My feet had guided me in a somewhat unexpected direction on Friday–towards Clementi, which I’d felt I already knew seeing as I pass by the area every week. Nevertheless, I let my heart guide me to take a deeper look into what I’d felt was a relatively ordinary area. Somehow the things that are closest to you seem to be the most often un-noticed, and I was intrigued by what I found at the Clementi West Street Market and Food Centre when I arrived in the middle of a rainy afternoon. The bustle at the market had been dampened somewhat by the light shower, but the shopkeepers and vendors never seemed to let their pace slacken due to the diminished crowd, continuing to linger by their storefront advertising freshly-squeezed cups of fruit juice or standing vigilantly near the cooked food stalls ready to receive any customer’s order.
After I had ordered a plate of mee goreng and found a seat to tuck in slowly, the pace of life in the food centre seemed to stop and slow down gradually around me. Hawkers rolled down the metal shutters over the fronts of their stalls in preparation for an early rest, and the tables around me were slowly clearing out as visitors finished their food and left. Those who remained were staring into the distance, seeming not to be focusing on or waiting for anything in particular, as the clouds continued to erratically scatter rain over the roads outside. At the moment the whole food centre itself seemed to be reclining and taking a deep sigh, discomfited by the usual lack of activity.
The consternation of the hawkers at not receiving as many customers didn’t seem immediately obvious to me when I met the one of the attendants at the fruit juice stall next to me. She’d finished a hearty conversation with a friend and left her with a few good smacks to the upper arm when she turned to me and chuckled. Both of us then proceeded into a conversation of our own in Mandarin, our words pattering fast like the rain outside, seemingly with the mutual knowledge that both of us wanted some company in the miasma of idleness that felt like it was hovering around us.
“She asked to be hit! She’s the lady doing spectacles over there, you know her? She likes to hit me so I hit her back! We’ve been friends for many years so we hit each other a lot.
When you look for a job, they won’t just look at your grades anymore. They want to see what’s in here,” where she placed her hand over her heart, “and your character. Even the students at NUS lament their degree is no use. I work at NUS sometimes so I hear them say this. So when you’re studying you shouldn’t feel pressured. Study as far as you can and it’s okay. As long as you can pull off your ‘A’ Levels it’s okay. i don’t force my kids. My son is doing Gym at ITE–they have a lot of courses, you know! As long as you have the interest you can do it. But of course when he studies Gym he needs to work out–you can’t have a skin-and-bones gym coach right! Auntie ponteng (Singlish for ‘playing truant’) Primary Three, but now I have a bit of literacy and can speak some English. All of us here can speak some English. You know why? Because we upgrade! We just learn and then we can do it. But today it depends on your skill-set. If you get good grades you can get a higher salary, so it’s good. I have some friends whose kids work and study at the same time. You just need to work five, six hours, enough to pay for your school fees. I have one friend whose daughter works part-time because she doesn’t want to be a burden to her mother.
Right now I have one kid. He’s going to serve NS soon so I’m worried. We girls don’t have to do it, but he needs to. Actually I also have one older girl, 25 this year, but at home it’s just my son. When he goes off to serve NS I’m going to be by myself. Don’t be angry when I tell you this, but since you’re so young the worst thing for you is to pick up vices. When you learn bad habits ‘A’ Levels, ‘O’ Levels, whatever levels will be no use anymore. So whatever you do, don’t pick up bad habits.
You know, Auntie also knows how to cook noodles and make coffee! I make noodles at NUS. No one taught me. I watched people and I learnt how to do it. You do, I watch. The hardest part about coffee is remembering what the customers want. All coffee tastes the same. But if I use a better brand and you use, say, one or two lesser brands then my coffee will taste better, because of the brand. You understand me?
You see that skinny lady, over there by the Western stall? She lives in Ghim Moh. I used to live there too. I pop in and out of NUS. Since my boss is here I just came here. I live just upstairs in the block of flats, so it takes me just around ten minutes to come down here. Late in the afternoon I’ll go upstairs for a rest, and come back down in the evening around six. Our boss will be here then. He’s a young fellow. Both of us are workers. If it weren’t raining I wouldn’t be sitting around talking to you like this. Yesterday we were so busy I thought I would collapse.
The way to be happy is not to go ‘this thing should be like that’, or be calculative over this and that. Don’t be petty and it’ll be okay. Study as far as you can, and don’t feel any pressure.”
