She toiled her entire life. In her twilight years, when she could finally relax, she did not quite know how to.
In the beginning, it was to bring up her two young sons after her husband died. And as the widow got on with age, she continued to work just to keep busy.
When Madam Ching Guan Eng, 86, was run over by a bus and killed at Marsiling Lane on Wednesday, she was collecting cardboard, something she did to pass the time.
Speaking to The New Paper yesterday at Madam Ching's wake in Marsiling, her sons and relatives painted a picture of a sprightly woman with a kind heart.
The oldest of eight children, Madam Ching came to Singapore from Kota Tinggi in Johor, Malaysia, nearly seven decades ago.
Her younger son, Mr Toon Mee Kai, a 61-year-old security guard, said she single-handedly raised him and his brother after their father died.
The family moved from kampung to kampung before settling in a three-room flat in Marsiling Drive in the late 1970s.
To put food on the table, Madam Ching worked a series of odd jobs including jobs in a clothing factory and a factory making kueh.
In the late 1960s, she was an amah (housemaid) for a family living in the Marsiling area.
This employer encouraged her to buy an HDB flat, said Madam Wang Kiaw Haw, 59, who is married to Mr Toon.
The couple, who have no children, share the flat with Madam Ching and her elder son, Mr Toon Ngee Suan, 64, who never married.
"At night, she would sit in the void deck talking to the neighbours until nearly 11pm. Everyone was her friend," Madam Wang, a sales assistant, told TNP in Mandarin.
Over the years, Madam Ching, a Hainanese, picked up a variety of dialects and could even speak a smattering of English and Malay. The octogenarian was very active.
"She could still stand very straight and walked very fast. Sometimes, we even had problems catching up with her," Madam Wang said. Her mother-in-law cooked dinner for the family and did the laundry.
The only time Madam Ching slowed down was in 2012, when she was hospitalised for about two weeks after a viral infection.
"At that time, she told me she didn't want to pick cardboard any more. She was going to stay home and rest. Six months later, she couldn't stand the boredom and was out again," Madam Wang said.
Then there were the animals. Various shopkeepers in the area spoke of "Auntie's cat", a white and brown moggie that she fed daily.
"Once, she came home with a baby mynah. She fed it, talked to it and raised it like a pet. When it grew big, she opened the cage but it didn't want to leave," said Madam Wang, adding that the bird acted like an alarm clock, waking Madam Ching from her afternoon naps.
Her days began at about 7am, when she would have a light breakfast before going out with her trolley to the neighbourhood centre about 1km away to look for cardboard.
She then took the cardboard to the nearby industrial estate and sold it for "$3 or $4", the elder Mr Toon, a retired deliveryman, said.
If it was still early, she sometimes went on another round of the neighbourhood for more cardboard.
It was not that she needed the money - her second son and daughter-in-law gave her $400 a month and paid for the household expenses.
She might take a break in between for a kopi-o. But the frugal widow always tried to save where she could, her children said.
On Wednesday, it was during her second round of daily collection when tragedy struck.
Her elder son had accompanied her earlier. After they sold the cardboard to a rag-and-bone man, he decided to stop for a cup of coffee at the hawker centre while his mother continued on her round.
He was shocked to later find out that the "cardboard auntie" killed in an accident was his mother.
Looking down, he said: "My mother just had her passport renewed a few months ago. It's still empty. She didn't even have a chance to visit her relatives in Malaysia."
Despite her advanced age, she visited her relatives in Kota Tinggi every year until her passport expired a few years ago. These were her only holidays, her elder son said.
Madam Ching's niece, Madam Yasmine Chang, 43, who lives in Malaysia, last saw her here in January last year.
She said: "My fondest memory of my aunt was during Chinese New Year. She would always bring cakes from Singapore when she visited us.
"It was the traditional type with decorative cream, and she carried it in a box all the way to Kota Tinggi. When it arrived, the cake would still look perfect."
Welling up, Madam Chang said: "My aunt was very thrifty. So even though an entire cake might not seem like much, it meant a lot to us."
This article was first published on Nov 14, 2014.
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