She is an old woman.
She sings through a cheap Bluetooth microphone from the pasar malam. She has a short, grey bob. She sits in a wheelchair, Made In China cardboard box resting on her lap, open for donations. A piece of cardboard (from the same cardboard box for her donations, which she picked up from the dumpster before the karang guni did) with the words “Please Help” painstakingly written on rests by her feet. Her feet are in flimsy black slip-ons she fixed multiple times with Elephant Glue. She is dressed in a purple t-shirt and black pants, from the pasar malam. Her stadium is a bus interchange and her audience, while in the thousands, does not sing along with her. Her voice crescendoes, but her audience does not hear her. Her audience does not even look at her.
She is invisible.
She sings and sings, sings the songs of her halcyon days. Her voice is no longer smooth; it is brittle and coarse, the consequence of old age. Still, she sings, hitting what notes she can, her mind clouded with swathes of memory and nostalgia.
. . .
She gave birth to her first child, after 2 years of trying. It slipped out from her belly like a ripe melon. As she attempted to console the wailing child that she just painstakingly birthed, she knew her traditionalist husband would be upset—and he was. A daughter, he had shouted. She cannot work, cannot earn money, cannot carry the family name. She cooed to console her daughter, who was shrieking even louder after he stormed out of the ward.
She gave birth to her second child, only a year after her daughter was born. This one took even longer, taking 15 hours compared to the 12 for her daughter. Her husband was much more pleased this time because boys can go to school and go to university, become a doctor, earn money, and carry the family name. Her husband actually picked up his child, his bundle of joy. Exhausted, she slumped into the bed and let her husband handle his son.
Her husband is at work. Her son is at school. For most of her days, it is her, Bee Choo and her kueh shop. Bee Choo is not supposed to learn, but she has her daughter reading books and studying with a private tutor (her younger brother). She pays out of her pocket and it is eating into her savings. Each day, she prays her husband will not come back early. If he finds out, she knows black eyes and red cheeks will soon follow. Bee Choo is supposed to learn, but not F=ma or photosynthesis. Bee Choo is supposed to learn from her mother, who learned from her mother, how to make kueh. For the sake of appeasing her husband, she teaches Bee Choo how to make kueh, how to turn powders and liquids and beans and nuts into ondeh-ondeh, into kueh salat, into ang ku kueh, into the “Things That She Will Sell When She Takes Over The Kueh Shop”. She did not go to school, so there are only 2 things she can teach her daughter; one of them is how to make kueh. The other is how to be a good person. She cannot teach her daughter how to be successful. Every day, she prays to the gods that her daughter will do everything she herself could not accomplish.
Soon, her husband leaves her. He is tired. Tired of the woman who can only make kueh, tired of the woman who birthed two children for him. He says he does not love her anymore. She reproaches herself for marrying such a man. She thinks about how he seemed perfect all those years ago, but now she knows who he is. A brute.
They first met at the kueh shop. A sweet, innocent girl with doe eyes handling the cashier while her mother slaved away in the kitchen. A clean, well-dressed boy. Tall, rich and visiting the shop because his Mummy asked him to pick up some kueh for her high tea. Their eyes locked and they were magnetised. His visits became more frequent and one day, he finally asked her to have coffee with her. They sat and talked and laughed over kopi-o and kaya toast. It’s delicious, he remarked. This is my first time having kaya toast. She smiles.
Less than a year later, he popped the question and she said yes. Why wouldn’t she? But his parents had other ideas. To them, she would forever be the uneducated kueh seller. He was rich, had status and class. She felt more shame in those 30 minutes than the rest of her life. She sat there, clutching tightly onto the cheap fabric of her dress as he argued with his parents in a language she did not understand. Mother always told her that sinners go to Hell. She stared into the marble floor and wished for her body to slip right through, for her to go through Hell and be reincarnated as a cockroach for her sins. The matriarch suddenly spoke Chinese, for the sole purpose of spewing venom that the stupid girl could actually understand.
“她配不上你,” she told Kuan.
She’s not good enough for you.
That was the straw that broke the camel’s back—Kuan grabbed her hand and stormed out. It’s okay, he said. I will take care of you. We will start a family together. But being with her meant he would say goodbye to good clothes, to his fancy watch, to his money and to his family. Would he be okay with that? She did not want to cause him any more hurt.
I’d do anything as long as I can be with you.
But now he could do it no longer. 12 years was long enough for him, and he was sick of kaya toast. After he left, she prayed again. She prayed her daughter would never have to depend on a man and prayed that her son, Yong Seng, would be a man a girl could depend on. She worked twice as hard, making kueh from morning to afternoon, then washing others’ clothes at night. The family now ate kueh often, with little money for better food. The children did not complain and were in fact, happy to eat these delicious morsels regularly. A good dinner would be rice and bean sprouts with canned sardines. She was thankful that her children were content and grateful. Maybe, she thought, she had successfully taught them the only other thing she knew: to be a good person.
