The haunting of Ginza Plaza: An innocent 'pen fairy' game takes a spooky turn

The haunting of Ginza Plaza: An innocent 'pen fairy' game takes a spooky turn

My Singapore Life is a CNA Lifestyle series about coming of age in the Lion City. This week, an 11-year-old girl's enigmatic, older friend opens a gateway to a hostile, incomprehensible world.

Life in 90s Singapore Ginza HERO (1138x1280)
(Illustration: Chern Ling)

It was like the landing of a spaceship – everyone was talking about it. Over dinner, my mother delivered long lectures on how it would raise property prices around the neighbourhood.

Downstairs, Chinese and Indian provision shop owners gave brave, brittle replies to customers who asked for their views of the new behemoth.

LISTEN: My Singapore Life: The Haunting Of Ginza Plaza: A Childhood 'Pen Fairy' Game Goes Terrifyingly Wrong, read by Pam Oei

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The haunting of Ginza Plaza: A childhood 'pen fairy' game goes terrifyingly wrong

An 11-year-old girl opens a gateway to a hostile, incomprehensible world. Read by Pam Oei. Written by Adeline Chia. My Singapore Life showcases ...

At the hawker centre attached to the wet market, which was the outermost bounds of my permitted zone for biking, my grandfather and his WWII-survivor drinking buddies slurred their speech but never minced their words: The Japanese were coming back and it was the beginning of the end. 

Ginza Plaza. That was what they were talking about.

READ: Life In 90s Singapore: Blood and innocence on the school bus

Opened in 1992 along West Coast Road, it was the first of a group of heartland malls built in the 90s as part of a decentralisation plan for commercial activities, and the most important real estate event in the Clementi West area that decade.

Named after the gilded, high-end commercial district in Tokyo, it was supposed to target the Japanese expatriate community, which already had the Japanese International School in Clementi. To cater to this market, Ginza Plaza had a fancy Japanese name, a tower of serviced apartments, a Japanese Kimisawa Supermarket in the basement, and, well… that was it.

I couldn’t get enough of C and her ghost stories, though she was still fundamentally a mystery to me.

It never really took off. The tenant mix wasn’t phenomenal – there weren’t big chains except fast food joints, and the rest of the units comprised small-time jewellery shops, a few boutiques, hairdressers and so on. But Ginza looms large in my memory. Partly because I spent so much time there, but there was also something naive about it – grand dreams that clashed with a more mundane reality – which seemed to embody something both lame and sweet about that period of pre-adolescence, when I was 11 and 12.

LISTEN: My Singapore Life: My Dial-up Modem And The White Noise Of Falling In Love, read by Pam Oei

There, I befriended an older girl C, who worked after-school hours as a salesgirl in a toy shop that sold board games, soft toys, and random trinkets.

She was the most fascinating person I had ever met: Already in secondary school, she had a boyfriend and could see ghosts. I begged her to tell me everything. And she did, in generous detail, about what she and her boyfriend got up to in the shower, and all the ghosts she had ever encountered.

READ: Life In 90s Singapore: Buying acceptance at the temple of cool

In return, I was an enthusiastic helper, and did the dusting, restocking and cashier duty for her while she sometimes disappeared for long periods of time on “smoke breaks”.

She once warned against my bad habit of walking on my tiptoes. This tempted ghosts to follow me and trip me. She saw one little one trying – a child in period dress. Terrified, I stomped around like an elephant for days afterwards, crushing all supernatural pranksters under my soles. 

Life in 90s Singapore  SG90s_Ginza Plaza
(Illustration: Chern Ling)

I couldn’t get enough of C and her ghost stories, though she was still fundamentally a mystery to me. I had no idea what her full name was, where she lived, why she worked in the shop, or why she would want to hang out with an 11-year-old. I took her at face value, at her word – which I suppose was a sort of kindness.

In any case, I didn’t ruminate. These were the pre-teen, pre-emo years. I was still, on the whole, pretty un-self-conscious, and acted without knowing or caring what others thought of me, which was, in hindsight, one of the most precious and irretrievable privileges of childhood.

LISTEN: My Singapore Life: Buying Acceptance At The Temple Of Cool, read by Pam Oei

The last time I went to the toy shop, I brought a new girl with me – W, who lived a floor below my grandmother’s flat. I wanted her to meet the super-cool older friend I made. But C was in a strange mood that day, clicking and spinning her pen non-stop, refusing to be drawn into conversation. Occasionally, she let out an aggressive sigh.

W was the one doing most of the talking, and every other sentence started with “Mummy says…”

It was a long afternoon with no customers. Eventually, even W talked herself out and wanted to leave. Distraught that this meeting was turning out so badly, I tried to persuade C to tell us a ghost story. That was when C suggested that we played the “Pen Fairy” game.

