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Sunday, July 31, 2011

First Blood

I believe no childhood ever goes by without some sort of trauma or injury. In my case, my trauma came quite often from being caned by my dad and mom. It was quite common back then for children to be caned - slapped even, and not just by parents but teachers as well.

We got caned for a number of reasons - not all serious. We got caned for refusing to eat. We got caned for wanting a toy too much. And we got caned for fighting amongst us siblings. Some of us even got caned for not scoring 1st place again in the final exams. Life was such then.

Although my mom and dad were both stern disciplinarians and wielded the cane with equal dexterity, it was my dad who carried it a notch higher. Somehow, the pains from his canings were redder and lasted longer. He also liked to slap us boys up the back of our heads, something my mom detested. What if they become stupid, she reprimanded my dad.

Fortunately, none of these punishments became injurious. And I don't think my brother and I have become stupid. For being naive, there's no cure. For that, I could blame my dad or mom!

Cycling is a great hobby of mine and wherever I moved to, the first thing I would buy is a bicycle. I've never had an accident except that one time when they were burying president Benjamin Sheares. I nearly followed him to the grave! I was riding home after watching his funeral proceedings near Kranji when a pickup came and swiped me from behind. Fortunately, aside from grazes and a sprained back, nothing serious came out of it. I counted myself lucky because we were at a bend. If it had been a straight hit, I would have been in a different place and saying, "Hi Ben Sir, I've always liked that photo of you and your wife hanging in my school's General Office!". My bike wasn't totaled but mangled a little like me. Still, I felt bad because I was riding my brother's favourite bicycle at the time. Looking back, perhaps that "Sheares incident" could be counted as my second biking incident. The first happened while I was out cycling again in the backlanes of Geylang.

When the backlanes of my block became disused sanitation-wise, a stone square plinth was erected at each entrance to prevent cars and other large vehicles from driving in. The plinth, like many others, was pointy at the top. It was about a metre high and flanked by two knee-high, short stone walls that prevented people from falling into the drains beside it. People often treated these low stone walls as seats. My elder sister did; I wished she hadn't. The material of the plinth was made of some rough sandy material that was epoxied together. I think that made my injury worse. (Epoxied sand is making comeback as a flooring. It's almost 1/3 the cost of most flooring types!)

That fateful day I was cycling into the lane and she was sitting there with her skate scooter stretched out. (I use the term 'skate scooter' - a modern term. But I think you know what I mean. The type of scooter popular back than was a three-wheeled type made from iron.) For some reason, instead of pulling it out of the way, my sister pushed her scooter out as I was passing her. This made me fly out of my bike to land squarely on the plinth. My chin split and blood poured out.

There was a frantic shout towards my house above for my mom to come quickly. I knew my jaw hurt but I didn't know what the fuss was all about. Only after my mom came and cupped my chin in her handkerchief that I then realised the seriousness of it all: Her hanky was soaked in blood. As she and my dad escorted me back, I kept wondering if I would spill out even more blood. I also wondered rather stupidly about the spiders in that staircase landing.

For some reason, we did not end up at Phang Clinic, whose physician was our family's adopted doctor. I ended up at the dentist's. I think my parents thought I might have had some teeth or jaw broken.

Fortunately, there was none of that. I suffered a big gash on my chin which surprisingly did not require any stitching. The doctor simply put a plaster on and sent me home. A plaster? I was quite indignant after losing all that blood!

Later I would learn that he had used a special kind of surgical tape, something doctors use even today in lieu of stitching. It aids in recovery and leaves a smaller scar. I felt better after that that the doctor had used something new and advanced. It was kind of sci-fi-ey special. Because the wound healed faster, I didn't have to wear that silly bandage under my chin for very long. It was inconvenient and rather embarrassing. I have had enough of aunties rubbing my hair going "Oh, you poor thang!"

Another serious injury occurred while me and my buddies were out playing football in a neighbourhood school field (Geylang English Primary). The ball had rolled to one big tree and rested there. I ran over and decided to give it a big whack to send it back to the middle of the field. A BIG WHACK. I imagined the ball sailing high, glorious in the sun, people cheering ecstatically. But that beautiful playback stopped abruptly as I crumpled to the ground clutching my foot going "Ow, ow, ow!" I had whacked not the ball but a good part of a giant tree root!

Needless to say, that big toe became sorely bruised. It turned ugly and the nail eventually dropped off. Looking at the now nail-less, blue and black toe, I worried about gangrene. But my toe still had sensitivity, so I just let it heal. Before long I was back at football once more. As an active kid, you sometimes just let these things slide off your back like water on oil.

Another foot injury happened to my friend Meng in that same football field. This time, it was more serious. He had stepped on a piece of broken glass and the sole of his foot was cut wide open. We must have been older then because we did not panic. We bandaged it up as best as we could with our hankherchiefs (isn't it great we got handkerchiefs back then?) and then rushed him on bicycle back home. Fortunately, it was but only two lorongs away. We helped him up the stairs and handed him over to his family. They were quite calm about it and did not scold either of us kids (which was a relief!) I remember his family drove a Ford Escort (the one that looks like a coupe), so he must have gotten to the hospital real quick. The car was sky blue. His family was into garment making and when you visited him, you could always hear electric sewing machines whirring.

This football field we always played at belonged to a primary school. It's rather quaint in that it consisted mostly of single storey classrooms made of slatted wood siding and had glass louvered windows. I am not sure if there are many of such schools left still. It was an English school for a long time and then became a Malay sekolah. It's between Lor 21 and Lor 23 and sandwiched by Sims Avenue and Geylang Road. It is still there but the premises have already been taken over by social enterprises (a thrift shop) and auto companies. In the field now stand a huge hangar. That's rather sad, I think. It has completely changed the character of the place. I hope they don't ruin it further beyond recognition.

They say accidents maketh a man stronger. I think the same applies to boys.

We were out again at that field playing, this time with our bikes. We had made an earth ramp and were trying to outdo each another by jumping higher and further. When my turn came, I took off quite nicely but landed quite hard. So hard that it positively bent the banana seat of my bike. Needless to say, the part that did the bending was pretty sore. I thought my bollocks had burst! Would my non-existent hernia come back? So, it was another round of worry about medical conditions. I think I had more worry keeping it from my mom and dad. Who'd want another round of caning?

When you get hit there (the manly regions, so to speak) it is quite difficult to walk straight. Somehow, I even managed that and mom and dad never found out about my ambitions to become a daredevil. But there was no fooling my mom when I got bit by an Alsatian dog. I had to let on eventually because I was worried sick about becoming a frothing, water-hating rabid zombie. Besides the chin scar, the thickened toe nail (that's how they will grow back) and that pair of puncture holes on my butt, I don't have any more bodily souvenirs from my childhood. Maybe that is for the best!

Next story: Being Miss Muffet

A Mama Friend


Sundays at home during my childhood were often spent watching English football with my dad, followed by an afternoon matinee. I remember watching many Indian movies as well. I am not sure why. I think it is because the stories were usually quite easy to follow for a kid: Good Guy versus Bad Guy; Good Guy Saves Village; Good Guy Gets The Girl; Comedic Sidekick Leads Village In Celebration. And of course, the courtship dance around some tree.

When my dad watched football, he would be in his singlet and shorts slumped on the sofa end-to-end as if it were a day bed. Sofas in those days were not soft and fluffy; they were metal structures with long vinly cushion seats and backrests. They had wooden arm rests as well.

Our sofa seat had colorful geometric patterns like those found on bags from Zazzle. Two small pieces of formica wood screwed to the frame acted as armrests (a prime example of 1960s furniture) Often, during these afternoon TV sessions, my dad would send me to the provision shop downstairs to buy Guinness stout to enjoy along with his football. He would get me to buy those Rothman and Benson "555" cigarettes too! - Oftentimes in loose ones from a tin.