She worked and worked and worked, prayed and prayed and prayed for her children to be successful, to never turn out like her. And so they did. It was not easy, on her or her children, but they were successful. Her efforts got her son to Raffles Institution, where he began correcting her broken pronunciation of La-ffles-ian to Raf-flea-sian. Her efforts got her daughter through university. Her efforts got them to adopt new names, Sean and Elaine. Two names she could not pronounce. She continued to make kueh and would gift them to her children, as a reminder of the treats they’d loved as children. But no, they now rejected the parcels of deliciousness. Sean said they were too sweet, Elaine said they were too high in calories. So she cut down the sugar, cut down the fat. They accepted it begrudgingly, promising to eat them, only to toss them out after a week because they forgot that it was in the fridge. They did not eat kueh anymore. Wealth brought them refined palates, favouring delicate gateaux and tender eclairs.
Perhaps years of hardship associated with the snacks had created aversion. But there was no denying they were successful. Sean — no, Yong Seng was a practising doctor. Bee Choo was the boss of the finance department in a big company. Her prayers came true: Bee Choo did not need to depend on a man. On the contrary, she towered over them, bossing them around and giving them orders. However, she knew. They were both earning a lot of money, enough to afford big houses in prime estates of Singapore.
Their disdain towards kueh was one thing, but now they had angmoh-fied themselves to a point she felt she did not know her children anymore. They dismissed her mother’s gods, the same gods that gave them their success. They only spoke Mandarin to interact with their mother. At all other times, their mother tongue was left behind and they spoke in rapid, American-accented English. To them, their mother was 老土— old fashioned, obsolete. They had forgotten their roots and simultaneously forgotten her. She was no longer sure she managed to teach them to be good people.
Meanwhile, her kueh shop had achieved some form of fame, for being one of the few remaining traditional kueh shops in Singapore. Some food blogger had interviewed her and asked if she would pass the business on. A smile pops up on her wrinkled countenance as she says, “No. My children are successful and have their own job. I will keep making kueh until I cannot anymore.”
The day finally came. The day she “cannot anymore.” The day she fell in the kitchen where she made kueh and fractured her leg. She was found by the cashier who heard the loud thump and ran in to check, only to find the old lady unmoving on the floor. She wished she could go back and erase all of her prayers for her two children. The old woman prayed to the gods again in her unconsciousness. If I die, help me protect my two children. Help them be happy. She did not pray for her recovery or her well-being.
The old woman did not manage a full recovery, even with her wealthy children paying for her medical bills. So she was sent to a nursing home, to sit in a wheelchair for the rest of her life. For the rest of her life, she was to be fed, washed and cared for by complete strangers. Occasionally, schoolchildren coming to the home just for volunteering hours would sing her a few songs. She liked this the most. It reminded her of her youth, of her life before she met Kuan.
She remembers how she used to be in the kitchen with her own mother making kueh. Similarly, it was just a mother, a daughter and a kueh shop. Dissimilarly, her mother could not let her study. Her mother taught her 3 things in that kitchen: how to make kueh, how to be a good person, and how to sing. She sang along with her mother to Mandarin songs while they vigorously mixed batters and kneaded dough. She remembers the first time she successfully made kueh. It was her favourite ang ku kueh, shiny, red and filled with crumbly peanut filling. She’d cried out in joy, and her mother sat down with her to enjoy the kueh she had just made. Her kueh was not perfect; its skin was somewhat uneven and there was too much peanut. Nevertheless, she was happy.
Her mother had developed her daughter’s singing from a young age, solely through their adventures in the kitchen. When the old woman was a little girl, she always wanted to be a pop star, sing to audiences worldwide, earn money for her parents, and buy them a house so they could live happily together.
One day, when her two children finally took the time out of their busy schedules to visit her, the old woman said she wanted out of the nursing home. She wanted to live in the place she had been living in for so long. Memories, she said. Her children did not argue—they threw a helper at her and allowed the relic to do whatever she wanted.
What the old woman really wanted was for them to be happy, but they were not happy as long as she was there. To them, she was a hindrance: a liability for Bee Choo’s company to settle, a tumourous growth for Yong Seng to remove. The woman quickly settled into her humble abode, as it had been for decades. She took a deep breath. The woman had been doing things for others for too many years. For Kuan, for Yong Seng, for Bee Choo. Now she wanted to focus on herself.
. . .
She is young again.
She has long, black tresses. She has her purse (from the latest brand endorsement she did with an Italian company) rested on her lap and a sign from an adoring fan (who threw the neon-pink corrugated board on stage during her first song, it had the words “I Love You” written in huge black letters) by her feet, which happen to be encased in rhinestoned black heels. She sits in her purple dress, sweetly serenading a stadium filled with people in the thousands. Her voice crescendoes, flowing through the air and into the eardrums of her ardent fans, who sing along with her.
She is a pop star.
But when night falls and the people at the interchange peter out, she returns to her original form. An old, wrinkly, unaccomplished woman. A woman that mothers would look at and tell their children to work hard, or they will end up like her. A happy woman. She will fade away into the bleak night, only to return tomorrow and disappear into hordes of Seans and Elaines walking past her.
Gabriel Wong, 21A15
Cheryl Ho, 21A15