Returning Home


Fiction Podcast Episode

Distant sounds of chanting and drums; a taoist funeral. 

Li (narrating): He looked different. No longer a youthful, ignorant face untouched by the world – his features were lined with experience. The deadpan eyes I remembered had a spark of curiosity that had rekindled itself, somehow, as he grew older. 


Li (narrating): 20 years, 3 months, and 2 days since the day I last saw Zhang Chen. The day my brother left home.

The noise of a living room; 2000s chinese music plays, an ironically happy tune. Distorted news from the radio. MOTHER and ZHANG shout at each other. ZHANG and LI are younger. 

Mother: (exasperated) Zhang Chen,你会什么?

Zhang: I’ll find my own way, Ma.

Mother: Everything I did was for this.

Zhang: I don’t want this.

Mother: (raising voice) Aiyah, you don’t know what you want lah.

Zhang: (angry, shouting) And you do? (scoffs) I’ll leave here, I’ll go to church, the temples, I’ll…

Mother: (enraged) Don’t you dare waste your time on stupid things like that…

MOTHER’s voice fades away, and the news and music becomes softer as ZHANG’s footsteps get louder. A door creaks open and slams shut, footsteps stomp heavily.

Zhang: (mumbling) Sister, I can’t anymore, she…

Li: (worried) What did you do?

Zhang: What did I do? Sister, I have been tolerating this for 17 years- I…

Li: (voice hardens) What did you do?

Zhang: (slowly, quietly) I rejected the scholarship.

Beat, silence. Only the background news and 2000s chinese music.

Li: (restrained) You…what?

Zhang: It’s not what I want.

Li: You rejected a full-paid scholarship, the one Ma was so happy about?

Zhang: It’s not what I want.

Li: (furious) Zhang, the amount of money and time Ma put into your tuition to get you there…

ZHANG slams the table. Heavy breathing echoes.

Zhang: (explodes) Have any of you ever stopped to ask me what I want? I don’t want the goddamn scholarship, and the life she planned out for me, I want to do things she never approved of, t-to make my own choices.

Li: You have no idea how lucky you are that she planned ahead for you. 

Zhang: For once in my life I want to choose for myself!

Li: You are so selfish!

Zhang: You are so selfish!

Their sentences echo simultaneously. The funeral ambience of drums and chanting fade in, and gets louder along with slow footsteps as LI walks up to ZHANG.

Li: (coldly) Brother.

Zhang: Sister. It’s been a while. 


Zhang: I never thought I’d be seeing you again.

Li: I never thought you’d show up to the funeral of the mother you abandoned.

Zhang: (raises voice) I didn’t- (sighs) Let’s… let’s not. Not here. Not right now.


Zhang: (quietly) A taoist funeral? She would’ve hated this.

Li: (spitefully) One of the things you missed out on. (sighs) For some reason, one of her last requests was to have a taoist funeral. 

Zhang: (dumbfounded) Our mother? Who had a personal grudge against God? Why?

Li: (confused) She said something about going home.

Footsteps pan from the right and get louder. WANG speaks, a sturdy and aged voice.

Wang: Li Chen, Zhang Chen… both of you so big already. I saw you when you were just babies!

Li: (awkward) Hello, I-I’m sorry, who…?

Wang: Your Ma and Pa never mentioned me ah? (chuckles) We were old friends, even before both of you were born.

Zhang: I see, I see.

Li: Well, thank you for coming. 

Wang: (almost with regret) It’s only right, lah. Come, sit here, sit here.

Footsteps pan. 

Wang: This is…

The drums stop dramatically.

Zhang: (dumbfounded) Auntie May?

Li: Ah Yi?

May: (chuckles) 你们张大了.

Sombre chinese music beds.

Li (narrating): May, my mother’s sister. She had my mother’s face – the furrowed eyebrows and crow’s feet. She was hazy in my memory, a distant angel that appeared when I was six – when my pregnant mother was grieving her husband, and I, my father. 

The sombre chinese music becomes part of the ambience, and plays in the distance. The sound of a little girl crying pans from the right. Distant knocking on a door pans from the left, and the sobbing subsides, leaving sniffs and gasps.