On some Sundays, I would sneak away to a mama shop located at the end of a row of terrace houses diagonally across ours. The shop was also at the entrance to Sar Kong, an industrial area. Passing vehicles would often stop by to pick up a newspaper or a pack of cigarettes. The shop was also beside a four-storey Chinese primary school, so there were always students there before-and-after school. But because I usually go there on weekends, it was quieter. I would pitch in to help replenish stores for the following week.

One such main activity involved sealing small packets of kiam sirn tee (Hokkien for sweet/sour tibits) with a candle. We would put a little tidbit into a tiny plastic bag, fold the top over a little to form a crease, and then run the crease against a flame. The plastic melts to form a seal. Besides kiam sirn tee, we also sealed packets of kuti kuti and sugar coated candies of many colours.

Kuti kuti was both a game and a thing. As a thing, they were tiny little plastic creatures (animals typically). As a game, you knocked them against one another with your knuckles to see who'd win. It's played on a flat surface and usually starts off about a hand distance away. Then you nudge the creatures closer and closer to one another. Eventually you take that leap of faith to see if you could send your creature onto the other one. If you do, you win.

As kids we often looked out for kuti kuti that had a whipped-up tail. Or any feature that would give an advantage for a win!

The mama he also sold a kuti kuti that was a favourite of mine. It came in the shape of a 'G' (without the horizontal dash, ends knobbed). What this does is you can actually link the kuti kuti up to form a chain. The more you win, the longer the chain is. It was a source of pride to have a long chain of this kuti kuti sticking out of your shorts pocket or one that hung around your neck.

By Primary Six, I had such a long chain of this that it fitted into a shuttlecock tube and then some. It was my precious thing. But I gave this away to a good friend in secondary school when he went away to study in the UK. I've lost touch with this good friend and still wonder if he understood the significance of that gesture. I heard he got into drugs and was jailed. Maybe that's the reason why he never wrote.

My reward for helping to seal the kiam sirn tee was free-play of tikam tikam. In this game, you pay a small sum (5/10 cents) to peel off a piece of paper from a vanguard board. Unfold this tiny slip, then match the number to the one on the board. If it's there, you'll get a prize. Sometimes you get money. It's a game of luck or chance, why when people say "It's tikam tikam!", they usually mean a 50-50 chance of something coming true. Or that an action had a 50-50 chance of success. I believe "tikam" still means gambling in Malay.

Many games and kids paraphernalia in those days came stapled on a vanguard sheet. Stamps, stickers, toys with sweets, etc. If you wanted something, you just rip it off the sheet. One particular toy was this wheel that you would spin holding a looped string between the middle finger of each hand. This loop passed through the wheel via two pin holes. When you pull on the loop after swinging it around a few times under your chin, the wheel spins. You 'fought' one another with this. The one that breaks is the loser. I couldn't care much about the toy but I liked the sweet that came with it. It was a short paper tube with colored ends. Inside was filled sweetened coconut shavings. You tear one end and have a shot (like in drinking whiskey). It was very flavourful and very addictive!

This mama shop was not really a shop. It's more like a 5-foot way stall with its cupboard of wares set into the wall. The cupboard was often large and glass panelled so you could see the sort of wares the mama was selling - typically sundry goods like talcum powder, razors, etc. Or medicines like Sloan's Liniment, Tiger Balm and Axe-brand Headache Oil. By the way, "mama" was how we used to address Indians. For Singhs, we'd call them Bayi (pronounced ba-yee). A game we used to play whenever a Bayi passed by was "Bayi What Color?" This was in reference to the turban he wore. If you didn't respond quick enough, you would get pinched. Sometimes you get even because a Bayi happened to come by in the other direction!

Besides the cupboard, this mama shop also had low trays of sweets and kiam sirn tee laid out in front. Sweets were often sold in glass or plastic jars. In those days, five or ten cents would get you a handful of sweets. The popular ones were Hacks or Hudson. As a mama helper, I often had free helpings of tidbits.

On the other side of the shop, hanging from a nylon string strung between two pillars and shaded from the sun were the toys and games. There was also a low long board set up between two trestles that we used as a sort of a work space. It was here that we sealed and packed the kiam sirn tee.

The mama in question was a tall skinny man. He had a gaunt kindly face that smiled often, no doubt from welcoming too many children to his sweets haven. Like many Indians then, he wore a white sarong. For a top, it was a short-sleeved shirt with a pocket. He reminded me of Indian barbers at those quintessential Indian barber shops: Always smelling nice and dressed crisply.

At night, this mama would stow his store wares into cupboards beneath the glass panels. Then he would board it all up with long planks that slotted nicely sideways with one another. Some of these planks had a rung through which a long iron rod could be run. This had a swivel latch at the end that was secured by a padlock.

When it came time to retire, he would climb his ladder into the alcove above. This is actually quite common at the time. Alcoves above 5-foot ways could be rented. His obviously came with the shop. For security, he would pull up his ladder as well. I noticed he also had a square peephole that was normally covered in the daytime. With this he could spy on the goings-on along the five-foot way while safely ensconced in his 'home'.

I did not speak Tamil nor the mama Chinese... but we got on fine. One time, he even showed me the letters he wrote home. I was very touched.

Over the years, I would drop by whenever I felt nostalgic. He would smile his pearly smile, shake my hand and give me a bar of Van Houten chocolate for old times sake. But because we couldn't speak with one another it got rather awkward after a while. Like a sand dune being slowly whittled away, the area around Sar Kong similarly changed. The children disappeared when the primary school became defunct. I can imagine the drop in income for this mama gentleman because of that. However, one day, his shop simply disappeared.

That was a bad sign indeed. It marked the peak of the many changes that had taken place along Sims Avenue since I moved away. I knew then that my hometown would never, ever be the same again. The place where I had spent many a languid Sunday sealing kiam sirn tee, buying razors for my dad, playing tikam-tikam, helping sell single-stick cigarettes from a 555 round tin, watching boys play basketball in the school next door, etc. would only be a distant memory. Only green painted-over boards are any indication that a kindly Indian gentleman ever lived there.

Next story: First Blood


Thursday, July 28, 2011

An Open Affair


Sometimes the design of the house you live in can give you some twists and surprises.

My home in Geylang was a third floor apartment in a terrace block along Sims Avenue. It had a living room, a smaller dining area and a longish kitchen that was opened on one side. This airy kitchen faced a neighbor who had the same but mirrored floor plan, hence you could look into their home and see what they are up to and vice-versa. Such an open kitchen is of course at the mercy of inclement weather, so many families back then would install bamboo blinds. These blinds would be let down in the evenings as night drew near.

The open kitchens were not far apart. You could actually have a conversation with your opposite neighbor, which my mom often did, her voice echoing in the space in-between. Usually the conversation was nothing too personal: how the children were doing, what they were up to, etc., and who just came to visit. Friendly neighbors often strung up a pulley basket between themselves to exchange stuff or return a favor like sharing sugar or salt.  We did the same with our opposite neighbor via some pulleys and a green nylon rope.

Such neighborliness was also extended to the shop neighbors downstairs. We would call down or they would shout up. This often happened when hawkers dropped by. The food items would be placed in a basket and then hauled up. For a kid, it's a priceless activity. I'd always imagine myself as a pirate or some adventurer pulling up treasure from the deepest oceans or the most cavernous canyons.
Another imagination was as Tarzan bringing up stuff to his tree house. Tarzan was a popular TV action character at the time. We would imitate his crocodile rolling antics with our parent's bolsters and stab them with our imaginary daggers.

