My First Teacher on Inclusivity

26 Oct 2019 (Eve of Deepavali 2019)

When we relocated from a chinese village to a multi-racial housing board flat in the 70s, our immediate neighbour was an Indian family of four.

As the head of that household was 1 year older than my dad, my grandma told us to address him as Elder Uncle. Elder Uncle was Hindu and his wife Theresa was Catholic. Knowing that her name was too much of a challenge for our grandma’s untrained chinese tongue and for ease of communication, Theresa had kindly allowed her name to be modified into a rather inelegant sounding, “Ah Sa.”

“Ah Sa” had a key to our home and we had a key to hers.

In those days we had no telephone. If her relatives dropped by and there was no one home, we would unlock the door to “Ah Sa’s” flat on her behalf.

And if we misplaced our key to our home we need not panic because “Ah Sa” had a spare.

I loved lingering in her kitchen to watch her cook and be fed as well. I must have eaten hundreds of “Ah Sa’s” chapattis and dosas by the time I reached secondary school.

Her children, Manimaran & Selva were younger, and my mother was in love with their dark glossy hair and long eye lashes. My mother would touch Mani’s fringe affectionately and wondered aloud why her own kids had such flat hair.

Elder Uncle and “Ah Sa” were very strict parents but they had a soft spot for my youngest brother, Andrew, who was a toddler then. Elder Uncle would scoop him up and parade my baby brother around the neighbourhood like a prized pet.

Each Deepavali morning our Indian family would give us a tray of festive snacks in beautiful glass bowls covered with an embroidered organza tea cloth.

It was exquisite.

We would receive the tray with reverence and bring it into the kitchen to transfer its contents to airtight containers.

In return we filled “Ah Sa’s” glass bowls with sugar, candies and fruits to wish her a sweet and fruitful life ahead.

Years later, “Ah Sa” is the reason why I remember the names and aromas of Indian spices. She’s also the reason why I can stare at sarees and dupattas for hours and why I still tune into the Tamil radio station now & then.

I give thanks for the light of inclusivity that entered my world through this family, and hope to keep it shining in their honour.

Dancing Alone

12 Oct 2019

Bought this pair of Mary Jane in Houpu, Kinmen Island, where my grandma was born.

Buying new footwear is usually a happy experience because firstly it means you have legs to begin with, and secondly you have the money to spend.

But for me there’s always some anxiety because firstly the shoes I currently own must be falling apart, and secondly, the retailers may not stock the shoe types that meet the conditions of my feet. (Shoes don’t keep well in our humid climate so it’s pointless to purchase standby pieces)

Bought this pair with Ron & El on full moon day in Taipei after our temple visit.

As my left foot has no gripping ability, Mary Janes have become a necessity. As my left sole needs to be elevated to compensate my limp & reduce fatigue, Mary Janes with flat soles made of certain materials are non-negotiables.

The man who makes my shoe purchase a wearable reality is a cobbler who has been faithfully elevating my sole for years.

With compassion, wisdom & great skills, my cobbler made my shoe purchase a wearable reality. (11 Oct 2019)

He’s the man I think about before I buy any new shoes. ♥️😊

We speak about 3-4 times once every 2 years. And it’s always about my shoes and when will they be ready for collection after he has done the sole elevation.

I used to think he was just a slow cobbler but through years of interaction with him, I realised he puts in a lot of thought & effort into the shoes that are entrusted to him for mending and alteration.

Whether you are bringing him a pair of Chanels, Ferragamos or Batas, this soft-spoken, bespectacled scholarly-looking cobbler treats all clients with cautious non-attachment.

And when my shoes are ready for collection, it’s never just a business transaction. With a child-like pride, he’ll point out to me the customisation that’s been done and his thought processes behind them.

From him I learnt that there’s no one-size -fits-all solution with foot issues. His wisdom and compassion in making the best fit for people who go to him cost him a lot of time and energy, and sometimes his reputation. His dedication just cannot be measured in dollars & cents.

My cobbler hasn’t increased his charges with my shoe work for years. When I insisted on paying him a bit more, he stuck to the old price & said, “It’s ok. I can still manage. The main thing here is you can walk more easily.”

Perhaps it’s bec I have only one functioning leg, this dance pose of Lord Ganesha is very attractive to me. I wish for my cobbler the stamina to stand on one foot like the Lord Ganesha, and receive blessings of good clients and prosperity as he works alone to bring relief to all whose shoes need mending & realignment as they complete their own dance in life.

Of all the depictions of Lord Ganesha, my favourite has always been the one in which he stands on one foot and dances the Universe into being.

