She'll never win the Bangkok Grandmother of the Year award, but she's definitely Granny of the Year in the Klong Toey slum. Yai Sing, or Granny Sing as she's known _ and I'll explain that in a minute _ rolls her own smokes and earns her own way from her motorcycle-propelled coffee cart. Sports a trademark ancient pair of second-hand 20-baht "shades'' her granddaughter Mot swapped from a "trader'' in a back part of the slum. Two plastic bags of Granny Sing's original blend of ice coffee for the shades.
Seventy-three years old plus some change and, wow, she's out there seven days a week, kick-starting her funky, three-wheeled red motorbike with a cart attached, bouncing through the potholes and rainy season puddles, stopping where she can find some shade to dispense hot and iced coffee, hot and cold sweet tea, Ovaltine, and assorted, sugary pick-me-ups.
About 20 of her friends and customers surrounded this policeman and reminded him of his manners that his mama should have taught him, they said. And told him to warn his friends who might also be in uniform to mind their manners. Because this was Granny Sing! That's right. Grannies play a special role in Thailand, just as they do everywhere else, of course, but here in the Kingdom, it seems a disproportionate number end up taking care of their grandchildren, after the kids' dads disappear and the mommies go to work or to jail.
Some grannies have been known to put these children to work, selling flower garlands or running drugs or worse. Much worse. That's not Granny Sing. She's the grandmother you read about in storybooks, the one that hardship and tragedy cannot stop. She and her husband came to Klong Toey 30 years ago to work construction at the port. Casual labour. Which means you work when they want you. Minimum wage, no benefits. She gave birth to six children and the first three died young. Childhood diseases and no real medical care.
Then her husband died. There was some money left over from the neighbours' donations for his cremation. Granny decided that construction work was not for her, and she bought a second-hand bicycle, learned to ride it, and began selling iced coffee to support her three youngest. The motorcycle came later, after she'd saved the money for it.
She's been doing this 26 years now and of the surviving three children, two are in jail, and the last one has disappeared. "He lived in Klong Toey and kept coming around for money,'' Granny says. "I got tired of throwing him out, so I told the police to come and get him and his drugs. But he skipped town. I hope he doesn't come back for a while.''
Of the two in prison, she says only one is worth saving and that's Mot's mom. Mot is with Granny Sing every day, riding pillion on the motorcycle seat, helping mix and serve the coffee. Granny Sing says she won't let the girl out of her sight.
"Mot is 16 and finished the sixth grade,'' she says, "and I don't want her married young like I was.''
About a year ago, Mot said she wanted to paint her grandmother's toenails. Said they'd look good with the worn rubber slippers. Granny Sing said no way, said painted toenails were for sissies and, besides, they wouldn't look good with her type of hair cut. She has thick, gray hair, cut in a long "military'' style.
One day Granny left Mot to look after her coffee cart for a few minutes. She'd heard a favourite old sad Thai love song on a nearby radio and wanted to dance. So she lifted her arms and turned her hands in the old, traditional manner, turning her body slowly, lost for the moment in her memories. There was laughter. Friends called out and joined her, dancing in the street near their ramshackle homes. Good times in the slum.
It turned into a bit of a party. Granny doesn't usually drink, and it was one of those days when there wasn't enough money both to eat breakfast and buy the day's coffee supplies. That left her with an empty stomach and a couple of shots of moonshine turned the day around for her. That's when Mot painted her Granny's toenails. Mot said it looked good, matched the red on the motorbike. But Granny wasn't sorry when the polish wore off.
For the comfort it brings, Granny smokes hand-rolled cigarettes, using local Anchor Brand tobacco called ya choon, still sold at five baht in a plastic bag squeezed shut at the top. She buys it with bai jok leaf, two baht a pack with 50 leaves harvested in the swamp and dried. One leaf for a smoke, two leaves if you want a thicker cigarette. For Granny, this is a week's supply.
Sometimes, Granny switches to betel nut. Although her coffee drinking clientele doesn't mind her smoking, they don't totally approve of the betel, a leaf and areca palm nut and lime paste chew that darkens the gums and teeth and gives the user a slight buzz. They don't mind the habit _ many of them chew, too _ but they fear a bit of her chew might fall into the coffee when she serves it.
Granny Sing goes along. In fact, she's meticulous about the way she runs her coffee cart. She is especially careful about the straws and gives new customers instructions how to clean them, Klong Toey style. You place the straw in the bag so some of the liquid fills part of the straw, then you place your index finger over the top of the straw, creating a vacuum, and pull the straw out of the bag with the coffee inside. Then you turn the straw upside down, release your finger from the end, and the captured coffee runs out onto the ground. In this manner you clean the inside of the straw from any impurities or small bugs that might have made their home there.
Plus, Granny says, you should try to make a bit of "merit'' when even you can each day, because as you release some of the sugared coffee onto the ground, mostly probably you are giving some hungry ants a bite to eat. To help them make it through the day.
All this, for only ten baht. Can those fancy-dancy coffee bars in what are called "better'' neighbourhoods give you as much for your money?
So let's take it from the top. Yai is Thai for grandmother and sing is a shortened version of the English verb "to race,'' as in "ra-cing.'' Dropping the first syllable of "racing'' and "Yai racing'' becomes Yai Sing. The motorcycle racing granny. Granny Sing. A moniker describing both her own good self and her red motorcycle coffee house.
Granny saved up 900 baht and last week she rode the bus up to the Korat Provincial Prison to visit her daughter, Mot's mom. Five hours up, a ten-minute visit, then back again. Tough if you're 73 and some change squeezed in a non air con bus. No complaints, though.
The old motorcycle may not kick over every time she puts her slippered foot to the start pedal. But with patience, Granny Sing is on her way. One more plastic bag of ice coffee, one more dream, one more old Thai love song to dance to.
Granny of the Year, Klong Toey style.