Living in Singapore is not easy, one can quickly see. Could it be that we tire quickly from our programming — the PSLE, the Os, the As, the university, the serving the nation, the feeding your family and all these things? Or is it that we pack the rush hour morning and evening trains daily, increasingly unable to recognize our neighbours or the languages they speak?
If you thought the living was uneasy, just you wait and see.
Being dead in Singapore doesn’t seem particularly different.
As if being alive and drawing air here didn’t already call for us to live packed closely together in high-rise public housing, since we lack “space” in the corporeal sense, not two hours after you’re gone your family members will be making plans to pack you into spiritual equivalent of the flats you’ve lived in all your life, as I found out last week.
– “Ah Gong will be living in Block 206 ok? Any objections?”
– “What level?”
– “Level 6.” (No lifts or floors with lift landings here, I’m afraid.)
– “Unit 281.”
And on and on it goes, debating the merits and the cons of the block (C, D, or A?), level and unit, direction it faces (“sea- or ‘mountain’- facing?”), until somebody, i.e me, goes, “Explain to me what the difference is between Ah Gong ‘living’ there and in another block, level or unit?”
– “$200. The uncle say ah, if you want to choose the unit, must pay.”
Turns out it wasn’t just $200 that made all the difference. The Chinese/ atheist/ Buddhist/ Taoist dead (categories which tended to overlap with each other) got the lower floor. The Christians — who tended to be Chinese, Indian, and Eurasian — were upstairs. Upstairs seemed to get a bit more air, a bit more sunlight, and didn’t heat up too much at mid-day, unlike at the other blocks I’d been to. Not that it mattered to Ah Gong. Ah Gong survived poverty and hunger in his childhood in China, a cleaver-attack on his head in mid-life, and a smart alec grand-child in his late years… he’d adapt.
– “Sorry, if you want to put him in a Christian block, you need to show a baptism certificate for him or for an immediate family member.” Unbelievable — racial/religious quotas… for the dead? Turns out the Christian lots are in such high demand, like our schools, that everyone, even non-Christians, wanted to be there.
Keeping your urn in a randomly assigned spot: no extra charge
Wanting your urn to be in a specific spot: $200
Pre-booking your urn spot next to your loved one: $1500, depending on religion, site, and race
– “Better not to pre-book lah! Sekali here also kena enbloc then how?”
– “Then die lor. Oh budden die orreadi hor.”
It read like there was a statutory board (with an appropriate death-related acronym) administering this thing.
The funeral director was a man named Fred who, like all and sundry who call our sunny shores ‘home’ these days, was foreign talent. He worked long hours, spoke perfect English, left the Chinese dialects to the middle-aged Chinese men he hired, and unlike these middle-aged Chinese men, seemed to genuinely care.
He, and everyone involved in this, was so efficient that within 3 hours of Ah Gong’s passing at the hospital, he was returned to us at home — embalmed, coffin-ed, dressed, ready to go. Ready to lie down for a few days while people sat around pretending to look at him, eating peanuts, collecting money. Even the cartons of Yeo’s packet drinks, in winter melon, chrysanthemum and lemon barley flavours, had been bought.
Because our estate is currently in the throes of HIP (Home Improvement Programme), having recently undergone HUP (Home Upgrading Programme), there was no space at our void deck for the wake. So at 10 am, all of us lined up at the opposite block, uniformly dressed in our funeral whites. The tentage had been up for hours, the chairs and tables had been put out, as had their corresponding plastic sheets and peanuts.
Some dramatic music sounded from the back of the hearse, out of its improvised 2.1 system (speaker+flower+coffin).
We lined up to welcome Ah Gong home. Except that in this homecoming version, he wasn’t breathing. And he was in a shirt and tie, which convinced me something had REALLY gone wrong this time.
The shit hit the fan several times, but he always came home in his white singlet — the only thing he bothered to wear, in all the 24 years I’ve known him. He only wore a suit once in his life: at his wedding, or rather, when his wedding portrait was taken. Even at my brother’s wedding he compromised only slightly by wearing some kind of short-sleeved shirt over his singlet (unbuttoned so his Flying Goose brand singlet was unmistakable). I never thought I’d see him in a tie.
I never thought I’d see him dead.
I never thought that behind the white tents of the void deck, the ones I’ve walked past often in all my years living in a HDB flat, would lie someone I knew, someone I loved.
I never thought I’d be, three days later after the fact, walking glumly and sullenly through the carpark not because I hadn’t done my homework and didn’t want to go to school, but because my uncle was carrying a large photo of the man I’ve come home (and left home) greeting every single day of my life: ah gong ah ma wa tyng lai leoh! That we’d walk lock-step to the hearse, that I would find myself making a mental note to remember to tell my children to pick a non-peak hour when I “chuk sua” — the impatient Singaporean drivers would really annoy me even when I’m dead, honking the way they do in trying to overtake a coffin while people are crying behind it.
It only seemed right to share with the world what the recently deceased were known for. In writing his eulogy, I hopped about with a notepad and a pen tucked above my ear, asking all my cousins: “what did Ah Gong always say to you?”
Da Jie said, “si sua ta!” (“Anyhow say!”)
Er jie said, “sark suk!” (“Silly!”)
My brother, his favourite grand-child, said, “Dua cha.” (“Big blockhead”.. which was his nickname)
To my other cousins who spoke Mandarin instead of Teochew, he took great pains to translate his terms of affection. “Ben ben!” (“Stupid stupid!” in Mandarin) “You mei you mai liu lian?” (“Did you buy durian?”)
So I wrote him a eulogy and I got to say si sua ta, sark suk, dua cha and liu lian all at the same time.
I stood before the crowd and I introduced myself. I cried instantly.
I tried to say my Teochew name for the first time in my life (vastly different from my English name and my Mandarin name), but I could not: Ah Gong had sabo-ed me, again! The only time I ever heard my name being said in Teochew was when he talked about having named me. He always said it in a way which rhymed with the hour. jit tiang, nor tiang, sa tiang! So I stood there and introduced myself as li- ‘hour’. People in the audience laughed loudly and my uncle, who reminds me most of Ah Gong, called out: and your name is also two o’clock and three o’clock! And si- tiang too!
Ah Gong, ni you pian wo! His eulogy was delivered, not entirely flawlessly, in Teochew by me and in English by my brother. I wrote an essay in Teochew called “Torchlights and Alarm Clocks”. I talked about how it’s going to be weird not having him tie pink ribbons to my backpacks so I can see them come out of the baggage carousel, how he’d write my Chinese name on everything I owned, even the cool ones; my brother and I both said growing up with him was about having a torchlight shone on your face at 3 am every night, just so he knew we were there. I cried a lot. I laughed a lot. He was a silly, funny man and he made us all laugh. We said in heaven he’s cursing all day on sweet potatoes (his only bad words were Teochew vulgarities about stuffing your mouth with a sweet potato, and something about your mother’s eggs). I think in heaven Ah Gong is back in his singlet, shaking his leg like the China-man he is, with Bruno his favourite dog. And his alarm clocks are going off all at the same time, and his torchlights never need their batteries replaced.
ah gong wa tyng lai, lv zu kee loh.
I never got to say goodbye.
I miss you so damn much.
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