May: Li Chen?

No reply, only more sobs.

May: I’m coming in ah.

From the left, a creaking door. The sombre chinese music momentarily becomes loud, then becomes muted again as the door shuts. Careful footsteps pan.

May: (sympathetically) Aiyo.

The sniffs subside.

Li: Where’s Mama?

May: (sadly) In her room.

Li: (frustration) Why won’t she let me see her?

May: (slowly) 爱. You know what that is? Your Ma loved your Pa so much that she’s hurting now because he’s gone.

Li: Mama won’t talk to me. 

May: I know.

Li: (voice breaking) Why won’t she talk to me?

May: (pained) I know.

Silence, filled only by LI’s sobs.

May: (whispers) You are a strong girl.

Sobs get louder.

Li: (between sobs) I want… him back… and I want Mama back.

May: (voice trembles) So strong.

Voices and music fades out, the funeral ambience of drums and chanting beds. 

May: (friendly) Zhang Chen, hello, we’ve never met. 

Zhang: Hi. I saw pictures of you in Ma’s old photo albums. (laughs) You look as young as ever.

May laughs. A pause.

May: Li Chen. 长得好漂亮.

Li: (whispers) It’s been so long.

Sound of them hugging.

Li: Thank you all for coming. 

Zhang: To be very honest… I didn’t know she had people who cared about her.

Li: (quietly) You didn’t know anything about her. 

May: (far-off, contemplating) We didn’t have… the best relationship. I never talked to her when she was married to your Pa. The day she left…

Fuzzy and inaudible wayang music plays from a rediffusion box, water falls against plates, and a pan sizzles – the ambience of a kitchen. The chopping of vegetables is heard up close. MOTHER’s voice pans from the right, May’s from the left. 

May: Ah mei, I’m cooking fish. You want?

Mother: Ah jie, he… (hesitantly) He proposed. 

Beat. The chopping stops dramatically. It starts again, faster.

Mother: (nervous, hurried) I know you don’t like him, but…

May: (hard tone) 这个鱼很香。

Mother: …I want to say yes…

May: 我今天早上才买。

Mother: …and I know you have concerns lah, but…

May: (explodes) He has no money!

She dramatically puts the knife down with a loud thump. The music from the rediffusion box becomes loud and distorted as tension builds.

Mother: (voice hardens) He’s trying.

May: He’s a construction worker.

Mother: 不要这么说.

May: You think our parents would’ve wanted you to end up poor?

Mother: I have someone I love, and we will work money out.

Footsteps pan from left to right and the sound of water stops. The sound of a stove being turned off. The kitchen is quiet, only the distant music from the rediffusion box.

May: (sighs) 不可得兼.

Mother: Can’t you just be happy for me?

May: What will you eat every day?

Mother: (whispers) I’m happy, Ah Jie.

May: (softly) How will you eat every day?

Mother: I will, lah. You’re being paranoid.

May: You can’t survive if you always prioritise happiness.

Mother: (harshly) I’m saying yes.

Silence, the sizzling subsides as the fish is taken out from the pan. It makes a thump as it falls onto a plate. 

May: There are bones.


May: (warning) You better be careful.

The kitchen ambience fades out, funeral ambience beds. 

May: (bittersweet) When she left to marry him… she didn’t have my blessings. I never talked to her after. I knew she was different… happier. The next time we had contact was…

Li: (realisation) Those few months.

May: (sadly) Yes.

Li: When I was 6… you were only there for a few months and gradually… I never saw you.

May: She never tell you why?

Li: She told me that you were busy.

May: (softly) No lah. She… made me leave. 

Li: She pushed you away? After you helped her?

May: 刻舟求剑. Do you know what that means? Inflexibility, someone that doesn’t change no matter the situation. She was someone who had only known how to rely on herself for her whole life, and the only person she let her guard down with was… your Pa. When she called… It was a moment of weakness, and she went back to her old ways, pushing everyone away.


May: Even though she couldn’t even cope by herself. 

A phone call ringtone plays abruptly, and funeral ambience stops. MAY picks it up, and static wayang music plays from the other end.

