THE old lady who sold fried beehoon at the condo where I live did not come by the last two weeks. She used to make her way up the staircase as I was about to leave for work every morning. She appeared to be in her 70s, had a hunch and walked with a limp, possibly because of painful joints.
Once, as I was descending the staircase, she asked if I wanted to buy fried beehoon for breakfast. She had less than 10 packets in her blue plastic basket. I said I had just had my breakfast, perhaps another time. I felt guilty afterwards and thought I should have bought a packet so that her effort would not be futile.
Later, when I related the story to my neighbour, I found out more about the beehoon lady.
Her husband was the rag and bone man who used to come to our condo to collect old newspapers. He was also in his 70s, pint-sized but strong as an ox. He could lift thick bundles of old newspapers and walk down 10 flights of stairs to his trishaw as many times as he needed to fill up his day's load.
Although many surat khabar lama (old newspapers) buyers called at our condo, my wife always kept our pile for the rag and bone man -- even if we had to wait for weeks or even months before he came knocking at our doors. My wife chose to only sell old papers to Ah Pek (as we had fondly called him) because she reasoned that if he had to work at such an age, he must have needed the money.
I once asked Ah Pek if he had any children. He said his children were all grown up and were leading their own lives. I asked why he was still working at his age. He told me it was easier to live on his own income. I did not know the beehoon lady was his wife until my friend Simon told me about her.
Last year, I received news that the rag and bone man had died. I recall now that it was about that time that the beehoon lady began making her rounds in our neighbourhood. I asked Simon it was appropriate to give her some money the next time I met her, if I did not buy her beehoon. Simon told me not to or risk incurring her wrath.
"She does not take handouts," he said.
"If you give her money instead of buying her beehoon, she would take it that you are treating her like a beggar. For insulting her dignity, you even might get a scolding."
I wonder why I did not see the beehoon lady these two weeks. Perhaps she has found better business in other neighbourhoods and therefore did not need to sell her beehoon at our condo anymore. I pray that she is in good health.
It is not often you meet and learn about people like the beehoon lady or her husband unless you make an effort to find out about their lives. They may be a stark reminder of what's left of filial piety and what growing old meant if your children did not take care of you.
But to me, their spirit to continue living without being a burden to others is an inspiration.
People who take pride in hard work and the dignity of being independent are a rare breed these days - just as those who are honest and have integrity.