Changing narratives

25 August 2019

Last week we had lunch at a restuarant in a shopping mall by the Singapore River in an old part of the city where my mom grew up.

The wait staff got us a table where we could look into the river as we chatted & ate in airconditioned comfort.

As the brightly painted tourist bum boats passed us by, my mom commented on how dirty the river used to be during her childhood & my childhood.

But filthy as the river was then, it was a lifeline to thousands of illiterate people and one of my paternal uncles. I still recall this uncle in a white chinaman t-shirt and cotton shorts of indigo blue. He carried a hook with a wooden handle to pick up gunny sacks of grains to hoist onto his shoulder. Sack by sack, he would carry these food supplies from boat to warehouse from dawn to dusk.

My paternal uncle, Ong Cheong Lock (王章乐) as a teenager. He is now 80 years old.

Somedays when he came back to our extended family, I could see his face, neck and shoulder all badly burnt from the scorching sun. There was no sunscreen in those days. But he would always have a smile for me as he took out the little trinket or sweet he had just bought on his way home with his coolie pay.

Now the river is all clean and green. My uncle is now 80 years old and a grandfather. My own brothers are very fond of him. They see bits of my late dad in him I guess.

My uncle is always very happy to see me at ancestral prayer meets. I’ll always be his “first child” from his bachelor days in my grandma’s home.

My mom also recalled how her dad, my late maternal grandpa, would trudge throughout the river neighbourhood collecting kitchen scraps from households to feed his livestock pigs at home. He did so for many years before he became a temple care taker.

We both agreed that my late grandpa would have been happy to know that 70 plus years later, his daughter and grand daughter would be sitting & lunching in a fairly high end restaurant on the very street he used to walk barefooted to seek for leftovers to feed his pigs.

So birthdays to me are no longer personal. It is also not about counting the years or planning for botox treatment. It has now become an integral part of honouring the ones older than us and sacrifices made for us so that our current life is worth celebrating.

My mom and her sister on a Batam kelong in 2018.

And as we trade stories of past hardship or regrets, we can do so with a spirit of gratitude & respect. And this mindset may embolden us and give us reasons to laugh and to care, without reservation for the days ahead.

My mom, her siblings and their spouses having a laugh outside the temple which her late father cared for.

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