I messaged a friend recently, after meeting a young man still in school but intent on getting work experience and exposure. I have been impressed with the young people I am interviewing for internship. They are not only hardworking, often juggling a few part-time jobs and projects, they are also smart and driven. My friends are surprised by my impressions. After all, the so-called ‘Strawberry Generation’, while not as spoiled as the rich single child in China, are often accused of being ambitious yet laid-back, socially aware yet selfish, and they seem to be born with an imposing sense of entitlement. Admittedly, they have not gone through the hardship of the pioneer generation. Yet talking to them, I realise life for the so-called ‘Millennials’ is anything but easy.
Watching Jack Neo’s ‘Long Long Time Ago’, I suddenly saw a new context. I come from a generation which benefitted directly from the hard work of our pioneers. Our pioneers are a mix of immigrants and natives who must first find the means to make a living. Their lives were more about survival. It was more about how to start a life, than about how to live one. There were little options. It would have to be a life of strive, to make ends meet, to build the basics of having a roof over their heads and having food on their tables. Which was why the connection between ‘Long Long Time Ago’ and the older audiences was immediate. There is no romance. From the start, the protagonists in the film have to find ways to survive.
Aileen Tan’s character survives the tribulations and bias against daughters in a traditional Asian family. But her main survival trait is her willingness and commitment to work hard and continue to work hard. She is as relentless as she is confident that if she worked hard, she could make a honest living and provide for her family. She represents the many men and women of her time, who were fearlessly fearful of being jobless and homeless. There was no education or qualification to speak of. There was no experience or skill to begin with. You find something. You learn and you make do. And slowly it became a livelihood. Aileen’s character found a way to make money by making and selling soya bean drink at the market place. She became a hawker.
I met Tiah Kim Teck and Lee Chey Hwa, married for twenty-two years, with a 20 year old son. They can remember only two short holidays they took. One to Penang and the other to Bangkok, both during the Chinese New Year breaks when they closed their store, Teck Hwa Soya Bean Drink, at Toa Payoh Lorong One, Block 217, #02-15. Other than Mondays when they rest, they wake up at 4am, reach their store by 5am to get it ready for business at 7am, then sell their drinks till about 2 to 3pm. They stand for over 10 hours at a stretch. Kim Teck’s family has been selling soya bean drink for close to 50 years. There are other siblings in the family, but he took over from his father and helped his mother until she retired 6 years ago.
Kim Teck’s father passed away when he was 11 years old. He married Chey Hwa when he was 33 and she was 26 years old. Both of them never question if they should take over the family business. It was both as a sense of duty and because there was no other option. Life was hard. Initially they made their soya bean drink the traditional way. Buying the beans, grinding and then squeezing the soya milk from the beans. Now although they buy their soya milk from a factory, each day they will taste their drinks, to ensure the preparation process is not compromised, to uphold a quality that has built a credible and enduring image for their Toa Payoh store through the years.
About 15 years ago, Mr and Mrs Tiah thought they could not go on. Business was bad. Could traditional hawkers survive the evolving trends of the market place? But they persevered. The moved from the ground floor to the first level where there are more customers, they experimented with more variety of drinks, while making sure their main soya bean drink remained the crowd puller with its distinct quality and taste. They weathered their worst period and business started to pick up. Now their business is much better. Yet when asked, they would prefer their son pursue a different career instead of being a hawker like them. Looking back, theirs was the Baby Boomers’ rite of passage, a part of the pioneering spirit of endurance, grit and resilience.
Ask any fresh graduate and you will be given a raw account of how impossibly difficult it is to land a good job. My friend would concur that local millennials are hungry to succeed. But he would add that a certain spirit is missing. That of making a decent living with your bare hands, building something from scratch for the next generation, to sacrifice and to uphold standards. I don’t know if I can agree with my friend. The millennials are different. Because the world is now different. I was with a young man who told me he sees a new pioneering spirit taking shape. One that embodies new values. We were each having a soya bean drink after food at the Toa Payoh store. He excused himself to finish a text message on his smart phone before adding, “I am not belittling our pioneers. But sometimes I wish life was simpler like theirs. I wish you can make a living just from making a good soya bean drink like this”. His eyes were tired but he smiled. On his face, I caught a glimpse of the new pioneering spirit.