You wouldn’t believe that the elderly lady in front of me used to be one of the most famous Chinese opera singers in Singapore. In the 1960s, she dominated the show business in Southeast Asia, touring the countries with her stage name Fenghuang, meaning phoenix in Chinese, known for its virtue and grace. Wherever she went, she was closely followed by throngs of admirers who generously lavished her with expensive and bold garlands; some made of currency of $50 and $100 notes, intricately and skilfully folded to resemble blooming flowers.
During her high days, I hardly saw her. Entrusted under the care of my nanny Wang, mum only came on the rare days when she had no lucrative performance lined up. Even then, affection was non-existent and her words few. I tried my utmost attempts to please, striking neat plaits and showing her my full-marks report cards, to which she would mutter “mm” as she swiftly signed. No questions about school, or me.
Now, she sat in a daze in bed, hair dishevelled and not a tinge of make-up on her wrinkled pale face. No one had seen her “bedroom face”, a phrase she coined for showing her bare face, because she deemed it as disrespectful and an utter disgrace. Yet six years ago, when she fell prey to the crippling dementia, everything changed.
Mum leaned voluntarily into me as I heaved her out of bed. Such close body contact never failed to amaze me everyday. As I held her bony hand and guided the wooden spoon of porridge to her mouth, a smile sneaked out from the corner of her mouth. Slowly and shakily, she turned the spoon towards me and shared her vanilla porridge. “Eat …” An uncontrollable sob escaped from my throat. Once a phoenix, now my mum.