The lift was cramped and dirty. Nothing like the posh facilities that our wealthy nation so proudly boasts to the outside world.
As the lift doors opened at level 10, a long, narrow corridor stretched endlessly into the distance. We walked in. Rough, sparsely-painted walls rose from both sides, surrounding us, caving in on us. Everything turned dark, as if the sun never rose.
The air was musky as our footsteps scratched the cement floor. An incense burner, an occasional floor mat, cheap rubber slippers. Every ten steps, a steel gate appeared on either side, like prison cells. Behind the gates, an old couple sat quietly in an empty hall, a half-naked man laid on a thin mattress, a white-haired lady stared at a TV screen, motionless. A nauseating stench wisped through our noses from a half-opened door. Most doors, however, were shut.
Yet, just a few feet away, light shone through an open door. Behind the grilled, metal gate, a scrawny old man stood by the window, arms stretched towards the ceiling as he hung his clothes to dry. Sunlight burst through the flat’s only two windows, flooding the tiny space with brightness and warmth. As we called out to the man, a gentle breeze kissed our faces.
Mr Chan promptly opened the gate. He didn’t smile very much, but he was warm and welcoming. He also talked like a bullet train, but he didn’t want to talk about his past.
“What’s there to talk about? I’m happy now. Satisfied. I’m alone. No wife, no children, no family. No one to bother me or quarrel with me. I’m free.”
“I’ll live. And then I’ll go.”
Mr Chan wasn’t depressed. Neither was he happy. Nor sad, or excited. Just… flat. Mr Chan could be the most boring bullet train in the world. But the world no longer mattered to him.
Within these 4 empty walls, Mr Chan is isolated and free. His family is no more – he never married, and spent his whole life caring for his parents till they passed away. Now 76, he has few possessions: 4 shirts, 2 pairs of pants, a few bath towels, and a handkerchief. He cooks his own meals – rice noodles with a tiny slice of fish – and sleeps on a piece of wooden board to avoid bed bugs. His sofa is a used office chair, and he has a TV that never turns on. He lives on government grant, and walks around with a urine bag permanently tubed to his body.
“My body is broken but no choice, so it doesn’t matter”, he deadpanned. “It’s just troublesome. Maybe I should die, so I can stop such things.”
Maybe the time hasn’t come, for there is more to Mr Chan’s life than these four empty walls. Mr Loh, a kindly man who lives just a block away, visits Mr Chan almost everyday. For 10 years, they talked, discussed, and argued with each other about everything. On this occasion, the bullet train went wild as Mr Loh chided his stubborn friend for refusing the mobile phone:
“You only need to learn 2 big buttons! Green to answer, red to hang up.”
“But there are no red or green buttons! I only see white tiny buttons all over the place.”
“Forget about buttons, get the new phones, the flat ones. All you need to do is iron the screen with your fingers…”
“Why must I iron the screen when I can press buttons??”
Behind the friendly, amusing banter is Mr Chan’s only window to the outside world.
Oblivious to our presence, the banter continued, as friendship filled the tiny flat with warmth. For Mr Chan, there is one more reason to be alive.