The rainy season has definitively arrived to Thailand. Heavy, dark clouds hang over the streets of Bangkok, the back alleys flood every night and the traffic is at a complete standstill. It might be inconvenient to move around and annoying that the laundry never dries.
But at Mercy’s preschools the sound of 3000 children singing the National Anthem fills the classrooms with warmth, at our Janusz Korczak vocational school they’re reciting the Thai, English AND the Cambodian alphabet, putting a big smile on the teachers’ faces; and in Bangkok’s biggest fresh marked the migrant children are naming all the animals they know in English – making their parents forget their struggles for a moment.
Life goes on in the slums of Bangkok and at Mercy Centre we continue what we have been doing for the last 45 years.
Saturday 25 March we opened our doors to longtime friends and partners, to mark our anniversary and show our gratitude and appreciation for the pivotal support received over the years. Thank you for being our contributor of prayers, love, kindness and generosity.
But we also underline that Mercy Centre’s job is far from done.
Every week our social workers are saving children from abusive home and dangerous situation. Children that don’t have anyone that listens to them, no one that recognises their struggles and needs.
Many a time individuals, who used to be a Mercy child, reaches out to our staff, quietly and humbly asking for a hand, some support. They got off track and need some guidance. It might have been ten, fifteen years since last time but Mercy is still home.
It is not said that a child that was “saved” by our staff, got their education and upbringing at Mercy, are fully prepared and ready to take on life when they leave “the nest”. Over and over again we see that the ordeals you experience the first couple of years of your life has a very strong impact on your future. Not having a stable family situation, being surrounded by bad influence like drugs, abuse or general neglect leaves a gap in your confidence, in your well being for many years to come. To grow up in a home without healthy role models leaves a scar.
We listen to the children and then try to follow their ways. We work FOR the children, FOR the poorest of the poor – it might be a slow, quiet path to prosperity, but rather stay on the right path for a 100 years, than get off track and loose grip of our mission.
We at Mercy Centre cannot replace a blood family, but we are our own household, our own proud clan. We understand each other. Don’t have to say much when you come here, your 100 brothers and sisters “gets you”.
Thank you for being our friend and supporter – we are truly grateful.
Fr. Joe and all the children in the shanty slums of Klong Toey
An amorous deck hand learned a painful lesson when he targeted a proud and resourceful Klong Toey girl as his child bride
By Father Joe Maier, C.Ss.R.
We never knew mum when she was young and not yet ravaged by cheap booze and hard hot years under the Southeast Asian sun doing unskilled sweatshop labour, living wherever there was work on the decks and holds of rusty out-of-date cargo ships in the Bay of Bangkok.
When only daughter Miss Tip whispered to mum "Today's my 14th birthday", there on the cargo ship, mum had another excuse to get hammered one more time. There wasn't much beauty left, but even the slight traces still showed she was a beauty in her days of yesteryear. Just like Miss Tip, a Klong Toey beauty with a good complexion and sturdy stature.
Mum was an amiable drunk who would agree to almost anything after a few. That's when this guy -- a fellow sweat on the cleaning crew -- told hammered mum he wanted to buy Miss Tip. True, he used some nicer words, but the meaning was the same.
You see, all this started with this sweat, missing a couple of teeth, going bald in front, with arm tattoos. But not with proper meaning and symbols, like from prison, nor even the tiger tattoo. He was a day hire contracted to temporary work on the ship. No one knew him very well. He was a stranger. Not Klong Toey born. Didn't go to school here.
He came up to hammered mum, big grin, showing his missing teeth. Came right up to her, right there on the deck, in front of everyone. Offered 4,000 baht for the hand in matrimony of 14-year-old Miss Tip.
Proud of himself, like he was doing mum and Miss Tip a favour, he said the ship's captain could say the words and make it formal and all legal, which wasn't true but sounded uppity yuppity. Besides, the captain could say it in Chinese as this was an old Chinese leased cargo ship. Certainly unsafe in a storm.
Mum's words were quite clear. We are not low class from the rice fields -- my daughter is a Bangkok-born Klong Toey girl and we have dignity. She's strong and healthy and can hoist and carry 50kg rice sacks better than most of you men. And she's pretty with nice skin, has good teeth and can work all day in the sun and not get sick. And no one has ever touched her, and if you do, I shall toss you off the side of this ship.
