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What started out as a few piglets falling sick soon blew up into an outbreak of swine fever. These things flared up once every decade or so, according to the grown-ups who, despite their unreliable memory, seemed to recall these epidemics quite vividly. They understood that such events were a display of heaven’s strength, a way to remind everyone of a universal principle that could only be pieced together or deduced in its aftermath.


The authorities were able to quickly suppress the virus in the pigsties by taking emergency measures to control the outbreak: the infected livestock were gathered for culling, while the healthy pigs were quarantined and vaccinated in batches.


The infected pigs were shoved onto lorry after lorry. In their futile bid to escape, their fat, filthy torsos slammed into each other; their ear-piercing shrieks tore mournfully from their lungs. Once the pigs were sent to the slaughterhouse, they were beaten to death by wooden stakes or hacked into pieces with butcher’s knives. Letting out a final whimper, they choked and sobbed like infants, and were heaped into graves or else dismembered and burned. The whole thing was as bloody and inhumane as it was necessary.


He was only twelve the year swine fever broke out. Still ignorant of his immediate world, he held the misplaced conviction that he would remain a boy forever, that time would be suspended in an eternity in which he would go to school every day and, after dinner, slink to the back alleys, to hear the old storyteller narrate village legends and dynastic tales set in the hometown from which his grandfather had remained in exile until his final breath, in that distant ancestral land that roused an unusual passion in his austere father.


It was as if the grown-ups feared that, after shaking free from colonial rule, this island of a country would fail to retain its orderliness and rationality, and so everyone had their private opinions and their personal visions for this largely fledgling and imaginary nation. Either way, there were no prophets.


Everything was placed under methodical and effective control, projecting an image of efficiency that the newly-independent island nation was eager to develop. Despite the initial trepidation, people eventually started to enjoy the taste of pork again. The authorities were swift to detect and then allay the citizens’ fears, reassuring them that the pork being sold was even safer to consume now than it was before.


These efforts to soothe the public’s unfounded fears all went to naught when something unimaginable started to happen. The words were still ringing in people’s ears so everyone was quick to blame it on “swine fever” again. They started worrying about having swallowed an “unvaccinated” cut of pork while they were eating at home, dining grandly at a restaurant, or hunting for street food. Soon, the paranoia spread to beef, mutton, chicken, duck, and eventually, no one was buying any meat.


As the family was having dinner that day, at the mahjong table that crowded the already narrow living room, making it impossible to move freely, the boy seemed determined to bring up what he knew was forbidden: why no pork again today? Mother shot him a livid glare.


She scooped a large clump of vegetables and, ignoring his protest, stuffed them into his mouth. In the usual paternalistic fashion, Mother grumbled vaguely in lieu of a proper, satisfactory answer:


“Veggies are good for your health! Do you know how lucky you are that you still have veggies on your plate at a time like this? Stop being such a picky brat!” She was visibly seething, though not entirely because this taboo subject had been broached at dinner. Mother cast a sideways glance at Father, who had been reticent all this while.


“The newspapers are spouting rubbish,” Father’s face darkened ever so slightly, as he consciously avoided Mother’s gaze.


“Spouting rubbish? Who’s spouting rubbish? Our neighbour’s nephew is only seventeen and he got it.”


Having newly graduated from high school, the boy’s elder brother who had managed to scrape a pass in his exams and therefore continue his studies had until now been scared to death about having to enlist into National Service in the military if things hadn’t gone well. He was quite eager to share the news he had heard, especially seeing as Mother was speaking with so much conviction. However, Father snapped in a scornful tone:


“What do you know…I’m done eating! I’m going for my meeting.”


Mother stood there, dumbfounded for a moment, before retorting: “Fine! If nobody’s scared of eating pork, I’ll go to the market tomorrow to buy some. So much cheaper than beansprouts anyway. I’ll watch all of you eat!”


Father, who looked like he had no more energy to fight back, shovelled down two mouthfuls of rice and headed out with his elder son, who wore a disgruntled look. Father had promised to bring the younger boy to his organization’s meetings when he was slightly older. Mother had long given up on Father’s shenanigans. All the elder son really did was to crowd around and help hand out leaflets occasionally. When it came to the slogans, he had no clue what was going on; neither did he have any enthusiasm in finding out.


