Monday, December 31, 2012

Wet markets in Greater Chinatown

Thanks to Victoria, she set me thinking about the number of wet markets there were in the greater part of Chinatown. I will try to recall here and if you know of any more, please add in your comments.

The inner Chinatown (as we call it based on the Kreta Ayer Rd to Upper Cross st) has probably the most well known wet market, apart from the equally popular Tekka Market in Little India and the other at Geylang Serai. Interestingly, these three wet market covers about all the fresh food for the three major ethnic groups in Singapore. For those more inclined to western food, then, it was the Cold Storage supermarket, then at Orchard Road.

Back to Chinatown, many of the Chinese in the old days would flock to this inner Chinatown before festive days to get the necessary fresh food and other specialties of the particular festival. This inner Chinatown wet market could be considered as the Cantonese part as the communication then (and a little today) was in Cantonese. And of course, anything one needed for the Cantonese cuisine, one could find it here.

There was also the other wet market at China St area, known as Kiao-Keng-Kou (literally translated as the entrance to the Gambler's Den - and maybe the elders could share with us if there were one or many of such dens then) where the Hokkiens would flock to.

Apart from these wet markets, there were also two probably known more of their wholesale as they also supplied to restaurants. One was the Maxwell Market and the other Ellenborough Market. A little towards the coast was the Lau Pa Sat (Old Market) which was also another bustling market, said to cater towards wholesales as well. Around Elleborough Market were also the shops selling the dried food, ranging from the hay-bee (dried shrimps) to dried ikan bilis (anchovies) and others like dried shark fins and dried sea cucumber.

I remembered walking along the street next to Ellenborough Market in the 70s when I saw the stallholders throwing away big baskets of cabbage leaves (and others as well). To make the cabbage look nice (as you would see in the markets today, then, probably only in Cold Storage), the stallholders stripped away the leaves with yellow ends. Many old ladies would come to this place in the night to cart away these leaves. After cutting away the yellow edges, they could sell the cabbage leaves at a fraction of the price of the day. I suppose that was how the "lower end" of the society survived then.

Apart from these wet markets, there were also others, somewhat for the neighbourhood. One was at Narcis St (no longer around) and Tanjong Pagar. Along Narcis St, shops along Tanjong Pagar around this area and a lane cutting into Craig Rd, this was the wet market for the residents from Craig Rd and Duxton Rd to those  at Wallich St, Tras St and Peck Seah St (all residential then). This was the market my Mum would bring me to. Always coming back with my feet all wet and black, it was a wonderful trip each time, not just to watch the marketing - bargaining and bantering - but also to buy breakfast that could be you-chia-kueh (you tiao) freshly made and deep fried or deep fried radish cake. And more. Surrounding the wet markets were stalls selling cooked food, mainly for breakfast.

On the other side of Chinatown, where Tau-Fu-Kai (Upper Chin Chew St) was, there was also a wet market along Upper Chin Chew St and the neighbouring shops along South Bridge Rd. From pork butcher to fish mongers to vegetable sellers.

Come festive days, many, including my Mum would head for inner Chinatown or Kiao-Keng-Kou. And for the Peranakans, it could mean going as far as Tekka, Geylang Serai and Tiong Bahru to get the necessary ingredients.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Chinatown Chic

As the headlines on the Straits Times go.

I couldn't help thinking of the decades before when probably the only hostels (if you can call them) in Chinatown were those "stopover" places where one would spend a night or two enroute back to China. Probably on the way back as well.

No personal experiences but I hope to gather information from the older folks who might have lived near to such places - I heard of one at Telok Ayer St - to know more of what life was like then. There were such places, probably with each such place - catering to transit passengers, shipment as well as money transfers - according to the destination. I would imagine that one might cater for GuangDong area while another might be for Fujian.

Such stopovers were definitely not for Singaporeans as they could easily go to the port on time for departure. I could imagine that it might for people from the neighbouring countries, notably Malaya (then), Borneo and Indonesia? The journey to and from China would be easy ones as mode of transport then were ships, probably cargo ships.

Transforming those days, probably also double-decked beds to current modern and chic ones and for different customers, it is indeed a far cry.

