There he sits – in the warm afternoon. All alone by himself, in the courtyard at Waterloo Street. He is surrounded by several plastic bags of belongings, a cardboard which he sits on and one more which he uses to shield himself from the slight drizzle. A bottle of green-tea accompanies him.
Bare-footed and shirtless, he stretches out his arm, his hand clutching three packets of tissues, pleading with passersby to buy.
No one does.
The two temples at Waterloo Street are busy. Flower cart ladies solicit worshippers. Devotees light incense sticks and offer them to the gods. A Caucasian fortune teller tries to interest temple-goers with his service. Everyone, it seems, has something to do.
A lady stops at where the old man is. She dips her fingers into her purse, pulls out a coin, hands it to the old man and accepts the three packets of tissue papers. She walks away.
The old man places the coin carefully beside him. He mutters something to himself as he picks up a cigarette lighter. A single strike and a flame emerges. He places the tip of the cigarette to the flame and waits for it to burn. He says something as he lifts the cigarette to his lips.
I walk over to the old man.
“Uncle, how are you?” I ask.
“Alright,” he says in Hokkien.
I notice his cloudy eyes, perhaps a sign of cataracts.
“How much are these?” I pick up three packets of the tissue paper.
“Uncle, it’s going to rain.”
“If it rains I have to go. Cannot sell anymore.”
He adjusts the cardboard he holds over his head.
“You’re here everyday, Uncle?”
“No lah. I come only when it doesn’t rain.”
“Yes, I’ve seen you here many times.”
He looks at me and smiles.
“Have many people bought from you today?”
“Ya, it’s not easy to sell. Is it enough for you to get by?”
“I make about $10 each day.”
“May I ask how old you are, Uncle?”
“I am 70.”
“And you live around here?”
The drizzle becomes heavier.
“Uncle, it’s raining more now.”
“Yes, soon I have to go. You also have to go.”
“You should go. If you stay here, no one will buy from me.”
“Ok. I understand, Uncle. Please take care of yourself.”
“I’ll buy three from you, ok?”
Fortunately, the drizzle stops as the old man continues to sit in the courtyard, with the cardboard held over his head.
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.
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.
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.
Mr Loh lost most of his right leg to diabetes. For the past three years, he has been busking at Orchard Road, earning $600 to $800 a month. “There’s no fixed income”, he said. “On good days I get $150, but some days I can only get $30. Life is tough, but what else can I do?”
Before he started busking at Orchard Road, Mr Loh used to perform outside Causeway Point. “I used to play there because it was near my house. Then the SMRT people kept complaining to the police, so I had to move.” Now he commutes from Woodlands to Orchard by long train rides on the MRT.