Monday, December 11, 2006

Thong Chai Medical Institution 同济医院

Each time, as I drive past this unique building, a beauty amongst the beasts, I could not help thinking back of the days when its front could not even be seen from the road. In the old days, my young days, there was a big colony of food stalls just in front of the Tong Chek Yi Yii (as spoken in Hokkien, and often, we just called it Tong Chek Yi), selling all the delicious food. At my time, when one mentioned Tong Chek Yi, food came to my mind. Not the free TCM (traditional Chinese medicine) that it was offering to the locals.

From what I heard, the Tong Chek Yi of yesteryears was also a refuge for the dying. Till this day, Tong Chek Yi Yii is still doing a wonderful community service, in a much bigger building, a short distance away, where the kaling (mynah) flies. But this beauty, deserted and left to fan for herself, has lost her soul. She is still crying out for the right one to give her back her soul.

It was in 1978 or thereabout when I brought this German couple, their first trip to Singapore - and we, chik jia kuey chik jia ark (one chicken and one duck), to this place to try local hawker food. I was naive then to believe that because I did not get food poisoning, they would not. Luckily, they did not. We had sugar cane juice freshly crushed but their favourite was pineapple juice. Lo-meh (the Cantonese spread of a wide variety of different food eaten after dipping in sauce, like the Hokkien Gor Hiang Hay Piah) was probably the attraction there with their bright lights, and well, sometimes, colourful speeches from the stallholders.

Tong Chek Yi 'Square' was the "opening" to an interesting part of Singapore, known to the Teochews (this place is the Teochew part of Chinatown) as Cha Chun Tao (the wooden boat quay in Teochew). I remember the wonderful Teochew Raw Fish, a different and lesser known version of Chinese raw fish, being sold at his old kopitiam (coffeeshop). Those interesting scenes of ancient Singapore are but memories. Thanks to this wonderful Singapore watcher, Ronni Pinsler, you can get to see many pictures of this part in the National Heritage Board Archive website.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Electric Trolley Bus

In a recent trip to Shanghai, looking at the electric trolley bus, I couldn't help but reminsced my young days (as a kid) when the STC (Singapore Traction Company) used to run the electric trolley buses in town. It was a noiseless bus that was slow and sometimes caused traffic jams because of problems with the bus. It ran on fixed routes dictated by the overhead electric wires. It had an interesting jerk as it picked up speed. I could only remember the route at Tanjong Pagar Road near to the Craig Road junction, where there was a big mess of wires being stretched across the street.

While Singapore did away with the electric trolley buses, many countries did not. When we looked back, we realised that the electric trolley bus was indeed ahead of time! At least from the pollution point of view. Of course, the messy overhead wires and constant arcing of the wires with the trolleys seemed to cause concern. To my children, it was the first time they were looking at the electric trolley buses and had not ideas that they were once upon a time, a mode of transport in Singapore!

The only regret was we did not get a chance to try the electric trolley bus in Shanghai.

[Pictures of electric trolley bus and overhead wires taken in Shanghai, December, 2006]

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

WiFi in Chinatown

Come December 1, 2006, we can expect some of our lifestyles to be changed. At least for some. In Chinatown, there could be changes in ways businesses are being conducted. Bloggers could do on-site reporting, complete with cameras, recorders and wifi enabled notebooks. It might not just be kopi with roti-kahwin (Malay of Married Bread, meaning bread with butter and kaya, an egg jam), but with notebook (laptop). Just make sure you don't mix kopi with the keyboard.

Anyone wants to rent our wifi-enabled notebooks to tourists? (^^)

Choose your favourite kopi-tiam, seat under the tree, or in the airy Chinatown Square.

But of course, you will have to register with wireless@SG first. You can get more details from the IDA website at:

Thanks to the farsightedness of IDA, somethings very exciting could well be happening.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Celebrating Guan Yin Tan at Tian Hock Keng

On 9 Nov 2006, which is the 19th of the 9th Lunar Month, at Tian Hock Keng, Xiang Lin Musical Association gave a Nan Yin and Li Yuan Xi performance, much to the delight of a dedicated audience. The average age of the group could well be the mid-70s, well, with some of us bringing the average lower. (^^) It was like yesteryears once more as the oldies - interestingly mostly men - sat, chat and enjoyed the show. And the performers, give a few older ones, the average age would be in mid-20s.

Well, we have hope that Nan Yin and Li Yuan Xi (literally translated as Pear Garden Opera .. the operas that were once the rave in the 1930s?) will be carried on to the next generation.

What better setting than at Tian Hock Keng, one of the oldest temples in Singapore, restored to its old glory .. bathed in warm light .. as the performers took the stage, which was the part of the courtyard just after the main doors. Tonight, the compere was a young lady. The man I was expecting was not there or could he be hidden in some masks as a performer? (^^)

The day, being the 19th of the 9th Lunar Moon, it was the third "Big Day" dedicated to Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy. The other days are 2M19 and 6M19. This musical association conducts this performance at the Tian Hock Keng three times a year.

In tonight's performance, Xiang Lin has also invited the experts from Quan Zhou, China, one who is a flautist and the other, a lady who was the expert drummer (percussionist). She has an interesting technique in controlling the drums, making various sounds with sticks, hands and her foot!

In the typical Nan Yin tempo and starting, we were treated to the first piece, followed by singing by two girls, said to have learnt only for 3 months. For me, it could take a lifetime. Learning the Nan Yin's Hokkien (minnan hua) is not easy. Lyrics were projected to a screen, and so we were able to enjoy the songs better following the words and understanding the meaning.

If I am not wrong, in the group was a Malay guy who played the "sa-mi-sen" (three strings?). The first time I saw him was at ACM where he played the guzheng.

