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
An amorous deck hand learned a painful lesson when he targeted a proud and resourceful Klong Toey girl as his child bride
By Father Joe Maier, C.Ss.R.
We never knew mum when she was young and not yet ravaged by cheap booze and hard hot years under the Southeast Asian sun doing unskilled sweatshop labour, living wherever there was work on the decks and holds of rusty out-of-date cargo ships in the Bay of Bangkok.
When only daughter Miss Tip whispered to mum "Today's my 14th birthday", there on the cargo ship, mum had another excuse to get hammered one more time. There wasn't much beauty left, but even the slight traces still showed she was a beauty in her days of yesteryear. Just like Miss Tip, a Klong Toey beauty with a good complexion and sturdy stature.
Mum was an amiable drunk who would agree to almost anything after a few. That's when this guy -- a fellow sweat on the cleaning crew -- told hammered mum he wanted to buy Miss Tip. True, he used some nicer words, but the meaning was the same.
You see, all this started with this sweat, missing a couple of teeth, going bald in front, with arm tattoos. But not with proper meaning and symbols, like from prison, nor even the tiger tattoo. He was a day hire contracted to temporary work on the ship. No one knew him very well. He was a stranger. Not Klong Toey born. Didn't go to school here.
He came up to hammered mum, big grin, showing his missing teeth. Came right up to her, right there on the deck, in front of everyone. Offered 4,000 baht for the hand in matrimony of 14-year-old Miss Tip.
Proud of himself, like he was doing mum and Miss Tip a favour, he said the ship's captain could say the words and make it formal and all legal, which wasn't true but sounded uppity yuppity. Besides, the captain could say it in Chinese as this was an old Chinese leased cargo ship. Certainly unsafe in a storm.
Mum's words were quite clear. We are not low class from the rice fields -- my daughter is a Bangkok-born Klong Toey girl and we have dignity. She's strong and healthy and can hoist and carry 50kg rice sacks better than most of you men. And she's pretty with nice skin, has good teeth and can work all day in the sun and not get sick. And no one has ever touched her, and if you do, I shall toss you off the side of this ship.
In spite of the booze, or maybe because of it, mum knew of these things. Things you don't always learn in school. Her earlier days weren't always "pretty please with sugar on it and flouncy pink". She and a neighbour lady, totally loyal to the end, who rushed mum to the hospital when she came back on the bus from the ship … but back to that in a moment.
These good ladies had worked a Klong Toey pleasure place for lonely sailors at the mouth of the port, just a few steps from the ships and no customs officials and immigration folks to deal with. And a nicer place called the Mosquito Bar (now closed), also at the mouth of the port. Air conditioning, karaoke and all. Mum and her neighbour had a reputation with the Port Authority Police. Any amorous sailor who advanced too boldly would be snookered with unopened beer bottles by mum and her neighbour.
Back to the wedding plans. Mum, quite indignantly, said no dice, it has to be at least 4,500 baht. But the sweat didn't have that much cash. He would have to pay in weekly instalments. Mum said again no dice, the money has to be up front and in cash now, and not just promises. Besides, what if you don't like my beautiful daughter Tippy. You can't just return her as damaged goods, give her back, like, trade her in … and expect your money back.
When Miss Tip, who was asleep on the deck, heard about this, and then realised they were talking about her and her life, she was horrified. The sweat came over and tried to put his arm around her. In self-defence, she kicked him in his lower regions. Screamed at mum. I hate you. I hate all of you.
Seeing no place to hide, she tried to crawl over the railing, to jump that dangerously long way down off the side of the ship into the ocean. Death would be better than giving herself to this sweat who wanted her for 4,500 baht in weekly instalments.
She didn't quite make it over the rail. Some quick-acting folk grabbed her in time and wrestled her down. The sweat came over. She managed to kick him again, but this time she had a better position and really kicked him hard.
That ended any marriage plans.
The captain was totally miffed. He radioed for a "lighter" and put Miss Tip, somewhat hysterical, and her drunk mum on the small boat to the wharf about half a kilometre away. He shouted harsh words for them to never come back. He sent the Klong Toey foreman with them and told him to make sure they had pocket money for the three-hour bus trip to Bangkok.
The story doesn't get any easier.
The foreman made sure mum and daughter boarded the right bus. At first the bus people weren't going to let dishevelled mum on the bus, but Tip promised she would take care of her, keep her quiet and make sure there were no problems. There weren't. Mum slept all the way. Yes, she snored loudly but Tip kept shaking her.
Arriving at the Ekamai bus terminal, 10 minutes from Klong Toey, Tip had calmed down after the three-hour bus ride. Knowing she was safe for the moment, she got mum to their rented shack.