May: Hello? Who is this?

Mother: (between stifled sobs) Ah Jie…

May: (confusion) Ah mei? Wh-what happened? 

Mother: (breathless, hurried) He- he- something happened- I didn’t have anyone else to call. I’m- I’m going to Singapore General hospital, I’m on the way to see him-

May: Wh-what? Why is he at the hospital?

Wails erupt from the other end of the call, wayang music on the other end reaches a climax dramatically. 

Mother: They said something happened…steel bars…fell –

May: 天啊。

Mother: He- he bled out, they don’t know if he’ll wake up…

May: 天啊。

Mother: Please, I had no one else to call…

May: (firmly) Singapore general hospital? I’ll meet you there.

Beep of the phone call ending. Funeral ambience plays again; the chanting is louder, more tense.

May: 一往情深. (whispers) Something deeper than love. Her soul was buried along with him, like he held up the pillars of her world, and with him gone, they crashed. 


Li: (whispers) Papa died from being crushed by steel bars?

Zhang: I never met my father, but… I’d always ask her about him. Her face would harden, but there was always an emptiness behind her eyes that scared me. (pauses) I gradually stopped asking her about it.

May: Huh? She never tell you? 

Li: (softly) She refused to tell us why he died.

Wang: (regret) Aiyah, no, no. That wasn’t how he died, not yet. (pause) A long time ago ah, I used to go to the Thian Hock Keng temple with your Ma and Pa –

Li: Pa was a believer? (softly, realisation) So when she said she was going back home…

Zhang: (shock) She meant that she was going to him. 

Li: (scoffs) That’s not like her at all… she would regularly tell us how God was a scam, to never fall for it. 

Wang: (softly) Not the woman I knew. 

Soothing instrumental wayang music beds.

Wang (narrating): They went to our taoist temple every first and fifteenth day of the lunar calendar. (chuckles) I worked with your Pa before, on the construction site, and one day ah… we found out we went to the same temple. 

The ambience of a taoist temple. Distant taoist music – percussion, a harp and a flute. The quiet muttering of people praying, the crackling of incense paper burning. The space is open, and the noise is spacious.  

Wang (narrating): That’s how I met your Ma. They came at 7am, always there before the sun was up. Then ah, one day, both of them just… gone. I only found out why 2 weeks after.

Temple ambience fades out, hospital ambience fades in; sounds are closer and clearer indoors. IV bags drip, a monitor beeps, the distant shouting and chatter of nurses and doctors, the metal clanking of medical equipment, the rolling of stretchers in the background.

Wang: (breathes shakily) I just heard the news, I… wh-what happened to him?

He is cut off by MOTHER crying uncontrollably.

Wang (narrator): At that point ah, I was confused why she just…cried. So loud some more. Aiyah, we weren’t even close. But now I know. (pauses) I-I was wearing my construction jacket that day lah. Holding the yellow hat. I came straight from work, and I never think to change. But to her… she didn’t see me. She saw her husband coming home to her like usual. Aiyah, I suppose that’s why…

Unstable footsteps pan from the right to the left. MOTHER’s voice pans from the right. 

Mother: (voice breaking) I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.

Wang: I-

Mother: It was my fault, I made you stay in that job…

Wang: Wh-what?

Mother: (absent-mindedly) Do you remember why I made you stay? You told me the project was hard, that they weren’t good people…

WANG laughs uncomfortably. 

Mother: Do you remember what I said? I told you that we needed this job, I made you stay just for a while longer. Until we could send Li Chen to primary school. Until we could save up enough money. 

The IV bag drips clearer and faster, hospital ambience gets louder.

Mother: (voice breaks) What if I hadn’t made you stay?

Wang: I…

Mother: 老公,I’m sending her to school, okay? If it’s paying to- to keep you in a coma, or giving our daughter an education, I’m sending her to school.

Her sobs echo.

Mother: (cries) Tell me you’re okay with that, okay? Tell me that you’re okay?

The sobbing fades off.

Wang (narrating): And after she calmed down, we talked for the last time. 

Wang: I see you next week ah, 15th day of the month. I go with you to the temple.