The pen started to glide, so smoothly as if it was floating.

Popular in my primary school, this was a game where you made a DIY ouija board by writing down numbers and letters on a piece of paper, and instead of using a planchette (the pointing device), players held a pen loosely with their hands. When you asked questions, the pen moved to spell out the answers.

W and I had never played it. But when C deigned to suggest it, we both recognised a lifeline when we saw one. We agreed, heartily. So C quickly drew up the chart, we got our hands in position, and she made the incantation.

C was standing behind the counter, and W and I in front of it, the customer’s side. We were holding onto the pen lightly with three fingers, elbows resting on the counter. If anyone exerted any force, it would be obvious, I thought.

The pen started to glide, so smoothly as if it was floating.

While it circled the paper lazily, C led with the initial questions. Were you a man or a woman? How did you die? How old were you?

LISTEN: My Singapore Life: Blood And Innocence On The School Bus, read by Lim Yu-beng

After these pleasantries, where we found out the spirit died in a car accident when she was 18, W and I, shyly, ventured our own questions.

Would it rain tomorrow? What would our PSLE scores be? Did any boy like us? If so, who?

Some of the answers were plausible, some were gibberish. All were amusing – at least to W and me.

“When would I get married?” I asked.

The pen went to the number two, then five.

“How many boyfriends will she have before she got married?” W asked.

Three.

W squealed and punched me on the arm, and I was about to ask the same question for her when C asked, “Where are you in the room?”

The pen shot to the very edge of the paper – the space between W and me. W and I had been standing almost shoulder to shoulder, but we shot apart immediately.

READ: Life In 90s Singapore: The rise and fall of being AWOL

The pen proceeded to dawdle around the paper in an idle, hostile fashion. My eyes didn’t dare to leave the paper, and I could sense W’s shoulders heaving.

Fear makes people do strange things. In a shaky voice, she asked a bizarre question: “When will my parents die?”

My arm jerked forward and to the side. The pen started to make mad zigzag motions, dragging so hard on the paper it almost tore.

“Your question made her angry,” C said to W. “Now she’s going to possess one of you.”

W began to cry.

Life in 90s Singapore SG90s_Ghosts
(Illustration: Chern Ling)

“Go to the storeroom to get a mirror,” C told me.  

“What?”

“Get a mirror. Any mirror. I need to show her her reflection to scare her away.”

“But…” I glanced at my hand on the pen. Releasing it meant the spirit would possess me – wasn’t this what all the stories said?

C gave me such a forceful look that I abandoned the pen and ran straight into the storeroom. I flicked the light switch on. The space, no bigger than a broom closet, contained a single shelving unit with unmarked boxes. Randomly, I ripped through boxes, digging through bundles of pens, phone charms and sticker sheets, growing more desperate with each disappointment.

My present fear was compounded by a greater fear: The ghost was probably doing unspeakable things outside, and it was up to me, unlucky me stuck in this lousy storeroom with zero mirrors, to stop it.  

I froze.

The back of my neck knew first, then the knowledge spread to the rest of my body. Someone was watching me.

I renewed my attack on the boxes. By luck, the next one revealed lipstick cases in cheap chinoiserie fabric, the kind sold in shops in cheap tourist shops. I picked up a tube and clicked it open – a tiny sliver of mirror reflecting my wild eyes – and snapped it shut.

One last thing to do: Turning around.

Taking a huge, bracing breath, I whipped around with my eyes closed and ran back outside.

READ: Life in 90s Singapore: Days of being BBS wild on a Sim Lim Square dial-up modem

Recently, I wondered, why are children so drawn to ghost stories, or horror in general? Part of the reason has to be that horror, with its ghouls, spirits and demons, confirms what we only intuit: That beyond this normal everyday world we know is another world. One that is hostile and incomprehensible.

When I returned to the shop, only C was left in the shop, perched on the high stool, kicking her legs. The piece of paper was abandoned in front of her.

The worst had happened, I thought. W was dead. But C’s air of leisurely boredom said otherwise.

“Where’s W?” I said after a while.

“She left.”

She was digging under her nails with the pen. My world nearly ended and she was there cleaning her stupid nails with that stupid pen.

“What happened?”

“We found a mirror in my bag,” she said, absently.

And?” I was so angry I was shaking.

“The ghost left," she said. "She left Ginza.”

Adeline Chia is an art writer-editor based in Singapore and the associate editor of ArtReview Asia. New episodes of My Singapore Life are published every Sunday at cna.asia/podcasts.

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