For the past 6 years, my extended family has come together every May to celebrate Mother’s Day for my aunts and grandmother. It started out as a casual suggestion among the cousins to do something meaningful for our mothers who are also daughters and sisters. Now an annual tradition, we would pick a nice park for a late afternoon picnic. The young ones would run around chasing unsuspecting birds, ducks or pet dogs. The teenagers would stare blankly into their mobile phones, sporadically breaking into a smile or duck face. The adults would drink wine, laugh and enjoy each other’s company. (Happily, I am part of the latter.)
This year, we picked Hong Lim Park. It’s a small stretch of green in the heart of the city, at the edge of Chinatown. Today, people know it as the Speakers’ Corner, a carefully apportioned space for political manifestos yelled over loudhailers. 50 years ago, it’s where my Mother spent many happy moments with her siblings in their childhood. They grew up in the cramped shop houses of Chinatown so Hong Lim Park was a precious expanse of fresh air, complete with a playground fitted out with metal slides and a death-defying merry-go-round.
“We used to catch fish here,” said my Mother, pointing at the fountain at the corner of the park. “Your Tattoo Uncle was really good at it.” The fish were gone, as was my Uncle. Just bare blue tiles and clear water gurgling inexorably.
“On some nights when it got too hot to sleep, we would come here and look at the stars. The night sky was still dark enough then. ” she continued over the sound of traffic. Across the busy street loomed an award-winning 5-star hotel which Grandmother struggled to place in her fading memory.
Stone lasts for only a time in Singapore, where buildings get replaced and roads get laid faster than you can forget what came before. Sometimes, I look at places and see overlapping images of what it used to be. What must it be like for my Grandmother or even my Mother? What was it like growing up in Chinatown in the 50s or moving into the first few HDB blocks with the whole kampong?
It’s hard to start conversations like these and sometimes, hard for our elders to remember. So instead of a regular meal in a ubiquitous air-conditioned restaurant, this summer, go on a heritage trail with your parents. There are volunteer-run trails for Queenstown and Tiong Bahru and there is also a newly launched Roots.sg which brings together all the different heritage trails in our different neighbourhoods.
Of particular interest to me is a trail on the Samsui Women in Singapore. Beyond the caricaturised red headdress, some of these women have shaped who I am today. Mother grew up under the care of three Samsui women when Grandmother was busy working nights to support the family. Their retold stories, ways and values abide in a small way in me.
A little further off, but still on my list is Kusu Island, which my family used to make annual pilgrimages to. We would buy our tickets from the packed booths inside Clifford Pier and hop onto a bum boat waiting along the dock. Like most boys my age, I did my best to sneak onto the deck as the boat chugged along but Mother had a really firm grip. Come to think of it, I don’t think there were even life jackets. On one trip, I lugged a pink pail holding my pet terrapin which had grown too large for its cage. Maybe I might still see it there in the large pond in the middle of the island.
(Image from Wiki Commons)
The Mother’s Day celebration came to a high point when my Mother pulled out a chap teh from her bag. Despite the decades separating us, that simple childhood game brought everyone off their feet and onto the lawn. My aunts were surprisingly good at it. It was good to play like children with my family.
Six years on, our Mother’s Day gathering has a few new additions and people dearly missed. But like stone, traditions and memories can endure. Spend time, talk, take photos and create new memories.
Father’s Day is coming.