Singapore has a rapidly aging population. James is 65, he could barely recognise the country he was born in anymore. Nobody cares about old men loitering in the coffee shop. Bullied, picked upon, and laughed at by today’s youth, old men like James are like a relic waiting to rust away in a quiet corner of Singapore.
This is a heartwarming tale of resilience, James joins forces with his neighbors, united by a common purpose. Together, they embarked on an absurd mission to defend their homes from black hearted developers intent on demolishing their apartment building for redevelopment. In a world that often overlooks the elderly, this piece is about the indomitable spirit of James and his neighbors as they fight to protect their cherished memories and the bonds that tie them together.
They may be old men, but their minds and wits are still sharp. The developer has all the resources, he has the manpower, the money and the connection. They will stop at nothing, even resorting to blackmail.
James and his neighbours on the other hand, well, they’re old, some of their spouses have passed on, they have various ailments plaguing their bodies. They tried to be tolerant, hoping the developer will give up.
However, when a neighbor’s granddaugher was brutally assaulted, with her naked pictures and videos taken as a form of blackmail, the neighbors decided enough is enough.
Led by James, the elderly of that estate struck back. They may be old, but they are not senile and everyone have a few tricks up their sleeves. James, on the other hand, has something more than petty tricks.
This is a 3 part series
James opened his eyes at 4.30am. He didn’t need an alarm clock, his body will wake up on it’s own. He turned his aching back and sat up from the bed.
He shuffled over to the old school calender and tore a page off the front, revealing the date for a new day.
Using the torn piece of calender, he struck a match and lit it, with the burning piece of paper, he used it to fire up his gas stove.
James put the kettle on to boil and poured some coffee beans into his hand grinder. It’s pretty much the exercise he does these days. Tipping fragrant coffee powder into a french press, he made himself a cup of coffee.
Breakfast is a slice of white bread and peanut butter.
The house on the 2nd floor of a shophouse is where James and Julie call home for the past couple of years. They owned the place for decades but have been renting it out all these while. When the tenant decided to go back to his own country, James and Julie decides to sell their flat and move into the shophouse for their retirement.
He sat on the creaking chair and looked around his kitchen. The old peeling paint in the ceiling, the dated tiles on the kitchen, then to the array of old tupperware containers that his wife used to fill with different items. He tried to keep everything the same way it was when his wife passed but it’s hard to get them to the level of tidiness Julie maintained.
Even if James managed to get everything lined up at it’s usual spot, something still feels off. Something is still missing and it irks him terribly.
He sipped his black coffee and walked along the display cupboard with held all the travel memorabilia he bought in his younger days. Those were happier times, life was simple. You work hard, save up to travel, and he looked forward to retirement with his wife.
He never expect his wife to pass on ahead of him. It happened without warning. It’s not illness, not an accident, her time was just up. Julie passed away in her sleep beside James, and he didn’t even realised it.
She just went to bed, and never got up the next morning.
James looked at the faded portrait of his deceased wife sitting at the cupboard and asked if she had her breakfast.
James : You eat already? Eat something la, always don’t want to eat.
He paused and imagined himself bantering with Julie.
James : Lose weight? for what? You going to join beauty pageant ah? hahah.
James chuckled as he munched on his bread, washing it down with another sip of his black coffee. Julie was a beauty pageant winner back in her university days, and James was literally drooling at the bottom of the stage while staring at her.
There was a commotion on the small road. There was the screech of car tyres. Then James heard some shouts. Before he could put on his old man white singlet, he heard a deep boom and the angry orange flames of a kerosene induced fire erupted.
The neighbours shouted and lights came on in several units.
James shuffled towards the window, looking down from level 2. The incense burner and the grass patch around it is on fire.
James : Damm those developers!
James put on his pants and he took a while to put the key into the padlock due to his deteriorating eyesight.
His neighbour, Ah Kiao, a lady in her seventies opened her door at the same time.
Kiao : James ah. Fire! got Fire!
James : I know, i know.
James held onto the railings and went down the stairs as fast as his old joints will allow.
James : argnhhhh!
He almost tripped over Kiao’s grand daughter who was dead drunk at the bottom of the stairs.
James : Kate ah! What you doing here!
Kate is Kiao’s grand daughter, in her mid twenties. She is wearing a black tube top and an ultra short leather skirt with ankle boots. Her dark hair is pulled up in a messy bun and make-up smudged all over her face, giving her a sexy yet comical look. She reeked of alcohol and was holding onto the stair railings to keep herself upright while swaying on her butt.
Kate : errrrrrh…erghhhh…
James : Haiyah! don’t block me!
Kate decided to throw up and James barely got out of her way when she painted the 1st few steps of the narrow stairway with her concoction of supper and alcohol.
Other neighbours have arrived at the scene. There are 7 units of shophouses along that stretch of prime property that developers are eyeing. An old clinic owned by Dr Cheong and his wife, Sanitary hardware shop operated by Ah Ong since the development was built. Coffee shop and eatery is run by Ah Pui and son, Ah Poh. Provision shop is run by James, the hair salon belongs to Ah Kiao and her granddaugher Kate helps out occasionally.
Then comes the tuition centre run by a retired teacher, Sam, and the last shop is the newest tenant on the block. A legal money lender and debt collector, Benson.
Every tenant of the shops stays on the 2nd level of the shophouse and that row of commercial shops serves a landed enclave in Bedok. The 50 year old shophouses sticks out like a sore thumb among the bungalows that have been developed in recent years.
Dr Cheong, who is same age as James struggled to remove the safety pin of the fire extinguisher, while Ah Pui and Ah Poh came running with a red pail of water.
Ah Ong too brought out a small pail of water but he dropped it all at the front of his shop, spilling water all along the five foot way.
James helped Cheong remove the pin and the two old man emptied the canister but the fire continued to burn. The fire has spread to a stack of cardboards and wooden boxes nearby and while the pails of water helped slow the spread, it did nothing to stop the fire engulfing a nearby bin.
The serenity of the neighbourhood was punctured by the sound of sirens as a SCDF fast response vehicle came racing into the neighbourhood. It put out the fire within minutes.
By then , all the neighbours are up, police vehicles arrived at the scene for the 3rd time that month.
James looked at the burnt bin then at the splashes of paint on the roller shutters of his provision shop. People not in the know might think he owes money to loansharks.
He had only taken over the provision shop after retirement, with no experience running a business, he was making enough from regulars just to keep it afloat. However with the damages from the vandals, he has to dip into his savings to try and fix the paint job. It’s not like he could not live with some paint splashes, James knew his deceased wife will not like seeing their provision shop in such a state. That is why he chose to fix it every time it was vandalized.
As James caught his breath, a car with it’s windows rolled down drove past the estate slowly. The men, puffing from their vaporiser gave James and his neighbours a smirk look before winking and driving off.
James took a deep breath and clenched his fist tightly before remembering his wife’s last words to him.
“Do not ever, become the man you once were again.”
His wrinkled hands relaxed and Mr Cheong put a hand on James’ shoulder.
Cheong : Forget it la James. Young people…
The police came, statements were given by the old folks and quickly concluded. The resident can throw all the accusations they want, without evidence to support it, there’s nothing the authorities can do.
After a quick shower, James opened the roller shutter for his provision shop around the same time his neighbours opened for business.
He settled down into his chair behind the cash register, beside it is another empty chair where Julie used to sit in.
Just another day, in an old part of the neighbourhood, for old men like James.