Thursday, August 25, 2011

Coke with Salt, anyone?

Somehow I have already forgotten about this way of drinking the Coke or Sarsi. But, recently, a young friend (well in his 30s I think) joined me for lunch. And he asked for Coca Cola with salt on the ice. Huh? I thought this practice was extinct! But the fact that the kopi tiam (coffee shop) or kopi tua (coffee stall) could come up with a salt shaker (way more hygienic than the old salt in a Brands' Essence bottle with a small plastic spoon) shows that it is still very much alive, except that its users might have gone "underground". In the past, it would have been very usual to see a bottle of salt on every table.

Many people believe that Coca Cola or Sarsi with salt will "cool" down the body. If you believe or subscribe to the theory of yin and yang and what is "heaty" and what is "cooling" you might be able to follow this belief or practice. And so, on a hot and humid day, nothing beats a glass of Coke with salt in it!

In my young days, I love to watch the reactions of the glass of Coke or Sarsi as I started sprinkling the salt into it. Nothing like the bubbles and fountains of Coke or Sarsi hitting your face as you attempt to drink. If you have never tried this, go give it a try. Nothing great not serious, but could be a novelty, just like eating ice cream with salt in Okinawa.

What else is missing in the modern kopi tiam? Ever seen the old man dropping a slab of Cold Storage Butter (they would ask for "col-storee gu yew") into a cup of kopi-O? Kopi-O is coffee black.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Rickshaw Noodles aka "Kan Chia Mee" or La Che Mian 拉车面

In Hokkien, this is called the "Kan Chia Mee" which means the "pull-vehicle-noodles" or in Chinese La Che Mian 拉车面.

This is a very simple noodle soup prepared and served where ordered (not the usual cook upon order noodles) and hence has thicker gravy and a more tangy taste because of the contents of the yellow noodles.

I suppose it must have been the cheap and easy to eat meal for the rickshaw pullers in the old days. When I asked the lady of this stall at Maxwell Market Food Centre (I wonder if this could well be the only heritage foodstall selling a dish of this kind) how long her stall has been operating. She answered, "60+ years", and without much of a pause, "since 1943". As there was a steady (not heavy) flow of customers, I could not engage her with more questions. She is also selling the mee-sua, another Hokkien cuisine. And I was told that her fried beehoon (rice vermicelli) is very good. There are also other typical southern Chinese breakfast food such as the yam-cake.

I guess, in the 40s, a bowl of the kan-chia-mee must have costed less than 5 cents. (^^). In the 50s, it was in that range. I heard from wife that in the 80s, it was 50 cents a bowl (from this stall) and when I tried it yesterday, it was 80 cents. Not much but good to keep the tummy from growling.

I know that in some temples, where there is an event, the kan-chia-mee is still one of the dishes being served. For convenience, it could be cooked in a big pot and served throughout the day. For many of the older folks, it was a nostalgic trip and they ate with relish.

In Maxwell Market Food Centre, there are many foodstalls that started life in the old Hokkien part of Chinatown. This Kan-Chia-Mee stall was from China Street. During the urban renewal, many of the foodstall in the Hokkien part of Chinatown - China St, Nanjing St and Kiao-Keng-Kao (Outside the Gambler's Den as translated literally) moved to this vegetable market turned food centre. As part of its continuity, (in the old days, there were hardly any names for any of these stalls), the signage at Maxwell Market Food Centre would indicate that that particular stall was from China St or Nanking St. You can do a food heritage journey through these stalls here.

Would the kan-chia-mee be one of the soon-to-be-disappeared food? Like the rickshaw pullers? (^^) Take a look, take a taste ... and get the taste of the lives that some of our forefathers have gone through.

Thanks to James Seah for the lead and National Archives Singapore (NAS), here is a better image of what a kan-chia or rickshaw puller is like.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Those kerosene lamps

On this Sunday evening when wife and daughter decided on a meaty Bak Kut Teh, and well, there are Bak Kut Teh, and Bak Kut Teh, daughter decided on the "young" establishment of Song Fa Bak Kut Teh. This is another classical example of how a typical Bak Kut Teh stall has been transformed into a successful business by the next generation. OK la, the contents are almost the same, only the ambience is different. Well, it has the look and almost the feel, but not the smell. It was cool some more.

But it was the lamps on the wall that brought me back to my young days. It is now retro and hip infact for restaurants to make their places look retro. For me, and probably for those senior citizens, these lamps would bring back memories - fond or otherwise. And I am sure, it will trigger many a granny to share the tales to their grandchildren. Imagine the scholar who studied with the tiny light from this kerosene lamp.

When I was young, before I moved to an HDB flat, I was staying in a so-called pre-war house in this place known as Turn-Tiam-Hung. Compared to these days, the rent was, well, affordable. Our room (with the extended family all sleeping together) was reasonably big to take nine persons, unlike those smaller cubicles in the heart of Gnau-Chair-Sui. But the Bibik (whom we kids had to call her Ko-po - grandaunt) was a strict matriarch. We, the tenants were also like part of her extended family) was very much concerned about expenditure, since we only paid for the rent and that included light and water and well, the bucket system. And so, each night, at 11pm sharp, she or her eldest son would switch off the lights. Only a few tiny lights along the staircase were lit to allow us to find our way to our rooms.