In spite of the booze, or maybe because of it, mum knew of these things. Things you don't always learn in school. Her earlier days weren't always "pretty please with sugar on it and flouncy pink". She and a neighbour lady, totally loyal to the end, who rushed mum to the hospital when she came back on the bus from the ship … but back to that in a moment.
These good ladies had worked a Klong Toey pleasure place for lonely sailors at the mouth of the port, just a few steps from the ships and no customs officials and immigration folks to deal with. And a nicer place called the Mosquito Bar (now closed), also at the mouth of the port. Air conditioning, karaoke and all. Mum and her neighbour had a reputation with the Port Authority Police. Any amorous sailor who advanced too boldly would be snookered with unopened beer bottles by mum and her neighbour.
Back to the wedding plans. Mum, quite indignantly, said no dice, it has to be at least 4,500 baht. But the sweat didn't have that much cash. He would have to pay in weekly instalments. Mum said again no dice, the money has to be up front and in cash now, and not just promises. Besides, what if you don't like my beautiful daughter Tippy. You can't just return her as damaged goods, give her back, like, trade her in … and expect your money back.
When Miss Tip, who was asleep on the deck, heard about this, and then realised they were talking about her and her life, she was horrified. The sweat came over and tried to put his arm around her. In self-defence, she kicked him in his lower regions. Screamed at mum. I hate you. I hate all of you.
Seeing no place to hide, she tried to crawl over the railing, to jump that dangerously long way down off the side of the ship into the ocean. Death would be better than giving herself to this sweat who wanted her for 4,500 baht in weekly instalments.
She didn't quite make it over the rail. Some quick-acting folk grabbed her in time and wrestled her down. The sweat came over. She managed to kick him again, but this time she had a better position and really kicked him hard.
That ended any marriage plans.
The captain was totally miffed. He radioed for a "lighter" and put Miss Tip, somewhat hysterical, and her drunk mum on the small boat to the wharf about half a kilometre away. He shouted harsh words for them to never come back. He sent the Klong Toey foreman with them and told him to make sure they had pocket money for the three-hour bus trip to Bangkok.
The story doesn't get any easier.
The foreman made sure mum and daughter boarded the right bus. At first the bus people weren't going to let dishevelled mum on the bus, but Tip promised she would take care of her, keep her quiet and make sure there were no problems. There weren't. Mum slept all the way. Yes, she snored loudly but Tip kept shaking her.
Arriving at the Ekamai bus terminal, 10 minutes from Klong Toey, Tip had calmed down after the three-hour bus ride. Knowing she was safe for the moment, she got mum to their rented shack.
Taking one look at mum, her loyal neighbour lady from years gone by brought Miss Tip to us in the slums for safe keeping before taking mum to the emergency unit of the nearest hospital.
Mum died there three days later. Never left the hospital. Hardening of the liver, plus complications. As the nurses told the story, mum died gasping "Tell Tip I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
At the cremation, the sweat with the bad teeth who wanted to pay Tip's dowry price in weekly instalments showed up to pay respect.
He was repentant. Tried one more time. Told Miss Tip that he would take her in. She could be his wife. He would take care of her. They could work on the ship together. He also told his story that he had given Tip's mum 2,000 baht as a down payment. That's when he said, if she refused, he wanted that money back that he had paid her mum, now lying dead in a clapboard casket with no lid, donated by the benevolent society for the very poor.
Tip panicked again. Ran out of the temple into the nearby slaughterhouse. She said later she felt safe there with the pigs and a couple of stray dogs who lived next to that particular holding pen.
Seems that though she was a stranger, the dogs took an immediate liking to her. The cremation went on. Tip came back once she saw a policeman there and felt safe.
Mum had worked, sometimes for two or three weeks, on cargo ships anchored off the coast some three hours from Bangkok. She was part of a day/night team that brought their own cooking utensils, living literally on the deck of the ship. Cleaning, working in the hold of the ship. Anything. Getting 350 baht for working shifts of six to eight hours.
Hammered mum had been hauling her daughter Tip along with her for five or six years. There was no one at home in Klong Toey to care for her, and Tip could also earn money. She was safe -- until this sweat with bad teeth wanted a child wife.
