Saturday, December 05, 2015

From old schools to a hostel to a Senior Citizen Centre

I could still vividly remember the wake-up calls from the ringing of the school bell as the Park Road and Pearl Bank Primary Schools called their student to their assemblies to start the school day. The chattering of the kids as they ran and played with their friends came to a silence and the serious singing of Majulah Singapura began.

I was in and out of Singapore because of work then. And soon, there was silence. No sounds of young voices. Empty shells stood. The buildings of the two schools, which later became one and then none, had reached a milestone of their lives.

And then, I saw strangers, foreigners from all over the world, congregating into the buildings. The former Park Rd Primary School became the hostel for men and the Pearl Bank Primary School became the hostel for women. Standing from the multi-storey carpark facing the school, one could see the interesting daily activities in these two buildings.

The neighbouring shops flourished with the new neighbours meeting their daily needs. Prepaid SIM cards and supermarket. And a fruit shop too.The coffeeshops must have been too. After years of integrating into the neighbourhood, plans have changed. The hostel was no more to be.

The buildings fell silent again. This time, the renovation was intensive and extensive. The neighbours were told of what was to come. Elevators were being built for these two former schools. This is to be a centre for senior citizens. There will be no young legs to pound the stairs. The rooms have to be renovated to make movement easy and convenient. After months of dust flying into the neighbouring flats, things have settled. The road into the buildings was re-tarred.

As I looked at it this evening, the buildings are ready to receive their new occupants. I spied some double-deck beds already in one room. For the people who are going to man the place?

The neighbourhood is going to adjust to a new neighbour. Perhaps, for the better, for the ageing residents in the community?

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Fung Bo Bo returns to Ngau Che Shui (Chinatown) 冯宝宝回到牛车水

If there is one little girl who captured the hearts of the residents of Ngau Che Shui (Chinatown), it must be Fung Bo Bo. And we are talking about some 50+ years ago, when Fung Bo Bo, at the age of 3 made her appearance in Singapore with her movies. It is said that between the age of 6 and 9, she starred in some 120 movies!

On the 20 Jun 15 night, when I attended the last day of the the 2-day musical featuring Fung Bo Bo - Memories and Chinatown (probably sounds better in Cantonese, Fung Bo Bo Hui Da Niu Che Shui 冯宝宝回到牛车水) - I could see the sparkles in the eyes of the old folks as they queued to get into the theatre. Thanks to this Fei Zhai (肥仔) who initiated a "Join Fung Bo Bo Fansi Club" with a poster outside the theatre, many stopped by to take photos with the young pictures of Fung Bo Bo as well as writing down their names and email address or handphone number to join the club. The Chinatown Fung Bo Bo Fans Club seems ready to take off.

Many were trying to find someone to talk about their admiration for Fung Bo Bo. What better way than sharing with the lady (my wife) who manned the Fan Club stall on this evening. There was this lady who said that when she was young at 6, her picture looked like that of young Fung Bo Bo. And now, probably some 50+ years later, she stood by Fung Bo Bo's picture to take a photo.

Many brought along their ageing mothers to attend. One was seen on wheelchair (going to this rather ageing Kreta Ayer Theatre was a feat) and a few bent ladies being guided by their daughters. A few old couples came on their own, one holding the other, each actually requiring support. A few asked to sit down on the spare chair, panting from the walk up the slope.

A number were heard chatting in Hokkien or Teochew, but that did not prevent them from being fans of Fung Bo Bo. It was a time when Singaporean Chinese (and even non Chinese included) were multilingual, and appreciated the arts of the different groups. Cantonese movies, perhaps, thanks to Fung Bo Bo, were in abundance, compared to Hokkien and Teochew movies.

While Fung Bo Bo sang in English (she spent 6 years in school in UK), Mandarin and Cantonese, her conversation with the audience was in Cantonese. From the warm response, all must have understood Cantonese. In typical Chinese theatre scenes where the audience talked as much as the movie, this one was a silent audience, drinking in every word of Fung Bo Bo. She brought them through her almost 60 years of journey of her life, leading them through her highs and lows, and indeed, she must have gotten the audience reflecting on their times as they followed her along. There weas deep silence as Fung Bo Bo sounded teary and laughters with applause when she brightened up on great memories.

In between, Bo Bo shared her outlook in life and urged her audience to think likewise. "Talk and share your thoughts with your loved ones before they are gone," she urged. She was talking about her godmother, the late Lin Dai, probably better known to the older folks, with whom she lost the opportunity to express her love. Lin Dai had influenced and guided Bo Bo very much.

The return of Fung Bo Bo in this musical show as well as her just released movie on the Wonder Mama (Ma Mi Hak 妈咪侠) has brought back warm memories to the residents of Chinatown, and indeed, the diaspora of Ngau Che Shui. To the many in their autumn years, this must have been something that they did not expect, to see Bo Bo in person again. Some waited to meet her in person and to get her autograph. One man who missed the chance the night before was waiting patiently since before the show to try to meet her. I hope he made it on this evening.

For many of the senior citizens living in Chinatown, and elsewhere, thanks to Fei Zhai with the support of the Singapore Film Society, got to watch Wonder Mama at a special showing in Cantonese at FilmGarde at Bugis+. Thanks to the many friends who paid for the tickets for these senior citizens and their transport to the show.

