He buys 4D tickets

Leong Kwai Wah, 80

He has lived alone for the past 20 years, has no children, has had several medical-related scares, yet has no trouble finding the silver lining in life

For an apartment belonging to an elderly gentleman who lives on his own, Leong’s flat is surprisingly spotless. It is well-lit, ventilated, and relatively tidy (apart from some clothes strewn on the floor). It does, however, have a few oddities. Hanging on a wall, next to a few brightly-colored Chinese New Year decorations from earlier this year, are multiple tear-out calendars. Even more curious, they all display different months. When I ask him about it, he just gesticulates with his hands and laughs off the question. On the doorway to his room hangs a clunky metal clip holding a fat stack of old 4D tickets. Again, Leong chuckles to himself sheepishly when I ask about them. This time, however, he affords that apart from playing rummy at the activity centre, he dabbles in 4D to pass time and keep his mind firing on all cylinders. He isn’t kidding. Nearby I find a small notebook containing hundreds of meticulously handwritten number permutations.

While an old tower fan whirs loudly in the corner of the room, the 80-year-old sits back on a modest settee and talks to me in Cantonese about his life. Born in Perak, Malaysia, Leong is the third of four children and was only educated until Primary 6 before having to take on a job as a grocer’s assistant. 

It was back-breaking work but he toiled away at his job for 15 hours a day, for over a decade. Times were rough and his family really needed the money so he could only afford to take a day off each week. After that stint, Leong had great difficulty finding a job, so he took the plunge and relocated to Singapore. With a slight sadness in his eyes, he shares that it wasn’t easy being away from everything he knew and everyone he loved, but he didn’t have a choice. Leong hasn’t seen his family since.

Love, life, and loss

According to the information provided to me, the mirthful gentleman never married, and as we continue speaking I find myself genuinely surprised at this. Having lived through an era where most individuals married young and had big families, I wondered why Leong was an exception, so I ask if he has ever been in love. This causes the perpetual smile on his face grow wider. He then nods and says, “Yes, of course!”.

She was the only girlfriend he has ever had, and he loved her fiercely. In the corner of my eye I see a yellowing photograph in an old-fashioned display cabinet. Upon further inspection I realise it’s of a young couple, laughing heartily, seemingly at an inside joke. “That was taken while we were on a tour in Hong Kong. It was the happiest time of my life”, Leong says with a hint of sadness. 

Later I learn that his sweetheart took ill and passed away over 20 years ago. When I ask why they never got married, he shrugs and tells me that it just never came up. “We were happy living together the way we were, so why change anything?”

Last year, Leong himself fell ill. There were some complications with his prostate, and doctors suspected it was cancer. Even this didn’t take the wind out of his sails. His healthcare providers were surprised at his positivity even when faced with such a terrible ailment. Attitude, is what he believes helps him get through the day. “Of course, some days I feel sad. Most of the time, however, I take life in my stride”.

Candidly, Leong also shares that it helps that he is ready to die. If it were possible, he would like to see a little more of the world. Otherwise, he is content with the life he has led. Until it is time for him to take his leave of this mortal world, this smiling senior will keep himself occupied with rummy and 4D.

He wonders where she is

Silva Kumaran, 64

He is a man with a cheery disposition, but his shoulders carry the unmistakable weight of regret

As we step into Kumaran’s cluttered one-room apartment, he asks if this interview is going to take long. Before I can reply, he quips that even though he’s retired, he’s still a busy man with many things to do.

I look around and quickly sum up that he is a collector. There are knick-knacks, big and small, scattered throughout the flat. There are hundreds of phone cards on his desk, some I recognise from my own childhood. One thing that sticks out like a sore thumb, however, is a discolored poster of a half-naked couple embracing. Sensing there is a story behind it, I ask. He shakes his head and laughs, “Believe it or not, that was actually an advertisement for Lois Jeans from back in the day.
I used to work in one of its warehouses and this is just a keepsake.”

Kumaran goes on to tell me that after leaving his job at the warehouse he became a personal driver for a CEO of a company. He held that position until he retired ten years ago. He now lives off whatever savings and CPF he has accumulated over the years. It’s not much, but he gets by.

On the wall there are two photographs, both of a young girl smiling gleefully behind a birthday cake. I ask if she is his daughter, and immediately, his eyes well up. He mutters something indiscernible, his voice cracking. He takes a moment to gather himself before confirming that it is indeed his daughter. Kumaran and his wife split up soon after she was born. His wife left because she was unhappy with the many hours he spent at work. His brow is furrowed in frustration, but you can tell he carries the weight of guilt too.

Tears start streaming as he tells me he hasn’t seen his daughter in years. He tells me it is the single biggest regret he harbours in life. She is a nurse now, he tells me, but is unsure if he’ll ever see her again. A certain sense of heaviness fills the room as we sit silently in the apartment that is so full, yet so empty.

This story was first published in the November ’16 issue of AUGUSTMAN. Read the rest of the story here.

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