“You know this home is long-standing… it started with an Irish priest. They always said he was Irish from without, but very Chinese from within. He is buried in Newclare Cemetery [Chinese section]. He requested it.”
Inside the high, cream-hued walls with their twirling barbed wire and a bright orange sign announcing Hong Ning Chinese Old Age Home, Sister Maureen Laiyat bears all intrusions with equanimity: “You see, most of them have Alzheimer’s, they won’t remember seeing you.”
Alzheimer’s disease disintegrates the brain, like the burnt-out end of an incense stick, and gorges itself on its host’s memories and mental faculties.
Seated around a large rectangular table, in a rectangular room with an unwatched television babbling to itself in the furthest corner, greetings go unreciprocated – between residents themselves, as well as the interloping journalist in search of the details between the beginnings and the endings.
The week before, Hong Ning’s advanced-age residents, in the Jeppestown suburb of Belgravia, were lined up on sofas adjacent to the TV room waiting to get haircuts from a smiling nurse with buzzing clippers.
The residents insisted on no cameras, no recorders, and no notebook. “We don’t want to cause any trouble,” said a man, who gave his name only as Yeun. He waved away pleas for some detail about his childhood as a grocery-shop assistant and then later a cook. His wife nodded her agreement.
“Sorry I can’t tell you more, we are here just waiting to die,”
“Sorry I can’t tell you more, we are here just waiting to die,” was the most Mr Sing was willing to say, before lifting himself up on his walker and shuffling out the door, up the ascending walkway, leaving “Frail Care” behind him.
Another Mr Sing, who also refused to give his first name, reluctantly posed for a picture after gentle coaxing by his daughter, who was there to visit the old man.
“You see, I’m so ugly,” he joked. Both arms wrapped in bandages from fingertips to elbows, he was seated in a low chair in his narrow room. Today, he only peers back in vacant silence.
The tombstone handyman
In the maze of hundreds of headstones in the Chinese section of Newclare Cemetery, Chinese word-characters summarise entire lives in three columns.
Many of the Chinese tombstones in Newclare Cemetery’s D-section have passed through the hands of George Leong, or in fact began their lives as sentinels of the dead under his watch. Leong began writing tombstone messages for the Chinese community in Johannesburg in the early 1960s.
“It’s not my line of business, you see, I’m only doing it as a service to the community.” He points to a “K” etched in black ink on the cover of the flip-file folder, before adjusting the crutch at his side. “I created these files in 1968.” “K” is how far he is in his alphabetic filing system of funeral arrangements.
Inside the bulging folder, Leong points out the tombstone messages he has written in Chinese characters. Bold, black typeface and each consisting of three columns.Chinese tombs at Newclare Cemetery. Photo: Mfuneko Toyana
“I sit at home for hours on my computer doing these. In the olden days we had traditional Chinese guys who used to write these [tombstone messages] with a paintbrush. But they all went, one by one. Now I am the only one left.”
Leong steadies his bent fingers. He slips one of the pages from its plastic pocket. But just as quickly as it appears, the page has disappeared. It is replaced by a BlackBerry cellphone. He is scrolling for pictures of the tombstones he has worked on.
“First we write the village he comes from on the right-hand side. In the centre it’s the name of the deceased. And on the left we write ‘erected by…’ If he has no family, if he belonged to a club or a society, or he worked somewhere where there was money to bury him, we put in that name.”
Leong takes long pauses between points, a half-grin on his face as if considering the absurd logistics of burial and grief for the first time. These stretches of silence invite you to speculate on Leong’s role as facilitator, conduit between Joburg’s Chinese community and the afterlife.
A process of giving names, at the arrival of death, to those who sought to be anonymous in life? The vague line of inquiry strikes gold. Leong responds with a quip, masking a serious point through a jocular veil of cynicism. “These days it doesn’t pay to live and it doesn’t pay to die either,” he chuckles.
Leong has spent 40-plus years in the business of “fixing” funerals for a Chinese community he describes as “too inward” to integrate with other SA cultures, and shrinking rapidly anyway.