When we were very young, we were terrified of the dark, not to mention the calls of the cats, fighting or mating on the tile roof which was just above our room. And so, we tried to get to sleep by 10pm. You can imagine the importance of the spittoon as many of us, especially kids, would not want to venture downstairs to the toilet. And so, each night, before 11pm struck, Grandma or Ma would light up the kerosene lamp.

The lamp would be hung on a wall. The light was just enough for us to figure out the forms lying on the floor so that we don't step on them if we need to use the spittoon. If anyone of us needs to find something, we would have to carry the lamp. And in the rare occasions when we had to study, well, that was our source of comfort.

In the days when we had to wake up early, like 5am, to get ready to go to school, it was the lamp that would help me to change and get into my school uniform.

Ah the days ... I could still remember the smell of the kerosene being burned as the light flickered in the occasional breeze. I wondered how I survived the hot dark nights.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Chinatown Buskers

Long long ago, there were buskers, but not the type that we know today. Or maybe, they are not buskers that we know today. It was in 1959, when I was in Primary One, when my "driver" (you would have thought that this was like my chauffeur, but no) whom my Mum paid to fetch me to school - it was Tanglin Boys' School and I was living in Turn Tiam Hung (Pawnshop Alley, Craig Rd) and in those days, apart from trying to ride the wild wild east buses, getting a car that went round putting all the kids into one Morris Minor (like chickens in a coop) was the other option - brought me with other kids to the show on ice in Happy World (I think that was the name before it became Gay World and then, disappeared with the change of the meaning of the word) followed by supper in the open air People's Park. That was the time when I saw this lady, or was it girl, who would put some sweets and dried kanna (Chinese olives) on the table and proceeded to sing. I was not sure if anyone paid.

And there was the lonely old men, some were blind, sitting by the corner of a street playing his erhu producing mournful sounds and singing equally mournful songs.

Those were the pre-licensed days. These days, buskers have to be "licensed" to perform, as I understand.

Long gone were the singers of yesteryears. For a while, there were no street entertainers in the streets of Chinatown. Not even the koyok man (street pedlars and performers who would use drums and gongs to welcome the onlookers like Ah Hia, Ah Chek in Hokkien, followed quickly by his assistant in Cantonese like Ah Kor, Ah Jie, each accompanied with a hit on the gong). There might be one or two "medicine man" demonstrating his prowess in gongfu and selling the traditional Chinese oil for rubbing tired muscles in some of the fairs organised.

Interestingly, with the onslaught of Karaoke (Empty Orchestra in Japanese - my first encounter was in a fair in Tokyo in 1976), many people discovered their talents. No more bathroom singing. Many took to singing like fish to water. Be it the popular songs or even the Cantonese Opera. One could sing with just a tape or now, a  DVD. While many youngsters in the western world or even in Japan might perform with their musical instruments, a number of the older folks started lugging their small Singapore made DVD player with a small amplier and a loudspeaker to a good spot to sing. Soon, like honey to bees, old folks gathered to sit and listen to the crooning of the songs sung in their young days.I was tempted to go by these folks to ask, "A penny for your thoughts." I am sure, many must be reminiscing about the old days, good or bad, happy or sad. Perhaps, I could scan with my video camera to catch the facial expressions that might have inadvertently been released as the person gets deep into thoughts with the journey in time.

While some old men, and even old ladies, would join in as a group singing, there is also another group that entertain the older folks. The ladies were singing to the delight of the old men, and they even invited them to come forward to do a duet. The bolder men would join in doing some dances that were probably their signature movements of the younger days.

And so, if you are feeling bored, on a not too hot and humid evening, you could park yourself by some of these spots in Chinatown to enjoy the songs of time gone by. Reminisce or explore, depending on your age and experience. (^^)

Thursday, March 31, 2011

A walk in Chinatown

After a morning errand today, I decided to have breakfast in Chinatown, on the way back. Instead of walking beeline home from Outram MRT Station, I started my zigzag tour of Chinatown. Maybe, the next time, I will make my walk live via ustream. (^^)

Walking through the walkway (I wondered if I could still call it the five-foot-way, a British specification?) of Pearl Centre, I saw changes since my last walk. That was months away. It is not often that I took a day off and having the luxury of a relaxed morning. More foodstalls were added, mainly of the northern Chinese cuisine. From the look of these stalls and other stalls in other parts of Chinatown, there must be many northerners in Singapore these days. Interestingly, I was introduced to northern Chinese food when I first went to Japan, some 35 years ago, and now, I am introduced to more (perhaps more authentic?) northern Chinese food in our very Chinatown, an apt place.