While many of these folks on transit or who sent things and money to China (and even receiving some goods from China, notably tea?) might have not intended to stay long in Nanyang, many finally did and died on the distant shores, in Nanyang (southern oceans or S.E.Asia) that is. It is through them, and many others, that built what Singapore is today. Many saved for their loved ones back home, eating whatever small crumbs that they could gather. There are also success stories where one could see such "Malay" houses built in China to show the wealth brought back together with the Nanyang culture. I saw some magnificent ones in my recent visit to Jin Men, which is an island just off Xiamen, but currently part of Taiwan.

Modern hotels provide for any who wants to visit their ancestral homes enroute Singapore. But for most, there are direct flights to their homeland. Modern "sinkeh" (new guests or newcomers) still send back money and things. But there are the modern transfer centres which could be found in the People's Park. On a typical Sunday, the place is abuzz with the "sinkeh" (mainly workers) sending money back and having some good mainland Chinese meal in the stalls around the place. Unlike the old days, probably the transfers are almost instant.

In the old days, chances were the sinkehs would be mainly of Fujian or Guangdong - covering the main southern dialects of Hokkien, Cantonese, Teochew, Hakka and Hainanese, with a few Shanghainese and even those from Wenzhou. While Mandarin was the common language (putong hua) of the elites, chances were that these folks would speak Hokkien and Cantonese, two of the major groups. Interestingly, one might need to use Hokkien when taking bus and Cantonese in the restaurants. Of course, going to the wet market in Chinatown (Smith-Trengganu St, that is) one has to speak in Cantonese. But if you were to go to Kiao-Keng-Kao (Outside the Gambler's den), then, it would be Hokkien.  These days, most would be from the mainland north, based on my observations of their relish in tucking in the Dong-Beh food - the mala that numbs the lips of the southern Chinese.

A new wave has long begun. How many will stay, like the old sinkeh? Putong Hua has become all the more important amongst the Chinese. But the challenge is that now they will also have to speak English as this is Singapore's putong hua. As the children of the new sinkeh sink their roots, this will happen. (^^)

Friday, September 14, 2012

Hungry Ghost Festival

To many tourists and locals, the 7th Month or the Zhong Yuan Jie is probably better known as the Hungry Ghost Festival. But to the local Chinese who observe this traditional customs, it is an important time of the year. On the surface, one would see neighbourhoods, temples, offices, industrial complexes, hotels and malls organising community based offerings for the ancestors (in neighbourhood and temples) and the "Good Brothers", meaning the wandering souls and the "visiting souls".

Because it is almost impossible to translate all Chinese terms (and even for each Chinese dialect, sometime, they defy accurate translations), the English words used here would be loose translations or what is commonly used, even not meaning exactly the same.

In the old days and as much as today, although because of urban renewal, much could not be seen in Chinatown, certain business activities go into overdrive. Chinese traditional products, ranging from joss papers, joss sticks, candles to many paper offerings for the departed (from traditional parcels to iphone lookalikes and even OSIM lookalike chairs) were in big demand. In the Cantonese part of Chinatown (generally speaking), there are at least two traditional shops of such kind, one at Smith St (now better known as Food St) and the other in an HDB flat facing the Tooth Relic Temple. Business is brisk at this time of the year, other than Qing Ming and other minor Chinese traditional events.

Apart from the Cantonese who do their "public" offerings (by the side of the road) on 15th of the 7th Month, the other dialect groups such as Teochew and Hokkien would do it on the first day, 15th and the last day of the 7th month. Food offerings were also made. So, you can imagine that the shops and the wet markets (and supermarkets as well) are also doing brisk business, from fruits to meat (some would buy back to cook while others might just buy ready cooked ones like roast pork, roast chicken and duck), and even Chinese Rice Wine and Tea.

For the organised community based prayers, the organisers would buy them bulk from shops or even supermarkets which have identified this market demand. Supermarkets from Sheng Siong to Carrefour could be seen offering 7th month offerings. Specially prepared forms were prepared for the organisers to tick and place their order according to some set "menu".

In the old days, in a kampong (village) or street, there would be organisers who went round collecting subscriptions for this event. Today it is still happening. Because of the urban renewal and migration of people from different villages, you could see more than one organisers for this 7th month event in the same group of HDB blocks. Interestingly, you might find similar events organised in some faraway HDB estate where the participants are from another part of town or kampong which has become history. But the community spirit and the sense of belonging continues. At least, maybe until the people involved leave this world?

