“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.
“This kitchen is open 365 days a year. Chinese New Year, Vesak Day, Christmas. We don’t stop.”
There was no other introduction needed for the Willing Hearts Soup Kitchen. Behind its pastel yellow facade and small strips of grassy lawn dotted with colourful garden gnomes was a storm of heat and movement. A tall man in an apron shoveled away at a wok the width of a bathtub, stirring at a morass of bell peppers, long beans and tomatoes. Volunteers moved from one end of the metallic grey kitchen to the other, supporting large trays of fried mackerel and vegetable stir-fries. And at every table were more volunteers in hair nets and plastic gloves. Scooping rice into styrofoam trays, ladling on vegetables, and topping on fried fish before each box was squeezed with tens of others in tightly-tied red plastic bags. “Another 1000!” came the occassional cry. It was not at all a startling number in these kitchens. The daily order for lunch and dinner each was 5000 boxes of packed food. No one stopped unless the ingredients in front of them had run out. Just as soon as the remnants of food in the previous trays had been scraped out with ladles and new trays were brought piping hot onto the tables, work began again.
Willing Hearts is just one of the many organisations throughout the island dedicated to alleviate the suffering of the city’s poor and hungry. And yet there was never a moment where help was not needed somewhere in the kitchens. Besides the assembly area, the soup kitchen sported an open-air food preparation area, a small herb garden and even carried out daily deliveries of food to communities all across Singapore. There were even less people on the weekdays – retirees, people between jobs, the odd school excursion group. I plunged in.
It can be easy to forget the real significance of what you were doing there when you settle into the rhythmn of work. There are some who volunteer there because the work is relatively straightforward, even enjoyable (as many of the housewives at the preparation area would attest). To an extent, volunteering at a soup kitchen is seen as a standard way to ‘fulfil service hours’ by many school clubs and corporate groups. But the grittiness of standing in an assembly line, shovelling cabbage and lotus root slices onto a bed of rice for three and a half hours on my feet non-stop, touched me. This was how much work went into providing for the less fortunate around us.
A middle-aged woman suddenly stopped two of us from adding some blanched bok choy into the boxes. “I think you cannot use this, it’s not properly cooked,” she explained. “Not good for the old people. I once followed them on distribution; we went to the flats at Clementi to deliver food to families. There were so many people, I think almost 300!” As the vegetables were being replaced, the volunteers in the line stood around, restlessly waiting. “We slowed down,” exclaimed one. No one thought solely of the 1000 boxes we had to prepare at each go. Everyone was thinking of the people this food would be going to – and how they would have to wait if we didn’t fill the boxes in time.
And yet, over the long hours and risk of exhaustion, there were still moments for a little light-heartedness. “Oh, I hate this song,” a lady in glasses exclaimed, rolling her eyes as ‘If I Die Young’ came over the radio. “I’m like those grandmothers who wants everyone to eat more,” explained another with serious meticulousness as she spooned an extra helping of long beans onto the boxes laid out in front of her. The older volunteers smiled and laughed, finding time to clap each other on the back or swap a friendly ribbing as they bustled between the kitchens and the driveway. Not long into the shift, everybody was already talking to everybody else. Though the exact reasons each volunteer had for coming here was different, all of us wanted to be able to help out in any way we could.
Noon struck. “You ladies can start clearing up this table,” a small wiry man called out. Four hours and countless boxes of rice later, we had finally finished the lunch order. Relief rippled through the assembly line. It was only then that I noticed how sore my limbs felt. We had all been swept up in a collective atmosphere of hard work – a labour of love for everyone whose stomachs we might be able to help to fill.
I dragged my weary bones to the dining area. Small metal dishes and utensils had been prepared for the volunteers to enjoy a free lunch using the leftover food from whatever had been prepared that day. Others sat around me: giving thanks, eating in quiet meditation, or talking in low voices over coffee. I smiled and nodded at them – it was a camaraderie borne of service. The food was itself nothing fanciful or extraordinary. And yet I found myself craving it. And I felt the heart and soul that had gone into every grain of rice.