Miss Tip is safe now and in school. Enrolled even though she is beginning at 14 years of age. It's never too late. Now Miss Tip also wears a locket around her neck with an old picture of mum when she was pretty. She says mum is in heaven and has stopped drinking. She never knew her dad, but mum used to say he fell off the side of a ship in a storm. That was a couple of months before Miss Tip was born.
Back to the sweat. One of our house mums, a sturdy lady, is a distant cousin from the same village as the sweat. She knows why years ago, according to village law and lore, the sweat had to leave the village suddenly and never return, at least for 20 years. She told this to the local police and they kindly mentioned this to him, so he is out of the picture. The sweat doesn't dare come around now.
It's 100 days now since mum died, so schoolgirl Tip brought two lotus leaves the fresh market lady had given her. She wouldn't accept any money for them because Tip said she wanted them for the ceremony to pray for her mum, and that mum didn't drink in heaven.
A snippet of mum's hair and a bit of an old dress were placed in the folded lotus leaves. Tip took them to the temple to place them at the foot of one of the sacred trees, sending away any bad spirits. Together with us she placed a medal of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who protects children.
Tomorrow is another school day. A happy day. She wants to be a teacher and teach little girls like herself.
The children are so very proud. They tell all their friends: “I’ve got a new home” and my mum says that she didn’t have to borrow a lot of money so she doesn’t have to find a second job to pay off the money because our family didn’t have to borrow very much to pay for the construction.
And dad, even though he’s never done much carpenter work, helped a lot in the construction and that cut down labor expenses. And his boss at the factory is an understanding guy, and let dad work with the neighbors on the house construction, for two weeks, and didn’t even cut his wages
The houses are simple steel frames, so much stronger than the old ones, and will be even more beautiful as soon as the flowers grow.
This was always a gentile slum – a nice low-low economic community, but still always gentle, and now with the new homes, it is more gentle than ever. You walk through the area, and you feel good, and no fear of danger or violence – just nice people. True, they grew up next to the pig holding pens, and the butchering - maybe seeing violence all their lives, has made them nonviolent, after seeing so much brutality.
I speak for everyone in the community – especially the children, thank you to all of you who have helped so very much in giving our 41 children and 24 grand-mothers granddads, plus mums and dads plus some kitty cats’ new homes.
Again, thank you.
Fr. Joe and all of the children.
By Father Joe Maier, C.Ss.R.
That wasn't like Master Gaw. He was the toughie of the second kindergarten class, as rough and tumble as any four-year-old boy in our Klong Toey slums. Not afraid of ghosts that might lurk in a dark corner or under the bed. The kid feared nothing.
But something changed. This was different; this was scary. So they ran, the toughie and his mum. Had to. Mum's man -- her "live-in" -- could have killed them both. He was "drug drunk mixed with booze". They say druggies and boozers don't mix potions. That's just not true. And when they do mix, the potion is potent and can be lethal to anyone around.
That's what sent mum and Master Gaw running barefoot in the middle of the night. Mum cut her foot but kept going, running like mad, a petite and bleeding woman, stumbling and falling but never dropping her kindergarten son -- a large kid for his age.
Just some ‘goings on’ – Our team was here at 5 a.m. this morning to ready itself to take 40 of our senior citizens to ‘Make Merit’ (indulgences) at three well known Buddhist Temples in the outskirts of Bangkok. The bus is leaving at 7:30 a.m. and should return about 6 p.m. (depending on the traffic) You know… on pilgrimage
Recently, Bangkok city was said to have the most terrible traffic of any city in the world. Maybe that’s true – at least it feels like that some time.
And yesterday the International Rugby team from New Zealand came to visit our kids. What a glorious day and the kids were ecstatic and could not get over how big and strong the players were. The team manager gave us a donation from each member of the team, plus a signed ‘football’ and ‘jersey’ - personally signed by each member of the team… and these of course are true treasures. And the beginning of what we hope in the future one of our kids will get a scholarship to the Bangkok Rugby academy here in Bangkok.
And I didn’t tell you that a whole troop of international bikers came to visit, on their impressive Harley Davidsons with noise and smoke and all – and gave a donation, and ice cream to the kids and gave everyone a ride up and down the street on their’ choppers’ - and also some of the staff. An Amazing day for the kids – truly great guys.