The music piece and the singing piece dedicated to Guan Yin was a great piece singing about the three Big Days dedicated to Guan Yin. The lyrics were written by Ding Ma Chen and the music composed by Zuo Sheng Xiang, both members of the Association. The ladies took turn to sing each "Big Day" of Guan Yin. As is the tradition now, after this song, led by an elder lady, who I guess must be the patron of the Association, the senior members and the VIPs, with the audience facing towards Guan Yin who is at the rear Hall (the front hall being dedicated to Mazu) bowed three times.

The music piece and the singing piece dedicated to Guan Yin was a great piece singing about the three Big Days dedicated to Guan Yin. The lyrics were written by Ding Ma Chen and the music composed by Zuo Sheng Xiang, both members of the Association. The ladies, include Mdm Wu, took turn to sing each "Big Day" of Guan Yin.

As is the tradition now, after this song, led by this elder lady, who I guess must be the patron of the Association, the senior members and the VIPs, with the audience facing towards Guan Yin who is at the rear Hall (the front hall being dedicated to Mazu) bowed three times.

The second part of the show was more lively with the Li Yuan Xi. I thought this performance is much better than the present day Hokkien Opera, but well. Excerpts from Tan Sa Gor Niu (Chen San Wu Niang) were performed in three parts, each with different actresses. It was an opera about this man from Quan Zhou (Tan Sa - 3rd Tan) who met this lady in Chao Zhou (Gor Niu - 5th Lady) ... which left the old men wanting for more. (^^) Yes, we were literally "sucked" into the scene where Tan Sa was leaving, heartbroken and disappointed and was pulled back by the maid (the umbrella episode) who played the go-in-between for Gor Niu to express her real feelings so as to convince Tan Sa to stay.

I agreed readily that this was much better than the street \noperas. (^^)

And so, the show ended with a very high note for all of us panting for more .. what a pity that only the ah-laos can appreciate it better and this show should have been shown to more people. A showcase of one of our heritage.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

At the Barber

A couple of weeks ago, I was at this newly set up barbershop in People's Park. I went there to find one lady barber busy cutting and another one busy discussing with a customer. Oh, I thought to myself, a change of faces again. Unlike the old Fuzhou barbers where the same old faces (men) were there year in and year out, here the change is like every month. (^^)

From their accent, I gather that they must be mainland Chinese girls. This one was here only for a few months. She was flustered with this early morning customer who demanded money back for cutting his hair too short. "I thought he said that he wanted it short," she muttered to her associate. She was in a quandary if she should refund. The other was suggesting that she asked her boss. Finally, in the good new customer service of Singapore, a refund was made. I am not sure if it is from the till or from her wallet.

A lady popped her head in and asked in Hokkien, "Ka tampo esai bo?" Huh? The two girls looked at her in bewilderment. The other customer went to the rescue translating to Mandarin that she "wanted to cut a little, can or not". That lady wanted to know if the price would be less. Nope. Ah, the Chinese world in Singapore is changing. I couldn't help thinking that the "Speak Mandarin" campaign seems to work better for mainland Chinese working in Singapore. At least they have one putong hua (common language) to communicate with the local Chinese Singaporeans. (^^) In my halting Mandarin, I gave my instructions to the barber to cut my hair.

Letting her cut my hair (praying that she understood my requirements), I closed my eyes and drifted away. Away to my younger days when my Mum would bring me and my brother to a barbershop near to Grandma's place at Tanjong Pagar (where ST now stands). I hated to go to this barbershop because the barber would shave my face. I suppose I feared the shaving knife brandishing in front of my face, and each time inevitably, there were cuts. Those were the pre-AIDS days. Later, we managed to get our Mum to bring us to the Indian Barbershop opposite. At least they did not shave the face and they were friendlier. And yes, in an airconditioning room - a great thing in those days. I couldn't help wondering how was it that the Indian Radio seemed to have songs all day long, no matter when I went for my hair cut. Grandma opened a small kopi-tua, just across from the bus repair shop (Was it Tay Ko Yap?), and so, we had kopi after the having our hair cut. So, visit to Grandma and barbershop were part of our monthly routine and it meant that we could meet all the aunties. Grandma was strict and we had to call all of them when we saw them. Now, if we were to have lunch or dinner, it was to be the same, from Grandpa to Grandma, to first uncle .. right down to the last senior. The good thing for us boys was, we joined Grandpa and uncles for the meal first. The ladies came in second. For one, the table was not big. There was a joke in Hokkien about "Ta Paul Jia Toh, Cha Ball Chik Toh" (The male eat and the female clean).

Oh yes, and the Indian barbers did the trick on your head as if he wanted to twist your head and there was a "cluck" sound. Was fun having that done and being finished with some eau-di-cologne (Hokkien call it the Ko-long-chwee).

In the old days, female barbers are unheard of being in the main stream barber business. But of course, there were a few, two of which were famous at the "gao-lao" (9 storey) brick building (now it is gone) of the HDB flat next to Pickering St. I remembered the old men going there for their hair cut (we kids did not dare to venture into the barbershop and so we did not know if there were other activities) and some even bring their favourite barbers to Carpenter St for supper. In the 1970s, along the Carpentar St at night, there were two Teochew Muay (porridge) stalls serving great "hee-kau" (also known as Da Pan or Ikan Batang) muay and Pomfret muay. The stewed duck was also great. I was working then, and when I worked late, this was my favourite place to have my support. It later moved to Gor-Chan-Chiu-Ka (the old Esplanade) where it suffered a "slow death", overwhelmed by the steamboat stalls there.

"Hao le," said the lady barber, which woke me up. Without my specs, I could only have an outline of my hair. Looked good. Paying her, I went off. Only to discover that the cutting was a little off ... ah, a novice.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Wee Ma arrives for a visit to Po Chiak Keng

On Sunday, 15 Oct 06, the 24th of the 8th Lunar Month, Wee Ma, the grandma of Kai Chang Sheng Wang, the patron saint of Bao Che Gong 保赤宫 (Po Chia Keng), in the form of a statue, arrived in Singapore for a short visit, together with the 650 year old statue of Kai Zhang Sheng Wang 开漳圣王, also known in Hokkien as Sheng Ong.

