THE KARUNG GUNI MAN

78 and nearly blind, but 'very resilient'

Mr Lee makes his runs at the blocks in Telok Blangah three or four times a week, collecting discarded items, which earn him up to $100 a month.
Mr Lee makes his runs at the blocks in Telok Blangah three or four times a week, collecting discarded items, which earn him up to $100 a month. ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG

Rag-and-bone man Lee Pang Kiab is 78 years old and nearly blind, but neither age nor illness deters him from pushing his trolley on the roads to collect discarded items to sell.

Confidently hobbling along his route, Mr Lee barely breaks into a sweat as he navigates across roads, up bridges and even against the flow of traffic - even though, on a sunny Saturday afternoon, all he can see are hazy outlines of trees and buildings amid shadows. He makes out the flashing green man at pedestrian crossings by squinting.

"I have been using this route for the last 30 years and I know it by heart," says Mr Lee in Hokkien as he guides this reporter along the familiar circuit - from his one-room rental flat in Redhill to the blocks of flats in Telok Blangah - that he makes three or four times a week.

"Weekends are when families clean their houses and discard more things," he says, craning his neck to scan the void decks for ripe pickings.

His karung guni runs give him up to $100 to supplement the $450 he gets monthly under the ComCare assistance scheme. He spends about $100 on cigarettes and $150 on beer, with the rest going to food-related expenses.

  • INCOME AND FAMILY PROFILE

  • NAME: Lee Pang Kiab

    AGE: 78

    FAMILY: Living alone in a one-room rental flat in Redhill. His wife has died and he is estranged from his three sons who are in their 40s.

    JOB: Part-time karung guni man

    HEALTH: Left eye blind, right eye 20 per cent vision. On medication for epilepsy.

    FORMS OF ASSISTANCE:

    • Monthly ComCare long-term assistance scheme allowance of $450 since 2007

    • Daily meals' delivery

    • Weekly housekeeping

    • Physiotherapy, medical consultations and recreational activities at nearby daycare centre

    HOUSEHOLD INCOME: $550

    PER CAPITA INCOME: $550

    EXPENDITURE: $550 on cigarettes, beer and food

    • Those on the ComCare long-term assistance scheme are mostly the elderly poor unable to work due to old age, illness or unfavourable family circumstances and have no stable income. In the 2014 financial year ending March last year, 3,846 people were on the scheme.

    • Majority of applicants are 60 and above and live alone in one- or two-room flats. Most are single, with primary or no formal education.

    • Spending on long-term help grew to $18.7 million in 2014, up from $17.3 million the year before.

    • Says Minister Tan Chuan-Jin in a blog post: "We all know that our society is ageing and we may see more vulnerable elderly among us. The financial challenge is but one of several. As we age, our physical and mental capacities will decline. There is risk of social isolation. Family caregivers may struggle to cope. To make matters worse, some may even face financial exploitation."

Mr Lee's eyesight started to deteriorate four years ago when an infection set in after cataract surgery. He is completely blind in his left eye and his right has only 20 per cent vision.

Though his is a one-trolley operation, he can amass up to 50kg of things to sell on each trip. He collects newspapers or electronic items like fans, TV sets and radios.

On this day, he gets his hands on cardboard boxes, a speaker, computer parts and fluorescent lights. He has a workstation in his flat dedicated to ripping up electronic items to harvest copper or aluminium to sell.

He sells the items to a "higher class" karung guni neighbour who has a van to transport them to second-hand dealers. "It gives me the pocket money to drink coffee and I can walk around and enjoy the fresh air. Otherwise, sitting around is sian(boring)," he says.

His disabled wife died some 40 years ago and he is estranged from his three sons who are in their 40s. His five siblings have all died. "I don't know how to locate my sons and I don't want to. Anyway, this problem is common in many families," he says. He hardly talks to his friends or neighbours as he does not know what to talk to them about.

When loneliness strikes, he nurses a bottle of Tiger beer or Guinness stout and daydreams. "I dream of all that is impossible now - being a prime minister, being a big boss or having a girlfriend. The beer helps me fall asleep more easily," he says.

His jocular nature belies long years of hard work. The tips of his fingernails are black from dirt and grime. Dark calluses line his palms.

Mr Lee has no savings as in his younger days he was a low-wage earner and found it tough to save. He dropped out of primary school and had been an odd-job worker, provision store assistant and fish farmer.

Though finances are tight and he has not bought any new clothes in the last five years, he is resourceful.

During Chinese New Year, he notes when charities and grassroots groups hold festive events and collects hongbao there. He does not have a phone, so social workers from a nearby daycare centre have to visit his flat if they wish to contact him.

Thye Hua Kwan Moral Charities provides him lunch and dinner through its daily delivery services. Once a week, its home-help team does housekeeping chores for him.

Twice a week, he goes to the daycare centre run by Hua Mei Centre for Successful Ageing for physiotherapy, social activities and medical consultations.

Hua Mei social worker Wang Yu Hsuan says: "He is a very resilient man and though we worry about his safety when he goes on his karung guni rounds, we know he is familiar with the environment. He seems to be coping well now but when he loses his sight completely, he may need help with caregiving or require more befriending services."

As for Mr Lee, he says: "Life's tough. I don't have any family to take care of me, but I'm happy. When my eyesight goes, I hope to leave the world and not be a burden."


Janice Tai

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 28, 2016, with the headline 'The karung guni man 78 and nearly blind, but 'very resilient''. Print Edition | Subscribe