The lane leading from the Buona Vista subway station to the nearby mall, as of late, is framed by eager touts or salesmen. Itinerant tissue-paper sellers – a euphemistic term to describe those who would narrowly become beggars – appear, set up shop, and often vanish without a trace.
‘Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus,’ says the Hogwarts school motto. In Chinese tradition, however, waking the dragon is an indispensable part of its creation.
I’d written before on the captivating energy of the lion dance – as an outsider looking in, the clamour of the gongs and cymbals and the colour and vigour of the dancers seem like a hallmark of cultural artistry to some, and a fantastic spectacle to most. It was only after I had gotten a chance to join the lion dancers at the Kong Chow Wui Koon (岡州会馆) along New Bridge Road that I gained a tiny glimpse into the world that really exists behind these performances. Continue reading
“You see the sign on the wall? It says ‘Willing Hearts Soup Kitchen’. And we serve everything here except soup.” Continue reading
“It’ll be good for you to come along. Then you’ll see the reason why we do all this nonsense.”
A woman in her thirties standing next to me frowned. “No lah, this can’t be called nonsense.”
The man smirked. “Tony always calls this ‘nonsense’, so I just call it ‘nonsense’ too.”
The man who spoke was Mr Tay. He was a tall bespectacled man in his fifties, with a head of frizzy black hair and a general demeanour of whimsical belligerence. In front of us were a pair of white vans and one red Audi, their boots open and waiting. Stacks of styrofoam boxes lounged in big plastic bags on the floor, each labelled hastily in black marker with the names of various housing estates. From packing food the previous day, I had been placed on delivery duty. “Most of the volunteers today are children,” someone else had explained, and by virtue of being the next oldest (but not by a long stretch), I was their next candidate.
What he had called ‘nonsense’ was, in fact, the under-estimated task of making sure that the food the Willing Hearts Soup Kitchen produced went to its recipients – each box contained a combination of rice, stir-fried vegetables and meat that had been cooked the previous day. Two other volunteers and I were assigned to distribute food to four destinations around Singapore: Jalan Kukoh, Chin Swee Road, York Hill and Banda Street. Some of the deliveries were needed urgently: after all, this would be the only way many of the recipients could obtain a meal at all. Armed with a lengthy set of verbal instructions from the seasoned volunteers, Google Maps and sheets of addresses, we set off in the Audi. The car was driven by the woman in her thirties. Her name was Hui Yi, and I noticed from the miniature statue suspended from her front-view mirror that she was a Buddhist. It was heartening that she had no qualms about volunteering with a Christian organisation – though the act of service itself could be said to transcend religious boundaries and unite us all in our human desire to do good.
Jalan Kukoh and Chin Swee were two of Singapore’s oldest housing estates. Unlike other more populated estates with their fresh coats of bright paint and publicised community gatherings, these estates looked largely like they had ten years ago. We toted bags of food boxes past speckled stone columns and grey tiled floors. A pair of old men, faces ruddy and bronzed, leaned back onto stone benches under a pavilion and smiled at us when they realised what we were here to do. When we left the first batch of boxes for the estates’ elderly at a distribution point, I saw them edge forward expectantly. Further ahead, a younger man lurked in an alleyway, shirtless, reeking of cigarette smoke.
After returning to the car for the next batch of boxes, we proceeded to the door-to-door deliveries. The elevators smelled musty, and we shuffled for space behind octogenarians in wheelchairs and a skimpily-dressed woman with her young child. I got out first, and stepped into a dark corridor.
Though it was the middle of the afternoon, the landings were still shrouded in darkness. Dated Chinese New Year decorations, greyed at the edges, clung to the walls. A faded cross would appear on one worn pastel-yellow door, facing the remnants of burned-out incense sticks from tiny Taoist altars on the ground. Dried cat faeces sat at the foot of a flight of stairs and filled the air with a sharp odour. Sofas and chairs sat abandoned under spirals of dust motes caught in the sunlight filtering from windows in the side of each floor.
