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Catherine Lim

Those little
ironies of life

I used to see many of them - now there do not appear to be many anymore - old women in their faded black long-sleeved cotton blouses and loose pants, sitting patiently behind little wooden trestles on which they had set up their wares - small bottles of sweets, packets of dried ginger and plums, cigarettes in loose sticks of five or six stuck in a little tin.

And there was the inevitable lit joss-stick standing in a tin in front of the meagre wares, a reminder to the gods that they were to be kind to these old women and give them good business. Sitting behind their trestles by the side of the passageways in front of shops and houses, and largely ignored by the flow of people shopping and going about their business in the city, they became a separate, pathetic little world unto themselves. 

Only occasionally was their existence acknowledged - by a hurrying pedestrian in need of a quick smoke, by a child who wanted a sweet or some dried plums. But by and large, they were forgotten in the pitiless hustle of city life, for with the modern shops which sold everything, who would want to buy the pitiably inadequate wares of an old woman?

And so she sat, tired and forlorn, waiting all day, and the large pocket inside her blouse was without the little coins she had dreamed would fill it. In her old age she wept easily, and so she shed tears over the sweets and small biscuits going soft and sticky for want of anybody to buy them. She put a larger joss-stick in the tin, her lips moving desolately in prayer, imploring the great goddess Kuan Yin to have mercy on her, an old woman of sixty, alone in the world. She had never married and therefore had no children to take care of her in her old age. There would be no one to offer prayers for her after her death.

And now death appeared as a desirable way out of her misery and bitterness. "Kuan Yin, Most Merciful Goddess, come and take me away to Heaven to live with you forever".

Her prayer was answered! That night she had a dream in which she saw the Goddess Kuan Yin - how beautiful she was - slowly come down from heaven to her. And Kuan Yin told her, "My daughter, your prayer is heard. You are a pure soul. Get ready to come with me on the seventh day. I shall make you one of my fourteen handmaidens in heaven".

When she awoke, the tears of joy were still in her eyes, and recollecting the dream in all its vividness of detail, she wept afresh. She began to prepare for Kuan Yin's coming for her in seven days as the goddess had promised. First she went to the temple to cleanse herself and offer fruits and scented flowers. Then she went to the rusty biscuit tin that she kept by her side all day, counted the notes and coins inside and found she had enough for a coffin. She had the coffin placed upwards, leaning against the wall of the unused space of the tenement house in which she shared a room with many other old people, so that when placed in the coffin in death her body would point heavenwards.

The word spread rapidly - first through the tenement house, then the neighbourhood, then even the country through the newspapers eager for news - of an old woman named Chow Ah Sum, aged sixty, who had had a vision of the Goddess of Mercy, Kuan Yin, and had been promised that she would die on a specified day, at a specified time, and thence be taken to heaven. A coffin was ready, the old woman sat near it day and night, ready for her appointment with death.

The crowds came, the young out of curiosity and cynicism, the old out of a touching reconciliation with the notion of death. The old woman's unshakeable faith in the truth of her dream had the effect of reducing the large crowds who came to a state of awed silence; even the young hoodlums, in their fancy clothes and tattooed arms, merely gaped. There were two reporters there, rather pleased with the unusual nature of the event, taking quick notes and photographs, but the old woman sat still and impassive through it all, as if there were nobody around, for she was waiting, waiting for the first signs of the coming of the goddess Kuan Yin for her.

Only one more day and she would be free and happy at last! The suspense was great - the more imaginative asked among themselves whether Chow Ah Sum would be lifted bodily to heaven by the goddess? On that much-awaited day, the telephone board in the national newspaper office was actually jammed with calls from the public, anxiously asking whether the old woman was dead?

She wasn't. The evening of the same day, she wept in disappointment and bitterly complained that the goddess Kuan Yin could not have kept her promise because the atmosphere was not pure - how many impure, unchaste people were there, surrounding her and her coffin! Chow Ah Sum pleaded with them to leave her alone, to let her die in peace.

Then the news spread again. On the day that the goddess Kuan Yin was to appear, something miraculous had happened. A strange, wonderful plant had suddenly burst into bloom on a small piece of waste land behind the house. Some said the flower was as big as a man's head, others that it gave a lovely scent. Nobody of course was interested in the botanical name that was used for it in the papers (a young, enthusiastic reporter had done some quick research), or in the information that it was a rare tropical variety, probably first brought over from South America, that it seldom flowered and when it did, its petals were light purple, bulbous, and so on. What was infinitely more interesting was that the old woman claimed that the flower was a sign from heaven for her - a sign that the goddess Kuan Yin had decreed that she remained on earth longer, to do good deeds among the people. The good deeds were quickly attested to and described, and the news spread in a fever of excitement and wonder. 

Chow Ah Sum was working miracles, by the power of the goddess Kuan Yin! She could cure the sick - a woman claimed that she felt much better after drinking the water into which Chow Ah Sum had dropped the ashes from a piece of prayer-writing. Another woman whom she muttered prayers over exclaimed that she was cured of her disease!

And so the crowds came. Chow Ah Sum sat cross-legged on a mat with the altar of the goddess Kuan Yin beside her, surrounded by joss-sticks. In front of her was the rusty biscuit tin into which grateful devotees could drop their tokens of appreciation. And the biscuit tin was filling up nicely. Chow Ah Sum, her eyes closed and her lips moving in trance-like prayer, was happy at last

Source: New English Digest (Heinemann Southeast Asia)


trestles: frameworks or wooden structures used to support boards (caballetes)
set up: arranged, placed (distribuido, ubicado)
wares: articles offered for sale (artículos en venta)
: oval smooth-skinned fruits with a single hard stone (ciruelas)
joss-stick: a slender stick of incense burned before a joss (Chinese God) (sahumerio)
meagre: defficient in amount or quality (escasos)
hustle: hurry, rush, rapid commotion of people (apuro)
forlorn: desolate (desolada)
wept: cried with sadness or pain (lloraba)
handmaidens: personal maids or servants (damas de compañía)
notes: paper money (billetes)
coffin: wooden structure where a dead body is kept (féretro)
tenement house: apartment house barely meeting minimal standards (conventillo, casa de inquilinato)

heavenwards: toward heaven, in the direction of heaven (hacia el Cielo)
thence: from that place, from there (desde allí)
awed: feeling of mixed reverence and respect  (respetuoso)
hoodlums: aggressive young criminals (pillos, tunantes, rufianes)
gaped: looked with amazement (miraban atónitos)
jammed: filled to capacity (saturado)
unchaste: impure, not morally pure (sin castidad)
burst into bloom: produced flowers (floreció)
decreed: decided (decidido, decretado)
good deeds: moral or religious acts (buenas acciones)
ashes: residue after burning (cenizas)
muttered: talked in a very low voice (murmuraba)
mat: small carpet (felpudo)
tokens of appreciation: symbols of love
(muestras de aprecio o cariño)