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. (^^)

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