'Mask on, Mask off': S'porean hawkers, artists & parents on life in new normal

Stories Of Us: We talk to Singaporeans from a diversity of occupations and outlooks about how the pandemic has affected their dreams, passions, and routines.

Andrew Koay | August 30, 2020, 12:45 PM

The new normal. It's here to stay, we've been told, so we need to get used to it.

And while the Covid-19 pandemic has seen the world grind to a halt, life in Singapore must go on.

But what of our dreams, passions, and routines? Do they get left behind as movement restrictions and safe distancing take the wheel?

We talk to Singaporeans from a diversity of occupations and outlooks to find out how they're dealing with the pandemic.

Satay in East Coast

"Bobo" Suhaimi Hashim. Image by Edwin Koo

Che Sum. Image by Edwin Koo

At the East Coast Lagoon Food Village, Suhaimi Hashim — or Bobo as he likes to be called — says that customers are now starting to return in good numbers to eat satay at Stall 59.

During the circuit breaker, business at Stall 59, as was the case for many around the island, inevitably took a dip.

Like many food businesses in Singapore, the 56-year-old satay hawker has implemented a delivery service to get his food to customers who might not want to leave the house.

From his East Coast location, Suhaimi delivers to loyal customers all over the island.

When asked about how it feels having to cook the whole day in the heat with a mask on, Sam — another of Stall 59’s uncles — says “good or not, have to take it”.

“(At least it's) not so smokey,” he adds.

"Quite crippling"

Charlie Lim and Neko. Image by Edwin Koo

“Performing live has always been my first love and it’s my primary source of income," says local singer-songwriter Charlie Lim.

"Having that taken away does feel quite crippling."

The 32-year-old was actually in London at the start of the year, completing a course. He was planning to be based there for a prolonged period, but the pandemic scuppered his plans.

He got back to Singapore just before the borders closed.

"Playing shows and touring is obviously a no-go for now.”

There’s been a few online or livestream gigs here and there which have been good, but I don’t think it’s sustainable unless you have a huge enough following that people wouldn’t mind paying to watch, or have sponsors involved.”

That said, being forced to stay at home is something quite familiar to Lim:

“As an artist, it’s been kind of a forced incubation period to just work on releasing new material. But I’m used to holing myself up to write and work on music anyway. I’ve also been doing some production and writing on the side for other projects as well, so that tides me through.”

Itching for a punch

Efasha "The Face" Kamarudin. Image by Edwin Koo

Professional boxer Efasha Kamarudin doesn't just love punching.

The 29-year-old tells with a burst of laughter that she itches to get punched in the face as well.

The pugilist, whose professional fighting record stands at four wins and one draw, explains that the pandemic has curtailed any fights she had lined up:

“My team and I, we usually have like a two-year plan, where we structure out what we want to do and what we want to achieve at the end of like two years. But like, because of Covid-19, everything has to be postponed.

But it’s nice too, because I’ve been competing for the past four years non-stop, and it’s nice to finally just chill a bit and step back and give my body a break.”

In the meantime, the manager of the Balestier branch of Spartans Boxing Club has had to change the way the gym functions.

Apart from drastically-reduced class sizes and tweaked sessions to ensure safe-distancing between participants, the gym has taken to online classes.

Efasha admits that it's taken some getting used to, but she has enjoyed the process nonetheless:

“It’s a different thing. You don't really get to like hit the bag or whatsoever but we get our creative juices out. We use like home stuff we use like rice in a backpack. We use water bottles as an equipment so the creative juices are all out there.”

Keeping it clean at Tiong Bahru Market

Loh Teck Seng and Family. Image by Edwin Koo

Low Gek Lai. Image by Edwin Koo

Low Teck Seng has been making and selling soya bean milk and tau huey for the past 35 years.

At midnight, you’ll find the 65-year-old hawker at his Tiong Bahru Market stall cooking up a storm. He works through the night before opening for business at 5am.

His wife and daughter help to tend to the safely-distanced queue that inevitably forms in the morning; everything is typically sold out before lunchtime.

Low says that making the soya bean treats while wearing a mask took some getting used to. The steam and the heat from the cooking process made the experience unbearable at times.

However, there are other aspects of the new normal that Low adapted to easily. For example, the hawker is quite the clean freak, meticulously scrubbing down his stall regularly.

Tiong Bahru Market as a whole, he says — trying to deflect any praise we throw his way — is very clean.

That is due in no small part to the efforts of Low Gek Lai, one of the market’s cleaners.

The 66-year-old says that nowadays she wipes each table twice, first to remove the grease of previous meals and then with alcohol to disinfect the surface so the next customer can enjoy their meal safely.

Responsibilities and studies

Henderson. Image by Edwin Koo

Muhammad Zufayri. Image by Edwin Koo

For 21-year-old Henderson, there was no runway for him to adjust to life in the new normal; he was released from prison in February right as the world was waking up to the threat of Covid-19.

He describes the pandemic as "a little bit of a pain" but seems more preoccupied with setting his life in order after his year-long stint in jail.

"Things are a little bit restricted, but I'm working now and I have responsibilities."

Post-circuit breaker Henderson is happy that he can once again find a release from the stresses of adult life through his love for skateboarding.

I watch as he zips up and down various skate ramps fearlessly, taking a seat with his friends after each run.

Amongst them is 16-year-old Muhammad Zufayri who speaks almost as if in pain when recalling the closure of skateparks in Singapore.

"I couldn't wait to get my feet back on the board."

