Klong Toey slum residents rally round to help a woman left homeless and without clothes — and even the spirits approve
By Father Joe Maier, C.Ss.R.
It was early morning, still dark, and "old granny", as the neighbours nicknamed her to distinguish her from a younger granny also living alone in the next-door shack, was saying her morning prayers by candlelight.
The electric had gone out two days earlier because she didn't have "the tin" to pay the bill. Nothing new, this had happened before, but this time she fell asleep, knocked over the candle and, wham bam, within minutes 15 houses were on fire in Klong Toey. The first thing to blow was a cooking gas canister, which shot like a rocket as the gas escaped. That's what burned granny so quickly and badly and charred her house to ashes. All that remained were some rusted pieces of tin roofing twisted by the heat.
Her niece -- well, almost a niece but actually her younger sister's second husband's second wife's oldest daughter -- was just coming home. Walking into the slum, the Chinese Benevolent Society emergency van raced by her with sirens blazing to rush badly burned granny to the hospital.
She had suffered something like 60% burns on her hands and arms while trying to protect herself from the flames. As they carefully stretchered her into the van, she was conscious and kept moaning "Where is my niece? Where is she? I'm thirsty".
"Almost niece" had spent a difficult night with difficult customers. Coming home to our Klong Toey slum, she saw the police, the fire trucks, black smoke rising in the sky. Her taxi couldn't come the last 100 metres because of the fire trucks and a police barricade. So she kicked off her good-looking night-time shoes and walked in. She sat down at a mom-and-pop store owned by one of granny's cronies, just metres away from the ashes of her charred shack.
The fire just missed the store, so it was open for business. The storekeep granny didn't say anything but just dusted the ashes off a chair and served "almost niece" up the usual double shot of "local" to say goodbye to a difficult personal night. With a raw egg mixed in a cup of coffee, plus a bowl of rice gruel that the local Muslim ladies' group had cooked up for the fire victims, at least she had something to eat.
But now she realised she had no home and granny was in hospital, not expected to survive. She stubbed out her cigarette and walked barefoot the 10 metres to the nearby shrine in the big tree. She lit a joss stick and touched reverently one of the sacred classical dance dresses hanging there, left by pious folk seeking spiritual favours. Some of the tree's top branches had withered as the flames shot high from the cooking gas canister.
"Almost niece" was 41 years old, missing one front tooth, her shack burned. Granny was her only relative, at least that she knew about. Now, she had no place to stay, with her clothes ruined in the fire.
She took a stick and unhooked one of the classical dresses. When she hesitated, the storekeep granny and her husband came and whispered: "No, not that one. Do take the prettiest one. The spirits will agree."
So she did, with the neighbours applauding gently. And she began to cry. Here she was, grown up but still a little abandoned slum orphan girl all over again -- all alone. She asked the storekeep granny if she could sleep there for a while. The granny and her husband said: "You can stay with us as long as you want. Forever if you wish. Yes, you might have to help us sell sweets sometimes, but only that."
And the storekeep granny held her and hugged her and let her cry and cry like she had not cried for years. And everyone said they would help rebuild her shack so that when granny got out of hospital, she would have a place to stay.
And she kicked off her pretty shoes again, sat on the mattress and began to cry and cry and cry. Couldn't stop. It had been years since her last tears. She had promised herself she was strong. But now, storekeep granny held her, hugged her. She didn't even tell her she smelled of cigarette smoke and a beer or two. She laid her down and combed her hair with her hand. After getting some rice gruel, she whispered: "It will be all right. I'll take care of you, my lost night-time daughter. This can be your new home."
And when she woke up a couple of hours later, there were some clothes for her, given by the ladies of the community. Some were fire victims who managed to salvage some of their clothes from the flames. Not fancy clothes but Klong Toey clothes -- good enough for the day. When she saw the clothing, she knew she was home. She was safe.
And the ladies had spoken to Sin Sae, the fortune teller, and the abbot at the temple. Both nodded their heads, saying it would be OK if the ladies took another dress donated to the spirits to give to "almost niece" in her time of trouble.
The girls from her workplace had heard about the fire and came to liven the place up a bit. A couple began to get a bit raunchy. They had a party to cheer up the fire victims. With lots of happy noise and music, it went on until the early morning. Great stuff.
Poor as they are, some of the fire victims' kids have mobile phones and took selfies of their own personal bravery and heroism to show everyone at school.
When "almost niece" learned that 15 schoolkids lost their school clothes, she and her friends gave all her night's earnings to buy uniforms. The kids returned proudly to school the next morning, new uniforms and selfies in hand, to tell huge tales to all their classmates about how brave they were in fighting the fire. A couple of the boys even boasted of bandages on their arms and legs.
When some children complained that they now had only one uniform and had to wash it after school every evening, "almost niece" gently scolded them: "I remember as a little girl, when I didn't have any money for school uniforms and didn't have a mum, my auntie worked and worked so that I could go to school and washed my uniform each night. My one uniform. So don't you complain."
