In this letter to her, Madam Leong’s Singaporean grandson, Bryant, reflects on his relationship with his grandmother, her legacy, his experiences taking care of her, and what she has taught him regarding life and work.
This letter is based on an interview conducted with Bryant.
Happy birthday! 91. Wow! Can you believe it?
Are you looking forward to your Bangkok birthday party? It’s in just a week, and all our relatives are flying there specially for you.
I know what you’re going to say now. Don’t worry. Of course I remembered your requests: there’ll be plenty of mahjong tables—and your favourite stout—at the party.
But I must admit, although you are still so healthy (is your secret the stout you drink daily?!), helping to take care of you makes me think about what it is like to grow old.
We always think of it as happy days taking care of grandchildren and slow evening walks around the neighbourhood, but I’ve learnt that it’s not so easy. There’s a lot of planning to do.
Growing old is also expensive. There are medical bills, hospitalisation sometimes (touch wood), and things like walking sticks or medication or wheelchairs (touch wood again) to buy.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying taking care of you is expensive. Having you around is priceless.
Through my whole life you have done so much for me. When I was growing up, you would buy me whatever I wanted without asking for its price. It’s my turn to do this for you. (Even though you always reject my money so I have to come up with a story every time, like I got a company bonus or something.)
And it’s not only medical costs, but basic things like daily expenses. Bread, peanut butter, eggs.
So I realised I need to start planning for my future too. That’s why I’m always thinking of business ideas. Like my life-coaching gigs. It’s quite a natural growth from my UX job actually. Both are about getting into the head of people and helping to empower them.
I like doing this. It’s a form of respect, finding out the reason why people do things. So I want to keep doing it even after I retire. Some people think of retirement as relaxation. They don’t want to work anymore. My idea of retirement is not to stop working.
My idea of retirement is to be like you, grandma. To continue doing something meaningful, to grow my money even more. Who knows what I’ll do after this life coach idea? I know that business ideas are risky, but I get peace of mind knowing that I have money in my CPF too, so that’s okay—my CPF savings will provide for my needs in retirement and anything extra that I get from my investments and other savings will help to maintain the lifestyle that I want.
You hate it when we treat you like you are handicapped, so I only help you move around when you are really tired. And remember the time when I tried to help out at your stall? You even chided me: “I don’t need your help! Why you so busybody?” I was just standing in a corner minding my own business!
Like you, even when I am 91, I want to keep myself going, to live an active and fulfilling, rewarding life.
You are Singapore’s most stubborn entrepreneur. You don’t know what ‘giving up’ means. You’ve lived through the war, seen the computer, internet, smartphone be invented. And you still run your business through all these changes. You still go to your stall every day.
I think you are the oldest hawker in Singapore. The eternal queue at Nam Seng Noodle House is because of you.
Then you can have more time to do what you like. Playing mahjong from day to night and night to day again. Going for hair washes and head massages at your favourite hair salon. Spending more time with your godbrother in Thomson.
And don’t worry, even if you really decide to retire (at 91!), uncle and I will still drive you around and help you with anything.
Your 60 years working at Nam Seng really gives me perspective.
If I have a bad day, I’ll be like, “shit”. Then I’ll think, “it’s not that bad. she’s been through worse”.
Thank you for showing me the value of perseverance. And for teaching me to pursue my passion.
And for feeding me all these bowls of wanton mee.