Looking at the "ugly" newer buildings dwarfing the older ones like the Kong Chow Wui Koon, it gave me a sense of weeds overgrowing the ancient plants. I crossed the road to Kreta Ayer Rd. I marveled at the Hindu Temple with its colourful sculptures. Set against the giant Pinnacle (where part of my childhood was in the two block of the old HDB flats with the Police Cantonment flats), it was picturesque. Would need a good photographer to capture it in perspective.

Ah, and there were the Cannonball trees. I first got to know them in the Botanic Gardens. And then, they lined up Cross St after the demise of the rows of shophouses. It was a delight to me and my kids (younger then) as we drove along Cross St on the way home. I stopped to capture some of its flowers against the hot sun shining down on it. I often wondered how the plants could take the fiery sun, and provide us the cool shades.

Crossing Keong Saik St, once renowned for its red light district activities, and Kreta Ayer Rd (ah, the Malay name for Bullockcartwater), I walked on the walkway of the point-block HDB flat. On the wall were murals depicting the Singapore that we strived for. The scenes of early day Bullockcart and the multi-religious Singapore. Mindful of that, I climbed up the stairs of the next HDB flat, my shortcut to the Chinatown Food Centre. As I turned around the corner of the second storey, at the corner of my eye, I saw a man writing on his blank paper book with a brush. I took a second look to make sure I was seeing what I was seeing. How many people could write in Chinese using a brush these days? It was a great scene looking from outside. A missed opportunity to capture the picture.

An the next door was the Aquarium shop, where in my early days, I used to come here to replenish all the needs for my tiny aquarium at home. I remembered the days when I had to travel often, and months away in one stretch, that I had to enlist the help of my late father to help to "fish-sit". Each time when I returned, I thought I saw new "faces" in my aquarium. The heavy responsibilities of a "fish-sitter" (^^). I decided I should give up this hobby.

It was 11am. Many of the stalls in Chinatown FC were working hard getting all their food ready. At the soya-sauce stall, the Q was already 15 people deep! Inexpensive and delicious, there is always a Q until everything is sold out.

I walked along the rest of the empty row of tables - the transformation would come when the clock hits one - and found no Q at my favourite Vegetarian Beehoon Stall. An old man beat me to the Q. A little stooped, with a ear-plug to his ear (I guessed it must be a ear guide), he stood. The stallholder (I am still wondering if he is local or mainland Chinese as his Mandarin had a China accent) asked him in Mandarin if he was going to have his usual Beehoon. He nodded and replied in Cantonese, "Mei Fan". We sat by the same table, simply because it is the nearest. I noticed that he was given a red plate and I a polystyrene one. Hmm. And his plate seemed fuller than mine. I am not complaining but just wondering. He looked like a regular customer. For me, since the past 10 years, I have been getting to eat the beehoon (I always declare that this is the world's best beehoon to me, because of its style of cooking) through proxies, my wife or my domestic help would be buying them home. In fact my domestic help must have been more familiar with the stallholders in Chinatown FC and wetmarket than I am.

Yes, my wife and I used to come to this vegetarian beehoon stall for breakfast on the way to work. And when the kids came, we brought them along, starting with a few strands till now, a plate or two! We have outlasted most of the workers in this stall. Only the owner remains the same. (^^)

Had my fill, with four tah-pau (takeaway), I began my journey home. I thought I should take a more straightforward way home. And so across the overhead bridge, I went and on through the People's Park Complex.

As I entered the cool interior of People's Park Complex - probably Singapore's first big shopping mall (I could remember wandering the corridors gawking at the empty shops when it was first built) - I saw that the people were ready, waiting for customers. Plucking of eyebrows is now a big thing. Done to the full view of the passer-bys, the places were usually filled up when I walk through on weekends days and nights.

Crossing the open space between People's Park Complex (now filled with all kinds of foodstalls near to the open space) and People's Park (we call the old People's Park that used to house the shops selling cloth, resettled after the old people's park fire) as well as the former Majestic Theatre and OG, I walked into the corridor of the People's Park Food Centre (the descendant of the once-upon-a-time-in-the-1950s open air food park). Toh Kee appeared in front of me with rows of freshly grilled ducks. Flashes of the old days appeared, the days when a friend and I would try to save from our school allowance (which was hardly anything given that we had enough for bus fare and not enough for recess), and when we hit 30 cents, we would came here to get our favourite Loh-Mai-Kai (glutinous rice with chicken). Glad to know that it is still around.

Around the corner, almost home, I walked under the HDB flat where the 24-hour coffeeshop is and the row of shops. Ah, Ming Tai, the shop that sells the traditional Chinese herbs and dried stuff that makes wonderful soup - especially of the double-boiled kind. From father to son, the management of this shop evolved. And the little babies that cried and played in the shop, taken care of by the staff in the shop in between business, they have already traded their prams and strollers for bikes. Want to have a good bowl of birdnest but you have no time to prepare and cook? Ming Tai can prepare, cook and have it ready for you! That's the kind of service we get in the neighbourhood. Of course in small Singapore, anyone can order and bring home to enjoy.

