Monday, December 17, 2007

Tim Sum at Red Star

Two Sundays ago, looking for something more Chinese, or rather, more Cantonese for breakfast with a visiting Chinese, a friend suggested Red Star Restaurant. It was ages - decades - since the last time I was there. The last time could well be a wedding dinner, and that must be more than 20 years ago!

To my (ignorant) surprise, when I went to the restaurant on this fateful Sunday, there was a long queue for a table, at 10.30am! I thought the trend of Tim Sum (Dian Xin) since the day of the Mayflower Restaurant (and the like) was gone. In this quiet multi-storey carpark along Chin Swee Road, next to Manhattan House, one could never imagine the buzz of what's happening inside the restaurant. You could well be in a restaurant in HongKong or even the Chinatown restaurant of San Francisco - the commonality of Chinatowns around the world?

There were trolleys of yummy Tim Sum being pushed by the waitresses, pushing their wares - I mean food. Before we knew, our table was laden with all kinds of Tim Sum. Ah, my favourite Chilli YongTauFu (Niang Dou Fu) was still there. I remember them as not spicy in the Tim Sum restaurants and I still wonder what was the secret. The Pei-Tang-Chok (Pitan - century egg - Porridge) was still as delicious!

What might have been just Poh Lei or Luk Poh (in Cantonese) in the old days, on that Sunday, the waitress asked if we want Pu Erh tea.

As I ate, my thoughts strayed in the midst of the din of clashing of cups, plates, bowls and the calling out of various dishes - Lo oi wu-gok moi? (you want the deep fried taro?) Ha-kau? Siew-Mai? Fong-Chao? Gosh, it must have been in the 1960s when the dirty backlanes off Smith Street was still clogged with tables and chairs, placed in any way that could fit in the limited space. They were practically there the whole day and possibly night.

In those days, with friends in the neighbourhood, we tried saving from our pocket money. Once we have thirty cents, we were ready for our food adventure. The language of communication in the restaurant then was mostly Cantonese. And so, we learnt the key words. We looked for a spare table and chairs, and before we could sit, the for-kei (waiter) came upon us, with a no-nonsense look (and not too friendly nor courteous) - remember we were kids - asking what we wanted. He had brought along a small enamel bowl filled with boiling water, tea cups and chopsticks in them, and a pot of Chinese tea. "Law-Ma-Kai leong kor," we ordered, asking for two glutinous rice. We got free Chinese tea.

Looking back, we often gazed at the noisy orders that the for-kei would bark across the lane. And there could be a few of them shouting orders back to the "command-post". They have colourful ways of giving the numbers so as to avoid distortion or data loss due to the noisy environment. Seven could well be spoken as "leh-pai", which is Sunday. It could be even more hilarious if you hear them describe the customers to be served. (^^)

Efforts are being made to bring back the scene in the lanes, but I still cherished the wonderful dirty days when the boiling water was the guarantee of a safe meal. Traces of such practice are still present to these days.

And if you want to enjoy the great Tim Sum in Red Star on a Sunday morning, go early. I understand that they don't accept reservations. By the way, the carpark is free.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Old Playground

Each time I took a short cut, which is rather rare these days, walking from the Oriental Theatre to Yan Kit Swimming Pool, using the old railway line turned into park, I could not help remembering the young days.

This has been the route for me to go to school and back, and to play with friends in the "Tng Tiam Hung" kampung. There were always the dogs to be fearful of. We kids were oblivious to the steady streams of trishaws making their trips to and from Keong Saik St. (^^)

Ah, the story would be too long to tell in one blog posting. I was just passing by the bridge over the old railway line when I noticed that the sign board on the Chin Woo Athletic Association was still there. Ah, my French friend is still practising his Taiji there with the master from this Association although he does not speak any Cantonese or Mandarin.

In my younger days, I was living at 29 Craig Rd (ah for posterity, I have better put my address here less later I can no longer remember and I missed the bid to get the road name from LTA!) and that was the side of the street that only have bucket system!

Cooped up in a tiny room and not allowed to make noise - you can imagine those noisy floor planks that creaked all the time - by our fierce Bibik, we only had the open air to scream our lungs out. And so, we went to this park. I could still remember the days when they screen movies open air. And there even a performance by Anita Sarawak!

Somehow, we kids got to know the kids along the street. Particularly one opposite to our house, where they made wooden swords for gungfu practice. Talk about child labour, we would gladly volunteer to polish the cut swords with sandpaper! Well, for our hard work, we got to read the "ko-chek" (old Chinese comics which was condemned by the teachers as not good, alas, we know now that they could have improved our kids' Chinese!).

At the park, there were many things to do. We would climb the Madras Thorn (tree) to try to get the fruit before the birds beat us to it. And yes, there was the Basketball court. Whenever anyone is playing, we would just walk near. It is almost always that the owner of the ball would throw to us to give it a try. And before long. we would be teaming up to play - half court. At times, it was more "professional" and we small kids backed off when the Tng Tiam Hung gang played against the Kong Saik Kai gang. When we kids played, there were no fancy stuff, like basketball shoes. We could only eye at them with envy. We played barefooted! Wearing the Japanese flipflops would run the risk of tearing the rubberout.