In Chinatown, it is interesting too to note that a number of similar 7th Month celebrations were being organised. There was one organised by the wet market and food stalls, another by the Chinatown Business Association and yet another by the stalls at the Food Street. And as in traditional practice, those shopkeepers who believe would also make offerings from outside their shops.

The bigger organised events might engage the Taoist Priests to conduct rituals. For the temples, they would include a Chao Du (Salvation ritual) for the ancestors of the participants. Some temples might have street wayang (opera) or marionette. Others might have getai (variety show). Getai since the days of Wang Sar Yeh Fong has come a long way and attract thousands of fans. Getais are probably the main medium with which dialects are kept alive, through songs and the skits managed by the MCs. In Chinatown, there could be more Cantonese songs, where others would have more Hokkien songs, bolstered with Mandarin and others that could range from Teochew to Malay! Singers flock from the region, from Indonesia and Malaysia and could be as far as Taiwan, the pace setter in many ways in getais.

In many of such events, there would be the traditional 8-course dinners where participants of the 7th Month prayers - the Hokkien call it Por Tor (Pu Du) - would join. Local leaders such as the MPs are also invited to grace the event. This is an important event where members of the mall or neighbourhood come together to eat, drink and do their bit, getting to know each other better in the process. There would be items raised for auction during such dinners, that sometimes irritate the neighbours who do not appreciate this community event, that helps to provide the funds to manage the next year's event. These days, most people who bid for the auctioned item would pay immediately, whereas in the old days, they have one year to pay, just before the next year's event. The difference in these two changing models must be the economic condition today compared to the past. In the past, especially in the neigbourhood, some might bid in the belief that Por Tor Kong would help them get some money to pay for it when the time comes.

Not in the public would be the remembrance of the ancestors by the Chinese families. In this month, families would offer prayers for their departed. Extended families would gather. Where there are Chao Du in the neighbourhood or temples and the families participated, you can see the extended families come together. In the old days, much of such activities could well be in the home, for some with simple offerings and meal. These days, with better organisation and the lack of time for many, many opt for such activities organised for them. Some families might add more to the offering by bringing the favourite food of their departed.

It was a time when sometimes, grandma would introduce her grandchildren to the departed whom they have not met. It is a time when customs and traditions are reinforced and imprinted onto the young.

While many might think that this is a month that ghosts or spirits roam wild on the streets, it is the month when families remember their roots, it is the month when community comes together - be it in the neighbourhood or the office complex.

Unknown to many, the 15th of the 7th month is when Taoists offer their respect to Di Guan, the official responsible for the Earth Realm. Hence the term Zhong Yuan Jie.

Zhong Yuan Jie can be considered as one of our intangible heritage.

Friday, August 03, 2012

Lee Dai Soh tells a story

Some were amazed that Lee Dai Soh of Rediffusion Cantonese Storytelling fame was going to tell a story. Well, it was only a recording of his storytelling. To those who have heard his stories before, it was like a journey back home in time. To those not old enough to have heard him, it was probably curiosity. In either case, a number flocked to Kwong Wai Siew Li Si She Shut (Lee Clan Association) over the two weekends (21 & 22, and 28 & 29 July 2012) at 3pm to check it out.

Lee Dai Soh, a name he coined himself, was a member of the Li Shi She Shut. His photo hung on the wall of this association was probably better known to his fans and their children and grandchildren. And hence the most appropriate place to listen to his stories. What better place too as this Association has its old world charm with the beautiful old chairs to sit on. We sat by the long table, which was and is still probably being used for the Association's meetings, enjoying Chinese tea with great Cantonese pastries (like the famous Tan-Tart - egg tart - from Tong Heng, one of the heritage shops still standing in Singapore's Chinatown), and listened to the story.

ack: Li Si She Shut

For those of us who have heard his stories before, it was like listening to an old friend again. It was like yesterday, for many. It was like a scene repeated from days gone by, be it the tenants of the house squatting or sitting together to listen to the small Rediffusion box or the men drinking coffee in the local kopi tiam (coffee shop). It was delightful to see how each had his or her own ways of listening to the verbal descriptions and imagining them. Closing one's eyes would be the most probable case although some would be staring blankly into the space.

Where there were different people turning up for each sessions, there were some die-hards who were there on every of the four occasions. In the beginning of each session, the President of the Association, Mr. James Lee, would welcome the visitors in Cantonese and explain a little about the Association. At the end of the Storytelling, when the other participants came for the URA Clan Association Heritage Walk, he would explain in Mandarin the history of the Association.

