The Tan Sri’s family name was Teh, and his generation name was Chung, and his given name was Onn.
His generation name was the fifth and final in a five-part generation poem. Read backwards through time, the poem said: “From China a man with vision comes.”
By the last year of the war, Onn did not have much money. He did not feel like a visionary. He knew what he had actually: he had a practical kind of cunning, and a belly full of appetites, and he had a great many uncles involved in a great many businesses.
When Onn was sixteen he began working in a bank. “Hm,” he thought to himself. “Because of who I am, I have my uncles, who will help me. I have the things my grandfather had. But my boss is a white man. Secretly he looks down on me. And later on I will need Malay friends, and secretly they only like white-people things.”
So Onn stopped calling himself by his given name, and he gave himself a new one. “Jonas” was the name he gave himself.
And a few years later, Jonas became executive manager at his bank, and a few years after that, the Sultan gave him a Datuk-ship.
When Jonas was forty-one, he had a dream.
He dreamt that he sat on a horse on a fjord in a brown river, and the horse told him: “Jonas Teh Chung Onn, this is your country, build here your capital city.”
And in his dream Jonas saw construction pull itself up in cranes and tattered green scaffolds, and hard-hatted workers stand at assembly, line by line. There were rows and rows of houses, mirrored glass. Clacking billboards were switching from new-model cars to old-school coffee shops to new-model cars again.
Jonas woke up. He was forty-one: a Datuk; a banking executive; a majority shareholder of a construction concern, a consortium one of his granduncles had built.
He decided he would build his city. He bought land by the river – cheap land, wasteland where there was nothing, only secondary jungle and inconsequential villages, inhabited by villagers whose dreams were less important.
Jonas had money, but it was not enough, so he built his own bank also.
Jonas named his bank Capital UCB. His bank had friends in cabinet, so it would not fail; it had headquarters towered by a bend in the river; for its trademark, it had a horse passant and it was tinted gold.
Just short of seventy-eight, before the groundwork for Cityview Phase Five could be laid, Tan Sri Jonas Teh Chung Onn passed away.
People said the Tan Sri had financed nearly a quarter of all development in the city; his horse trademark was stamped directly on a full eighth of it.
So many people walked the street in his funeral procession that they had to close the street off: his two sons and seven daughters; second cousins thrice removed; members of parliament and party strongmen, the finance minister; princes, golfing partners, association leaders, all the people in his employ – a river in white mourning flowing slowly.
There was a fifty-person marching band. There were twenty truckloads of joss paper.
The merchants made a lot of money. They made paper phones and paper maids and paper yachts: life-sized, in yellow and pink with blue glass-paper details, supported by skeletons of sticks. Their presses ran off new banknotes in excessive denominations.
Through the pyres in Cityview Square, these banknotes were transported by fire into the underworld. They were worth quintillions and octillions, these banknotes.They had zeroes from edge to edge. They had the Jade Emperor’s face on one side and Benjamin Franklin on the other.
Teh Chung Onn entered his afterlife in a well-tailored business suit. The judge wore a business suit also. He had a black face and black hat with two black flaps that quivered when he nodded.
“Teh Chung Onn,” the judge said.
An ox-headed soldier and a horse-headed soldier led Onn forward.
Their footsteps squelched in mud; Onn’s shoes sank in, the mud soaked into his socks. The mud was all around the judge’s table and went into the unbearable dark beyond.
“You have sinned a lot,” the judge said. “You have caused destruction in the world and plotted murder. It is no wonder you were murdered in return. Here you will suffer for your sins. For your lies, you will be crushed with pestle in a mortar. For your lusts, you will climb a red-hot pillar. For – ”
But Onn stopped the judge. “My name is Jonas,” he said.
On the table in front of the judge, Jonas put a brown envelope bulging with rubber-banded dollars.
The black flaps of the judge’s hat quivered. The judge did not like Jonas. He did not have to take the bribe. But it was traditional – very old, one of the oldest – and no place valued tradition more than the hells of the Chinese peoples.
The Tan Sri gave the horse-headed soldier an envelope also, because he needed a bodyguard.
In the mansions of the earth, in the yellow springs, dead people arrived daily: well dressed, new billionaires, their banknotes crisp but smelling burnt.
The Tan Sri wondered about this often, while he was still alive but getting older.
“Hm,” he thought to himself. “Over there, everybody is rich. How will I act on my advantage? Dead people think of the leisure life; they are served joss houses and credit cards. How is the joss money spent? Who owns the shops and the services, who makes the merchandise?”
And so the Tan Sri left instructions. He spoke to paper merchants, commissioning cranes made of sticks; there were cement mixers, diggers, excavators with glass-paper cabs; paper workers line by line like an army. There were deeds drawn up: land titles and bills of sale.
When he passed away, his sons put these papers to the fire.
And when the Tan Sri awoke in his afterworld he was already rich – not only rich with cash; he owned vast swathes of property, across several levels in prime locations, with the proper documents as proof.
