My eyes are affixed to a spot of dark water at my two o’clock, watching for the slightest ripple of movement. The choppy water makes it difficult to see the red tackle but I remain confident because my fingers are alert to any vibrations creeping up the slim rod.
At this point, I am emotionally invested because this prawn (last known location: northeast) has already eluded me twice. Tugging on my string but leaving nothing but a morsel left on the hook.
A hook that’s starting to resemble an accusatory question mark.
Twice have I sprung up in excitement, only to witness its escape. I feel the tension in my fingertips. I see the rod arch like a drawn bow, but this shrimp is too quick for me. She disappears before I catch a glimpse of its pale shell. Before I can pull her close, this miniature Moby-Dick vanishes, leaving nothing but a slack line, and disappointment.
I’m angry. This isn’t prawning anymore.
This is personal.
The original intent of this article was to hate on prawning. After all, there is something fundamentally silly about the sport of catching prey that has been bred for death and dumped into a pond for your convenience.
The phrase ‘shooting fish in a barrel’ comes to mind. If fishing awakens the ancient hunter-gatherer inside us, then prawning is like cosplaying as Fred Flintstone – a pantomime that borders on parody.
That was my reasoning at the start, before I found myself seduced.
If you’ve never been, here’s a brief explanation of how it works. You rock up empty-handed, pay $36 for three hours of rod rental and… that’s it actually. For the rest of your excursion, you sit in a plastic chair, occasionally pulling prawns out of the pond and frequently taking a pull from your cigarette or Carlsberg.
(Bait, nets, and plastic bags are free. Alcohol and cancer are not.)
However, this simple setup does little justice to prawning—a pleasure that is more than the sum of its parts.
Imagine a sleepy mess in some far-flung army camp or a secluded kopitiam buried in the bowels of an industrial estate. Imagine a throng of uncles drinking beer from a plastic bucket, one bare foot perched pai kia-style on the edge of their seat while chatting up the xiao mei meis who are 50% service staff, 50% platonic love interest.
Occasionally, the amiable silence is shattered by the drama of your neighbor dragging a prawn from the dark morass. Everyone turns to watch for a bit, but this is hardly Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch. The struggle is too brief to hold any real interest. Before long, everyone has returned to the isolation of their own rods and thoughts.
Before long, you realise that yanking prawns out of the water is incidental. What you’re really paying for is transport to a place where time slows down.
The music is Mandopop circa 2001 and the lighting is a wash of rainbow neon. Together, they lull your brain into a state of zen-like serenity.
And yes, it really is zen-like.
The rod-and-line gives your mind something concrete to focus on, but it is not engaging enough to command your attention like a loud Youtube video or, say, this obnoxious online article. This here-but-not-here feeling is alien to modern life: your senses have a heightened awareness of the surroundings, but your mind drifts freely, carried along by the currents of your subconscious towards both the inane and the fantastical.
You ponder, for instance, if you are actually a prawn. Baited by the activity’s offer of beer and cheap thrills.
You also wonder what the bottom of the pond looks like. Does it resemble the fish tank in a Chinese restaurant, filled with sluggish dinner? Or is it a dejected mass of crustacean, packed like sardines and yearning to breathe free?
I’m almost tempted to jump in in search of an answer.
The antics of your fellow prawners provide another source of pointless speculation to stave off boredom. Opposite me are three uncles armed with expensive-looking prawning kits. They are friends and obviously regulars, but seem to enjoy little success, despite the considerable investment of time and money.
Perhaps they do not care to catch supper, only to while away the night with booze and banter.
Others are clearly seeking a more tangible return on their investment of a Monday evening. The woman beside me simply can’t sit still. She fidgets with her rod incessantly, pulling it out of the water every minute to check for signs of life and even asking the staff to stir the pond with a rake in hopes of increasing her chances.
The guy on my right has one leg on the ledge and his rod high in the air. His pose reminds me of the Sun Wu Kong (Monkey King), scanning for threats on the horizon.
Or maybe Napoleon crossing the alps, if you’re High SES.
Despite their efforts, Sun Wu Kong and the auntie are no more fortunate than the rest of us. The prawns don’t seem to care if your line is still or moving. They do not give a fuck about your karmic rating or how much you’ve spent at the bar. They keep their own counsel, biting at random to infuriate all comers in equal measure, betraying nothing.
And what better metaphor for being can you conjure? In prawning, as in life, there are neither certainties nor happy endings. Beneath the dark water is an order indiscernible to the human eye, a pattern that no man has seen.
As in life, you have little choice but to exercise patience, and take each day (i.e. prawn) as it comes.
And no, I never did confront my krusty arch-nemesis. I’d like to believe that she remains at large, stealing bait and evading danger like a Jack Sparrow of the pond until her death at a ripe old age.
Three hours of prawning costs me $36, but this price does not include the $15 worth of beer or the $25 I spent on Uber.
That’s about $80 for four prawns.
I must say, it’s rather expensive, even if the prawns are large and succulent.
But then again, if travel is about the journey rather than the destination, one could argue the same for prawning. It’s not about getting supper, but getting bored. You are not paying for freshness or to experience the thrill of a hunt, but to enjoy a tranquil monotony that has been lost forever in our 4G, always-on world.
It’s lovely to sit there and stare at the water instead of a waterproof screen protector.
It’s nice to let your mind wander whilst doing something completely inane. The performance of mundane tasks becomes quite therapeutic after a long day of multitasking and checking social media every 15 seconds for the latest update on an issue you don’t care about, from a person you barely know.
In short, prawning is not about the prawns. It’s a form of beer-assisted meditation. It brings you a luxurious boredom that is more privilege than punishment in our plugged-in society.
Or at least until you meet your match in the pond.