Listening to the tales told by Lee Dai Soh, in his own style with humour and invitation to his audience to feed back to him, I discovered that much of what was shared in the storytelling was about the history, legends and folk beliefs of China. It is through such stories that our folks of the old days, many of whom were illiterate, learnt and shared with their grandchildren. Do you know why in the Southern Lion Dance, there was that guy with a mask of a monk and a fan? Listen to Lee Dai Soh's story on "Drangon Dance, Lion Dance" (this was told on 28 Jul 12).

It was an interesting four days of storytelling that I attended faithfully, although my comprehension was at best 40%. But it was like a refreshing revision as I suddenly could recall some of the Cantonese words long embedded somewhere in my skull. A friend was so excited listening to the stores, akin like a dehydrated fish finding water. Suddenly one program in her brain was activated and her Cantonese came rushing out.

Many asked if they could buy a CD of Lee Dai Soh's stories. Alas, they could not be found. I hope that there could be some way of making the stories available, be it in CDs or downloadable MP3 so that we could play for our grandparents who might get to listen to them again. It would not be a great business proposition but perhaps, a great heritage initiative. It might be great if Cantonese associations and even Community Centres organise (as they had done in the past) such Storytelling sessions in one of their Audio rooms for the senior citizens. Some local or even foreign storytellers could also be invited to drop by to tell. It could be a fringe or part of the heritage festivals or even Storytelling festivals!

Kudos to Kwong Wai Siew Li Si She Shut, National Heritage Board and URA for the great initiative and collaborations to make this possible for us to experience. Looking forward to repeats with more stories.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Rediffusion Story Tellers

Starting tomorrow, 21 Jul 12, with the Heritage Fest, at the Kwong Wai Siew Li Si She Shut Clan Association, 25 Ann Siang Road, over two weekends, many people will get a chance to listen to Lee Dai Soh's tales. For the young, it would be a chance to hear what their grandparents used to enjoy when there was no TV and even radios were rare. For the older, it was like being transported back to the old days.

What better place to have this event than at the Li Shi She Shut Clan Association where Lee Dai Soh was a member. Go and spot his photograph, lined amongst the many elders of the Lee Clan.

When I was very young, being a Hokkien, I was not conversant with Cantonese. But sitting and listening to the Rediffusion was one way to pass the time, especially, sitting with the old ladies and men. By and by, some words would get into the head.

I always remember that very familiar sound in such a warm tone starting his session in the Rediffusion, "Cham Mun gor de kong tho ... " (Last night we were saying till ...). Somehow, when the time was almost up, he would be able to end with us all hanging "on the cliff" furious that we would have to wait for another 24 hours to know what happened. I remember that it was a daily programme of about 45 minutes (or was it less?) during the weekday.

From a pack of CDs of Lee Dai Soh's stories

Rediffusion has a few storytellers who had their faithful followers. There were Ong Toh, the Hokkien storyteller, again, with his own familiar tones, somewhat higher than that of Lee Dai Soh. And there was Ng Chia Keng, the Teochew storyteller. And a couple more (if you can remember, please add to the comments. (^^) )

For me, faithfully, every night, at about 9pm (or slightly earlier?) I would sit on the ground in the open air-well in the middle of the "pre-war" house, where I grew up, feeling the cold damp ground (of granite) while my grandma would sit on a chair with the landlady (a very strict Peranakan Matriarch), all listening intently to the story. Most of the stories would be gongfu stories.

I remember that there were also some erotic parts, described in such a nice way that would leave everyone to his or her imagination. One particular that I could remember goes like this, "Chew jit eh yet, huay jit eh sit, .. " (with a wave of a hand, the light went out ...) During those times, we could not ask the old ladies what happened then? (^^) Children were meant to be seen and not heard.

In those days, for me, in the 50s, storytelling was a favourite programme for many. In the wet and dirty market place off Craig Rd, in the night, benches would appear, lining around a small table (made from boxes). On the table was a tin converted into a lamp with a chimney like tube going up from the cover. This tin was probably made from used Ovaltine tins, a popular beverage then. This was the carbide lamp, where pouring water into the tin of carbides would create a flammable gas. So with a match stick, the end of the tube will light, providing quite a good light, at least good enough for the storyteller to read from his book.