Within three months of the Tan Sri’s arrival in the underworld, Capital UCB opened its first branch in the mansions of the earth. By the yellow springs, groundwork for Cityview Phase Six was laid. It was a luxurious mixed development: condominiums, commercial arcades, nail bars and coffee shops.
The Tan Sri had a great many uncles in hell, a great many friends. They were serving sentences centuries long, working off their karmic debt supposedly – and now they worked for him.
They were his managers and magistrates. Hundreds of them: accountants, architects, executives; horse-headed retainers. Horse-headed soldiers guarded his mines and yards and manufactories.
The soldiers stood at attention. They had spiked clubs, war tridents; they wore bulletproof vests and Capital Security uniforms. “Because,” – the Tan Sri was told – “you will need an army, if you want to build your empire.”
“Business empire,” the Tan Sri said.
The Tan Sri was in a meeting with his horse-headed officer, a soldier named Horse-face. She was very powerful, a marquise in her own right. Formerly she had guarded the gate into the underworld, and she fought the King of Monkeys long ago.
Horse-face had felt her skills wasted here. She’d taken the Tan Sri’s money but valued his ambition more.
“There is trouble in Nine Pavilions,” she told him. “The souls there will not move. They say that watching over their families above is more important than any tower block. They are organising a protest against the company.”
And the Tan Sri said: “We already have the permits, send the bulldozers in. Why do I need to tell you?”
In the mansions of the earth, in the Nine Pavilions, there were dead people who could not let go. They watched their loved ones in the lands of the living.
Countless mirrors, round and bronze, polished to a piercing gleam, inside nine red halls – their red doors flew open and the dead people charged out, goring themselves on the guandaos of horse-headed soldiers waiting.
They screamed and cried, but were not deterred; they took hold of the spear-hafts with both hands, and pulling themselves through their bellies they wrestled the soldiers down.
They ran at tractor blades, fed their feet into engine fans, stuck their heads between wheels of the caterpillar threads.
Horse-face felt frustrated. She brushed away an intestine loop that landed on her shoulder then waved for retreat. “Tomorrow!” she shouted. The contractors spent all night fixing their loaders, whatever they could: cleaning up pistons clogged by bone-pieces and scalp-matter.
The dead, rebellious people were ready for them again the next day.
On day three, Horse-face told the Tan Sri: “They are used to hell-torture. They will keep coming back, their bodies reform after every beating. Nine Pavilions is important to these people.”
The Tan Sri wanted to build a broadcasting facility at Nine Pavilions.
“It would benefit everybody,” he said. “Why don’t these people understand?” His vision was this: family and friends broadcast live, twenty-four-hour channel, direct into your device.
The Tan Sri went to see the judge. He went in a palanquin and did not get down – to avoid muddying his shoes.
It was disrespectful. The judge hunched over his table, and the black flaps of his black judge’s hat quivered. He kept quiet as he read the document the Tan Sri wanted him to sign – every word and every name, a list many pages long.
He could hear the Tan Sri’s fingers drumming.
Finally the judge said: “For what reason should these people be deported?”
“They are squatters,” the Tan Sri said. “On land which the state sold to me. They will not leave. I am asking the state to intervene. I’ve come in person, so please give me face.”
Honestly, the judge did not like the face, or its tone of Tan Sri’s voice – he did not have to sign the expulsion papers, and did not think it was right. But the Tan Sri had many friends in government. The judge felt in a mire. He’d served his post for millennia, and could serve for many more.
And so, at the start of rain after a five-month drought, bloated bodies were spotted floating in floodwater.
There were thousands of bodies; where rivers joined they got caught on rubbish spikes – then they dragged themselves out: grandparents, pining lovers, unfilial sons. They were free at last to make amends.
A year following the uprising, New Pavilion Tower opened with loud lions dancing. The Wrathful God himself attended.
Above the moaning multitude, above kings and judges, the Wrathful God sat as god of hells. He was red-eared and angry-faced, and he sat at the ceremony with his red scowl twisted into a smile, thanking the Tan Sri for dutiful service.
The Tan Sri pressed his face into sodden ground.
“Your Dread,” the Tan Sri said. “This one’s name is only Teh Chung Onn, most humble of humble subjects.”
And the Wrathful God crowned him King of the sixth level – a great honour, one of the greatest – and long overdue, since Onn owned all of the sixth level already.
As King one of his duties was care of the gate to the afterworld. But this job he gave to Horse-face, his officer. “It was your job, wasn’t it?” he told her. Nowadays he cared less for material matters and more for his own enlightenment.
He was ninety-one: rich; a ruler who would reign many centuries.
Yet, he reflected, he was still a prisoner to karma. He would still be born afresh, a baby with a name only. The King was a practical man. He could not wait so long or waste so much.
He went to the Heavenly Embassy, with lawyers and company executives with him, to find out how he would open a branch of Capital UCB in the palaces of the sky.
Illustration by Sharon Chin.
This story was workshopped during the Cooler Lumpur Writers Residency 2014.