Sunday, November 01, 2020

Old Chinatown: Continuing the story of the Charcoal Shop at 41 Temple St

 It is with sadness that I have to report of the passing of Mdm Kok Ying Oi (who was 103 years old) on 3 Oct 2020. I was talking with her son, Robert Chua about her, oblivious to the fact that just a few metres away, around the corner was her Wake.

As there were Covid CB Rules, we understand why the Wake was held low key, considering that she had a rather big extended family.

Our deepest condolences to Robert Chua and the extended family. Will continue to chat with him about the wonderful stories and threads from the Charcoal Shop, 蔡维發.

Saturday, October 03, 2020

Old Chinatown: Continuing the story of the Charcoal Shop at 41 Temple St

Following the previous post on 5 Sep 20 (I insert here as well), thanks to Robert Chua, son of Mdm Kok Ying Oi (who is now 103 years old), he shared with me a link to another video of Mdm Kok in 2013, recorded by irememberSG. Thought to add as I gather more information of the treasure of Chinatown.

An Interview with an Old Charcoal Seller
Nov 10, 2010

Hands: Gift of a Generation -- Mdm Kok Ying Oi
irememberSG Sep 3, 2013

The second video has reviewed more about Mdm Kok's life, the shop and her family. Interesting times and life of those years.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Can you recognise this place?

 [From the karang guni] Thanks to Victor Lim who offered me this photo from the karang guni (the guy who buys any unwanted things) man, as I was very interested in the background of this photo. Of course, the people in this photo must have many stories to tell, but alas, perhaps, one day we might be able to know.

It is amazing how photos got lost and might find their way around. While I do not know the persons in the photo, the photo tells much more about Singapore Chinatown. The lady in the centre, was she an Amah (Majie)? The garden was and still is Hong Lim Park (a historic spot in many ways). And behind them were the famous 9 Storey Flats. At the end facing South Bridge Rd, Victor Lim remembers his father making the stamp (chop) from the stamp makers. I remember my favourite coffeeshop where my kids first learn to appreciate fishball noodles, starting with Bee Chai Mak (Loshifan) to sic-mee (Sou-mian?) to meepok. 

And I understand that one or more of these flats was said to be "popular" spot for suicides! How many untold stories. In yet another block, there were 2 barbershops, said to be manned by ladies. Lady barbers were unheard of in those days.

Do you have more stories to share from this photo?

Saturday, September 05, 2020

Old Chinatown

Thanks to Uncle Foo, I have discovered some great video interviews conducted by the Chinatown Business Association. For the ease to watch, I am linking the videos here. The interview was in Cantonese but there are English subtitles.

An interview with an old Charcoal Seller (shop 蔡维發)

An interview with a Majie

An interview with an old Hawker

An interview with an old Tailor

An interview with an old Resident

Hopefully I can find more such stories and videos of old Chinatown to share. If you know of any, please let me know.

Tuesday, September 03, 2019

7th Month events in Chinatown

In local Chinese tradition in Singapore, the Chinese Lunar 7th Month is also known as the Ghost Month. The Chinese believe that during this month, the ghosts, usually known locally as the "Good Brothers", would come to our world. We would make offerings to these Good Brothers.

7th Month Event at the Chinatown Wet Market

It is also the time when we remember our Ancestors, and so, many families would also make offerings to them, either at home or in the temples where these days many ancestral tablets are placed.

Residential, Factories, offices and businesses would gather to make offerings to the Good Brothers. While it is the belief that we hope that the Good Brothers would help in our work and business, it is also a time when members of the residential, business and even office communities join together for a common event. In the small business communities, it is also a time when they put their business rivalry aside for the common good of the community.

7th Month event at the Chinatown Complex Food Centre

In the Cantonese part of the Singapore Chinatown, it has always been a tradition of the 7th Month event with rituals being conducted by the Cantonese Taoist Priests. With changes in the business community in Chinatown, businesses form into a few groups for their annual 7th Month prayers. Three notable events with Cantonese Taoist Priests are held by the Chinatown Complex Wet Market, the Chinatown Complex Food Centre and the Chinatown Business Association.