However, even after authorities allowed skaters back in the parks, Zufayri waited a little longer, though not for health reasons per se. Rather, he was restrained by a force far more familiar to Singaporeans:

"I took some time off, ah. Studies what."

Candy Crushing

Chieng Puay Chui and Irene Lim. Image by Edwin Koo

Husband and wife duo Chieng Puay Chui and Irene Lim are Orchard Road fixtures.

Parked outside Ngee Ann City, their mobile ice cream stand is a welcome sight for those struggling with the heat of the Singaporean afternoon.

But while they previously worked up to six long days a week, Chieng says the pandemic's effect on foot traffic means it no longer makes sense to be putting in that kind of hours.

Their first attempt to return to Orchard Road was on May 12.

"It didn't work out," he says in Chinese, recalling the empty streets.

Never mind, Lim tells me. The pair are enjoying having free time to pursue other things.

Chieng has taken up a new hobby — cycling. He does so for two hours each day.

Lim, on the other hand, is diving deep into a longstanding interest in the mobile phone game Candy Crush.

"I can play until late into the night," she says.

"Passion in our work is pretty huge"

Clifford Wong. Image by Edwin Koo

Frankie Sexton. Image by Edwin Koo

When the Circuit Breaker put a stop to tattooing, Clifford Wong took the news pretty badly. The 27-year-old tattoo artist had just bought a house with his partner and there were payments to be made.

“My partner’s a student, so everything’s on me,” he says.

“I have to support the whole thing myself, so I was very scared. You know, like ‘oh my god, this is gonna destroy the whole financial plan'.”

For Wong’s friend and colleague Frankie Sexton, 31, the pause in work stripped him of a sense of purpose.

“You woke up with [the thought that] no, there’s no goals to look forward to… the passion in our work is pretty huge. We love what we do. Basically when Circuit Breaker was down on us, any passion, any motivation — it was totally gone.”

In order to break the cycle of negative rumination, Wong tells me that he focused his nervous energies on improving his drawing skills, while Sexton says he devoted himself to spending time with his six-year-old daughter.

Now that the authorities have allowed tattoo artists to return to work, rescheduled appointments and clients wishing to redirect any money saved up for a cancelled holiday have kept both Wong and Sexton busy.

“I was a bit worried about that,” Wong replies when I ask about his first time tattooing after a long break. Tattooing is muscle memory, he explains.

From the look of his recent work, the memory seems vividly intact.

“I’m just calling up friends and I'm just talking to them"

Sharul Channa. Image by Edwin Koo

Sharul Channa has been doing stand-up comedy for somewhere between nine and a half to 10 years now.

Yet, 2020 could very well be her most challenging thus far.

It's not just the inability to do live in-person performances. There's also the inconvenience of practising and getting feedback on new jokes while in social isolation.

“I’m just calling up friends and I'm just talking to them," she tells me.

"And really, you're so hungry for the sound of laughter that you sort of just keep writing. So what I'm doing nowadays is I'm just writing bits and jokes and screenshotting them and putting them on Instagram, and letting people sort of react.”

While nothing can quite replace the energy and feel of a performing a stand-up routine live, Sharul says there is a certain aspect of watching a performance on Zoom that Singaporeans naturally take to:

“We mute them all, but it's the chat function which is fantastic for Singaporeans because they're very passive-aggressive. They love to type so they go ‘lol haha lol haha’ and then the cameras are on and then they are bobbing up and down and that’s our yardstick for how funny the joke is.”

She is currently preparing to take the virtual stage again in a series of Zoom-based shows in September titled "Co-Weird Times". More details can be found here.

Human contact through technology

Poh Ya Nee. Image by Edwin Koo

As a paediatric palliative home care nurse with HCA Hospice Care, Poh Ya Nee looks after children with life-limiting or life-threatening conditions, providing care for them in their homes.

“So, my job is usually described as high-touch-low-tech — we need a lot of human contact and use very little technology.”

It's fair to say, that these days, the description no longer holds true. Many nurses have exchanged in-person conversations with Zoom calls or teleconferencing for their consultations.

“In the past, I have always felt that in order to provide comfort there must be some element of human touch. But because of Covid-19, it has pushed me as a person and as a nurse, to provide love and support in a different way.

It is the emotional and spiritual attachment that comes along when we respond to someone in need to offer our support that really sparks and builds the connection.”

Baby Boaz

Natasha and Pele Ling with their baby Boaz. Image by Edwin Koo

The son of Natasha and Pele, Boaz Ling might just be the first baby in Singapore born with antibodies against the virus.

Returning to Singapore from the United Kingdom in March, Natasha and her husband were hit with devastating news — both of them had tested positive for Covid-19.

Further complicating things was the fact that Natasha was in the 36th week of her pregnancy.

According to an interview they did with local Christian news website Salt&Light, if the baby had been born while Natasha was still positive, she and the baby would have had to be immediately separated to avoid any possibility of her passing an infection to him.

Thankfully, both husband and wife recovered from the infection in time and they were able to experience the birth as a family.

Boaz was born on April 26, weighing 3.735kg.

With his parents' consent, a sample of his blood was taken for research.

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Stories of Us is a series about ordinary people in Singapore and the unique ways they’re living their lives. Be it breaking away from conventions, pursuing an atypical passion, or the struggles they are facing, these stories remind us both of our individual uniqueness and our collective humanity.

This story was done in collaboration with local photographer Edwin Koo. Top image by Edwin Koo