As in traditional Chinese style, a procession, led by lion and dragon dances and Kong-Kuan (cymbal and gong troupe), the elders of Po Chia Keng carrying the "fire" from the mother-temple in China, and three sedan chairs carrying Wee Ma and Sheng Ong, and a whole entourage of Po Chia Keng members, started from Bullockcartwater (Kreta Ayer) and walked through the heart of Chinatown.

With the lights and decorations commemorating the mid-Autumn festival still lit, it was like Disneyland parade come alive, ala orang cina (Chinese), with the parade. It was accidental attractions for many tourists, and local visitors to Chinatown too. Cameras and handphones with cameras were flashing non-stop. Many must have thanked their lucky stars for such a catch or shot.

Situated at Magazine Road, this is a 130 year old temple that has seen much of the development of Singapore. What was a tributary of the Singapore River (near to the Chwee Lang Tau) in front of the temple, what stands now is an electrical power distribution building. It is a temple dedicated to the ancestors of the Tan Clan (chen in Mandarin, and possibly, Chan in Cantonese and Chin in Hakka), with Sheng Ong as the patron Deity. The mother temple in China is in Zhang Zhou.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Bullockcartwater Talk?

I thought that fellow Chinatown residents - present and past, and even visitors might be interested in dropping in for a chat. Too bad, technology is not ready to serve tea. (^^)

Nevertheless, I have created an email forum. So, do drop in.

Google Groups
Subscribe to Bullockcart-water

Browse Archives at

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Chinatown Mid-Autumn Festival 2006 16 Sep - 15 Oct

It is the time again, albeit late by one month because this year, in the Chinese Lunar Calendar there are two 7th Months. This year, the Mid-Autumn, 15th of 8th Lunar Month, falls on 6 Oct 06. Chinatown, in its tradition, is going to mark the Mid-Autumn Festival with a string of activities. It is also the time when many locals, and perhaps, foreign residents, would be queuing up the old traditional moon-cake shops such as Da Zhong Guo (Dai Chong Kok in Cantonese) known to have served many generations the Chinese pastry delights, the moon cakes being one of the major ones.

The traditional moon cakes come baked with mostly lotus paste an salted eggs in them with a hard pastry crust. These are more Cantonese. The Teochews have their own mooncakes which are filled with yam paste and with flaky pastries. There are also the "snow-skin" types which are probably Cantonese. These days, one could find moon cake with durian flavoured fillings or Green Tea fillings.

With the moon cakes, the small yams would also be another food associated with Mid-Autumn Festival. These are steamed and eaten. And yes, the pomelos too.

For the younger kids, the lanterns are a delight. What used to be the clear see-through paper pasted on bamboo sticks with a candle holders - and they are a fire hazard, with many children crying when their lantern caught fire first - and in various shapes such as the gold fish, these days, chances are the kids would want to have those in the forms of Hallo Kitty and with electronic control bulbs that cause them to flash.

Mooncakes and pomelos are also ideal gifts by the married children to their parents, or by the boyfriends to their prospective parents-in-law. Those moon cakes with more egg yolks, the merrier.

Copied from a poster from the organisers, are the broad programme information.

Chinatown Mid-Autumn Festival 2006
Official Light-up & Opening Ceremony

23 Sep 06 Sat
Along New Bridge Rd

Street Light-up
23 Sep - 15 Oct 06
7.00pm - 12.00mn (Sunday to Thursday)
7.00pm - 2.00am (Friday, Saturday and eve of Public Holiday)
New Bridge Rd, Eu Tong Sen St, South Bridge rd, Pagoda St, Smith St, Sago St, Temple St and Trengganu St

Mid-Autumn Festival Celebration & Mass Lantern Walk
6 Oct 06 Fri
Chinatown to Singapore River

Nightly Stage Shows
23 Sep - 6 Oct 06
8.00pm - 10.30pm
Kreta Ayer Square Stage

Festival Street Bazaar
16 Sep - 6 Oct 06
11.00am - 12.00mn (Sunday and weekdays)
11.00am - 2.00am (Friday, Saturday and eve of Public Holiday)
Venue: Pagoda St, Sago St, Temple St, and Trengganu St

Heritage Night Hunt
30 Sep 06 Sat
4.30pm - 9.30pm

Night of Lantern Riddles
29 & 30 Sep 06 (Fri and Sat)
7.30pm - 10.00pm
Kreta Ayer Square Stage

For more information call, +65 6222 3597

Ack: Poster by Kreta Ayer-Kim Seng Citizens' Consultative Committee

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Chinatown Wet Market No More?

The entire Chinatown Complex, consisting of the wet market, food court and sundry stalls, was barricaded for renovations. The bustling and lively part of Chinatown is now at a standstill, another ghostly reminder of the progress going through Bullockcartwater.

Decades ago (ca 1970s), just outside, on the streets, all the way from Sago St through Trengganu St to Pagoda Street, it was a maze of stalls in the morning, selling anything and everything that was edible. Ah, those early morning shows on the slitting of the great pythons or cutting of the giant turtles. These days, demands for the show and the meat have diminished so much that it would be a tough challenge for anyone selling them. Still on a bright morning, the streets were just alive with many marketing activities, the sellers shouting their wares, the buyers - housewives and restaurant chegs - hitting hard bargains. It would also be a breakfast and marketing outing for Mum and her kids. A great place for the old men to gather to yum cha (drink tea) and watched the housewives in their samfoos (traditional Chinese dress with tops and pants, getting rare these days) walking by.