It was a long walk, despite the short distance. Good for the muscles through the walking, and for the braincells as I raked them to look up the past.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Thian Hock Keng celebrates Cap Go Meh 2011

On 17 Feb 11, Cap Go Meh as the Hokkien calls it (this term is used in Nanyang, from Malaysia through Singapore to Indonesia) is the grand finale to the Chinese New Year. In Singapore, Thian Hock Keng also rounded up the 15 days of Chinese New Year with a big bang. Not so much as in the fire crackers, but in the elaborate activities on this day with a grand street parade.

By 6pm on that evening, the crowd was already building up by the side of the road, in front of the temple. For many, it is as a tradition and custom to go and pay respects to the Goddess of the Sea, Mazu, and the other resident Gods before looking for a space by the roadside.

The "mee-koo" (bun made into the shape of a tortoise) - which is a symbol of longevity - was laid out as devotees made the offer to the Gods. In the courtyard, there were many sacks of rice, stacked into the shape of the tortoise. Devotees or anyone could seek to bring one back by using the divining blocks to seek permission from the Goddess of the Sea, Mazu.

As the sun set, the lights came on. At 8pm, with the Guest of Honour, the Minister for Manpower, Singapore, joining the crowd, the performance began. Many of the dances were performed by the schools affiliated to the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan, which also manages the Thian Hock Keng. On this night, it was a grand event organised by the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan, reminiscent of the old days when Thian Hock Keng was the community centre of the immigrant workers and the residents.

Strains of the Nanyin - Southern Sounds - brought back nostalgic memories to the senior citizens as they recalled the days when their elders would be sitting outside the temple, listening to Nan Yin and the songs that talked about the stories of old China. In a way, joss stick fumes, familiar sights of the Gods and Nanyin brought them the peace and comfort of home in China, which they hoped to return after making a decent earning.  Many stayed on instead, and the temporary landscape became permanent. For the young, they were as "blur"as to what it is as the tourists and the new non-Chinese citizens who were invited to join in the Cap Go Meh. In a way, it was reminiscent to the old people and an eye opener to the young. Thanks to the dedicated few who carried on playing the Nanyin in Singapore, and put in efforts to train the young, it is making a comeback. If you have yet to watch or listen to Nanyin, come to Thian Hock Keng on 2M19 (23 Mar 11) at 7.30pm to watch Siong Leng Musical Association perform. This date is the celebrations in honour of Guan Yin in Thian Hock Keng.

When the Nanyin troupe strolled up the street, the whole place suddenly came to a standstill. No loudspeakers to blare the music. What could be heard was coaxed out of the musical instruments (that had been used since more than 2000 years ago). Everyone strained their ears.

And when they passed, the whole place was brought back to the present again with the roll of the drums. For the Chinese, noise is important as it is the yang energies that will chase away the yin (negative) energies. And so, on such an joyous occasion, the louder the noise the better. And yet despite the noise the lions pranced their way around. The full concentration of the lone lion jumping over the stilts in a noisy environment was certainly a feat to be admired!

The other show stealer must have been the bald headed tough and young performers from the Nan Shaolin group. They displayed their prowess with the somersault, twist and turn in mid air and defying the hits of the poles. It was gongfu live to the audience.

The LED-lighted dragons heightened the atmosphere one more notch. If only the place was darkened, it would have been fantastic. But I suppose for security reasons, it is not a good idea. (^^) The biggest lion where the head had to be held by 4 persons and the tail by 2 brought was also there. The Chinese believes that touching the lions would give them the positive energies and so, where possible, the parents would bring their kids to touch them. It is one way the kids are being introduced and brought nearer to them. And in most lion dance performance, during cai qing, the lion would also be giving away sweets, a delight to the kids.

Time passed by so quickly and all the fun and noise had to come to an end, marking the end of the first 15 days and getting further in the year of the Rabbit, with more festivities to come.

To the hardworking team at Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan, a great job! I wonder what they are going to outdo themselves again next year. (^^)

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

A new look at Chinatown

If you are not aware, go take a look at Chinatown before you reach there physically. Whether you are in Singapore or far away from Singapore, this website is certainly a must to visit when you are planning to visit the Chinatown in Singapore. The Chinatown in Singapore has a more colourful name but I will leave it to you to browse through the website to view and read. And yes, plan your trip too!

Screen captured from the site:

Some few years ago, IDA (Infocomm Development Authority) and STB (Singapore Tourism Board) were looking for state-of-the-art ideas and solutions to offer tourists and Singaporeans alike a more fun and handy way of discovering Singapore and bringing back memories. It was more of a proof of concept then, as gadgets were still very much in their infancy stage. PDA with bluetooth to handphones through GPRS to the mobile phone network was the idea. Today, iphone (with its 3G mobile data access and GPS) has taken the world by storm and so, for tourists, it would be fun to plan, record and even look for interesting places to see or eat.

