Some time last week out of the blue I received a call from Ah Yaw my childhood neighbor. We have not been in touch for more than 30 yrs. The last time I heard about him from another old neighbor more than 20 yrs ago was that he was doing extremely well running a factory in Woodlands Industrial Park supplying “putu mayam” to so many shops all over Singapore. He was so obviously delighted talking to me over the phone and kept calling my nickname “Alu”. He said he got my contact from an old acquaintance studying at Mount Vernon Sec School. We came from the same school.
Ah Yaw used to live in a kampung near to Kaki Bukit in the late 60s to early 70s. My family lived next to his house. My next adjacent neighbor was a Sikh family. There were other Indian and Malay families along the row of wooden zinc houses. Mine was the only Chinese family in that row of houses. Of course, there were other houses on the other side with Chinese families and other races. Ah Yaw’s family was a big Indian family with many brothers and sisters living under one roof. His family was a typical Hindu family. It seems that all his brothers and Ah Yaw himself had close affinity with the army. They were regulars in the army with aspiration of becoming full fledged commandos.
I remember Ah Yaw did not do well in school but excelled in soccer and other sports. He is 2 yrs older than me. Since he repeated twice at Sec 2, I was able to catch up with him when I joined him in Mount Vernon Sec Sch. I started at Sec 1 and managed to catch up with him at Sec 2 since he repeated twice. When we were schoolmates (different classes) at Sec 2, he still did not do well in his studies. I was promoted to Sec 3 but he was given the boot. So in the year 1977, he took the unprecedented step of joining the SAF Boys School. He was the 2nd batch – the biggest batch of more than 700 boys whom did not do well in school but chose the career path of professional soldiers. It’s the brainchild of our late founding father Dr Goh Keng Swee where school dropouts were trained in basic subjects with an army career planned ahead for them. Some excelled later in life as professional soldiers.
It seemed that his family members unanimously supported his decision. His father passed away when they were young. I remember having shifted there in 1968 when I was barely 5 yrs old, They lived there earlier than us – an Indian widow with so many children.
Ah Yaw made the request on the phone that we should get our mothers together for a long overdue reunion. I immediately agreed to the suggestion. Our mothers are in their 70s – my mother is 72 yrs and his already 75 yrs. I then told Ah Yaw that I would go with my mother to fetch him at his place. We could go together from his place at Eunos to Woodlands.
Hence, on last Sunday I proceeded to his Eunos place to pick him up. When I saw him, I was quite shocked to see him limping on his left side. His left hand was also out of alignment. He revealed to me that that he had suffered a massive stroke quite some time ago. He was bed ridden and not even able to walk. He had to rely on wheelchair to move around. With treatment and therapy, he is now much better. When he was in the SAF Boys School, he was the top in obstacles course. It took him only 5 mins plus to complete the full obstacles course with SBO (standard battle order) when most of us could not even pass it comfortably.
Whilst on the way to Woodlands to meet his aged mother, we chatted along the way. At the height of his business, he owned 2 vans and 2 cars. He employed more than 30 workers in his Woodlands factory churning out tons of kuehs and putu mayam. He would start work at 3am and end his day around 10pm with some rest in between. All over Singapore, he would deliver the goods daily to all the small outlets and shops to sell. When costs started escalating, he shifted his business operations to Johore where the costs were so much lower. His 4 children were small then. He had to slog very hard to survive with a big family as he being the sole bread winner. Suddenly, out of nowhere he suffered a massive stroke which left him nearly paralyzed. He had to give up his business since he was incapacitated. It took him a long recovery process to recuperate. By then, his 4-room flat in Eunos is paid up and his children have grown up. The eldest son is getting married next year. Another is serving NS and the other is working. Only the youngest is still studying.
When we were boys, Ah Yaw was tough, intimidating fit and much taller than me. When I met him after more than 30 yrs, he appeared fragile and even shorter than me. A complete change in physique. It seems that with a simple push, I could just bring him down. He is now an old man with snowy hair albeit 2 yrs older than me, after so many years of working hard round the clock. I told him he might have tired out himself by working so hard. He might not have enough rest resulting in his health taking a worst turn. Anyway, he is now working as a security officer in a construction site just to get by. He still insisted that he would go back to the food business once he is fully recovered with his left side of his body gaining back his strength.