In the evening, the men and women in white tops and black baggy pants took over. It's the Chin Woo Athletic Association. We kids would sit by the slope or even on the Aw Boon Haw jaga's Charpoi (rope bed) to watch. The older people would be doing the "ghost catching" according to the master's call of "yet, yi, sam .." (one, two, three). Ah, I was to learn years later that it was Taiji.

And there were the younger ones who would do the unarmed gungfu or with the weapons of all sorts - spear, nan-tao, qian .. toys that my son now plays. Hmm, something that I wanted to learn, but never got to doing it because, I had no money.

The fun time must be when the Association was rehearsing for a performance. That's when the woolly Northern Lions would appear in their full form. In those days, that was probably the only Northern Lions that I have seen. Others, as seen during Chinese New Year, were the Southern Lions, as you would have seen in the Wong-Fei-Hong movies.

The whole streets of Tng Tiam Hung (Pawn Shop Alley in Hokkien) and Kong Saik Kai (as pronounced in Cantonese) are now quiet. No noisy boys. And so, what's left of the basketball court was also quiet. But to my surprise, the activities of Chin Woo Athletic Association goes on.

postscript: As days draw longer, it would have to take an occasion like a funeral wake to reminisce about the young days. This guy, about my age, but one generation higher because he happens to be the brother of my aunt, came from Indonesia (where he has since taken up residence and became a towkay) for the wake of his nephew, my cousin. We talked about the days when we were both about 12 years old .. and playing in this old playground. Ah, memories.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Singapore River and the Tua Kow

A couple of weeks ago, I watched a VCD of the China TV documentary series on Cheng Ho's (Admiral Zheng He) voyage to the western seas. Marvelling at how the Chinese built the huge wooden boats, I could not help remembering the days before I went to school. (My daughter was asking me how come I did not go to kindergarten) Yes, I must have been only 4-5 years old when Grandpa (my mum's adopted father - that's another story tied to the World War II) used to bring my brother and me on a trishaw to Siong Peck Kuay (I found out that this was Nankin St), where his coolie-keng (the coolie's clubhouse) was. We were alway looking forward to go to the kopi-tua (the Chinese version of the Sarabat Stall, or coffeeshop on wheels) where we will have kopi (thats coffee with condensed milk) on a plate. Ah, with a big surface, the kopi got cooler faster. (^^)

Grandpa was working in one of the huge Tua Kow (lighter?), one of the numerous that used to clog almost the entire Singapore River near to the place facing the landing place of Sir Stamford Raffles. He would from time to time bring us to his Tua Kow. While it was fun, it was also frightening. We had to jump from Tua Kow to Tua Kow from the river side. If we fell outside the Tua Kow, it would be into the murky, dirty and foul smelling river. If we fell into the Tua Kow, we were to have broken bones, as what my uncle did.

The unladen Tua Kow must be some two storey high, or higher? In those days, these huge Tua Kows are unpowered. Often, like the barges of what you see today, one small powered bumboat would be pulling a line of many Tua Kows from the Singapore River to the outer roads (the sea outside the breakwaters off Clifford Pier), where the cargo ships would be waiting. And the cargo? It could be rice, flour or copra. Ah, sometimes, we got the leftovers (what was spilled into the bottom of the Tua Kow) and so at home, it could be rice, flour or even copra for our stove. In those days, it was either wood, charcoal or copra as fuel. Try cooking rice in those different heating ingredients!

Imagine the coolies, balancing on long narrow planks, carrying heavy sacks of rice or flour from the lorries or the warehouse along the river bank to the Tua Kow. When they carried flour, you would see white-powdered men with a cloth over their shoulder and head as they carried the sacks. For rice sacks, there would be the rounded hook to help them carry, the hooks that the kids of today might be familiar with Captain Hook.

Further up the Singapore River, passing Char-Chun-Tau (in Teochew as the Teochew community dominated this place) where Clarke Quay is now on one side, further into almost where boats could not go, at Kim Seng Road, there were a couple of boat yards, where these huge Tua Kows were built. Brown, very tanned, bare-bodied men worked on the rotten-looking logs floating on the low waters. Two persons with long saws (almost similar to what I saw in the Zheng He documentary) were patiently sawing through the length of the log. Using clamps to make a space, they continued to saw, horizontally.

There was no sign of any blueprint. As my secondary school was by this part of the river, next to Kim Seng Rd, each day as I walked or cycled home, I would watch for the progress of the boat building. And slowly it took shape, from the skeleton, each plank was placed against them. I never got to see how they launched the boat into the water and towed to the river mouth, known to the locals as Chap-Puay-Kuay-Gi. Ah, they must have waited for the extreme high tide, since Singapore River is a tidal River.