It's been a month now since the fire, and life goes on. Old granny is recovering in the hospital. Her hospital bills are paid by government welfare. This part of the slum is an ageing community, with not many young men around, plus half of the burnt-out houses were ramshackle because the aunties and grannies looking after "grandchildren" abandoned by relatives had little money for house repairs and upkeep.
Now, however, these relatives have come home to rebuild the shacks they grew up in. "Almost niece" still stops each morning at the store for a double shot and a coffee with raw egg. She is waiting to welcome granny home from hospital.
By Father Joe Maier, C.Ss.R, Sunday, July 2, 2017
She's a slaughterhouse kindergarten teacher. Her whole life through and through. And her husband was a boy who grew up just over the footbridge crossing the canal to the other side, next to the temple. And her face becomes more beautiful day by day. Serene might be a better word. Her whole life of 48 years. She has been teaching slaughterhouse kindergarten children since her middle teens.
One day, more than 30 years ago, the "junk lady" (collector of second-hand saleables) was there with her three-wheel cart and she gladly gathered all the empty beer bottles and whisky glasses. We all swept the floor, cleaned the place best we could, the kids and mums helping. Our teacher, then a teenager, was there. Her arthritic rheumatism came later. We began school that very day. From a beer hall and worse to a kindergarten for slum slaughterhouse kids.
Oh boy, what a story. Back in the day, this particular shack, large enough, had been abandoned for a couple months, ever since the senior Catholic ladies had put their foot down.
"We are a slaughterhouse slum and our men butcher pork and cattle and water buffalo, and we wash the entrails, but we have our religion and have honour and dignity," said one Catholic lady.
"We will not have a beer hall and worse, with all its cavorting around, in the midst of our community. If our men go there, they need not come home. They can sleep in the pig pens."
With this grandmum slum-type closure, the proprietors -- two local lads -- huffed and puffed, but bravado can last only so long in the face of your grandmums who raised you.
The 78-year-old grandmums had threatened their grown grandsons (the beer hall proprietors) with small bamboo sticks, twigs really. And who would dare defend himself against a grandmum hitting him with a small stick because he had opened a house of ill repute?
And when she's hitting you over the head with her twig, and drops it, she tells you to pick it up and give it back to her so that she can keep hitting you. You pick it up and give it back to her, with her voice ringing in your ears: "How dare you embarrass me in front of all my friends. Shame on you."
In the few months when the beer hall was abandoned, a destitute mum, on the run from her cruel husband, had moved in. She drank rainwater collected from the tin roof, and ate whatever food she could scavenge and cook up from leftovers after the butchering. The neighbouring women were also good to her.
Her three kids had moved in with their mum among the trash and empty bottles. The two older ones had never gone to school and the youngest had nightmares about his mum screaming and crying as she ran from a young foreign man swearing and cursing. He had a long beard.
The grandmums had pronounced by edict that the beer hall was now closed. "We shall open a kindergarten. A school."
The mum with the three kids could live there for a while. Help keep everything clean and look after the place at night. Her two oldest children would attend the temple school across the canal. The youngest didn't have to pay kindergarten fees. All the other children had to pay one baht per day to attend school including lunch. The homeless mum could also help cook the rice.
Our teacher was and is one of the not very many slaughterhouse ladies who could read and write fluently all those years ago. She liked books and studying. Strangely, her handwriting is not only legible but also neat and tidy, even today. She also liked to draw but that went off the tracks when she got crippled with rheumatoid arthritis. She didn't know the cause of that, but nor did the doctors.
True, when she was 12 years old and crossing the street, she was hit by a truck delivering pigs arriving daily from a countryside farm. She took a good knock on the head and woke in the hospital with her loving daddy hovering over her, saying his rosary. He had been weighing the morning shipment of pigs when he heard the news and raced to the hospital.
The medical folk could find no bones broken, so they sent her home. The emergency room was crowded and they were short of beds in the charity ward of the government hospital.
She says some four years later, when she was sweet 16, her bones and joints began to ache -- and it got worse. Again, no one knows how it began. Perhaps when she banged her head in the accident. She was the youngest rheumatoid arthritis patient the medical people had ever seen, so they experimented on her with every medicine available.
Her mum, a northeastern country lady from near the border with Laos, tried every herbal remedy, talked to every village "doctor" she could meet. Nothing really worked. But mum, as she says, in her village travels, did find some excellent type of betel nut to chew, so not all was lost. And all the while dad worked, butchering pigs night after night, and gave all his wages to mum for their daughter's medicine.
Now, at 48, she still aches, walks with sort of a sideways gait, but doesn't complain much. Life goes on. Crippled, she teaches sitting down, the kids love her, and her school thrives. More kids came, another teacher came. Crippled Lady Teacher (that's what the kids call her) is still teaching daily and had been happily married for 18 years until the accident on the gang plank.
She met a young man who was as strong as a water buffalo, or even stronger as the children say, and they fell in love. She also taught him how to read and write his name. He loved her dearly, and they lived together 18 years. A big strapping gentleman, he told her daily how he loved her and felt sorry for her, and would always be there, and would never walk away from her.
Often they would go to places together, and when she felt tired he would simply carry her. She said it looked funny and people would laugh, but he always said: "Let them laugh. Who cares? Besides, they are jealous that they don't have a beautiful wife like I do."