Mother: Do you know what the doctor said? When he was brought into the A&E?


Mother: “如果你有神,你就好现在祈祷.” (whispers) I did what he said.

Beat, the beeping of the monitor increases, hospital ambience cuts

Mother: I’m not going back to the temple anymore.

Funeral ambience fades in slowly, ominous chanting and drums are even faster, deeper.

Wang: (whispers) That day ah… was the last day I saw her. That decision… I remember so well. 

Li: (voice strains) He died because… she chose to send me to school.

Zhang: (slowly) Because they had no money. Because he was a construction worker.

Li: (realisation, shock) Because she chose me. And you.

Zhang: She never told us any of this.

Li: Oh my god.

Zhang: Oh my god. 

A mix of wayang and 2000s chinese music beds, accompanied by the funeral drums in the distant background – a merge of soundscapes.

Li (narrating): Ah Yi disappeared right after Zhang was born, when my mother was still grieving. When he appeared, my mother stopped shutting herself in her room, and actually became a… mother. But not to me, to Zhang.

Distant voices pan from right and left, indicating a flashback.

Young Li: Mama, could you help me with –

Mother: (cuts her off distractedly) Li Chen, Zhang’s diapers need changing. They’re in the cupboard.

Li (narrating): I suppose I reminded her of him.

Zhang (narrating): I suppose I reminded her of him.

Li (narrating): She didn’t see me as her daughter, she saw me as her failure to save her husband. I was the reason she couldn’t save him. God, no wonder, no wonder she could never love me the same way. (softer) 

Zhang (narrating): I think I was delivered just at the right moment for her to view me as a fragment of the man she loved. The only thing left of his blood before he died, like a present he left before he departed.

Zhang (narrating): It was suffocating.

Li (narrating): It was suffocating.

Zhang (narrating): Sure, I had a mother that cared, but as I grew up, it presented itself in different forms. 

Young Zhang: Mama, can I go play at the playground?

Mother: You haven’t finished your work. Remember, 90% on this test, okay?

Zhang (narrating): She was so afraid I wouldn’t succeed, because she saw how her husband ended up at the bottom of the ladder – how he was crushed by everyone above him. I know she did it out of love, but it choked me. Every single choice I made was for her, because of her. 

Li (narrating): I’d always try my best to please her, to get the grades and have the self-discipline that Zhang never had. I tried so hard to get her to notice…

Young Li: Ma, I got 90% on the test.

Mother: (absent-mindedly) Mm, okay.

Li (narrating): But she never did. 

Zhang (narrating): And I was so jealous.

Li (narrating): And I was so jealous.

Zhang (narrating): You just seemed to have so much freedom, the ability to do whatever you wanted. 

Li (narrating): You just seemed to make her happy. As long as you were doing well in school, she smiled. And I spent so much of my time just… hoping that she would be proud of me. 

Li (narrating): Do you know what happened after you left? 

Zhang (narrating): Do you know what happened after I left?

Li: Ma crumbled. She turned into a lifeless pile of…grief. Her husband had left her, and now her son. (quietly) And she was left with me, an unsatisfactory daughter who could never meet her expectations. She spiralled, hobbling around without purpose. (lowers voice) And again, the responsibility fell on me.

Zhang: It was so liberating. I did things I could never do under her roof, and I made those choices myself. I felt free, like her iron fist wasn’t clenched around my throat anymore, and I had finally shaken her shadow.

Li: I hated you for being so selfish, for leaving the family behind. For leaving me.

Zhang: I hated that you didn’t understand how happy it made me, to finally decide something for myself.

The music reaches a climax.

Li (narrating): If only I had known.

Zhang (narrating): If only I had known.

The drumming and chanting fades in again, lighter and sweeter. The same wayang and 2000s chinese music plays faintly.

Li: You look different, brother, from when I last saw you. You’ve lost that foolish, rebellious grin. You look more mature, but… you look alive, somehow.

ZHANG laughs. 

Li: (softer) 20 years, 3 months, and 2 days since I last saw you.


Li: Are you coming back home?

Drums and chanting, wayang music, and the 2000s chinese music create a cascade and fade off.