25 years a cardboard collector
She prefers the hard life to staying home and doing nothing.
She works 16 to 17 hours a day and earns barely $10. At night, she sleeps on cardboard under a carpark ramp.
Passers-by would think she is single, lonely, poor and homeless. But in reality, Madam Ye, who is in her 70s, has a husband, four children, a grandchild and a HDB flat in Sembawang.
Why does she collect cardboard and sleep in a carpark then?
She told Youth.SG in Mandarin: “This is how I get by. I don’t want to be a burden to people, I don’t want to be waiting for my children’s next pay cheque or take for granted that they will give me an allowance.”
Madam Ye grew up in poverty on a Malaysian farm. She moved here at 22 after marrying her Singaporean husband, who was a construction worker. Working from home as a seamstress, she supplemented her husband’s income as their four children attended school. Two eventually graduated with diplomas.
How did she get into cardboard collection?
“You can’t make much money from sewing clothes – only a few cents – and you still need to make alterations after. Cardboard collecting is faster and easier, and the price was good last time,” she said, adding that she switched to cardboard collection at a friend’s recommendation in 1990.
She has been collecting cardboard almost every day since, though her earnings have fallen over the past 25 years due to competition.
Madam Ye, who is hunched over from years of labour, makes the journey to a neighbourhood about 30 minutes from her home once a week. She works and lives there, and returns home only at the end of the week.
The frail senior citizen is such a fixture that shopkeepers in the neighbourhood regard her as part of the community. As she trudges past their shops during her morning and afternoon rounds, many of them stop their daily routines to give her cardboard. Some offer her food.
When she feels tired, she takes a break in a back alley. Smokers who frequent this location chat with her. Sometimes, they give her a bit of pocket money. Madam Ye is happy to have someone to talk to – when she is not feeling too exhausted.
On the day we visited, she chatted animatedly with a passer-by about the high cost of enrichment classes for young children. She proudly declared: “None of my four children had tuition in the past!”
That afternoon, it began to drizzle and Madam Ye struggled with putting on her raincoat because her back was so hunched. Her feet were bruised from frequent falls, and the smell of urine around her was unmistakable. Throughout the entire day I spent with her, I noticed she never visited the washroom.
As the sun sets, Madam Ye returns to her resting corner under a carpark ramp with the help of one of her sons. He visits her at the carpark every evening, after he finishes work at a fast food outlet.
The humid space in the carpark is filled with a row of cardboard boxes forming a makeshift bed, and couple of large plastic containers where she keeps her personal belongings and food away from pests. This is her home for six days a week.
Why does she not return home every night to sleep?
“When I’m here, people still try to steal my cardboard, what more if I’m not around?” she replied.
That night, it was hazy, but the smell of the haze was overpowered by motorbike exhaust and the stench of urine.
The place was infested with rats – some larger than 20cm long – and cockroaches that did not seem afraid of her.
She was not afraid either. She did not flinch when the rats scurried close to her, nor when a cockroach crawled up her leg as we spoke.
“We are not afraid [of rats] at our age. When I was a farmer, we could even eat the field rats. But these are the dirty rats,” she said matter-of-factly.
She added in jest: “These rats are racing each other.”
Madam Ye goes to sleep on her makeshift cardboard bed each night before 10pm, and gets up before the lorry comes around to collect her cardboard at 6am.
At the end of each week, Madam Ye returns to her flat to see her husband, who is in his 80s. He is wheelchair-bound after a heart surgery, and lives with one of their sons, the one who visits Madam Ye every evening. Although their children give her a monthly allowance and have advised her to rest, she continues to work.
“Coming out to work in my old age is my choice. I feel very bored if I just stay at home and gossip about others. If I say bad things about other people they might get angry with me, so I might as well come out to collect cardboard,” she explained.
As we were about to leave, Madam Ye called out to us and gave some advice.
She said: “You [young people] should be more active and walk around, don’t just stay in your air conditioned offices all day. Or else you wouldn’t know what is going on outside. You wouldn’t even know if the sky falls. [You should] look out for others and help each other.