Saturday, September 28, 2013

Bidding a neighbour farewell

As I came home, I spotted a red piece of paper pasted on the wall between the two lifts. Hmm, someone has passed away I thought to myself, but there was no sign of a wake downstairs in the limited space within my block of flats.

Later, the son came to inform that his father has passed away. Since suffering from a stroke and gradually recovering, we have seen less of him. It was still a shock to learnt of his passing in the hospital, not from the problem that he went there for.

Last night we went to the wake that was put up in a neighbouring cluster of HDB flats that have a bigger space for the wake. It seems that the neighbourhood (if there is still the same impression, and the neighbours who really know each other) got to meet each other and sit down to chat only during wakes. Koptiams are no longer the watering holes of the old, save a few. So, at best was "a good morning, wah your children have grown, how's your parents?" ... the usual questions, often waiting or inside the lift, where more of the people are strangers. Kids and pets are usually the ice-breaking points.

Back to our neighbour. We must have been neighbours for a good 40 years, since the urban renewal when many people from the old pre-war houses of the Teochew community (around the then Ellenborough Market that is not wiped out of the area and replaced by the Central shopping mall) and the Cantonese & Hokkien community (in the Chin Chew St to Hokkien St area). I was "married in" to stay with my later mother-in-law because of the HDB policy. But that's another story.

I remember this neighbour as a strict and yet doting father, as his son-in-law described him in his facebook page. More so as a grandfather as he tried to balance being a strict and yet dotting grandpa. As we are next door neighbours, there was more than the passing conversations. The ladies of the row of apartments between the lift and the end of the row were probably the main communicators. And then, the children. Imagine in this row, we have Teochew, Cantonese, Hainanese and Hokkien. No problem, we could communicate, in one of the dialects.

In the early days, my (would be) mother-in-law was very frugal. She knows what is poverty and would not spend more than what is necessary. When we treated her to a meal outside, and she found out that they "yau-choy" (you cai) cost much more than what she could buy from the wet market and cook, she chided us for wasting money. I remember those days when we wanted to watch live telecast of the National Day parade, we would hop over to his house to watch. His kids were still young then.

In 1976, I was sent to Japan for training. I was given a 20 minute "collect call" (meaning I make a call from Japan and Singapore pays, in this case, my company) back to Singapore. But I had no phone at home, or my then girl friend (now my wife). We found out that our neighbour had a phone and so we asked to use his phone. Imagine the trouble we caused to him and family each time I called back, once a week, for some 16 weeks!

And when he went shopping for his favourite Teochew kueh, he never forgot about us. We got to eat the best Teochew Png-Kueh (the pink cake in the same of a peach but flat) and Tsu-Kak Kueh (the black version of Ang Ku Kueh using the leaves of a plant for the flavouring of the skin).

When our kids came, they would often pop over next door. Interestingly, just at about meal time. Kids are great in their art of getting what they want. They would tell the wife how her cooking smells so nice. And when they returned home, they announced that they already had their dinner!

While he has seen our kids grow from babies to what they are now (hovering around 20s), we have seen his kids grew, got married and have kids.

As modern vertical communities do not have much common facilities for interactions, unlike a kampong or a street community, where there is always the inevitable coffeeshop or temple, communications amongst neighbours are few and sometimes far in between. Like the Chinese would say, we probably meet and communicate more during red (weddings, baby month old celebrations) and white (death) events. Despite the short and few communications, we appreciate the neighbourliness and care of our neighbour and his family.

With sadness and acceptance of the inevitability, we thank him for all the wonderful times and for taking care of us and our children in many ways and wish him a smooth journey ahead. To his extended family, we offer our sincere and deep condolences.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

MId-Autumn Festival is just around the week

As if to chase away the "yin" energies away, Chinatown Singapore will welcome the Mid-Autumn festival with gusto, plenty of "yang" energies.

As I strolled through the streets of the "inner" Chinatown, also known as Gnau Chair Shui or Bullockcartwater this evening, I noticed that lanterns were being displayed. A couple of moon cakes too. I could not help reminiscing the olden days as I strolled down from Sago lane through Tregganu St into Pagoda St and the along New Bridge Rd. How much had changed other than the remaining standing shop houses?

