Monday, January 05, 2009

An Old Woman's Luxuries : Cigarettes-Movies-Lotteries

These three photos remind me of a special old lady who lived in our neighbourhood when I was young.

And today memories of her come back to me. As most mothers get ready their children for first day of school this year I feel a little left out. You see I do not have any more school going children. And the last time I needed to wake up at five in the morning to prepare for a new school day was quite a while back.

There was this unique old lady who used to live at Brooke Drive Sibu so many years ago. She was less than five foot tall. Her hairstyle was the same Chinese bob for the whole of her life. We used to think that she never washed her hair because she would stint on soap and shampoo. We used to get very annoyed with her (behind her back) whenever she picked up one of our hairbrushes to comb her hair. (We would soak the hairbrush in a basin of hot water and soap after she left !!) She wore the same samfoo throughout the week as she said it was not necessary to wash clothes so often. Washing would cause the clothes to tear she told us. She also never had a manicure because her nails were always black and she had extremely rough hands.

Although she visited us every day I epecially remember her year end visit when she would come over to our house and mumble about her lack of funds and how poor they were. Her grandchildren were all school going age then and her sons were not doing particularly well. One was a seaman and the other a lorry driver. The whole family of three generations lived in one apartment of three rooms. My mother would take out some money to give to her and we would give her some of our school shoes which were too small but still quite new. This quite a regular scenario for years!! My mother and the old lady at the end of the year.

The neighbours were all ever willing to empathise with this old lady's family. Life was definitely a struggle for most of us but the old lady was able to live from one day to another fairly well. And I suppose all of us provided some kind of social support for her. Her sons would sometimes owe my mother rent up to three months. But my mother's faith in them paid off. When they moved out to their new but low cost home many years later they did not owe a single cent to my mother. They would return again and again to thank my mother for her kindness.

The old lady lived for three things - cigarettes and movies and guess what? Lotteries. Were they her simple vices? Were they her luxuries?

When I was younger I was so embarrassed to see her picking up cigarette butts from anywhere - and then she would re-roll these remains with her cigarette paper and smoke them. She told me that she was in heaven when she smoked. She was a true nicotine junkie! And it was probably because of her I never touched cigarettes. Because I did not want to grow old and pick up cigarette butts on the dirty streets!!

And as for movies? Each time one of her sons gave her a ringgit when he had some to spare she would head for the theatre for the fifty sen seat. And she would talk about the movie for days to us. Even though she was completely illiterate she could tell us the synopsis in her slow mannered ways. We would politely listen to her as we wished to make her day. My mum would be quietly working in the kitchen as the old lady related the story. Those were very slow pre-tv days and the old lady was the daily newscaster or broadcaster to us.

She had such faith in hitting the lottery that she would spend more than 70% of her allowance on all the tickets she could lay hands on be they 4 D or the Ma Piau (Horse Race)

She even collected friends' bets on illegal 4-D for an illegal vendor just to get some free tickets!

But I can never remember a time she struck it rich.

Recently I went back to Sibu and met up with her daughter in law who remarkably had turned herself around. She practises tai chi and is quite a lady of means now.

As I reflected on this family's struggles I believe that the old lady had finally struck gold - the children and grandchildren and now the great grand children are perhaps her life's lottery winnings.

When she passed away she left very little or what the Foochows would say "nothing". But I believe that her children had loved her just as much if not more than any other children could have love their parents.

She was a widow and had never brought her children up to go to church because she said that to go to church needed money. I remember her being very stubborn about "conversion to Christianity" which required a believer to be literate she had said. In her very simplistic perception Christianity was for the educated and the rich. S had seen the very prosperous Sin Fu Yuan Tang which is situated just down the road from our homes. For her religion was simple. Hers was represented by a very old (perhaps 50 years old) picture of a Kuan Yin in her hall way. She did not even have money for joss sticks. So in a way she never did spend money on religion.

I do believe that her children still hold her memories in their heart. And I too have tucked her in a special pocket of my mind. Once in a while I take her and her images out to refresh all the loveliness of a past life at Brooke Drive Sibu.

She was the person who pierced my ears and that was a memorable rite of passage. Thanks. Whenever I buy a new pair of earrings I feel happy.

4 memories:

Robert Rizal Abdullah said...

Dear Chang Yi,

Nostalgic story. You have a good memory and you and your mother have good hearts too, to listen and entertain the old lady.

linda said...

Grandma is right, we should never look down on the poor or those that lead simple lives - as they have a lot to teach us. I detest those who think they are better than others and treat people with little means badly. What goes around comes around.

What she meant was very true - we should never spend so much on religion. Do the donations really reach charity? Or does it go to building bigger and more prosperous churches?

sarawakiana said...

Dear RM
I thank you deeply for writing. This old lady lived in the apartment for more than 30 years and was a formidable neighbour. She represented an old spartan lifestyle. As my daughter has written we have a lot of learn from her.

I really hope I have written well about her.

sarawakiana said...

Dear Linda
I think you still remember Ah Moo well.

I did not write everything about her. But through her eyes I saw that we need not be hypocritical and insincere. She was really one person who called a spade a spade.

And she said little but meant every thing she said. And she did not have a PhD!!

I am glad she was one of our great neighbours. Our lives have definitely been enriched.


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