Tuesdays at Cheongster Cafe: Are we colour-blind yet?

Nov 15, 2016 11.00AM |

By Felix Cheong

AS SOON as Rex Tan understood the idea of colours, he was told not to apply it.

“White car!” he called out in childish naivety as an Audi dragged its expensive COE by noisily outside his window.

Mrs KS Tan quickly shushed him. “No, Rex. Just say ‘car’. It’s not yellow, brown, black or white. Just a car.”

The poor boy was utterly confused. And no wonder. When he was younger, he remembered her making him learn that apple was red and the sky was blue. The flag was red and white and money, like envy, was green.

But now, he was made to unlearn all that. And he was not told why. Worse, he could not even ask questions.

As his vocabulary expanded, Rex’s mind made a habit of stripping nouns of their colours. All objects were either of the same colour or colourless. All people were either of the same colour or colourless.

There were no yellow people, black people or brown people. Just people.

“Look at that girl!” he said.

“Which one?” Mrs KS Tan said.

“The one wearing a blouse, with two eyes and a nose.”

Indeed, that girl in the crowd, among hundreds, did wear a blouse, had two eyes and a nose.

By the time Rex left kindergarten, he was well and truly colour-blind.

Throughout primary one, Rex watched as older students who talked about colours were publicly caned.

“There is no such thing as colour! You cannot discriminate one colour against another!” Mrs Hong, the school principal, in her righteousness, yelled. The commando-trained hand of the discipline master, Mr OB, took another lash at a student who had drawn black graffiti on the toilet wall.

Repeat offenders were suspended or expelled; others had to spend the whole term wearing a gag. Before long, the gagged became a gang; the gang soon turned into an underground movement. And the movement took on a voice.

On the last day of school that year, a week after the PSLE, Rex arrived in school to find all the walls spray-painted yellow, black, brown and white. The colours swirled in patterns he had never seen before, coming together in waves that brought dance to the walls.

“That is pretty!” he thought.

But like all good citizens raised by parents who inherited and passed down their silence, he kept quiet and carried on.


Featured image by Guet Ghee Pang.

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