As I came home, I spotted a red piece of paper pasted on the wall between the two lifts. Hmm, someone has passed away I thought to myself, but there was no sign of a wake downstairs in the limited space within my block of flats.
Later, the son came to inform that his father has passed away. Since suffering from a stroke and gradually recovering, we have seen less of him. It was still a shock to learnt of his passing in the hospital, not from the problem that he went there for.
Last night we went to the wake that was put up in a neighbouring cluster of HDB flats that have a bigger space for the wake. It seems that the neighbourhood (if there is still the same impression, and the neighbours who really know each other) got to meet each other and sit down to chat only during wakes. Koptiams are no longer the watering holes of the old, save a few. So, at best was "a good morning, wah your children have grown, how's your parents?" ... the usual questions, often waiting or inside the lift, where more of the people are strangers. Kids and pets are usually the ice-breaking points.
Back to our neighbour. We must have been neighbours for a good 40 years, since the urban renewal when many people from the old pre-war houses of the Teochew community (around the then Ellenborough Market that is not wiped out of the area and replaced by the Central shopping mall) and the Cantonese & Hokkien community (in the Chin Chew St to Hokkien St area). I was "married in" to stay with my later mother-in-law because of the HDB policy. But that's another story.
I remember this neighbour as a strict and yet doting father, as his son-in-law described him in his facebook page. More so as a grandfather as he tried to balance being a strict and yet dotting grandpa. As we are next door neighbours, there was more than the passing conversations. The ladies of the row of apartments between the lift and the end of the row were probably the main communicators. And then, the children. Imagine in this row, we have Teochew, Cantonese, Hainanese and Hokkien. No problem, we could communicate, in one of the dialects.
In the early days, my (would be) mother-in-law was very frugal. She knows what is poverty and would not spend more than what is necessary. When we treated her to a meal outside, and she found out that they "yau-choy" (you cai) cost much more than what she could buy from the wet market and cook, she chided us for wasting money. I remember those days when we wanted to watch live telecast of the National Day parade, we would hop over to his house to watch. His kids were still young then.
In 1976, I was sent to Japan for training. I was given a 20 minute "collect call" (meaning I make a call from Japan and Singapore pays, in this case, my company) back to Singapore. But I had no phone at home, or my then girl friend (now my wife). We found out that our neighbour had a phone and so we asked to use his phone. Imagine the trouble we caused to him and family each time I called back, once a week, for some 16 weeks!
And when he went shopping for his favourite Teochew kueh, he never forgot about us. We got to eat the best Teochew Png-Kueh (the pink cake in the same of a peach but flat) and Tsu-Kak Kueh (the black version of Ang Ku Kueh using the leaves of a plant for the flavouring of the skin).
When our kids came, they would often pop over next door. Interestingly, just at about meal time. Kids are great in their art of getting what they want. They would tell the wife how her cooking smells so nice. And when they returned home, they announced that they already had their dinner!
While he has seen our kids grow from babies to what they are now (hovering around 20s), we have seen his kids grew, got married and have kids.
As modern vertical communities do not have much common facilities for interactions, unlike a kampong or a street community, where there is always the inevitable coffeeshop or temple, communications amongst neighbours are few and sometimes far in between. Like the Chinese would say, we probably meet and communicate more during red (weddings, baby month old celebrations) and white (death) events. Despite the short and few communications, we appreciate the neighbourliness and care of our neighbour and his family.
With sadness and acceptance of the inevitability, we thank him for all the wonderful times and for taking care of us and our children in many ways and wish him a smooth journey ahead. To his extended family, we offer our sincere and deep condolences.