And then, the market went underground to the basement of the Chinatown Complex. It was a great place, away from the glaring sun or the rain, but it was still as wet and dirty. The noises were contained with the space and vibrated many times. Slowly the people adapted to the new environment. Many had to look out for their favourite stalls. Chinatown was still the in-place to shop for fresh food. Chickens and ducks were still bought alive and be killed and defeathered if so desired. In the 80s, it was still the norm to even bring back a live chicken or two to slaughter only on the day, or before, of any festival days. That is now gone, given the increasing standards of public hygiene. Might as well, since the pandemic could well raise its ugly head. But the poor kids no longer have the chance to see a living chicken or duck, save at the zoo. Turkeys and Geese? (^^)

And now, another milestone has been marked with the renovation of the Chinatown Complex wet market. The temporary one is on the grounds of Outram Park.

In the meantime, much of the peripheral activities of the marketplace continues. The old men gathered to play their favourite game of Chinese Chess. Two players per board and many observers and commentators. (^^) One was suggesting a move, but the player explained to him what would happened if he were to move as suggested. "Ah, I see," the commentator said. So, for a game that could last hours, many brains were kept busy. Others idled, reading newspapers, soaking in the atmosphere or perhaps, reminiscing what the place was.

Will this place be the same again when the wet market (or would it be dry?) returns? There will be changes, but hopefully, the same dynamic spirits of Chinatown, or Bullockcartwater remains.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Photographer of the Century - Mr. Yip Cheong-Fun

On 22 Aug 06, as I was walking with the Channel-8 cameraman, I shooting the interesting targets and he shooting me, I discovered a new stall. It might not be new and it has been quite a while since my last walk along Pagoda St, especially during high noon. There I came face to face with the picture of Mr. Yip Cheong-Fun and his wonderful photos, and Mr. Andrew Yip who was manning the stall, just outside the Chinatown Heritage Museum.

Here for sale were many great works of art by Mr. Yip Cheong-Fun. It reminded me of the young days when I would walk all the way from Chinatown to the then National Library - remember the brick building? - where they would have the Photographic Salon organised by the Singapore Photographic Society, that would come with a slide show, and then, back.

If you were a resident of Chinatown, you would find Mr. Yip Cheong-Fun's photos nostalgic, scenes that could only come back in flashes as your memory waves hit them. Ah, but now, perhaps, you could bring one home (buy I mean) to remind you, and possibly tell your grandchildren or grandnephews or nieces, about those days in this place call Niu Che Sui, more popularly known as Gnou Chair Shui or Gu Chia Chwee.

If you are not, or if you are a visitor, or if this is beyond your time, these are great pictures worth keeping and looking at the Chinatown heritage. Of course, Mr. Yip had also taken many pictures of different parts of Singapore.

Thanks to Mr. Andrew Yip's generosity, I have taken quite a number of pictures of the pictures, well, just to give you a glimpse. On sale were also the Asian Geo-magazine issue 4/2006 which has some reproductions of the pictures as well as small booklets (in English edition as well as Chinese edition) entitled "Singapore Chinatown in Pictures" by Andre W. Keye with pictures by Mr. Yip Cheong-Fun.And in case you do not know who Mr. Yip Cheong-Fun is, he has been an outstanding photographer in Singapore and has been elected "Outstanding Photographer of the Century" by the Photographic Society of New York, specialist in "seascapes". He was also the recipient of the Cultural Medallion of Singapore (1984).

Well, let his pictures convince you.If you need more information, you can reach Mr. Andrew Yip at

Recently, the Singapore Heritage Society with the National Library Board (NLB) staged an exhibition of Mr. Yip Cheong Fun's works.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Hungry Ghost Festival

The Hungry Ghost Festival is here again. Each year, for the entire 7th Lunar month, the traditional Chinese observe this month as the month dedicated to the wandering souls and the ancestors who have passed on. It is interesting to find out how this term "Hungry Ghost Festival" came about, but certainly, it tickles the mind.

This year, 25 Jul 2006 marks as the first day of the 7th Lunar Month. It is believed by the ancient Chinese that on this day, the ghosts could come up from the "below". And it is also believed that those who died young or in unusual circumstances could become wandering souls. Unless their relatives have arranged for the proper conducting of ritual to raise them up from such status, they would remain wandering all the time. And during this month, the traditional Chinese would offer their departed ancestors or relatives as well as the wandering souls with food and joss-papers (money for the nether world).

It used to be smoky days and nights as each Chinese dialect group offer its prayers on different days and in different ways. And residents of a neighbourhood might gather together to offer prayers to the wandering souls. It was very much a community event, but in modern Singapore, this is getting lesser.

Still, in Chinatown as in any HDB estate and even in shopping centres (if you look close enough) and offices, there could be make-shift altars for the residents (be they living or working) to offer their prayers. In the HDB estates, one could see the elders leading their young - children and grandchildren in praying with a joss-stick. Tradition lives and continues in this way.

The Hungry Ghost Festival is also an important local economic activity in many local companies' business charts. Those selling traditional Chinese praying paraphernalia would be busy stocking to meet the demands. Those in the food and fruits market will also be busy as a wide array of foods are offered, from cooked dishes to fresh fruits to canned food and dried food. Neighbourhoods organised mass prayers, with each family taking back a basket packed with various food after the prayer. Bigger supermarkets are also getting into the play offering ready packed baskets of goodies.

This year, there are two 7th Lunar Month in the Chinese Calendar. This has many in confusion as to whether the Hungry Ghost Festival will be 2-months long, meaning that the ghosts would have an extended stay. The general trend of thought is that ghosts do not understand second month and so, they will return as scheduled. (^^) The second 7th month starts from 24 Aug 2006 and the last day 29th of 7th Lunar Month will be on 21 Sep 2006.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Sago Street Today

Sago Street today is a shade of what it was in the yesteryears. Only the remaining pre-war houses (as we call the shophouses) would know what happened over the years. Last Saturday night, I decided to look for some food in Chinatown and we walked and walked. We just couldn't find something that excites us.

