The Spirit of Giving

My first childhood home was a one-bedroom public housing (HDB) flat. Most of the families were resettled from nearby villages and they continued to live like country folks in rapidly urbanized 60s Singapore.

Like country folks, we knew everyone in the estate – the Cantonese family at the end of the row with seven children, the Malay family with a mee rebus stall in the market, the Teochew family whose father worked in a sawmill, the Christain Eurasian family one floor below us and the rest in Block 13, Merpati Road many whom I can still remember today.

Around this time of the year, the families would be scrambling around to prepare for the new year. Getting next year’s books, uniforms and shoes for the children, spring cleaning, baking cookies, stocking up and getting new clothes for Chinese New Year.

As you can imagine, large families living in one-bedroom flats can be pretty stretched financially and year end was an extremely stressful time for the adults. There was no such thing as year-end bonus then and many of the folks lived from hand-to-mouth daily.

There was one family living in a corner flat. A struggling cobbler and his wife, a washer-woman with five children. The oldest boy turned out to be a thug and left home. Two other sons had some health problems and stayed home all the time. The two younger girls were about my age and attended the same school as me.

I wasn’t really clear about their situation except that the neighbour would often come over teary-eyed looking for my mum who would pass her something to take home.

We weren’t rich but my father had a regular job and my mum, a housewife took to sewing clothes for additional family income. And we reused and recycled everything then. Books were passed down, same with uniforms, shoes and bags. Growing children survived mostly on hand-me-downs from older siblings or friends to the younger ones.

Every year around this time, my mum would shop in Joo Chiat a nearby shopping street for fabric sold in bulk and came home with big bundles of textile. For a few weeks before the year ended, she would be cutting out the cloth into different shapes and sizes, and peddling away on her sewing machine.

Finally when she was done, she would call my corner neighbour and a few others to our place to try out the new clothes. There were usually a dozen of us. Every girl got a new dress, including the mums – all cut from the same cloth but with different designs for everyone.

I love those days when we tried the clothes, paraded around looking at each other and simply happy to have new clothes to wear. Wish I had a photo but of course, we couldn’t afford a camera then but we kind of look like the Von Trapp children on an outing with Julie Andrews.


My parents and many people their generation were amazing people. They didn’t have much and yet they could share the little they had with others, making life a bit more manageable.

Talk about being resourceful and generous even at the expense of their own families. I know, because I never got those pretty dresses I tried on in High Street. My mum used the money to dress up the neighbourhood kids.

So at this time of the year when the spirit of giving is in the air, who do we think of most?



4 thoughts on “The Spirit of Giving

  1. This post touched me greatly. Here I was thinking that my one-bedroom cottage is too small to entertain at Christmas. Yet, five years ago, the one-bedroom apartment we first lived in, we felt such a blessing to have an ocean view, and invited a few people for our first classical guitar concert and unvealing of a new watercolor painting from my sister. Small is beautiful. It’s good to remember our humble roots. Thank you, Joan!

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