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.