Many of those who answered the door were old men. Cursory peeks behind them into the front room of their apartment units showed bare beige floors, with often only a small shelf or an electric fan placed against the wall. Some would smile and thank us in low raspy voices, but many received their packages wordlessly. It was an all-too regular occurrence for them; one that they, unhappily, had no choice but to depend on. Sometimes it would be answered by a relative of the beneficiary. One was answered by a middle-aged woman, who smiled at me bracingly before turning to her mother, lying immobile on a mattress next to the door. Many of them had lost their jobs or were mired in debt, falling through the cracks.
One of them struck me more than the others. Another old man walked up to our car at our third destination. He moaned, gestured to his mouth, and shook his hands: no food. He fumbled in his wallet for his registration card, waving it before us imploringly. We pointed to the address sheets, asking him to identify his so that we could bring it to him. Again, he pointed to his card and grunted in some frustration. The employees of a nearby lumber shop watched with a benevolent exasperation, and told us about his situation. He was both deaf and mute, and lived alone.
In a bustling metropolis like Singapore, it can be easy to forget that there are very much still people who need our help. The poor, the destitute, the homeless. Even when we do interact with them – often in somewhat contrived settings, to satisfy ‘service hours’ or fulfil some corporate social responsibility component – it can be easy to ignore the humanity we share instead of viewing them as objects of our benefaction. But at the same time, it can be hard not to pain for those you have felt the suffering of.
We finished our shift beleaguered, but satisfied. On the drive back, we were no longer on a mission. Our shift was done, and the three of us now had other things to deal with and worry about.
If only the people we were serving had the luxury to do the same.
During peaceful family moments around the dinner table facing the TV, my father will occassionally disclose some moments from the past. Some of those involved his small, understated collection of heirlooms. One of those was, surprisingly, an item he had been given at birth – a tiger claw pendant, which he had safeguarded until today. The claw itself had darkened with age into a deep, bark-like brown. I could cradle it squarely in the center of my palm, and felt only the cool solidity of the metal it had been set in. It had been set in gold by a Johorean craftsman, my father explained, “which is why the quality is not so good.” It was a simple job, with four-petaled flowers being embossed around the ribbed base and the claw tapering down into a rounded point. Perhaps, I imagined, it was there to conceal the lethality of the curved hook of a tiger claw – which only served to make it look more regal and powerful.
The tiger claw pendant had been a gift from my father’s grandfather. He had given it to my maternal grandmother when my father was born, being the firstborn son of my great-grandfather’s eldest daughter. “He had five older sons,” my father explained, “but my mother was always his favourite.” Male children have a particular significance in Chinese culture, which seemed both fitting and ironic in this context: my great-grandfather lavishing his daughter more than his sons, and at the same time forking out a sum of cash to give his grandson an especially lavish gift. (My eldest aunt, born before my father, never received something as extravagant as this.) It must also have carried with it no small measure of my great-grandfather’s hopes: tigers are symbols of power, virility and masculinity in Chinese culture. By wearing a tiger claw, it was hoped that the strength and courage of the animal it came from would imbue my father with similar attributes as he was growing up.
When he grew older, my father received another gift. It was his father’s old Rolex watch that had specially been bequeathed to him upon his death. It was nothing particularly expensive: in fact, one of my aunts had scorned it as a cheap watch. But the most valuable thing about it was that it had belonged to my father’s father. Again, the gift had been out of his significance as the firstborn son in the household. My father should pass it on to his own firstborn son, my aunt had said. And so, these items will hopefully continue to be passed on, accumulating memories and the weight of history with time.
Will I receive any of these heirlooms from my own father? Only time will tell. Tigers are now endangered species, and some might perhaps frown upon the wearing of such pendants as blatant encouragement of the wildlife parts trade. I don’t condone the slaughter of endangered animals just to use their body parts for jewellry, either. But to me, this old pendant is not just any animal part merchandise. It was my father’s own tiger claw pendant, forged out of love and hope by his own mother’s father. I don’t think I will ever bear to see it thrown away. I want to keep it where it can continue to remind someone of all that it represents – the power of a tiger, and the power of a grandfather’s love.
Lately, every time I walk down the covered walkway leading from Buona Vista MRT Station to The Star Vista, I see an old woman sitting against a pillar. In the heat of the day she sits out in the open, flanked by the footfall of passers-by on one side and the dust stirred up by flocks of pigeons on the other. She was another of the itinerant tissue-paper sellers so often seen in Singapore’s crowded spaces, attempting to eke out a living by selling meagre packs of tissues to largely oblivious commuters. I had passed her by many times on my way home. This Christmas, I decided I could ignore her no longer.