My wife was reminiscing about the Trengganu St scene to my 12 year-old daughter. Yes, in the dating years, we used to smuggle out of her mother's watchful eyes to go to this yau-yi-ong-choy (re-processed dried cuttlefish with kangkong) stall that had kindergarten-size tables and chairs. There, for 50 cents we would enjoy a plate of dried cuttlefish or jellyfish with kangkong covered with red sauce and chilli, cooked to perfection by this old lady who probably was a perfectionist. Under her strict supervision were two women who helped to serve, whom until now we still could not figure out if one was the daughter and the other the daughter-in-law. She would scold them for a slight mistake .. and to us customers too if we reminded her one time too many. But, like kindergarten kids, we kept coming back. We could only relate.

We walked till the end of Sago St, which was at the junction of South Bridge Road. The population along the street got sparser as we walked towards the main road. The box-stalls stood neatly in a row. They were either shut or if open with the stallholder sitting looking bored. Behind these stall loomed the fast growing giant of a Buddhist Temple, which, hopefully in the near future would bring more life to Chinatown.

With hunger pangs, we decided just to sit on the last coffeeshop and ate what was available. It happened to be Hainanese Chicken Rice. It was a Saturday evening at 9pm, and the place was relatively quiet. Was it the World Cup (football?) Was it that the offerings were not attractive, to the locals nor the foreign tourists?

We decided to play tourist and peered into each box looking for something of interests. Indeed, there were many things of interests. But then, for a local, it might not be exciting enough for us to part with what we have in our wallet.

There was one that sold lights of all kinds. It gave a wonderful orangy glow .. that one could feel the warmth in a cold winter night. Alas, not in humid Singapore. Another was selling the typical local Chinese clogs - ones we wear in the old time kitchen, and these days, some may still use for the bath room. These do not look like those of the local market.

What caught our eyes was this stall with a guy happilying moulding a Laughing Buddha out of this wooden clay, looking at a picture of a Laughing Buddha for guidance. At S$5 a pack, it was reasonable enough for any parents to buy for their kids to play with. If they walk this way. Even though we were three, this guy stopped what he was doing and shared with us what he knew about the wooden clay. Ah, slowly but surely were sucked in, the interests in my art-inclined daughter growing. I went into the box to take a closer look at the finished products. Wow, models of the Chinese heritage could be seen, from Buddha to the Deities of the Hades to the Monkey Gods. When we decided to buy a pack just to try it out for fun, he got my daughter to learn how to make a hand with a quick 3-minute lesson to make sure that she would have the basic skills to do something when she gets home. For S$5, it was hard work, but he certainly got 5 very happy customers, who have already started the word-of-mouth campaign, and well, through blogging too. And of course, the curious passer-bys stopped to look. We left him to entertain a growing crowd.

As we moved back into the heart of Chinatown, at the cross-roads of Sago St, Trengannu St and Smith St, there was this strange stall that seemed to be out of place but yet getting the best patronage! A crowd of Europeans were having a stammtisch there enjoying beer from the nearby coffeeshop (ah, Weiss Bier) and his different sausages, starting from Bratwurst. Most locals would tah-pau (takeaway). The chef has changed his Chinese cap with a Football cap. Yes, it is Football World Cup time.

And so, in each tiny part of the Chinatown, which could be considered as Kreta Ayer part or the greater one that covers right to Singapore River and Telok Ayer St, there is a story waiting to be told.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Blooms in a Glimpse: Story of Kreta Ayer “昙花镜影——牛车水的故事”

Blooms in a Glimpse: Story of Kreta Ayer

Book Launch: Saturday, 10 June 2006, 4.30 p.m.
Singapore Art Museum
Glass Museum
71 Bras Basah Road
Time 4.30pm – 6.30pm

With childhood memory drawn from Chinatown, coupled with images created by two Cultural Medallion recipients Yip Cheong Fun and Chua Ek Kay. Chong’s book reconstructs a memory landscape with an urgency to share with us the root-and-branch of a place that has shaped our past and define our presence.

以童年的记忆为经, 以见证南洋风雨的牛车水为纬,资深报人莊永康借童稚的灵犀之眼, 邀约叶畅芬的影像, 与蔡逸溪的水墨, 让似昙花, 像镜影的纯真岁月,忆往, 重构了生命的最初与有情的天地的款款唱和。

Guest of Honour:
Assoc Prof Kwok Kian Woon
National Heritage Board and Singapore Art Museum Board Member, Vice Dean, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Nanyang Technological University

Mr Chong Wing Hong
, Journalist, Lianhe Zaobao
Mr Andrew Yip, Author of Chinatown - different exposures and Singapore Chinatown in pictures

Cultural Programme:
Cantonese Nanyin Performance

Nanyin (Namyum) is a strain of ballad sung in Kreta Ayer over the decades. It is very much a heritage shared by the Cantonese people in Singapore, Hong Kong and along the Pearl River in China. The song of Nan Shaoyi, Burning of Joss Paper, depicts a slice of life more than a hundred years ago, yet with traces of it still cherished by many Chinese of today. It is an integration of musical elements from the Tang and Yuan dynasties, Geyang accent and Minnan folk music.

南音是牛车水的一 缕乡音,散发着新加坡、香 港、珠江沿岸的广东人的共同情感。« 男烧衣»这支南音来自 清朝未年,里头描绘的生活习惯和人情世故到今天还是依稀可辨。它荟集了盛唐以来中原雅乐之精华,后来又吸引了元曲、戈阳腔的特长, 并与闽南的民间音乐融汇一体.

Witness the launching of this new and important publication!
Hosted by Singapore Art Museum

[Ack: Singapore Art Museum]

Saturday, May 20, 2006

The Grand Old Dame

To the residents, she is a regular sight. Sleeping on the car bonnets or underneath the cars. Chances are, these days, she sleeps under the cars, considering that she is now at an advanced age. If one is able to trace her family tree, gosh, how many generations she must have beget.