Taking one look at mum, her loyal neighbour lady from years gone by brought Miss Tip to us in the slums for safe keeping before taking mum to the emergency unit of the nearest hospital.
Mum died there three days later. Never left the hospital. Hardening of the liver, plus complications. As the nurses told the story, mum died gasping "Tell Tip I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
At the cremation, the sweat with the bad teeth who wanted to pay Tip's dowry price in weekly instalments showed up to pay respect.
He was repentant. Tried one more time. Told Miss Tip that he would take her in. She could be his wife. He would take care of her. They could work on the ship together. He also told his story that he had given Tip's mum 2,000 baht as a down payment. That's when he said, if she refused, he wanted that money back that he had paid her mum, now lying dead in a clapboard casket with no lid, donated by the benevolent society for the very poor.
Tip panicked again. Ran out of the temple into the nearby slaughterhouse. She said later she felt safe there with the pigs and a couple of stray dogs who lived next to that particular holding pen.
Seems that though she was a stranger, the dogs took an immediate liking to her. The cremation went on. Tip came back once she saw a policeman there and felt safe.
Mum had worked, sometimes for two or three weeks, on cargo ships anchored off the coast some three hours from Bangkok. She was part of a day/night team that brought their own cooking utensils, living literally on the deck of the ship. Cleaning, working in the hold of the ship. Anything. Getting 350 baht for working shifts of six to eight hours.
Hammered mum had been hauling her daughter Tip along with her for five or six years. There was no one at home in Klong Toey to care for her, and Tip could also earn money. She was safe -- until this sweat with bad teeth wanted a child wife.
Miss Tip is safe now and in school. Enrolled even though she is beginning at 14 years of age. It's never too late. Now Miss Tip also wears a locket around her neck with an old picture of mum when she was pretty. She says mum is in heaven and has stopped drinking. She never knew her dad, but mum used to say he fell off the side of a ship in a storm. That was a couple of months before Miss Tip was born.
Back to the sweat. One of our house mums, a sturdy lady, is a distant cousin from the same village as the sweat. She knows why years ago, according to village law and lore, the sweat had to leave the village suddenly and never return, at least for 20 years. She told this to the local police and they kindly mentioned this to him, so he is out of the picture. The sweat doesn't dare come around now.
It's 100 days now since mum died, so schoolgirl Tip brought two lotus leaves the fresh market lady had given her. She wouldn't accept any money for them because Tip said she wanted them for the ceremony to pray for her mum, and that mum didn't drink in heaven.
A snippet of mum's hair and a bit of an old dress were placed in the folded lotus leaves. Tip took them to the temple to place them at the foot of one of the sacred trees, sending away any bad spirits. Together with us she placed a medal of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who protects children.
Tomorrow is another school day. A happy day. She wants to be a teacher and teach little girls like herself.
The children are so very proud. They tell all their friends: “I’ve got a new home” and my mum says that she didn’t have to borrow a lot of money so she doesn’t have to find a second job to pay off the money because our family didn’t have to borrow very much to pay for the construction.
And dad, even though he’s never done much carpenter work, helped a lot in the construction and that cut down labor expenses. And his boss at the factory is an understanding guy, and let dad work with the neighbors on the house construction, for two weeks, and didn’t even cut his wages
The houses are simple steel frames, so much stronger than the old ones, and will be even more beautiful as soon as the flowers grow.
This was always a gentile slum – a nice low-low economic community, but still always gentle, and now with the new homes, it is more gentle than ever. You walk through the area, and you feel good, and no fear of danger or violence – just nice people. True, they grew up next to the pig holding pens, and the butchering - maybe seeing violence all their lives, has made them nonviolent, after seeing so much brutality.
I speak for everyone in the community – especially the children, thank you to all of you who have helped so very much in giving our 41 children and 24 grand-mothers granddads, plus mums and dads plus some kitty cats’ new homes.
Again, thank you.
Fr. Joe and all of the children.
By Father Joe Maier, C.Ss.R.
That wasn't like Master Gaw. He was the toughie of the second kindergarten class, as rough and tumble as any four-year-old boy in our Klong Toey slums. Not afraid of ghosts that might lurk in a dark corner or under the bed. The kid feared nothing.
But something changed. This was different; this was scary. So they ran, the toughie and his mum. Had to. Mum's man -- her "live-in" -- could have killed them both. He was "drug drunk mixed with booze". They say druggies and boozers don't mix potions. That's just not true. And when they do mix, the potion is potent and can be lethal to anyone around.
That's what sent mum and Master Gaw running barefoot in the middle of the night. Mum cut her foot but kept going, running like mad, a petite and bleeding woman, stumbling and falling but never dropping her kindergarten son -- a large kid for his age.