Braving rain, haze and snubs to sell tissue

This story was first published in The Straits Times on June 28, 2013

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TISSUE peddler Chia Chong Yong, 75, wears a Santa Claus hat and adorns his motorised wheelchair with sprays of artificial cherry blossoms and a Singapore flag.

"I like to decorate it nicely, so it's more eye-catching," he said. He was born without a right leg and has been selling tissue paper outside Tiong Bahru MRT station for five years. He also uses an old-fashioned bicycle horn to chase "competitors" away.

Unlicensed hawking is illegal in Singapore. The National Environment Agency (NEA), though, acknowledges that there are some among the illegal hawkers who are genuinely needy.

It works with the relevant authorities to help such cases, said an NEA spokesman. From 2004 until now, the agency has issued 390 licences for peddlers, of which 11 are for tissue-paper sellers.

Mr Chia was the only licensed peddler out of 12 The Straits Times found at hawker centres, near MRT stations and other busy spots. He has been accepted as part of the Singapore scene for many years, though many of his peers are often ignored and sometimes even shunned.

Some are itinerant sellers while others peddle their wares at one spot. Most brave rain, haze and other occupational hazards. 

"I have no choice; selling tissue is the only way I can earn money," said a peddler known only as Joe. The wheelchair-bound ex-technician has suffered from a "weak leg" since birth but faces competition for his peddling spot.

The 44-year-old, who has been operating near Paya Lebar MRT station for 16 years, said: "I chose this place because other places like Bedok and Kallang were already taken."

One seller in her 60s at Bugis MRT, who declined to be named, said: "The disabled and the amputees get much more, sometimes even up to $50 from one person."

Most have worked in manual jobs before but are now out of work due to old age or medical conditions. A lack of formal education, for many, prevents them from seeking proper employment.

One peddler, 87, who wanted to be known only as Mr Tan, is upset at his own inability to work. The former odd-job worker had a cancer operation nine months ago and   cannot write his own name.

Out of 50 tables of diners at Maxwell Food Centre, 22 bought tissue paper from him. He was working with a "friend" who declined to be interviewed.

Most sellers earn around $200 to $300 a month, and can take home as little as $10 a day.They also have to handle the pain of rejection.

The Straits Times observed one peddler near Lau Pa Sat for half an hour. Out of 395 passers-by, only two stopped to give $2 each. One declined the tissue paper.

Still, Singaporeans in general are sympathetic to the trade and some are even generous. One buyer, secretary Helen Chong, 50, said: "There's no way to tell if they are genuinely in need of help so I just give out of compassion for them. At that age, it might be difficult for them to find a job."

Air force engineer Ratna Ampalavanar, 55, gave $10 to a disabled seller in Orchard. He said: "$5 or $10 is just the cost of a meal for me; it's something I can still afford to  give."

Peddlers typically buy their supplies in bulk from department stores or supermarkets. A box of 12 tissue packets, for instance, may cost them only $1.20. They then sell up to five packets for $1.

Almost all the peddlers interviewed live in two-room, single-room or rental flats.

An amputee known only as Ahmad, 62, who was plying his trade in the Orchard underpass, said: "My daughters are useless. Strangers give me money, they (his daughters) don't support me."

The former security guard lost both legs from the knees down to diabetes two years ago. Having to go for dialysis on alternate days restricts him to "working" only thrice a week. He lives with his wife, who has a heart condition, in a two-room flat in Chai Chee.

Like most peddlers, he seemed determined to rely on himself rather than on government handouts. The Paya Lebar peddler, Joe, added: "My legs are disabled, but my hands and body are not."

Tiong Bahru counterpart Chai Tsok Cheng, 73, received an N95 mask from church workers so he could work through the haze.

He admitted he was "at the end of the road" but added: "We are not scared, because we need to survive. We don't steal or snatch money from people. What is important is our conscience."

This story was first published in The Straits Times on June 28, 2013

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