Singapore River was the life of Singapore's early days, playing an important role in her entreport trade. Goods from Indonesia and Singapore come through Singapore River, and vice versa. The river bank was a busy place in the day, and a quiet one in the night. There were warehouses made from the shop houses, there were people living there, there were temples and there were hawkers.

Playing in the Tua Kow was part of our childhood fun .. catching those what we called "Hai Ka Chuah" (literally translated as sea-cockroaches). Alas, one day, in 1960, some came to inform Grandma that Grandpa could not be found. The night before, he was on his mission with his Tua Kow in a convoy to bring the goods to the ships on the outer-roads. A storm was brewing. What we knew then was, according to witnesses there, he was trying to cover the goods from the rain. The strong wind blew the cover backwards, knocking him cold, throwing him into the water.

Grandma went to consult a medium as no one seemed to be able to find his body. The medium advised that he would be found that afternoon. That afternoon, police reported spotting his body at Katong, some distance away from the Outer Roads. I was only into my Primary 2 class. From then on, the excitement and memories of the Tua Kow slowly faded.

And some four decades again, in my quest to look back at my younger days, I was surprised to discover that Grandpa's ancestral deities - Sam Tiong Ong (San Zhong Wang) - were still being worshipped. The original temple at the coolie-keng at Nankin Road is now in Toa Payoh.

It was a long journey from Grandpa's home village in Tang-Wha (Tong An) in China to Singapore, enduring poverty and a hard life during the World War II, working towards a better life with the Tua Kow .. and ending with it.

[Ack: Thanks to Ai Lin for the B&W photos from her grandfather's album]

Monday, September 10, 2007

Yan Kit Swimming Pool

Yesterday, I had a short opportunity to walk up memory lane.

I saw the Kim Lan Hng (Jin Lan Yuan) that was all that is left of the place where once stood temples, one being the Jin Lan Miao (which is now at Kim Tian Road). Across the road is the only temple that is still standing, the Phor Tor Jee, an interesting syncretic temple that must have seen much of the transformation of this corner known to the local residents as the "Chye Chi Ya", meaning market. In the old days, to reach the temple from "Tua Beh Lor" (big horse road or Tanjong Pagar Rd), one had to wade through the often wet and dirty street up Narcisus St where the wet market once stood.

That was the place where I accompanied my Mum marketing. I learnt how to select a piece of sting-ray by smelling (you know why?), got the cheapest offer, such as cockle shells at 5 cents a kati or the chicken hearts that were frozen (and often frown by the well off) - only to learn that they are high in cholesterol! Ah, chicken hearts fried with thinly sliced ginger and a touch of sesame oil was sedap (delicious). During festive days, we would be selecting the most alive chicken to buy to bring back and fatten it up for the actual day.

I was to take over the marketing when my Mum went to work to bring in extra income. For S$10 a week, I was to market and cook for a family of 8 people. But I digress as this would be a long story on how I started cooking at the ripe old age of 10! (^^)

Ah, the Yan Kit Swimming Pool brought back memories when with a neighbour, we would sneak off for a swim. If my memories hold, the entrance was like 30 cents and because Mum would not allow us to swim (the fear of us kids drowning), we would keep the swimming trunks at our neighbour's place.
It was also a time when apart of the fear of drowning, we had to contend with territorial wars of the local gangsters or secret societies. Of course, staying in Term Tiam Hung (Alley of Pawn Shops - although I remembered only seeing one) helps since we were the residents, but then, there were so many gangs operating there. "Li chi to si mi?" (what do you play?) a small boy would accost us in the swimming pool, expecting us to give the password, the two-digit number of the local gang/secret society. It was dangerous to try to give a number. We would say, "Gua bo chi toh" (I don't play) and try to look behind him, as often, there would be some bigger guys waiting. (^^)

Apart from such occasional encounters, we enjoyed our childhood in this neighbourhood with a swimming pool that was so near, and probably one of the very few in the 1960s.

When I tried peeking into the pool, I saw big recesses .. what were the pools were now dry. While Farrer Park Swimming Pool had reinvented itself, Yan Kit Swimming Pool did not seem to go that way. I could remember the three pools, the biggest being nearest to the entrance, often used for water polo and diving. The middle pool was probably the most congested, since it ranged from about 4 feet to 6 feet. And the further end was the wading pool, where we started, learning to swim on our own. From time to time, we would be adventurous enough to venture into the second pool. And when we tried to go at it in the first pool, the ever attentive life guard would blow his whistle and got us out of the pool.

At times, when we were lucky to have that extra 5 cents or 10 cents, after a swim, we would go to the small canteen to enjoy a piece of chye-tau-kueh (Chinese deepfried radish cake) coated with plenty of chilli sauce. Often, we would share between three persons, the neighbour and my younger brother. Happy, with skin and hair smelling of the chlorinated water, we would stroll back home.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Chinatown prepares for Mid-Autumn Festival

We are still in the midst of the popularly known as "Hungry Ghost Festival", more appropriately known as Zhong Yuan Jie 中元节, but this does not prevent the shops and traditional Chinese pastry shops from preparing for the Mid-Autumn Festival, Zhong Qiu Jie 中秋节.

