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. (^^)