Tuesday, February 06, 2024

Welcoming the new Lunar Year of the Dragon

 A new year, a new hope, a new aspirations. Singapore Chinatown is revving up with meeting the new Chinese New Year of the Dragon with sales of lots of goodies.

This CNY video kind of give that spirit!

Happy and Healthy New Year!


Ack: Tao One

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Traditional Bak Kut Teh in Maxwell Food Centre

A quick translation of the text, thanks to Nicole:
Singapore has lower prices and transportation costs than Japan. This time, with a budget of 50 Singapore dollars, went to Chinatown, a city built by pioneers in this country.
At Maxwell Hawker Centre.

 In the old days, Bak Kut Teh (Rou Gu Cha) could be found along the streets by hawkers, mainly on push carts and later in coffeeshops. When Singapore underwent massive urban renewal, these hawkers and even the stalls in the coffeeshops were offered locations in the hawker centres to continue their business. Gone were the luxuries (to some) where hawkers would be pushing their carts right to one's front door and one could order and even collect the food by lowering a basket from the upper storey.

Nanjing Road Bak Kut Teh has an interesting history. Old Auntie at Maxwell Food Centre was telling us how when the Bak Kut Teh stall at Nankin St was giving up, the boss offered her to take over. And she brought it to Maxwell Food Centre in 1989.

Thanks to Yan Chen who shared with me this photo, it showed what Nanjing Bak Kut Teh stall was like when it started business at Maxwell Food Centre. Auntie was sharing with us how the loyal customers followed from Nankin Street to Maxwell Food Centre, Towkays and Coolies. New customers came. In the early days of many constructions around Maxwell Food Centre area, the Construction Towkays, Kapala (supervisors) and coolies also came to enjoy Bak Kut Teh, a source of protein and energies for the perspiration draining work in the hot sun.

When Maxwell Food Centre underwent major renovation, the stalls became bigger and the space was more hygienic. Progressing till today, there were also proper arrangements by NEA (National Enviroment Agency) to ensure cleanliness of the food centre. Latest regulations require patrons to return the used crockery to the "tray station".

The current stall

It was in Maxwell Food Centre that Auntie added a variety of side dishes to the main Bak Kut Teh. Now you can get pickled vegetables and boiled peanuts. There were also the pig trotters and innards (we call them spare parts) of kidney and liver, one of the best, if not the best one in town. Auntie is very meticulous in ensure that they are properly cleaned before cooking. And the formula for the soup, it is a "trade secret" (the expert might be able to sus out the possible ingredients). It has been the same ever since she started the business. She is very loyal to the original recipe and taste and so she does not change the supplier nor the ingredients. Because the ingredients used are organic, there will be changes in taste over time, depending on the farm environment. So far, it has not deviated much, according to old timers.

Kidney & Liver Soup

Bak Kut (pork bones)

We were also discussing on the boiling of the Bak Kut with gas fire and charcoal fire. It has long been  discussions with those who enjoyed traditional Chinese cooking using wood fire, charcoal fire, gas fire and now electric! The taste of the meat, its tenderness is different with different heat. Something to learn more from Auntie.

The Chinese gongfu tea is synonymous with Bak Kut Teh. Previously there were portable (moveable) gas-stoves (earlier charcoal stove) for boiling water to brew the tea by the patrons. The tea leaves are mostly from Pek Sin Choon, a tea company that started business in Singapore since 1925, who has blended the Nanyang Tea for Bak Kut Teh. Despite not being allowed to have the stoves any more, the stall provides hot water from a main boiler. It is a little problematic in that one has to go often to refill the teapot with hot water. But at least, one still could enjoy Nanyang Tea with Bak Kut Teh.

Bak Kut + Teh

Many of Auntie's old customers have "gone home". While there are still new customers, including many expatriates (from USA and Europe to Japan and Korea) and tourists (during pre-covid), the next question would be whether there is anyone who could take over and follow faithfully Auntie's recipe? An intangible cultural heritage that could disappear, especially with the old taste. Bak Kut Teh will evolve, and the taste will change over time, in various ways, the innovation of the sellers, and in another the demands of the patrons. Will there be anyone willing and wanting to have the old taste?

Enjoy this old taste while you can!

#bakuteh #bakkutteh  #nanyangtea

Saturday, October 30, 2021

The faithful old bamboo ladder

 If you walk along the streets of old Chinatown of Singapore, where shops are still thriving till this day, you might spot some gems of the past. This bamboo ladder was built to last. Still looks good.

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)