You know a play is going to be interesting when it already needs at least three adjectives to be summed up – ‘musical, comedy, mystery’. I am very glad to report that Now You Simi 2 did not just surpass any expectations I had of it, but completely threw me out of the water. I was one of a large number drawn to the Faith Performing Arts Center not just to support a pair of budding actors, but also by the promise of a good show. Perhaps ‘good’ would be too nondescript an adjective to describe what I watched – something even I can’t succinctly describe. Regardless of its characterisation, however, three things shone through. The wit and humour of the two-man cast, their sincere heart of service and the sheer passion they had distilled into their work.
I was surprised at the diversity of the audience around me on the play’s opening night. There were the elderly and middle-aged brushing shoulders with gaggles of teenagers and young adults toting congratulatory bouquets. They were in themselves testament to the hard work put in by the friends and supporters of the two cast members, Matthew Ryan and Kevin Wong, in bringing in a crowd. In two of the front rows were also twenty-odd guest viewers from the Muhammadiyah Welfare Home, an institution aimed at rehabilitating and integrating boys-at-risk back into society. The production manager Saad told me that they had invited these young men as a show of appreciation for one of the crew members’ mothers, who had volunteered with the organisation. Gracing the occassion as the guest-of-honour was none other than the CEO of Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore himself, Mr Keh Eng Song. Even before the play started, it was grounded in the good faith of these two young actors’ desire to use their talents to give back to the greater good.
The play itself started off riotous, cheeky and colourful. The opening scene took place during the victim’s funeral in a church, which quickly made a sharp segue into a random musical number and spoof ad placement by Watson’s. The plot rolled on, unabashedly un-self-conscious. In the bumbling-but-good-natured detective Seah Loke Hong’s (read it out quickly and see what other detective’s name it resembles) quest to uncover the murderer of bank-teller Daniel, the audience is hurtled through jokes, puns, and references as eclectic as the startling range of characters played by both actors. A Bollywood-style dance erupted during an interrogation, a gratuitous Elvis Presley-mimic leaps onto stage with a codename playing on a Korean boy band, and a conversation between Seah Loke and a High Poet (himself lampshading a certain local drag queen) progresses into an edgy Hamilton-esque rap. Of particular glee to many audience members was how the fourth wall came crashing down early into the performance. One of Seah Loke’s initial investigations even involved interviewing a member of the show’s technical crew, who proceeded to read out aloud from the show’s actual script and have a back-and-forth with the crew in the box.
That is not to say that the play was devoid of any meaningful depth whatsoever. To my surprise, the play was focused not so much on the standard police-and-thief story as it was on the development of its only constant character. Though he is often the hapless straight man to Matthew’s array of eccentric supporting characters, Kevin’s Seah Loke ultimately reveals himself to be truly, heart-warmingly, dedicated to his role. As the play takes a darker turn in the second half, he is confronted with a potential challenge to his identity, and a renewed resolve after a brief dive into his personal background. While there was still enough humour to keep the audience at ease during the play’s darker moments (special credit to Matthew for somehow making a squashed banana vanish!), it was balanced out with a sharp wit and intelligent parlaying by both characters as Seah Loke got closer to solving the case. (I shall not reveal much of the final clue save that it somehow connects Pythagoras’ Theorem, slam poetry and the gallows sensibly in the sentence.)
That said, the constraints faced by Matthew and Kevin in writing, directing and acting in their own play meant that there were certain aspects of the play that unfortunately fell short. I personally felt that there was a lack of emotional gravitas at some crucial moments in the play, and that jokes playing on the fourth wall in particular became a tad over-used later in the show. Nevertheless, the fact that they accomplished this show on such a scale is enough credit to overshadow what were otherwise minor defects. Scene changes by the volunteer crew were woven surprisingly well into the acting, with the crew even managing to create a menacing atmosphere in one scene by creeping on stage in white masks. Many of the props were also cleverly used as visual puns or simply for added comedic effect. I was especially impressed by their ‘medieval torture device’ which had been constructed in a friend’s workshop and fitted with chains.
I left the theatre feeling every bit as Matthew and Kevin had said that I would in my previous interview with them. I had no idea what I had just watched – in the best way possible. I, and many of the other audience members, must have felt immensely glad that all their hard work had paid off that night. Their acting has gone towards many good causes: the funding of their selected charities, the entertainment of friends and family, and a celebration of virtually anything you can make a punchline of.
There’s always something exciting about something un-tested being brought out into the open. The production Now You Simi 2 was no exception. Continue reading
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.