Saturday, July 18, 2009

Were you in St. Mathew Kindergarten before?

With a new whitewash, this quiet building stood along Neil Road, directly facing Everton Road at the T-junction. Once upon a time, this hall must have been resonating with the giggling, singing and even shouting of the kids as they responded to their teachers' questions or encouragement. During its hey days, St. Matthew Kindergarten, probably one of the better known kindergartens of that time, was popular with the residents of Chinatown.

Although it was situated on the "outskirt" of Chinatown, it was not too far away. Known to the Cantonese as Seng Mah Tai, I assumed that it must have been a school for those who could afford. My family could not afford and by the time I knew about the kindergarten, I was already in primary school.

I had one opportunity to visit the kindergarten during its open house and I was already in Primary one. I was already out of place as I joined the kids in doing colouring. That was in 1960.

I am sure, many of the Chinatown residents (kids then), when they pass this now quiet building, they must have good memories of their childhood days. They would probably be telling their grandchildren about their days as tiny tots. Most, if not all, would be been in the baby-boomer generation.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Singapore's 44th National Day

It is the time of the year when we, the residents of Chinatown get to see first hand, the rehearsal for Singapore's National Day celebrations. Looking at the skies, that is. Year after year, we never fail to be excited by the chut chut sounds of the helicopters as they fly overhead with the giant Singapore flag (the biggest in Singapore?) fluttering above us. And sure enough, looking at the distance, the jets would be flying past. While the helicopters seem to be consistent in their flight path, it is not so with the jets over the years. They must have been flying different formations.

Looking at the flag and helicopter moved towards the parade site, I could not help reminiscing the young days when I too was a participant in the Boy Scout contingent in the parade held in the Padang then. In one National Day parade, it was pouring dogs and cats and I could remember shivering in the rain as water gushed over our heads through our drenched uniforms. Ah, but we stood still (trying not to shive too much), proud to be part of another milestone in our tiny nation.

Just as it might be now, then, the parade was held in the morning. This meant, for most of us gathering at a place the night before so that we could assemble together in the shortest time. The then Sands House (Scouts HQ)'s Aw Boon Haw Hall was the place where rows and rows of Scouts would lay down to sleep under the spinning ceiling fans. We probably did not have much sleep as it took us a while to settle down. There were no sleeping bags then (it was still a luxury item for most of us) and so, we tried to cover with what we had, trying to shield from the increasingly cold draft from the fan. 5am, we were up, and by 5.30am, it was breakfast of bread, hard boiled eggs and drink. And the buses were waiting for us.

We assembled at Nicoll Highway and marched down to the Padang from there. Scouts were not known for good marchers but we practised hard (in the earlier times at the then Raffles Institution field) and weren't we proud when we saw our contingent in the Singapore dollar note!

The birth of modern Singapore was not a painless one. It made us all the more aware of the need for us not only to survive but to thrive. But even in the midst of a smallest achievement, we must not forget our past. Like the rings of a tree trunk or the layers of the soil, I think the events are also reflected in the history of our Chinatown. Let's look for the signs.

Monday, July 06, 2009

People's Park takes a new role

Long ago, some people might feel uncomfortable with words such as "People's .." for fear of being associated with communism. But interestingly, in Singapore's Chinatown, the People's Park did not seem to really elicit any fear. It could be because then, it was more known by its Chinese name than its English. People's Park Complex was known as Zhen Zhu Fang 珍珠坊 which could be translated as Pearl Place.

I took a walk through People's Park Complex last weekend, and to my surprise, the place was crowded, very crowded. There was a bigger variety of mainland Chinese there. Many were tough, brown and brawn, speaking in numerous dialects and possible Mandarin in heavy accents. I gather that they must be in the construction industry here. Singapore has seen a surge in Chinese construction contractors in the local building industry. People's Park Complex now has many Remittance Centres allowing the mainland Chinese to send back money to their home, just as Lucky Plaza is to the Filipinos. The lonely POSB ATM at one end saw a constant long queue as the workers waited patiently for their turn to withdraw money, probably to hop down a few steps to the remittance centre. Hmm, under IN2015, perhaps, they could do it at one place with the remittance centre working with POSB for direct transfer. Just a thought. It could be a nightmare for the IT security.

