Now it was EK’s turn to tell of her story, we looked at her with anticipation.
“Well first I walked into main area…” she began, by this time, most of the hawkers had already sold out following the lunch crowd and was packing up or preparing for the dinner rush. As EK walked past stall after stall, she gravitated towards the the kway chap stand, standing in the stall was a veteran hawker stall uncle, and he was going through the process of closing the stall.
EK walked into the Kway Chap stall saying, “Uncle, do you have anything left to eat? I need some food now.” The uncle not missing a beat replied, “Choose what you want. Never mind. Uncle is closing already.” EK looked over all the choices pensively, wondering how she was actually going to tell this uncle that she had no money. Suddenly the uncle looked up at EK and said, “Take all lah. If you cannot finish, I ta pao for you”.
EK was startled by the uncle and quickly blurted out “Uncle, I have no money to pay now. I left in a hurry and forgot my wallet”.
The uncle smiled, “Don’t worry, money is small matter. You must eat, or else wait you faint, then, big matter lor. Just choose what you want,”
Now EK felt really guilty, was she taking advantage of the kind heart of this hawker stall uncle? “Uncle, can I pay you tomorrow? Maybe or tang for one day, can?”
“Aiyah xiao jie why you so loso ah? I tell you eat means eat. Don’t worry, ok.” The uncle then started to pack all the food into takeaway containers for EK.
“Cannot be lah” I interjected.
“Look!” EK said, and started to show us the bag she was carrying, it was full of plastic containers, enough to feed all of us, and this was just the leftovers she couldn’t finish!
All four of us started this journey thinking we were going to be embarrassed or arrested. Two hours later here we all sat, giggling like school girls, marvelling that not a single one of us went hungry, we all managed to get free lunch.
The story of course does not end here.
Since we are doing a social experiment, the next day we returned to pay our bills…together.
At Soup Restaurant, as soon as the waitress saw me, she immediately recognised me, “ai yoh, why you come back? don’t need lah. Afterall, only a few dollars. I can treat you lah. Don’t ke qi lah. I don’t do this everyday. I can’t donate to charity every time but one time only, ok lah”, before shooing my friends and I out of the store leaving me no chance of saying anything.
OK, so that didn’t go as we expected. Never mind, on to Mcdonalds we go.
The manager at McDonald’s was more direct, “Hey friend, whatever was yesterday’s had been accounted for yesterday already. I cannot put the $4.75 into the cash register leh. I cannot tell my management someone didn’t pay yesterday. I’ll be out of a job. Just take it that I qing you one lah”. YS didn’t want to let it go, “I feel bad leh. Don’t mean it want lah…”. Before she could utter another word the matter was over. “You go lah. It’s getting busy already. If have yuan fen (fate), will meet again.” With that, the manager briskly returned to his work.
mmm, so it was turning out that paying for food was getting to be harder than getting free food.
Next, off we go to Ya Kun Kaya Toast, immediately the uncle at the counter recognised EL and blurted, “You here again? Want to eat what ah?” El replied, “no no, I am here to pay for my meal yesterday”. The uncle was a bit taken aback and gave her a look before carefully saying, “Aiyah, don’t need lah. Only a few dollars. Uncle paid already”. We were getting used to this response by now, so EL was ready for it, “then I pay you lah. Thanks for your kindness. I feel bad”. With that, she stuffed a $5 note into his hand and quickly walked away before giving him a chance to say anymore.
Lastly, we all went to the kway chap stall, when we approached the stall, the uncle saw the four of us and quickly said, “Today no more liao!”. EK replied, “no no, uncle. I come here to pay you money” Hawker stall uncle was ready with an answer, “You so young but so loso leh. Uncle qing ni, don’t pay money. Use the money to buy someone else a meal lah”. Noticing me he quickly pointed to me, “Buy a lunch for this xiaojie lah. maybe she has no money leh”. Well our arguments was falling on deaf ears as the uncle refused to take the money.
I’ve received a lot of responses to this story, a lot of people don’t believe, or they don’t want to believe, a lot of people are outraged that we dared to do such a thing. Why?
At the heart of it, this is not a story about McDonalds or Ya Kun or Soup Restaurant. It’s not even just about the people working there, this could be a story about any Singaporean. We are very rarely confronted by strangers who need help. In fact, it is our culture to not air the dirty laundry outside the family. Very rarely will we ask any stranger for help. Why?
Maybe it’s because we always expect the worse out of people, out of our fellow Singaporeans, we never put ourselves out there because we expect no one to help us. Maybe we don’t want to lose face.
We are bombarded in the media about the ungraciousness and uncompassion of Singaporeans, and god knows I’ve written plenty of articles on this blog about it.
For one afternoon, four Singaporean women voluntarily put themselves a teeny little bit over that line of vulnerability, we confronted the individuals working at these places and asked them directly for help. I am certain that none of them have ever faced this situation before. After some initial hesitation, all helped unconditionally and enthusiastically, in fact they displayed brave initiative(yes, initiative!) in the face of uncertain corporate guidelines. And when we visited them one day later, they were all adamant that they did not want the money, most likely because it would cheapen the meaning of what they did.
Strangers helping strangers, a strange concept, an experiment, and what did we find?…to depend on the the goodness and kindness of strangers…
Singapore, there is hope yet.