Connie Sengalrayan

Singapore

I am the last Dutch Lampshade Maker in Singapore.

Growing up, everything was quite normal, though my family moved around a lot. But things started to get messy in my teenage years. Nearing my N-Level, my dad had just been released from prison after 2 and a half years, and my parents filed for a divorce which I didn’t know about. On the morning of my N-Level maths paper, my dad simply told me the divorce was official.

Later, I came home and found out that my dad bought a one-way ticket for my mom and sister back to Thailand (my mom was Thai). I struggled to get along with my father after that; it was like two strangers trying to live together. Even though my mother and sister did return eventually, it was a really confusing and lonely period for me.

At the age of 22, I was sexually assaulted when I was out with a friend, and shortly after, I became pregnant - that’s how I ended up with my first son, Kyle. I was afraid to tell my mom the truth, I thought perhaps, she wouldn’t believe me so I just told her the child was my ex-boyfriend’s. She bought this lie to this day. Though our relationship is very strained, she does dote on Kyle and cares for him.

A while later, I entered a serious relationship and became pregnant again. But 6 months into the pregnancy, my boyfriend decided he didn’t want a child and gave me an ultimatum: either I harm myself to cause a miscarriage (since it was too late for an abortion) or to get out of his life. When I chose my son and said I would leave, he started to physically abuse me. That’s when I ran away. I didn’t really have anywhere to go, so I just fled to East Coast Park because I thought he wouldn’t be able to find me there. I stayed there for almost 3 weeks. I would just eat leftover scraps from BBQ pits or ask for some food from those who were there eating. It was my lowest point, but I just did what I had to do to survive. When you need to survive, you don’t see the shame in it anymore.

Finally, a friend found out about my situation and put me up at an empty property he owed for a while and even helped me get a job at Shaw cinema doing customer service. Since then, I’ve slowly worked my way up.

I am now 27-year-old. I still work shifts at Shaw cinema and live in a 1-room rental flat at Sumang Walk with my younger son, Kieran, while Kyle lives with my mother. Kyle only stays with me once in a while due to space constraints.

On good months, if all goes well, I make just enough to cover our monthly expenditures. But on bad months when my children fall sick, the struggles become overwhelming. I do get some assistance from certain organizations like the Social Service Office. For example, my flat rental and Kieran’s childcare fees are subsidized. But it can still be quite difficult. On average, I earn about $600 a month before CPF (Central Provident Fund) contributions; my hourly pay is $6. Sometimes, I try to work more shifts but I still need to rest and take care of my kids. Each month, I have to set aside about $100 for bills, and $250 or so for groceries which includes diapers and milk for Kieran. There is never extra for any future planning to be done.

Sometimes, I face quite a bit of discrimination as a single mother. I’m often seen as less capable of fulfilling the job requirements. Unwed mothers don’t really get treated the same way as other mothers too. We don’t get Baby Bonus and things like that. Even under government policies and laws, I can’t apply for a BTO (Built-To-Order) until I am 35 years old (under the Single Singapore Citizen Scheme ) because my sons and I are not considered a “family nucleus”. Even though their birth certificates say that I am their mother, to them (the state), they are “illegitimate”. To me, it’s like the government is telling us that our children do not actually belong to us. Although this is quite cruel and sad, I just do my best for my boys.

I have a long-term goal, that is to buy a 3-room flat when I turn 35 years old. For now, I am working towards moving into a bigger rental flat. I’m reaching the 2-year term at my current rental and will be eligible to upgrade to a 2-room rental flat soon. That way, both my sons can live together with me. Another goal I have is to eventually get a certificate in early childhood education and work in the childcare sector because I do love children. It’s a little difficult now because of full-time studies and work while caring for the boys is hard. I have to wait for the right opportunity.

For now, I still live day to day, pay-check to pay-check, and do what I can for us to get by. My kids and my goals for them are what keep me going. Whether they want to further their studies or find a job or whatever they eventually wish to pursue, I am just trying my best to do and earn that little extra for them and their future.

To those out there who are in a similar situation as me. I want you to know that our circumstances do not define who we are. We are just mothers, parents, and people, just like anyone else. Just look forward and keep going. Tough times do not last.

Disclaimer: The story of Emily* was completed on 18th August 2019. The information provided was accurate at the time of writing on 18th August 2019

*Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals

Most people now don’t know what lampshades really are. And even fewer people understand how they’re made. But I do. Because I’m the last Dutch lampshade maker in Singapore. I’ve been making lampshades for more than 30 years. Since young, I’ve always loved handcrafts. I had seven siblings and always received hand-me-downs. So when I was a teenager, I started taking sewing classes to learn how to make my own things. Hans Sengalrayan was my husband for 38 years before he passed on recently. His parents owned a lampshade shop in Kuala Lumpur and we took over the business eventually. He used to design and make each of the lampshade frames by hand, and I’d put on the fabric one stitch at a time. There are no shortcuts in our craft. But we made a good team. We even made the lampshades that decorated Queen Elizabeth’s hotel suite when she visited Singapore in 2006! Things are a little different now. I don’t have my husband to consult anymore, so I have to do the designing and planning all by myself. There’s also not much demand for lampshades like there used to be back in the 70s. But I live simply. Even when Hans was around, we knew making lampshades wasn’t going to make us rich. We did it because that’s what we loved to do. In 10 years’ time, I don’t know if I’ll still be here - or if the craft still exists. But I do know that right now, I continue to do what I do because it’s my passion.

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