By Megan Soh (20A01B), Mah Xiao Yu (20A01B), and Coco Liu (20S06L)
Photographs courtesy of S Rahul (19S06A) and Ting Hou Yee (19S03S) of the Raffles Photographic Society
24th April 2019 was a special day. Red and white balloons lined the staff lounge windows, flowery decorations hung from the walls, and a mini-buffet with an array of Chinese snacks was set up in the middle of the lounge. In one corner, teachers unabashedly belted out Mandarin songs into a microphone. Others milled around with drinks and snacks, occasionally exclaiming at the sight of old friends and colleagues who had left the school. It was like Chinese New Year, only come two months late.
At the centre of it all sat an 82-year-old lady, surrounded by a ceaseless stream of teachers and staff—past and present—who had come to wish her well. Their heartfelt words and gentle gestures were reminiscent of children paying homage to their elderly mother, speaking of the depth of the love and respect they held for her.
She is Auntie Ah Huay, and this was her retirement party. But who is Auntie Ah Huay?
The name might not ring familiar with most students, but during her time working in RI, she was a beloved of the staff room: beyond her duties as a cleaner, she was a motherly figure of warmth and selfless devotion to the teachers.
Every morning, Auntie Ah Huay would rise before the sun to make her arduous journey to school. In addition to the walking, she would take three different buses, regardless of the weather and her declining health. Once in school, she would take on the essential tasks of making coffee, cleaning the teachers’ tables, clearing the trash, and keeping the staff room in order. She had been doing this tirelessly for 37 years, since the school’s Mount Sinai days.
However, her impact reaches far beyond the scope of her work. Through small, thoughtful gestures, she has touched the lives of the people around her, making the teachers’ days that little bit brighter.
“She [would] always reserve a portion of the food for me,” recalled Mr Simon Quek (HOD/Economics). “She would make it a point to let me have a banana or an apple and leave it on my table.” Like a doting grandmother, she would often leave food on teachers’ tables or share the little treats that she bought. Several teachers also said that she would often inquire after their day and ask if they had eaten—“nagging” them to do so if they had not and reminding them how important it was to take care of their health.
Even though Auntie Ah Huay does not speak English or Mandarin, only Hokkien, both she and the teachers would make an effort to understand one another, using gestures or simple words. The language barrier did not stop friendships and strong bonds from blossoming between her and the teachers. As Mr Faisal Ali, former Head of Staff Wellbeing, aptly put it, “we understood so much despite saying so little.” Mrs Nicola Perry (ADH/English Lit & Theatre Studies), who barely understands Hokkien, told us of how Auntie Ah Huay would always come up to her and compliment her hair, for example, with the Hokkien word swee. “She’s always very quick to appreciate, and to give recognition, and to be kind […] To me, she’s a personification of kindness,” she said.
And while Auntie Ah Huay is generous with her compliments, she herself remains humble. Ms Umarami (ADH/Knowledge Skills) recounted to us how the teachers would praise Auntie Ah Huay for her permed hair during the Chinese New Year period and how Auntie Ah Huay would act shyly in response.
It was these small but special interactions and moments that everyone around her treasured. “She always made an effort to perk us up in special ways,” said Mrs Dayna Chia, a former teacher who returned to RI for this event.
“She always made an effort to perk us up in special ways.”
– Mrs Dayna Chia
Despite her advanced age and the physical challenges—she sometimes has trouble walking due to weakness in her legs—that come with it, Auntie Ah Huay values her independence and always took pride in her job. Oftentimes, her work was “invisible”, but it was no less crucial for the staff room and the staff, with a far-reaching and long-lasting impact.
“She has taught us about duty,” said Ms Eva Hor (HOD/Student Well-being), the initiator of the event. “Everyone to her is an individual who is deserving of her time and energy. She looks after every person, looks after the smallest detail about everyone […] That’s what she has taught me: to care for [one another].”
“That’s what she has taught me: to care for [one another].”
– Ms Eva Hor
Perhaps what is most heart-warming is the sheer volume of people who turned up—despite the initial estimated turnout of 60 people, eventually, around a hundred guests came to celebrate Auntie Ah Huay’s retirement with her. From RJC’s former principal Mr Winston Hodge (2001-2007) to former teachers currently teaching in other schools, as well as retired staff members, the event was an opportunity for the guests to meet and reconnect with their friends whom they hadn’t met in a long time. It could be said that Auntie Ah Huay is a beacon, a rallying point who brings everyone together.
“Given how fast-paced school life is and how busy everyone is, everyone’s always got to be somewhere, at any given time,” said Mr Gavin Swee (History), “It’s very significant how we have just taken one afternoon to come down and hang out…this kind of camaraderie and warmth is what makes Raffles such a great place to teach and work at.”
When we finally managed to secure an interview with Auntie Ah Huay after the crowds began thinning out, we were pleasantly surprised by her cheerful demeanour and vitality. She had nothing but praise for the principals, teachers, staff and students. She told us about how well she was treated by everyone and that no one ever looked down on her, even recalling fondly how students would sometimes hold her hand and walk with her, or help her carry heavy things. She explained that this motivated her to stay on and serve the school.
“I used to look after the plants [in the staff lounge],” she joked with us in Hokkien. “Now they’re dying.”
Even though this event was supposed to be about Auntie Ah Huay, to celebrate her contributions in more ways than one, her selfless and caring nature towards the people around her continued to shine through it all. During our interview with her, she kindly urged us to help ourselves to the food, and even personally gave us red bean pastries to snack on. We were deeply touched to have experienced first-hand what exactly it was that made her so well loved among everyone she encountered.
Perhaps the best way to describe her is, as Mr Adrian Tan (HOD/Knowledge Skills) put it, “[she embodies] what Martin Luther King said: ‘Not everybody can be famous, but everybody can be great, because greatness is determined by service.’”
Raffles Press would like to thank Auntie Ah Huay for all that she has done for the school and wish her a happy retirement as well as good health and spirits. Indeed, she has taught us a lot and left a deep impact that will surely be felt for a long time to come. May we continue to bestow upon others the kindness and warmth she bestowed upon us!