While in the past, the streets of Chinatown, the part which is the focal point of shoppers - Gu Chia Chwee in Hokkien or Gnau Chei Shui in Cantonese or better known to the younger folks as Niu Che Shui 牛车水 - would be lined with paper lanterns of all shapes, colour and sizes, hanging from above, with the assortments of moon cakes laid on the tables as days got nearer towards the 15th of the 8th Lunar Month, these days, celebrations take on a grander scale.

Props and pillars were almost in place, to prepare for the banners and lightings, transforming Chinatown (mainly along New Bridge Rd and Eu Tong Sen St) into a fairy land at night. We await to see what's in store from the creative designers for a Chinatown in Mid-Autumn.

While the newer restaurants and hotels started work through their outlets, pamphlets and credit cards, offering all kinds of moon cake, very active in their marketing, the lao jiao pai (the old signage) Chinese pastry shops like Dai Tong (Da Tong 大同) and Dai Zhong Kok (Da Zhong Guo 大中国) continued with their preparations, almost quietly. They know and most of us oldies know, when the time comes, we would still want to have that piece of good 'ol mooncake that we are used to. The older men and womenfolk would still be queuing up to buy their share.

A quick run of a part of Chinatown got me the pictures here to share with you. Ah, there's quite an assortment of different moon cakes and cakes for the occasion, and each dialect group has its own specialty.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Xin Sheng Poets Society 新聲詩社

This evening, I was fortunate to be introduced to the Xin Sheng Poets Society 新聲詩社which now has its premise in Chinatown. After "wandering" for years, it has finally find a home in the right place! Chinatown. From what I understand, the Society should be 50 years old this year, having been in the current premise for the past 6-7 years.

I have been walking up and down the food street (Smith St) umteenth times but never paid attention to the occupants of the shophouses other than the restaurants. And what a pleasant surprise it was, when Liu laoshi 劉老師 showed me this place. Reminded me of James Bond show, from the hustle and bustle of a busy food street, we came up this serene place at 13A where folks (mainly with a median age of 50?) gathered to learn Chinese poems, read them, and sing them!

For the first time in my five decades of existence, I was actually excited by a Chinese poem! The way, Chen laoshi 陳老師 read it as one would probably see from the ancient movies of scholars reciting the poems, and then, sang it! Suddenly, the Ai Lian Shuo 愛蓮說, that I learnt some four decades ago sprang up in front of me, fresh and fragrant, very different from the miserable days of mo xie 默寫 (writing from memory) and bei shu 背書 (reciting from memory). Hmm, I thought to myself, why couldn't my Chinese teacher be like Chen laoshi. I suppose there is only one Chen laoshi, and probably there could be many undiscovered talented ones that the schools are in need of. (^^)

Oblivious to the noise, smells and smokes from the street downstairs - luckily, there is this technology called air-conditiongin - this little crowd, learnt, read and sang. And they just came, class after class.

Tonight is but one of the many classes that this society organises, much to the delight of a probably diminishing but dedicated crowd. But I could be wrong.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Lee Clan Association 李氏書室

Nestled amongst the rapidly renovated and transformed row of houses along ASH (as popularly known to many youngsters who grew up in this quiet neighbourhood) - Ang Siang Hill - stands a building that seems to be able to keep it at its time. It could have been rebuilt in the 1960s, this building houses a 133 year old Association of the Chinese who came from the three areas in GuangDong, Li Shu Shi Shi 李氏書室. Better known as an association for the people from these three areas, hence, Kwong Wai Siew, this is another association apart from its better known associate organisation in Peck Shan Teng.

While the outside might give a neo-modern facade, once inside, it brings many of us from that era to feel what an association is like in the 1950s, or probably earlier. Rows of big photographs of elders who have served the community through the association stood and these days, probably only a few could recognise them, and for their contribution to society.

One of the most outstanding members, probably known to most Chinese of the 1950-60 era, must be Lee Dai Soh, the famous Cantonese Story Teller, from whom we heard tales of China through the Rediffusion. Grandpa, grandma, parents and children would sit or squat by the Rediffusion box to listen this tales, starting with his famous words "Cham Mung, go de gong toll .. (Last night we talked till .. in Cantonese). For many who did not have Rediffusion at home, it was the kopitiam.

As typical in most associations or homes, there will be a board to block direct view from inside out and outside in through the main door. This build has that kind of aura that sees many DIY tourists trying to peek in to take a look. For the history buffs, there lies much treasure about this association and its association with the growth of Singapore, and indeed for many in Chinatown.

Friday, June 22, 2007


Ah, the good old Chinatown, probably since the time when Sir Stamford Raffles started work in Singapura, is getting new interests. Yes, a new Buddhist Temple and Museum has sprung from where the dead or the dying used to stay. More memories will have to be archived as layers and layers of history would push them further underground.