As we were rounding up the conversation, a man in a wheelchair rolled by, singing in a baritone voice. I watched as he threaded his way between the tables, singing in Mandarin with a rich baritone voice to the accompaniment of a melody blaring from his portable speakers. As others reached over to place money into his collection box he’d give them broad smiles, shaking their hands and wishing them a Merry Christmas. I managed to catch up with him, and was entitled to a glimpse, behind his jolly exterior, of the narrative that had brought us both to this moment.
“I used to be a vocal coach! 30 years ago I was the champion at singing competitions. They selected the champions from the competitions, and from among the champions I was the overall champion. I have a stage name, but I choose to cover up my name. I coached several artistes–I’m not going to tell you their names–and at one point I had 300 to 400 students, all of different levels. At Kuala Lumpur and Johor as well I was the champion. Now sometimes they call me to take part in singing competitions on the judging panel. Occassionally they invite me to sing as well, but I don’t accept any sponsors or handouts they give me. I usually sing in my wheelchair, but one day I crawled across the stage and the audience gave me lots of ang pow (Chinese red packets). I didn’t do it again.
People throw all sorts of things into my box besides money. I’ve had someone throw in a necklace and Buddha cards. The Buddha cards are still in my box right now. Someone also threw in a Christian cross! I don’t take out and pawn any of them, I just keep them. Someone would also take tissues he’d blown his nose on and throw them in! The man standing outside the clothes shop over there would do that to me every time I passed by. One day when I saw he was about to stuff his tissue paper into my box, I grabbed his hand and chopped down on it with my other hand. I explained it to his older sister. I told her, ‘Your younger brother is bullying me, please tell him not to do this to me anymore.’
I have four children; three girls and one boy. The eldest is working. The second is diao er lang dang (a Chinese proverb referring to someone with a lackadaisical attitude). Spends all his money on gambling. The third is not good at her studies so she works at NTUC. My youngest is studying at SIM. Her school fees are $60,000. So I go out everyday to collect enough money to pay for them. My eldest is very smart. She wanted to quit school and said to me, ‘Pa, don’t go out every day.’ I told her, ‘I need to do this to support your little sister. Her school fees aren’t $6. They’re not $60. They’re $60,000.
Sometimes when I see unfortunate people I give some of my earnings to them. There are the ah mms and the ah bets (generic Singlish terms referring to old women and old men respectively) who will come to the tables with leftover food on them. They will take the plates and scrape all the leftover food into a Tupperware container. Whatever bacteria or diseases there are on the food will go into them. I went up to one of them and told him, ‘Don’t do this, you will get sick. You need to get some proper food.’ He told me, ‘I can bring this home and heat it up for dinner.’ I gave him $10 from my earnings and said, ‘Use this to buy yourself something to eat.’ Sometimes people will give me food, and when I have food that I can’t finish I’ll give it to the uncles and aunties cleaning the tables. I tell them, jiak ah, jiak (‘jiak’ means ‘to eat’ in the Hokkien dialect).
The most important thing for you is to stay safe. There are many bad characters in society. Once when I was on my rounds I met a man who would sit at that table and scream and throw Hokkien vulgarities at me when I was singing. He grabbed the handles of my wheelchair and pushed me so I flew across the floor. My wheelchair went so fast! I went up to him and I told him, ‘Please don’t do this to me. If you want to me to apologise, I will. I won’t come and kacau (a Malay word meaning ‘to disturb’ in Singlish) you anymore. Just don’t do this.’ For a while it was okay. Then I was outside performing and he came over and shouted at me again! A passer-by went up to me and said, ‘You know the guy who just screamed at you? He also insulted my mother.’ There was an old man who grabbed a pair of scissors and was preparing to attack the guy who’d shouted at me! Then there were two young men who chased after him. He ran so fast! After that we never saw him again. Yes, there are all sorts of characters in society.
I guess you could call this being a street artist. But there are others who will say, ‘This is the life of a cripple.’ Since this seems to be God’s destiny for me, I just accept it.”
I reached into my wallet to give him some money to help with his cause. He pushed it away. “Are you working?” he asked. When I replied that I wasn’t, he told me solemnly, ‘Come back once you are. Maybe I’ll still be around here. I have a feeling we will meet again.”
And as I was walking home that day, I couldn’t help but think of how remarkable a father this gentleman was, and how noble a soul he had.