Edited by Maurecio Riveira
Originally published on Photodust.org
Tanglin Halt: a quaint little area in Singapore. It is perhaps famous for its fried dough sticks (or maybe for nothing at all). Houses were simple, every block had about ten storeys and in each floor, eight to ten apartments.
It was the typical layout of what we call ‘HDB Flats’, houses built by the government and sold to Singaporean families at low prices. After all, land in Singapore is scarce, which often meant that private housing was a luxury.
The general populace in Tanglin Halt seemed to consist of elderly men and women, often living alone. Their daily routine included going down to the wet market (known to the Cantonese as paksat), bantering over vegetable prices or just sitting around kopitiams sipping their daily dose of kopi (the local term for coffee). It wasn’t that they had no family, but Singapore in the 90’s was progressing economically. That meant working adults were moving out, living in newer flats or in luxury apartments. More often than not, they left a generation behind.
To grandmother, or Popo in the Cantonese dialect, Tanglin Halt was home.
I remember the clock ticking and the sound of metal meeting wood in dull monotonous thuds coming from the kitchen. That was the daily routine when I was four. Dinner at five and mother would come shortly after to pick me up from Popo’s.
I recall staring at Popo intently, scrutinising every last detail of her face.
“Why are there so many lines on Popo’s face?” I quizzed mother innocently in English, knowing Popo would not understand a word of this seemingly foreign language.
Popo never spoke or wrote in English, a shared trait among the early Chinese immigrants. Popo first came to Singapore with her mother from Samsui, China. Samsui women were known for their characteristic red headscarfs that stretched length ways like a broad rectangle as it sat on their heads. Many of them found employment in jobs requiring hard labour and their contribution is considered significant for the development of Singapore’s current infrastructure. Many of them took vows to remain single (thankfully Popo’s mother did not take such vow). The doors to Singapore were wide open for them as the government began to take a harder stance on incoming male immigrants resulting in a huge influx of female immigrants.
Having arrived in a country under British colonial rule at the age of 6, Popo went to a local school but constantly scored poorly in her tests. She left school after two to three years.
In my generation we identify ourselves as “Singaporeans”, perhaps hoping to somehow diminish our cultural roots and embrace English as our preferred language, readily casting aside our native tongues as though it was some sort of additional burden.
“The lines are a reflection of her experiences. She’s been through a lot,” mother replied nonchalantly, as though flustered and thrown off by the question.
After all, it was just another silly question from a four year old.
I remember Popo laughing at my naiveté as she came back out from the kitchen, shouting her usual signal for dinner time, “Yak fan lo!”. She turned to converse with mother in almost perfect Cantonese as I shut my ears and went back to the television, stuffing my face as quickly as I could.
“Go, go, Power Rangers!” I shouted, punching my fist into the air in a silly superhero-like pose.
That was 1993 and all of it now seems like a foggy dream from another time and place.
Sweet Potatoes, Bitter Memories
During a family dinner when I was thirteen or fourteen, I took up the initiative to scoop a serving of sweet potatoes off the Lazy Susan for Popo.
“Why doesn’t Popo eat sweet potatoes?” I questioned on our way home. I was a teenager, easily hurt and maybe, just a little rebellious.
“It was the war, the occupation, the British and the Japanese. Those were difficult times and most of what they could afford was, well, rice and potatoes,” replied mother as she took down the clothes that were hanging out to dry on the bamboo pole (a distinct feature of all Singaporean homes even till this day).
Before I could produce a coherent response, she added, “You wouldn’t understand, not your generation. Look at us now with pagers and mobile phones. Life wasn’t like this. Not when we were still selling drinks to barely feed the entire family. You have it easy.”
That was the typical parental response; that I would never understand. But I do want to understand, or at least I thought I did.
That night, I revisited my history textbooks, paying careful attention to every detail about the Second World War and the occupation of Singapore by the Japanese. I remember falling asleep on my textbooks at about five in the morning. It would take many years to revisit what mother told me about Popo and sweet potatoes.
Have Three or More (If You Can Afford it)
“The posters you see on the left were produced as part of the ‘Stop at Two Babies’ campaign.” My social studies teacher continued, “The campaign was designed to curb the population boom in Singapore after World War 2.”
For the first time in my schooling years, I showed interest in a subject outside of English class. Adjusting myself, I sat up straight and started to pay careful attention, hanging on to every word that reverberated through the otherwise silent classroom.
The humming of the ceiling fan suddenly became apparent. The teacher stopped to scrutinise me, as though expecting me to fall back into my usual trance-like state of building castles in the air, something that at the time had become my modus operandi in the classroom.
After a long pause, the teacher pushed her spectacles back up the bridge of her nose, cleared her throat and carried on.
“The policy was reversed in 1988 when the government realised that the falling birth rates was a cause for concern. They ran a new campaign with a brand new slogan: ‘Have Three or More (If You Can Afford It)’. The new policy is often seen as too late and now, we are left with an ageing population.”
The sudden outburst of interest started waning and I went back to staring out of the window hoping to catch sight of passing clouds. I had slipped back into my own thoughts, separating my mind from the physical confines of the classroom and just like that, the attention of a high school Singaporean student diffused into nothingness as though it was once again, the most natural thing in the world.
