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Samsui interview: My dad, my secret weapon

January 3, 2014 - 12:22pm


Madam Ng Moey Chye, one of the last two samsui women in Singapore. TNP PICTURE: Ariffin Jamar
A journalist has a number of resources to hand in helping bring the news to you. Some within the industry, some outside.
For a recent interview, The New Paper on Sunday's Benita Aw Yeong brought in a very special specialist...
Countries like the US have “bring your kids to work” day. Me, I brought my dad to work on Monday. 
The brief from my boss was to track down the few remaining samsui women in Singapore, and interview them. After all, they are a dying breed. 
So after doing some homework, I found out that one, Madam Ng Moey Chye, was living at Redhill Close, where many other Samsui women used to live. 
I went down to her block’s void deck one Saturday morning, hoping to get a glimpse of her at a charity group’s food distribution event. 
Madam Ng was not easy to get hold of. No mobile phone, no land line. The only way was to get in touch was to meet her in person. 
I spotted the slight, grey-haired woman pushing a trolley for groceries. She was slightly hunched over, but cheerful. 
“Auntie, have you eaten?” was all it took for the warm and friendly woman to open up, chattering in a smattering of Mandarin and Cantonese. 
It soon became clear that the latter was the language she felt most comfortable speaking. It was also, despite being Cantonese,the language I had limited grasp of. 
Both my paternal and maternal grandparents can speak Mandarin. The former, who is Teochew, had a major hand in bringing me up so I never really needed to learn my dialects. 
And no, I’m not proud of it :/
Madam Ng jokingly chided me for my rudimentary level of Cantonese the first time I met her. 
I knew there was no way I could conduct a proper interview without being able to fully understand the phrases she used.
Nor could I express the questions I needed to ask. 
So when I returned for the second visit, I brought my dad along. He was on leave on the day, and readily agreed to help me out. I am, after all, the only daughter and elder child ;) 
To say my father knew best is no understatement. I brought a bunch of groceries for the old woman. My loot included hong kong cai sim (which she remarked that she liked previously), a bottle of honey, some bars of soap, and other items. 
My dad brought just one tiny bottle of preserved beancurd (fu yu), but it made all the difference. 
He make an extra journey to buy it that morning, after he looked at my grocery-filled bag, somewhat unimpressed at its contents. 
When presented, the groceries were received with a polite word of thanks, but Madam Ng’s face lit up when she saw my dad’s gift.
And so it began. 
With the three of us seated on second-hand plastic and steel stools in a quiet and breezy corridor of Madam Ng’s one room rental flat.  
One by one, I recited the questions I prepared. My dad translated them to Madam Ng without skipping a beat. 
I understood most of her responses – also in Cantonese – but needed his help when it came to specific phrases she used, such as “coolie quarters”, “bomb shelter”, or “beach road”. 
My dad did great. 
Well, aside from a brief moment of impatience when he turned to me to ask what I was really looking for in my article. Madam Ng’s answers did tend to meander.
But he was invaluable help in that hour-long interview. He may even have a second career option.
A salesman in the shipping industry by profession, he was charming, warm, nodded as she spoke and fielded follow up questions. It all seemed like it was second nature to him. 
And at the end of our visit, he even gave her a little red packet. 
“When you give old people money, you must put it in an hongbao, otherwise they get a little offended,” he cautioned me. 
Good advice then. Fu Yu and hongbao saved the day. 
When the interview wrapped, I treated him to dim sum at a traditional restaurant in Chinatown. The food wasn’t fantastic, but the time spent working together? Priceless.
For the full interview, read The New Paper on Sunday ( Jan 5)
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