Chua Mui Hoong
"Cold and hungry, please
The sign was
handwritten in a large, scrawling script.
The girl sitting on
the floor, with level eyes staring straight
ahead, was playing a flute.
She had long,
streaky dirty blonde hair, set off by her
dark clothes. A black terrier sniffed at her
ankles. A cap lay in front of her, with the
I almost stumbled
I know nothing about
her history. But she looked like an average
English middle-class girl, like many of the
girls I met at university in England.
She could have been
one of the students, instead of a wanderer
now reliant on the kindness of passers-by.
That was Oxford,
more than a year ago.
The facade of this
dentist's office in Balestier looks run-down,
its signboard faded. Inside, a plastic plant
tries valiantly to brighten the dingy
interior, where an old mock-leather sofa
takes pride of place. The place reeks of
proud independence, the kind of establishment
where the elderly dentist has lived out the
formerly thriving practice, and is now
content to serve just a few patients.
Most mornings, the
dentist of this Balestier office stands in
the doorway, or sits in the sofa in her amah
clothes, one leg propped comfortably in front
She is old and a
little deaf, but loyal clients from the
neighbouring housing estates will have no one
but her to attend to their teeth problems.
hands are no longer steady enough to extract
teeth, but her clients need her for a
different reason: to make dentures. She is
one of a dwindling number of what the Health
Ministry terms "registered
dentists": dentists who learnt their
skills on the job, and are allowed to
practise, but who do not have the same paper
qualifications as dental surgeons. Madam Tay
took over the practice when her husband died
many years ago.
She has an
assistant, a quiet, taciturn man who makes
the mould for the teeth, using a naked jet
flame, the edge of an old, hardened teak
desk, and some tiny tools.
They have worked
together for many years.
Behind the office
sprawls the backyard, also used as the living
Here, at one time or
another, live a motley crew of three or four
old folks, whom the old lady dentist, let us
call her Madam Tay, has agreed to house.
When I dropped by
some weeks ago, I saw a backyard lit by naked
fluorescent bulbs. The dental assistant sat
in the living room.
An old woman, who
looked about 90, walked to and fro. The other
lodger, a young 70-something woman who
limped, busied herself in the kitchen. The
three did not speak much. One was Hokkien,
another Cantonese. "Like a chicken
talking to a duck," one of them
These were old folks
brought together by circumstance, living
under the same roof because of the kindness
of a stranger.
The dentist, Madam
Tay, has her own home, and a family,
somewhere. She has chosen to open up her
place to strangers, or to old friends, or to
old neighbours, or to old friends of old
neighbours. A household of elderly people
with no blood relation to one another,
living, almost, like a family.
Blood relations are
the primordial ties that bind us. It is the
basis of the belief that the family is the
basic unit of society.
Yet, we sometimes
forget that family, or blood relations, begin
only when two strangers decide to be kind to
each other, and to make family out of each
In the past, there
was a better appreciation of the ties that
They call it a sense
of community. That was a time when neighbours
were closer than relatives, the whole village
knew your marital problems, and your
neighbours' children swore to be eternal
brothers or sisters with your own children.
My generation has
lost much of that intuition.
BACK in Oxford, the
same evening, I was walking past one of the
numerous Blackwell's bookshops in the city,
when I saw another girl, huddled up on the
floor, leaning against a lamp-post. This one
looked too dazed to beg.
I looked almost in
amazement at the surrounding well-shod feet
of expensively clothed students and tourists
who strode past her with barely a second
This stranger, too,
was not kind. She walked on, with many
rationalisations, hoping that some other
stranger would stop and lend a hand. I do not
know if anyone did. I left Oxford the next
It was not till
months later, in heartland Singapore, that I
met in Madam Tay a woman who was kind to
strangers, and whose kindness provided
shelter for the homeless.
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