My cobbler is operating his business all on his own now. His business partners have left because they felt that the return on investment was not promising.

So I wish for my cobbler the stamina to stand on one foot like Lord Ganesha, and receive the blessings of good clients & prosperity as he works alone to bring relief to all who need shoe repair and realignment in order to complete their own dance with life. 🙏

Friday Evening

28 Sep 2019

“Every Friday, go spend some time & sit at a holy place…doesn’t matter what the religion is,” was a Hindu astrologer’s parting shot to me whenever we had tea at Cuff Road.

He had since passed on but each time I pass by holy places I think of him.

Yesterday evening I got the chance to be at a holy place on a Friday while a friend was conducting his prayers at the Sultan Masjid.

My original plan was to visit the shops at Haji Lane & Bussorah Street while my friend prayed.

But in the end I was just so happy sitting on a stone bench at the Malay Heritage Centre as the Friday prayers reverberated all around me.

Almost Full Moon in Kinmen

11-09-2019

The evening before we flew back to Taipei, we sat on a stone ledge near Grandma Ongg’s (翁奶奶) house in Kinmen Island and watched the moon rise. I was back to 5 years old again.

Grandma Ongg’s house is behind the stone ledge we sat on.

Some tourists passed us by. Too bogged down by their shopping bags and a bit anxious to locate their homestay houses they didn’t notice the Moon glowing benevolently above them.

The Moon wasn’t full yet, but her brilliance wasn’t any less because of that.

84-year-old Grandma Ongg had spotted us from the entrance of her 400-year-old house and decided to join us for a bit of moon watching.

We chatted in low tones and looked to the Moon as she weaved in & out of the clouds, her circular outline gaining prominence while we waited for her in the gathering dusk.

How often in our struggles with life we insist that we gotta be this or that in order to feel complete, when perhaps we are essentially complete. We just need time & space to notice it.

Grandma Ongg’s ancient house had been bombed 4 times. Each time it was bombed, they picked up the pieces and repaired the damages.

Like the almost full moon in Kinmen, we can still shine even if we’re chipped around the corners, or frayed around the edges by life’s challenges.

Extravagant Impermanence

4 Sep 2019

This morning as I was sipping my coffee, a vision greeted me.

It was a new leaf bearing all the glory of Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”

Indeed “Nature’s first green is gold, her hardest hue to hold.”

As I studied the leaf up close I felt humbled.

Its luminous beauty & delicate veins reflect a creator of extravagance, and all the more so considering “it’s only a leaf” and will wither and die soon.

If Nature bothers to put in such exquisite details in a little leaf that might even go noticed, then giving my best to what I do however impermanent the outcome, will truly be an act of freedom & generosity to myself.

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.

Turning 76

24 Aug 2019

My mama turned 76 yesterday.

She still works part time in the factory she’s been employed since she was 16.

My mama (R) and her teenage buddy Auntie Moi (L).

As a result she has friends, both the young & the aged, despite not having access to social media.

My mama (background) and my second aunt during a sibling outing to a kelong in Batam Island, Indonesia in 2018.

Her weekends are precious with temple visits, visits with friends & siblings, visits from her grandchildren and the occasional shopping for gifts to give to young colleagues leaving their company.

My mama on her wedding day.

Mundane tasks such as cleaning, cooking and feeding people & animals anchor her & give her a sense of control & pride, even as she complains about having to do them.

Over the years I’ve learnt not to over analyse things with her. Most grudges with her are easily resolved by a bowl of prawn noodles or a shared concern over the welfare of another person or animal.

My mama makes water offering to Lord Ganesha whenever she visits the temples at Waterloo Street.

I may have a university education, but it’s my illiterate mother who has taught me not to be afraid, and to hold onto my visions, even at times when I cannot read all the signs on my path.

My mama in her 20s. I was about 3 or 4 years old. I looked worried in this picture cos she had caught me cutting my own fringe. Her smile says, “I’m gonna kill you when we get home.”

It’s August and Momo ( Peaches) Season in Japan & Taiwan. So the day before I bought what I believe to be the most expensive peaches my mother has even eaten in her life. 😆

The display reads “寿桃 (shou tao)” meaning longevity peaches. Longevity noodles from Kinmen were added.

Peaches are the favourite fruits of the Monkey King. They confer longevity and alacrity. So I wish for my mama and all who are mothers, on her birthday and the days ahead, the same gifts of longevity & alacrity.

My mama at 76. (Tung Lok at Central Mall 20 Aug 2019)

Happy Birthday Mama! 😊