The organization had been in big trouble recently: nearly a hundred participants had been arrested and charged for disturbing public order. Because Father hadn’t been present that day, he felt as though he had betrayed his comrades by not being arrested, and it was right as he was looking for a way to make it up to them that this bout of paranoia seized everyone.


Three years ago, the boy’s family had been forced to move from a village on the outskirts into a unit within a red-bricked, three-storey building that resembled a matchbox. When Mother first met Father, she was still working in a textile factory. Then, when she married Father, who worked as a secretary in the commercial trade, she brought her work home. Recognising that he was an educated and ambitious man, Mother adored or at least respected him initially. However, as time sedimented and the circumstances changed—and as Mother became shrewder and more seasoned herself—she started to develop an indifference towards men she considered “no action, talk only.”


Although, strictly speaking, this strange condition—the one that allegedly originated from the vaccinated pigs—affected only men who were “no action, talk only,” Mother was even more nervous than the three men in the household. 


Initially, everyone hemmed and hawed, unsure of how to broach the topic. They described things awkwardly and vaguely, skirting around their words, and stammered—as though they had witnessed the events themselves—as they described how a man on the other street had felt a sharp and sudden pain in his groin as he was peeing. His entire body had started shivering and, as his member eked out its last drop of urine, the whole thing shrank and retreated!


Everyone gave a different account of how the story ended with this man on the other street. Some said that he fainted and died on the spot, and even after the doctors dissected his body, his member was nowhere to be found.


Others said the man was still alive, but even the doctors were at their wits’ end. Taoist priests and spirit mediums had to be called in to assist his case, and only then did the member scurry out from his groin like a frantic rat on the street.


When the newspapers got around to reporting on the events, they regarded it at first as simply a sensationalist story, like following another lead on the sighting of a Pontianak on a deserted footpath. As more and more men were infected, their members shrinking without so much as a warning, they gave the phenomenon its official name in a colourful headline with accompanying illustrations: “shrinking phallus.”


The Mandarin papers called it “缩阳” or shook yong, while the English papers carried the term “Koro.” This latter word, which has its origins in the indigenous languages of Malaya and Indonesia, refers to the head of a softshell turtle.


Softshell turtles, of the family Trionychidae, are vertebrates commonly found in swamps and streams throughout the Nanyang, which the Chinese here call shanrui or jiayu. They have a hefty, fishy smell, so those hawkers who sell them would chop each turtle to drain its blood, then cut into the stomach to scoop out the innards. After the insides are clean, they would pierce the gallbladder and use the leaking bile to wipe the turtle before rinsing it clean. Then, the turtle’s neck would be stretched and decapitated, along with its claws. It would be left to simmer for a while before its skin is peeled off, its shell ripped. The turtle’s meat would be diced and, along with spices and Chinese herbs, stewed in a pot. People believed that eating a part of an animal’s organ would nourish the corresponding organ in humans. Consequently, the belief was that eating turtle’s meat and drinking turtle’s blood was the best remedy to strengthen male virility.


For a turtle’s head shrinks away when it is shocked, and is also shaped like a man’s member: the turtle’s head and the “shrinking phallus” thus complement each other. After everyone put this together for themselves, they were even more convinced that this completely absurd yet strangely real transformation could be brought about.


Even the little boys who would typically flush with embarrassment from eyeing a low-quality print of a breast in a porn magazine would now greet each other jokingly with the phrase, “Has it shrunk yet?” and laugh at each other.


When boys on the cusp of puberty got together excitedly to discuss this “shrinking phallus,” to pass along rumours from the grapevine embellished lightly by their imaginations, sometimes their conversation would get so vigorous that they would provoke each other, stripping each other’s pants to get to the bottom of whose had really shrunk.


What started out as a disease people thought of as afflicting “the man on the other street” slowly turned into a situation where the men next door were starting to get infected. “Shrinking phallus” became the hot topic of the summer, overshadowing even the waves of reports about the strikes in the Chinese schools and the news about the government’s unending public trials against the dissidents. With ever more shocking and violent speed, and with no advanced warning, the news spread like a conspiracy or a pestilence.


Within a few days, the authorities had once again clarified in a public announcement to vouch that there was no danger consuming the injected pigs.  The only two words they refused to utter were “shrinking phallus.” The rate of pork sales was far worse now, compared even to the days of swine flu, and apparently every day there were men who would rather have died than have let go of their members as they rushed towards the hospitals and clinics.

