Friday, June 03, 2016

Cloth or clothes

In the old days, months before the Chinese New Year, the then Chin Choo Pa Sat (the original People's Park before the current People's Park Complex) would be abuzz with the ladies going to pick up their favourite cloth to make clothes for the new year. After the fire, the stalls selling the cloth shifted to the new Chin Choo Pa Sat (as it is still known today). It is now known in English as People's Park.

I was only introduced to this trade when I met my wife, then, my girl friend. By that time, my mother-in-law to be was having her shop at the new HDB built Chin Choo Pat Sat (People's Park, which I call the Old People's Park to differentiate from the People's Park Complete and the People's Park Centre. How confusing can it be. On the second storey, it was literally rows of shops selling cloth. Must have been a delight to the ladies. In those days, the customers as well as the stallholders would have to sharpen their skills to get into battle of bargaining.

The medium of communication must have been mainly Cantonese as I remember, although I have met Teochews who could literally switch from one language to the other, adding in the flowery words in between without any pause. And indeed, one has to be careful when shopping. Don't get into serious bargain when you don't have the intention to buy, especially when the shop is just open. The first sale must be successful or the whole day would be ruined. Superstition? Perhaps. But certainly it would drain the mood away. For the skilful customers, it would be the best time to extract the best deal as the shopowner would want to succeed in that deal, even if it mean less profit.

The opening price and the agreed price can be at big extremes as the veteran shoppers will tell you. It is still happening in Nanyang! And if you were to reduce the asking price by 50%, and after a few lukewarm attempt, the shopowner agreed to sell you, you could have come away feeling that you have had it! :)

Looking from behind the front of the shop, I could understand why the asking price would be high. When these retailer bought the cloth from the wholesaler, they usually come in 5 colours of the same pattern. Out of these 5 colours, they would be lucky if two colours could sell, and not the other three. So, the shopowner had to balance to see how to recover costs, not to talk about profit.

In the much earlier days, there would be the black cloth (satin? silk? or what one in Hokkien called Kong Tuan) which would be favourite of the ladies to make pants. We were talking about ladies reaching 40 considering such less than colourful wear. In a way, maybe, when one moved towards being a granny, that's the shade of colours one would start trending towards. And there were the Majie who would be wearing such colours too.

For the younger ones, there would be the bright and colourful ones. More popular cloth would probably have come from Japan, mainly the synthetic ones.

Those were also the days when guys would buy cloth to make shirts. I was lucky to get cloth at no cost to make shirts. No thoughts of advertisements in those days.

Dating days also meant helping to man the shop. I was no good in doing sales. First, it is mainly in Cantonese. I am not good enough to chat, not to mention doing the to-ing and fro-ing in a match of patience and art of war. One has to convince the other, giving some technical knowledge on why this particular cloth was more costly, the made, and latest technologies. And so, I offered to do more of the closing of the shop at the end of the day. This is a man's shop, putting plank and plank that together covered up the shop front, leaving one space for the door. But hey, my mother-in-law did it on her own too, when we were not around, most of the time. Young people could be held down sitting in front of the shop and "king-gai" (chit chat).

The more tedious part must be the annual cleaning. This would happen like one or two weeks before the Chinese New Year. By then, no one would be buying any cloth as it would be too late to have it made in time for the new year. This would be the time when all the shops started closing down, cleaning the place and throwing away many things, most of the which could be the empty cloth paper roll. Cobwebs, dust and soot .. it would take a whole day to clean. And then, it would be closed for a good week or two, waiting for the auspicious day to start the new year's business.

My adventure with the cloth business ended when my Mother-in-Law passed on.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Reminisce: Growing up in Chinatown

To be exact, growing up in Tng Tiam Hung, the Hokkien name for Craig Road. And for us youngters, so long we could "pa pa chao" - running around in Hokkien, we were gone, only to be back during meal times. And so, our playground grew bigger and wider as we grew older, and bolder. Oblivious to the dangers of traffic and gangsters (read also as secret society members), we went everywhere, well, almost. Certain streets are not meant to be entered and so, we didn't.

Now, as memories grew dimmer in the mind, I thought I should enlist former residents (and even current residents) of greater Chinatown, known as Tua Po, to share more of your experiences. Each of us has our own and we treasure them. I guess some would be private and others public.

Like, when we were young, sitting on the steps from the main doorway of where we lived, we would tease the girls as they passed by, on the way to school. One day, many years later, I was to be introduced to one girl in a colleague's house! Aha, so that was you?? Well, vaguely, as we have grown out of our cocoons, and could not really recognise each other.

Come 29Apr16 at 7pm, I hope to share more, and well, gather more from anyone keen to come along to Grassroots Book Room to talk about the old times (our young times). A number of the old places are gone and so, we will need other triggers to get that segment of our memory back.

