey) and fanned the fragrant smoke with his hand over my head. He said it was to ward off ill health as I was quite a sickly child, the only one of my sisters to suffer from chronic asthma.
When Mum's older sister, heard about the incident, she thought Mum might have inadvertently offended the spirits. The wife of one of my uncles had died recently and Mum had gone to a temple to light an incense offering for her. My aunt's theory was that as Mum was not a proper worshiper, this gesture might have been deemed as insincere and disrespectful. The spirits may have picked on me as I was the youngest at the time and the most vulnerable in the family. Their intention perhaps was to send a warning to my Mum for her transgression.
It did seem patently unfair that the spirits would penalize an 'innocent' for the action of another. I found that reasoning rather hard to swallow. But then again...Mum's side of the family still follow a little ancestral worship and other rituals of Taoist origins that comprise nature spirits, earth gods etc.
Interestingly enough some years later, Mum told me she had heard that the HDB flats in our area were built over old Muslim or Hindu burial sites. I wonder if the land had been properly cleansed and blessed by the relevant religious authorities before the building projects commenced. After how I reacted that day, Mum went and asked for a temple priest to bless the flat. When I was in my late teens, after Grandma passed away, she had a 'feng-shui' master (geomancer) pay us a visit to recommend certain auspicious changes to the place - just in case.
To this day, I'm not really sure what made me 'flip' like that. Still, that was the only time it happened. Maybe all Mum's precautions were effective; if anything, they at least helped to preserve our peace of mind.