International Women’s Day: The strength of an elderly cardboard collector

  • This week, TheHomeGround Asia celebrates International Women’s Day on 8 March by featuring six inspiring women who continue to eschew outdated notions of being the ‘weaker sex’, and what a woman’s accepted and expected roles are in society.
  • But dealing with the inequalities of sex-based discrimination is only the surface of it. With the intersection of other factors, such as gender, sexuality, disability, religion, class and race, carving out a life that is true for these women – one they can be happy with – has been no mean feat.

Seventy-four-year-old Madam Ooi Ah Yang has been collecting cardboard waste for more than half her life. 

Every day, she makes a 45-minute-walk under the blazing, afternoon sun, pushing a trolley with folded cardboard pieces stacked as high as her petite frame, to the factory to sell the paper scrap she has painstakingly picked up in the neighbourhood. 

Still, the lady maintains a cheerful disposition, gleefully comparing her tanned skin to mine.

Even though she has lived a tough life, Mdm Ooi’s strength of character is admirable. Unhindered by an ailing knee or old age, Mdm Ooi plods on with impressive tenacity, doing what is necessary to support herself and her three siblings.

NOTE: This interview was edited for clarity and length, and has been translated from Mandarin. 

READ: International Women’s Day: Abused but Unbeaten

Mdm Ooi Ah Yang: I have been collecting cardboard for over 40 years, from when I was young until now. It’s a tough job. In the past, we would wait for the lorry to come by and collect the cardboard, but we never knew whether it would show up that day. If it doesn’t come, I wouldn’t know where to keep the collected cardboard. If I leave the cardboard here [at the corridor outside her house], it will be a fire hazard. I spent so much trouble collecting the cardboard, if it were to all be lost, I won’t be able to sell it for any money. It is very upsetting.

Mdm Ooi at the corridor outside her home with the cardboard she has collected.
Mdm Ooi at the corridor outside her home with the cardboard she has collected.

I collect cardboard because my mum was poor, and my family is now very poor. They relied on me to go out and work, it was a tough life. I had a colleague who saw that I was struggling, so she recommended me for a job at the hostels in the National University of Singapore (NUS). I worked there for 28 years and retired three years ago. At the dormitories, the students were very nice but the office staff would bully me. Because I needed the money, I stayed on for 28 years, until I turned 70. 

Collecting cardboard now, I don’t make much money. But I still need to continue to sell it. That’s where I will be going later this afternoon, to sell the cardboard. 

TheHomeGround: Do you make the trip to collect cardboard and sell them every day? 

Mdm Ooi: Now, my life is actually a little bit better. I rely on others to give me cardboard. The store owners I frequent will often leave me cardboard. I had gained a little bit of recognition after being featured in the media, so people will help me now. 

Mdm Ooi relies on stall owners who leave their cardboard waste out for her to collect.
Mdm Ooi relies on stall owners who leave their cardboard waste out for her to collect.

Sometimes, students from universities and polytechnics will come and look for me after seeing me on Facebook. They want to experience what it is like to collect cardboard for a living. There is one student from Nanyang Technological University that is going to come down in mid-March and accompany me to collect cardboard for one day. He asked me if collecting cardboard is tough. I told him that after he does it for one day, he will be scared and won’t want to do it anymore. It’s a hard job, you don’t earn much. But life is such. 

THG: Do you have any dependents relying on you? 

Mdm Ooi: Yes, my older brother. I also have a good-for-nothing younger brother, which is why I have to work so hard, to take care of my family. 

My older brother recently fell down, so he’s now in the hospital. Currently, the bone in his thigh has healed, but he still requires physiotherapy to learn how to walk again. 

I will also need to go for surgery in May. My meniscus has worn down due to old age, so I will require surgery to repair it. The doctor told me that if I don’t have surgery, I may not be able to walk after two to three years. 

READ: International Women’s Day: Single Motherhood A Chance to Turn Her Life Around

THG: Does your knee hurt now when you are walking? 

Mdm Ooi: It’s not so bad. The pain has reduced since I started drinking milk every morning. Before that, it would hurt more. I am still healthy now, I thank Buddha for blessing me with a healthy body. Other than my knee, everything else is fine. Since I am still healthy, I can continue working. I will continue working until the day I am unable to anymore. Maybe, by that time, I will have departed this world. 