As usual when old frens meet up, they would usually catch up on old times and reminisced about old neighbours etc. He told me that his eldest brother and a sister had passed away. The mother is looking after the 2 children of that deceased sister and staying in her flat in Woodlands. She passed away at a young age leaving behind 2 young children. The husband also died shortly. That sister was a nurse. There is another sister – the youngest doing quite well as a manager nurse. In their family, it is either the army or nursing careers – honorable professions in times of war. To defend our country and to treat war casualties!
The long drive from Eunos to Woodlands seems rather short lived when we were having such a good conversation about our passed life. Alas, we arrived. When his mother saw my mother, they just hugged one another spontaneously without any need for words. A silent beaming hug. I could see her mother’s eyes brimming with tears and my mother feeling a little embarrassed. It did not occur to me to take out my phone to snap a picture at that point of time. It was priceless. Later on, I managed to snap a few photos when they were seated talking. My mother as usual felt that we could not go to someone’s house without anything. She bought some oranges and grapes along.
Both old ladies in their 70s could not speak English. They communicated in simple pasar Malay. Ah Yaw and myself were there to interpret for them. Basically they talked about their children and their health. Ah Yaw’s mother was saying in Malay to my mother that she could not see properly (due to cataracts), could not walk properly (due to arthritis), could not hear well and could not eat well also etc. She is also suffering from diabetes. She kept complaining to my mother “sakit!”
The Bard would have said,
“Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness, and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”
My mother kept shaking her head saying that she really got so much health problems. She attributed it to the daily intake of curry especially curry with coconut milk. When she heard that my mother at age 72 yrs is still working, she was quite impressed. She kept saying, “Awak ada kreja?” My mother even showed her both knees operated few years back and she is able to walk normal. More questions followed about the knee replacement operation such as costs, pain and the procedures. Ah Yaw and myself had to interpret for them when their limited Malay words and phrases fail them. Whenever the message was interpreted and relayed to both old ladies, they simply nodded at each other to show comprehension.
At one point, Ah Yaw was relating how my mother would take the cane and chase us – my brother and myself – all over the place if we did not want to study or naughty and we would be screaming for our life especially “Ah Tee” – referring to my brother. We all laughed uncontrollably on that image which was etched forever on their minds! Then they started to ask about my brother. I told them my brother and his family have migrated to Vancouver. Oh! That’s the reaction. Of course, the mother was curious about this place. Ah Yaw and myself briefly described this enigmatic place to her. The mother requested for pictures of my brother. I obliged by showing her some FB pictures of my brother. Oh he looks like my father. He seems quite young and fit. He really takes great care of his body etc… The aged grand old Indian lady commented.
We notice so many young children running around the flat. Ah Yaw’s mother explained that they are her great grandchildren from her late eldest son and children of her late daughter & son in law. My mother was extremely envious of her great grandmother status. Ah Yaw also showed me photos of his other sisters and brothers whilst giving me a brief run down of what they are doing, where they are staying and how they are doing in life etc. The eldest sister is staying just few blocks away in Woodlands whilst the youngest sister who is a Manager Nurse lives in Bishan. I even spoke to the eldest sister over the phone when Ah Yaw called her. To my surprise, I was able to recognize her voice instantly. It is amazing that after more than 30 yrs, her voice still remains unchanged. The same soft, clear voice. She used to give tuition to the neighbors for a small fee. My mother and others in the kampung called her the tuition teacher then.
After nearly 2 hours, it’s time to leave. The mother walked laboriously to the main gate of the 4-room flat to see us off. Before leaving, I suddenly remember her favorite Tamil phrase, “Baduar Rascal!” That triggered her continuous giggling laughter. The mother kept telling us to visit her on next Deepavali. I promised her we shall pay her a visit. In the secret chambers of my heart, I wish her stay healthy and well giving me the chance to visit her.
I then sent Ah Yaw back to his Eunos home and reluctantly returned home. I gave Ah Yaw a big hug when reached his place. He reminded me that he would be inviting me to his eldest son’s wedding next year. He will try to contact the rest of our old neighbors to gather at his place next year.
Years ago, when I was still a young man, someone told me not to “blink.” He is a middle-age man making that remark after watching all those playful youngsters screaming and having fun. I was standing beside him. He said, “Once you blink, it’s all over.” I was not able to understand what he said. I do understand now.
Too Slow for those who Wait,
Too Swift for those who Fear,
Too Long for those who Grieve,
Too Short for those who Rejoice;
But for those who Love,
Time is not.”
Henry van Dyke
The finishing line is getting nearer and closer in the wheel of life indeed! Neither you nor I could stop it’s relentless forward movement.