Oh, am I talking about Chinatown and heritage? Yes, today, has the ideas and services in place. I am sure in the months ahead, more gadgets could be added, be it physical or electronic. Thanks to internet and the repositories like, many trigger-happy Singaporeans and tourists have recorded vast footage of Singapore, including Chinatown. And some even converted their 8mm movies into video clips. And so, today, we have Chinatown, yesterday, today, and perhaps, even a glimpse of tomorrow.

Like be the centre of the (spider) web spinning and connecting all things Chinatown so that what you need you can get here. Just don't go astray. And yes, do leave some of your memories behind, I mean, sharing with us, perhaps, via youtube? or provide the links to your blog or photo repository.

Do I sound like I run the web? Some friends thought so. (^^). No, I am just a fan. After all, this is my home ... (look for one of the popular songs that you will find sung, especially when Singapore's National Day (quiz - when is it?) is around.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Chinese New Year in the temples of Chinatown Singapore

There were just too many activities, even in a tiny place like the Chinatown in tiny Singapore. But since I have set myself a tradition of visiting Chinese Temples within the greater Chinatown and ending up in the Guan Yin Temple at Waterloo St, I continued to do so for this new year. The exception is that I got along a few more kakis (friends) to join in. So with some 5 cars led by one Frenchman on his trusty iron horse, we went "templing" a word coined by our famous heritage tour guide (also known as the oldest and longest street walker of Singapore) Geraldene Lowe.

Outside Thian Hock Keng

The tour started in this little known hillock known to the locals as Ku Ah Sua 龟仔山 (or Ku Kia Sua) in Hokkien or Gui Zai Shan in Mandarin where there was a cluster of three temples. With a short drizzle of fine rain droplets, we went in a convoy (that left through different ways and parked at different locations) to Thian Hock Keng 天福宫. In Chinatown, Thian Hock Keng must be the grandest in ushering the Chinese New Year. It was moving towards what it was like some 50 years ago, when I went to the temple with my Mum in a sa-lian-chia (trishaw). Less smoky these days, thanks to the hard work put by the temple members in removing the joss sticks as the joss urns filled up (and there are less urns these days compared to 5 decades ago) and the acceptance of the people these days, there was more than devotees offering their first joss sticks. Lion Dance, Dragon Dance, Rabbit puppet, Cai Shen 财神 (God of Wealth - an operatic costume worn by a guy from an event company I suppose), and this year, the Techno Tai Zi 太子 (a trend started in Taiwan, the giant puppets of the famous Third Prince). Devotees and tourists mingled, praying and watching. Some locals brought along their foreign friends.

Entrance to Wak Hai Cheng Beo

In my entourage, we have friends (who are researchers as well) from France, UK, USA, Japan, Kenya and Malaysia. And within the groups of locals - Chinese, Malays, and Indian too. There were also undergrads who were learning "hands-on"or rather using all their senses such as visual, audio and smell! Taste too. In Wak Hai Cheng Beo (粤海清`庙 Yue Hai Qing Miao), there were the Chinese Olives offered to devotees. The significance of this to the Teochew is in the words "Chi Poh" (green treasure?)

Wang Hai Da Bo Gong Temple

A little out of the epicentre was Wang Hai Da Bo Gong 望海大伯公 temple, which is a Hakka temple. It is at Palmer Rd, off Shenton Way. And then, we ventured further towards Beach Rd, the enclave of the Hainanese. And inside the Hainanese Association building  (actually, the building was built in front of the temple which was there first) was the Hainanese Mazu Temple (known as Tian Hou Gong 天后宫).

The grand finale for our tour was the Waterloo St Guan Yin temple where there was still a sizeable crowd at 3am. A visit to the Guan Yin temple is not complete without hopping over to the Krishna Temple to offer our prayer of respects.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Hokkien pastry at Tan Hock Seng 陈福成

On my prowl to see what's happening in the Greater Chinatown (I like this name mentioned in the website), I passed by this very popular Hokkien pastry shop - Tan Hock Seng - along Telok Ayer St. This street is almost deserted during weekends but very crowded during weekdays.

It was this past Saturday morning when I passed by with wife and daughter in tow. There was no crowd but there was a steady stream of shoppers, many of them stopping their cars to hop out, asked for what they wanted, bought them, and hopped back into the car again. Inevitably, conversation between the shoppers and the shopkeepers was in Hokkien. Imagine one asking for Fa Gao 发糕, when it would be more easy (at least to me) to ask for Huat Kueh. (^^) I should have taken pictures of all the pastry there that came with the names in traditional Chinese. And asked the shopkeeper to help me pronounce the names in Hokkien. (^^)

I know the few of my favourites like Beh Teh Saw 马蹄酥 and Pon Pia 碰饼. When young, and when hungry (if we were lucky, we could put one or two Beh Teh Saw and dip into a small bowl of kopi-o (black coffee). The Beh-Lei-Go (sticky sweet inside the Beh Teh Saw) was a delight to eat with the pastry and the black coffee.