By the entrance to the Overseas Emporium - once upon a time, this Chinese emporium is one of many where all local Chinese flocked to get cheap Chinese goods, and unknown to many, the English editions on Socialism and Commission, good enough to get one to sleep - was a crowd looking at two topless young men showing no pain as they had their back drilled (tattooed).

People's Park has seen a resurgence of crowds and hopefully customers.

I could remember long long ago when the People's Park Complex was probably the biggest departmental store in Singapore. That must be in the late 60s. I remembered joining the curious crowds walking through the empty corridors in the newly finished complex. The place smell new.

There was an "open air" coffeehouse where I first brought my German visitors to for their breakfast. That was another story on culture shock .. just how the eggs are to be prepared and coffee without sugar. That was in 1978.

People's Park continued to evolve. Being small shops selling almost identical ware, it was tough business. Restaurants came and went. I remember having vegetarian dinner at the Kingsland Restaurant at one corner of the complex. The luggage shops seem to be able to sustain their lives there. Then the shops selling the "smelly" medicated oil, said to be good for treatment of the muscles came in. The place "stinks" probably chasing away the non Asian foreigners. But it must have added to the flavour of the Asianness there.

Recently, a sex shop opened. That opens up a new dimension to this multi-faceted complex. The People's Park Complex continues to evolve.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

A journey of the Southern Sounds

On Sunday, 28 June 2009, the Ee Hoe Hean Club with Siong Leng Musical Association (which is just up the hill along the same road) co-sponsored a talk on the journey of the southern sounds - Nan Yin 南音. It is about a music that is more than a thousand years old, and how it travelled from the times of Tang Dynasty to the modern era, about how it manages to remain on course through time and rapid changes, and how it travelled out of China to all corners of the world.

Nan Yin lyrics still maintain the words of the ancient times. The early source of the Hokkien (Minnan) language/dialect, it is a pride of the Hokkiens in Singapore. Interestingly, the interests on this music and song have transcended all dialect groups and even interests people from all over the world.

The elders worry about the Nan Yin becoming extinct. In Quanzhou where it has its base, reports indicate that it is still very strong and thriving well. One could enjoy a performance at any night. One could find many singing the Nan Yin at home, in communities or with friends. In Singapore, there are a number of Nan Yin groups.

Of these groups, Siong Leng Musical Association has been one of the most active in bringing the music and songs to the young, through schools and performances. Each year as it performs in Thian Hock Keng at Telok Ayer St, the courtyard would be filled with the elderly audience waiting in expectations, and even humming along. In recent times, more and more younger ones could be found, some of whom attended out of curiosity, but ended getting stuck with it, a feeling of the residue echoing of the melodies resonating in one's mind, as describe by Ms Zou Lu, one of the two presenters at Ee Hoe Hean Club.

That Siong Leng Musical Association comes this far, with foresight of innovations and creating new songs, one man was instrumental in this, the late Mr. Teng Mah Seng, the previous President of the Association. He has written more than 300 pieces of songs, many of which have now been played in China and other places. He was instrumental in organising ASEAN gathering of Nan Yin groups to perform in Singapore. He led the group to win prices in the Edinburgh Festival.

Ack: Siong Leng Musical Association

At this talk, Mr. Han Shan Yuan, a veteran journalist, also shared his experience both as an interviewer of Mr. Teng and as a friend. Mr Teng did not start his writing of Nan Yin songs till when he was 61 years old when a Nan Yin performance at his mother's funeral wake triggered him. His passion for the music and songs was so great that even when he was diagnosed with cancer, he asked the Almighty to let him have more time so that he could do more. He was a man in a hurry. Said to be a man of little schooling when he came to Singapore to work, many were amazed by the lyrics that he wrote, beautifully composed in classical Chinese.

Mr. Teng must be very proud that today, the descendants of Siong Leng Musical Association continues to perform his songs and music. He has left behind a very important legacy to the Singaporeans, and to the Nan Yin lovers in the world!

A new and young group performs for us the legacy of Mr. Teng.

Ack: Siong Leng Musical Association, Ms Zou Lu, Mr. Han Shan Yuan