Marc Elias, Singapore Straits from ’42

Every other generation or so someone goes after the Chinese:
the Jews of Asia, the British said, slightly poorer, weaker
in character, Godless, burning incense to ancestors.

The Japanese were better at it than most. They understood steel
and indifference, barbed wire and water, the breaking point
of bamboo, how pain could be promised from almost anything.

Don’t worry. Someone will always need you. They’ll need you
more after it starts. Study math and money. Math and money
is all that counts in a war. Numbers add up in the end.

Your father still wrote letters from camp: 1 bowl, 378 grains,
3 cabbages in the garden, never any meat, 2 roll-calls a day,
98 Europeans at the start, who all seemed to die very quickly,

and how the natives aren’t noticed. But your brother’s tiepins
and wingtips, his linen suits and easy ways were. Thank God
for prostitutes, gambling, whiskey and opium, and the milk-jade

that bought it all— the lust of lieutenants and captains rapping
at his unlocked door every night. Pork would get in, letters
would get out. Your father survived, but stayed thin for another

two decades. Another generation before natives started making
eye contact. Setting fire to everything: shops, houses, churches—
the incense still curling like concertina coiled into the air.