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Andrew Loh & Deborah Choo speaks to a cardboard collector.

Gentle under the warmth of the sun

TOC’s Special Focus Week:
As Labour Day approaches on May 1st, TOC honours our elderly and senior citizens and brings you stories of them who make a living on the streets of Singapore.

Andrew Loh / Deborah Choo

South Bridge Road.

The old man parks his trolley by the side of the road as traffic rushes past him. The blistering heat in the late afternoon is relentless. He steps onto the kerb, and heads for the two trash containers put out by the nearby shops. He picks up two cardboard boxes, slits the bottoms open, and folds them. Walking back to his push-cart, he stacks them on top of the rest of the cardboards. The old man returns to the trash to look for discarded soft drink cans.

“Uncle, how are you,” Deborah says to him, apprehensive at his stern demeanour. He looks at us and seems a little bewildered. “Uncle, you’re collecting cardboards?” Deborah asks in Chinese. “Yes,” he replies. Dressed in a simple yellow t-shirt and a pair of brown shorts, his fair complexion hides his year of working on the streets of Singapore. As it turns out, the old man is very soft-spoken with gentle mannerisms. “I am 60 years old,” he tells us in his native Hokkien. We move in closer to hear him amidst the cacophony of noise from the traffic. His calloused hands, thick and rough fingers, and the lines on his face perhaps evidence of a lifetime of physical toil. “I used to work as a sweeper at Tiong Bahru market,” he says. He left because a new employer had taken over. That was a year ago. Now, he collects cardboards and sells them for 2.5 cents a kati.

He is on the streets seven to eight hours everyday, starting from 4pm. “Now prices [for cardboards] aren’t that good,” he explains. “And when it rains, I cannot collect them.” Thus he also collects drink cans to supplement his income. He ends his day at 11pm and takes a taxi home. “It costs about fifteen dollars for the trip to and from my house,” he says. We guess that he takes the taxi because he has to bring his trolley along. Our curious eyes spot a bunch of keys hanging from his belt. They’re for locking up his trolley at night, we later learned. He hopes to sell it, because it is rusty and rickety, for four or five dollars and get a new one. It will make pushing it easier, he says. That would be a great help under such scorching conditions during the day.

The old man lives in a room in a rented flat. It was recommended to him by a friend. It costs him $250 a month. Why doesn’t he rent one from the Housing and Development Board (HDB) which would be much cheaper? He explains that he has tried applying for one. But his application was rejected. “I am alone. So they say I cannot rent,” he tells us. “They say you must have a family or two people at least,” he says, indicating with his two fingers. Never married and thus has no children to depend on, he couldn’t find another person to apply with. However, he disclosed that he receives about $100 to $200 from the government through public assistance but does not want to elaborate further.

He makes a little more than $10 a day. After deducting his monthly expenses, he doesn’t have much left. He is living from hand to mouth. What if he is no longer able to fend for himself? “I will just go to the old folks’ home,” he says in a rather matter-of-fact manner. “What else can I do?”

He secures the cardboards on his trolley and prepares to move to his next collection point. He inspects the plastic bag holding the drink cans one more time to make sure everything is in place. “I have to go now,” he says. We thank him for speaking to us, as the small group of tourists and locals at the traffic lights continue to stare. “Take care, Uncle,” Andrew says to him. The old man smiles and soon he dissolves into the rest of the traffic – pushing his worn-down push cart along the streams of cars in the afternoon heat.

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