Ah Cy shuffled her way forward as the bus pulled in to discharge and receive passengers. She was running behind schedule as she boarded the bus and glanced at her old watch. Stopped again! She must ask her son to get her a new one at a shop near Lucky Plaza where the wall of garments for sale cleverly concealed an inner room where a large table stood in the middle of the floor with boxes of copy watches to sort through as tourists crowded around. Her son Chi knew how to drive a hard bargain, so it would be better for him to buy for her. She had been cheated by one dollar her neighbour informed her it seemed when she went there to buy this watch years ago.
Pulling the transit card from an inner pocket she scanned it and headed for an empty seat. Giving the seat several slaps with her hand, and satisfied the devils had been driven out by her cleverness in clearing a path to sit each time she settled gratefully onto a seat on the bus. Who knows what kind of person had sat there previously so it was always best to take precautions.
She was a little puzzled though. From childhood through her maternal grandmother she’d heard the folk lore of China and had it all memorized. Her instinct told her one of those foreign devils now to be found all over Singapore would have occupied that seat at some point in time, however she worked for one of those foreign devils a Mrs Charlotte Driver and while Ah Cy was ever on the lookout for devils in that house despite its good feng shui the kindness of Charlotte had dropped her guard around the home over time. Perhaps all foreigners were not devils? It still paid to be on the alert and keep an open mind.
Ah Cy was a proud daughter of the Teochew who spoke the second largest Chinese dialect in Singapore, and her maternal grandmother had told her of a far-away place in Chaoshan Guangdong Province China. While that gave her a sense of personal identity, her only memory was of growing up in the Singapore Kampongs in the nineteen twenties. She was old, but still quite vigorous though troubled by her back and feet and this caused her to shuffle as she walked.
She alighted at Upper Thomson Road and headed for the bungalow occupied by Charlotte Driver. Charlotte’s husband was on temporary assignment to one of the big five accounting firms that had their regional headquarters in the business area. Her husband Dan Driver was often travelling, and Charlotte was in the process of writing a book on their travel experiences so had little time for socializing and only emerged for necessary provisions at Yohan’s in Upper Thomson Road or perhaps an occasional visit to Holland Village.
So, Ah Cy had the run of the home to manage and eat as she pleased. She occasionally checked out drawers looking for some evidence that Charlotte was a foreign devil, some hidden symbols or articles for a mystic worship practice. In the process she found no evidence of children.
Ah Cy shook her head when this revelation surfaced. The foreigner should have visited the temple and offered incense and gifts to the gods then she would have been blessed with children.
This aroused a feeling of sympathy for this poor foreign woman with no children and Ah Cy decided to treat her as one of her own lavishing attention on her until Charlotte had to explain the power of the book she was writing demanded her total immersion in what she was doing during scheduled hours morning and afternoon. Ah, thought Ah Cy this woman’s god is in the book so she respected those hours slavishly and crept around in those hours doing her work, knocking politely at lunch time to bring a tray of food which Charlotte obviously enjoyed. Ah Cy was paid generously for her diligence and occasionally when Charlotte got up to stretch and exercise she’d notice Ah Cy doing things an old woman should never be doing like standing on the tall ladder to polish the tops of fans and hanging lamps. Charlotte would instruct her not to take such risks at her age, but the old woman would shrug. She did that in her son’s home, why not here where she was paid so generously? Eventually Charlotte gave up and prayed for the safety of the old lady.
Ah Cy did not have a happy home life. Her father and husband had died during the Japanese occupation. She remembered crying softly in the Kampong where she lived as it was unwise to alert patrolling Japanese there were young women in the Kampong. Women like her managed to live like ghosts melting into dark places in the jungle when occupiers were on patrol and spiriting through the night to the coast to bargain with fishermen with some of the fruits grown inland, or hunting for anything to eat in the jungle. But they had survived, and Ah Cy cherished the gift her husband had left behind to continue his name, that gift was her son Chi.
She remembered how when the British returned she found work and dedicated herself to working hard and making whatever sacrifices necessary to get her son an education. While she only had a limited education, she recognized those who had were able to rise above the rest of the Chinese communities and prosper.
It was so long ago. She remembered Chi had been quite attentive to her in those years preparing food for her when she returned home late evening after a hard day work. They seemed to have a close family bond in that era and she longed to have those days over again.
But when Chi married Meili things gradually changed. Meili was strong willed and constantly goaded Chi into taking higher studies. Meili wanted out of the Kampong and when an independent Singapore government commenced building high rise apartments she wanted to rise in the world with those buildings. Ah Cy’s income was appropriated for Meili’s ambitions. Not that Ah Cy was against educating her son further, or moving out of the Kampong and into the new developments, she could see wisdom in that but didn’t understand the direction this would lead for her life.
Meili began treating her mother in law as a servant in the home. After working hard all day she’d be expected to prepare meals, wash and repair clothes and clean home. Meili would be out with the women of the housing units playing mah-jong or taking part in the meetings of their community. Whenever she was home she was criticizing Ah Cy’s work and goading her husband to rise higher in his work.
One day, Meili slapped the old lady and she went to Chi with the report crying, but Chi had shrugged and turned away. The old woman’s spirit was broken in that home. Where was the respect for elders her Maternal Grandmother had talked about in Chinese culture? It would have been a loss of face to share this experience with anyone else outside the family, so she had to keep it bottled up inside. Little did she know this was not the norm in Chinese culture at all, the community would have turned on Meili and punished her by shutting her out of community events had they known.
It was these thoughts which led to events that surfaced as she worked in Charlotte’s home. One day, Charlotte came upon Ah Cy unexpectedly as these thoughts were going through her mind and saw tears streaming from the old woman’s eyes. Charlotte’s heart went out to the old lady and she involuntarily reached out and drew Ah Cy to her. The old woman’s tears morphed into a wail of anguish and she jumped away. Charlotte directed her to the lounge and sat her down letting her compose herself.
“Tell me about it Ah Cy!” Ah Cy drew back in fright.
It would be a loss of face to share her thoughts with this foreign woman. It was not only her face, her family face, but the whole community. What was she thinking to ask?
But Charlotte continued to gently press and eventually it came out in a torrent of words which Charlotte didn’t fully grasp because of accent and speed of that torrent. But she understood this poor woman was hurting a very deep hurt and placed her arms around her. Ah Cy stiffened at this unaccustomed touch, then slowly relaxed and sighed.
That afternoon Ah Cy left the house with a happy smile. Somebody understood her hurt, somebody cared. She was satisfied.
Next morning at Charlotte’s house the phone rang. She stopped the exercise equipment and went to the hallway phone. The voice on the other end of the line was a subdued one, it was Chi.
“My mother will not be attending work anymore. She died last evening soon after returning from your home. She was very happy, I don’t know why she died. The doctor said she had a heart attack. So sorry!”
“I’m sorry to Chi, goodbye!” Tears formed in Charlotte’s eyes as she headed for the bathroom to shower. It was like losing a family member and she grieved for Ah Cy.
“© Copyright Ian Grice 2017 All rights reserved”