Confessions of a food court cleaner

Ever wondered what’s the story of every auntie/uncle who clears your leftovers in the food center?
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Auntie Ah Zhu (Let’s call her Auntie AZ) came to my table at Food Republic, Vivocity , repeatedly wanting to clear my plates I was still working on. By the 3rd time she came over, I realised it was because she wanted to wrap up her work (11pm at that time). She then noticed Josie fiddling with her notepad (kakao notepad giveaway from at an earlier event #startupasia), and remarked, “that’s a beautiful notebook” (in mandarin). I then asked if she wanted one too, and offered mine. She gleefully accepted it like a proud owner, telling us the notepad would be useful for her to take down any new telephone numbers.


I teased playfully, “Auntie, you sure it isn’t for 4D or lottery numbers?”

Auntie AZ surprised us all with her reply, “I am going blind in a year due to diabetes, and I needed a big notepad with my failing eyesight”.

Obviously confused, I asked why she was working out late and doing such heavy chores, instead of resting at home and taking care of her body. Auntie AZ then explained that none of her 3 working and married children are supporting her financially (the occasional $100 bucks every now and then could barely help), and she wanted to save enough so she would be able to care for herself when she would be blind. Her husband is simply too lazy and aloof to depend on, while she felt that she wasn’t a good enough mum when her kids were younger to justify caring for her. (e.g. not paying for their school fees during their polytechnic days, and not being attentive)

DAFUQ? Exactly what came up in my mind instantly! I reminded Auntie AZ she endured 9 months (making it a total of almost 30 months) of harboring them in the belly, and not forgetting 3 painful deliveries. No matter how nasty a mum she had been, her kids can never escape she giving birth to them.

Her guilt as a not-fantastic-mum was at best silly and naive; Mums are the most amazing people in the world. They can wipe the entire angry bird series and unlock level 100+ in candy crush, other than cooking the most delicious cuisines money can’t buy. The only guilt she should feel is her love for sugar, which she giggled in a child-like manner, “i just can’t avoid sweet things!”. I can’t imagine for a single moment how not 1, but all 3 kids can heartlessly ignore a diabetic mum patient who also endured extremely long hours at work putting them through their younger lives. Semi-luckily for Auntie AZ, one of her daughter-in-law was ensuring her husband connects to her occasionally.

Her pay of $1,300 monthly for working 6 days/week and 12 hours daily, after deducting CPF contributions, is hardly enough to sustain her treatments and living expenses. She also lamented that her legs were hurting from pushing the trolley and dragging the pail full of plates. In a slip of tongue, she revealed her suicidal tendencies, but kept positive at the thoughts/sights of her beloved grandkids. Under her breath, Auntie AZ murmured, “they are really cute…” (now I know why my candycrusher mum kept hurrying me for kids and not being so concerned about who the partner is).

But what is truly disappointing, as concluded by my friends Nicole LimJosie LaiAbhinav Vinay ChandranAzmie Øregano who were with me, is the fact Auntie AZ is not alone. There are many similar, if not more unfortunate, old folks who are fighting to survive each day, collecting cans/papers and cleaning tables, with irresponsible, negligent children who have selfishly decided to cut off ties. I have met this 60+ year old eldery with swollen legs who collects newspapers/ cardboxes along Keong Saik road. She was looking for leftover food in the bins when I was leaving for home. Someone beat me to offering to buy her dinner – I then tried to help carry her load (which is easily 10kg) and walk her home, but she was very egoistic and refused my help – she was happy to just have a chat, and I supposed that’s all I could do.

singapore-elderly(Photo credits to

I am typing this at 5am on a Sat morning so I will not forget any details (even after 2 drinks), and not waste a single second moment I got home. I would like to appeal for any advice on government support Auntie AZ can seek, and if anyone can help her. I have her home contact number which I will gladly give you if you PM me, all I asked of is to be tactful when you speak to her. Let her know you are referred to by “Wen Bo or 文博”, whom she met in the food court on Friday night with a bunch of friends, so she knows the context.

If you are pretty helpless like the keyboard warrior me who isn’t familiar with the government support, you could start clearing your own plates and dishes, and make the lives of Auntie AZ and her colleagues much easier in future. The very least you can do is not to mess things up your table too. If you have any friends who have such selfish mentalities like her kids, educate them.

And hey, don’t forget to thank the our cleaner heroes, and maybe engage in a conversation. Being a listening ear is effortless and goes a long way.

Photo credits to TNP (just for illustration purpose)

1) A MP has contacted me along with many others to volunteer their help, and TRE has also published it along with TOC and Real Singapore sharing on Facebook. Thanks for playing your part in creating this awareness. There is a total of more than 700 share, and more than 1,000 likes on the Facebook photo + the article.

2) Please don’t go down the silly slippery slope of “if we clean our own trays the cleaners will lose their jobs, so we shouldn’t clear our trays”. We all know Singapore is not about to turn gracious overnight, and you might as well suggest we should all mess up the plates to create more jobs. Don’t be ridiculous, and be smart about this.

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