The worn out face peers at me as I greeted her each morning. Sometimes, she would be beneath my car, just next to the tyre. She would look at me sleepily and walked away to another car, and continued with her snooze. I am still wondering where she got food, staying on the third level of the car park.

She probably has outlived a dog which was also a resident in the block. While she belonged to an owner, she walked as if she owned the whole block. She would join us to take the lift, choosing the floor to get out, take a walk and wait for another lift down. The word life has taken its second meaning, literally. Bless her soul, she must have gone now as I have not seen her for a year.

Will this grand old dame still be around? Each morning looking out for her underneath one of the cars, I am assured that she lives out another peaceful day. I guess, her days are numbered, naturally.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Herbie is at it again!

Ah, the oldies but goodies might remember Herbie. For the youngies, maybe, you have another name? My old cells cannot recall. (^^) Yes, on this lovely Sunday afternoon when the carpark lots at Blk.33 off Park Crescent were quickly being filled up by the modern and flashy cars, there was one vintage. At least it was declared by the car, or the owner?

Blk.33 must be one of the best designed carparks in Singapore, but on this fateful day, 9 April 2006, the cars were crawling. I thought that only happens just before the Chinese New Year! Aha, I found out why quickly enough. Herbie decided to get fresh with this sweet young thing and so got close to it, oblivous to the embarrassed noises from the fellow four-wheelers. But it did respect the rule of the day, not more than 5 minutes. (^^)

But being typical Singaporean cars, they just passed by, took a quick look and went looking for a proper place. Tsk! Tsk! The cars must have been saying, doing it in public. (^^) Ah well, we should not be voyeurs, right? And so we went away.

How long did he stay there, I did not stay to find out. The next time I was there, he was gone. (^^)

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Cantonese Opera Singing Anyone?

Of all the local Chinese operas, I think Cantonese Opera is probably one of the most active and visible ones. Apart from the professional opera groups, there are a number of amateur ones and many are taking an interests in it.

Inside Chinatown, the Kong Chao Wui Kun (Gang Zhou Hui Guan 岡州会馆) , Gang Zhou Association, which is probably older than its building which was built in 1924, is offering Cantonese Opera Singing lessons 粤曲教唱班. This Association has been amongst the pioneers in having a Cantonese Opera and a Lion and Dragon Dance troupe. Some of the artifacts of the Association are also on display in the Chinatown Heritage Museum.

So, if you are interested, call them at 62239806. The building is along New Bridge Road, opposite to Pearl Centre.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Nan Yin 南音 at Tian Hock Keng

On Saturday night of 18 March, 2006, Tian Hock Keng (Guan Fu Gong 天福宫) opened its door to one of the rare concerts on Nan Yin 南音 - Southern Music. Once popular with the Emperor's Court from Tang Dynasty through Qing Dynasty, today, it is heartening to know that there are still groups of young people and old involved in practising and keeping this arts alive.

Organised by the Xiang Lin Music Society 湘灵音乐社, with the participation of the Fu Hai Monastery Choir 福海禅寺 and the support of Hokkien Huay Kuan, we got to listen to a very elegant and ancient music. Apart from the VIPs, the audience's median age must be 70! (^^) Ah, the music will remind them of their young days in the villages in and around Quan Zhou, China, where the Minnan Hua (Hokkien as known here) is spoken.

I think Tian Hock Keng is the appropriate place to perform such concerts as it also remind us of our ancestors who came to this temple upon touching the shores of Singapore. They brought along the cultural heritage to Singapore. Last night, some of the younger members, probably in the 12-16s, were also singing and playing in the Chinese Orchestra for Nan Yin. We know that Nan Yin will survive in Singapore. (^^)

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

A Life is just as Precious

In a dark cubicle of an equally dark pre-war house, somewhere in Kong Sai Kai (Keong Siak St) , some fifty years ago, a girl was born. She was born mute. And somewhere in Chinatown, another boy was also born. Mute.

Like a typical Chinese tale .. they were match-made. When this mute girl was growing up, her mother was concerned about her future. And so, she had long decided that she must get a husband for her. And so, these two mutes got married. Life was not easy but they got on. Husband was working on odd jobs. Wife worked as helper. In between, they had lovely kids, yes, they talk and are normal, thankfully.

If life was tough in Chinatown in the 60s to now, theirs would probably be more challenging. But each time when I met the mute lady, she was always happy and using her hands and whatever sounds she could make to communicate. She was a distant relative, probably linked all the way to this tiny village in China. And so, wherever we could, we would share something with her.

Unknownst to us, our Indonesian maid was also helping! We were wondering why she was keeping all the used drink cans in the house. Oh, she washed (to avoid the ants from making a mess) and saved them for the husband to sell!

And then, one morning, she waited and waited. In vain. She could not see him at the usual place. Then, we knew that he had passed on. When my wife met the wife, she was describing with her hands and sounds how she cried for days. (^^;

Now, each time I finish a can of drink, I think of these lives in our midst. A garbage could well mean a possible warm meal.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Lor Mee Anyone?

I suppose Lor Mee (or Lu Mian in Mandarin) must be a very Hokkien dish. It is one of those sticky gooey gravy over oily noodles (known as sic mee in Hokkien, meaning cooked noodles) complemented with chunks of fish meat (Ikan Merah fish?), sliced fatty pork and deepfried plain batter (like tempura), garnished with plenty of grated garlic, and if you like, at sliced chilli and a dash of black vinegar.