Most the people, I think all men, probably the coolies ending the hard day sitting, somewhat more like squatting on the bench, would gather around the storyteller. I did not get near to watch or listen but was told that they would have a joss-stick lit just before the story telling. The listeners would pay (5 cents or was it 10 cents) for the length of the story determined by the burning joss-stick. I suppose if there was a draft, that joss -stick was going to burn out faster. (^^)

In the early 60s, when there were still storytellers around, I remembered seeing community centres providing such storytelling sessions to the old men who would gather there. The storyteller would probably have to compete against other distractions especially in terms of noise that he would have  a very primitive loudspeaker with a microphone to work with.

The last time I came across a storyteller was a couple of years back when a chain selling "Pau" (dumplings) invited a Hokkien storyteller from Xiamen to come to tell stories. Alas, I could only attend one of his sessions before he had to rushed home on some domestic emergencies (we were told). He was explaining, as part of the storytelling, the Hokkien idioms and the differences in the way of pronounciations of the Hokkiens from Xiamen (Amoy), Zhangzhou and Quanzhou. Imagine pigs being call Ti, Tu, Ter. I cannot remember which is from which area now.

For the experience, register for a session in the heritagefest website. Chinatown Visitor Centre is also having an exhibition of Lee Dai Soh's storytelling.

Tell me your experience, or what your granny told you. (^^)

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Beer on the rocks, anyone?

Last night I was at a dinner in a local kopi-tiam style restaurant serving duck rice. While some of us had lime juice (which I believed started off with the famed Singapore signature dish, Fish Head Curry, and has been with this Duck Rice for quite a decade or two), home-made barley, two opted for beer. This lady, speaking only Teochew with a spatter of Mandarin brought a bottle of ice-cold Tiger Beer and two mugs with ice inside. My friend looked in horror. "Where got drink beer with ice?"

And so I started my story that before she was born, we (I mean the older folks) used to drink beer with ice. Why? Well, for one, there weren't much refrigerator in the local coffeeshops, home too. It was a luxury. And so, pouring beer onto a mug of ice seemed a logical solution. I think the habit went on right into the 70s and possibly till 90s. For some, habits die hard.

In the old days, the old men might gather at the local coffee shops to have a beer or two, or more if they have a gathering of neighbours or friends. But although beer was cheap them, it was still a luxury item. For some who like to start with beer and probably get into something heavier, like the popular "sa tiam chi" (Three Stars Brandy), they would go into a bar which had shelves of all kinds of hard liquor.

I remembered helping my maternal grandma in her kopitiam. Selling beer or stout was regular. I found out then that there was this stout that they called "Ohr Kao" (Black Dog), which was popular with the tough looking guys. Interestingly, if I took the bottle caps and put in a bowl of warm water, the Alsatian on the cap came off. It was a sticker. Beneath it, if my memory holds, was the Guiness Harp (?) drawing. There were also similar bottles with the bulldog. For some reasons, the men preferred this warm. No ice!

Drinking beer or stout in the local coffeeshops seemed to be isolated in the old days. Many of the older folks would take them with a plate of duck necks, wings and legs, and even the "bishop's nose" (as they called). Nothing like chewing on these bony parts of the duck and downing with beer or stout.

In the past couple of years (or more?), with the aggressive promotion of the beer and stout companies, with the promotion girls (from young ones to aunties), going to the neighbourhood coffeeshops, the number of people drinking beer and stout in the coffeeshops seem to be more visible, and in certain places, very visible!

Walking into the hawker centre in Chinatown in the afternoon and evening is like walking into a hive of many bees. Given the built of the place that was designed more for "eat and go", the low hum of the place with the old folks drinking and chatting, with their mugs filled almost as instantly by the beer girls serving the different coffee stalls turned bar, it was a vibration not for everyone. But for the drinkers, they did not seem to notice it. Almost every table in the general eating area would have a pail or two of ice to keep the beer cool. No more ice for beer? Apparently not. Beer of many kinds could be seen. Some relatively unknown. I could not help that if more people were drinking, could we overtake the Germans in per-capita consumption of beer. Unlikely, but this was a big evolution in Singapore, given what I am exposed to.

