From afar he spotted them. Grabbing the few possessions he had on him, kept in just three small plastic bags, Vikram (not his real name) hurried towards five young adults who were inconspicuously walking around the neighbourhood.
With tears welling up in his sunken eyes, Vikram, dressed in worn-out clothes and threadbare shoes, eagerly approached the five individuals.
“You don’t know how much this means to me,” he gasped. “I will never forget what you all did today.”
An hour ago, Vikram was sleeping alone on a bench near a playground in the Redhill neighbourhood, when he was roused by the sound of light murmuring close to him. Blearily opening his eyes to the morning sunlight, the elderly man was taken aback to see a stranger looking over him.
“Sorry to wake you, uncle. This is for you,” the young woman said, quickly slipping a small item into his hands before making her way back to her friends.
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Still weary and dazed, Vikram only managed to blurt out a weak “thank you” and wave to the young woman.
As he slowly sat up and regained his senses, he realised that the item now lightly gripped in his hands was a red envelope. Gingerly peeling it open, he found S$30 inside.
Amazed, he thought: “Who was this stranger who gave me S$30, and why?”
By now, the woman was nowhere to be seen. Vikram looked at the money and a thought occurred to him: He had to go to the supermarket.
The young woman is Joanna Lai, a 31-year-old entrepreneur. Lai had met about 10 other people that Saturday morning, the ninth day of the Chinese New Year, at Redhill MRT station. The group was then split into two: One would walk around the surrounding neighbourhood, while another would head to Chinatown.
These young Singaporeans were not part of any organisation. In fact, some of them were strangers, loosely connected only through mutual friends. But that day, they were brought together by a common goal: To spread some festive cheer during Chinese New Year to the vulnerable and overlooked members of our society.
‘Ang pao drop’ inspired by founder’s encounters with elderly cardboard collector
Eight years ago, advertising executive Michelle Wan was working around the Keong Saik area. Now 35, she recalls often seeing the same elderly cardboard collector pushing a heavy cart up and down the streets.
“She always smiled and never accepted my help when I offered to push it up the slope,” Wan said to The Pride. “I’d buy her kopi (coffee) every now and then, speak to her in my broken Cantonese, and always walked away with a heavy heart. Because at her age, in her health condition, she really shouldn’t be doing all that manual work. I haven’t seen her ever since we shifted, and I always wondered what happened to her.”
Then in 2014, still unable to get the Keong Saik auntie off her mind, Wan decided that she would take action to help other elderly members of our society. Wan knew that she wanted to do something personal. She also wanted to provide some financial assistance, but did not like the idea of giving money to a charity, as “I wasn’t entirely sure where my donations would go or how long it’d take for my money to reach the people who deserve it”.
The “ang pao drop” movement was thus conceived. Roping in a couple of her closest friends to join her, Wan forked out her own money to give out ang paos to the elderly in her neighbourhood.
“We live in a greying society and as a first world society, it’s disheartening to see so many old folks still having to fend for themselves.
“Sure the government says they are doing everything they can, but sometimes their method may not be so accessible or just too complicated for the elderly to even make sense of. In the end they just make do in the way they know, and can,” she told The Pride.
Through word-of-mouth and posts on her personal Facebook account, other friends became aware of what Wan was doing and joined in. Five years on, the movement is still going strong, despite the fact that Wan is now based in Shanghai for work.
This year, more than 100 ang paos were given out, each containing S$30. Participants gave out the ang paos individually whenever they could, and also arranged some sessions to go down to older neighbourhoods. The recipients included not just the elderly, but also overlooked people who contribute daily to our society such as street and hawker centre cleaners and foreign workers toiling at a construction site.
“I find that when you involve a larger organisation, it sometimes loses that intimate, human factor,” Wan said.
“I like that this is a personal effort and if something simple like this, coming from just me and a few friends can inspire more Singaporeans to do the same thing just from the simplicity of it, then that’s great.
“The nice thing was that even though the money I received this year was more, the better news was that other groups people that I don’t even know, started their own ang pao drops with their friends.
“It’s so simple. Pack some ang paos with you during the festive period, and as and when you see someone who might need it, just go up to the person, say ‘Happy New Year’ and give an ang pao. I’ve had friends who are parents involving their kids, and it’s a great way for them to learn about compassion and a bit more about these people who they aren’t aware about,” she added.
Despite the good intentions, there have been cases where intended recipients, especially the elderly, have refused to accept the red packets, said Wan.
“In situations like this, we just say it’s a small token for their contributions to Singapore, a small gesture or just a way to treat them to coffee, slip the money to them and just leave. Basically, don’t make a big deal out of it,” she said.
Other times, the recipients are grateful and would share their life stories. These encounters can be inspiring, Wan says, speaking about a 74-year-old Indian man she met in 2015.
“He told us he was very active when he was young, and played football a lot, up until he suffered from diabetes when he was 35. He lost his leg then but by keeping the faith in God, he continued to be contented with everything else in life.
“Almost half his life was spent in a wheelchair, but yet, we didn’t see a single grimace when he was telling us his story.”
A promise to help
Lai became aware of the “ang pao drop” through one of Wan’s close friends. That Saturday morning, she was with four other people when they came across Vikram sleeping alone on the bench.
They didn’t wish to wake Vikram, but perhaps discussing how not to wake the elderly man proved counter-intuitive.
After slipping Vikram the ang pao, the group proceeded to a group of old HDB flats nearby where they would give out another ten red envelopes. An hour later, they were heading in the direction of another estate, when they saw Vikram approaching them.
In his hands, Vikram was carrying freshly bought fruits and bread from the nearby supermarket. He choked up as he began talking to the group.
“Thank you. Thank you,” he said in both English and Mandarin. “You don’t know how much this means to me. I will never forget this and what you all did today.”
For the next 15 minutes, Vikram regaled the group with his life story. He was now energetic and full of life – almost a different person from the one sleeping on a park bench earlier.
“Today, you help me, I promise you, if you ever need help, anything, I will help you,” Vikram told the group.
“Uncle, maybe you can help us now. Do you know any people around here that we can help today?” asked Lai.
Vikram pointed in the direction of Lengkok Bahru, about seven minutes’ walk away. There stood six blocks of one-room rental units, with most families on social assistance.
Exchanging farewells, Vikram repeated: “Don’t forget. If you need any help, come find me. I will not forget your kindness today. I will be here. I will remember you. I don’t have money, but I will do my best to help you in any way.”
In sharing his life experiences, perhaps Vikram already has.