Saturday, January 09, 2010

A Giant in the Neighbourhood

I was walking along Craig Rd, reminiscing my childhood days when I looked up at the row of houses that were opposite to where I lived, and low behold, it was like a giant has stepped into the neighbourhood. There towering behind the row of two storey houses was that huge and mammoth monolith called The Pinnacle. It was impressive and reminded me of the first time when I watched the "Kong Long" movie at Oriental Cinema, one of the very new movies that I went with the family, especially with my late father, who worked in Johor Baru then.

Ah, but before the Pinnacle came, there were two blocks of ten-storey flats. They were probably the most expensive rental flats then, at S$96 (if my memory serves me well) compared to the others, say in Queenstown that was at S$66.

We thought that we could give it a try, since it would be a far better place than the small rooms shared with a number of families in one of the houses along Craig Rd. At Craig Rd, we learnt tolerance and compromises. Going to the bathroom, one has to look for empty timeslot. The bucket system toilet was always challenging for us kids. There was no light inside the toilet and so, it was with a candle if we wanted to go in the night. The smell did not help. Not did the cockroaches which seemed to be everywhere. The landlady was very strict. It was lights out by 11pm. And so for us kids, there was the spitoon (which has more than its stated use) and the kerosene lamp so that we could sleep with a little light. Catfights or cat mating on the roof above us (we were on the top floor, being the third floor) added to our wild imaginations. It was a challenge going to bed early as the family would be at the second floor where we had our little dining table.

Imagine a toilet with bathroom of our very own and a bigger space (albeit at a higher cost), it was heaven to us. Even if we have to gather a bigger family to stay together, it was still worth the effort, if for anything, a better toilet. (^^)

And so, I spent the later part of my primary school and secondary days at Cantonment Road. Slowly, we lost contact with the "kampung" friends of Craig Road, where we had enjoyed our early childhood.

I could remember the small palm trees planted between the carpark in front of our flat (behind us were the flats of the Police Cantonment) and Cantonment Rd. I saw they grew, taller and taller. If there is one restaurant that was part of the two Cantonment Rd flat history, it must be Hillman Restaurant. Famed for its claypot dishes, it later became famous and popular with Japanese tourists and expatriates that at one time, almost the entire occupancy in a night could be Japanese. Ah, to the Japanese, it would be the famous "Paper Chicken Rice" and Sharkfin omelette wrapped in lettice (DIY). Now, the restaurant has shifted to Kitchener Road. For us then, it was fried ee-meen.

My uncle was staying with us and working in the then Harbour Board. In those days, one must be able to ride a bicycle to be able to work in the harbour. It was the only cheapest way to travel to the harbour and from wharf to wharf. He worked in shifts, morning or afternoon. When he worked in the afternoon shift, I would cycle to school. And if he worked in the morning, it would be afternoon escapade for me and my Sikh classmate after a good hot Punjabi tea (this is tea boiled with powdered milk) and chapati at his house. Sometimes, he sneaked out of the house when his mother was sleeping. (^^) And we explored Singapore on two bikes without maps but based on our hunch to return back in time for dinner. We were in secondary two then.

There were always open air movie in the Police Cantonment behind the flat or even as far as another one at the end of the old Tanjong Pagar Road. With my neighbour, we would try to sneak into the Cantonment to watch the movie, which often would be in Malay. Ah Potiananak or the Oily Man, frightening stuff. Because the screen was a big makeshift cloth, we could watch on the opposite side as well.

Mother had to go to work to earn additional income to pay for the rent and feed the hungry kids. There was no pocket money for us save when we went to school, and it would be 15 cents, 10 cents for return on the Hock Lee Bus and 5 cents for recess. If I ride the bike, I would save 10 cents. So, when Mum went to work, being the eldest, it was my duty to go to the wet market, which by then I knew where to get what at the cheapest. Budget was S$10 for two families for a week. So, it would be chicken hearts, kangkong, Ikan Kuning, cockles, pre-steamed Ikan Kembong, tau gay (bean sprouts) and tau-kwa (bean curd). And then, I had to cook. Learning a few skills from my aunt, I could fry the Ikan Kuning marinated in tamarind or the chicken hearts with sesami oil, dark soya sauce and sliced old ginger. Cooking rice was using the palm to measure the amount of water enough to have the rice cooked without being too soggy or uncooked.

In between, we could still have our fun. It was a no-no to go swimming. The parents were always fearful of us kids drowning. The fact that Mum did not know how to swim made it worse. And so, with a neighbour who hid the swimming trunks for us, we would sneak off to the Yan Kit Swimming pool when we saved enough money to pay for the entrance fee. There we learnt on our own how to swim, not without many mouthful of chlorinated water. It was not only the dangers of the water. There was also the dangers of kids coming up to us to ask us "what did we play" (in Hokkien - Li chi toh si mi). That was like a password check to know which gang we belonged to. We had to be careful to say that we don't play. And it would be small kids coming up to challenge us. Ah, the dangerous days.

The new Pinnacle seems to make such childhood memories so far away. But it does remind us that we have come a long way. Living on the 7th storey was high then. Imagine 50th storey! But like in the past, the cost might still be a little above the head. (^^)


algae said...

The building in the foreground used to house the Crocodile garment factory?

chinatownboy said...

Yes, I think so.

I my memory is correct, when I was young, it was the factory making the Tiger Balm. Then, I think after a while it became the Crocodile garment factory before becoming the French Business Centre? And then EBay. (^^)