First there were men drinking. Now I see the occasional tables with women joining in. Even those selling and serving (are there free lance servers?) have to be good drinkers as they would be offered a mug or two. Reminded me of the time when I was in China where in the private dining rooms, the girl serving the meals would also have to be good drinkers. The host would get them to do the toast to encourage the guests to down their drinks. Not beer but more of the fiery Bai Jiu category.

I missed the corner coffeeshop at Sago Lane from which I could get a bottle of Weiss Bier and walk over to the Wurstelstand (Sausage Stand) to enjoy a Bratwurst or two. Beer drinking has also changed over time, from the typical Lager to more exciting imports from Japan (I remember I liked the Asahi Super Dry) to the German Weiss Bier. Oktoberfest has also arrived in Singapore.

Would it be retro and hip to offer a mug of Beer on the Rocks? Anyone?

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

My neighbour left without bidding goodbye

I have not seen him for days, actually weeks. In our busy lives, the chance meeting is always at the lift landing or inside the lift. There's no common gathering place like the local kopi-tiam. Yes, there are kopi-tiams but these are more commercials than for the local residents for the sitting together to "liao-tian" (chat).

We are living in a vertical village, if you like. A late friend, not from Singapore, once lamented about his days here. He said that his children tried going from floor to floor to inform them of their living in that block and trying to make contacts. It was a challenge. Chances of anyone noticing a new neighbour would be almost nil, save two doors away from each side if you live in those flats with common corridors.

The area where our postal mailboxes are is also linked to a little pavilion that was carved out in the last upgrading. This is the place where, sometimes, funeral wakes are held. To the Chinese, one should die in the house. In these days, it is difficult. For one, it is difficult to put anyone in a coffin and carry the coffin down from the apartment down the lift. Even in cases when one died in the apartment, carrying the body down the lift to a place downstairs was already a challenge.

While modern Singaporean Chinese might be less likely to worry about seeing people in mourning clothes, many still do not feel good. Traditionally, the bereaved family would make it a point to paste a square red paper on every lift landing. Kind of informing the neighbours and warding off the negative elements, I suppose.

In my apartment block, where most of the older residents were relocated from the Teochew area of Chinatown (from Ellenborough market to Teochew St) and Cantonese areas as well (around Taofu kai (Upper Chin Chew St) area), it is not uncommon to listen to the music and "singing" of funeral rituals based on Teochew and Cantonese Taoist rituals. To the older residents, who might understand the singing, and it being a "sad" rendition, reminding them that their time could well be soon, it was also soothing to hear such music that were not dissimilar to those of the Teochew and Cantonese operas. Occasionally, there were Buddhist chants.

These days, funeral wakes are mostly held for 3 days. In the small space, high costs, small families and everyone busy earning a living, 3 days are already a challenge for a funeral wake. But at least, it is long enough for relatives and old friends to make it to pay their last respect. The counting of the day starts from the day of the death (from midnight, it is counted as a day) and the funeral being the third day. So, in effect, there is only a full day.

Imagine to my shock when I learned that my neighbour - whom I only get to meet on the lift landing or inside the lift, and he trying to speak in this heavily Cantonese accented Mandarin, and I trying to speak in Hokkien-Cantonese) - had passed away. His funeral was at the little pavilion downstairs. I used to make it a point to check out the funeral when there is one and I was around there to pick up mail. But I missed this one.

And so, one less familiar face, someone to greet and chat in the lift amidst strangers. To him, I can only bid him farewell here. "Wherever you are, po-zhong!" (Po-zhong is take care in Cantonese).

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Recycling & a means to survive

Long long ago in Singapore, as one can see as well in many parts of the world, it was more a means of survival than recycling. But indeed, it was and is also recycling. Amongst many things that could be recycled, one is the cardboards used for cardboard boxes which are growing exponentially. To most shops, after taking out the contents from the boxes, they are of no use. And so they throw them away.

In the old days, it was cardboards, newspapers, magazines and any paper products that one could rummage from the garbage bins to put them together and sell to agents who bought them and resell them to the recycling companies. These people, mostly those who were illiterate and might not have the means to carry out normal work, could earn a small income using their strength and efforts as their investment. And there were also the karang-guni men who were more entrepreneur who would go from house to house crying out loudly (could well be one of the best baritone or bass!) "Kaaarrraaaang Guuu ni", followed by more offerings like they are buying all kinds of things from newspaper to spoilt TVs. They all knew where to resell what they bought from these households at a pittance. For us kids, we would be thrilled to be able to sell our read newspapers at 10 cents per kati. Somehow, the Chinese papers were bought at cheaper rate than the English papers. Almost anything can be sold, and so, we didn't throw them away.

