Hidden Values: One Woman’s Quest to Preserve Our Culture
Images: Zachary Tang.

This is the third in a series of stories told to us by Singaporeans from varying walks of life. The process was simple: meet someone on the street and spend time with them talking about life. Singaporeans often think other Singaporeans are boring, but everyone has a story to tell. Sometimes, you just have to ask.

Madam Tan, 51. In her stall in Chinatown Complex. 3:28 PM

I’m sorry, can you say that again? I’m hearing-impaired so I can’t hear you well. 

Ohhh! My husband and I have been selling these second-hand goods and knickknacks for over thirty years already! We initially had a stall at Sungei Road but when the market closed in 2017, most of us were moved here. 

I’m grateful to the Singapore government. Did you know that by right I’m too young to have a unit here? You actually have to be at least 60 years old. I’m only 51 but they gave me special permission because of my disability and even helped me apply for the license. Now I can continue earning money and looking after my family so I’m very happy! There are not many jobs I can do otherwise. That’s why I got into this line in the first place, especially since my children were very young at the time.

The first two years after everyone moved, the government also gave us a 50% subsidy. Only last September then we started paying the full amount. All in, rent is about $800 per month. A bit expensive la but business isn’t bad so it’s still okay. It was slow initially but more people started coming when they knew we moved here through word of mouth. It can get very busy on the weekends. 

Youngsters, middle-aged people, the elderly—all of them come and my customers are all very nice. A lot of university students visit this area searching for old film cameras and there’s this one boy who always comes on either Fridays, Saturdays or Sundays. Confirm! He will always buy a packet of kopi for me too. Aiyo, he’s really very good. Very filial even though we’re not related. 

I tell you, this job can be quite unpredictable. When it’s crowded, we can be on our feet the whole day. But then there are also times when there’s nobody, not even a ghost!  My two children—who are both in poly—don’t have the patience to sit here on days like that. Like you see now, not many people around. Only me. Some of the other stall owners took today off also.

Me ah? Tomorrow then I will take a break. 1 day only. I’m here the rest of the week from 12 to 6 PM. I won’t get bored la. I love my job. Okay, honestly speaking, when I first started helping my husband in this trade, I thought it was very dirty because you’re always dealing with all these old, second-hand items. Over time, however, I came to understand what this job is really about. 

A lot of people think these items are rubbish or junk. They’re wrong. These things are pieces of art; part of our culture and someone’s memories. In life, there are some things that you can’t buy no matter how rich you are.

Let me show you what I mean. Let’s say you come across this book. Others might think it’s just an ordinary, tattered book someone used to read a long time ago. But to you, this was something your old lover—who is no longer on this earth—treasured very much. Now that you have it by your side again, you’re brought back to 30 years ago. The memories are still fresh and it’s as if your lover is still around. That’s priceless, right?

Also, some of these items cannot be found anymore. You see that piece of wood over there with the dragon and phoenix engravings? Have you ever seen anything like that? Do you know why when people got married last time, they had to have a dragon and phoenix hung up in the house? It’s fascinating to think about how these traditions came about; about how someone once first thought of a dragon representing males and a phoenix representing females. This is what you call “culture”.

You young people may not see these things as something valuable but the teachings our ancestors left behind are priceless. Like I said, they are remnants of our culture; proof that something or someone once existed.  

My biggest wish is to open many more stores. And no, not to make more money. There are a lot of seniors who have no children or family—like the Samsui women last time. They just spend their whole lives working and don’t have anyone to look after them when they’re older. Money also not much. 

That’s why if I have the ability, I want to help them sell the things they don’t use anymore so they have the money to lead a better life. It will be great if I can help them. In a way, I guess I’m already doing so but my ability and reach are very limited. But never mind. One step at a time. I aim to slowly help more people, especially those that don’t have anyone they can depend on. 

Living life like this is good. I never bluff you. I always help the elderly store owners set up and close shop because most of them are already 70 plus years old. They have difficulty carrying all the heavy items. Being able to help them while supporting my family makes me feel really good. 

In our lives, years will just pass in the blink of an eye but if you help people, they will be more willing to treat you with kindness. In the end, everybody will feel happy. This is something money cannot truly buy. Of course, if I’m being realistic, you still need money to survive but as long as you’re not greedy, everything will be okay. You will still be happy.

Anyway, when you’re free, next time come back again okay? We can chat anytime. In the meantime, don’t miss me too much! 

Have something to say about this story? Tell us at community@ricemedia.co

Loading next article...