For the Chinese New Year, the favourites would be the Huat Kueh and Kueh Nern Go 鸡蛋糕 (steamed egg cake like the famous Japanese Kyushu Castilla (kasutera カステラ). I remember when I was young, I would help my Mum to beat the eggs in a big clay pot (like those glazed flower pot) with the big egg beater until almost a foam was being formed. It was a tiring exercise. No, no electric gadgets during those days. When the egg mix was considered good enough, we would put a "glass paper" onto a bamboo tray and pour the egg mix into it till almost the brim. If I remember correctly, then with a bamboo chopstick, a cross is made on the surface, probably to allow the cake to break up and expand when it is being cooked. Into a waiting wok of steaming hot water and some bamboo frames, the bamboo tray was placed. And a huge cover was being put over the wok, with wet towels laced around the cover when it sat on the wok. This was to reduce steam leakage. In those days, a cake would be the size with a diameter of easily 1.5 feet. When it was done, using a chopstick, that was split into four, we would dip into the ang-huay-bi (red colouring lotion) and then stamp onto the cake giving marks of four tiny red squares.

Huat Kueh was a little more challenging because yeast is needed. And the pantang bibiks (superstitious aunties) would ensure that we nosy and inquisitive kids kept our mouth shut and not ask any questions, or worst still, make comments. They were worried that the Huat Kueh (literally meaning the cake that grows) will not grow. (^^)

Tnee Kueh (meaning sweet cake), known to the Cantonese as Nin Kohl (Nian Gao 年糕), would be even more challenging to make. And so, it has gone the way of mass manufacture. In the past, after a couple of weeks, the Tnee Kueh would be hard as a rock (from which we could wash and put in the sun if there were any fungi, and then, slice them to steam and eat with shredded coconut, or deep fry with egg/flour batter), but these days they remain soft! What alien ingredient did they put in?

These days, save the endangered few, everyone would flock to shops like Tan Hock Seng (or many confectionery in any shopping centres of the housing estate) to get the mandatory Huat Kueh for offerings to the Gods. Alas, many of the mass produced ones are hardly edible. I sympathise with the Gods.

ack: Tan Hock Seng

The friend shopkeeper, who saw me trying to take pictures of his old shop, offered me another wall where the picture was more visible. Wah, that picture was taken in 1950! It was in the old shophouse along China St, just where the Hokkien called it the "Kiao-Keng-Kow", meaning "outside the gambler's den.

ack: Tan Hock Keng

Friday, January 28, 2011

Chicken & Duck for Chinese New Year!

The elders will always tell us, Chinese New Year time is the happiest for the kids. They have new clothes, angpows (red packets) and plenty to eat. True, especially in those days, when it happened once a year! I mean when we as kids to got have new clothes, angpows (even if it was 40 cents) and more to eat.

Looking forward to the Chinese New Year, somehow, to me, it was all fun. Including more work assisting Mum with all the chores than came with the Chinese New Year. A week or two before the Chinese New Year, preparation began. I would follow Mum to the nearby wet market at Narcis St. We were living at Craig Rd in this house which had some four or five families, each squeezed into one room each. Sometimes, Mum would go to the Gu Chia Chwee (Gnau Chair Shui) wet market along the streets of Smith St and Trengganu St.

I never asked Mum how or where she got the money to buy. We kids were oblivious to their financial situations, and parents didn't share. All I knew was it was time for a chicken and a duck. We probably only ate chicken something like three or four times a year - Chinese New Year, Hungry Ghost Festival, and the time when we had to give offerings to our ancestors.

This was some 50 years ago, and fridge was a rarity, and so, we ate most things fresh. For the chickens and ducks, we could buy them alive and bring them back. Mum would go to the stall in the market, eyed a few healthy looking chicken, grab one by one and felt the body beneath the feather, despite the products from the squawking chicken. How did one handle the chicken? Grab them by holding the beginning of their two wings. The ducks were more noisy and they would bite.

The stallholders would tie the legs of the chicken and hanged them to their Chinese scale and weigh. Mum looked closely to make sure that the guy did not cheat on the balance of the scale.  But of course, because of years of business he was less likely to cheat. But one never knows and well, the ladies love a hard bargain.

Carrying the duck and chicken home was a challenge. They were not light for a small build that I was then. And this was amongst the many things being bought. Chinese New Year Reunion had to be the biggest feast in our lives each new year, not that it was big, compared to what is available nowadays.

Imagine all the neighbours within the same house buying one chicken and one duck each. All the noises in our constantly wet common kitchen add to the commotion of activities as each family got ready preparing for the Chinese New Year. From the time we brought the fowl home and the Chinese New Year eve, we tried our best to fatten them up. We believed that cockroaches would do the trick. And so, it was the tasks of us youngsters to catch the cockroaches to feed them.