For a start, my wife and I decided to have a picnic in Chinatown. Yes, with Bratwurst, Gherkin and Sauerkraut with Stiegl Weissen! At the only Wurstelstand in Chinatown, just above the equator. In my younger days I would not have even imagined about this meal! Enjoying the wurst (sausages) and listening to the chattering of Hokkien (interestingly, I would have expected Cantonese) in the coffeeshop, I noticed quite a mix of population. There was Austrian, Thai and Chinese food. There must be at least some four to five languages being spoken at any instant. In the old days, at this place, it would have been only Cantonese.

After a fulfilling meal, we decided to take a slow stroll back. Ah, the old Wurstelstand has become a perfume stall! And just across from it were hung new plastic inflated lantern lookalike. Now, what would be the new additions this year. You can guess as much when you see the picture.

In the old days, my wife and I (well, we were kids then) would run to this small stall with kindergarten chairs to have our favourite yau-yi-ong-choy (cuttleflish with kangkong) but those would only remain in our memories. I am trying hard to remember the crunch of the jellyfish and the taste of the dark red sauce with chill, and visualising the ever fierce and strict matriarch overseeing her daughter and daughter-in-law. It is becoming cloudy these days. What I saw was Tiger Beer and Chilli Crab. In Chinatown!! Yes, in the old days, it would be difficult to see any foreigners in Chinatown at night, but these days, it might be the reserve. One small kid was stopped just in time by his father from erasing the chalked writing on the menu-board. Ah, the wan-pi (mischievous) kid, who would have risked a thrashing in the old days.

Wow, the romantic red lantern with the Chinese characters "Double Happiness" beaming the soft rays on the foreign couples as they enjoyed the Singapore food.

More lanterns, these time some of the old versions similar to those in the 50s. My wife was complaining that they are not adding the gills to the goldfish! Why did you know, I asked. She remembered being paid five cents to paste the gills onto these fish lanterns.

In the old days, Chinatown would have been the place to buy moon cakes, especially the Cantonese moon cakes. These days, while famous old names like Dai Chong Kok (Da Zhong Quo) still thrive, most of the moon cake businesses seem to be centred around hotels selling them as corporate gifts. Vivo City has become one of the biggest Moon Cake fairs!

Chinatown is going to usher in the 8th Moon (lunar month), which begins on 5 Sep 13, with a light-up on Saturday 7 Sep 13. Many activities have been planned. You now almost don't need any paper to know the schedules (well we still have any senior citizens who have yet to get into the net) as all the details could be found here: Chinatownfestivals  Well, this young man came to offer me a pamphlet and invited me to the event. Down the road, he might tell his own story of our Chinatown. (^^)

And soon, kids and adults alike will be reminded of the stories centering around the Moon and Autumn (which has not climatic bearing in Singapore), yes, with food as well such as moon cake (but of course, and with it history and stories of ancient China), water caltrops, small yams and pomelos.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Seven Sisters

A few decade ago, on the 7th day of the 7th Moon (lunar month) and you are likely to see the celebration in hour of the Seven Sisters, known to the Cantonese as "Chart Jie" (Qi Jie). There would be big displays as the young ladies would celebrate.

In the book written by See Cheng, there was a chapter on the Seven Sisters.

Poster at the Chinatown Heritage Museum

On the eve of the 7th of 7th Moon, as I was walking home along New Bridge Road, I chanced upon this offering being placed and prepared for prayers. In the Chinese concept of time, 11pm of the day is the beginning of the next day.

Some friends commented that they remembered that "Chart Jie" celebrations were commemorated on the actual day of the 7th. Interestingly too, in the old days, most temple events would start on the beginning of the actual day, meaning perhaps, dawn. These days, most would do it at 11pm on the night before. But we know that we welcome the Chinese New Year on the even at 11pm. A trend for other celebrations perhaps.

I am looking for more tales of the celebration of the 7 Sisters.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Yet another funeral

As I sat having my dinner, the strains of the Teochew operatic singing came up the storeys from the ground floor. No, I am not complaining about the noise. In fact, I am "enjoying" the music, in a way. I should not be saying that I enjoy as this is part of a Teochew ritual in a funeral wake. This is part of a "journey" of the deceased as he/she leaves this world.