Check out more about the Heritagefest. There are also many interesting tales of the old.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Farewell to yet another kopi tiam ...

It takes us a while to discover a place where we would feel comfortable enough to decide that that would be our "watering hole". A place to sit, have a cuppa, and watch the world goes by. And yes, the occasional (or even often) chance meeting of friends, neighbours or "comrades in crime", people of all kinds whom we would meet.

Identifying such a place takes take, adopting it takes even a longer time. More often than not, it is always an introduction and recommendation. A little far away from the maddening crowd would be ideal. And then, how about the boss and his/her staff. Would they be flexible enough to accept the idiosyncrasies of people like us? 

If we were to take time to find, adapt and adopt, imagine the challenges of anyone who wants to start a small kopi tiam from scratch. A franchise only helps that much to kick start. The rest is up to the owner. And so, it took Good Morning Nanyang Cafe at Pagoda St some 4 years to build up the business, where other than tourists or the occasional visitor from out of town, every face was a familiar face. The boss becomes the conduit to share messages and telling friends of friends if they had been to the cafe lately or only minutes ago. The traditional and certainly better way than the facebook alerting you of a friend nearby.

We thought we have found our ideal place where we could go and have a cuppa kopi (great kopi he makes), relax and enjoy the crowd. Observing how the tourists looked at the pictures hung from the project "Picturing Chinatown" which became a topic of discussion. Locals too. I loved to share with the out of state friends about project Chinatown. Here was a good start. 

That 4 years quickly came to an end on 26 Feb 2016. Regulars who knew came to have their last cuppa and wished the boss the best of luck in his search for the next space. A space that would be challenging to find where a watering hole could be established. A place where relationships are built and grown, a common sharing of the bigger space around it. No, the money spinners are going to make more money, oblivious to the more lofty hopes and ambitions. A sad moment as a staff bade the boss farewell, thanking him for taking care of her in the past 4 hours. How many grateful and loyal staff can you find? How many great bosses can you find. Working in a kopi tiam needs long hours and the ability to interact with different customers, old and new, flexible and demanding, and in this case, from different cultures which need gentle introduction and education. To enjoy the wonderful Nanyang kopi, uniquely in Nanyang, and yes, the half boiled eggs that you thought the Chinese would know? Nanyang ones again? :)

Come Monday, many more regulars might came in for a shock if they have had not heard about it. Many young and old Thai tourists would be disappointed as this seemingly hard to find kopi tiam was featured in their guide books.

Accepting the rush of the tides, rising or ebbing, we could only sat there till the official closing time, and still reluctant to leave. But the time had come, and with heavy hearts and great memories of the past, we bade the good folks of Good Morning Nanyang Cafe at Pagoda St goodbye and hoping to see them again. Would there be a re-incarnation? Only time will tell.

Friday, February 05, 2016

The Monkey has arrived on 4 Feb 2016 at 1756H

And so it is said. When it comes to the Chinese New Year, there is always the confusion when the new Chinese zodiac takes over. Mostly, the old folks will take the first day of the Chinese New Year as the beginning of the new Chinese zodiac.

An interesting situation appears when one declares that he or she, his or her child is born in the year of a particular zodiac. In some years, the Chinese Lunar New Year comes ahead of Li Chun 立春, one of the 24 solar terms (following the solar calendar, akin to the Gregorian calendar, plus or minus one day I was told), it could be a Lunar New Year of the same old zodiac, until 4 (or 5) February. Imagine if one wants to avoid a Tiger baby :). On other years, Li Chun could be ahead of the Chinese Lunar New Year, as it is like this year. And so, what if a baby is born today? Goat or Monkey? But does it matter? :) These days, there are many baby born through caesarian.

And so, as we learn more about our Chinese culture and heritage, we get more confused. There will be confusion before clarify.

Anyway, the Monkey has arrived. Other than the pig, probably the Monkey stands tall (don't talk about the Dragon) in the Chinese story based on the Journey to the West. What better way to welcome the new year than revisiting the Journey to the West. And so, the Chinatown Chinese New Year lightup came with the theme of Journey to the West. A story that probably almost every Chinese would know, in one way of the other. In the old days, it was the Chinese comics. And there was the classic, not to mention the countless movies on different parts of the Journey to the West. And there are animations, which have lasting memories on the kids. Leave to the adults to debate on the stories behind the story.

And with the traditional local Chinese folk belief, they will celebrate the birthday of the Monkey God, respectfully known as the Great Sage or Da Sheng 大圣, on the 15th or 16th day of the First Lunar Month. From big temples dedicated to the Great Sage to small shrines, there will be celebrations. One of the oldest, if not the oldest Monkey God temple, must be the Qi Tian Gong 齐天宮 in Eng Hoon Street, Tiong Bahru. It has an interesting history with delightful stories shared by the son of the first spirit medium of this temple, See Qi Tian Gong story.