7th Month Event at Chinatown Food Street

Following the ritual and prayers, there are usually dinners where participating shops and stalls came together. In such dinners, there are also auctions where participants bid for various items. While these items are of auspicious nature that is deemed to help the bidder with his/her business, the auction also helps to raise funds for the organising of such events.

This year, the Chinatown Business Association (CBA) came up with a short video clip to share more about the 7th Month beliefs and practices in Chinatown.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Remembering Seven Sisters Festival 七姐会

In early days of Singapore, in the Singapore's Chinatown, along the streets of Neil Rd, Kreta Ayer Rd and Keong Saik Rd, from the eve of the 7th Day of the 7th Lunar Month, these few streets would be bustling with activities as various 7 Sisters Festival groups would be preparing their altars and displays. I understand that there were also similar activities as far as Keppel Rd and Sembawang, hearing from people with whom I chatted with.

Today, apart from some in the privacy of their homes, there was no sign of such an event in Singapore. In the 60s right to 80s (I think), they were still visible, albeit, diminishing.

We were all too busy making a living that we did not notice the demise of this once upon a time an important event. With rapid developments, movement of households out of Chinatown, and less workers like the Majie and Samsui Women who probably formed a fairly big group, the festival just disappeared.

While there are still enough people who remember how the festival was held in Singapore, perhaps, it is timely to gather information from them. While documentation of our heritage is important, it would be great if the respective groups like clan associations could revive the festival.

Over time, beliefs and practices will evolve. The 7 Sisters Festival has been observed in Korea and Japan. In Japan it is known as the Tanabata Festival. As it follows the Gregorian Calendar, Tanabata is celebrated on 7th of July each year. For the Chinese, we still stick to the Chinese Lunar Calendar.  How would the 7 Sisters Festival be celebrated, only in the near future will we know.

On 3 Aug 19, a few days before 7-7 (7th Day of the 7th Lunar Month), Singapore Heritage Society, with a few stakeholders will organise a Panel Discussion of "Remembering the 7 Sisters Festival" at the Chinatown Heritage Centre. Registered participants will get to have a taste of what is known as the 7 Sisters Cookie (七姐饼). It would be like old times for the older folks or a new experience for those who have never tried it.

Thanks to Stephanie Ng for allowing me to use her sketch of the 7 Sisters Cookies

Monday, November 12, 2018

Our people, our heritage

Thought it is interesting to share here as we begin to become more aware of our tangible and intangible cultural heritage. Creating awareness is indeed a challenge, and requires much efforts by anyone and everyone interested in preserving/conserving our heritage.

It is indeed heartening that our TV stations are also broadcasting more of our heritage. And not just the buildings or the rituals/ceremonies but the people who are actually documenting them. Documentation can in any form, creative and otherwise. In this first episode by Channel 8's Tuesdays Special (in Chinese), there is this interesting group, the Urban Sketchers, who took to the streets (literally) to immortalise many of our buildings and things like food!

Check it out with the first episode starting tomorrow night at 8pm.

(Click here to watch the trailer)

Friday, October 20, 2017

Move House

For some reasons, I was given a new blogspot and I am still figuring how to put them together.

Until then, for new posts, please go to this site.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Chinese New Year & food

One of the family memories of past Chinese New Years must be the Reunion Dinners. For many of us, greeting the Chinese New Year (CNY) is incomplete without enjoying the delicious traditional family dishes with all in the extended family. There must be many 3G or 4G (4th generation) in each extended family. With the world getting smaller, sometimes, it is tough to get all together. Some members of the family must be somewhere in the other parts of the world.

For many, especially the mothers, working towards the CNY could have started from Winter Solstice. Although one is based on the solar calendar and the other, the lunar calendar, the difference of the number of days between the two events are in matter of days.

Spring cleaning is a ritual in the old days, especially in the old pre-war houses, when the entire community (tenants and landlord) within the house would clean. The date could be set by the landlord, as in our case (and in our case, it was the landlady). Then, mothers started worrying on the thousands of things to do, from ingredients for the grand CNY Eve Reunion to the new clothings for the kids, and yes, new bedding, window and door curtains. And yes, an appropriate to clean the altar for the family Gods. For some tradition, the small shrines for Tian Guan - Heaven Official in the Taoism (most people think as Tian Gong - Jade Emperor) would be changed.