Seven children. That’s how many children Popo had by 1959. Contraception was rare and expensive back then. With just a day job at the rubber factory, she was not paid extravagantly. She worked hard to ensure that her children had at least a simple meal of wanton (Chinese dumplings) skin drenched in sugar syrup every day.
Struggling with increasing expenses at the time when she was expecting her third child, Popo attempted the abortion of the child by feasting on pineapples. An unorthodox method that stemmed from antiquated Chinese beliefs.
It did not work.
By the time her seventh child was brought into this world, Popo made a bold decision: she dropped the little bundle of joy on the doorsteps of the Red Cross Society.
I could only imagine how torn apart she felt. Overwhelmed with loss after a few steps, she turned back and brought her little baby back home.
Many years later, she had her eighth and final child, who allowed her second husband from Malaysia to finally gain his Singaporean citizenship at a time when the nation was still struggling to stand on its own feet after political and economic differences resulted in the separation of Singapore and Malaysia.
Sliding my fingers in a clockwise, circular motion, I smoothly raised the volume of my brand new iPod to avoid damaging my ears from a sudden increase in sound. Recalling that Popo was in the living room, I set my precious new gadget aside and went out to sit with her.
Popo was lying on her side, as usual, facing the television set. It was 2009; I had just enlisted into full-time National Service but had a couple of days off at home to spend time with my family each week. Time was often scarce for Singaporean boys at this stage of our lives and as teenagers we often prioritised our external relationships outside of the family. The value of family meant little for me at this stage of my life as I struggled to keep my identity in a militarised environment designed to teach us otherwise.
Tapping Popo’s shoulders gently, I spoke in my imperfect and heavily accented Cantonese, asking if she would like to have lunch. Supporting herself up from the couch with great effort, as though the weight of her body could no longer be sustained by her combined strength, she stared at me, seemingly confused by my question. I remember sitting down next to her and repeating my question, this time making a mental note of what I wanted to articulate before I attempted it. Raising her right hand to her ear, she waved her hand in a back and forth motion, signalling that she could not quite hear what I had just said.
Most of us were born into this world as perfect little babies, but most leave imperfect, physically or emotionally and sometimes, both.
It started back in Tanglin Halt. Like every elderly woman living alone at home, Popo took pride in handling household chores on her own.
Wanting to dispose of a large potted plant, she carried it to the elevator alone. The government by this time had taken great measures to ensure that every public housing was equipped with elevators to service the elderly and disabled. I was told that in the process, she lost her balance and knocked the right side of her skull with one of the walls of the elevator. Disoriented but still standing, she went back into the house to rest, reassuring herself that just like all things in life, the pain would be short-term. At least that was what she thought.
For Popo at that time, her emotional scars were long gone, but in their place, a physical one took hold. She was now partially deaf.
Popo decided to sell the Tanglin Halt flat in 1999, a year after the accident. She then spent the rest of her years with my second aunt, an arrangement that helped prevent Popo from having to move from house to house weekly between her children. There were some exceptions however. When my aunt was away on a holiday, we would usually bring Popo to our house for a few days.
Sitting next to her for the rest of the day, we kept each other company in silence. If I were to describe her in that moment, I would use the word “echo”: the reflection of sound long after the source has stopped; the Popo that I sat next to was now just an echo of all her previous experiences summed together, like a shell that echoed life, but somehow life has stopped somewhere for her, in one of her many journeys.
I stared into her eyes as I sat next to her on the couch, searching hard for the source, only to find a reflection of myself: one of her twelve precious grandchildren. We were now her source.
From developing nation to one of the wealthiest country in South East Asia, Singapore has gone a long way in the short span of fifty years. Many HDB Flats have since been demolished, making way for taller ones with a hint of modern architecture in its design. The ones that remain are often refurbished, renovated and rented out to elderly folk that stay alone.
Many paksats have since been redesigned in accordance to strict hygiene regulations. With this, a generation has been lost. The usual price of kopi at thirty cents has inflated up to a dollar fifty, perhaps a move by the kopitiams that reflected the rising cost of goods and services. Our generation, we started embracing the import of espresso coffee (Flat White anyone?), often content with paying up to five dollars without second thought.
A strong woman and mother till the end, Popo insisted fervently on going back home from the hospital bed, despite fighting an increasingly losing battle with cancer. Popo passed away at home in my aunt’s flat on 18th April 2010, surrounded by her eight children and twelve grandchildren.
Reflecting on the past five years of my life in Melbourne, I’ve come to realise that things have come full circle. I started off my life as a child, eager to break free from cultural expectations and its attached identity, only to realise that it is the one thing I have that is fixed, stable and constant. I spent most of my life chasing the great West only to be told time and again that I would never be considered a native English speaker no matter how proficiently I spoke the language.
I sometimes sit down on days when it gets cold and dark here in Melbourne and in these moments, I look back at photos of me and Popo and surrender myself to bitter-sweet nostalgia, allowing tears to follow at the realisation that I would never feel love like this again.
With thanks to: Iris Chan, Elena Chan, Betty Lim, Celine Yap, Joshua Badge, Mauricio Rivera and the greatest woman in my life, Popo.