Besides, certain bottles could be sold too. There were different prices for coloured bottles and no-coloured bottles. From the friendly neighbourhood sundry shop (we call Ket-Ai in Hokkien), they would offer something like 5 cents for a beer bottle returned.  I still saw this practice in Europe some years ago. I have not come across this in Singapore these days. Karang-guni men are also becoming more selective and do not want to carry such heavy stuff that they could probably sell for a small amount. Interestingly, these days, there are people who want to buy very old liquor, of which we might have considered as too old to consume.

There are also active recycling movements which work with the big recycling companies to go from door to door to collect recyclable materials for free - either ways. To the residents these days, it was great for anyone to pick up from their doorsteps a particular day each week. To the volunteers or recycling companies, this is free and so, they probably have more to profit from. But what many might not know is that there are still people who survive through collecting such items to sell to the recycling company, bringing back some money to feed the family.

While it is rare these days, there still are such people who probably only know this trade and it keeps them alive, perhaps, on top of any aid that they might receive. In the old days, these people, doing such work could raise a family. I met an old man who would collect what was thrown away within the block of flats and patiently cart them to sell. Through such efforts he has raised his family. One day, he even proudly told me that he had a son who was doing his PhD. Alas, after I met him once with a domestic help after he had suffered a stroke (probably his children were already working and taking care of him, but then, old habits die hard), I never saw him again.

There was also another man, who probably is now in his late 70s or 80s, who still carry on this "trade". In his typical blue shirt and pants (like those one could remember seeing in the 50s of the Tng-Sua (Tang Shan) Ah Pek) and his hat (which was fashionable in the 50s and almost gone by now), he would walked the corridors of the flats to pick up what was thrown away. A few of us would offer him to come and collect our read newspapers. He was so grateful that each them he meets me, his first words would be "Kamsiah". And then, the typical Chinese greetings of yesteryears, "Jia Ba Buay?" (Have you eaten enough?). I still meet him in the lift, but his movements have been somewhat slow these days. He has become almost deaf. A full suntanned man - the skin showed - this man has seen the growing part of Singapore.

Today, there is another interesting trend in such "recycling". Collecting used cans from can-drinks became another "business". One could see locals and foreigners involved too. And another interesting demands seem to be the pulling tab of the cans. It is said that these tabs could be melted to make artificial limbs.

In Chinatown where there are various retail businesses, where the products come in cardboard boxes, the amount of such boxes being thrown away is big. There was a silent symbiosis being evolved where a few old men (and there was an old lady too, but I have not seen her for months) would wait patiently for the shops to throw the boxes away. You have thought that the shopkeepers would make a mess out of the common corridors. No, these old men would patiently clear whatever rubbish there were (such as plastic sheets) and put them into a rubbish bin, and then, flatten these boxes. One by one they worked. On a good day, there were loads. All neatly arranged, tied and packed. Waiting for the next morning to be carted to the "centre" somewhere in Chinatown to be sold.

As in business, there could be pilferage when the goods are left alone. And so, many months ago, I would find this old lady (who used to mumble to herself as she packed the cardboards) sleeping on the pile of cardboards. Each time, a quick thought would flash across my mind if she was still alive. I watched for sign of live, and then, walked on.

From time to time, one would see the old men or ladies pushing heavy make-shift carts to carry their collections to the "centre". Once I found one old lady who was fuming mad and scolding this young lady who was working in a pub. That old lady tried her best to speak in Cantonese with Mandarin while the young lady replied in Mandarin that the van that block her way (from a backlane) was not from her pub. A few of us passer-by tried to help but it did not bring her temper down. She kept complaing, "I need to bring this to the place and I have not had my meal!" It was already 1pm. And so, the few of us tried to check out the shops around there who had parked the van there, and well, illegally too. Finally, another young lady appeared and was apologising profusely in English. Ah, nothing is going to please this old lady until her cart could move on. Two of us helped her to push up a slight hump onto the road. The load on her cart was very heavy!

Muttering to herself, she moved painfully on. We stood, looked, probably sighing within ourselves, and parted.