Saturday, February 21, 2009

Chinatown in 1938

Wow, this is before my time, but I thought some of you might be interested. And it reminded me of my childhood days when Grandpa would bring me to visit his Tua-Kow (lighter) moored in the Singapore River. Jumping from Tua-Kow to Tua-kow was no joke, when I was probably about 6 years old. On one side was the dirty water of the river (this video showed much cleaner water) and the other was like three storeys into the depth of the empty Tua-Kow.

Grandpa took care of one Tua-Kow which was one of the many that could be linked from one to another, pulled by a small motor boat from Singapore River to the Outer Roads (meaning the outer part of the sea just out of the Singapore River mouth, which then had a long bund to keep the waves from crashing into the Inner Roads). Loads of rice, flour, copra and many things were transported this way from the ships to the godowns (warehouses) through the Tua-Kows and back to the ships. Singapore was an active entreport trade then, and I guess now too, except that they use containers.

Grandpa died on one stormy night when he tried to cover the goods in his Tua-Kow and was knocked off the Tua-Kow when wind blew the huge cover into him. That was in 1960. Since then, there was no more Tua-Kow jumping, no more trishaw rides and no more kopi in a saucer from the Chinese Sarabat Stall (roadside coffeeshop stall) in the Hokkien part of Chinatown, known as Giao-Keng-Kao (Outside the Gambling Den).

From A tour of the British colony of Singapore in 1938.Footage from this film is available for licensing from

Thanks to the alert from -

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Plucking the greens to bring in luck afresh

If there is a period when the lion dance troupes are out by the prides and most active, it must be during the Chinese New Year. While it is a good time for fund raising for the lion dance troupes, it is an important times as businesses and even households welcome the lions to come and bring in renewed energies so as to bring in new prosperity and luck.

This is represented in the plucking of the greens known as Cai Qing 采青. 

In Singapore Chinatown

In the old days, there would be a bunch of Shang Choy 生菜 (Sheng Cai or Chinese Lettuce) with an angpow (red packet, containing money) being hung up for the lion to find its way up to pluck the greens and be rewarded with the angpow. At times, the shops might place the greens as high as in the second storey for the lion to try to get them. The lion would have to consider if it could get to that height by having a pile-up of their guys balancing on the shoulder, one on top of the other. Others might have to resort to more mechanical means.

I was in Sydney during part of this Chinese New Year and was fortunate to see the traditional Lion Dance with the lion trying to pluck the green from the ceiling of a restaurant. Ah, such scenes are hardly seen in Singapore these days. In the Sydney Chinatown - which is like a one-street but very Chinese Chinatown (but of course) - every restaurant or shop welcomed the lions but it was not an easy task for them just to pluck the green.

In Sydney Chinatown

They came armed with harden bamboo poles fixed with metal "steps" to help the main lion head holder to climb up to the top of the pole. Interestingly, when they came to this part, it was the job of an older man (maybe in his 50s or 60s). It still needed gungfu! 

In Singapore, apart from the greens, the lions learned to peel mandarin oranges and make Chinese characters. Important words such as Wang (Prosperity) are important to the business people. Maybe, in the homes or the temples, they might give a hint of some numbers, for the 4-D (lottery) inclined.