by Fr. Joe Maier, C.Ss.R.
Published by the Bangkok Post, Sunday Spectrum, June 1, 2014
Auntie Boon Mee looks and carries on in life pretty much how you’d expect a high-class Klong Toey slum pioneer woman to look and carry on.
Not that she “can run faster than a speeding bullet or jump over tall buildings in a single bound” or do any of that stuff — the street-sweeper says she couldn’t do that even when she was young and first moved with her new husband to the Chao Phraya riverside swamp called Klong Toey 60 years ago.
She’s pure, unadulterated Klong Toey pioneer stock. Eighty-two years old — remembers the year for sure, as her mum told her, and also that she was born on a Thursday. Teacher’s day. Everything else is lost. The date on her ID card was invented years ago, when some kind official registered a good day and month to be born.
She’s 20,000 baht in debt at the moment. That’s what she admits to; it’s probably more, but in Klong Toey’s debt-ridden culture, it’s “un-slumlike” to admit to more.
Borrowed from the neighbouring noodle shop at 10% per month, her debt shot up. She needed cash to buy a motorcycle taxi for her youngest and only remaining son. In street trash talk, he’s called “Blurr”. He’s OK as a motorcycle taxi driver on short trips. Not so safe otherwise.
That’s how she got her shoulder banged up — riding sidesaddle on Blurr’s motorcycle to get one of her brooms fixed. He skidded, she slipped. She wouldn’t go to the hospital. Said: “No need. I’m not bleeding.”
Six decades ago, her village wedding was done all proper-like. Too poor for a dowry, her mum asked for a brass ring — a wedding ring to show respect and dignity. Thus, approval of their elders and blessings were given and taken.
The morning after her wedding, she and new husband asked for “a going away blessing” so her mum and dad gave them rice cooked in banana leaves for when they got hungry along the way. They said their goodbyes and set out to seek their fame and fortune.
The word was there was work and wages in the Klong Toey river swamp. You could move in for free and for work: carry 100kg rice sacks on your back from the wharf onto the ships. Women were hired to sweep and clean. So they boarded an early morning bus to Bangkok and then walked to Klong Toey. Her mum had said, “Girl, stay near the river, there’s always fish.” Mum didn’t know if there were black crabs around Klong Toey, but she thought there might be.
Auntie Boon Mee had grown up in mangrove trees and mud flats 50km from Bangkok. Her mum and dad had a tiny wooden boat. They caught small, black, saltwater crabs used in Thai spicy food, sometimes by hand with no gloves for protection against the snipping of the claws.
At Klong Toey, Auntie Boon Mee and her husband were happy newlywed pioneers. Their first home was a lean-to shack salvaged from scrap wood. They had work, a home and nice slum neighbours. She patched up an old mosquito net for sleeping. They began a family ... raised two children in Klong Toey, where they thought they could give them a future. But the swamp slum was not always kind. Often, even now, she laments: “I should have taken my boys back to the mangrove trees and taught them to catch black crabs bare-handed as I learned from my mum and dad.”
Her first son died at 20. He was sick from “whatever”, that was brought on by injecting heroin into his veins along with various other “whatever else” he could put into a needle.
He had been arrested and was awaiting sentencing when he convulsed in the local jail. So the good policeman, a neighbour and fellow settler, solemnly and without a smile, told Auntie Boon Mee that the arrest of her drug addict son “was a case of mistaken identity”. She quickly borrowed a wheelbarrow from a neighbour, got him into it as best she could and carted him home. He died a couple of hours later. Everyone said: “Thank goodness he died at home. A police cell is not a good place to leave your ghost.”
Auntie Boon Mee had no money for a coffin. But the man at the Benevolent Chinese Society liked her, knew of her street sweeping and donated his best plywood casket.
Her husband died shortly thereafter. One early dawn, she was sweeping outside their shack when she heard him groan and collapse. He died in her arms, not Hollywood style, but with him gasping for air while her youngest son — Blurr, the motorcycle taxi guy — shouted “Dad, breathe!” and she blew air into her husband’s mouth. He had come around before, she says, but not this time.