Nothing is more refreshing than the young - our future - takes an active interest in Chinatown, the past, the present, and possibly shape the future. Chinatown is not just an attraction for tourists, it has to be our town, our home and in that way, the visitors can see and appreciate the lives of Singapores, from past to present. It is not disneyland or any theme park, although from time to time, we could re-create some theme-like-park scenes for locals and visitors to experience the heydays of the old Chinatown.

Chinatown continues to haunt us of the past, of those struggling to lead a decent life, and yet, it also continues to display the opportunities from which one could survive through grit and sheer determination. Reminds me of this old man who collects thrown away cardboard boxes (mostly from cosmetic packings) and newspapers to put his son to school right to his PhD! And this old man now has a stroke and only has the good support of a maid. Life has been tough but he is happy knowing that his next generation will have a better life.
It is with such scenes in the "heartland" of Chinatown that gives it its character, and I am glad to know that Chinatownology is going to capture such stories, on top of many useful tidbits and information both for the residents and visitors to Chinatown. Soon, Singapore Chinatown will have a big window to the world .. and then the door will be wide open. Visitors to Singapore Chinatown could do some pre-trip gazing and decide what he/she could do in the Chinatown, in a DIY tour. Or course, tour groups and tour guides would give the value-added service of stories and give a better understanding in a time-jam-packed tour. But for those who are on free and easy, nothing like sitting down by the coffeeshop and enjoying the ambience of Chinatown. Ah, perhaps, we should have Chinatown-borns to come and sit by the kopitiam to share their stories.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Junk or Treasure?

To many it could be junk, and yet to many, it could be treasure.

Many had thrown away what they considered as junk, and the same many could now be regretting that they have thrown away treasures. The "junk" that has escaped from the inferno could stay to be discovered again.

In Singapore these days, there might be too few of such diggers of treasure and so, according to Juzer Saifee of Odds "n" Collectables fame, junks are hard to get these days. Ah, many have become wiser and know the value. And so, it would not be cheap to try to get an old disused opium pipe or even an old picture of the then dirty Singapore River.

Nested in a row of pre-war houses (as we call them) along Telok Ayer St. is a shop that is filled to the bream with all kinds of things. There must be thousands of them and one could spend hours there just looking through them to get that treasure one could hope to find. An old glass-vacuum flask that probably keeps the water hot for hours compared to current day metal flask. A statue of Guan Gong, the famous Chinese warrior of the Three Kingdom. It is said that the beard of such statues actually grow over time! If you are lucky, you could even find your school's class photo!

Ah, just make sure you do not have butter-fingers. That junk could well turn out to be a very valuable antique!

According to Geraldene, our famed local Heritage Guide, Juzer takes a hour or more to open shop and that equal amount of time to close the shop. How did she know? Well, she would always bring her tourists to visit his shop. History is displayed all over the shop! What was used in the era gone by, these are represented in this small and compact shop. It's a museum of another kind! And I think Geraldene is probably an expert in these little histories. (^^)

I once visited a smilar shop in Shanghai in the old quarters .. both have the same characteristics and atmosphere. These are but getting rarer, but they are the depositories of our past!

So, if you happen to be at Telok Ayer, pay Juzer a visit. And well, if you have something to throw, maybe, he can buy from you too. (^^)

The place: 128 Telok Ayer St, Singapore 068597
Tel: 63230043

Thursday, May 31, 2007

A New Temple has arisen in Chinatown

On the night of 30th May 2007, a new temple opened its door to devotees and visitors. In a very grand way, filled with pillars of dragons that lit the entire South Bridge Road (it was even grander than during the Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations!) lines of floats, dragon and lion dances paraded down the road to an audience seated near to the Tooth Relic Temple that was at the corner of South Bridge Road and Sago St.

Long queues of devotees and probably curious visitors (local and foreign) waited patiently to get into the temple. I was told that they were treated to four floors of wonder (I have yet to visit the temple, although I passed by at 5.30am on 31 May 07). Each visitor was also given a 1-kg pack of rice. And there was also a big tentage to serve free vegetarian food through out Vesak Day.

Visitors to the Temple were urged to be appropriately dressed. For those who came dressed more casually in shorts or spaghetti-strap tops, they were politely offered something to add on, so I was told by my wife who visited the Temple.

The new Tooth Relic Temple promises to add more buzz to Chinatown as tourists - local and foreign - will have one more destination to visit. For Buddhists, it would be another temple in which to meditate and to remind them of trying to achieve what Buddha has done. (^^)

This Temple has also added another dimension to the architectural landscape of Chinatown. Chinatown will never be the same again. (^^)

Friday, May 18, 2007

School Children Visit Chinatown

Took a day off from work and took some minutes to re-aquaint myself with Chinatown again. Although I live in Chinatown, I hardly see Chinatown. It's work, work and more work, outside town.

