It was pure serendipity that I had a layover in Singapore. My connecting flight was cancelled, and I was free to wonder the city for a day.
I called cousin Yi Zhu, and she replied with a gleeful “I’ll pick you up at 5pm la.”
I looked out from the spire of Singapore’s three terminal airport.
An unexpected but appreciated visit to the Pearl of Asia.
The dashboard of fluorescent lights flickered across the panes of my cousin’s Mercedes, reflecting corporate brands that each fought for that second of subliminal attention. From each store, cosmopolitan scents of food from neighbouring nations delicately drifted through the air, feeding the desire to devour and consume. Men and women meandered through busy intersections, Gucci and Gabbana strapped around their wrists and waists, their eyes illuminated by the neon boulevard.
My old and frayed Billabong wrist band began to look ratty. Singapore such an extravagant cultural hub, and my homeland such a boiling, desolate island. It’s 7pm and the streets were smothered with people working, eating, shopping. At home, Briton le Sand would be abandoned, like a parody of the old Western ghost town. Compared to home, this place felt like the epitome of culture. I took my Aussie wristband off and placed it in my bag.
“We’re finally here la”, Cousin Yi Zhu jubilantly announced, “time to eat la!” She pushed open the door impatiently, where the frigid, conditioned air of the car met with the smouldering heat of Singapore streets.
We have arrived at one of the most popular “Street Food” vendors in the city. The atmosphere was vibrant and chaotic. Delicacies tallied across the room like stacked dominoes, each dish punctuated by the slurping and gulping of busy mouths.
Cousin commandeered a table. Her kids, still wearing their private school uniforms politely waited for me to be seated before taking their own places. Yi Zhu carefully laid out an arsenal of branded consumer goods; her one of a kind Birkin Bag sat unassumingly next to her iPhone, next to her LV wallet, which flanked a heavy set key ring embossed with the Mercedes logo.
There was one more person to our entourage, an older aunty who sat next to the kids. When I got in the car, I had assumed she was one of our distant relatives. Now in the proper light, I noted that she wore a coarse cotton blouse, frayed running shoes, and carried herself scarcely. Unsure of whom this was, I decided to ask my cousin.
“Which of our aunties is that?” I whispered, a little embarrassed at my faux pas.
Cousin chortled a little, almost spitting out the tea she was nursing, “Is everyone that funny in Australia”?
My brows furrowed.
She leveled a thumb right at the woman’s face, “That’s the Ai-Yi (worker), not our Yi-Ma (aunty, relative),” before smirking a little at her wordplay.
From behind us, I could see the old woman had turned away from our conversation. “Ai-Yi… as in… house servant?”
“It’s the normal thing here la,” cousin shrugged.
“Oh…” I whispered to myself. Steaming plates of food were being brought to our table. The signature dish – Henan Chicken, looked particularly appetizing. It was a carefully segregated arrangement. The greens were separated from the meat, the meat from the rice, the rest from the soup. It took all three to make the unique flavour, but each ingredient was kept distinct and separate.
I looked at the Ai-Yi, who stood silent as a lamp post. The air felt oppressive, stifling.
“Well, is she going to eat?” I inquired.
“No, she will eat at home la. We don’t have to feed them la,” Cousin replied, chewing enthusiastically through her wings.
Them. I noted.
Breathing out, I sighed boldly, “Is this even legal?”
“It’s sponsored by the government la”, she smiled innocently, “Singapore does its part by offering opportunities for poor women from our neighbours to come and work. The government takes a bond from them and keeps most of their wages for the duration of the bond. When she finishes her tenure, she can go back home rich la!”
“Oh… I see,” I responded nonchalantly. “What’s the damage for someone like her?”
“It’s about $95 Sing ($85 AUS) a week la,” Cousin replied casually, “Our Ai-Yi is very good. She doesn’t leave for holidays, weekends, or even religious festivals.”
I poke my chopstick around the food but made no real attempt to eat it. I can feel Ai-Yi’s presence before us, like a physical sentinel of my own guilt.
How long are we going to stay here? Would she continue to stand? Should I offer her a seat? Would it be more awkward if she sat with us?
Suddenly, my cousin’s voice interrupted my thoughts, “The servants can get haughty sometimes. My old one was Malay and she was lazy la. This one is Indonesian. They are less educated and have less dignity. They never say no.”
The Ai-Yi stood quietly, demure as a shadow, invisible.
The sound of hustle and bustle continued unabated, but I no longer felt hungry or enticed by the food. We returned to the car, cousin drove us around the city, and continued to explain the sights.
“This is where the largest shopping mall in Singapore is located… that over there is the new flagship store for… over there you can see the whole city la… we should go and try out the new fusion restaurant… I think that brand really suits your tastes la… “
Cousin’s voice droned on hypnotically. I rested my head against the smooth glass pane; the only barrier protecting me from this mirage-like metropolitan.
The serendipitous glee of my initial reception evaporated. The lustre of the lights now seemed grim and ghastly, shoving the façade of materialistic shop brands in my face. As we approached a traffic stop I noticed a half truck filled with anonymous brown faces in faded caps and jeans beside us. Shovels and construction equipment were clasped between their hands, both camouflaged with their black stained outfits. Their truck groaned and moaned to a stop, beckoning the night with each screechy brake, as if crying for freedom, forever trapped under the yoke of Singapore’s monolithic skyscrapers.
I began to see past Singapore’s wonders of modernity. Past the fluorescent lights, the dynamic neon, and the fashionable brands. Nothing hindered the reality of my weary faced neighbours on that truck.
Was my encounter a curse or a blessing? This was a beautiful city of unparalleled prosperity, but it was also a place of inequality and disparity. Thinking of home, I felt just how true it was that we were the ‘lucky country’. Australia might be an island nation, but no man is an island. We treat each other right, with respect and dignity. We are a country where a bricklayer can share a meal with his boss, drink the same beer and have a laugh about their kids in the same schools. I took the ratty Billabong wrist band out of my bag and put it back on. The connecting flight could not come soon enough.
Comment: A very simple story that works. Clear line of logic.
- Initial ignorance and impression
- Shocking truth and confronting encounter
- Re-examination of self and own values and interests
- New eyes and perspectives