Behold this old lady. She is my maternal grandma, whom I’ve grown up knowing as “Hougang Ahma” because…well she lives there. We visit her on Sundays. I saw her two weeks ago: pale, weak and heartbroken in a cold hospital bed, because the doctor had amputated her two toes. Why did they have to do that, she says, it still hurts anyway. Not for the first time, my heart broke helplessly for a grandparent I did not know how to comfort.
Unlike Ahma, Hougang Ahma was born in Singapore, the eldest of ten children. Ten! She has lived her whole life in Hougang, the child of a Buay Xim (in Chaozhou/Teochew province) native and a Singapore clerk. Her father had gone all the way to China to marry his wife.
Hougang Ahma was born in…Hougang, 84 years ago, in the Year of the Goat. Google tells me the closest date to that Chinese lunar reckoning is 1931. Her surname is Lau, she tells me, and it strikes me that this fact has always floated at the back of my head, but never really registered in my consciousness. With a start I realise I have always known her as a grandmother. I have never really known her as a person. I try it on for size in my head: not Ahma, but Mdm Lau, Ms Lau.
Hougang was a different place back then. People lived in attap houses, and there were hills here. They have removed all the hills, my grandmother, Ms Lau remarks. School was just a short walk away from her kampong then – but as the eldest, she never had the time nor opportunity to go. All the hours of the day were dedicated to helping her mother raise 9 other siblings, all of whom were no more than 2 to 6 years younger than her. She knows some letters and numbers, though. She learnt them on her own, she tells me.
She knew her husband since she was 11, and he was 22. He, my grandfather, Mr. Lim, was the good friend of her uncle. They both worked in Singapore Telecoms It was her grandmother who decided on the match, when she was about 17 years old. On their wedding day she wore a long, flowing white dress, and crossed the sea to live in his house at Pulau Brani for a few days. After that they moved to a flat they rented in Lavender, which a friend had found for them. They had 7 children, and she gave birth to one baby almost every year, at Fifth Mile Junction. Everyone chipped in to help.
[The third-eldest of her daughters was a quiet, fierce and determined girl, who struggled and saved, and virtually funded her whole university education by herself, in the face of familial objection. She graduated from NUS, became a teacher, and attended an overseas teaching course at the Teachers’ Training College in RECSAM, Penang, where she met a kind, thoughtful man whom she decided would be her husband, against further objections. My mother has always been a tenacious, independent women.]
Hougang Ahma doesn’t miss her husband, gone nearly a decade now. Why should I miss him, she asks in that puzzled, direct, matter-of-fact manner that makes Chinese grandparents so endearing. Surely all those years must count for something, I press.
“How is life any better? They said my feet would get better after they cut my toes off. Improve my circulation. My feet still hurt!” she cries out,
“They still hurt.”
Soon it’s time to go home. We tell her how Ruisheng’s driving us around now. She nods absently. I hold her mottled hand and tell her to take care. She nods and looks at me quietly. Her eyes linger in my memory: lonely, dark and deep
“You know, you’re the only one who would bother asking about her past and her stories.” my mother remarks. My Teochew this morning is even more fractured and awkward, and Hougang Ahma only smiles in puzzlement at my desperate, strange questions. The past is another country – but so is this bewildering present. Who are the visitors? Sometimes I wish I had more to say and sing to this wizened creature who gave me life and love.
I have often grappled with the ethics of telling the story of my grandparents publicly. There are sensitive, underlying issues at play here, and the historian only weaves one interpretation from a set of ‘facts’ he collects and curates. Do I do this for personal glory and fame, to get Likes on WordPress and Facebook? Do I serve an unconscious, underlying ego? What’s the point of telling stories anyway? These questions plague me everytime I take the trouble to ask, to record, to pen down, to craft.
But over the years I’ve come to the (rough) conclusion that telling these stories are the lesser of many evils. In puttin these accounts out in the public domain I don’t pretend to tell the definitive stories of my grandparents. Instead, it is hoped that these facets and aspects will inspire us to talk to our older, fading generations more, through whatever means we can. They are living windows into the past, live historical sources; but more than that they are our grandparents, who have lived rich and storied lives simply because you are here reading this today. I think the least we can do is try. The accent, the grammar, the syntax of my teochew is atrocious, as my grandmother has placidly pointed out to me. But I’m glad she is still there to point that out to me.