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One day in Chinatown, I come across an unassuming tissue paper seller sitting outside People’s Park Complex. I observe as people pass him by, going about their daily lives. Those who speak to him only stop to buy tissues, carrying on with their journey after exchanging cash and pleasantries.

Curiosity gets the better of me, and I approach him to strike up a conversation.

His name is Goh Soon Kiang, and he is 70 years old. Friends called him Ah Goh. It doesn’t take him long to warm up, and as we talk, I find myself engrossed by the stories of his life. 

Eventually, he invites me to his home.

Ah Goh’s home has seen better days. Its aged walls and old furniture are a throwback to the 80s. Except for the altar table, bags of paraphernalia clutter the tables, chairs and the floor.

There’s a silent melancholy to the place, punctuated by the distant rumble of urban life and the occasional train.

I wait as Ah Goh finishes with the household chores, which he does himself every day.

The kitchen in Ah Goh's home is cluttered with many things.
Getting ready for work.
A child's chair is a reminder of happier times.
Once a dashing young man, Ah Goh has been nearly blind ever since he left the maritime industry. But this hasn’t stopped him from living life. He trained under the Singapore Association for the Blind as a masseur and eventually passed enough classes to get a full time job in 1999.

The household chores were once taken care of by his wife, Madam Ong Kim Suan. Ah Goh affectionately describes her as an intelligent woman with long, beautiful, flowing hair. He reminisces about the touch of her skin, fair and smooth like silk. “She is truly beautiful,” he says repeatedly throughout the day.

Today, Madam Ong, who is now 65, lives in a nursing home. After being diagnosed with diabetes, she experienced a fall which resulted in a stroke that impaired her speech and left her wheelchair bound.

Still, he keeps her within sight – photos of the couple in their younger days line his home and fill his photo albums.  

Ah Goh can only see things which are within "kissing distance" of his eyes.
Photographs of Ah Goh's family are scattered across the walls.
His daughter's room. Madam Ong used to sleep here too.
A wedding portrait of Ah Goh and Madam Ong taken in 1988.
A younger Madam Ong, who Ah Goh affectionally describes as a beautiful lady with smooth fair skin and long hair.
But life hasn’t been kind to Ah Goh.

Family disputes have left him estranged from his wife’s side of the family. He is also at odds with his 25 year-old daughter whom he has accused of stealing his money, and often fights with her over her education and career decisions. 

“I’m in a difficult position, I have to pay for so many things! Everything that I need for the house, for my own and for my wife are either stolen away by my daughter or spent on bills,” he laments in Chinese.

It doesn’t help that a burglary in the past eradicated most of his family’s savings.

“Sometimes I think of it till I cry, ” he adds.

"Sometimes I think of it till I cry. "
Ah Goh at his usual spot at People's Park Complex.
A few times a year, he receives a little help from his own family and relatives. He also gets monthly payouts from various government schemes and assistance from social services. But this is insufficient as he still struggles to make ends meet.

Nevertheless, Ah Goh trudges on.

On top of selling tissues, he holds a part-time job as a foot masseur on weekends. But due to his age, he finds it difficult to keep up with the physical challenges of the job. He thus needs to continue selling tissue paper to survive. 

“What else can I do? No one wants to hire an old man with eyesight problems,” he says, en route to his usual hawking spot.

“There are really good people that buys from me tissues, giving me more and refusing to accept change,” he recounts appreciatively. 

Ah Goh never fails to buy all of Madam Ong's favourite food.
While Ah Goh’s struggles are sad, they are not unfamiliar. We often hear stories of elderly people suffering from family disputes or financial difficulties (sometimes both), and are forced to work in jobs that are detrimental to both their physical and mental health.   

Ah Goh is no different. But at the same time, he isn’t just working to survive. After spending some time with him, I discover that he just wants to support his wife so that they can live together again. 

En route to the nursing home.
Madam Ong.
At present, they only see each other once a week.

On Thursdays, he stops work in the late afternoon, taking a short break before buying her favourite food at the nearby hawker centre. Then, he takes an hour-long bus ride to her nursing home.

When I finally meet Madam Ong, she no longer resembles her husband’s memory.

Bound to a wheelchair, much has changed about her; the once long, black and flowy hair is now short and frayed with age. Her skin, while still fair, has taken on a sickly tint. 

The most prominent change, however, lies in Ah Goh’s emotions. Around the woman he does everything for, he talks a lot more, and his laughs are full and deep-bellied.

“You must be better! You must learn how to walk again, our home cannot support the wheelchair,” Ah Goh says encouragingly.

But his words are met with a blank stare.

Due to Ah Goh’s poor eyesight and Madam Ong’s need for special medical attention, much of the couple’s interactions take place within the grounds of the elderly centre. During our visit, I observe as he massages her, and brings her out to the rooftop garden.

With what he can, he tries to look after her.

Perhaps Ah Goh is simply a man fighting to turn back time. He wants to take care of his wife, and he desires nothing more than to fulfill his duties as a husband. But at the same time, he might not be able to do so.

His wife’s speech impairment and memory loss is a struggle for him to understand. As desperately as he tries to make her feel comfortable, nothing seems to be improving.

And then there’s the stress of making ends meet. The fact that he doesn’t have a good relationship with his daughter only serves to make things worse. 

Madam Ong gets uncomfortable as Ah Goh fails to understand her discomfort.
Ah Goh attempts to comfort Madam Ong through massages.
For Ah Goh, the future seems bleak.

But he loves his wife. She has become his safe harbour, a refuge from his problems.

Soon, Ah Goh will make the trip back to the four walls of his home. But for the next hour at least, his heart is no longer heavy.

"It's always best for couples to be together" - Ah Goh
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