It is also interesting to see the stick gravy going watery, depending on the acidity (?) of the saliva. (^^)

In the old Boon Tat street, along a line of hawker stalls, there was once a famous Lor Mee Stall. It used to be one of my haunts when I worked around that area, well, not exactly near .. at Peck Seah St. For food, distance is not too far. once I travelled from Raleigh to Chapel Hill in North Carolina, USA, just for some good Indian food. (^^)

Now, at the Amoy St Food Centre, next to the famous old Sian Chor Keng (Xian Zu Gong) - temple more popular for Tua Pek Kong than its main Deity, Lu Dong Pin - each Sunday morning, from about 9am, one sees a long queue for the Lor Mee. It used to be the case of angry customers complaining when their orders were missed. These days, life is made simpler for the stallholder as the customers have to queue up to buy their noodles! One cannot appreciate the good customer service until now. (^^;

Each Sunday, parents bring their parents and their children to this place for breakfast. While the older folks relish on being able to taste and eat the same bowl of noodles that they had taken, maybe, some 60 years back, their 1-2 year old grandchildren have also been introduced to this dish. And so, the tradition of carrying on the taste and customs of how to each the Lor Mee is being transmitted.

Monday, February 27, 2006

A Sunday Morning at the Chinatown Food Centre

This could well be a typical Sunday mid-morning at the Chinatown Food Centre (FC). Well, I was there on 19 Feb 06 to have my favourite Vegetarian BeeHoon by the escalator nearer to the main market entrance.

Imagine that I have been eating at this Vegetarian BeeHoon stall long before the arrival of our kids, ate with the kids and now the kids are 13 & 11. This stall still has a queue every morning and the queue is much longer on the first and fifteenth of the Lunar Month.

On a Sunday morning at 11.30am, almost all the tables were taken up. Most of the people were in their 50s to 70s, a gathering of the retired folks. An interesting item on the table seemed to be beer! One man was seen taking a mixture from a bottle of Carlsberg and a bottle of Guiness Stout. And he was drinking it and eating fruits!

Across to the other side of the FC was a dim-sum stall, which used to house the Chwee-Kuey (Teochew Rice Cake), and there was a long queue, as it was in the past. I wonder why the Chwee-Kuey stall gave up.

Here is probably one place where Cantonese is still the main language spoken, and one could say the same for many Chinatowns around the world. For many of the older people, who probably do not stay in Chinatown, Sundays are days of gatherings with old friends or old neighbours and chats could have a wide range, from politics to the mundane things.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Chap Go Meh

To the various dialect groups of Chinese, the 15th day of the Chinese New Year could mean different things. But of course, all knows that it marks the end of the Chinese New Year celebration.

The age-old Wak Hai Cheng Beo at Philip St, a Teochew Temple which had since a long time been popular to Teochew, Hokkien and Cantonese, continues its traditional eve-of-chap-go-meh exchange of flags and lanterns. This goes on right through the 15th day. Gone are the days when one could see the devotees carrying flags and a bigger joss-stick sitting on the trishaws as they rode home. These days, they have even bigger joss-sticks to withstand the wind as they ride home in cars and maybe taxis.

To some Chinese families, it is a time for some tang-yuen, the familiar southern Chinese rice balls.

In Chinatown, it was the last bang for the Chinese New Year with another round of celebrations. Alas, I did not get to see it as I was somewhere else attending a temple dinner. But I managed to capture some scenes of the full moon (it is said that the moon is rounder on the 16th day of the lunar month) overlooking Chinatown.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Chinese New Year in Chinatown

Over the years, Chinese New Year in Chinatown means shopping before the big day and Yu-Shang (pronounced in Cantonese for Yu-Sheng) after the new year. The highlights of the goodies for the Chinese New Year were mainly for the traditional Chinese cooking, such as dried mushrooms, the famous Yunnan Ham, all kinds of Chinese sausages of various shapes, colours, size and lengths, dried oysters, fatt-Choy (in Cantonese for Fa Cai) and yes, tidbits such as boiled peanuts, cashew nuts, melon seeds, and sweets. The attraction for this year must be the Mua-chi (like the Japanese Daifuku) from Taiwan.

Said to be originated by three or four local Restauranteurs, the idea of Lo-Hei (again, in Cantonese for raising prosperity) was rooted and now it is an in-thing for all to go for Lo-Hei within the 15 days of the Chinese New Year. This year, I saw people going for Lo-Hei even before the CNY! Some would prefer to do it on the 7th day of CNY, as it is said to be everyone's birthday. And yes, from the traditional Cantonese raw fish, these days, one could do Lo-Hei with practically anything, from Salmon to Abalone.

One interesting landmark of the new entrance to Chinatown must be the decorations at the New Bridge Road/Eu Tong Sen St junction with Upper Cross St. This is one scene that goes 360 degree that you must see. (^^)

Monday, February 06, 2006

Pai Ti Kong 拜天公

Today is the 9th day of the Lunar New Year. It is the birthday of the Jade Emperor, more popularly known to the Hokkien (Fujian) people as Ti Kong (Tian Gong in Mandarin). It is probably the single most important day for the Hokkien Taoists. As in the Chinese way of counting time, the first hour of the new day starts on the night before (in modern clock time) from 11pm. And so, the Hokkien would start their prayers from last night at 11pm, and well, depending on the throwing of the pua-puay (sheng-bei - the kidney shape wooden blocks that the Chinese Taoists use to communicate with the Deities or even the ancestors), the prayer could well end as late at 2am.

In the old days when I was living in a Peranakan house (our family rented a room) in Chinatown, it was a grand communal affair where all the tenants joined the landlady in offering the prayers. The main hall on the ground floor was arranged beautifully with all the praying paraphernalia, which included big red candles that were pushed into the sharp pointed brass candle holders (all polished for the Chinese New Year and this night), big joss papers known as Ti-Kong-Kim, most of them being folded into elaborate shapes, including those that looked like the ancient gold and silver ingots, and sugar canes.

A pair of sugar canes was and is still a must. According to stories heard, it was said once the Hokkien were being attacked (not sure if they were the mongols or bandits) and they went to hide in the sugar cane field. The sugar cane saved their lived. And so, when they came out alive, in gratitude the prayed to Ti Kong with the sugar canes, probably reminding them of how their lives were saved.