I set out for the supermarket, feverishly combing the shelves for something she might need. I ended up purchasing a bunch of bananas, a pack of Milo, and two bottles of water–things that I hoped would make her stay out under the afternoon sun at least a little more bearable. Gingerly, I approached her usual seat, marked by a red place mat and a wicker basket filled with packets of tissue paper. Would she reject my gift? What would she think of my decision to do this? Was I even doing the right thing?
She was eating out of a styrofoam packet of mixed rice with vegetables when I saw her, and had a plastic cup of coffee at her feet. At least she was eating well, I thought with relief. She was also talking to a younger woman I didn’t recognise–a welcome respite from the hours of boredom she must have faced everyday. Swallowing, I presented the shopping bags to her, sheepishly explaining that I felt bad for seeing her sitting out in the heat all day. I didn’t feel it was enough to explain my sudden burst of charity, but it was worth a try. Unexpectedly, my gift was met with another. “Aiyoh, you’re so considerate!” both women exclaimed in Mandarin, and the elderly lady pressed something into my hands. It was a cardboard bookmark wrapped in transparent plastic, with ‘Great is God’s Love For Us.’ piped onto the surface in orange and green fluid.
Feeling that it would be inappropriate to dash off right after presenting my gift, and curious about their chance encounter, I stayed behind to talk to them. Despite the vicissitudes they must have been confronted with, both women constantly had radiant smiles on their faces, punctuating their conversations with enthusiastic acknowledgments of God’s blessings in their lives. At one point, another woman walked by and handed the elderly woman some money. “God Bless You!” she exclaimed loudly in English, cheerfully handing her another bookmark from the thick brown sheaf packed next to her packets of tissue. And though the younger woman spoke at a faster, more staccato pace than the deliberate speech of her elderly companion, both of them spoke with a simple, unadultered happiness. What said they said to me is translated directly from Mandarin.
“I’m from SBC at Redhill. Aunty (referring to the old lady) worships at the church here (Star Vista). I happened to come here and both of us believe in God, so we just started talking. I’m originally from Malaysia, you know! I have three children. The oldest is 20 years old, only 2 years older than you. He’s studying in ITE and also works repairing air-conditioners, he got a 2.9 G… G whatever you call it, so he’s deciding whether to stay back or to just go to the army. The second is 18 and the third is 15, all studying here. The eldest and the youngest are also Christian, and their father told them, ‘If you want to be Christians, don’t come into my house.’ But I told them, ‘Don’t worry! Leave your worries to God.’ I can’t read very well, so when I read the Bible I’m very slow; I listen to an audiobook. You know, my child’s boyfriend’s cousin, he went to Malacca and a car ran over him. We had to go to the hospital to get him a new leg. We thought he wouldn’t make it, but praise God, the flesh began to grow around the metal they put in during the surgery! You speak English or Chinese? In English my name is Kristina, with a ‘K’. In Chinese, you can just call me Lizhen.”
“Just call me Po-po (婆婆, ‘grandma’ in Mandarin); will do. I used to sell tissue papers somewhere else, but since I came here I’ve been able to sell tissue papers for a long time. I have a sick husband at home, so I have to go out and support him. I got to know Jesus several decades ago, but only really accepted him six years ago. I used to bring my Bible with me when I went out, but it was too heavy so I decided not to bring it anymore. If not, I could read it while I’m here selling tissue paper. These bookmarks were made by a good friend of mine to give out, so just take one! Aunty knows so many young boys and girls; I cannot remember all their names. You’ve seen me here for so many weeks and you only come and talk to me now? Why did you spend so much on me when you’re not working yet?”
In this season of giving, it can sometimes be hard to remember that those we perceive we’re benefiting may help us more than we help them. There are some who believe that many of these tissue-paper-sellers are simply trying to play off people’s sympathies without having to work at a proper job. But the simple joy and contentedness these two women shared with me despite their circumstances was something that sincerely touched me. I walked away that afternoon with a renewed appreciation of the little kindnesses that can light up our individual journeys through life.