But having an open kitchen can be hazardous. I have two younger siblings and mom would always remind me to watch them so they didn't fall over the ledge. Our aquarium fishes were not so lucky. We had a large tank on the parapet (supported by angle irons) into which we kept popular pet fishes like swordtails, guppies, algae suckers and angel fishes. We also had two lovely catfish-like fellas. One day, one of them got so stressed by the pigeons that visit that it actually leapt out of the tank and onto our shop neighbor's zinc rooftop below. This despite us having put up a chicken wire mesh over the tank to protect them.

We could do nothing for the poor fish except watch it die and shrivel up like kiam hur (salted fish) as it lay simmering on the shiny hot zinc roof. To this day, I often wonder why the pigeons never picked that poor fella up. Maybe they felt guilty or no one wanted to take the rap. Sad to say, as our fish collection grew more fish jumped. That patch of the roof became our version of Stephen King's pet semetary.

The backyards of the shops below sometimes had a roof. Some of them, like my Ken-Ken snacks neighbor, had a slide-able one. On good days, they would open it up. On wet days, they would of course have it shut. In this way, they had the use of their backyards 24/7.

I prefer that they remained open because I liked observing their activity from above. It could be because of the toilet at the rear. Many a times I could see the old uncle from the g cheong fun shop below exit the toilet and pull up his draw-strings pants. They were striped white and blue - the kind fashionable with the ah peks in those days. Coming out of the toilet, he often scratched his balls sending me and my sisters into giggles.

The other feature of the house was a spiral staircase that led into a backlane. But before it did, it came into a landing that was also a small room (cellar more like). Sometimes this cellar would be roofed - at times not. It was a common area so how it got transformed depended on what the neighbors agreed upon. Some used it as a storeroom. Ours was only partially covered and so exposed to the elements. The floor was often damp and that resulted in green algae. The algae climbed up the walls as well. It's no wonder that the whole place stank like a filthy fish tank.

Me and my siblings often worried about the spiders, cockroaches and what-nots that lived in the shadows of that dank place. We might run down the stairs but we would always slow down warily just before we reached the bottom landing. We wouldn't want to awaken those nasties behind the staircase and have them crawl out and assault us. Once we reached the last step, we would bolt for the door and out into the back lane. The cellar thus became a kind of boogeyman place.

Going back in was more terrifying, especially after the sun had gone down. The place then became extra dark and menacing. I think we had a few nightmares as a result. But I grew less and less afraid of such neglected places after I moved to Rangoon Road. We stayed in a similar kind of house but my dad had turned the bottom landing area/cellar into an engineering workshop. We also kept dogs there. But because we had neighbors who sold pipes and plumbing equipment, that place got more spiders than we did in Geylang. So, although the landing room was cleaner and brighter, it also harbored nasty surprises. And this time, we lived right above the shop! A few times, we had giant spiders (and I mean GIANT SPIDERS) climb into our house through the similarly open concept kitchen. For a while, my brother and I slept with handkerchiefs over our mouths (for fear that one would climb in while we slept, and nest! Talk about a night of fitful sleep!)

Having a spiral staircase also meant we had staircase cleaning duties. We would regularly wash and brush the stairs and balustrade with those brown bristle brushes made from coconut husk, and sweep the place dry with that short broom made entirely of thin leaf stalks (a sipu lidi, it is called). Made from that useful coconut tree. Adjoining neighbors would clean their section of the staircase.

Because the staircase was spiral, the steps were both narrow and wide. You had to take care where to step. Although we sang a happy tune cleaning it, we also worried about tumbling down and knocking our heads against those sharp, unforgiving concrete edges. Ah, life in that house was indeed fun, engaging and dangerous all at once. Not to mention surprisingly neighbor-friendly too!

Next story: A Mama Friend

Getting Around


My earliest memories of a car ride is no good. For some reason, I tended to get car sick. This went on till I was 10. We had a taxi uncle who lived in our terrace row, so we often enlisted his yellow top cab service. He sometimes took us to school, sometimes to North/South Bridge Road. He got so familiar that we even made up a ditty about him, or rather my aunt and mother did. I'm afraid it's rather X-rated, and it does sound better in Cantonese. I think it was because folks found him a little talkative and ham sup (lecherous).

Taxis back then were mostly of the Morris type, single front seat and back. Single front seat? you ask. Yes. Think of it as a couch. Maybe it was because of this that my car sickness arose. Most of the time, I couldn't see what was in front. So a short ride would put me in nausea jeopardy. It was highly unpleasant.

I loved riding trishaw though. Each ride was like 20 to 40 cents. If there were more of us, we would huddle at the front, holding on to the guard rails. When it rained, the trishaw uncle would roll down a transparent plastic sheet to shield us. The pitter-patter of rain on that sheet was quite unmistakable, as were the see-through patterns on it.

I rode in a school 'bus' probably until end of P2. I put that in apostrophe because it was actually a VW van that carried more children than it should. If you had ridden in one, you'd know that it had windows that opened up only a little, same kind of windows the VW Beetle had in the rear. So it was very stuffy and uncomfortable especially when children were late on a hot day. It didn't help that there was a smart mouth bully riding with us. We got into a fight once. It became a "I don't disturb you, you don't disturb me" kind of stand-off. No, he was not from my school. He came from the neighbouring Mattar East. I was pissed when they pulled down my school instead of his. Come on, our school was the first in Singapore to have a library with terrazzo flooring. That had to count for something, right?

After school, we often waited for the school bus along Mattar Road, which was also accessible via the back gate of the school. There's an open space there and vendors would set up their carts to hawk their stuff. A popular one (needless to say) sold toys. Another one sold waffles. A woman accosted kids on the footpath with her home-made pin-ball game. This same woman would sometimes sell malt candy, the kind one would whirl into a ball on two short little sticks. In Cantonese, it's called mark ar tong. Sometimes a man who sold peanut bars would turn up. He would use a large F&N bottle as a rolling pin to roll and beat out the peanut dough into a layered bar. It's delicious. You can still buy this kind of candy from Hokkien cake shops. One such shop is Gin Thye Cake Shop in Sembawang.

Waiting for our school buses, we would often engage in our little games like One Leg, Zero Point and Block. One Leg was a catching game where the catcher had to chase the others on one leg. Zero Point was played with a long elastic band made entirely of rubber bands. You skip on one leg whilst trying to hook the other with your free leg. When a set is completed, you do the 'zero point' by hooking the band set at the holders head height. Block was a game we played using the black markings on the concrete  floor in our waiting area. It formed a natural 2x4 and 2x6 grid (all depending on how many players were involved). These markings were actually the concrete expansion rubber strips in the floor. In Block, team players try to block the opposing team members from getting across. If it's a 2x6 grid, then there would be two players blocking at each of the three levels. At times, we used the same grid to play Kok-Kok. In this game, you stand on one leg to kick a piece of stone around the grid. You would lose a turn if your stone rested on the grid lines (sometimes we'd draw the grid with chalk) or if you have kicked your stone out of the grid. The more usual games were Five Stones and Chatek.

My school wasn't too far from my home in Geylang. It was only 15-20 mins by bus. I don't remember how I got started with public bussing... it just happened. For my school area, many of the buses terminated in MacPherson Estate, so I had a number of choices going back because Geylang Road was the main arterial road that led to many places. At first the buses were single entry/exit type. They did not have doors and you had to be careful to not fall out. A long seat the width of the bus would be in front behind the drivers cab. If you sat in this, you would be facing back. One time, a girl fell asleep on her ride. When the bus turned, she slid from one end to the other. She woke up rather embarrassed. At another time, an old lady plopped from that long seat to an opposite front-facing one when the bus jerked to a stop. She was ok but her false teeth took needed readjustment.