It was a night of grand offerings from roast pig to roast chicken and ducks, all kinds of Chinese kueh - like Huat Kueh and Kue-Nern-Ko (Egg cake pretty close to Castania), and yes, the Ti-Kong Pia (Cookies that the poor Hokkien made as a varied offering), fruits of all sorts, dried vegetarian dishes, and whatever the kitchen could produce. In our Peranakan House, it was a night of gathering as well, when all the tenants sat together, folded the Joss Papers and chatted. It was a night when children were allowed (almost forced to) stay up late to pray to Ti Kong.

The excitement came when the leader, in this case, the landlady, would seek approval to burn the joss papers. When this was granted, in unison, the occupants of the house would carry the joss papers, including the big and well decorated boxes and the sugar cane leaves chopped from the sugar cane, to form a bonfire. In the 1950s, it was also a time for the biggest amount of fire-crackers. Most of these fire crackers would have strung up to the bamboo sticks hung from the highest floor. In our house, the highest was third storey. It was a night when neighbouring houses would try to outdo each other in the fire-crackers too.

The next morning, with beady eyes, we would have to wade through the ankle deep "what's-left-over-of the firecrackers" - red papers - to walk to school. But we were also reminded of good and hearty makan awaiting for us when we returned home. This was one of the moments, we poor kids were waiting for.

As I do not have a picture of what I had described, I have borrowed this picture from Ronni Pinsler who has taken this Pai Ti Kong scene in Penang last night. It is almost similar, including the house. (^^)

Update: Wah, I did not know that as I wrote, someone in the west was doing the same! Monkey's narrations give me hope that tradition lives, albeit in smaller numbers. (^^;

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

A Trip to the Barber

Last Sunday, I took a walk to People's Park Centre basement, to my old Barber shop. You see, the new one at People's Park Complex was no more there. Businesses seem to come and go so fast these days. So, after two flings with the new barbers, I went back to the old.

It was the last Sunday before the Chinese New Year. As with Chinese traditions, the guys should go for their haircut before the New Year. So, as if it was a calling from within I joined the crowd. Gone are the days when if you have long hair you might be served last. (^^)

The barber chairs were all occupied. All the barbers were busy. Outside, on the benches were two guys - in their fifties, I think - with the towel all wrapped up on their heads. Ah, having a cold "perm". Another three were having their hair swept backwards, like the Rock-n-Roll dancers in Harajuku, Japan on a Sunday afternoon. Yes, they were having their hair tinted black.

The barbers of the old have their business evolved too, providing "perming" as well as dying. Digging of the ears is now a thing of the past. The electric shavers (or rather hair cutters) have replaced the traditional mechanical ones. Razor blades for shaving are now fitted with use and throw blades. AIDS have changed the ways shaving tools are used.

This barber shop - called Good World - has been around for quite a while. It is the modern barber shop of the old, but not of the new generation type. No, no lady barbers. An interesting thing about this barber shop is that the barbers all speak Hock Chew (Fuzhou) - I think. With the customers, they speak Hokkien or Mandarin. It was a surprise to me when I went this Sunday and a guy (new face) greeted and conversed with me in English. Changing Times. (^^)

Nothing like going to the same old place, doze off and have one's hair trimmed, amidst the chatters in Hock Chew, the comparisons of 4-D results and even some tall tales from some customers to the barbers. (^^)

Friday, January 20, 2006

A Good Soul Deserves Another

Last night, as I was picking up my mail from my mailbox on the groundfloor, there was a funeral wake. It was normal and I did not pay much attention until one lady, whom we met often in the lift, told me that the person died alone.

This man who had just passed away lived alone in the "senior citizen flat" along Upper Cross St. From what I understand from the people at the Wake, he was under social welfare. Inspite of all the hardship, he helped to deliver food and things to the other elderly people in the block, the people who are not able to move easily. He was an important connector in this community of elderly people.

He died alone without any relatives (at least at the Wake, no one was aware). The neighbours in the "community" took it upon themselves (with some volunteers like this lady and her husband who are living in my block, which across from that block) to give him a decent burial. They even arranged for Buddhist funeral rituals to be conducted.

At the Wake, the elderly neighbours who could walk were there to help out, such as folding the necessary joss-papers and burning candles/joss sticks. They tried collecting "white gold" (contributions to a funeral is known as white gold in Chinese) from the community. There was one donor who happened to be at the block to give ang-pows away to the senior citizen (these are the low profile philanthropists), who upon hearing of this case, gave S$1000 contribution. The community spirit is still alive.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Temple Facing The Sea 福德祠望海大伯公

It was said that way before Raffles arrived in Singapore in 1819, at this place where Palmer Road is now at, there was a thriving community. This could have been a thriving port, called Tanjong Malan, now known as Tanjong Pagar (Pagar meaning Kelongs or building on stilts in the sea used for trapping fish). And thus, it was only natural for the Chinese to first offer thanks to their Deities upon coming on shore. In this little place was a Chinese Temple dedicated to Da Bo Gong 大伯公 (more popularly known as Tua Pek Kong in Hokkien, and Fu Tat Chi (Fu De Ce) 福德祠 to the Cantonese and Hakka). As the temple was facing the sea (then), it was then known as the Da Bo Gong Temple facing the sea 福德祠望海大伯公.

This temple is probably the only "practising" Hakka temple in Singapore. For its more than a hundred and eighty years (considering 1819 as the starting point), this temple must have seen much. How its view of the sea was now blocked by containers when it could have been sending lapping waves on its steps. The bustling port activities. The different people living together - an early cosmopolitan town. There was also a famous kramat just across from the temple.

But much of the described scenes are oral history. What was it really like? Thanks to the Ying Fo Fui Kun (a HakkaClan) which administers the temple and NUS, an archaeological team has started doing some digs around the temple to understand better what life was like then. I hope that the dig will reveal more about life around the temple and the location then.