Uncle Five Part I | Singapore

Uncle Five is very close to my heart though he isn't the greatest communicator. These photostories were my way of understanding him better, piecing together snippets of oral history through present day images.

This is part one of a journey of discovery that was written on December 2011 in Singapore.

This is my Uncle Five. He is my grandmother's brother and the oldest of seven siblings. No one knows why his name is Five, but it has always been that way.

He rides his bike everywhere, wary of spending unnecessary money on public transit. Every sunday for the last few years, he would ride his bike to our house carrying everything from oranges to a full length mirror and a thick wooden single seater couch. We would sometimes watch dumfounded as he unloaded the furniture at our gate, hanging bags of expired food where he could find space, oblivious to our presence.

He was 19 when the Japanese invaded Singapore. He went from working at his parents' bakery to being a coolie for the soldiers. He always had a heart to help people and left school after Primary 5 to support his family. The story goes that after he was tortured by the Japanese, he was never the same again.

Uncle Five 1-4.jpg

As far as everyone knows, Uncle Five has been to Woodbridge three times. Rumours in the early days were that every patient who was admitted would have been greeted with excruciating electroshock therapy, regardless of the diagnosis. So now, when he goes for radiation treatment for prostate cancer, not only does he feel nothing, but he asks why wires aren't being attached to him.

Uncle Five 1-5.jpg

The first time Uncle Five was admitted, it was because he grabbed the neighbours daughter and held her tight. He fancied her and didn't know how to express himself. She screamed for help and by the time my father and his siblings came around, Uncle Five was having the daylights kicked out of him by her family. My father and his siblings, who were children at the time, had to drag him away. To keep him from jail, his brother, Uncle Nine, admitted him to Woodbridge instead.

Uncle Five's mother was a formidable matriarch. She protected her flock with a firm hand and disciplined unapologetically. She was also a diabetic. In her old age, when her body began loosing its strength, she collapsed one day and became paralysed from the neck down. A relative who was not so fond of her, saw the incident as an opportunity and tried to suffocate her in the middle of the night. She didn't succeed. The whole incident created such a stir that the police was called in. To protect the family, Uncle Five took the rap for the incident and was admitted to Woodbridge again.

When Uncle Five was younger, there were days where he'd lock himself in his room, coming out only when my father and his cousins were making a racket outside. My father said that Uncle Five was a terror, that one time, his cousin had a hammer thrown at him barely missing his head. They all learnt to be careful around Uncle Five.

Uncle Five has worked at sea for over 20 years as a steward. He has travelled all over the world including places like Italy, South Africa, and Canada. He would often disappear at sea and come back home randomly. He never seemed to have all his bearings, but he always knew his way home.

Uncle Five 1-9.jpg

He also loved to fix things for people. That was and still is his love language. My aunt laughs when she tells the story about how as kids, they would wear out their shoes and wouldn't be able to afford new ones. At night, Uncle Five would thoughtfully cobble heavy rubber soles to their shoes so in the morning to their horror, they had to go to school with weights at their feet.

Uncle Five 1-10.jpg

He lives frugally and conscientiously, living by the motto that what you don't give away to family, you sell

Uncle Five loved to collect vases in his travels at sea. He used to have vases of all shapes and sizes in his room. They were so beautiful that a relative would often pop in when he wasn't home to take a few vases for herself. Annoyed, Uncle Five glued thick blocks of wood to the bottom of the vases so the next time she came in, they couldn't be moved.

Uncle Five 1-12.jpg

This is my Uncle Five. He is 85 and still rides his bike around better than I ever could. He loves to drink Soy Bean Milk and eat green bean soup.