The old storyteller seized this rare opportunity to branch off from his usual action-packed tales from the Outlaws of the Marsh, satisfying the neighbourhood’s voyeuristic desires. Compared to the fighting and killing, the shouting and screaming of his previous plots, his new tales managed to attract a larger crowd of women listeners who were usually disinterested.


That night after dinner, when Father and the boy’s elder brother were having their meeting elsewhere, the boy squeezed into the tumultuous crowd, and saw the old storyteller with his huge Jigong fan. He was fanning at the wide beads of sweat on his forehead, and began to speak in the archetypal voice of a physician. In that philistine, if amusing manner, he uttered: “This disease broke out before in Tng Sua, ten years ago on Hainan Island…Have you heard of Hainan Island? It’s where the Hainanese live. Anyway, there was a celestial fox…Have you heard of the celestial fox? Not the fox spirit. Anyway, we don’t have celestial foxes here but pigs. Those pigs that were killed, that were getting injections, are poisonous. This disease will spread. Whoever’s so lucky to succumb will…”


The old storyteller paused and, as if unable to find a suitable analogy, bent over to pick up a thick piece of tree trunk.


With the seven emotions scribbled over his entire face, the old storyteller held his audience rapt. This was perhaps the most strenuous and exciting performance of his lifetime. Enraptured, the young boy did not even notice that Mother was at his side. She pulled him aside, admonishing, “Children shouldn’t be listening to these things!”


Mother had told him to stand quietly apart from the crowd, but he turned around and tunnelled his way through them to listen to the old storyteller talk about the cure for the “shrinking phallus” that had been passed down for generations—he had a feeling the knowledge would be put good to use one day—before pulling a long face and hurriedly walking away.


Mother wanted to head to Uncle’s place to fetch something. On the way there, she continuously exhorted the boy to stay at home, at least for these few days, and not gallivant around.


“There’s a disease right now that naughty children will catch.” Mother was prudent about these things. He might still have been a boy, but even a boy has a member.


As it turned out, Father and Elder Brother were at Uncle’s house, shelling peanuts and downing beer. They were talking about something that the young boy couldn’t understand, something which Mother had no authority to interrupt.


“Weren’t you supposed to have a meeting?” Mother’s tone was noticeably politer in front of an outsider.


Father hesitated. Brother, who was sitting in a corner flipping through a comic book, cut in, gloating over Father’s misfortune: “No one came to the meeting. They’re all scared.”


Mother wore a stern expression, as if admonishing a rebellious child: “I told you not to go out! A meeting indeed! If your thing disappears, I’ll see whether you people are still in the mood for your meeting and stunts.”


Upon hearing Mother’s voice, Aunt promptly called her to eat the supper she prepared. The boy was still sulking around his mother and had lost his appetite, so he simply left and sat silently beside Brother. On the fourteen-inch black-and-white television flashed the news about next month’s National Day Parade, how the country’s leaders were in Britain to discuss the impending withdrawal of the British troops from Singapore.


“These Hong Kong students should be our role models…” Father said a little too excitedly. Suddenly, everyone heard a wave of shrieking from a woman outside. Father and Uncle dashed out of the door, with Mother and Aunt following closely behind, still holding on to their supper.

The boy and his brother immediately tailed behind, and saw a bald man who was lying on the floor of the neighbour’s apartment. His eyes had flipped completely white; froth was spilling out of the corners of his mouth. He lay on the floor with his shorts down below his knees, revealing a soft and wrinkly member.


“It shrank! It shrank!”


The man’s body was convulsing violently, his member wriggling like a hairy caterpillar. The neighbours had all crowded around to see what the commotion was about as the shouting hadn’t stopped, and in that moment where everything seemed to hang on a single thread, they all had their brows furrowed, convinced that the man’s member was about to shrink.


Father and Uncle were at a loss. Everything was in chaos. As the man’s wife reached out to pull at the member with her hand, Mother hastened to stop her, shouting: “You can’t use your hand! It will rot! Use something else to clip it—don’t let it shrink completely! If it shrinks, there’ll be no saving it…”


As soon as she said that, Mother instinctively reached out with the pair of chopsticks she was still holding tightly and gripped the man’s member. The chopsticks were sticky with soy sauce, and when clamped so tightly, the member looked like the head of a soft-shell turtle splayed on a chopping board.