The Teochew operatic style singing reminds me of the many Teochew street operas that one could find along the streets in the old days. Yes, in the old days in Chinatown, there would be some kind of events - temple or community - almost every other week.

In the old days, when someone in a Teochew family passed away, there would be such a ritual performed by members of a Sian Tng (Shan Tang in Teochew) that the family could have been a member of. The interesting attractions to the neighbours would be the young children choir singing the Teochew rituals in their sweet voices against the playing of the strings, gongs and cymbals. These days, they are rare but there are still enough older teens and adults doing the rituals.

Where I live, it is a community of Teochews and Cantonese. Interesting in that together, they form the little Guangdong. Yes, in the apartment block where I live, the original residents were actually resettled from the Teochew area such as Teochew St (but of course) - of what is now Central Mall and the Chin Chew Rd area (where Upper Chin Chew St was known as Tau Foo Kai in Cantonese). It was a vertical community of two communities. Traffic between floors was high because of the extended families and old neighbours. Almost everyone would be greeting someone in the lift.

As days went by, such greetings seemed to lessen. The old wrinkled faces that wrinkled even more with their smiles seem to be getting less. I would be meeting more younger and fresh strange faces. I would still be meeting some familiar old faces, but they would be recent victims of stroke or with a walking stick supporting their weak legs. Greetings in dialects decreased. If any conversation in the lift, chances are it will be in Mandarin (of various accent) or English (also of various accent).

As the children moved out leaving their parents, the population here grows older. Some have moved out (yes, we are bombarded with record breaking offers of buying of our flats) bringing in new residents. For some of the older folks, they have found a space in the coffeeshop downstairs for coffee, and maybe beer, as beer seems to be the mainstay of coffeeshops these days. Some gathered on some discarded chairs to chat, listening to the Teochew Operas from a mini player. They would have been sitting along the Teochew Street in the evenings as their parents or grandparents would have done. That was history.

This scene could well become history soon. (^^)

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

A visit to a neighbourhood clinic

Today, feeling the oncoming of an attack of flu, I decided to drop by a neighbourhood clinic, rather than travelling far away to my "company clinic". It was great in that I could call to "chope" (reserve) a number and be given a time to arrive. My domestic help made the arrangement for me. She knows the neighbourhood better than I do. Efficiency in practice. I could remember the days when I had to wait hours for a doctor, and in a "company clinic" too.

The first impression was that the clinic is small, not so "professional looking" as one would see in the high end ones. Apart from the visuals, my next impression was the friendly "customer service". "

"Ah you are living nearby," was the comment from this middle aged lady as she registered my name. It is the first time for me to visit this clinic although all in my family, including the domesitc help, have their medical records here. My professional brain was working, despite the flu bugs swimming in the head and elsewhere, observing and wondering if I could help improve in the IT part of it.

Today, the main doctor, and apparently the owner of the clinic, was off and I learnt that he's off on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Many of his "loyal" patients asked for him. Many would rather come on another day, when they found out over the phone. For me, it does not make any difference as my case is rather straightforward, hopefully, and I need some medication to suppress the reactions to the bugs.

Sitting and waiting for my turn, I observed that most of the patients were repeats and the counter staff knew them well. They would be bantering in dialects. Reminds me of the old days. Two or three of them came in to register and then went off to do marketing in the nearby Sheng Siong supermarket. Sure, some of them missed their numbers. I heard that they would have to wait for another 5 number calls before they could be called when they return. But there was no anger and no admonishment from the staff. Compared to the very old days when we were worried being scolded by the missy (nurse).

An old Malay man came in to see the doctor. He had weak legs and the ladies quickly got him to sit down before taking out his appointment card. That kind of kampong spirit that I see, very spontaneously.

Looking around, I noted that except for one, the rest of the patients had greying hair. Ah, but of course, I am also in this category of senior citizens. Two older ladies came with their domestic help to assist them.

A pleasant and smiling lady doctor attended to me. She explained to me the medicine that she was about to give me. She noted that my blood pressure was above the normal. I explained that I had a history and was taking medication but I missed them every now and then. She empathised with me when I said that I am taking my medicine every other day instead of cutting the pills into two, saying she would have the same problems. But she encouraged me to remember.

