It's been two years since I last attempted to piece together the story of Uncle Five. Due to a series of circumstances, and for obvious reasons, we have begun cleaning out his house.
Uncle Five is still the strongest man I know, but now, because of prostate cancer, he wears a urinary catheter and unrelated to cancer, he only has sight in his right eye.
Somethings don't change through, he is still a man whose smiles are like rare treasures, he still walks slowly with both hands behind his back, still has a hearty appetite despite having only one tooth and is still hard of hearing, making him a professional at selective conversations.
When the idea first came to declutter his home, we wanted to hire help to clear everything in a few days. Uncle Five refused and told use that there were valuables in his house that could be sold. He needed to be part of the process, no outside help was welcomed, and so began our journey. Every Saturday morning for 4-5 months in 2014, we picked him up from the nursing home and brought him to his flat.
Since he is in his mid-eighties, we started by working an average of 2 hours per session. As his stamina increased, so did our hours. He readily tossed out old shoes he collected and mended, but was adament about keeping his handmade boxes and furniture that was covered in a layer of cockroach eggs, dead roaches or daddy long legs spiders.
From a seemingly dirty and laborious task, this became one of the most profound experiences of my life. Every week felt like I was walking into a time capsule. Not only was I learning about Singapore’s past through water bills from the 1980s, old kerosene lamps, opium pipes and sewing machines, but I also learnt so much about Uncle Five’s heart.
In making decisions about what to throw out, he often yelled out to no one in particular, "有没有用啊? You mei you yong ah?" (Is there a use for this?). Everything was about usefulness to him, how it could benefit someone else.
Sometimes amidst the rubble, I find clues to his life before. Passport photos that seemed to chronicle 50 years of his life; Two lone combs in a small plastic medicine cabinet next to the door in a room that was completely taken over by stuff (I once found two tricycles in that room, packed vertically in front of me, held up by a mixture of wooden planks, shovels and metal poles). Items like the two combs tucked away amidst all that chaos led my mind to wander and dwell on the man who used to look into the small mirror in front of the medicine cabinet and comb his hair.
And then there are purely puzzling moments. Once, we moved a huge sponge mattress that sat on a table and found smear marks from a squashed cockroach and 15 empty peanut shells. It was quite odd.
The closer we get to clearing the house though, we start to see walls and furniture and the house Uncle Five moved into 30 years ago comes to life. As the previous photo story mentioned, Uncle Five worked on ships for many years and finally settled back in Singapore in his 50s. With his brother's (RIP Uncle Nine) help, Uncle Five's savings were spent on buying a 3 bedroom flat, the first property he has ever owned. The pride he felt in his home reverberates off the walls today through picture frames of landscapes carefully hammered together and hung with precision.
The telephone with big numbers in the corner that still had a dial tone. When I asked him what his phone number was, he told me not to call him.
A glass case full of vases neatly placed and kept safe.
On the shelf above the desk he built, sat a beautiful wood carved ship, one of many ship motifs that reminded me of his love for handmade things and his 30 year journey out at sea.
Throughout the last two years, especially during this process, I've learnt some new stories about him as well.
When he was as 17, just after the Japanese left Singapore after World War II ended, he went out to run an errand for his mom on a damaged bicycle. On his way, the bicycle chain came loose and he stopped to fix it. It is unclear if he was in a traffic jam or caused the jam, but he was approached behind by a very big policeman who hit him several times on the back of the head with a baton. He said that it's been 70years but his head still hurts.
When he was a young adult, Uncle Five would visit a relative who built things for the British Army. He would go often and observe him work for hours, then he would go to Sungei Road to buy the tools he saw and try to make things on his own.
Uncle Five has been on an airplane 4 times in his life. Twice to Amsterdam, once to Sydney and once to the US or UK for work. He told the story of how he had a job exporting butter from Queensland, Australia by ship. The route took him to parts of New Zealand, Panama, the west coast of the USA and Canada, down the east side to New York, to ports along the coast of the African continent, and back to Australia. He said the journey took 2 years. When I think about the world today with all the access to information we have; discovering the world that way Uncle Five did seem so arrestingly powerful and courageous.
And he didn’t just make stopovers. Uncle Five was institutionalized in South Africa once. As the story goes, he was dropped off during a work stint on a ship when he had a mental ‘episode’. He was eventually transferred to Singapore’s mental institution (called Woodbridge at the time) where a relative who worked there found him among the patients several months after our family lost contact with him.
When you look at his hands, his fingers are all bent out of shape, from a job hammering metal boxes together for 2 years. Having known all this about him, I visited one day and told him I had quit my job. He seemed surprised and asked me how much I had made there and why I had left. While trying to find the words, he furrowed his brow and asked me “辛苦吗? Xing ku ma?" Translated to English, it means "did it cause you suffering". I looked at him at a loss for words. Of all the hardships that he has been through, being put in the mental institution multiple times, living through a war, hammering mental boxes that disfigured his hands... He asked me if I had suffered. At a loss for words, humbled and feeling the weignt of that moment, I nodded and he nodded in understanding and acknowledgement “辛苦 啊辛苦. Xing Ku ah xing ku.”
Every week for 4-5 months we went to Uncle Five’s house to learn bits and pieces of history. There were so many treasures that I couldn't bear to throw away. Uncle Five’s many beautiful handmade made a particular impression on me. They were not made of the best material and would not win any awards for functionality, but in a world where everything is digital, something as imperfect as Uncle Five's boxes makes such a deep print on my soul. I felt that those pieces ought to be be displayed in a museum and his story told.
Being part of this journey in Singapore with Uncle Five has filled my heart with so many emotions I can hardly explain them all. I feel so privileged to have been part of this moment of history being passed so symbolically through the house of a hoarder to me.
We had our last session on 8 June before Uncle Five moved back home. I am glad to get my Saturdays back, but a litle afraid too because I don’t know what adventure Uncle Five will be on next and I almost feel like I might not get the chance to see him again (also because he has never been responsive to knocks or rings from door bells).
The saying goes that no man is an island, but I felt like I have visited the island where one man lives. It is still largely a mystery to me, how a baby would become a man like him on an island and I will carry these memories with me for a long time to come.
[Uncle Five passed away on 23 September 2015.]