The boy squatted beside the man, and realised that he had never stood so close to a member that was not his own. Everyone was holding their breath, their eyes transfixed on the thing. Time paused to behold the member. It was only after confirming that it was no longer shrinking, that the crowd let out a sigh of relief and a sense of normalcy began to reign again.


After some ointment was applied to his forehead, the man slowly regained consciousness. He could not remember a single thing from the shocking chain of events. The man’s wife thanked Mother profusely, regarding her as their saviour.


On the way home, Mother was secretly satisfied with herself, whereas Father was shaken, and locked himself in his room as soon as he got home. That night, the boy didn’t dare fall asleep. Peeking out from his blanket, he realised that his elder brother was also still wide awake, and couldn’t help but ask:


“Brother, did you see it?”


“See what?”


“Did it…Did it shrink completely?”


“Stop talking nonsense kid! Kids shouldn’t worry about this. How long is yours anyway? Have you even grown a single hair? Where do you think it can even shrink to?”


“Brother, you’re not scared?”


“Scared of what? Everyone’s so paranoid, there’s nothing to be scared of. Go sleep, stop thinking so much and it’ll be fine. Just go sleep.”

Brother had lost all patience: he turned around to face the other way, and pretended to be fast asleep. But just in case, he stretched his right hand into his shorts and felt around to make sure it was still there.


The young boy became increasingly flustered. He fumbled around the dark, tiptoed into the kitchen and found a sharp knife, with which he cut the rice sack below the stove and pulled out a piece of twine, before climbing back into bed.


Under the covers, he tied one end of the twine to the bedpost, and carefully wound the other end in circles as a live knot fastened around his member. He was worried it might be too loose, but he was also worried that Brother might find out and mock him for it. After tossing and turning for a while, he fell asleep.


That night, his member did not shrink. Instead, when he woke up, a viscous liquid had leaked from it and stained his shorts in the shape of a turtle. This was his first wet dream, and he felt like he had finally grown up. Finally, he could understand what the grown-ups had been worrying about all this time.


Then, not long afterwards, everyone began to eat pork again. The British confirmed plans to withdraw their stationed troops, and the boy’s brother received his enlistment notice. This strange bout of turtle fever the boy had encountered when he was twelve began to feel like a nightmare. He wasn’t even sure it had happened. At some point, too, Father stopped going to his meetings.

刚开始只是一些猪仔生病,后来才爆发闹出了大规模 的猪瘟,根据大人们不大牢靠但却绘声绘影的记忆,几乎每十几年就会闹一次,似乎是老天爷展示神力的机会, 借以提醒大家一些并不是太难在事后才拼凑推衍出来的道 理。


当局很快就把猪棚内扩散的疫情控制下来,即刻着手 进行紧急防疫措施。那些确认已被感染的猪畜被集中在一 起宰杀销毁,那些无发病迹象的则一律实行封闭隔离,分批进行免疫注射。


染病的猪只被推上一辆一辆的卡车,污脏的肥躯逃命 似的摩擦互撞,撕肺啼叫震耳凄厉,载到宰场后或者用木棍击毙或者被屠刀砍杀,咽下最后一口气也像人一般全部 归于婴孩似的哽咽,或者堆高掩埋或者截段火化,手法残 忍血腥但必要。


闹猪瘟的那一年他才十二岁,对于周边所发生的事其 实还处于一种不止是基于无知的懵懂,以为自己永远不会长大,永远停留在每天上学下课的阶段,晚饭过后溜到街 尾去听讲古大伯讲述乡野传奇或朝代逸事,发生在那个祖 父至死都无法返回的故乡,那个令到严肃的父亲异常激奋的遥远祖国。




一切该做的事都做得有条不紊,正如这个刚刚宣布独立的岛国所欲振兴的形象。大家又有猪肉吃了,不过起初难免战战兢兢。当局这回很快的又捕捉到了市民的忐忑, 拍胸膛保证市面上的猪肉比以前安全。








 “都是报纸乱写的。” 父亲脸色微沉,有意避开母亲的眼光。














三年前从郊区山芭的老厝迫迁后,他和家人就住进了这个三层楼高,外观看起来像火柴盒的红砖瓦屋的其中一个单位。母亲认识父亲前在工厂裁衣,嫁给了在一家贸易行当书记的父亲后就把工作带回家,从前也许认为父亲有理想,而且还读过书,就算不是崇拜也应该有一点敬佩, 但随着时间的沉淀以及物事的演变,母亲无可避免的变得世故老练,对于那些属于“光讲不做的男人的事情,一概显得毫不关心。