I could remember some decades back when I also went to a neighbourhood clinic that my impression was whether it was a senior citizen centre. It turned out, as I was to learn later, that they were amahs who had since retired and were being taken care of by the doctor, who probably was taken care by them when he was young. I guessed. This friendly old doctor was in no hurry to send me off. And so, a consultation could lead to more than just the immediate problems. I could vividly remember his encouraging me to have children (I did not have any then) to make a family more complete.

My name was called to collect my medicine. The lady who was giving me the medicine advised me not to taken chilli during this period and not to take too much salt considering my blood pressure. All in a friendly manner.

Ah, I think I can adopt this clinic for my retirement years. If the medical bills do not shoot up, that is. Or it might be trips to the local Chinese medicinal shops for self treatment. (^^)

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Water Snake slithers in ...

It was a wet season that welcome the Chinese Lunar New Year. Business in Chinatown was in some ways dampened by the rain, but this did not dampen the spirits of the shoppers who braved the rain and the wet grounds to check out what's latest in Chinatown. The crowd was like what used to be decades ago. Of course, these days saw more tourists who wanted to soak in the atmosphere. For Singaporeans, almost every new town has its own Chinese New Year bazaars. But the atmosphere will not be the same as that in Chinatown, even though it does not have much of its original old-time sights.

It was a nostalgic walk along the streets of Chinatown (particularly in Temple St, Pagoda St, Trengganu St linking them through to Smith St), with the crowds being drawn to whoever called the loudest with the best offers. On the eve of Chinese New Year (CNY) eve, prices were beginning to drop, particularly the tidbits with short shelf lives. Certain tidbits just have to be there for visiting relatives and friends - kueh-chee (melon sheets) that now come in various flavours and groundnuts. Kueh-kueh (local pastries) come in big varieties ranging from love-letters (Kueh Belanda) to pineapple tarts. Most of these are influenced in many ways by Malays and Peranakans. There's the Taiwanese mochis that have been making big impact during pre-CNY sales.

What seems less obvious these days are the Dui-Lian (Couplets) that traditionally, most Chinese would get them to be pasted on both sides of the door-way and one on top. In the old days, and probably now, one would buy from the calligraphers. Letter writers in the old days are trained in calligraphy and hence could make the additional bucks from such sales. Every couplet is different because it is hand-written. These days, chances are one could buy printed ones. With most living in HDB flats, it would be a challenge to paste these Dui-Lian. My neighbour (who hails from mainland China) has his Dui-lian pasted on the door way between the living room and the kitchen, the only place where it is possible.

Food - an important part to the Chinese
Grandmas would be fussing about what to buy from the wet market to cook for the Reunion Dinner on the CNY Eve. Chinatown wet market is a favourite destination for many, especially for the older folks who used to shop here. Atmosphere in the basement market is different from the wet and dirty roads when the wet market stalls were along the Trengganu St area. No more pulling out the live chicken or ducks to check out if they are fat or not (or rather if they are meaty enough). In the old days, many would buy these poultry live and bring them back home. In the downtown houses, they could be kept in the bathroom or toilets. For those with bigger spaces, they could at least be in the kitchen courtyard. I remember the days when I had to fight with the chicken and ducks just going to the toilet. Or rather they were so alarmed by my presence. We would feed them with cockroaches in the belief that it fattens them up. Once my landlady decided to invest early with a few turkey chicks. Imagine the alarming calls each time I went to the toilet.

Then, came the stage when one would choose the live chicken or duck, have it weighed and price haggled and decided, pay for it and leave it to the stallholders to kill and de-feather, while one carried out with her shopping, to collect later. I remember the days when I had to help my mum to kill the chicken or duck by either holding the struggling bird's neck so that we could slit its throat and drain the blood. Yes, blood was also food. Then came the bird-flu and SARS and it was decided, no live birds in the market. We had to settle for chilled birds (at best).

