The title of this essay, in English, means: “Take each day as it comes, as long as everyone is safe.” They are the words of a fortune teller in Chinatown. I call him Uncle Fortune.
A man in his seventies, Uncle Fortune sets up his makeshift stall outside the walkway of a World KTV club two or three times a week. From 12 noon to 2pm, he stands there and waits for customers at the junction between Smith Street and South Bridge Road.
His stall consists of a simple foldable table lined with a yellow-coloured cloth. The table is adorned with two statues of a Thai Buddha placed prominently in the middle against the green wall of the club. The deities’ many heads tower over the rest of the table’s ensemble: a deck of poker cards, a stack of geomancy books, a pile of 4D coupons on one side, and an incense holder on the other. Two short red stools are placed symmetrically on the floor on both sides of the table – one for himself, the other for his customer.
Uncle Fortune has been reading fortune for 30 years.
At S$3 per reading, he makes about ten dollars or slightly more each day.
“Caucasians sometimes give me S$20 per reading!” he exclaims gleefully, his straight face softening into a smile.
Any apprehension I have melts away as his gentle demeanor and honesty capture my attention. His sunken cheeks give rise to his conspicuous, protruding cheekbones. He has a high forehead, a tall sharp nose, and full, straight lips. Peeking out above the golden-rimmed tinted glasses perched on the bridge of his nose is his pair of hugely expressive eyes.
Bluish veins stand out beneath the papery skin on his thin arms. Clothed in a collar-tee with refreshing orange stripes, and baggy long pants, his bamboo-thin frame is easy to pick out from afar.
Uncle Fortune worked as a volunteer in a Thai temple in his younger days. It was there that he learnt the ways of the Buddha from the monks. And evidently, he holds the teachings close to his heart. “Everyone changes as time goes by, so does the world,” he says. “Just live simply.” He still visits the temple about two or three times a week.
In his 30 years as a fortune teller, he has seen people from all walks of life. His customers range from a police officer complaining about his superior at work, to a person dying of cancer.
“It is only when people are dying or faced with difficulties do they realize what is most important in their lives,” he says, as tourists and locals walk pass his stall. Some stop momentarily, attracted by the peculiar sight of Uncle’s small roadside set-up.
Besides telling fortunes, he also gets by with odd jobs such as delivering goods with his van. However, such opportunities are not frequent and are only ad hoc – whenever the subcontractor needs him.
Uncle Fortune’s wife works in a garment factory, earning approximately S$200 to S$300 a month. Together with what he makes through telling fortune, they have just enough to get by. His son, who is married and has his own family, does not give Uncle Fortune any monthly allowances. “He has a family of his own,” Uncle explains.
“As long as I have hands and legs, I will go and work. I don’t want to rely on the government either,” he says in Chinese.
However, Uncle Fortune has good things to say about his Member of Parliament, Dr. Lily Neo. “She fought fiercely for the increment of Public Assistance from the government,” he explains. “Because of her, they have now increased it from S$260 to S$360.”
“She is a good person, and a caring doctor,” Uncle Fortune continues. He has seen Dr Neo several times, and had consulted her at her clinic long before she entered politics in 1996. “She sometimes foregoes her fees too for poor people,” he says. “She is a good person,” he repeats. Dr Neo often pays visits the old folks on the streets in Chinatown, Uncle informs us.
Uncle Fortune strikes a philosophical tone when we spoke about life in Singapore. “Money can always be earned again,” he says. “My health and my family are more important to me. Nothing else matters.”
The KTV club’s manager arrives. “He is here now,” Uncle Fortune tells us. It is time for him to leave as the club does not allow him to be there when it opens for business at 3pm.
Uncle Fortune cringes down to his table and starts to pack up for the day. Carefully, he picks up the statues, cleans them with a cloth and gently places them in his red duffle bag. He does the same for the stack of books. He removes the half-burning incense sticks and places them on the edge of the table as he empties the incense holder. He next picks up the yellow cloth, rid it of ash from the incense sticks, folds it and stores it away.
Asked what he would do if he can no longer ply his trade on the streets, Uncle Fortune smiles and says simply, “I will go live in an old folks’ home.”
Tomorrow, Uncle returns to the same spot – hoping to make his $10 or more.
Picture from Tony Goh’s blog, unrelated to Uncle Fortune.
Gentle under the warmth of the sun
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.
A key maker and his dying trade
Turning somewhat sombre, however, Uncle laments that key making is a dying trade in Singapore. The keys produced nowadays with sophisticated technology makes it difficult for traditional key makers to reproduce.
“Some keys are made so delicate and complicated, I can’t produce them with my old machine,” Uncle bellows, adding that “it would also be too expensive to pay for the materials and machines required” if he wanted to keep up with the times.