Friday, February 20, 2009

Now then I know his name …

As I was hammering away at my keyboard yesterday night, I was nonetheless perturbed by the chorus of Cantonese opera music, chanting, prayers and the smell of incense which emanated from the void deck of my ‘block’ (Singapore’s parlance for a Housing & Development Board building consisting of apartment units for dwelling).

Yes, if you have guessed correctly, there was a Chinese funeral wake being held at the void deck of my block. It is common for average Singaporeans living in HDB blocks to hold funeral wakes and rituals for a number of days for their loved ones right after their decease at the void decks.

A resident living in a unit in my block has passed on… I wonder who this resident might be and whether I knew or have seen him or her before? I have noted a number of young children clothed in the solemn colours of black and white (the Chinese colours of death), congregating at and outside the void deck while taking the lift up to my home earlier: the older helping with the necessary logistics of the wake, the younger playing around; it is thus not difficult to deduce that these young kids are probably the grandchildren or even great grandchildren of the deceased and that the deceased must be someone advanced in age.

My thoughts started flitting to the images of the dozens of elderly residents I have always seen gathering at the void deck. As each thought zoomed down to an image of a certain elderly resident, I wondered silently in my heart: could it be him or her? At this juncture, you might be wondering whether I am taking a morbid interest in cursing the elderly living in my HDB block or whether I have nothing better to do as to make those wild guesses. You are wrong. The fact for my pondering is due to an intrinsic Singaporean heart, soul and curiosity!

I could make a bet with you that I was not the only resident living in my block who ponders these days over whom in the block the wake at the void deck is held for? Other residents could just be pondering silently the same question in their heads, discussing at lengths with their peers or asking around for an answer (common to some housewives or ‘kaypohs’ (‘busybodies’). For the brave-hearted residents, they might attempt to near the wake and take a quick glance at the photo placed in the altar to solve the ‘puzzle’.

Singapore is a tiny country housing more than 4 million Singaporeans, permanent residents and foreigners. Our country is small and the community is a closely knitted one, so much so that we seem to know everyone in this island or know someone who knows this or that person… this explains the Singaporean heart, soul and curiosity and why people like I, will be curious to know who has passed on when they see a funeral wake held at their void decks.

Coming back to the topic of the elderly congregating at the void decks of HDB blocks, this phenomenon is quite common and uniquely Singaporean. With approximately 85% of Singaporeans living in HDB blocks of flats, and an increasingly aging population, what do you expect the elderly Singaporeans, most living in the HDB blocks to do to pass the time when their children staying with them are at work? Worst, some elderly stay alone. It seems so natural that the elderly will venture out from their homes to breathe some ‘fresh air’, to catch the sights and sounds of the surrounding people and things and best of all, engage in small talk with other residents. Due to their limited physical movements, the elderly will mostly stay seated on the seats in the void deck, watching life pass by them …….

In my mind, was the image of an elderly man who reeks of cigarette smoke each time I see him. He is always coughing his life away and his frail body convulsing badly as he walks. I have not seen him for a while already … could it be him? Next, the image of an elderly lovely couple who always make the rounds at the void decks slowly and gradually ‘carved’ a mini seating ‘turf’ for themselves at the void decks came flooding to my mind. They have always trained their sights on each and every passerby in their line of vision including me. I have seen them and they have seen me, our eyes greeted for an uncountable number of times before, but I have never conversed with them before. Similarly, I have not seen them for a while already … could it be either he or she too? For the three elderly residents just described, though I did not know their names but their existences have become a part of the daily ‘deckscape’ (a term I coined for the landscape of the void deck). However I could be wrong, it might be other elderly residents whom I have seldom see. ….

The chorus emanating from the void deck grew in momentum as the sky darkened further. Done with my computer work, I flipped through the newspapers and noted the daily obituaries. One small obituary at the side of the page caught my attention as the man in the photo of the obituary seemed familiar to me……have I seen him before?

As I trained my eyes harder on the photo, I grew to realize the photo was that of the old man who loved to sit around in the void deck with his other half mentioned earlier, always ever so loving together, in his younger days. Now I know for whom the chorus of music below plays…. now then I know his name.


eastcoastlife said...

We live within communities where for years we don't even know many of the people.

I was going round my neighbourhood the past few nights, getting to know all the residents. Macam like MP, haha...

We have made some progress with our dialogue session. :)

Singapore Short Stories said...

hi ECL, care to share wat dialogue session?

Anonymous said...

I would hv gone straight to the papers to check it out - hehe.

Tell u a funny remark my brother made after we interred our Dad's ashes in Mandai columbarium 8yrs ago. He said "Dee, dad has just moved from one HDB estate to the next !"

U get the joke ? The tiny space for the urn r stacked up like a mini HDB block lah !

We spotted the space where LKY's dad was interred. It was just 3 blocks away. My mom was surprised that he was kept so simply there. What to do ? Sg is running out of space for burial, I told her.

Btw in NL we usually scatter the ashes in the park where the cremation takes place. There r a few low black marble walls for some who wishes to rent a place for their loved one or they could take the urn home with them if they want.

Singapore Short Stories said...

Thanks Dutchie for your sharing.

I never know LKY's father was placed there, so its something new to me :)

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