THG: Indeed, staying healthy is definitely the most important. Besides the pain in your leg, do you face any challenges when you are collecting cardboard? 

Mdm Ooi: Sometimes, people will steal the cardboard that I have selected, and sell them! It makes me really mad. I usually collect cardboard at the market. There are some stall owners who will leave their cardboard for me. I will leave them in a pile because there’s too much for me to manage in one go, but sometimes, people will try to steal them.

There are times when others will attempt to steal the cardboard she has painstakingly collected, but she is not afraid to speak up for herself.
There are times when others will attempt to steal the cardboard she has painstakingly collected, but she is not afraid to speak up for herself.

I will get angry and tell them that the cardboard is mine. I will scold them. After that, they will tell me that I am a bad person who is always picking a fight with others. But these cardboard pieces are the ones that I have painstakingly collected, if someone is taking away my hard work, I will definitely be angry, right? After all, I rely on this to feed myself. When I scold them, I feel a little bit better.

For those who think I am a bad person, did they consider that they might be one too? They didn’t consider me, they just think that if I leave the cardboard pieces there temporarily, they are free to take it. They didn’t think about the hard work that goes into collecting it, only for them to take it away. Of course I will be angry. I think anyone else in my situation will be angry too.

THG: Is there anyone who helps you out as well? 

Mdm Ooi: Since my circumstances are relatively poorer, there are people who will try to help me. They tell me, ‘Auntie, I give you cardboard.’ So I will just collect from them. In return, I will sometimes help them take out their trash, and they will be very willing to give me their cardboard. We help each other. 

READ: International Women’s Day: Queer, Proud and Unstoppable

THG: Can you tell me more about your day? Where do you deliver the cardboard to after you collect it? 

Mdm Ooi: After I collect the cardboard, I will pack them nicely then push it to the factory to sell. Since my leg hurts now, I walk a little slower. The journey there takes me about 45 minutes one-way. I will make the trip down every afternoon. Selling the cardboard allows me to earn three to four dollars, or up to five dollars on good days, but it is not guaranteed. 

Mdm Ooi walking to the factory with the cardboard pieces
Every afternoon, Mdm Ooi will make the 45-minute walk to the factory to sell the cardboard pieces.

Sometimes, when people give me more cardboard, I can make more. Sometimes, I will meet some familiar faces, and they will give me some money to help out. I am very thankful for that, I am very blessed. Sometimes, I will bump into volunteers from charity organisations that help me and they will offer me a meal. But I tell them it’s okay, because the organisations provide us with food. Happy People Helping People also comes down once a month to drop off some household necessities. This way, our lives are a little bit easier.

THG: Are there any stereotypes relating to your job that you wish to address? 

Mdm Ooi: There are people who will be prejudiced against me. People these days, nobody wants to collect cardboard, right? Sometimes kids will say I am a karang guni (a rag-and-bone man), I will tell them I am not a karang guni, I only collect cardboard. Sometimes the stall owners I collect cardboard from, they will also look down on me.

READ: International Women’s Day: Paving the Way for Sex Workers’ Rights

THG: Is there anything you wish to say to these people who look down on you? 

Mdm Ooi: Don’t look down on me. I am poor. I do this [collect cardboard] so that I can have a little bit more freedom and earn a little bit of money for myself. When I feel up to it, I will collect more cardboard; when I am tired, I collect less. It is just for me to have a little bit more freedom. 

She makes four to five dollars a day selling cardboard waste.

I know people will see me in a different light, even children. Their parents don’t understand, they don’t explain to the children that actually, what we do is very tough.

THG: In light of International Women’s Day, what are your hopes for the women of Singapore? 

Mdm Ooi: I hope that they will be strong. Women these days are not bad. The women born today have lives a bit easier. They work hard, and they don’t do jobs that will result in others looking down on them as the ‘weaker sex’. They are actually very strong. 

For myself, I don’t think I am strong. I didn’t have a choice [but to do this job]. I rely on it to eat, so I have no choice but to work. However much I can work, I work. Later, I will be pushing my trolley down to the factory to sell the cardboard. After that, I will come home and watch television. My days pass like this. 

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