For these people this must have been, in a way, a very memorable SG50 year for them! Thanks Fei Zhai and his kakis, who also included members of the Cantonese Clan Associations in Chinatown.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Goat has arrived, ahead of schedule

Or so one could say. Many believe that the Chinese zodiac starts on the first day of the Chinese New Year. But it is said that the change of the zodiac starts with Li Chun, the arrival of Spring, which is based on the solar calendar. This year, it is on 4 February 2015. Ah, for the many mothers to be, which animal were they betting for? Horse or Goat?

With the arrival of a new year with a new animal, it keeps the local Chinese economy humming and running. Go to People's Park Complex, and you will see a constant crowd, peering over the shoulders to look at what brings to them in this new year. These days, one does not have to remember. Up came the handphone and each took a picture of the animal that he or she belongs too. And then, it would be the family members as well. Temples are also having such posters for their devotees.

If there is anything that links Singapore Chinatown of today to the past, it must be the street bazaars, offering all kinds of goodies. Gone are the stalls that used to sell the Chinese New Year cards. Most clothing stalls were also gone, not to mention the shoes. I remember when I was young, we hardly buy new clothings or shoes. But for the Chinese New Year, it was a must and hence we kids looked forward to the shopping trip to Chinatown. Even it meant suffocating in the crowd.

What could well be the continuing products could be the melon seeds, groundnuts, Chinese sausages, waxed duck, Yunnan ham. Yes, the Bak Kwa (sweet meat) is like a must and there would be queues for the favourite old signature stalls. Today, you can still see queues. Some things are a must for they are symbolic of one's hopes. Ground Nuts known as Hua Sheng (which could sound like flower growing) could well be one of these.

In the past few years, even wedding glamour photo and dress companies began to appear in the street bazaars. Certainly a great way to catch some out of the crowd.

Dui Lian (Couplets) is not like what it used to be, where the folks would wait patiently to ask the Letter Writer to write some nice phrases for them. There are many ready printed ones available but nothing beats the original writings. This year, I spotted one calligrapher, supposedly from China doing a roaring business. His calligraphy is indeed very nice. With our HDB flats, there's hardly space on the doorway to paste the couplets. Interestingly, I spied and saw our new mainland Chinese neighbour pasting them inside the hall. Putting up the red banner (Ang Chai in Hokkien) over the doorway is also fast diminishing because of the small doorway into the HDB flat. But there are still some who faithfully put them up, very much what they used to do in the old pre-war houses or even attap houses of the old.

Apart from the din and roaring business to encourage folks to buy new things for the home and family members, from curtains to tidbits for the New Year Day guests, each family would also go about preparing for the new year in a quiet way. One of them must be in the wet market where Mum and Grandma would be busy with, stocking up fresh food to cook for Reunion Dinner. But of course, these days, many families opt for Reunion Dinner in the Restaurants. Where once the restaurants would be closed for the Chinese New Year, these days great business opportunities await from CNY eve to the days that follow. Loh Hei (Chinese Raw Fish with a selections of ingredients, each symbolising one great wish and hope) is certainly one of the great attractions. From within the family, it has become a big corporate event where vendors would treat their customers to such a Loh Hei gathering. Within the company, the boss might buy his staff lunch or dinner with Loh Hei. All for a better business!

Ah, but the traditional Grandma prefers to cook at home, cooking the traditional and delicious dishes that Grandpa loves and certainly the grandchildren. More work yes, but the efforts and love put into each dish certainly brings out the glee and smiles of the extended family. What better satisfaction can Grandma get.

In the old days, most families would have the tablets of their departed loved ones and the ancestors at home. On CNY eve, it is one of the moments when the family also remember their departed loved ones.They would cook all the favourite dishes of their departed loved ones and offer to them the way Chinese had done for millennium. In a way, it was good because after the offering, the living ones got to eat the food. These days, many tablets have been placed in temples. While many families still make it a point to go to the temple together to offer their respects to their departed loved ones, it would require immense efforts to cook and to bring the food there. Many still do, carrying the food in tingkat (multi-layer containers).

In many old Chinese clan associations, there is always a small space where members could put the tablets of their departed loved ones. In the days when clan associations were active and supporting many members who came to Singapore alone, this was a favourite space for one to reserve a tablet for the time to come. A number of the tablets are still found to be covered, as is a practice when one is still alive, with now already faded red paper. Probably when the person passed away, no one knew that he or she has already reserved such a tablet in the clan association. Until someone peek into the covered tablet, the story remains untold.

With each new year, the elders in the family would try to keep on to the traditions, dismayed at times with the changing world. A constant struggle as they win some and lose some. While the Chinese New Year might mean more in the old days when the ancestors were living in the country with four seasons and were likely to be farmers, it is still an important tradition that binds the extended families together. And it will repeat itself as each generation begets yet another generation.

To the ageing folks, each new year brings forth memories of the old. Many look back at the difficult times and smile at their more fortunate descendants, quietly noting the outcome of their hard work. Some would subtly remind their descendants to remember the source of the water when they drink. If it makes sense to them.

To borrow the coined wish, Goat Xi Fa Cai. Or my own one, Have a Huat New Year!