So, while waiting for my "new" barbershop to open, I took a stroll through the different streets of Ngau Che Shui (Gu Chia Chwee) - the originally Cantonese part of Chinatown. The stalls catering to the tourists were already open and doing some brisk business with the busloads of tourists visiting the Sri Mariaman Temple. Others took their time to open.

Just as I was walking along Pagoda Street, I saw something like three classes of kids from a Primary School. Wah, school excursion to Chinatown! I don't remember having such trips in my days. We visited factories then. One kid was quipping to the other and the teacher, "the stalls are not open because it is not Chinese New Year". If only they have seen Chinatown of yesteryears. (^^) I did not follow them to see if they were to visit the Chinatown Heritage Museum, which I think is a great place to visit. I love that original door of that original shophouse.

That house alone certainly brings back many memories of the hard life and struggle of the people who lived in that place, as well as thousands who have lived in Singapore during those period. Some books have been written and they could be found in the Chinatown Heritage Museum and main bookshops. Veterans like Ronni Pinsler and Geraldene Lowe-Ismail could share with you of the tales which their Amahs shared with them, and brought them to see, probably experience the Chinatown then. Geraldene has also written a book on Chinatown (which was also translated into Chinese) and she still leads tour in Chinatown, mostly to local expatriates, and increasingly, young Singaporeans searching for their roots. For many, one of their ancestors could well have lived in Chinatown.

For a glimpse of the life of Singaporean Chinese in yesteryears, Jack has written an interesting article titled: "Ah Ma and her Beliefs: The Migrant Experience and Religious Practices of a Chinese Immigrant Woman in Twentieth Century Singapore.”

Ah, with careful planning, Chinatown could well be a living "museum" housing various traditional activities that would not only preserve our traditions and customs but also share them with fellow Singaporeans and visitors. Let's hope it will not be just a tourist destination alone. It used to be a buzz of activities in the night for anyone in search of food or shopping for the locals.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Tian Hock Keng celebrates Mazu's Birthday

9 May 2007, this year, was 23rd day of the 3rd Month in the Chinese Lunar Calendar. It was the birthday of Mazu, more popularly known to the older Chinese Hokkien people as Ma Chor Po. Tian Hock Keng, at Telok Ayer St, probably the oldest and most well preserved temple, is where Ma Chor Po resides in Singapore.

On this day, Tian Hock Keng, marked a new milestone in having a Taoist Ritual, which was not seen in as many years as I know. The day was crowded with devotees, young and old, grandpas and grandmas teaching their grandchildren about Mazu, office workers dropping by to "talk" with Mazu. Some would kneel in front of the altar "talking" to her for quite a long time.

A number followed the Taoist Priests in their rituals as they invite the other Deities and the Jade Emperor to join in the celebrations. A pair of lions came to add joy to the occasion. As with traditional practices, devotees lined up to put their share of contribution towards the "you-xiang" (donation box) as a temple assistant called out the name of the donor and called upon Mazu to bless him/her and family.

Legend has it that it would rain on Mazu's birthday, and indeed, it did.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Chinatown is expecting another event!

This afternoon as I drove into South Bridge Road, dragons greeted me. With an eye on the road and an eye on the dragon, I was trying to recall what could this be. Chinese New Year is still months away. What could be happening?

There is only one possibility. And we will wait as it unfolds itself in the heart of Chinatown.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Ah, and the next generation is here ...

We know that the neighbourhood has somewhat settled when we see that the next generation's offsprings have been sent to grandpa and grandma. It is the children that gel the neighbourhood. In my first 12 years in the neighbourhood, there were only cursory smiles and nod of the head at the lift landing or inside the lift. But when the first kid arrived, it was not just smile but questions about the kid, how big he has grown .. and suddenly, the vertical (as in a flat) kampung (village) became like a horizontal kampung.

When my kids were young, my neighbour's house became the playground. The kids knew that they would have something nicer there. After all the field afar is always greener. (^^) My young daughter learnt quickly that if she said something smells nice, she would be rewarded with something to eat.

Pretty soon, my kids grew up and somewhat became shy of budging into the next door. Meanwhile the "korkor" and "jiejie" next door started getting married. For a moment of time, the noises were from our house.

And then, with the arrival of "spring", the kids next door started to bring back their offsprings for grandpa and grandma to take care. Wow, and the number grew from one to two to three. It was and still is a happy extended family again. It was time for us to comment how the kids grow so fast. We see the babies grew day by day, as how they saw our kids grow. Suddenly, the "korkor" and "jiejie" on this side became shy from the attention showered on them by the little kids next door.

Ah, these days, it would be quite difficult to see bamboo loads of tiny clothes. With the use-and-throw diapers, one no longer sees the cloth diapers that every mother-to-be has to learn to fold before the baby arrives. So, were the folding of absorbable paper (one has to rub the paper with two hands to make them soft for the soft bottoms of the baby) diapers before the cloth ones are tied over.