This kind of bus was often used with No.61, a bus I took often home. It was a single entry/exit bus so it wasn't that big. Look-wise, it didn't have the usual flattened face of most buses. In fact, it had a kind of hulking presence when seen from the front. It was rounded at the top corners... maybe to help it run faster. And boy, was it nimble and fast. I remember we almost fell off a cliff racing through a dusty road in Changi. With no doors, you could literally see the road fly by!

I know some folks cannot ride looking back, they'll get nauseous, like I did in the cab when I was younger. The ride in this kind of bus sometimes got very hot because the windows tended to get stuck. You either couldn't close them or had problem opening them up properly. The problem is that they were the up-slider sort, the kind you had to lift to open. And many a times you had to jerk them left and right to get it loose. Most annoying. And the catches were often coated with grime.

These sort of buses were easy to dent and they rattled a lot. But because there was only a single doorway in the middle, it was also the only bus you could play daredevil with. You do this by being the last person to board on an overloaded bus. Then, holding on for dear life, you feel the wind rush at you with your butt inches away from the traffic below. Sometimes the ride was free because the bus conductor couldn't be bothered to reach you. In any case, you wouldn't have a free hand to dig for fare money either.

At times, I pity the poor bus conductor, especially in a crowded bus. I mean the fella is there to collect payment and issue a bus ticket. He didn't have to squeeze through bodies like he was in a stadium at a popular football match. Remember, these buses had no aircon. You would often see them with a towel in their collar or a hanky somewhere to soak up sweat.

I wonder where you can ride a bus with a bus conductor now. The nearest experience is perhaps riding a train. They still have conductors who come and check on the validity of your ticket. In a bus back then, the conductor would often click-click his ticket puncher to tell you he's around. And also to remind you to pay up if you hadn't already. He would wear a green pouch with a few sleeve pockets for different types of change. Depending on how far you went, he would issue you the appropriate ticket. The tickets would be in stacks arranged in a row on his small hand-sized metal 'clipboard'. The tickets were of different colors indicating different charge amounts. A small white elastic band held them down in place. The numbers indicated the stage at which you boarded, often marked as smaller numbers next to the bus service numbers at the bus stops. These plates were usually red in color. If a bus travelled the same route either way, they would be differentiated by a green or red side service number plate. 

Each ticket was serilaised with four digits and as mentioned had columns of running numbers to indicate the fare stage where you had board. If you had boarded at the start of the journey, say, the terminus, the conductor would punch the number '1'. This helped him to keep track of your journey. People sometimes cheated by buying a cheaper fare and rode the bus for further. Just don't get caught when the bus inspector boarded. He (and later she) usually wore a white official-looking shirt and could order you off the bus.

I would at times observe the tickets the conductor had with him. It's quite the thrill to get a ticket with four similar digits, not unlike striking 4-D. I did manage that one day, snagging a ticket with four zeros. I spent the next day fending off my classmates wanting to trade with me. Yup, public bussing could start you a hobby collecting bus tickets. I still have my collection, together with the many stickers I've collected from that uncle who sold toys outside my school. Many years later, I met him again. By then, he had a shop in Marine Parade.

Strangely, when TIBs came along and introduced OMO (one-man-operated) bus rides, I did not pay attention to the tickets anymore. Somehow a machine issued ticket wasn't as charming as a hand-punched one.

Food Memories


Growing up, eating outside food was a luxury. And with seven kids, the cost must have been more than a pretty penny.

My sister remembers the Char Siew Wanton Mee at our downstairs coffeeshop very well. She says we often ate there when my mom did not cook. I remember it too - the red char siew, the crunchy choi sum and chicken flavoured soup. We ate around a marble-top table and as there were quite a few of us, I always had to be mindful not to fall off my stool into the common corridor. If I remember correctly, the floor of the coffeshop was raised, and it was not very spacious.

That wanton mee was of the Cantonese kind. Surprisingly, over the years, even as an amatuer sleuth foodie, I had never come across wanton mee that tasted the same. There was one in Syed Alwi Road hat looked genuine, but it was tasteless like noodles trhown together with just plain soy sauce and oil. Even the char siew pretended it was something else. How can a dish that called itself Wanton Mee have zero wanton taste? If there is a Razzie for bad dishes, I'll nominate this for first place.

I think wanton mee is quite a subtle dish; it takes a lot of care to cook it well.

A few years ago, I was pleasantly surprised when a wanton mee stall opened near my home in Sembawang. It was run by three aunty ladies who must have worked in a karaoke lounge before, judging by their pale skin and lacy dressing. Besides wanton mee, they also serve mushroom chicken feet noodles, soi gau noodles and others. Their soi gau was good but it was their wanton noodles that seduced. It was so wantony, so free of MSG and so authentically Geylang that I was blown away. But you have to eat it bai (white, meaning without the soya and black sauce) in order to enjoy its full subtle and nostalgic flavours.

So, what does it all mean? Deja vu? You bet.

The other dishes like Hokkien Mee, I used to cycle to Lor 15 to packet for the family. The stall was in a coffeeshop and manned by an uncle behind a giant kwali. He also wielded a large wooden cover to steam-cook the noodles right towards the end of frying. It's that type of HM where you could taste the yellow noodles as well as the white; both just as al dente. The stall is long gone, and if I needed a HM fix, I would head down to to that Zheng Chong (traditional) stall in Serangoon Road. The one that is opposite a 'dragon' temple (only the sign outside is visible). Their HM is served on opeh leaf. This stall is actually a reincarnation of the one nearer to the French Stall retaurant that was closed when its own coffeeshop was shut down (together with a very good BBQ chicken wing stall). Not many people know this but HM taste sinfully good with Thai green curry.

As a family, we also often ate at a backlane zhichar stall in Lor 17; and we also often traveled to Pennefather Road just before Joo Chiat to eat luk luk - a pot steamboat that has ingredients skewered on satay sticks. As a kid, you'd just love those quail eggs: they make us kids think teh eggs were specially laid kid-sized!

My mom cooked often but like most moms she would run out of ideas. Then she would ask one of us to go down to G Cheong Fun Soh (aunty) for some gcf scraps. You see, they have automated the whole process of making gcf. Newly cooked gcf is delicate so there's always 'spoilt' gcf sheets in every production run. The process set up was delightfully simple: Steam the rice water at one end, roll up the rice sheets at the other. In between, just make sure that that long sheet of gcf remained intact before it got cut up and rolled. Sometimes the cutting is not true and the fouled up gcf sheet is then set aside for use in some soupy meal concoction.

Like many mechanical contraptions, the process sounded good on paper.

I've seen the machine operated many times and I must say, its error rate was quite high. No matter, they could always sell kway chap, which by definition is broken-up gcf. So, GCF Soh would often give us the damaged gcf and my mom would could meatball soup with it. As kids, we loved it. It was certainly nice to have neighbours like her!

Other times, I would cycle to the other part of Geylang that was near to Boon Keng to buy roti prata. There, at the hawker centre next to the wet market, I had struck up a friendship with the prata guy. He would often give me great curry with extra potatoes. Another nice Indian man I made friends with sold Indian Rojak in a backlane near that luggage-making shop. He was a jolly fella in his 30s. One day, I didn't see him and was told he had had a heart attack. He never came back to the stall. I think I started a friendship with him because I used to hang out at the bookshop next door. Like bookshops of its kind back then, it also sold sporting goods. I'd been eyeing a soccer ball hanging from the ceiling for the longest time (no thanks to the exploits of Quah Kim Song, Dollah Kassim and gang). When I finally had enough money to buy the ball, I was bitterly disappointed that when it got soaked with water, it became very heavy. You'd get a concussion trying to head it. And when it burst a thread, it went out of shape. It looked like it had a tumor. Sometimes you can wish for something so hard that at the end, you never wished you had set eyes on it before!

