|The story of
an immigrant, the nation's lifeblood
Chua Mui Hoong
Most of us have seen them
around, these elderly, dialect-speaking women
who have slaved a lifetime for family and
children, and now sit on stone chairs and at
tables in void decks, keeping an indulgent
eye on young grandchildren milling around.
These women are
always addressed as Ah Soh, Ah Sim or Ah Hmm,
depending on the dialect. They are a
ubiquitous feature of the heartscape of an
average Housing Board estate.
Madam Lou was one of
them, often sitting there at dusk while her
grandson played with other children.
Like the others, she
had a story to tell. And through her tale
pulsed the lifeblood of this young immigrant
IT WAS 40
years ago that Madam Lou boarded a boat from
her hometown in Shantou to embark on a
one-week voyage to Nanyang, as Malaya was
called then by the Chinese.
It was 1955, and she
was 28. She was joining her husband, whom she
had married eight years before and been
separated from, when he left to make a home
for them in faraway Nanyang.
Her husband was what
the villagers called a returned sojourner, a
voyager who had ventured to the glamorous
Nanyang and returned. These were the men with
derring-do and drive, who might one day make
Madam Lou spent two
years in Kuala Lumpur, before settling in
Singapore with her husband, a carpenter by
As an immigrant
wife, she learnt to do many things her
sheltered childhood in a well-to-do family
had never prepared her for.
She hauled bricks
for two months to help pay the rent of their
There was no time to
do the beautiful embroidery she had enjoyed
Here, every stitch
of the needle had to be prosaic, aimed at a
specific utilitarian purpose.
With her trusty
steel scissors that had survived the voyage
to Nanyang, she cut and sewed, and clothed
her husband, herself and later the three
children they would have.
The young immigrant
couple's first break came when Madam Lou won
$50 in a lottery. They bought a trishaw, and
with it became roving hawkers.
Over the years, they
would sell many different food products.
Together with her
husband, she learnt how to make popiah, fry
chestnuts, prepare pineapple cordial, cook
rice dishes and noodles, and negotiate the
best prices in the market for her wares.
These culinary skills were not leisurely
pursuits, but their means of livelihood.
They pushed their
trishaw where there were crowds: around the
Esplanade and the City Hall areas, the
backdrop to so many important national
events, the Serangoon Road area on racing
days, and the Catholic church at Novena on
On Aug 9, 1965,
Singapore's independence was declared at the
Padang, where Madam Lou often pushed her
trishaw to sell her wares. She became a
citizen shortly after.
Through the years,
she had been sending money and clothes to her
relatives in China. But letters became less
Revolution from 1966-76 threw China into
upheaval. Several relatives committed
suicide. After her sister died, the last
emotional tie to her homeland was severed.
Through it all, she
made her living in Singapore, kept house and
raised three children. Later, she sent them
to English-speaking schools where they learnt
about the flag of her adopted country and
soon internalised its values.
I ASKED Madam
Lou if she would return to China, one day.
What for, she
replied. Her family was here. She had only
very distant relatives in her hometown.
As we spoke, she was
cutting up old bath towels to be used as
floor rags, with the very pair of scissors
she had brought with her on her voyage 40
years ago. I held it almost in awe.
As she spoke, her
four-year-old grandson ran up to her in
He gestured towards
the red-and-white flag that hung from the
balustrade outside their flat. He was almost
in tears. Something was very wrong in his
I went out into the
corridor. One end of the string which held up
the state flag hung out for the National Day
celebration had snapped. The flag now
fluttered limply in the wind. I consoled him
and set the flag right.
Madam Lou, my
immigrant mother, had sunk roots in this tiny
island state that was now her home, and mine,
and would remain her grandson's.
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Press Holdings. All Rights Reserved.