Replacement levels have not been met, but at least there is progress. (^^)

Hopefully, if the flat still stays, we might get to see yet another load of offsprings. (^^)

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Malayalees celebrate their New Year in Chinatown

Thanks to an old neighbour, who was our babysitter for my daughter, now her god-mum, friend, I got to learn about the Malayalees celebrating their New Year with the Vishunite 2007 at the Kreta Ayer People's Theatre on 21 Apr 2007.

Mention Kreta Ayer People's Theatre and chances are it will be showing Cantonese Opera, and other Chinese shows. But this night, another ancient tradition and art has taken over. To many Singaporeans, they might still not really know about the Malayalees, just as other Singaporeans trying to know the Hokkiens and Cantonese.

Borrowing the notes from the Vishukkani 2007, the Singapore Malayalee Hindu Samajam
Publication, in the article on Vishu, Reshma Rajesh wrote that, "Vishu is a unique Hindu festival celebrated by the people of Kerala. Vishu is the first day of the Malayalam month of "Medam", which falls in the month of April. Vishu is considered to be the New Year for the people of Kerala."

The first thing that the people of Kerala see on this special day is the "Vishukani" which is for prosperity and good luck all year through. In temples also the Vishukanni will be arranged. Some people refer to see the vishu kanni in temples. According to the Hindu tradition, the Vishukani will have a lamp lighted in front of Lord Krishna, gold, money, fruits, a clean white cloth called "Kasava Mundu", rice grains, yellow flowers known as Konna (Cassia fistula), jackfruit, a mirror, betel leaves, coconut halved and yellow cucumber.

Young members of the family are given gifts and "kaineetam" that is a small amount of money which is supposed to bring prosperity all year through

Dressed in their best, many Malayalees congregated at the Kreta Ayer People's Theatre for the show, performed by amateurs as well as professional dancers. Artistes from India were also invited to perform in the show. Tradition runs strong and deep in this community in Singapore!

Alas for me, because of prior engagement, I had to miss the show, but from looking at the artistes - children to professionals - I know I will miss an interesting event and a chance to get to know the community better. Next year perhaps. (^^) Still, it was great to drop by, ate the Vegetarian Wadeh (fantastic), coffee (somehow tasted different and better) and bought two Ladu, which I was told once I eat it, I will be coming for more. I will try it later.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Origin

With kind permission and thanks to James and his friend, here is a very nice picture of the bullockcart, and with the water on it, presto, it is the bullockcartwater, probably sounding more correct in Malay - Kreta Ayer or Chinese - Niu Che Shui.

Could anyone recognise or identify where this picture was taken? Would be great to take a picture of the same place (no chance of a bullockcart though) today, if it is still around.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Nan Yin at Tian Hock Keng 天福宫

It's Guan Yin's birthday today (2M19) and Hokkien Huay Kuan with Siong Leng Nan Yin group staged a Nan Yin concert in front of the Hokkien Huay Kuan building with the Tian Hock Keng opened for worship.

By 8pm, almost all the seats were filled up and some spare chairs were being placed.

For this concert, the troupe spared no efforts in getting the performers to dress in Tang Dynasty dresses - wow, they looked good, especially on the ladies!

The first song was in dedication to Guan Yin, singing praise of Guan Yin and telling about the three importants dates of celebration in honour of Guan Yin, 2M19, 6M19 and 9M19 (in lunar calendar, month-date)

This night was a night of the younger generation. The older members only performed on the first song dedicated to Guan Yin. The younger ones took over from there with the songs, ensemble and even one with a dance, all very beautifully cheorographed.

Thanks to Kevin Ang, he has produced an English edition pamphlet explaining about Nan Yin and Tian Hock Keng. I hope to be able to get his copy in pdf so that you could also download to read. In the next performance, perhaps, a similar copy in different languages could be made available in the internet.

An ancient song and music, an ancient language - the origin of Tang and the Hokkiens - have been preserved and today, thanks to the dedication of the Siong Leng Musical Association, we get to enjoy what our grandparents have been enjoying in the early years in Singapore.

Thanks to Kent of SOH,

See you there on 6M19? 1st August 2007. Bookmark in your diary!

Friday, March 16, 2007

CNY 14th Nite at Wak Hai Cheng Beo

A tradition that has gone back decades, each 14th night of the Chinese Lunar New Year, devotees flocked to the Wak Hai Cheng Beo (Yue Hai Qing Miao) to offer their prayers to Xuan Tian Shang Di and Mazu and to exchange their old flags and /or lanterns.

This is one night that time stood still, and one could see the scene as could have been a few decades ago. The only difference could be the surrounding. Looking for the moon might not be as easy. Tall buildings surrounded this dwarfed temple.

Wak Hai Cheng Beo is a Teochew Temple but interestingly, on this night, it was almost like a Cantonese tradition. While the joss paper sets used inside the temple could be Teochew, those brought by devotees to offer their prayers and burn in the courtyard could well be Cantonese.