Besides the big covered market at Lor 25, the other market of note was at Lor 7 and 9. This was an open street type. Aside from raw food, it had also a few pushcart snack stalls. One of the snacks reminded me of the ones sold at Mr Bean's: round ones filled with red bean, cheese and what not. In the past, they came in only two flavours: tau sar or peanut. And the pastry texture was quite different. It's more brown and beige, not pandan colored. It's texture was closer to that of min qiang kueh and did not have that raw batter taste of Mr Bean's. (The only stall left selling this original kueh is at Pipit Road food centre.)

Of course, who can forget Tau Huay Chwee (soybean milk). There was a pushcart stall in Lor 17 just before the meat and veggie shop ('siew pasat' or small market as my mom calls it) that also sold chin chow (black jelly). We used to buy soyabean milk from him with an enamel metal mug. When I first started work and ordered Black & White, my friends would stare at me as if I'd committed a cardinal sin. And it wasn't just the Malaysians. The Singaporeans too! Didn't they order chin chow and soyabean milk mixed together when they were young?

On some weekends, we would also have Ovaltine or Horlicks and cake at home. Recently, I had a flashback of that tea time. I was window shopping at Angie's the Choice cakeshop when I spied some leftover strips of cake in the display case. I later learnt from the shop that those strips came from cutting big cakes down to size. So if you want some decent snack cake for your child but is unwilling to fork out $4.50 for one, a bundle of strips of the same cake is just $2. A real bargain!

In Geylang, we used to get them free from the confectionery diagonally across from where we lived. The happy part is that they were all multicolored cake pieces, cream, sprinkles... the lot, better than just the one cake itself. Wrapped in grey tracing paper, a large packet was enough for five kids or more. What a heavenly treat that was!

A Chwee Kueh hawker would also station his tri-wheeled, canopied cart opposite our house on weekends. His chwee kuehs came in little clay cups instead of the aluminium ones used today. I think there is a subtle difference in flavour because of that.

On some weekends, I would accompany my mom to san ma loh pasat (three-mile marker road) or the old Bugis Village market. At the time, the canal was not covered and the market would be right next to it. There were no tall buildings too and so having breakfast there was quite airy and nice. We often had simple peanut porridge and a small enamelled plate of fried soy sauce noodles dressed in red coloured "jion" or bean paste sweet sauce (now usually brown in colour). The peanut porridge was watery with bits of minced meat and a good sprinkle of crushed, pale yellow fried beehoon. But its taste was fantastically appetising. It went well with the noodles which was slightly oily but also very aromatic. Perhaps the noodles were roiled in pork lard oil! When this san ma loh pasat was relocated to the nearby Albert Centre Market and Food Centre, this stall went with it as well.

The stall continued to sell there well into the 90s and early 2000. Sadly, it is no longer there today. Although it was simple and cheap (watery porridge 70 cents, noodles 50 cents), its unique flavour kept people going back for seconds and thirds. I doubt you will be able to find anything like this ever again in Singapore. And it is a pity given the number of foods that taste bland but cost more.

[I grew up in Geylang but was born in Changi, near the present day Kembangan MRT station. My mom remembers the year of my birth where hawkers would ply, passing our simple terrace house unit. There were a few kampongs nearby (at Jalan Sayang, Lorong Marican, etc.) and these hawkers sold a variety of stuff, - from Chinese keuh-kueh to Malay ondeh-ondeh. She remembers an Indian hawker who sold mee siam. His mee siam was delicious but had only a few condiments: chives and chopped up fried tawpok. The mee siam was like five cents a plate. Interestingly, my mom says they would also sell 'hak mai jeuk' or pulut hitam (black glutinous rice dessert) as well.]

Next story: Getting Around; Related story: Eating Out In The 60s/70s

The butter cupcake (aka 'chef hat' cake) was common during my childhood and we often bought them from that Lor 17 confectionery shop next to the mama shop. The custard puffs were common too (in school as well),


Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A Medium in Changi


Before coming to Geylang, I stayed in Jalan Haji Salim in what was a row of terrace units. We had a swing in front and I remember playing much in the sandy patch in front of our house. But this place is no more as it was cleared when the North-South MRT train systen arrived. 

A Chinese kampong further up (in what is now Chai Chee indutrial estate) gave me strong memories. It was a huddle of light blue zinc roofed wooden houses that began around a cul-de sac atop a hill. Walking up that hilly road and seeing those light blue houses against a clear sky always gave me a happy feeling, the same wistful sort we get now from seeing those white houses against a blue sea along the Mediterranean. coast.

I know it is a fanciful notion but that was how it was, why I suppose the memory stuck.

One of those front blue units was a laundry shop run by a samfoo-clad lady proprietor who was my mom's friend. Every visit, I would greet her and then she and my mom would sit and chat. I would take that as cue and run to look for the other children to play with. We sometimes floated paper boats in the small gutter drains between the houses. The houses of this kampong all stood on cement floor and paved walkways, altogether rather neat and tidy (and clean). And the cement floors could really burn your feet on a hot sunny day.

At other times, my mom would bring me along to the temples in the area. There's a particular one we went to often. It wasn't that big nor small. It also wasn't very ornate. It stood by a giant tree on a sandy lot. Like many old temples at the time, it was paneled in wood and painted mostly in red. Later, this temple's medium would move to a flat in Marine Parade, deities and all. My mom continued to consult with her. The matters raised ranged from the spiritual to the superstitious. It also regarded 'little people'. For this we would get our shirts chopped with a talisman orint so these little people would stay far, far away!

The medium aunty was a lean woman with a somewhat wizen, hang-dog face. Her hair was oftentimes boofy, as if wearing a wig. Though her skin was sallow, her beady eyes burned with a certain intensity. She had this unmistakable, husky voice that would later be ravaged further by heavy smoking. A couple of years ago she paid the price for that habit. But by then, she was already well into her 90s, so I guess it didn't really matter. Her other vice was mahjong. In her later years, part of her personal savings was lost to a swindle by some new mahjong kakis. They probably took advantage of her being borderline senile. Her sons were livid. I was livid too given that some of that fortune was contributed by my mom's hard-earned money paid as temple "heong yaw" or 'oil money'.

No prayer is triggered without a crisis and our trips to consult with this medium was the same.

A typical medium session with her would begin like this: She would be seated at her altar table in her Dragon Chair, hands on the table. She would mumble something and it gets louder. Many times she would make a purring sound with her lips that would end in a crescendo. She would then half get up and slap the table. This was the cue that she had gone into in a trance. She sometimes wore a medium's cloak, at times not. And she would always have an assistant around to intercede between her and client.

Soon after in trance she would speak in dialect. When it was hard to understand what she was saying, her assistant would help translate. Often, a session would end with her writing talismans on yellow paper amulets ("fu" in Cantonese) which we would bring home to burn in a glass and then mix with water. We would drink and leave a little to dab the forehead with. That's the final blessing for it to work.

I have drunk countless glasses of these carbonised amulet solutions to guard against sickness, bad exam results and probably, my supposed hernia condition. The first time, I thought I was going to get a tummy ache but my mom's stern voice must have scared off all the potential germs. Usually, after drinking this blessing, we would have to wash ourselves with flower scented water. The flowers came in a packet wrapped with grey tracing paper or newspaper. The wet market flower shop or joss paper shop would sell this. A pack consisted mainly of stalkless orchids, chrysanthemums, daisies, etc, probably all the scrap flowers that dropped off. But they were fresh.

At home, we all bathed from water scooped from a giant ceramic urn commonly found in bathrooms in those days. This large urn was originally made to preserve stuff like century eggs or salted vegetables. These days, you have to pay a pretty penny for it.

Our urn was the shiny green type with a brown lip. Its sides were embossed with dragons and phoenixes. Once the flowers were mixed in, my siblings and I would then take turns to wash. The flowers gave the bath water a very fragrant scent. Whether you believe it gave you good fortune afterwards or not, it did not matter. It was a cheerful thing to do. As we got older, the flowers were placed in a basin instead and we would just wash our faces with it.

