Ah Lau had an old grandmother that lived with his family in the flat above ours. She was a wizened old woman with hoary hair and she wobbled when she walked. She always wore a black cheong-sam. And she had a benign face, one of those faces that tell a story about the person behind that face. Ah Lau’s grandmother was at peace with the world, and I think her life had been a good one.
Ah Lau’s grandmother was a hawker. At about four every afternoon, she would set up her store near the main road where the big shops were. She would put up a small wooden table around which she would place a few wooden stools. She would then squat next to a large black pot, stirring a mysterious noodle soup whose secret recipe only she knew. For Ah Lau's grandmother’s noodle soup, which we bought for 5 cents, was probably one of the most wonderful things that this world has ever tasted! I don’t know how she concocted this exquisite culinary miracle, nor did I care. Sitting around the low table, we kids happily slurped away the contents in those small bowls that never seemed to contain enough. It was our 5 cents worth of paradise.
After my family moved away from my childhood neighbourhood, I never saw Ah Lau or his grandmother again. But, over the years, I used to think about them. Both Ah Lau and his grandmother, one very young, the other very old, had the imagination and the courage to do something that would never have occurred to me. They were earning their own pocket-money. They were being independent. They were not being a burden to anyone.
To be independent. Not being a burden to anyone. To be Yourself. How wonderful! But it took me a long time to learn the lesson, to be fully aware that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, that no one owes you anything. It took me a long time to wean myself of my family, to shake off the warm shackles of friendship, to ignore the condescending crumbs thrown by the State. But the seeds were sown, I now know, many years earlier, when my friend Ah Lau transformed grasshoppers into a sellable commodity and his grandmother sold her wonderful noodle soup in a little street in Singapore.