但是,据说是从免疫猪只身上传染开来的这个怪病, 虽然严格说来也只是影响那些“光讲不做的男人,可是母亲却显得比家里的三个男人都紧张。


























那晚父亲和哥哥去开会,他吃完饭后也挤进了骚动的人群当中,看到了讲古大伯握着济公扇不停往脸颊上斗大的汗珠猛然挥动,仿佛从一个饱学的说书人摇身成了典型的买药郎中,用语声调也鄙俗有趣了许多,口里叨叨:这个病啊,在唐山也发生过,十几年前在海南岛……海南岛知道吗?就是海南人住的地方,那时候出了狐仙……狐仙知道吗?狐仙可不是狐狸精,但我们这里的不是狐仙, 是猪,那些被杀死的猪,那些打过针的猪,有毒的,这个病会传的,中标的人,他的……”




七情上面的讲古大伯紧紧扣住了每一名听众的神经, 也许是生平最卖力和精彩的一场演出。他看得出神完全没注意到母亲竟然就在身后,被逮了一个正着以“小孩子不要听这些给揪了出来。














姑姑听到母亲的声音,从厨房出来唤母亲吃夜宵。他还在生母亲的闷气而且没有胃口,兀自坐在哥哥旁边,十四寸的黑白电视机正在播映有关下个月国庆的预备事宜, 以及领袖到英国谈判撤军的新闻。


















回家的路上母亲还沾沾自喜,父亲好像是惊魂未定, 一抵家门就急忙关进房间里。那晚他蒙头后却不敢入睡, 从棉被的隙缝间见到哥哥也还醒着,忍不住就问了。























Translator's Note

A young boy who grows up in late-1960s Singapore is a naïve witness not just to the social transformations of a decolonising nation—our protagonist hears about conscription and Communists, for example, and doesn’t quite understand their ramifications—but also to a strange epidemic in 1967. The Koro epidemic, a real-life incident which Wong Koi Tet based his story on, was an incident of mass hysteria where men reported shrunken genitalia. What ensues is a story that examines how Singapore’s early years of independence and social control—including the crackdown on leftist politics—shaped Chinese Singaporean masculinities. These national events, deftly incorporated into the background, are unremarkable yet seismic for the boy’s initiation into manhood. Within its brief ambit, Wong tells an allegorical tale about emerging forms of sexual and political citizenship that resonates with experiences across former colonies. Crucially, “Turtle Fever” was first published in the local Chinese-language newspaper, Lianhe Zaobao, in 2003, after the SARS epidemic—where readers would have found the work uncanny. Translating this today, amidst a pandemic, gives the work another layer of sedimented meaning. The story was subsequently published in Wong’s Singapore Literature Prize-winning collection, Black Panther《豹变》(City Book Room, 2019), which comprises ten stories drawn from 1960s and 70s news reports.


I am interested in translating literary works which allow Anglophone readers to tune into Sinophone Singapore—one which is necessarily polyphonic, given the linguistic legacy of Southern Chinese migration, British colonialism, and how they interacted with other regional and local tongues like Malay. In “Turtle Fever,” for example, much of the story hinges upon how the local media represents the phenomenon of genital shrinking, including how the Mandarin newspapers uses the term “缩阳.” I render this word in three ways: first, by translating word for word into English (“shrinking phallus”); second, by retaining the Chinese characters (“缩阳”); and third, by adding the romanisation (shook yong). The original text already nicely counterpoints the Sinitic term with the Malay word “Koro,” which is the term English newspapers use. Readers of Mandarin Chinese might wonder why I did not opt for the pinyin (suo1yang3), and this is precisely my attempt to de-center a single literal reading of the word. By introducing the romanisation based on Hokkien—a branch of the Sinitic language family, and historically one of the lingua franca amongst the Southeast Asian Chinese—my translation emphasises how people might have spoken of the phenomenon in multiple languages, scripts, sounds, reflecting what the scholar Philip Holden describes as Singapore literature and society’s state of being “always already translated.”

Shawn Hoo


In the Classroom