To my mom, these visits to the medium were necessary... kind of like going to see your parish priest or therapist. But I've always viewed them with a skeptical eye. I mean, who chose this medium to be the conduit between this and the spiritual world? And how come we never got straight answers, only stuff that left us hoping for the best? How come we have to give so much oil money?

No, I am not resentful of these mediums nor with the practice of Taoism (even though as a kid, I've often found the deities to be butt ugly and scary. They were always painted black and gold and were always in a scowl. Don't they have Happy Hour over there?) Like all religions, they serve a purpose. However, with Taoism, there are many deities. Too many in my view to comtemplate or even wrap our minds around. Why, I supposed, only a few were popular.

Maybe finding the right affiliation was the key. Our medium was affiliated to Tai Chi Yeh (tai zi ye) - a deity that was a kind-hearted son of an ancient emperor cannonised. It was common practice to god-child a kid to a deity and I was no different. For as long as I could remember, I have always been Tai Chi Yeh's godchild. I didn't feel any extra special. No godly abilities like x-ray vision or Bionic Man strength. No ang pows either during CNY.

Every Qing Ming Festival, my mom would go to temple off Balestier Road to pay her respects to this now deceased medium. Her ashes are interned there. Looking at her pix on the memorial tablet, I remember all the times she was alive. Although slight of frame, she came across as a lady who took charge of her life. I sometimes wondered what her back story was; it would be interesting to know. And aren't lady mediums a rarity in the temple business?

When my mom first visited our medium friend's resting place, she was visibly upset. I also began to see her relationship with this medium in a different light. At the end of the day, they were friends who lived through each other's ups and downs in life. She probably knew more of my mother's heart-felt concerns than even her closest friend in Geylang. We might have moved here and there but this medium lady was always a constant in our lives. Till that day she passed away, their friendship was as old as I was; and that is something to be celebrated. Rest well, Pai Sun Por (Praying to God Lady in Cantonese, how my mom calls her) and thank you for giving us hope, blessing and a very warm friendship.

Next story: Food Memories


Backlane Fun


One feature of Geylang (made famous by a red light area) is its many backlanes. They were built when clearing rubbish or night soil buckets was still in practice. The lanes allowed collection of such foul stuff away from the main road.

When sanitation improved, these backlanes were 'shut' and a single low and lone concrete pillar was erected at the ends of the lanes to prevent traffic from ever entering. They thus became safe playgrounds for children to loiter in. Kids only needed to worry when crossing the lorongs (Malay word for street) when to get from one backlane to another. Back in those days, the lorongs were indeed parked with cars on both sides, many climbing the kerbs to avoid the congestion. Kids usually did not have to worry about a fast car zooming along. The narrow lorongs were indeed less than ideal for two-way traffic. It was only much later when the main roads were converted to one-way that these narrow streets followed suit.

In our backlane, many games flourished. Because it was T-shaped, we often played a three cornered soccer game. It sounds like fun but in reality it tested everybody's patience. When is that ball ever gonna come back this way?! we often wondered in exasperation.

Besides football we played basketball as well. There was no proper court so the young workers who worked at a corner welding shop below my home put together a backboard and ring (with net) and hung it on the fence above the alley wall. 

In the evenings, these workers would have a game of three-on-three with one another; I learned quite a few nice moves from watching them. At the time basketball was a big thing in Geylang and many international games were often conducted at the nearby Gay World Indoor Sports Stadium. I am sure quite a few of these young workers were fans of the games there.

The corner welding shop worked only half-day on a Saturday, so on weekends, we kids had this makeshift  basketball court all to ourselves.

There were a few hilarious moments playing basketball in that backlane.

It was all due to a large metal plate the workers had used to cover the floor with. This was to prevent the ground from being further chipped and uneven when metal was beaten or drag over there. This metal plate, lying on the already uneven ground, gave a good "bonk" each time a ball was bounced on it. So a basketball game would come with sound effects. It also came with uncertainty as the ball would bounce away each time it hit the edge or corner of the thick plate. We would also slip on the well worn surface. Overall, it was a fun game of basketball. It was also the only game where the older kids would play with us younger kids - mostly to help make up the numbers. But the older boys were never mean or were bullies.

Being called to play with the older boys was special: it meant you were grown up somewhat. Our chest would swell with pride. But that soon came deflating back down really quickly because basketball is rather a physical game. I still remember the elbow knocks to my head for being a little too short. To get to play, it also helped if you had an older brother. I had one. So I think being a single child back then was realy sucky!

For some reason, another backlane connected to this T-shaped lane was not paved; it remained a sandy patch. It was well and good as we needed a place to play marbles on. With marbles you need to dig a shallow hole in the ground with the heel first - something that could not be done on concrete floors. However, some of us did not like playing in that sandy lane; dog owners would always bring their pets there to poo-poo and wee-wee, causing a stink and fouling our marbles with stuff that was less than charming. 

At the head of this sandy lane was a metal workshop that cut small E-shaped tranformer plates and washer rings. They would dump the excess in the lane. But we would fashion a sakulei-like game (a kind of tossing game) out of those waste washer rings. Sometimes, we used coins instead. But that game soon became a kind of gambling which I didn't like.

At one arm of this T-shaped backlane, we played badminton on a makeshift court. We also played crackers there during Chinese New Year.

With our bicycles, we would race from backlane to backlane - at times being splashed by folks who threw their laundry water out. We slalom around clothing lines or around wooden stools with mattresses left out to dry. Often times we had to duck our heads from makeshift awnings put up to shade trays of drying herbs or swerve to avoid a portly uncle snoozing away on a nylon-stringed deckchair. Yup, the backlanes had a life of its own and we had miles of it as a playground.

Calling friends out to play was not a problem even though we did not have mobile phones then (or residential phones for that matter). All we had to do was to ring our bicycle bells a few times and a familiar head would pop out from behind a kitchen blind or rear door. It's our not-so-secret call to signal that it's playtime now and for our buddies to come join the fun! That chorus of youthful voices still echoes in my head. But if you visit Geylang now, there's nothing but deadly silence. It has been like that for a long time since we moved out. My future eye can only see the old buildings giving way to mulitplex condos and the backlane becoming parking spaces. My childhood times would indeed become a bygone era. 

Next story: A Medium in Changi

Errands


I am not sure if it was because I am the middle child of the family or that I rode my bike well, but I would always end up running errands for my mom when I was a kid. No, I didn't mind it very much because I liked getting out of the house. Also, it was an opportunity to detour, to go roaming around the other parts of Geylang on a legitimate reason, like eat prata at the new hawker centre at the junction of Geylang Lor 1 and Upper Boon Keng Road.

One errand involved buying chap ji kee (a form of numbers gambling). The system involved just 12 numbers, hence chap ji kee (Hokkien for 'twelve numbers'). To win, you must guess right the combination of two numbers - kind of like a simplified version of 4-D lottery. You could bet the numbers in vertical or horizontal fashion. If vertical, the numbers had to come out in the stated order. 

To better her odds, my mom would use a chap ji kee 'dream' book. It's a thick booklet about B5 in size that's dark pink and with pages of of nothing but small pictures arranged in columns and rows. Each tiny picture bore a double number at the bottom. For example, if you had a dream about a comb, you could use its double number to buy chap ji kee with. I kept the family's CJK dream book for a number of years but lost it moving house one time.

The old couple who collected the CJK bets lived in a cluster of atap houses next to a morning market. By the main road was huge tree. The atap lot didn't look legal as there weren't any proper drainage. But the houses had address numbers nailed on them. Quite a few were raised on large stones that were perhaps naturally cobbled together. A leaky passage dribbled down the middle and acted as the central drain. Parts of it were reinforced by broken roof tiles. Much green moss grew on those stones.

