I'll say it again. Nearly any night of cab driving in the Garden City of Singapore, something memorable happens, either in the cab itself or out on the street. If I could accurately remember each night behind my wheel, I'll probably write a book.
Last week was no different:
Monday, 1:30 a.m.
The "city that sleeps after mid-night" was taking one of its catnaps. I had been cruising around the city area for more than half an hour without finding a fare, and it's at times like these that I wished I had stayed at home.
I momentarily cruised by the entrance of the Singapore General Hospital's emergency unit, not expecting any customer. The place is usually deserted but is always brightly lighted with ambulances and wheelchairs around. Who would want to be at the emergency unit of a hospital at that wee hour or any hour. But some unfortunate souls had do.
I saw an old man with a walking stick moving slowly towards the front door of the building. I stopped and waited, hoping to catch him like a desperate angler waiting for the fish to take the bait after a long wait. To my relief, he smiled at me and hailed me to wait.
He got in slowly and sat beside me.
"Ah Heya, take me to Jurong East. please". he asked in Teochew softly.
"Yes, sir." I replied in English.
My mind flashed back to the last time I visited this place. It must have been 20 years ago. It brought back sad memories of my mother death at the hospital.
The elderly man looked seventy plus, almost bald, with only a few short strain of white hair on his scalp. He had a friendly smile when he spoke, albeit with a tired look.
As we got on our way. I was debating whether to get him into a conversation, considering that he must had a long and sad time at hospital. Then, with him beside me and a long journey ahead, I finally decided to break the ice of silence.
"Brother, how are you? I asked sincerely.
There was a short pause and then he answered in a louder and firmer tone in fluent English. "I'm fine, thank you".
I was surprised that he had a voice that resonate like late newscaster Mr. Steven Lee of Radio & Television Singapore in the early days of black and white television. It was a rare voice that bring back fond memories of old deejay like Tan Swee Leong and Bernard Solosa of the sixties.
I was determined to engage him in a conversation and prayed that he reciprocates. I was not disappointed and in talking to him, I learned the meaning of life and in the end, I wondered what's all about.
"May I asked Sir, what were you doing at this hour at the hospital?. I ventured to ask with tongue in cheek.
He gave me a surprise look but answered slowly in a calm tone. "I came to visit a dying friend".
"Sorry to hear that. What happen to your friend?. I asked quickly, wanting to hear more.
He studied my face carefully before he narrated in minute details the true story of his dying friend. With his "glittering eyes" and a resonance voice, he drew me to his side and hypnotized me throughout the storytelling. It was a pleasure just listening to his rich voice.
This is his story of his friend - "Ah Wong" :-
"Ah Wong was born into a poor family a year after the Japanese Occupation of Singapore somewhere in Bukit Panjang village. His parents were vegetable sellers at the village market. They stayed at a rented attap house with no electricity, piped water and shit into a hole in the ground. Ah Wong was the second eldest in a family of five. He went to the village Chinese primary school but dropped out before completing his primary education to help his parents at their vegetable store. His notorious, gangster elder brother was killed in a gang related attack when Wong was 18 years old. Fortunately for Wong, his parents kept a close eye on him and forbid him to mix with the village gangsters.
The family's vegetable business was poor due to stiff competition from many similar sellers. As Singapore was then industrializing, Wong decided to work as a machine operator in a Japanese tire factory in Jurong Industrial Estate. He left his job after a year due to low pay and became a "pirate" taxi driver, plying the Jurong and Bukit Timah route. Business was fairly good for Wong, as public transport was poor in the sixties. He had an ambition to run his own business and "pirate" taxi was his first. Unfortunately, three years later, he was caught by the authorities but eventually got a vocational taxi license through the proper system.
With some saving from his lucrative "pirate" taxi business, he bought a yellow-top taxi and had been in this trade since then... a 40 years driving career!
Like most youth of his time, he married his village sweet heart at age 29 in 1975 and moved into a 4 room HDB flat costing about $35,000. Wong's parents had their own flat through resettlement. His wife was a seamstress with secondary level education and they had two children..a boy and a girl.
Income from driving was fairly good through long hours of hard work and Wong was determined to give his children the best education opportunities that he missed. His stayed-at-home wife supervised the children's studies like a hawk and Wong's sole duty was to place food on the table and provides for the children's education. Wong had no saving as inflation keeps inflating his expenses and the family were basically living from hand to mouth. However, the blessing from their hardship was their children were doing well in their studies.
Through sheer hard work, meticulous planning and a frugal lifestyle, Wong was able to send his son to polytechnic and daughter to local university. Like a wink of an eye, their children are now living on their own with their own family. For Wong, the greatest joy is "fooling" around with his grandchildren during their occasional visits to his flat.
At seventy-two, life for Wong had almost come to a full circle. He quits driving last year and his beloved wife passed away two years ago from cancer. Now, he lives alone in an empty flat. He planned to downgrade to a smaller flat and use the proceeds to help his children in their struggle with HDB mortgage payments. He detests the idea of staying with his daughter-in-law, as all his life he had lived a free and easy life without been beholden to anyone. Though he loves his grandchildren, the fear of being a burden to others at old age overrides everything else.
Yesterday, he had a massive heart attack and stroke while having his breakfast at his usual coffee shop in Jurong. He is now brain dead."
Now, I don't know Wong but this shook me up. Not because of the tragedy of his death, but because of the tragedy of his life. I wonder if 40 years ago, when Wong first started driving, what dreams he had for himself. He'd be 25, strong, full of energy, with nothing but time and his imagination standing between him and the future. Perhaps he wanted to travel the world as a sailor, start his own business. Perhaps he figured cab driving was a part-time, something to tide him over or help his parents. Perhaps he looked at all the other middle-aged men driving cabs and told himself, "I'll never let myself turn into that." Who knows?
But then he loved his sweetheart, got married, had one kid, then another, and suddenly all those doors closed. He had responsibilities, bills to pay, obligations to keep. All of his dreams disappeared like his breath on a cold morning. And maybe years later he looked in the mirror one morning. He saw the face staring back him with the graying temples and the thinning hair and the dark circles under his eyes and he asked himself, "Jesus, where did the last forty years go?"
But then, he may have told himself, he wasn't that old. He could still have dreams. Maybe now that the kids are on their own; maybe once their mortgage is paid off; maybe once the wife and himself can finally save a little money and time for themselves.
But he forgot to tells himself that he gotta go to the doctor first and get a checked out.
So, what's life all about?
It's nothing for a poor man!
Essentially, life means different things to different people. For me, the world is a stage, I'm merely a player and exit when the show is over.
''My heart leaps up when I beholdWilliam Wordsworth (1770-1850), British poet. "My Heart Leaps Up," (1807).
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.''