Look Who’s Wearing | Ah Gong & Ah Ma
Beauty and the Gangster
In 1960s Singapore, there was a couple who met only for an hour a week. Not because an hour together was all they needed but because the time they spent together had to be kept a secret. A window of shared memories known only to the two of them. “Grocery shopping” quickly became the go-to excuse as they spent that precious hour strolling down a bustling pasar malam (night market) before they had to part ways again.
She was quiet and poised, a prim and proper by-product of a prim environment and a ‘proper’ family. He had a mermaid tattoo on his thigh and the head of a tiger on his hand, a short-fused gangster that was anything but proper. They are my grandparents. And the elderly couple behind our latest photoshoot. This is a little glimpse of who they are and how things came to be.
Growing Up with Models
Despite disapproval from my Ah Ma’s mother, who never got around to liking my Ah Gong, my grandparents tied the knot in 1968, cementing the lifelong partnership of a most-unlikely couple. My Ah Gong was the cool grandfather. He’d give me rides on the back of his motorcycle when I was four or five. And he was the one who gave me my first sip of beer, also at four or five. (Those years seemed like a very happening time in my life).
As much as I learnt about Ah Gong from these underage adventures, I learnt about Ah Ma through her bathroom habits. A trip to the bathroom was... well, a trip. Her skincare routine was the stuff of legends. No one knows what the steps really are but we all know it will be quite a while before she re-emerges. To my surprise, Ah Ma’s demure mannerisms hide a sharp wit and tongue that bites when the occasion calls for it.
I knew in our upcoming shoot for Will & Well that I wanted to feature senior models. After all, many of our clothing solutions have been designed to ease the mobility and comfort issues the elderly face. Then, as these photos of my grandparents in their youth resurfaced, it struck me – the models I wanted, I had known them my whole life.
“你要我做你的模特儿啊?” (You want me to be your model ah?) Ah Ma chimed as her inner model glowed. She agreed without hesitation. My Ah Gong, on the other hand, never liked being in photos but to my surprise, he obliged as well.
The pictures looked effortless and natural but the shoot itself wasn’t an easy ride. They came to the park after a day’s work and since we were looking at multiple locations, there was quite a bit of walking for everyone involved. Not every stop had a toilet nearby and my grandparents swiftly changed in public. (I’d like to think that our clothes made the process simpler too). Kudos to my grandparents who trucked on like the warriors they are!
My Ah Ma who never left home without an umbrella (to shield her skin from her mortal enemy – the sun) had to do the shoot without one in hand.
My Ah Gong didn’t like being in photos because he thought he never looked good in them, and had to overcome his own insecurities. But I believed that he just hasn’t met the right photographer. And I was right. In fact, his pictures turned out to be my personal favourites from the shoot (Thanks, Grace!).
The story of grandparents’ romance was one of tiding against the odds. Of making the unlikely happen through sheer will. And I saw that again, firsthand this time, during the shoot.
I’d like to believe that, as a grandchild of this unlikely couple, that I too, would have the will to make the changes I want to see happen through Will & Well.
Grace Ho / @purplepolaroids