[WARNING: Gory details here, not meant for the faint hearted]
Come eve of the Chinese New Year, there was no time for sleep. Up early, I was to help Mum to kill the chicken and duck. Under the supervision of Mum, I either held the chicken by the head and body to make it still while Mum used a sharp knife to slit the throat, or the other way round. Once the blood started flowing out, I was to make sure that the blood flowed to a bowl. Yes, it was edible and nothing was to be left to waste, save the feathers.

Trying to take out the feather (defeather?) was a task. Hot boiling water was to put into a basin and the dead bird put into the hot water and then, to the cold water. It was to help plucking out the feathers. Taking out the big feathers was easy. Taking out the fine ones was a chore. And so, that was left to me to do. With a "plucker" (akin to the tweezer), I sat on a tiny stool and worked on my assignment. Taking out the fine feathers from the duck was more challenging than the chicken. And I had to do a good job or we might have feathers when we ate.

Came midday, Mum had started cooking and were getting the dishes ready. No, it was not yet for eating. They were meant as offering to the Gods in the house (we had a Tua Pek Kong then) and then the Ancestors. The chicken and duck were either steamed or boiled and placed complete (no chopping off) as offering. Chinese tradition dictates the offering of three components of offering - fowl (chicken and/or duck), animal (pork in this case, and mainly we would have a slice of the roast pork bought from the market) and fish (hence a deep fried fish like a garupa). One traditional dish seemed to be rice with blood made into cubes (you can still see this in Taiwan). The spare-parts (innards of the chicken and duck) were cooked with a can of peas. Together with the usual Chinese New Year cakes like Huat-Kueh (Fa Gao) or Guey Nern Go (Steamed egg cake, like the Japanese Castila) and Ang Ku Kueh (Red Tortoise cake filled with green bean paste or crushed peanuts), these were offered. We kids were waiting for the praying to end. And so, we offered to throw the divining blocks (in those days, we used two 50 cent coins or 20 cent coins) to ask if the Gods or the Ancestors were done with their eating. A head and a tail  of the coins showing up after the throw would be affirmative.

When we got the answer, it was another fun time for us kids. We would bring the joss papers to the road side to burn them. Using the tea and wine from the offering, we would throw them around the burning joss papers to indicate that the joss papers were proprietary, only for the intended ones.

Back upstairs, where we lived, Mum had started the second phase of her job. The steamed chicken was to be chopped to be eaten like the "Hainanese Chicken Rice" that is very popular these days. For the duck, she would chop it to make soup, our favourite Kiam Chye Tng (salted vegetable - pickled mustard green) or Tim Itek as known to the Peranakans. Teochews and Hokkiens are known for their Kiam Chye Tng or Ark (duck). The deep fried fish would have the sweet and sour gravy poured onto it.

We were ready for the Reunion Dinner which was eaten earlier than usual. Mum still had more things to do to welcome the new year. While it was the belief that we should try not to sleep over the New Year Eve (so as to achieve longevity?), for us kids, it was a challenge. But at the same time, it was a luxury to stay past midnight. Our matriarch bibik landlady would normally switch off the lights by 11pm. For the new year eve, it would be an exception. It is believed that the house should be kept lit throughout the night.

Fire crackers would have been exploding all over, more as the 11th hour approached. Hmm, to the Chinese, the 11th hour (11pm) is the beginning of the new day. And despite the din, with a full stomach with all the delicious and good food, we felt to sleep, knowing that we were going to get some angpows the next day, even to the very strict looking and sharp-tongued Bibik.

These days, it would be almost impossible to have the opportunity to kill a chicken. not that anyone ones. (^^)

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Preparing to receive the Gods

24th of the 12 Lunar Month is the day to send off the Kitchen God 灶君 (known to the Cantonese as Zhou Guan and Zhao Kun Kong to the Hokkien). Ah, sweet and sticky things, in the form of Nian Gao 年糕 (Dnee Kueh 甜糕 in Hokkien and Nin Kol in Cantonese), will be offered to him to enjoy the sweet and sticky things. Objective is to say things sweet and well, talk less. (^^)

And they have Nian Gao in the form of the gold ingots!

It is also the time, especially for the Cantonese, to change new altars, particular for the Tian Guan 天官 (known to the Hokkien mostly as Ti Kong 天公 rather than Ti Guan).

And so, we went shopping for a new one. Exposed to the natural elements of wind, dust, rain and sun, these small altars often hung on to the wall by a nail, get worn out by the end of the year. And so, on an auspicious date, we will change the altar.

There are many kinds of altars to choose from. From the simple to the elaborate. Some of these are made from recycled material. Ah, in the poor days, they made sense. (^^)

To receive the Jade Emperor or Tian Gong, special larger joss sticks are considered. Perhaps, better ones such as those made of Sandalwood 坛香 or Agarwood 沉香.

