This essay was written in Chinese by Chan Mow Wah. It was translated into English by Patricia Wong.


The plane began its slow, circular descent. Soon, it would touch down on San Francisco. The sunlight streaming through the plane was almost blinding in its intensity. Gazing from my window, I saw row after row of bald, shiny hill tops. I could not help but be surprised that the world famous city of San Francisco was actually so barren and bleak.

My daughter-in-law had brought my granddaughter along to welcome me at the airport.  It was a joyous family reunion. My little granddaughter was absolutely adorable, her cheeks as rosy as ripe apples. Wearing a red and blue jacket, she was as pretty as a doll. It had been a year since we had met: she was already two and a half years old, and had grown more mature. Upon seeing me, she gave me a welcome kiss and sweetly addressed me as Granny. My heart was filled with warm tenderness.

As our car sped down broad and spacious avenues, the houses we saw along the way were all wooden houses. I had been told that due to San Francisco’s location in an earthquake prone area, all houses had to be built from wood as a safeguard to protect residents from serious injuries in the event of an earthquake.  Nevertheless, looking at these wooden houses, I still felt that they looked like the wooden shacks in Southeast Asia.  The impression they gave was that of a ghetto.

My son drove me from the airport to his rented house. The car stopped in front of the house.  The garage gate, which was right in front of us, was tightly shut. Next to it was the front gate that led straight into the house.  It was a pretty nondescript-looking house. Both the garage and house gates of the neighbouring house were also tightly shut.  Gusts of cold, stinging wind started blowing. We hurriedly burrowed into the shelter of the house.

My son and his family had rented a bedroom, a living room and a toilet in the basement, which formed a separate unit in itself. Together with the passage to the staircase and storeroom, it was quite spacious. There was also a balcony at the back. From the balcony, we could walk to the little garden in the backyard, where a loquat tree, an apple tree and a few roses were growing. It was quite a pleasant environment.

What  drew my attention most was the apple tree. Apparently planted just three years ago, it was now covered with small, pale purplish blossoms. I was entranced. During my sojourn of three weeks in San Francisco, I often brought my little granddaughter to admire this small little apple tree. Watching as its tiny flowers developed into tiny apples, then into fist-size red apples, my heart was filled with immense delight. However, it was not yet the apple season, which was a pity, as I did not get to taste them before leaving.

From the small balcony, which was built on a hill slope, I finally saw the ‘bald, shiny hill tops’ which I had seen earlier as the plane landed. They were in fact the rooftops of houses on the hills.  Due to the cold weather, the houses in San Francisco are all built with flat roofs, unlike our houses in the equatorial belt, which have pointed roofs for better circulation and coolness.

The entire San Francisco city is formed from over 40 hills, and houses are built around these hills.  The roads go up and down, and cars have to climb and descend continuously.  Strong legs are indeed needed to get around. Driveways lead from the side of the roads to different garages, creating rough, uneven grooves in the pavement. We had to be especially careful while walking, otherwise we would very likely sprain or injure our feet on the rough terrain.

The garage in every house had an electronic locking system installed, and the door was a big panel of wood. The front view of the house (or rather, the back) was not impressive-looking. The actual front hall of each house was built at the back, facing the backyard. Now I understand why, in the past, my Caucasian neighbour had turned his front hall into the back hall, and rebuilt the living room at the back of the house. It was their accustomed way of living.

The weather in San Francisco is usually cold throughout the year. Even in the summer month of June, the weather can be unpredictable. At noon, the sun can be blazing, but in the evening, when the thick mist sets in and winds blow, it suddenly turns bone-chillingly cold.  Generally, the sky is shrouded by thick mists in the early morning, and the houses on individual hill tops cannot be seen clearly. Sometimes, the visibility outside the house can be as low as 100 metres. Typically, apart from commuting to work, people seldom venture outside their houses. During my first two weeks in San Francisco, I hardly saw any of our neighbours. I could not get accustomed to living in my son’s house. It seemed more like a deserted island than a house.  Perhaps this is why Americans value their privacy.  One would hardly know if one’s neighbours were terrorists or burglars.

Apart from vehicles, we hardly saw any pedestrians along the way when we went sightseeing. It was said that this was a common phenomenon in America, a country with a vast territory and a sparse population.   

If the weather was good and there was no mist, I could see the houses on every hill top in San Francisco, their roofs all bare and grey, when I gazed from the balcony. There were very few trees to be found along the roadside and in the backyard of each house, heightening the sense of desolation.  Being one who was used to being surrounded by greenery all year round, this has always put me off. I was puzzled. Americans love nature, don’t they? Then why don’t they enhance their greenery by planting trees and flowers along the roads, so they appear less like ugly ghetto houses?

It was only later, after closer scrutiny, that I discovered trees were also planted along a few big roads. However, they were mostly pine trees that were not very tall. Perhaps they were unable to grow taller because of the extreme cold. Various kinds of flowers and shrubs were also planted along the road sides. It was said that, depending on the season, different types of flowers would bloom. People were pleasantly surprised by this unusual sight.

From thorough inspection, I found that the houses in San Francisco, especially those from the suburbs and country, despite being built from wooden planks and pillars, had walls that looked like concrete. This was because they had been coated with a special, greyish material. Each house also had its own design and style, creating a colourful tapestry.  I guess you could say that this was the result from each owner exercising his fullest creativity.

Although they were just wooden houses, their prices were not cheap, especially a few years ago, when the electronics and telecommunication industries were booming. Property prices in San Francisco had escalated with the rapid development of nearby Silicon Valley, the hub of American high technology. I was told that the price of the three-story terrace house that my son was renting had already doubled to almost five to six hundred thousand USD (around one million SGD). In the past, it was only worth two to three hundred thousand dollars.

Clearly, different geographical environments create people with different outlooks in life. Why, the wooden ghetto houses of Southeast Asia are the luxurious mansions of locals in the American west!


This translation won the JALA Chinese Translation Competition.

Chan Maw Woh or Chan Meow Wah is a writer, a Chinese and Malay language translator, and was a journalist for Lianhe Zaobao, a Chinese newspaper in Singapore. Her writing career began in 1958, when she wrote her first short story “Ah Ngo”, which was published in the literature section of the Nanyang Siang Pao. She was the translator of Nyawa Di Hujung Pedang (Life in Danger), published in 1959, which was the first Malay novel translated into Chinese in the history of Singapore Chinese literature. Chan has received several literature awards, including Sahabat Persuratan (Literature Friend Award) given by the Malay Language Council of Singapore, Anugerah Penghargaan (Honour Award of Literature), and Anugerah Bakti Persuratan (Devotion Award of Literature) given by Angkatan Sasterawan ’50 (Malay Writers Association) for promoting Malay language and literature beyond the Malay community. She is the vice-chairman of Singapore Literature Society, a life member of Angkatan Sasterawan ’50, Tropical Literature and Art Club, and the Singapore Association of Writers.

Patricia Wong is a 50 year-old Singaporean. Currently working as an allied educator in a primary school, she supports pupils in English, Mathematics and Science. She has just completed a Diploma in Translation at the Singapore Chinese Chamber Institute of Business.