The rations delivery lady and her steadfast motorcycle
The market in the Central and East Section of the Valley of Hope used to be crowded every morning, busy with people unloading bread and fresh ration off the trucks. The Section Steward of the settlement would be preoccupied with distributing the food into specific portions while the section attendants would be working fast to repack the rations of the day. This scene is now gone, ever since the ration distribution system became history on 1 February 2011, and Goh Sooi Seong, who had been a section attendant for a few decades also retired with honour on the same day.
Goh Sooi Seong, now 74 years old, was a section attendant for the East Section before her retirement and was in charge of distributing fresh rations to more than a dozen of inmates in the East Section. Before the ration distribution system was terminated At 7 o’ clock every morning, she would ride a bicycle, with a big basket attached to the front, to the market and wait for the section steward to hand out the rice ration. Then, when the bread truck had arrived, she would pick up some bread and send them to the ration distribution shed in the East Section.
Early in the mornings, the inmates from the East Section would be waiting at the ration distribution shed. Each of them would receive a cup of rice and a bun every day. After distributing the rice and buns, Goh Sooi Seong would return to the market and wait for the fresh ration truck to come.
When the fresh ration truck arrives, the section attendants would first place everything on table tops and divide them according to head counts. In addition to a ration of 600 grams of vegetables, there would be 400 grams of fish on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, 400 grams of pork or chicken on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, and dried anchovies (ikan bilis) or salted fish on Sundays. Onions, garlic and cooking oil were given out twice a month, usually on the 1st and the 15th of the month.
She said the chickens came in whole on the fresh ration truck, so the section attendants had to chop them into pieces – chicken thighs, wings, breasts and so on. To be fair, what the inmates received was decided by lots. Every section attendant had a canister of wooden lots with the inmates’ names on them. The section attendants would draw the lots in public at the ration distribution shed and the lot would determine which part of the chicken an inmate would receive.
“It would vary,” said Goh, “you might get a chicken thigh today but a chicken breast tomorrow.” She struggled to describe the workflow for ration delivery workers with a damaged vocal cord.
After repacking the rations into a dozen-odd portions, Goh would send the vegetables and meat to the ration distribution shed in the East Section to distribute them, cycling up and down slopes on her way there. If some inmates had not shown up yet, she would ring a bell that was hung at the shed with a small hammer. Usually, when the bell went “Clang—clang—clang!” the inmates who had not collected their rations would come to the shed and get their entitled share. Otherwise, Goh Sooi Seong would have to deliver the fresh rations to their doorsteps. Normally, it would be 10 or 11 o’clock by the time she finished her work.
Apart from delivering fresh ingredients, oil and salt, Goh said rations delivery workers also distributed daily necessities – giving out laundry soaps twice a month and black fabric shoes once a year.
To better facilitate her work, she scrimped and saved to buy a Honda motorcycle for 1,000-odd dollars. With a motorcycle, it became so much easier for her to go up and down the slopes.
At that time, she said, a friend encouraged her to get a motorcycle before the price went up. “If you can ride a bicycle, you can ride a motorbike too,” the friend told her. She is glad that she took that friend’s advice and bought the Honda without much hesitation.
With a motorcycle, she enjoyed a lot more freedom than before. She could just ride off to the morning or night markets in Kepong anytime to buy clothes or other daily necessities.
Today, the motorcycle which has been her companion for years is still with her. Although she seldom rides nowadays because of her poor eyesight and weak legs, she is still keeping her “old comrade” with her.
“I love it too much to sell it off!” she said. “It helped me earn a lot of money.”
Ten years ago, Goh Sooi Seong moved into the ward because of diabetes. And a few years ago, she lost her voice all of a sudden, so now she could only afford to speak in a very low voice. Still, this enthusiastic and friendly old lady was more than delighted to share the stories about her life and career with us.
Ten years ago, Goh Sooi Seong moved into the ward because of diabetes. And a few years ago, she’s lost her voice all of a sudden, so now she could only afford to speak in a very low voice. Still, this enthusiastic and friendly old lady was more than delighted to share the stories about her life and career with us.
Goh Sooi Seong comes from Jelutong, Penang. She is the only daughter in the family and has an elder brother. Symptoms of leprosy appeared when she was 10, her body would turn red and she would always get sunburnt after being in the sun for Physical Education classes. So, she told her mother that she wanted to quit school. That was how she dropped out of school in Primary 3.
She had a low self-esteem because of the disease. She stayed home all the time and had no friends to play with. She felt heavyhearted whenever she saw other kids going to school. After seeing a private clinic and getting no improvement from their prescribed therapy, Goh’s mother sent her to a public hospital for treatment. Then, she came to the Sungai Buloh Settlement on a doctor’s recommendation.
Goh Sooi Seong was fully cured soon after her admission to the settlement. She looked just as normal as the others, except for her bent fingers. Nevertheless, she chose to stay in the settlement because she was afraid of the public’s discrimination and stares. Yet, months later, the authority relocated her to the Pulau Jerejak Settlement in Penang because she was considered over-aged. At that time, she was only 15 or so.
It was, perhaps, predestined for her to have found her Mr Right in Pulau Jerejak. The two of them got married shortly after meeting each other. In 1969, the Pulau Jerejak Settlement was closed down and converted into a penal colony for hardcore criminals. So, at the age of 27, she returned to the Valley of Hope, only this time, with a man by her side.
After moving there, the couple found work and started a tranquil and carefree life. Goh Sooi Seong delivered fresh rations while her husband worked as a grasscutter.
However, there were too little jobs for too many people at that time, so the jobs were assigned on a 6-month rotation basis. “Back then, the job was not permanently assigned to you,” she said. “One person would work for six months and then another person would take over.”
She became a permanent worker later when the population in the settlement shrank. She said her monthly allowance was initially 90-odd dollars and it rose to 130 dollars, and finally to 145 dollars in the end.
On 1 February 2011, the government abolished the ration distribution system and replaced it with a daily meal allowance of 21 dollars for inmates living in the chalets. Only then did Goh Sooi Seong retired with honour. In other words, she was one of the last batch of ration delivery workers in the Valley of Hope.
A few years ago, Goh’s husband died of an asthma attack and, all of a sudden, she has lost the only person she could rely on. Although their marriage had been childless, she does not find it regrettable. “Even if you have children, they cannot possibly be around you every day,” said the wise old lady. “They have their own lives to live.”
For her, it is fortunate enough to be able to spend the rest of her life in this settlement where she is not alone, but surrounded by a group of old friends.
Her greatest regret, if any, is perhaps being no longer able to sing. Before her vocal cord was damaged, she used to enjoy singing her favourite songs from a Huangmei opera – Ban Huangdi (Playing The Emperor) and Xi Feng (Teasing The Beauty). Her singing, just like her experience as a fresh rations delivery worker, has now become nothing more than memories.
Narrated by Goh Sooi Seong
Interviewed by Chan Wei See & Wong San San
Written by Chan Wei See
Translated by Zoe Chan Yi En
Edited by Low Sue San