And in the Mogan South, we have a nine year old girl who was born with a growth under her tongue and of course difficulty in eating and tasting and swallowing but most of all can’t speak clearly – so the other kids in school make fun of her, plus she already has a “Mogan” accent and afraid to go to school. Yesterday, after we struggled to get all kinds of special permission to leave the province where she lives on the Island, and go to a large Government Provincial hospital for an operation to remove the growth (from birth) about 150 kilometers away - and we had permission for her mum to go along also who doesn’t speak much Thai, so one of our team traveled with them.
Right now her mouth is a bit sore and even though the doctors could not operate in fear of her loosing ability to taste, she got some strong injections and medicine to kill the bacteria and hopefully it will shrink the growth.
By Father Joe Maier
It's not one of Klong Toey's finest hours. In fact, it's an ugly moment -- a monster moment. Stray dogs attacked and almost killed a two-year-old child. This all began at midnight in a particularly dark alley of Klong Toey in Bangkok. Auntie Dang, a 62-year-old grandmum, got the call to go to work. "Come quickly," the voice on the mobile phone demanded. "The game is about to start. We need a dhon tang."
"Dhon tang" in slum slang is a "lookout lady". Dhon tangs are paid by gaCSmblers to watch for police or, worse, for gangsters who trash gambling pits and steal the money.
Auntie Dang is the head of a dysfunctional Klong Toey shack with no table, no chairs -- only a refrigerator, one fan and a single lightbulb over a squat toilet. This is where she lives and sleeps on the floor with her three grandchildren. The middle grandchild is Master Jai, the dog-mauled two-year-old. Also in the shack is Auntie's younger alcoholic sister. She has two of her own small children. Lastly, Auntie's own adult daughter crowds into the place every now and again. She does nightly service at a local karaoke joint that serves every need of its customers. A grog shop, they call it.
On the night in question, Aunty Dang hurried down the dark alleyway outside her shack next to the Slaughter House Flats. She told a neighbour that she'd gone out at midnight to buy a bowl of noodles. That's her story.
A nasty pack of dogs were there, gathered near the Slaughter House Flats. Auntie always carries a walking stick and she whacked the nearest dog -- just for good measure. Sent the dog howling.
Two-year-old Jai had watched her leave the shack. She swore later that she hadn't noticed him. Or maybe she didn't want to notice. No matter.
He was supposed to be asleep and stay asleep while she was gone. If he woke up, the blaring telly would keep him occupied. Or would it? He wet the bed and woke up soaking wet, smelly, hungry and, like every two-year-old everywhere, afraid of the dark. He chased after Auntie.
He cried out to her in the alleyway. She didn't notice, or maybe didn't want to notice. No matter. The gamblers phoned again, told her to hurry, hurry. They needed a lookout.
Jai couldn't catch up. She disappeared around a corner. He lost track of her, fell and began crying louder. Maybe he startled the dogs. No one knows. All we know is that a pack of seven or eight dogs savagely mauled a terrified boy. He was too young to holler "Help me, help me", so he screamed only "Ma, Ma, Ma".
Ma wasn't within earshot. She was already on patrol for the gamblers.
After midnight in the slums, residents turn an ear towards commotion. It jerks you awake, pulls you from your bed. There were screams as though from a baby -- "Ma! Ma! Ma!" -- and dogs barking, snarling, fighting. People emerged from their shacks and ran towards the commotion. They swung sticks, legs, anything to chase the dogs away. There was silence. Later, doctors would count more than 100 punctures on Jai from toothmarks and scratches too many to count. Jai's skin had ripped off him like peelings from an orange. Intestines were exposed.
The locals knew the boy and they began to shout for his auntie: "Dang! Dang! Dang!"
Through the din of gamblers she heard them. She arrived at the scene to find a crowd gathered around her tiny grandson. Her neighbours screamed at her, cursed her; some women even hit and kicked her.
Jai remained unconscious in the alleyway. Auntie Dang gathered up his body and looked around for help. A motorcycle taxi driver said he would take her for free to a hospital seven minutes away. Arriving at the hospital, she said she didn't have any money. The hospital treated the boy for free.
Miraculously, Jai didn't die.
