Kim Lee grabbed a gunnysack full of rice, steadied himself, and followed the other workers up the gangplank on Boat Quay. Only twelve, his narrow shoulders barely supported the weight. His calves strained as he teetered close to the edge of the Singapore River. With a gasp of relief he heaved his rice onto a pile. I must keep moving, yet cannot hold on for ten more hours.
“Put down your pen, Kim Lee, and head to the docks,” his father declared that morning. Hang Lee strode into the classroom and stood over Kim. “No more letters, you must help earn money. Go and ask for Mr. Cook, on the Ba Ning boat. It’s arranged.”
“But, Papa,” Kim protested. “I’m number one in my class. Teacher told me I could earn a scholarship to London.”
“Your mother is sick and can’t sew. You’re our oldest. Time to contribute. Now go.”
“Yes, father.” Kim hung his head, gathered his meager school materials, and shook hands with the teacher. He shed a few tears as he ran to the docks, found Mr. Cook, and signed his name to a worksheet.
Mr. Cook, with a severe frown, oversaw the boat operations. “Awfully skinny for fifteen. Is it so?”
Kim looked down, “Small for my age, but tenacious, sir.” Mr. Cook pointed and Kim took his place in line. Trip after trip, his legs became accustomed to the bounce of the planks. He listened to the men around him curse, talk about women and drink, and he vowed that this would not be his life.
At noon, he crouched and ate from his opeh leaf filled with a small scoop of noodles. That night he staggered home, handed his father his coin, and fell into bed, too tired for dinner. His mother’s ragged cough didn’t wake him, as it usually did in the wee hours.
Day after day, the routine work strengthened Kim’s body and his resolve to escape. As he trudged the gangplank, he worked mathematic problems and recited sonnets. It was 1880, and there was so much more to the world than Boat Quay.
Rumors of a ship from England reached Kim’s ears and he eagerly signed the log for duty on HMS Avon. It sailed into harbor and Kim reveled in its glorious lines. He scurried to the front, eager to see the captain in full regalia. Kim bowed, scraped and ingratiated himself with the crew. Like a puppy dog mascot, his eager smile, his sharp brown eyes, and his energy gave him full on board privileges. Kim remained dry-eyed as HMS Avon sailed away. He watched from a porthole as his past disappeared.