Each family has its own favourite traditional dishes. I was lucky to enjoy the Hokkien dishes from Mum and Cantonese dishes from my (late) mother-in-law. There are possibly some dishes that are common to most families and definitely some unique to each family.

For my Hokkien tradition, our favourites (and these days, the grandchildren would hint and ask Grandma to prepare them) are Kiam Chye Ark (Duck with Pickled Mustard Green Soup), Peppery Pig Stomach with Gingko soup, Deep fried prawns in batter (akin to Tempura), Trotters with Sea Cucumber and a curry dish! There is the ubiquitous Hokkien Noodles (using flat noodles). And yes, there could be steam boat where more ingredients need to be bought before hand, especially the dried ones. Ah, once a year (then and maybe now too), there should be the "Chia Loon" (as the folks would describe it) Abalone from Mexico.

In the old days, it would mean waking up early to slaughter the duck and chicken in preparing for the dishes. These days, one buy freshly slaughtered ducks and chickens from the wet market. In the early days, it also meant going to the wet market to buy chicken and ducks live to bring home and fattened up before the big day. This could be a week or two before. I remember everyone was feeling up the chicken (wondering if they were trying to find how fat or think it is) before buying. I remember that in those days, we have to negotiate with the ducks (which were more noisy) and chicken when going to the toilet, as it was the most convenient place to put them. For little boys, they were always warned to be careful of the ducks (probably worst if it is the goose). How to fatten up the chickens, we kids then believed cockroaches were great meals for them and so we went catching them.

From one, I have to help in the slaughtering of the chicken and duck. It mean either Mum or I will hold the chicken by the head and body, leaving the exposed neck for the kill. Nothing is to be wasted, and so the blood was drained to a bowl to be part of another dish. Alas, these days, we have to travel aboard to enjoy the chicken or duck blood. Defeathering the chicken, and especially the duck, is a tedious process. Hot water was used to enable easier defeathering and as kids, we were tasked to pluck all the fine feathers.

Duck is often for the sea cumber dish but because we were to make offerings to the Gods and Ancestors, like the chicken, it is boiled or steamed. With other dishes, all these have to be completed by late morning so that offering could start, before noon. It is believed that offerings must be made before noon.

In almost every major event, the ancestors are always part of the celebration or commemoration. In this way, we also expressed our thanks to our departed loved ones and ancestors, for without them, we won't be here. In current times, many of the ancestral tablets have been moved to temples and so, there would be the additional time to bring the food to the temple.

Lunch would be simple and most work remained to be done, and in Grandma's home, she will wait for all her children, grand-children, and in many cases, great-grand-children to come for dinner. Dinner becomes a noisy affair as family members catch up with updates. For some, it could be "introduction" or re-introductions of the newly added family members. It is always a challenge for the newly weds to see how they could now join two Reunion Dinners. By tradition and custom, the daughter-in-law is expected to be at the reunion dinner on CNY eve. And so some compromises have to be in place, early dinner in one? These days, one can hear one having reunion dinners as early as one week before CNY! Some families opt for reunion dinners in the restaurants, especially those who are working. Save one from the tedious task of preparing and, worst, cleaning up.

In the old days, Grandma not only think about the reunion dinner dishes. She probably tried to make some traditional cakes as well. And yes, the tidbits for the New Year Day for the visitors. For the Hokkiens, the traditional cakes, made by steaming after much hard beating of the dough, are the Kuey Nern Ko (Egg cakes), Huat Kueh (cake with yeast) and Ti Kueh (sweet cake, more commonly known these days as Nian Gao). In preparing the Huat Kueh, grandma was very pantang (in Malay meaning superstitious in the most liberal translation but not actually so) that no one make remarks such as whether the cakes would form properly. Kids love to ask all kinds of questions, especially challenging ones such as "what if .. "

Come New Year day, usually, there is almost no cooking. For most, the food left over would be eaten, and to many, they taste even better. I love my overnight Kiam Chye Ark. It has become a tradition in our extended family to have Mee-Sua with chicken.

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.