He did leave. She still cries herself to sleep, alone on a late night. It broke her heart. She laments: "Now I have no one. I am all alone." She lost him. It was raining. He slipped on a wet gang plank carrying a 100-kilo sack of rice up into the hold of an old cargo ship docked in Klong Toey. That was three years ago. She still sleeps with his picture next to her bed.
He died tragically. Slipped on that wet gang plank with the heavy sack of rice crashing down on him. He was Buddhist and a shirt-tail relative of the abbot, so they did their very special best they could for him. The whole community came. Buddhist and Catholic and Moslem. And her dad, being Catholic, couldn't become a monk for the day. They had no children, so she put aside being Catholic for a month, put on the white robes of a Buddhist nun in prayer and fasting, but said her rosary every night that her beloved husband who loved her so much and felt sorry for her would rest in peace.
A couple of his drinking friends said they saw his ghost near the gang plank, going up into that cargo ship, and he was happy with the temple prayers, but you never know about these things. A cousin became a monk for one day -- in front of the body for his best friend.
Her dad, Khun Pre-cha Wong Rung, was the only son of Ms Gim Gee, a woman of Chinese origin who was in the Catholic convent for a while some 65 years ago. Mother Superior told her to become a teacher as she had that special gift. "You do not have the gift to be a sister with us, but you can become a great teacher of the poor, especially slum kids in your neighbourhood. My prayers and blessings go with you," she said.
Former novice Ms Gim Gee returned to slaughterhouse catholicity and her family. Married an elderly Chinese gentleman, but he died a few years later in her arms. Although he didn't intend it, but she did, they had a son. But Chinese granny speaking broken Thai wanted her son to be a teacher. He couldn't as he didn't have the brain power.
So he "did" pigs for some 30 years until his back gave out and he became a watchman. He didn't drink too much except for an occasional shot in the morning in his coffee with a raw egg mixed in to get him going.
And his Crippled Lady Teacher daughter? It took three generations. Granny failed, her son just couldn't make it intellectually, but his daughter became the best of all teachers on the planet, or at least in the slaughterhouse. She wants to teach forever. She rides to school each day, sitting side-saddle on a neighbour's old put-put motorcycle.
As for the mum with the three kids, it all worked out. She realised she should have never come to Bangkok. Her parents owned some land and a few water buffalo, and they were prospering well enough. So she went home. Her children are grown now with children of their own. She never married again but is a proud granny.
If you are ever walking in the early morning in the old slaughterhouse, you will find her. Crippled Lady Teacher is first to school in the morning, getting some rice gruel ready for any children who come to school hungry. She is there to welcome all her children, comb any stray lice out of their hair, get them ready for the day.
Recently a lady down the alleyway died, leaving a seven-year-old daughter all alone. Before she died, she asked Crippled Lady Teacher if she would look after her daughter.
The rainy season has definitively arrived to Thailand. Heavy, dark clouds hang over the streets of Bangkok, the back alleys flood every night and the traffic is at a complete standstill. It might be inconvenient to move around and annoying that the laundry never dries.
But at Mercy’s preschools the sound of 3000 children singing the National Anthem fills the classrooms with warmth, at our Janusz Korczak vocational school they’re reciting the Thai, English AND the Cambodian alphabet, putting a big smile on the teachers’ faces; and in Bangkok’s biggest fresh marked the migrant children are naming all the animals they know in English – making their parents forget their struggles for a moment.
Life goes on in the slums of Bangkok and at Mercy Centre we continue what we have been doing for the last 45 years.
Saturday 25 March we opened our doors to longtime friends and partners, to mark our anniversary and show our gratitude and appreciation for the pivotal support received over the years. Thank you for being our contributor of prayers, love, kindness and generosity.
But we also underline that Mercy Centre’s job is far from done.
Every week our social workers are saving children from abusive home and dangerous situation. Children that don’t have anyone that listens to them, no one that recognises their struggles and needs.
Many a time individuals, who used to be a Mercy child, reaches out to our staff, quietly and humbly asking for a hand, some support. They got off track and need some guidance. It might have been ten, fifteen years since last time but Mercy is still home.
It is not said that a child that was “saved” by our staff, got their education and upbringing at Mercy, are fully prepared and ready to take on life when they leave “the nest”. Over and over again we see that the ordeals you experience the first couple of years of your life has a very strong impact on your future. Not having a stable family situation, being surrounded by bad influence like drugs, abuse or general neglect leaves a gap in your confidence, in your well being for many years to come. To grow up in a home without healthy role models leaves a scar.
We listen to the children and then try to follow their ways. We work FOR the children, FOR the poorest of the poor – it might be a slow, quiet path to prosperity, but rather stay on the right path for a 100 years, than get off track and loose grip of our mission.
We at Mercy Centre cannot replace a blood family, but we are our own household, our own proud clan. We understand each other. Don’t have to say much when you come here, your 100 brothers and sisters “gets you”.
Thank you for being our friend and supporter – we are truly grateful.
Fr. Joe and all the children in the shanty slums of Klong Toey