They left their homes to seek a living in Singapore, and what they find themselves living in while in Singapore is by no means a home away from home.
I could tell he was nervous. He asked me if his picture would be turning up in the national daily broadsheet. I said it wouldn't, but that it might turn up online. I expressed that if he was uncomfortable with that, I could avoid taking pictures of his face or publishing his name. He thought for awhile before he said, "It'll be alright." But it wasn't clear if he was trying to convince me or himself of that.
One of the volunteers who'd been documenting the lives of Chinese migrant workers in Singapore asked me if I'd walked the back lanes of Geylang before. I said I had. I said I wasn't worried so much about it. I'd try not to piss anyone off. Though the predicament might turn out to be "unsafe" for me, I felt the workers would have more to lose since they lived there and were not citizens of this country.
Before we entered the terrace house Lu asked me to wait outside. "There might be people undressed in there. I'll just let them know we have a visitor." Lu's roommate, Zhang, had just gotten out of the shower and had nothing but a towel on. When he heard I was waiting outside, he promptly threw on some clothes.
I would like to be able to describe the experience politely, but I'm going to have to be a little impolite here. As I set foot into the dark and narrow corridor, I held my breath. It was a reflex. The air was intense, and I don't mean it metaphorically. The air was thick and heavy. Dank. Hot. The kind of discomfort I experienced can be likened to stepping into a sauna. Except this wasn't a sauna. It was someone's home and bedroom. In fact, it was home to about 30 people. Ordinarily, a house this size would house a family of four, or five if you include one domestic worker.
"It's small isn't it?" Lu asked rhetorically.
I tried to make space for myself in the room but whenever someone moved, someone else would have to move. Otherwise, something would have to be moved out of the way. I was still taking shallow breaths. Breathing in here took some getting used to. In my mind, I thought: No wonder so many migrant workers sleep and hang out in our parks and open spaces so often. I would too if I had to return to this every night. I wouldn't want to return.
I imagine myself as a construction worker, toiling under the heat of day all day long. Returning home for a shower would be refreshing. But then I'd have to come back to this room and breathe laboriously. How they get any good sleep is beyond me. I whine about being unable to sleep if the temperature in my room gets above 27 degrees.
When you've got six people in a room meant for one. It gets hot. Really hot. So you put some fans in. You may not feel it, but when you have one fan in the room, it's nice and breezy. But when you've got six fans in a room, the fans themselves generate heat, and instead of creating a cooling ventilation, the fans just end up blowing hot air around.
"You've got a fridge in here." When the door closed, I realised there was a refridgerator behind it. "Is it working?"
One of the workers got up to open it and showed me that it was infact functioning. No wonder it's so hot in here. I don't have a full sized refridgerator in my room. Most of us don't. These things make the air around them really hot.
Three minutes later, I began to acclimatise to the micro climate that existed in the room. I must admit I was a little speechless. I didn't know what to say, and what not to say. This place was appalling. I've seen some pretty sordid places, but this one was, well, it was right in my own backyard, so to speak.
The heat aside, running six fans and a refridgerator in a room is a major fire hazard. But what else can they do? Six people in a room with one fan just wouldn't cut it. There wasn't even a window.
One of the workers made room on his bed to allow me a place to sit. From his bed, I looked out into the narrow corridor. Just as I was gazing into the walls of the corridor, another worker, a South Asian one, opened up the wall and climbed into his bed.
"There's a room in there?!" I couldn't suppress this bizarre discovery. Well, it wasn't a room. It was a shaft, a retrofitted one. It can be likened to a sleeper cabin in a train. And I'm not talking about a sleeper cabin on the Oriental Express. The wall had been hollowed out, and a board was stuck onto the wall. He would slide the false wall aside, lie on his bed, and lying down, he'd pull the wall shut. My guess is that that wall was intended for concealing pipes and wires under less bizarre conditions.
"How come you have a mattress and you don't?" I noticed only two of the six beds had foam mattresses on them. The other four just had a ply wood base upon a bed frame.
"Oh the other guy found bed bugs in his bed so he threw his mattress out." I explained to him that if the other mattresses have bed bugs, it's likely the bugs are in all the beds. "I know," Lu said, "But my take is that, there will be bugs regardless. So I might as well keep the mattress." He had a point.
"You have rats in here?" I spotted a rat trap beneath a bed that had been set. Lu told me that because they keep their food in the room, the rats will come. Since they haven't got any proper storage cabinets, the sacks of rice and packets of biscuits are laid out on the floor. "Why don't you keep it in the kitchen?" I ask. "There isn't any space!" He retorts, as bewildered as I am. I keep forgetting they have 24 other housemates.
The four men I met (two of them were out working) were not poor and destitute before they arrived in Singapore. They were not rich, but they had comfortable lives. They had a house, with a family, just like mine. They had space, organisation, personal safety and hygiene standards. They didn't turn into sloths when they entered this country. In fact, it was quite the opposite. They worked hard to earn their way into this state-of-the-art nation, with dreams of building better and biggers lives - the Singapore Dream. As it turns out, it is just that. A dream - a figment of imagination.
Here, in this squalid room, these men are literally trapped. Yes, they could leave, but they'd return with nothing. So they opt to slog it out here and return with at least a little something. Each of these men have been contracted to work for at least two to four years. During this time, they will live in this room, and they will keep the same job. For some of these men, the jobs they ended up with were far from the jobs they were told they'd be getting when they were recruited in their home towns. Personally, I like to know what I sign up for. And when things turn out the opposite, I get very unhappy. But at least I still get to return to a clean bed and a spacious room. These men had jobs back home. They might not have been paid as very well, but they got to be with their families and to live in their own homes. Yes, they were open to a risk and making some sacrifice, but if this room were put into a brochure in the employment agency, I doubt few would've signed up.
A Chinese migrant worker reads the newspaper in a chair placed in the fresh air of the street, outside their shared terrace home. (Credit: Debby Ng)