Many devotees have begun to form parties, meeting together before coming to the temple and offering their prayers together. Here, each member or family could bring along food as offering. Many have home made Chinese Huat Kueh (Fa Gao) which symbolises growth and prosperity. There were also Ang Ku (Hong Ku), a sticky and oily rice cake with bean stuffing, peanuts (Hua Shen, sounding like growth and bloom) and of course, sweets.

One party has an interesting idea where all the devotees, after prayers, they would have a kind of standing up picnic enjoying the food. I was fortunate to be invited to join in. Wow, the best huat kueh I have tasted in years. The group was told not to throw the peanut shells away but to burn them together. Reason, it is like renewing one's shell .. for a better life. What a great way to consider and there's less littering too.

Before this picnic, the group, grandparents, parents, and kids would have their joss sticks, trooped into the already crowded and smoky temple halls. They were greeted by the temple members .. ah, familiar figures as they are regulars. The children were guided to pay their respects to the various Deities.

At the hall of Mazu, one Cantonese Taoist Priest was conducting a ritual for some devotees. I saw him last year and this year too. And so, this must also be a regular service offered to the Cantonese devotees. He chanted in Cantonese.

Some devotees brought along a circular paper set, that the devotees would use to turn around (clockwise, I was told) as they faced towards the Deities. This is to turn their luck for the better, which is better described in Chinese as Zuan Yun.

As the night wore on, more people arrived. It was a night where devotees of some three or four generations gathered to offer their prayers. An old lady was supported by her son and an Indonesian maid. Another old lady sat in a wheelchair and the party had to negotiate with the door way to get her into the temple and out again.

This is probably the only temple where such a tradition has been carried on for decades. (Anyone knows when it started?) And I hope it will carry on for the next 100 years. (^^)

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Xiang Lin Musical Association's New Year Party

I had the good fortune of being invited to the New Year party of the Xiang Lin Musical Association on the 8th Day of Chinese New Year.

Nested in a very cosy attic of this restored house along Bukit Pasoh, it was almost like a family gathering with the elders sitting and enjoying the Nan Yin songs and musics sung by the elder and young. The orchestra was made up of mainly youngsters! It was certainly heartening to see so many youngsters playing the Chinese musical instruments, some of which are distinctly Nan Yin. And that they were also singing the Nan Yin songs in the ancient Hokkien dialect.

Xiang Lin is no stranger to many in the arts circle as could be demonstrated by the number of awards and momentos that they have received.

Many friends at the party enjoyed the music and songs, while enjoying the food as well.

If you have yet to see or hear Nan Yin, go to Tian Hock Keng (Tian Fu Gong) at Telok Ayer St on 15th Day of Chinese New Year (4 Mar 07) at 7.30pm to enjoy the music and songs in the wonderful atmosphere of the temple. And if you do spot some bats flying around, you have the additional luck too!

Friday, February 16, 2007

Preparing for a Prosperous New Year

Each new year brings fresh hopes for a better year. To the ancient Chinese, Cai 财, which means prosperity, has a multitude of meanings, unlike today when Cai is mentioned, it is about money. But in the traditional means, Cai could mean rice - plenty to eat. Cai could means a big healthy family and a good life.

And so, each year, each in his/her own way, looks towards Cai Shen 财神 (The Deity of Wealth or Prosperity) for something better. And here in Chinatown, the residents and visitors alike hope to get a blessing - be it rice, chocolate in the form of golden ingots or angpows (red packets) - from the Cai Shen.

Chinatown Lights up with a Bang!

Chinese New Year must be accompanied with lots of noise and certainly, there must be lions and dragons. And so, Chinatown continues with this tradition.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Chinatown with a light touch

Now, if only Chinatown will have such light show on a daily basis. It would add lights, colour and certainly crowd. It was a great idea to show Hotel 81 in a different light. This grand old building was once a school, and then, it was a home to many residents, and now a hotel.

Monday, February 12, 2007

The long queue

Preparing for Chinese Lunar New Year could well mean queues these days. In Chinatown, there is one notable queue that has been going on for years. Established since 1938, the Lim Chee Guan Bak-kwa (BBQ dried meat in Hokkien/Teochew) shop has been the target of the Lunar New Year shoppers.

This morning, barely past 8.30am, and the queues of both side of the two streets were forming, one at the old shop along South Bridge Road, and the other in People's Park Complex. Barely a stone's throw away, the other Bak-kwa shops were still waiting for customers.

According to what I heard from the Bak-kwa lovers, they said that on the survey on the taste of Bak-kwa, Lim Chee Guan's Bak-kwa did not rank amongst the top, but from the queue, it looks like it does. Reminds me of the blind tasting of the caviar, where the reputed to be best and most expensive ones did not come up top. Ah, the taste of people.

I guess, for many, Chinese New Year will not be the same without some Lim Chee Guan Bak-kwa. (^^) And certainly, many would have made their parents-in-law, or potential ones very happy.