UNIVERSAL SLUM RULES
Today Auntie Dang must wear her shame. Everyone from around the alleyway and the adjoining Slaughter House Flats knows what happened that night. Auntie Dang broke the rules. The universal slum rules on proper ethics and etiquette. Gambling scams and drugs are bad, but criminal neglect of two-year-olds? That's lower than the lowest -- the rock bottom rule to break.
Jai survived, yes, but we still don't know how his body will recover from more than 100 infectious bites. Some of the bites barely missed puncturing his left eye. He will see again, doctors say, but the eye will forever be scarred. As will Jai. No telling what nightmares await or how the vicious attack will affect his psyche.
So, this story is one to be told and retold. Mistakes become lessons in that way.
As for Auntie Dang, she's not yet divulged her role in the story. Her version of events goes like this: She took the expected call on her mobile phone. There were a couple of new players at the table, strangers flashing money. At the same time, there were rumours that that night's game could maybe expect to be interrupted by cops or gangsters.
The voice on the other end of Auntie Dang's mobile promised to charge the strangers a fee to join the game and that fee would become the dhon tang stipend. She sees nothing wrong with taking the job. In her mind, the consequences that followed are not her fault.
"Stupid brat." That's how she later referred to her two-year-old grandson. She says the mauling he endured was "his own karma" -- bad luck inherited from his bargirl mum and long-gone slum father. A neighbour recorded her saying it.
In interviews with police she skipped that part and said only that most nights Jai would sleep through all the noise of the slum and the loud TV. This would allow her to leave in the middle of the night and scare up some income as a dhon tang.
The fact Jai was mauled by a pack of dogs, blame the mother, she said. Her daughter should have been home watching Jai instead of working in a slum pub until the wee hours of the morning.
As a general rule, slum grandmothers who have lived all their lives on the far side of the law do not tell the truth. It can complicate life; make a mess of things. Usually, when you are responsible for this, that or the other, recounting the story exactly the way it happened would bring only more problems -- such as questions about gambling dens. That's the Klong Toey mentality. So grandmothers lie to avoid responsibility.
The morning after Jai's mauling, the Bangkok municipality collected 51 (yes, 51) stray dogs from the immediate area. But that is only a beginning; there are many left. People are now afraid to go out at night without a big stick for protection.
In the slums everyone knows who's responsible and who's at fault for Jai's near death. But in finer quarters of Bangkok, people only know what they saw in the papers and online: news of a dog attack and horrid photos of a child's face posted on Facebook.
Today, if you could see Auntie Dang at the hospital, you might not recognise her as the slum's dhon tang guilty of child neglect. In her new role as Jai's doting grandmum, she looks all cleaned up with hair freshly combed. You'd think she'd won the lottery. And, in a way, I guess she did.
The other day a well-dressed lady in high heels came into the hospital and asked where this poor granny was who had cared for the dog-mauled two-year-old boy. The pretty lady had seen the news and grim photos of the boy on Facebook.
She found Auntie Dang and handed her an envelope -- a well-endowed envelope intended to help Jai. Then the lady pulled out her camera phone and took a "selfie" to show her friends that she had actually delivered the donation for the dog-mauled boy.
This was the third such envelope of the day delivered to Auntie Dang. She'd received two other well-endowed envelopes the previous evening, but that money was gone. Lost them playing Hi-Lo.
Usually, when old ladies gamble, they do not play Hi-Lo. It's too risky a game for elderly blood pressure. They prefer a more mundane, genteel form of gambling. But Auntie Dang was feeling heady and lucky with her newfound "wealth". For a day she was a "player" -- not a slum dhon tang.
No matter, the money had been donated with singular intent: to help Jai. Naturally, Auntie Dang says her intention was to win and turn the donation into even greater wealth. But it's anyone's guess whether or not the money would have ever benefited Jai.
So, what of tomorrow? Well, Master Jai shall fully recover. Hopefully. Meanwhile, we can make sure all of the children crowded into Auntie Dang's shack go to school. This will inject a bit of regularity and food into their lives.
As for Auntie Dang, the police asked enough questions of enough people that they were able to stop the gambling. For now.
They also gave Auntie Dang a stern lecture about childcare versus child neglect. Will she listen and learn? She swears she will -- even swore in front of her Sacred Statues to love Jai with all her heart.
Do we believe her? No matter. For now she remains Jai's primary caregiver despite the obvious gamble.