In the spirit of a fresh new ‘Spring’ (Chun), the blawg introduces you to a few fresh perspectives from our writers, on reunions, prosperity, and even on being ‘dragon’. Alvin Teoh, Executive Creative Director of Naga DDB, writes about a group of people who are ’empty’ but who have filled his cup to the brim.
I love meeting people. All sorts of people, especially the ones no one sees. I would like to share some stuff I learnt from them.
I have always loved KL. I grew up walking the streets from the tender age of 9. I also remember growing up being chased by wild monkeys in Bukit Nanas, shop-lifting at Ampang Park, and eating thosai and being extorted by Chinese gangs in Lebuh Ampang. In fact, I also remember buying white mice at Petaling Street, sneaking peeks at transsexuals (I was curious) behind Coliseum and bargaining for 2nd hand drainpipe jeans on the sidewalks of Chow Kit. (I was later told that some of these came from the morgue.) These places in the city were my playgrounds.
In my walks over the years, I got used to seeing transsexual prostitutes, drug addicts and beggars. I got used to seeing paperless street urchins roaming the streets and little Pakistani children with no documents begging for money. And who can forget the monotonous tunes of Casio Tone keyboards banged out by blind people struggling to earn some spare change outside Globe Silk Store? Like the hideous pink mini-buses driven by part-time drug addicts, the poor were part and parcel of the sights and sounds of the city.
I would give them some spare change from time to time but that was it. I was a teenager with things to do and so, never thought of talking to them or listening to their stories, let alone learning from their wisdom (if it can even be called that). When I got older, I got trapped by the rat race, leaving me very little time to figure out where I was going in life.
Things began to change a couple of years down the road. Perhaps, I was one of the few fortunate enough to take a break to contemplate stuff. I attended a Catholic Retreat up the amazing hills of Bundu Tuhan where I experienced a spiritual awakening. I descended days later all messed up and turned inside out by a desire to know God in a deeper way. (I don’t mean to sound all holy-molly-like, cause I mess up all the time, but that’s the only way I know how to describe it.) That search for the Almighty led me to understand that God is found in people. All people. Especially the hungry, the lonely, the poor. That simple realisation, which shamefully took many years to form, led me back to the streets of KL.
I decided to join Jude Antoine, a Catholic missionary, on his street walks. Basically, the chief intention of these walks is to share what little we have with the homeless. It is not just about sharing food or clothes with them; it is sitting down with them and listening to their plight. To look at them as fellow human beings, and to look them in the eye and acknowledge them with dignity. And so we went places we never usually even thought about. We covered lanes and streets. We ducked under bridges and traversed overhead ones. And we traded food with stories.
In the beginning, I was apprehensive. What would I say? What can I say? But once I met my first homeless person, the awkwardness melted away. I shared his cardboard and the words just flowed. Every homeless person I successively spoke to told repeated stories about broken families; about being cheated by their employers – having to live in squalid conditions, deal with illnesses and accidents and pay that was less than what was originally promised; and about how they badly wanted jobs. Malays, Indians, Burmese, Bangladeshis, Chinese, Indonesians, Pakistanis, labourers, restaurant workers, prostitutes, young, old, men, women, kids and the occasional mad man – they all had similar stories to share. Some had lots say. Some were a bit more reserved. And to my surprise, some asked for prayers. So, with respect to their various religious backgrounds, we prayed to the nameless universal God.
The one incident that stuck out for me on the night of my first walk, took place at the open-air carpark lot at Kota Raya where more than 100 homeless people call home every night. There was a Malay man who got excited that I took an interest in him so he made some space on his mat and asked me to duduk with him. He told me about his early life of drugs and prison, about the shame he brought to his father and the eventual rejection by his community. He also spoke to me about Allah giving him a second chance and how he badly wanted to ‘make it’. So I asked him, “Encik punya keluarga kat mana?” I was trying to encourage him to reconcile with his dad. But his reply was not what I expected. Pointing to his ‘neighbours’ around him, he said:
“Inilah keluarga baru saya. Tak kisah orang Melayu ka, Orang Cina, India, Burma… semua orang ‘ni keluarga saya. Kita semua sama, kita semua berkongsi-kongsi apa yang kita ada…”
I was stunned. This was 1Malaysia from ground zero. It wasn’t a political slogan; it was for real. From then on, I made it a point to listen more to people like him.
Every street walk brought with it new experiences. I am reminded of another homeless person I met. An Indian man lying at the foot of the escalator of the LRT station. He could not eat the food we offered because his mouth was full of sores. But he was happy to see us, and as I bent down to speak to him, he said he wanted to bless me. So I bowed my head to receive his blessings. This was a desolate man with a rotting mouth and a leg full of open wounds. He had nothing but he wanted to bless me. I was blown away.
There was another poor man that hung out at St Anthony Church. He had lost some of his fingers through amputation. And one of his feet was missing, too. There were also open wounds under his bandages. When I met him, I sat and listened to what he had to tell me. He told me about his alcoholic past, about his wife and kids abandoning him, about his eventual peace with God. Then he told me, sternly, the two things I needed to know in life:
1. No matter how badly people treat you, smile.
2. Never, ever give up; you must always hope.
Again I was rendered into silence. Here was a homeless man with pretty much nothing but open wounds telling me to smile and hope.
The streets are full of misery but at the same time, there is also beauty, wisdom, and if I may say so, hope. That is why I bring my kids along with me from time to time. I think they need to see what is happening. To learn to be aware and to hopefully develop compassion and wisdom. Indeed, the poor have much to teach us.
In fact, these encounters have also taught me to see beauty in the downtrodden. I see beauty in the refugees who tell me about their 4-week trek through the jungles, encountering snakes, diseases and starvation just to come here to be mistreated, arrested and extorted by both the locals thugs and law enforcement officers. They organise themselves into communities and struggle to learn English, Maths and Science, struggling at the same time to avoid harassment by Rela. I sense their gratitude for the smallest form of help. I see the sacrifices they make for one another. I see how resilient they are and how they carry in them, the inextinguishable hope of returning to their beloved land one day to rebuild it from scratch.
I see beauty in the Sabahan lady who lives under a bridge, who scavenges the rubbish bins of KL to look for cheap pearls and stones people throw away, so she can re-string and sell them at Petaling Street. She is one of the countless people from East Malaysia who was cheated by her agent here. She now lives at the fringe of society and works hard for a measly wage she quickly loses again when she is robbed by what she calls ‘lanun’.
I see beauty in the old man who struggles to sell Chinese New Year cookies to patrons of restaurants who, with a dismissive wave of their hands, drive him away. (Once I bought a packet of cookies from him and asked him to keep the change. But he would not. He insisted I take another packet because he didn’t believe in handouts.)
I see beauty in their peace and their strength in the face of adversity.
All these people tell me, no, show me, that deep inside us all is this same beauty. An inextinguishable beauty that comes from our soul and which shines best when we choose to be graceful no matter the circumstances. We can choose to be ugly, of course, and make all sorts of bad decisions that dim the light. But if we can see beyond appearances, and train ourselves to look deeper, we will find it. And if we can gently show everyone around us this beauty within them, we will find it in them, too. It will surface. And when it surfaces, we are changed.
This Chinese New Year, I dare say, I am prosperous. But I am so because I have met many who have enriched me. I also carry these precious encounters with me in my ‘pocket’. So that from time to time, I can reach inside, feel them again, and remember how fortunate I am. Happy new year everyone.
(Featured image accompanying article on main page courtesy of Alvin Teoh)