Old-age, poverty, daughter's role in Chinese culture and family in present-day Singapore.
|After climbing the last flight of stairs, Yoke Leng wiped the perspiration from her forehead. It had been a tiring day of collecting aluminum cans. The small number of cans collected was a sign that competition within her neighbourhood had grown tremendously. She was usually able to collect at least triple the number of aluminum cans about three months ago, but the number had dwindled to a fraction of what it used to be.
Every step she took only brought a persistent aching pain to her lower back and knee joints. She sighed silently as she reached the front gate of her three-room flat. Her broken trolley carrying her hot kettle of boiled water stood beside her. The sun was setting behind her, casting its orangey warm glow upon her slightly hunched back. The warmth only accentuated the humidity surrounding her. She rummaged for her keys from her pocket. Her pale purple flowery print linen top ruffled gently as specks of dirt fluttered down. She pushed the keys into the big padlock, and stopped. The key could not go in.
Yoke Leng scrutinized the key. It was the same key that she had been using for the past five years. There was no other key to unlock it. She shoved the key into the padlock, but it would not go in. In desperation, she turned the door knob and pushed open the door. As soon as the door opened, a strong odour of urine and faeces dissipated from the flat. Over the years, Yoke Leng’s mother had slowly lost the strength of her legs. She needed somewhere to sit, but all the chairs at home were stools. Money was already very tight, so Yoke Leng had to be resourceful. She managed to salvage a plastic pool chair from the dumpster a few years ago. It became her mother’s permanent chair whenever Yoke Leng had to leave the flat to scavenge.
“Yoke Leng ah… tong ngor 1…” Yoke Leng’s mother moaned loudly. Yoke Leng needed to prepare dinner for the family. “Ah ma, dang zhan 2.” Yoke Leng said anxiously as she tried to force the key into the keyhole. It would not budge at all. “Yoke Leng ah, tong ngor! Fai di la 3…” Yoke Leng’s mother’s voice grew louder and angrier. Yoke Leng turned the key in all the different directions. The key simply would not fit.
“Ah ma, moon hao hoi iim dou 4.” Yoke Leng said. She was already starting to shiver with worry. There was no reason that the key could not fit the padlock. No one would change the padlock. No one, except for her older brother Ah Seng. A few days ago, he had been complaining that the old padlock keyhole had some stiffness in when turning the key. Yoke Leng looked up at her mother worriedly. He was still at home this morning when she had gone out. He briefly mentioned that he was not working today and would only be going out much later. He definitely would have changed the padlock today!
“Yoke Leng ah, fai di la 5!” Her mother complained again. “Ah ma, ah kor woon zor sor xi. Ngor hoi iim dou. Dui iim ju 6…” Yoke Leng sobbed with tears rolling down her cheeks. “Yoke Leng ah…” Her mother moaned continuously and loudly. There was nothing Yoke Leng could have done. There was no way to contact Ah Seng, and the locksmith in the neighbourhood had closed for the day. Yoke Leng could only stand by the gate and cry silently, as she tried her best to calm her hungry and frightened mother.
“Aunty ah, can you ask your mother not to shout so loudly? My two precious children need to complete their schoolwork. This is the only time they can do it.” The next door neighbor had come out from her unit and complained loudly. She was a plump-looking thirty-odd years old housewife with short curly black hair. Whenever Yoke Leng met her at the corridor, the lady would hurry her children into the flat before slamming the door shut. There were many occasions when Yoke Leng would open her door to find police officers outside her flat, responding to calls of nuisance. Yoke Leng had to explain and promise to calm her mother down before they would leave. She did not need another visit from them again. “Sorry, sorry.” Yoke Leng said repeatedly. The lady grumbled softly as she flung the main door shut.
“Yoke Leng ah!” Her mother shouted loudly again. “Ah ma, shh… mou gong keam dai sang 7.” Yoke Leng whispered hysterically. Her hands shook uncontrollably. Ah Seng should be coming home soon. She glanced at the kettle. The water had definitely gone cold by now.
When the clock struck nine, Yoke Leng heard the familiar footsteps climbing up the flight of stairs. She looked up expectantly, just in time to see her brother heading towards her. “Ah Seng, fai di. Ah ma tong ngor 8!” Yoke Leng said worriedly. Ah Seng’s face was full of irritation and disdain for his younger sister. He whipped out his key to the new padlock and unlocked the gate. “Zo meh keam chou geh 9!” Ah Seng grumbled. But Yoke Leng did not care to answer him. Her eyes were fixed only on her mother, who had groaned even more loudly since the gate was now opened.
Yoke Leng carefully picked up her cold kettle and pulled her broken trolley into the flat. She rushed to the kitchen and placed the kettle down on the dining table. She went back to their mother and slowly lifted her up from the chair. Ah Seng was easily irritated and angered by small things, so the first thing she had to do was to clean their mother up. The soiled clothes were removed and thrown into the laundry basket. Yoke Leng quickly cleaned the plastic pool chair before letting their mother – now all dressed and cleaned – sit back down.
“Yoke Leng, ngor hou tong ngor 10!” Their mother groaned loudly. “Ah ma, dang zhan. Hou fai zhao hor yi sake fan. 11” Yoke Leng said as she went to the kitchen and started cooking the dinner. It had been a tiring day, but the day was not yet done. Yoke Leng’s silent tears fell into the kettle’s water as she began her dinner preparation.
Glossary (Cantonese sentences)
1 tong ngor = hungry
2 dang zhan = wait
3 fai di la = quickly lah (a Singlish slang)
4 moon hao hoi iim dou = the door cannot be opened
5 fai di la = quickly lah (a Singlish slang)
6 ah kor woon zor sor xi. Ngor hoi iim dou. Dui iim ju = Ah Kor (older brother) changed the keys. I can’t open (the door). I’m sorry.
7 mou gong keam dai sang = don’t speak so loudly
8 fai di. Ah ma tong ngor = Quickly. Ah ma (mother) is hungry.
9 Zo meh keam chou geh = why is it so smelly?
10 ngor hou tong ngor = I’m very hungry
11 Ah ma, dang zhan. Hou fai zhao hor yi sake fan. = Ah ma (mother), please wait. You will be able to eat rice soon.