Katong Park felt like a lonely oasis of green fenced in by the wide, bleak lanes of tarmac that made up Fort and Meyer Road. I had the sense I was walking through an urban desert as I approached it, for the buildings and construction sites on both sides looked bone-dry under the glare of a late afternoon sun. As I stepped onto the stone path leading into the park I couldn’t pick up any trace of human presence at first, which unnerved me for a split second before I reckoned that this would be a nice place to move away from the fast lane in this otherwise heavily-urbanised island. There were signboards relating the history of the park as the former site of a British military fort and later a previously-popular leisure destination, but even those appeared forgotten and forlorn against the tide of urban life that swept past and away from the park.
I was fortunate enough to have a conversation with a gentleman that I met sitting under a pavilion in the middle of the park, after spending a few moments gesticulating at him from a distance to ask if I could take his photograph. I shan’t attempt to introduce him any further, but let his words speak for themselves about another dimension of the human experience in Singapore.
“I come here to relax until 5, 6; then I go to work, I’m in the security line over at the Dhoby Ghaut side. I’m here Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, but not Saturday and Sunday because I work the double shift. I just sleep here until work. It’s nice here–fresh air, quiet, no crowds. In the morning I go to the market down the road for a good breakfast of half-boiled eggs, then I come back here. Before work I’ll go to the swimming complex to shower, you have to pay 50 cents to go in. Sometimes I bring my laundry to the place where you put the coin in and watch it spin, wash it for $5. Sometimes tour buses come here to talk about the history of the area. They sometimes hold discussions here and they ask me, ‘Excuse me can you please move’ so I’ll move all the way to the other side.
I used to live in one of the condos around the area; that was 25 years ago. I’m married, I have two sons. Eldest is 28 and working in the shipping industry. You don’t hear about people like us in the newspaper. They like to say ‘Singapore is number 1 at everything’ but you still have people living in hardship. At East Coast Park there is a free shower area, the homeless families go there to wash their clothes. On Nicoll Highway you can also see homeless family members sleeping. I don’t like Singapore. Singaporeans are like robots–go to work, come back, go to work, come back. And–sorry to say–but children in Singapore aren’t filial to their parents, they live very far from each other. Singapore is safe, but I think you should experience life in a foreign country.
I would move to Indonesia, Batam, Malaysia. Batam is a 45-minute ferry ride from Harbourfront. Batam is very nice; I used to go there. Many good places for diving, and shopping there is very cheap. Here in Singapore everything is expensive. Is there anything I would change… I just want a more comfortable life. I want to lead a simple life elsewhere.
I can’t say I ever feel happy. I can’t feel happy in Singapore. But I have friends who cheer up. I like to make other people cheer up. And I think as long as you have two hands, two legs, then you should continue working. Everyone needs to sustain themselves.”
Every time I see a person selling packets of tissue paper along the street, a mental tussle starts within me–to buy, or not to buy? Is it alright to ignore them like what everyone else seems to be doing, or just go ahead and buy something to help them out that little bit? On Saturday I gave in to my desire to play my part and approached this old man. His bubbly nature and the winsome smile on his face surprised me, for someone who must have spent hours waiting at the same spot without any success. What he shared with me left me walking away feeling touched, somehow–for reasons I can’t quite put together. Perhaps it was the fact that I had been granted a glimpse into the life of a person who must at times seem as oft-un-noticed as the grass around him.
“I sell here because I have a license! If you don’t the government will chase you out. It’s very hard to get a license. Today is good because there is a lot of people; it’s Saturday. But some days I don’t sell anything at all. The tissue paper was donated by Sheng Siong, twenty boxes and all of it was free. The headband was bought for me by someone from a nearby store.
I start work early every morning–this morning I started at twelve, and end every night at eight. I’ll take the MRT home by myself with this box; it isn’t heavy. I live by myself in Commonwealth. I used to live with my father, but then he passed on. I don’t like Singapore. I like travelling. I’ve been to many places–Malaysia, China. I travelled to China free because they paid for my expenses; I did volunteer work. There were basket-weavers in China who began working before they could walk. Little children; twelve years old. Now I stay here because I’m a Singaporean.
Girl, you should study. Studying is good; studying is good. Don’t go to JC–not good. School fees there are expensive. Poly is good, why don’t you try poly? You should bring your parents overseas to play one day–maybe Malaysia.”