At night, the whole place was wet and cold. The atap planks were not in good condition either, with many crippled by rot and decay. The old couple there lived by a single kerosene lamp - a small table one that danced shadows on the walls. If I let my imagination run wild in that dim light, they could be qiang shi (zombies) waiting to devour me. Their neighbours were better off, they had bigger floor space that was covered by a blue and yellow patterned vinyl mat. I would sometimes see a baby crawling about, tended to by a rotund woman with a jolly face. A TV usually blared out from further back.

Once there, I would hand over the cash and rolled-up numbers to the couple and bid my farewell. If it was tontine money, it was recorded in a 555 booklet. On moonlit nights, the wet moss on the stones glistened giving the place a kind of surreal beauty. But I know it must have been rather miserable living there.

Once past the large tree, I would get on my bike and head home. I sometimes walked. Years later, while climbing Mt Ophir, I realised that the place smelt like a dank wet cave with green algae overtones.

Another errand I was often tasked with is the buying of bread. Especially if it was zeem tow lor ti, the local version of the French loaf. Many coffeeshops sold the chef-hat shaped bread, the ones where you would have to shave off the thick brown crust on top before slicing the loaf. The guy who sold this pseudo French loaf came on a bicycle. The bike was equipped with a brown cupboard that opened up at one end that served as a buttering platform. You could buy slices from him and he would Planta or kaya it to your choice. The kaya was of the orange kind: sweet, coconutty and finger-licking good. He also sold our favourite cream buns. They were like sausage buns except that the bread was flavoured with either chocolate or strawberry. This gave them them a two-tone color. Sandwiched in between was cream. Oh, what luscious cream! Kids would peel the bread apart and lick the cream. They still sell these buns at NTUC supermarts but a majority are stale for having been on the shelf for far too long.

This roti man would often come around our place at 6.30pm everyday. But on one occasion, I missed the timing and had to chase him all the way to Mountbatten. I knew I would get a good scolding if I did not bring home the bread. It was the first time I cycled that far from home. It was already dark and the big shadowy angsana trees were scary. But I got my bread and was rather proud of myself. I must have been five or six.

Next story: Backlane Fun

The chap ji kee dream books. Note the number coded pics. 
The pink ones are about the size of a passport.

A Start in Badminton

As a young man, I played badminton pretty well. Well enough to qualify as a national player judging by the competitive matches I used to play against Malaysian and Indonesian state players. But because I had moved to the north of Singapore, coping with the resultant long travel to town and Pre-U studies meant joining a hectic national training scheme (such as the F&N one) was out of the question. (This is an example how a decision to relocate to ulu-dom can affect a person's interests and sporting progress!) But even with all the talent in the world, if it hadn't been for my Geylang neighbour, I would only be good at swatting flies.

My neighbour lived downstairs in that shop that distributed those Ken-Ken cuttlefish snacks. He was one of the sons of the owner. I think he was 15 or something but in our youthful eyes he appeared much older. He was strong and well toned. Each day, I would find him loading the many bundles of goods into those signature VW vans (with the giant cuttlefish signs) that the family owned. The vans were always parked outside the shop along the road at the end of business day.

This young man had younger siblings and all the kids in the neighbourhood loved going to their place for birthday parties. Being in the snack business, there were for sure a variety of snacks and sweets. And despite being busy, they were a very open and friendly family and I recall the many times I would pop into to their shop to play. Their shop was lined with several large shelving rows of cubicle boxes painted green that reached into the ceiling. Into them went giant bags of snacks and sweets. Tall bamboo ladders were used to reach them and I especially loved to climb up on them to hear them creak.

I don't remember the name of this young man but his badminton skills must have been quite considerable at the time. I recall he was once featured in a newspaper competing in a tournament. When we saw that pix, we were all impressed and asked him to teach us the sport. He did not hesitate and proceeded to set up a badminton court outside his home in our common backlane. Our backlane was not as wide as a normal badminton court but that did not matter - we just included the side drains as the court double tramlines. We later drew visible lines over the area with pale blue paint. It was quite fun working together as we kids pitched in. To hold the net, this young man knocked a couple of nails into the opposing walls. When this was done, we were all set to play.

Our parents bought us kids racquets and a net from that Chinese Sin Wah Emporium in nearby Gay World. The net was of dark brown cotton strings topped with a white cloth trim; it was made in China. I think the brand was either Aeroplane or Double Happiness - the same fellas who made those ping-pong bats (and nets).

Whenever we had time, we would go down to our self-made backlane badminton court to play.

I remember this young man teaching us how to serve, hit the shuttlecock, and smash. My brother who is four years older, learnt quickly. He proceeded to play for our primary school team. I wasn't far behind and became the school's youngest member even though at P2, I was deemed too young to compete. Nevertheless, I would follow them to competitions just for the experience.

I remember one time making my way back from the Singapore Badminton Hall in Guillemard Road on my own after a competition. It gave me a sense of accomplishment crossing the unfamiliar lorongs to get back to my home along Sims Avenue. I also saved the 20 cents of bus fare that I usually had to spend.

Around our neighbourhood, we had a bunch of kids who were very interested in badminton, so this young man would come and play with us whenever he could. It was his attitude (a better player taking time to play with novices) that inspired me to train others later. The racket we used then were the wooden sort and I remember mine as having a wooden shaft as well. It was decorated with decals that later peeled. One time I was so excited to play that I didn't bother to go home to get my racquet. Instead, I shouted up to my house on the third floor for someone to throw the racquet down. I'll catch it, I said. Someone did throw the racquet down. It bounced off the floor once before I managed to catch it. I then checked. No cracks. Great!

My father later bought my brother a Yonex racquet. Amazingly, Yonex is still a popular brand today. That first Yonex racquet my brother owned had a wooden frame and a steel shaft - an innovation at the time. I believe it was the B-9100 model, brown with the old logo still. In those days, racquets like these had to be kept in a wooden press to keep them from warping. We sometimes had to clean the strings too as playing in that backlane court meant having shuttles fall into dirty drains. We often had to knock them on the floor first to get the black, icky muck off!

As we got older and busier at school, we saw less of this young man. I wished I remembered his name or that he was around when I last visited Geylang. In badminton I went on to represent my junior college in singles, something I think he would have been very proud of. And we almost won the National Championships if not for a slight technical hiccup. But that's another story!

Previous story: A Firecracker Fight; Next story: Errands

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A Firecracker Fight


If you were a regular visitor to the National Library at Stamford Road during the late 70s and early 80s, you might have noticed a rather strange fella hanging outside the place. His hair was wiry, unkempt, and his face was dirt-stained. In fact he was altogether quite unwashed. But he wore a business suit still and carried a small black briefcase - something you don't see people do nowadays. It's all about smartphones or manbags now.

When you see this man, he is often mumbling to himself in Cantonese. I often could not make out what he said, but he was my neighbour. He lived on the ground floor in a small staircase cubicle a few doors away. Every morning he would leave his "home office" taking care to latch and lock up the place first. No one was quite sure how he got that way. Some said he lost his business in a fire; others said his family left him. Going home from my neighbour's after dark was sometimes problematic; we often had to tiptoe around his body as he usually slept on a mat on the upper staircase landing. In the dim light, we took care not to disturb him. To us, he was a mad man. What if he woke up, grabbed a chopper and hacked us to pieces? Initially, we were on tenterhooks. But as time passed, we gradually learned that he was quite harmless.

An uncle of mine might be clean shaven, hair neat and well combed but he was also quite mad. So it came as no surprise that he later joined the intelligence services of the the local army (i.e. the SAF). Most certified nut jobs ended up there, according to NS lore.