After her husband died and was cremated in another donated plywood casket, she still had three small children living with her. She doesn’t know exactly how they ended up with her. They were stray kids. They’d help her sweep the streets and one morning they simply followed her home.
She used to spoon-feed these three children, who are now grown up. When neighbours asked why she spoon-fed them, she explained that she didn’t have much money, almost nothing, and she wanted all three to eat at well as they could. She didn’t want them to fight over their food so she dished it out by spoon, making it equal. This way, no one would go away hungry and no one got more than another.
It was about that time she got more into sweeping. She wanted the area in front of her shack to look nice; wanted her “orphans” to feel proud of their home. The place didn’t need to be dirty and filled with garbage.
Now that’s what she’s known for. A kind grandmother and Klong Toey street-sweeper. Plus, a bit of gambling in the local Jhap Yee Gee — 10 baht a chance and 100 baht if you win. A winner each hour, 12 hours a day.
She’s never accepted money for keeping the slum clean.
Fresh garbage? She’d never sweep that. Leave it for hungry cats and stray dogs. “They have to eat, too,” she says. Even the rats. Feeding strays plus seeking intercession at the local Sacred Tree brings her good luck at the local Jhap Yee Gee, she says.
But of late — the past few months — her luck has changed. She’s losing more than winning. She’s asked a woman neighbour — the same age and known for telling fortunes — if this string of bad luck comes from catching all those small, black, saltwater crabs when she was a girl.
Or maybe she didn’t make enough merit while praying for the souls of her first son and husband. You never can be sure about these heavenly matters.
So she sweeps the streets of the slum — her way of paying back and saying thanks for her life along the river and for her slum neighbours, and, even, for the bad patches she has faced.
A while back — maybe four years — it was announced on the loud speakers that Auntie Boon Mee was now duly elected. She was second in charge after the newly elected president of the Slum Committee.
Everyone was congratulating her and she didn’t have a clue. People were buying her “shots”. (Special medicine that’s a morning wake up for her aching bones. Some folks have a morning wake-up cup of coffee, others ...)
The street-sweeper of Klong Toey had won the slum election. It happened this way.
There are no secrets in our slum and moneylenders are not unaware. They needed her on their ballot. So they went to Auntie Boon Mee and said: “Auntie, let us put your name on our local election ticket and we’ll pay for the motorcycle and make your debts disappear.” They did not say: With a majority vote, government improvement projects will come to our slum, and of course, there might always be a bit left over for the local politicians.
She said: “Absolutely not.” They put her on the ticket anyway. She got votes. Lots and lots.
Embarrassed, not knowing what to do, early the next morning she went and swept around the Sacred Tree near the Klong Toey walk-up flats, seeking wisdom. She left her broom there. Somehow there was now a sacredness about the broom. She said she felt better: it would be OK to accept the position of vice-president. She said no bribes. However, if the moneylenders did not come around and bother her any more, well, that would be a relief.
But there was one problem.
Her hair had grown out — returned to its natural colour of grey. This is an embarrassment. In Klong Toey, no matter what your age, your hair must be black. Rarely grey at the edges. So she accepted a proper hair colouring from her hairdresser. As a gift. Not a bribe.
A couple of mornings ago, she had just finished her special Klong Toey breakfast: First, a morning shot of “bone medicine”, as she calls it. Second a glass of sweet local coffee with a raw egg mixed in. Third, a Jhap Yee Gee lottery ticket. Although she didn’t win, she says her luck is changing. She’s winning more often. Probably because of her sweeping around that Sacred Tree.
It began to rain. Some children going to school asked her: “Auntie Boon Mee, why do you sweep while it’s raining?”
She replied: “My children, I can’t help it if it rains while I am sweeping. That’s not my fault. Blame the rain.”
And so, there you have it. Auntie Boon Mee, a world-class street-sweeper, wearing out one broom per week, and our slum’s very own second-in-charge. Elected by the people, for the people. Maybe she can’t run faster than a speeding bullet or jump over tall buildings in a single bound, but she is much more than a fictional superhero to us.
She’s a wonderful role model and our high-class Klong Toey swamp slum pioneer. It’s a privilege to know her.