We were having a late supper at a 24-hour food court in Hougang on Thursday. It was about 11:30pm when an elderly woman approached us .
“Want to buy tissue?” she asked in Hokkien. The voice sounded familiar to me. I turned around and indeed it was the same elderly lady whom I have seen in other parts of Hougang at other times, peddling her tissue packs at the neighbourhood coffeeshops.
She didn’t wait for a reply.
“2 packets for S$1.20,” she said in the local dialect, Hokkien, as she laid the 2 tissue packs on the table. I reached into my wallet and gave her a S$2 note.
“You are working late,” I said to her, as she took the money and place it in her purse.
“I just came out of the hospital,” she replied. “The other day I fainted and fell. They called an ambulance and sent me to the hospital.”
She had been doing one of her rounds at the coffeeshops when it happened, three weeks ago. “Tan Tock Seng Hospital,” she offered. “I had to stay there for three weeks and was only discharged three days ago.”
Lim, as she later told me her name was, is a frail-looking woman. The deep-set lines on her face, and the prominent, protruding sockets of her eyes, the paper-thin skin on her arms marked with liver spots or old age spots as they are sometimes called, and her severely hunched back tell a tale of struggle in making ends meet.
“I no longer sell 4-D tickets,” she said, referring to the lottery tickets which she would sell for S$2.50 each, making 50 cents off each ticket. “When I fainted that day, I had 120 tickets with me.”
She said the tickets were worth about S$300. As she was in hospital for an extended period, she could not sell or return them. So she lost that amount of money. This is why she now sells tissue paper. At least they do not have an expiry date like the tickets.
“You shouldn’t work so late,” I urged her.
“No choice,” she replied. “Otherwise I won’t have enough to eat.”
Just then, another lady, perhaps in her 60s, came up to Lim and thrusted a S$10 note into the elderly woman’s hands. “Aunty, take this,” the lady said to Lim. But the older woman would not accept it.
“No, no! I cannot take this.” The lady insisted as she continued to push the note into Lim’s hands. After some to-ing and fro-ing, the elderly madam finally had no choice really but to accept the S$10.
“Thank you,” she said to the other lady who quickly took her leave without saying much.
As it turned out, the lady who gave Lim the S$10, as my friend observed, was a cardboard collector. She had parked her cart, which is evidently used to ply her trade, outside the food court before approaching Lim to give her the money. After having handed the note to the older woman, she went back to her cart and left. A good samaritan who prowls the night, handing out charity through the little she has.
Lim, as I noticed, was a little embarrassed from what had just transpired. The commotion had attracted the attention of the patrons and stall owners in the food court. She quickly put the note in her pocket, and continued to make her rounds of the food court, with the bag which contained the tissue packs slung on her shoulders and a well-worn umbrella in her hands.
She walked away, all hunched and in tentative steps, to offer her tissue packs to other patrons.
It was by this time approaching midnight and we wanted to speak with Lim more. We went around the food court looking for her. She wasn’t there anymore. So we went out of the food court and looked around the surrounding area. It was already dark and the shops were all closed. Only a handful of people were around — but not Lim.
“She must have gone to the coffeeshop nearby,” I told my friend. I am quite familiar with the area and knew that the coffeeshop wasn’t far away. So we made our way there. And indeed, Lim was there, going from table to table to peddle her tissue packs. We didn’t want to interrupt her and so we sat down at a table and waited.
10 minutes later, she was done and we saw her making her way out of the coffeeshop. We went to meet her. When she saw us, she said, “Want to buy tissue paper?”
I said, “We bought from you just now at the food court, remember?”
She smiled and replied, “Oh, you bought already.”
I asked her where she lived. “Just nearby, behind Hougang Mall.” Then she asked me, “Do you drive?”
“No, I don’t drive,” I replied.
“Oh, I thought if you did, you could maybe send me home,” she said. “My legs are now so tired and weak.”
Just then, my friend, who did not hear the exchange between me and Mdm Lim, came up to me and asked if we could send her home. I had momentarily forgotten that my friend drives. “Oh aunty,” I said to Lim, “My friend drives. We can send you home.”
“Oh, that’s good,” she replied, clearly thankful and relieved that she would not have to make the long way home on foot.
When we got to the car, she asked me to help her. “My legs have no strength anymore.” She then held my hands as she settled herself into the seat. “Please don’t close the door until my legs are in the car,” she reminded me.
In the car, I asked her about her family. “I have only one daughter,” she replied. “But her husband has heart problems. For 20 years already, since he was in his 30s. He can’t work because of this. Now in his 50s, they also have financial problems of their own. He needs to see the doctor, too.”
She then told me that she had to pay S$4,500 for her recent three-week hospital stay. “That is a lot of money,” she said. “But my daughter used her CPF to pay for me. My daughter is Singaporean. I am only PR, that is why so expensive. I have been in Singapore for 40 years but I am stupid, didn’t know to apply for citizenship.” She was visibly upset.
Lim would leave her home at 5.30pm each day to sell her tissue papers. It is a cooler time of day. She would only go home close to midnight. She makes about $10 or slightly more daily, just enough for her personal expenses.
As we reached her HDB block, she thanked us several times, wishing us prosperity. I realised that her home was quite some distance from the food court and coffeeshop and that it must take her quite an effort to trudge there everyday to do her rounds.
“Let me walk you to the elevator, ” I offered.
“Ok,” she said. “Can you leave only when the elevator door has closed?” she asked me.
I replied that I would, of course. She bade me goodnight and thanked my friend and I several times for driving her home.
Finally, the elevator arrived. I asked her to take care of herself, as the doors closed.
It was about 12.30am.
I am sure I will see her again around the neighbourhood.
She is 83-years old.
**The above story was first published on Yahoo Singapore in 2011.