And where should we look for the altar? Wife knows exactly the place where she has been shopping for decades. And so, we went to this small shop next to the coffee shop off Spring Rd in Chinatown. From the old shop signage, this shop must have been there or thereabout for decades. Still very much in its own form - a great place to discover many things - old and new. I discovered ready packs that the modern people need not worry about what to buy to constitute a complete set of offering joss-papers for the Gods or even the ancestors. It seems that it is a general one, more for anyone of any dialect. In traditional terms, joss papers offered for the Gods and the Ancestors differ (to quite an extent) from dialect group to dialect group.

While the shopkeepers could communicate in Cantonese, they seemed somewhat more comfortable speaking in Mandarin. And then, I found that they seemed more natural in Hokkien! I heard that there was once a similar Teochew run shop in Chinatown.

As in the old days, we could leave out things to come back to collect later. But these days, well, the domestic help will go to pick them up. (^^)

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Chinatown prepares for the Year of the Rabbit

The Tiger is on his way out. The fun rabbits are waiting to hop in. Tonight, Singapore Chinatown, better known as Niu Che Shui 牛车水 or Ngau Chair Sui (Cantonese) or Gu Chia Chwee (Hokkien) or Kreta Ayer (Malay), and probably more names to it, was lighted up, preparing for the welcome of yet another Lunar New Year.

With my wife, we decided to do an 'inspection' of Chinatown this afternoon to see what's new in preparing for the new year. We probably have been pounding the streets of Chinatown - particularly Smith Street, Temple Street and Trengganu St - for more than 50 years. Each year before the Spring Festival (met an old guy at the Heritage Exhibition who advised me that in China, we should say Chun Jie 春节 and not Xin Nian 新年), we would eagerly join in the jostle to see what's new. In the old days, we were probably hoping to get our new clothes. These days, it is not so much about clothes but about what to buy for the family and to add more colours to the house.

Upon entering Temple Street, despite the touristy atmosphere (imagine the Olde Cuban in Chinatown!), we could sense more colours of red. Many usual stalls seemed to have made way for the once-a-year stalls selling goodies for the Chinese New Year.

"Come and try it, it's free," yelled the guys across the street. "Just arrived from Taiwan, " they added. There was quite a selections of sweets from jelly like (Konyaku?) to mochi. And there were also the melon seeds, disguised in many forms such as green tea melon sweets. And there were the black groundnuts!! It would be quite a challenge to look for the traditional black and red melon seeds and the boiled groundnuts. But of course, they are there, displayed in better forms.

Despite all the free ang-pows (red packets) from the banks, retail stores and even petrol kiosks, we were attracted to the beautifully designed ones. Offers were at S$1 to S$2 for a pack of 6 to 10. There were also cute paper bags for one to put two mandarin oranges when one goes visiting or paying the Chinese New Year respects to the elders. And stickers of all kinds for one to paste on the walls in the house, including nice ones of Shen Cai (the God of Wealth). Electronic fire crackers that would 'explode' upon being touched was a delight amongst some, scaring the wits out of the unsuspecting shoppers.

To the more serious Chinese New Year shoppers, the "lap-ark" (waxed duck), "lap-cheong" (Chinese sausages) and other delicious ones like the famous Yunnan Ham, were their targets. It's the time when I longed to have just hot steamed rice with the steamed lap-ark.

Walking through the lane to Sago St, there were already the flowers of the Chinese New Year being offered. There were also some pots of bare branches .. the plum flowers that bloom in winter. The pomelos were also in abundance, and Pakistani mandarin oranges were being offered at S$1 for four. Across the street, our Austrian friend was kept busy with orders for his Bratwurst and other wursts.

At the Chinatown Square, the usual draughts (dum) players were oblivious to the noises around them. This lady busker was singing karaoke with participation from the old men. Apparently, she was familiar to many of them, and they she. She encouraged the onlookers to take the seats (the chairs were arranged for performance in the evening) telling them that they sit facing her in the day and could stay on to turn to face the main stage in the night. With a great voice, she certainly did attract a number of guys to go and sing duets with her, be it Mandarin or Hokkien songs.

At one corner, a little exhibition was being set up. It was a small mobile display on the Chinese New Year - the stories about the Rabbit and also the Reunion Dinner. Wife noticed a bottle of Champagne in the picture. Wow, these people had seen better lives in the days when we weren't that fortunate.

The mobile exhibition from the National Heritage Board and that of the paper cuttings depicting Singapore scenes were certainly great opportunities for strangers to chat. One old guy thought that I was a reporter, but I told him these days, it doesn't matter as we could report in our blog. (^^). He was saying that the exhibition was a good idea to share with the tourists. I added in that it was too for some of our kids and even ourselves. Another was showing his young daughter or niece the pictures and was sharing with me that these kids did not know about the scenes of the 50s. I heartily agreed with him. The young lady must have heard more from him after my encouragement. (^^)

Cai Shen must be one of the attractions of the Lunar New Year. And so, there must be an icon of him. I found him facing the confluence of the Maxwell and South Bridge Rd with Neil Rd. Yes, I think we are ready for Chinese New Year, or the Spring Festival.