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Her name is Madam Dai and she has been sitting here six days a week at this same spot for the past 10 years.
Right after you step out of Lavender MRT exit A, you will be able to easily spot her against a pillar, neatly shaded from the sun. Her set-up is simple and humble: A wooden board of products balanced on a portable grocery trolley.
She sells wallets, passport holders, pouches, lanyards and tissue packets. All organised and arranged for easy browsing.
I found out about Madam Dai from a post I came across on Instagram and she seemed to be an institution at the ICA building with her own heartwarming backstory. I was intrigued and decided to visit her on a Tuesday during lunch with a colleague to hear about her life.
She was delighted when we approached her for a chat and opened up with no hesitation at all.
Madam Dai is a God-loving, 86-year-old with a son and two granddaughters, aged 6 and 8. Her husband was recently moved to an old folks’ home as she is unable to care for him on her own any more.
She says that she stays alone because her son has a foreign-born wife and they are unable to get along due to the language barrier. “Oh, it’s not serious,” she laughed in Mandarin when she saw our faces, “we are okay, I’m just not used to her cooking and she can’t eat mine.”
Her son calls her every night on the phone, she added happily. And she gets to talk to her granddaughters too.
Business not as usual anymore
Times have been tough since Covid started, her business doesn’t earn her enough any more. “$20 dollars today only,” she shared in Mandarin. “Whatever I can earn today, I will just earn,” she continued.
Observing the lunch crowd that day, it did seem like a ghost town, contrary to the bustle of previous years. People were walking faster, not slowing down at all. Most barely gave Madam Dai (and us chatting with her) a second glance.
This is because due to Covid measures, individuals are required to pre-book their appointments before visiting ICA. With the resulting reduction in traffic, it’s no surprise why Madam Dai earns so little now.
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She lives alone in a HDB flat in nearby Jalan Besar and pushes her portable trolley to the ICA building at 10am and returns home at 2pm. She spends the rest of the day resting, watching TV or praying, she said.
She returns to her spot every day (except Sundays) despite the little that she earns as she doesn’t like being home alone.
What about neighbours, we asked. “We don’t talk to each other any more. It’s Covid, remember? No one dares to talk to each other.”
Elderlies like her often feel forgotten and lonely
Madam Dai shared that her son, daughter-in-law and granddaughters used to stay with her but moved out as they weren’t able to live together.
Now with her husband in the old folks’ home, Madam Dai is resigned to spending time alone. She said: “No choice, I have to live by myself. This is why I’m here every day. If not, I will be so bored, being home by myself.”
Isn’t it tiring for her to make the trip though? “I just live day by day, I just want to pass the day peacefully,” she sighed.
When asked about her peers, she shared that she does not have many friends to confide in. Covid has also made it harder for her to visit them.
She admitted: “I used to have a ‘sister’ from church whom I went to church with every week but she has since passed away so I take the bus to church alone now.”
Madam Dai says that old folks like her in Singapore have it really hard as the younger generation do not visit them as often any more. Hence, they often feel forgotten and lonely. During these times of loneliness, she finds solace in her faith.
“I am not afraid of getting infected as I have Jesus.” she expressed, referring to her being at the ICA building and risking herself from possible exposure. She said that she is fully vaccinated and just got her third vaccine booster shot on Sunday.
The only thing that keeps her going
With the recent restrictions on visits to old folks’ homes, Madam Dai hasn’t seen her husband for a long time. She says that her son drops stuff off at the old folks’ home for him and she talks to him on the phone when she can.
It was when we asked more about her husband that her cheerful stoicism started to crack.
“Of course I miss my husband so much,” she said, with tears welling up in her eyes, “We have been together for so long. He does not share the same faith as I do, but he’s my husband.”
She shared that her daily phone calls with her son and granddaughters help keep her going. Just having a conversation with them helps her deal with her feelings of loneliness.
We had been chatting with Madam Dai for almost 30 minutes now, and we felt a bond with this small, spunky woman. Having gone through so much, and yet being able to stoically go through life made her an inspiration for us. Yet her response to our next question left us in pieces.
We asked her if she had one wish, what would it be? My colleague confessed to me later that he expected her to say something along the lines of wanting Covid to end sooner or to be able to spend more time with her husband and family.
Instead, she said: “My only wish right now is to go to heaven so that my life is not so sad and lonely any more.”
That last sentence had an impact on us. My colleague was so stunned that he asked her the question again, thinking that maybe he had mishead her.
“不,” she said firmly, “我要上天堂，人生太辛苦了” (“No, I want to go to heaven, life is too hard now.”)
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It is never great to hear that sentiment coming from another person. It made me realise how much Covid has affected the elderly in Singapore. Not all of them stay with family or are in touch with loved ones and friends.
Many of those living alone may share similar sentiments to Madam Dai. Although she seemed to be really amiable and even effervescent at first, it is evident that inside, she is actually exhausted and just living life day by day, patiently waiting for her time to come.
Madam Dai is at the ICA building every Monday to Saturday from 10am to 2pm. If you are around the area, consider paying her a visit to have a chat.
You don’t have to have a long conversation with her (it’s Covid after all) She may not be able to speak English but a simple ‘Hi’ or asking her if she had taken her lunch would definitely help brighten her usual dreary days.