Who was Mr Tay?

Mr Tay Cheng Tian, 54, might look stern but once he warmed up, he was quite the joker. Before his death on Nov 4, 2017, Mr Tay quipped about having a getai at his deathbed and having a plant burial.
A candle, an artificial plant and a laminated Kuan Yin image on Mr Tay's bedside table. The red packet contains an amulet that an Assisi worker had gone to the temple earlier in the day to obtain when she found out that his condition had worsened.
A candle, an artificial plant and a laminated Kuan Yin image on Mr Tay's bedside table. The red packet contains an amulet that an Assisi worker had gone to the temple earlier in the day to obtain when she found out that his condition had worsened.
Volunteer Juliana Chia massaging Mr Tay's head and neck with ointment during her shift on Nov 2.
Volunteer Juliana Chia massaging Mr Tay's head and neck with ointment during her shift on Nov 2.
Mr Tay showing off a tall Tiger beer glass that he won from one of the many beer drinking competitions he used to take part in during his last visit home on Oct 14.
Mr Tay showing off a tall Tiger beer glass that he won from one of the many beer drinking competitions he used to take part in during his last visit home on Oct 14.

The clock was ticking and Mr Tay Cheng Tian, 54, wanted to seize and savour every last minute of it.

One of his last wishes was for a seafood meal in Chinatown. When volunteers took him there in a wheelchair one Saturday in October, he developed a craving for tempura prawns and the group hopped from restaurant to restaurant looking for it. They finally settled on a place, and Mr Tay tucked into prawn fritters, broccoli with scallops and bamboo clams accompanied by small sips of Baron beer.

He used to chug a few bottles of beer at the coffee shop after his odd-job labours every day and had a room filled with beer paraphernalia - calendars with "beer girls" and trophies from drinking contests.

Asked about his favourite foods, he listed laksa, pig intestines, lobster, roast duck, smelly tofu, char kway teow, satay bee hoon, laksa, fishball noodles and roti prata.

In early October, volunteers and staff of Assisi Hospice organised a durian party for him. He requested Mao Shan Wang durians. "I wanted it because I had never tasted premium durians before," said Mr Tay, who polished off four seeds.

He admitted that he had tried a lot of things, including drugs. He once took Ecstasy at a disco in Malaysia.

Mr Tay also wanted to visit the casino as "people keep talking about it but I have never been there".

He seemed invigorated once he entered the casino, a trip paid for by his sister. "He got out of the wheelchair and, like a boss, pushed it ahead of himself as he sauntered around to decide which counter to play at," said medical social worker Samantha Soh, 42. She and volunteers Jaki Fisher and Paul Koh took him there during the Mid-Autumn Festival.

Luck was on his side.

 
 
 

"It was like God saying he was special that day," said Ms Fisher, half joking. Mr Tay won about $1,900, winnings which he used to pay for the seafood meal with the volunteers.

Mr Tay used to bet on horses and 4-D. It was over gambling debts that he fell out with his brother, 52, a driver. They last spoke two years ago at their mother's wake. Mr Tay's sister, a 51-year-old IT support staff, visited him once a week at the hospice. The bachelor had no other immediate family members. His father, a security guard, died in 2005.

He grew up in a rented flat in Lengkok Bahru, dropped out of school in Primary 6 and joined Kim Keat Vocational Institute. He did odd jobs like transporting goods, laying telephone cables, carrying rice as well as painting.

His happiest memories harked back to when he kept fishes and birds and caught spiders. He would go "spider fighting" at the Botanic Gardens.

In the four-room flat in Choa Chu Kang where he used to live with his sister and her family, there is a tank filled with luohan fishes. At the hospice, his favourite part of the day was to smoke next to the koi pond.

Mr Tay also loved song and dance. At his birthday party at the hospice on Oct 19, he danced to Cantopop singer Sally Yeh's Xiao Sa Zou Yi Hui (roughly translated to "walking gracefully through life").

The staff and volunteers danced and cheered him on as disco lights swirled around them. Mr Tay managed to stand on his swollen feet and danced for five minutes.

He received his gifts - a card and stuffed tiger (his Chinese zodiac sign) - thanking his new friends for making time for him. As he was fed mouthfuls of the birthday cake baked by Assisi's chief executive Choo Shiu Ling, he removed his spectacles to read the card.

The party was then over.

As if reminded that his time was running out, Mr Tay became broody and pensive, breaking away from the group for a smoke break outside.

Earlier, he had asked if he could delay the celebration - a feeble attempt perhaps to stall for more time, time that had grown ever more precious as it ran out.

Janice Tai

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 10, 2017, with the headline 'Who was Mr Tay?'. Print Edition | Subscribe