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.