My dear uncle had this piercing look that could be interpreted in two ways: 1) He was going to beat you into a pulp unless you confessed; 2) He was going to beat you up no matter what. Either way, it's best not to make eye contact with him for more than a microsecond. My other uncles told me he was brilliant in chess. I get it, I'd probably run away too before my king got taken by him!

The problem was, he's the only uncle who liked to play with us kids. The rest were older and into 60's stuff. It was quite unnerving at first playing with this uncle and we would hide or give some excuse. Some of us boys resorted to playing tea with our sisters. Yes, we got that desperate!

The turnaround came one Chinese New Year. We were playing fireworks in the back lane of our home when he came and joined us. He had brought along cans, sticks and a rather big bag. With these, he taught us how to blow stuff sky high. He also taught us how to improvise firecracker poppers with stone and paper and how to make an even bigger firecracker with the smaller ones. Of course, in that big bag out poured some of the most gobsmacking firecrackers ever seen - stuff that we kids all wanted to buy but had not the money. Stuff that whirled, rocketed and yes, even screamed!

The ones that whirled spun on the ground with tails of flint-fire. Those that rocketed either had a long stick that you could hold or plant into the ground. The other rocket kind you simply aimed and pulled on a string behind. Either one would scream like a banshee towards its intended target (to which you would point at). During firecracker time, all the boys and girls carried with them a joss stick each. You took care to light the firecracker properly and you also took care also not to poke each other's eye out with that glowing point. (This was especially important when clambering up and down those tight spiral staircases at the back of our houses.)

That year, our firecracking shenanigans ended up in a firefight between homes. Imagine the setup: Three back lanes of houses facing each other with two levels of staircases and landings (forming a 'T'). Include the homes right across the lorong and you have at least four battling sides! The whole firefight became something of a Shock & Awe campaign in Iraq. Streaks of light flew back and forth as we traded fire with one another with those handheld rockets. Of course, the combatants across the road were lower and at a disadvantage. They also had to fire from behind their narrow window grills. We on the other hand were on superior ground at the back landing of our apartment. We just had only to stoop below the staircase landing parapet to avoid being hit. However, since our parapet was balustraded in places leaving gaps, we had to use our mom's kwali (frying wok) as a make-shift shield.

That was a delirious time and even the adults joined in. Midway through the firefight, a crash of glass was heard. Someone's ba gua above the window had been smashed! A ba gua was something houses put up to ward off evil, and so it was a taboo thing to touch, let alone damage! More retaliatory rockets flew, as did colorful profanities in Hokkien. We kept low and quiet hoping one of the other sides would take the rap.

In the morning, people awoke to assess the damage. The back lanes were typically littered all over with red smithereens of firecrackers having exploded with the smell of gunpowder still acrid and pungent in the air. Incredibly, no one was hurt in our little CNY Shock & Awe campaign. Since it was Chinese New Year, all hostilities the night before were forgotten, even if a ba gua was broken!

I have never forgotten that fantastic night of how we huddled under a kwali with crazy rockets exploding all around us. Or how this uncle directed the firefight. For a moment, I glimpsed his mad, playful genius. In the following years, I became more interested in his comings and goings as he slowly became a kind of hero. The family today remains amused by his eccentric choice of girlfriends over the years. However, even as he got more social, he never once told us what he did in the Army. I can imagine him saying "If I tell you, I would have to kill you" - same as how James Bond would react. That glint in his eye hasn't totally gone away. Hmm, it is better not to chance it!

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Book of Life


The news last week about stalls in Sungei Road "Thieves" Market being cut to a metre size was kind of sad. It's like asking a striptease dancer to do her best routine standing on one leg. That can hardly be fair nor sexy.

The SRM has been like a patient gone through one too many operations. The only thing left holding it together is simply pure stubborness. With this latest unkind cut, SRM might just wilt and go under altogether.

When I was a kid my dad liked to bring the family to SRM to shop. During that time, SRM was pretty much like the famous cluster markets you'd find in Bangkok today. You wind your way through cart stalls sheltered by green plastic awnings or table stalls shaded by yellow-red giant umbrellas supported by big, rusty lorry wheel hubs.

I remember the ice factory next door that sometimes showered passerbys with spray. And who can forget that laksa stall which served its noodles in small 'cockerel' bowls best slurped up with a spoon? The corner coffeeshop it was in sat with a crumbly row of shops. I was not surprised that it posed a danger and had to be demolished later. My dad loved going to SRM for a couple of reasons: Tools and old magazines. My favourite was a collection of magazines called Book of Life.

I liked Book of Life. It's one of those weekly magazines that you could collect along with a free binder. The articles were mostly about Social Science and the paranormal. And on its rear cover, there was an alphabetical order of Natural Science terms complete with thumb-sized pictures. The format encouraged you to collect the whole set so as to complete an 'A to Z' listing.

You might find the contents of BOL a strange combination but that was my introduction to introspection about children in Europe and their playground dynamics - altogether rather cheem (deep) stuff for a primary school kid. Equally fascinating were stories of how the dead interacted with the living. One story told of how a pilot was saved by the apparition of his dead WWII Air Force buddy who'd appeared to him in his morning shaving mirror. The plane he was supposed to be on board subsequently crashed, killing quite a number of people.

Yes, BOL had its fair share of pictures with ghostly apparitions. Maybe that helped prepare me for my own encounter with the unworldly. I was up one night for a bit of water when I heard a noise outside the main door. I opened it to see two shiny apparitions rush up the stairs. My mom woke too and came out to ask me who it was at the door. All I could reply was "somebody". She took a look but could not see anyone. The funny thing was that we lived on the top-most floor. How could two apparitions climb further up? It was very strange indeed.

After that, a weird thing straight out of Twilight Zone happened: We were attacked by cockroaches!

Our open-plan kitchen (common in most of the houses back then) was protected from the elements by a roll-type bamboo blind. We would always let it down at sunset. That night was particularly warm so my mom decided to pull 'em blinds up a little. To our horror, the back of it was covered by a swarm of flying cockroaches! That night, I didn't have much time to think about what I saw at the staircase landing; we were full-on whacking those kat jat (Cantonese for cockroaches) left, right and center. I was glad we were not overwhelmed by lizards. My mom is terrified of them and would run off screaming. I would then have been left there fending off those creatures all by myself. My mom can pick up a cockroach with her bare hands but with a tiny lizard, she'd panic. Weird, right?

One day, while recalling life in Geylang my mom let slip that our house was indeed very haunted. A family that moved in after us reported seeing a lady and a man often. The woman they described fitted the description of a grand-aunt who had passed away in that house. Her husband too. Both had passed away in their 40s; my grand-aunt from cancer. So, who knows. Maybe the couple I saw was them in happier times. A brilliant uncle (just 17 and quite the scholar) and his girlfriend had also committed suicide (by jumping off some flats; Hokkien Street, if I'm not mistaken. It was a popular spot because the flats there were new as well as the highest.). So, who knows, that young couple could also be them!

The children of this grand-aunt and uncle (i.e. my present aunts and uncles) lived in that house before us. They were not really related to me by blood. My mum's own parents perished during the war and she was then entrusted to the care of their father. So, into this family she went. The grand-aunt who died was the fifth sister. After she passed away, her sworn-sister (the fourth sister) took over her brood of young children. My mom would always address her as "say ku" or Fourth Aunt. In those days, relations were often complicated by polygamic marriages and guardianships. So-called sworn brothers and sisters would take an oath to look after one another's family (if something untoward happened). One cannot judge if it's a good thing or bad (especially polygamy) as long as people are treated well and respected. In those uncertain times, marriage (and subsequent family life) was insurance to make sure the children were protected and cared for. That's a very decent thing to do. Life, as it often demonstrates, does not always follow an ordained script. And from what I've seen, maybe even in afterlife.

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