Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Chinatown Retro

Well, not really. But it was interesting in the past week to see STB (Singapore Touristm Board) with CBA (Chinatown Business Association) coming together to sponsor another interesting event, the Chinatown coLAB (now I learnt about the use of hashtags #chinatowncolab ). Here, anyone interested in the heritage of Chinatown could participate in the weekend event to come up with ideas leveraging on digital technologies to create more access into the history and cultural heritage of Chinatown.

A workshop was held on Tuesday, 25 March 2014 at the Tooth Relic Temple auditorium where interested public turned up to understand more about this Hackathon. First timer like me was curious on what a Hackathon is all about. Ah nothing to do with hacking that layman like me thinks.  By the end of the two hour session, for those of us attending the first time, we were clearer now.

Momentum took up on Friday, 28 March 2014, when various speakers talked about Chinatown, from history to culture to technologies. I was fortunate to be invited to give a 15 minute blast on what Chinatown has. For a long winded person like me, bursting to share, from one end to the other end of the greater Chinatown, 15 minutes was impossible. Nevertheless, I tried and hopefully, it caught the attention of the audience, if not all, at least some, as they had fed back me. :)

To walk the talk, well, at least part of the talk, I led a group underground to look at the wet market of Chinatown. There were quite a number of walks so that participants could select the walks that they were interested in to come up with an application idea. My walk started with the Food Street Walk, led by Wallace and Mei Ping of Select. Alas, it was a little early at 9.15am and so the group could not experience the atmosphere and got to see the stalls preparing and serving their food. The names of the food stalls were impressive as they were specially invited to set up shop here.

At the Food Street

We went into the cool with a faint smell of what a wet market should be. For the wet market enthusiasts, and if you are a cook or chef, you must be enjoying the smell, wet floor (hence wet market) and the chattering of the customers. Nothing like chatting with the stall holders, exchanging notes about not only the things they are selling, be it vegetables, eggs, fish or poultry, but also the mutual friends who could be just customers. "Ah, here are the fresh vegetables just arrived," the stall holder would call out to his regular customer, in Cantonese. "How to cook it?" asked the customer.

A wide array of vegetables

I was challenging my group, consisting of members from ITE (with their lecturer who is an expert on Asian cooking!) to A*STAR researcher, if they could identify all the vegetables being sold. The friendly lady stall holder responded almost immediately, in English, that I would give a prize if they could! I replied suggesting getting some fresh chillies as prizes :)

The Chinatown wet market of today is certainly more friendly to tourists than in the early days, although in those days, there would be excitement of snake killing along Trengganu St, when the wet market was on the streets. I hope that if we do more wet market tours, especially, with locals, we could generate more business for them. I remember the last time when I brought two restaurant friends from Sydney who were keen to know the local wet market scene, one fishmonger actually took up a huge fish to show them! Pictures were taken and certainly one plus point for us Singaporeans! :) To add to that experience, I brought them to enjoy one of our signature dish, the Fish Head Curry, where they could see how the head of that huge fish could be cooked and served. Another Italian friend, a Scientist visiting Singapore to share his know-how was so impressed by the Fish Head Curry that when he went back home, to US, where he is living, he actually cooked a Fish Head Curry for his friends. Ah, Singapore is not made known to more people. And the wet market was his favourite haunt, given his love for cooking!

Dried ingredients in the wet market

We meandered from row to row, looking at the dried ingredients so important to Asian cooking, then the vegetables, the poultry (alas, no live chicken to see - I always love to ask anyone whom I bring to the wet market what is the colour of the feather of the black skinned chicken - meat too), fish - certainly the place with the most smells (could not see the killing of the Toman or Snakehead), eggs (how to identify the salted eggs and century eggs), pork, yong-tow-foo and fruits.

We were running late but the participants seemed more interested in staying longer in the market! I hope they get to visit it again, and again. And if someone could develop some interesting mobile apps, it might help them identify the many things sold there. Of course, there is nothing like shopping and chatting with the stall holders, which my wife did, shopping as we went along, and sharing her stories with the group as well. Many of the stall holders speak Mandarin and English. Of course, nothing like chatting in Cantonese and seeing the animated face as the stall holder shares with you all kinds of stories.

Back to the Chinatown coLAB venue which had been shifted from the Tooth Relic Temple on Friday evening, this former OCBC (Overseas Chinese Banking Corporation as it was once called) has a very interesting and nice atmosphere that I thought was conducive to creative ideas. After another round of presentations, the teams that were formed on Friday night (I was told it is like speed dating except that you are looking for someone to complement you in forming a team so that you have the content providers and the techies who will develop applications for the POC - proof of concept). Wow, first time I was watching strangers approaching each other to seek them out, after the initial 1 minute pitch of his or her ideas to the audience on Friday night, after my supposed-to-be-inspirational-talk. :)  Although I was not involved in the team, on hindsight, I should have joined. But maybe, it would be too stressful for me. :)

Nevertheless, it was a great time, meeting the young people and getting to know them. Some asked me for more input and also bounced their ideas off me. Someone fed back to me that my blog posts were too few and too far in between. Ah, I must work harder! :)

All gathered, excited to see the ideas

On Sunday (30 Mar 14) afternoon at 2.30pm, the teams were ready! 16 ideas were presented, some complete with demonstrations of their applications! 3 minutes to present and demonstrate their ideas was certainly very challenging but all managed to put their ideas across, with proof of concepts demonstrated too!

 She came, she saw, she joined in .. presenting her team's idea

The guys at Chinatown coLAB certainly did a great job, with the support of members from CBA and STB. And with the objective of making heritage of Chinatown more accessible to both the Singaporean and foreign visitors, it looks like we are certainly on the way, the right way. I look forward to the fruition of some of these great ideas. Of course, a living heritage needs more than technologies. We will get to see more developments coming up. I like the comments that if Singaporeans find interests in Chinatown and through their more often visit makes it vibrant, the foreign visitors will be sure to follow. They want to know why the Singaporeans (not just Chinese) visit Chinatown. There are many interesting nuggets waiting to be discovered, not to mention that many associations such as the clan associations and arts groups are waiting for new members - young and old. Want to know more about the Chinese heritage? Come to Chinatown. Many of these organisations are already open to any Singaporeans.

1 comment:

enji@o said...

Victor, this is Enjiao, a recent economics graduate with a minor in entrepreneurship from what was then Nantah, now Nanyang Technological University. :p I am writing to interest you in a cup of coffee with me anytime next week to explore together how we may make heritage come alive for locals and tourists alike through technology.

Beyond its built heritage, I think it's crucial to keep the social memories and living heritage of the area.

We would like to get started by finding out from people what they consider to be what's most important to Chinatown and what its main challenges are today.

Feel free to email me at hello [at] if you'll be so kind. Thank you.