Fish is another important item to buy. Nian Nian You Yu is one of the favourite greetings. Just similar sounds, but fish has always been an important dish for CNY dinner. For the Hokkien and Teochews, the Rabbit Fish (Peh Tor Hu - white belly fish) is one to look for. But alas, it is terribly expensive. It seems that during this time, the Rabbit Fish would be in its mating season, full or role. And it is less fishy in taste. One such fish could be about S$20 each, or more, from the wet market.

I suppose for other important ingredients, the existence of the supermarkets has somewhat dampened the prices in the wet market. Without fail, one would hear the housewives complaining that the prices "this year is higher than the last!".

For the Cantonese, the dried sausages are a must. many would flock to Chinatown which will have a bigger selection. During this season, a few stalls would be set up along Smith St to offer a range of sausages, waxed duck and the famous Yunnan Ham. The fact that sales were good indicate that many are still preparing them for meals at home. A simple steaming of the sausages on top of the rice is good enough for those of us who grew up with "Lap Cheong", the Cantonese name for the Chinese Sausages.

Everything Red
While the accountants see red in red, the Chinese just love them. Red packets in the old days were simple red paper cut into small enough sizes to wrap over the coins (yes, coins then). And then, red packets were for sale. These days, thanks to commercial marketing, one could get these red packets for free. And of course, the red packets were joined in by the gold packets, thanks to some innovative marketeers.

There seems to be the eternal "clash" between mothers and daughters (is this still true?) about wearing red and not black on CNY eve and CNY day, at least to please Ah Kong and Ah Mah (a good enough excuse), Kids, especially girls (well, up to a certain age) would be dolled up in the traditional Chinese clothings, especially cheongsam for the little girls.

It is always heartening to watch families all dressed in red, to a certain extent, arriving to visit relatives in the HDB flat where I live. Depending on their dialect groups, the senior members would be greeting in their respective dialects. Each dialect has its unique CNY greetings. You would hear Teochew greeting each other, Shin Jia Lu Yi.

Chinese New Year Eve Reunion Dinner
To the Chinese, the Reunion Dinner is probably the most important gathering of the family, more so in the extended family where there are the grand parents. Many daughter-in-laws make it their practice to have reunion dinners with their own parents earlier, a few days before the CNY. In the current families in Singapore where there are less children in the family, such gathering becomes more meaningful.

Given the small apartments (HDB flats) in Singapore, it is often a challenge to have extended family reunion dinners. Even when we split the tables into the elders and the children (a time for cousins to catch up). Grandma would often insist on cooking, maybe with some willing daughter-in-laws? But given that most are busy working and living separately, the younger grandma might not be keen to preside on the cooking of traditional dishes .. ahh ... Ah Mah's cooking, often the grandchildren's favourite. A trend that is probably sliding on a very steep gradient. And so, many now opt for reunion dinners in the restaurants. No more days of having to do marketing, lugging the buys back home, planning of the menu, cutting and cooking and after that washing. Big families, no problems, many restaurants have private rooms for a couple of tables if you want a private reunion dinner. Restaurants are also serving traditional dishes, and chances are also that these dishes will transcend across dialect lines.

Chances of all members attending the reunion dinners are certainly not a hundred percent. With the mobile Singaporeans, catching up is still possible thanks to technologies, such as Skype. For many studying overseas, this must be the time of homesickness as they will miss home and the re-nao (arousing) atmosphere of home. More so when they are staying in the northern hemisphere where dark, dreary and cold weather add to the gloom.

For the traditional Chinese families, there are rituals to be followed to welcome the new year. It is believed that if one stays awake longer into the Chinese New Year, the lives of their parents would be lengthened. Which kid does not like the idea of staying up longer? To welcome the new year, there will be offering of mandarin oranges and huat-kueh (traditional Chinese cake with the name "huat" that sounds like growth) to the Gods.

For some, it would be going to the Chinese Temples to offer the first joss sticks. In the Chinese tradition, 11pm is the beginning of the new day. And so, by this time, many would converge to their favourite temples. In Chinatown, Thian Hock Keng and Wak Hai Cheng Beo are two temples busy with devotees.

With a new year comes new hopes and new aspirations. And so, Singapore Chinese, with their fellow Singaporeans, look forward to a brighter future in the year of the Snake. Some of us reminisce the old times of Chinese New Year.