The other old temple dedicated to the Great Sage must be the Bao An Gong 保安宮 (Poh Ann Keng), originally from a shophouse along Peck Seah Street. It was one of the few important temples in that there was also a spirit medium, and the temple serves as a one-stop place of consultation for the folks who lived in and around Tanjong Pagar as well as anywhere else in Singapore. The early devotees of the Great Sage consisted of a big population of Peranakans. You can see house altars dedicated to the Monkey God with a unique inverted bulb-shape tube. I am wondering if this tube was specially built for the Monkey God.

For the traditional businesses, what better ways to generate new products come each Chinese New Year. These days, when toys are at affordable prices, or most people can afford them, stuff toys of monkeys of various shapes and sizes appear. Some of them defy identification of any living species. Probably like the Monkey God, would anyone know of his association with any species? Maybe. :)

Each year, we welcome a new year with hope and enthusiasm. The new grandparents hope to see grandchildren. Their children might not be enthusiastic but might be changing their minds. But for sure, they might not hit the replacement rate. Where there's hopes, there's possibilities.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

What is a bowl of Yong Tow Foo?

Indeed, what is a bowl of Yong Tow Foo? One might like it, others might not. So what is it that one so likes it whereas the other might not?

I was in this long queue for this, what I call the 1pm Yong Tow Foo as they only open for business at 1pm or thereafter, sometimes, 5 to 10 minutes late, when an lady rushed up to queue behind me. More out of curiosity as this was her first time! She said that her hairdresser told her about it. Being curious, she decided to see it is was really that good. Being something like 60 people behind (and chances are each person is not going to order just one bowl), there must be something to it. She asked how was it. I said, "very good", almost in unison with another lady who was sitting by the table near by who said, "not so good." She quickly added, to each his/her taste, in Mandarin.

I asked the lady some 60 people later how was it. She said, "OK lah, the soup is less oily,"probably indicating the positive part. :)

A couple of weeks ago, a friend called to say that she was in Chinatown and if I would like to go for lunch. She mentioned one Yong Tow Foo stall that she has been trying to eat from, but each time she was too late. "OK, I queue first," I volunteered while she went to do her errand. Being away from Singapore for the past 30 years, she has become a stranger in Singapore, or Singapore has become a strange place to her. She couldn't find me! Ah, there's the handphone to guide her.

And why this Yong Tow Foo? Well, when she was 9 years old, her late mother brought her here to have the Yong Tow Foo. Since then, it has remained in her mind, and each time when she came back, she would try to come to eat again. But she was not to be until this day. The queue was long, but it was good for us because we could chat about old times. That was how I learnt why she wanted to have this Yong Tow Foo. It brought back many memories of the times when she was with her Mum. Ah, the taste, the smell and even the chilli made a difference. Does it taste as good? It depends on your first time, I suppose. And subsequent times.

This stall would start early in the morning to prepare the pieces of Yong Tow Foo, putting the minced fish meat as fillings into the respective items such as tofu or the beancurd skins. It is laborious work. And then, there was the soup to be prepared. So, unless, all the various aspects of this somewhat simple looking dish are in place, they will not start selling. Queues would form before 1pm. By the time they open for business, there would be a swell of easily 50-60 people. Some passer-bys would look in disbelief, probably wondering if it was worth the queue in this humid and warm place. Ah, there are probably two areas where Singaporeans would queue patiently - FOOD and 4D. :)

Once the operation starts, it is very efficient. There are like 4-5 persons taking orders and serving them. If you are going to tabao (take away), the person serving you will ask you to stand in another queue for takeaway. But if you want to eat and tabao, well, they will take your orders and serve you first. In some cases, like you are going to tabao for 2, they have it pre-packed! If you are going to eat, they will ask you to give your table number, pay them, and they will serve you. If you are alone, you will have to try to find a spot nearby. Unless, you have a tissue pack or umbrella to "chope" (reserve) a place. Usually, there is always a place for singles. At S$4 per bowl (standard for 10 pieces), it is just nice for afternoon meal.

My friend who has missed this so many times became kiasu. She ordered 3 bowls to be shared by us, meaning each of us would have something like 15 pieces, and tabao another 2 bowls to bring back! I am certainly, it was a fulfilling meal. I must ask her what memories came flooding back.

For those who came to tabao, some not within Chinatown (I found an ex-colleague who came all the way her to buy), they would also bring their pots (the typical enamel pots) for the soup. This Yong Tow Foo must be eaten with the super hot soup! :)

So, a bowl of Yong Tow Foo, or for that matter, any simple dish or bowl of food, is more than what it looks or tastes. It contains a reflection of one's past - especially the spider-web of experiences of joy and pain. Ah well, it could be just a bowl of wonderful food to fill the tummy. :)