Sunday, August 26, 2012

A Big Fuss

I was five then. I remember the year clearly because it was the same one that I started taking an interest in the family piano. My first attempt wasn't to play Chopin or Mozart, I went and peed right next to it.

It felt good as the warm fluid ran down the inside of my pants; I had been holding it back. Pity the pants though, it was the same pair I had worn to the pasar malam the night before and I'd liked its soft, comfy feel. Now I would have to change into a new, less comfy pair.

As for the pasar malam, I remember the place quite well. What stuck was the sharp glare of the stallholders' kerosene lamps. I think they have seared the whole night scene into my brain. Strangely, every time I think about it, my bladder would become weak and if full, I might just involuntarily pee.

Of course, no one in the family understood. They thought I'd peed because my Big Uncle had shouted at me for touching his piano without permission. Er, excuse me? That piano was bought with my mom's money. You ingrate!

Of course, I did not say that out loud.

A young aunt was concerned and came to my rescue. "Big Brother, how can you scream at a small child like that?" she admonished. I was happy. I'd always liked attention from this young aunt. She reminded me of an actress in a Chinese wuxia movie, the one who was sweet but carried a mean sword, and could sing too! In a typical story, there is always a "see heng" (fellow male disciple) who secretly admires and falls in love with her. I often pretended to be that see heng and practised my sword-play in tandem with the actress on screen. It did not matter that my double sword was made of cardboard or that my "heng gong" (leaping kung-fu) got me only as far up as the family sofa. For a while I was a grown-up with kung-fu skills far away on some Chinese mountain!

That year also saw our family buy a new black and white TV. It was one of those cabinet ones with double accordion doors that shut in the middle. It had a keyhole lock and elaborate nickle-plated (gold-like) handles. The cabinet itself was veneered in faux walnut all round, matching our record player cupboard very nicely. It had a rack below where we could put entertainment magazines and our Lao Fu Zhi/Beano comics.

On top of this TV was a lacey table-top runner and a pretty vase of flowers. This kind of lacy runner was very 'in' at the time and was even used to drape the backs of sofas in homes. One chap even put this on his Morris Minor front seat and afterwards had it wrapped in clear plastic. -Kind of pretty but also kind of anal to want to sit on squeaky plastic all the time!

To keep the lace in place, we placed round stainless steel weights at each corner. These steel weights, the size of a small flat bun, were machined by my dad at his workshop. Underneath each was engraved the birth-date of a relative. During social mahjong games, we would use these paper weights to weigh down the mahjong paper to prevent it from curling up at the corners.

We had countless hours of fun watching cartoons on that TV. On days when the TV was off, we liked to check our reflections on its greenish-grey glass screen. Our small faces would warp and turn into funny caricatures like those in the cartoons.

On one particular day, an air of excitement stirred in the house. The adults were all saying something about "kok heng yat," which I later found out to be National Day in Cantonese. Someone was asking if the parade march-pass would go by our house. No one could confirm it though. Some said the route was likely to be along Geylang Road, not Sims Avenue. Yet, another said it would only happen in the "bo dai" or South/North Bridge city area. It wouldn't come to our suburbs! Yet others would wonder still if the event was going to be telecast live again on TV.

Ours was a busy household, so questions and opinions bounced off each other like those in a wet market. It soon got pretty lively.

One of my uncles turned on the TV at the stipulated time. Nothing. The parade had yet to begin. Someone said to go buy some soft drinks from the provision shop downstairs. A while later a few big bottles of F&N orange, cherry and ice cream soda were standing on the make-shift coffee table. Some block ice was bought as well. We kids were very happy to see the soft drinks and took every opportunity to drink a lot of it.

A long while passed, still, the parade on TV did not start.

Soon, the room was full of people deshelling and chewing on groundnuts and "kua chi" (melon seeds), drinking soft drink and making small talk and getting impatient.

Then my eldest aunt said, "Say ler, lok dai yue!" which translates to 'Die, it's starting to rain!' "Ng chi wui ng wui chui siew ah," she added, implying that the parade itself might be cancelled. All eyes turned to the screen. I remember seeing flags flapping wildly and folks in a contingent trying to hold on to them.

We waited a while more as people in the room got impatient. My bladder was getting full from all that soft-drink drinking.

Someone came into the room with a camera and wanted to snap a picture of us in front of the new TV. An uncle or aunt - I am not sure who - suggested I stand next to it. I was then half-shoved/half-placed  to where I should stand. I was at that point trying to make an exit for the toilet but too late.  The camera man said "Yat yi sum" (1,2 3) and clicked. The flash went off and I shuddered. Pee once again flowed down my leg.

I was embarrassed and started to tear. I could her my aunt say in Cantonese, "That side rain, here also rain!" Everybody else laughed except me.

[This story recaps my memory of the 1968 National Day Parade, as an invited contribution to 'The Day It Rain On Our Parade' media program by the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts. For more info, go to the Facebook app: NDP68]

Stainless steel paper weights milled by dad for mahjong and general use. 

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Eating Out in the 60s/70s

In this blog, I have written about food my Cantonese mom had dished up while I was growing up in Geylang. There were times when she preferred not to cook and we would then tapow from kopitiam zhichars and street hawkers. I was often the errand-boy as I liked to cycle. It beats walking from lorong to lorong. I could also take shortcuts through the many backlanes linking them.

Back in those days, cooked food could be found all over Geylang, especially around my neighbourhood.

For example, I could cycle to Lor 15 for fried Hokkien mee; Lor 17 backlane for char kway teow; Lor 19 backlane for "lor bak" or stewed pork; and Lor 17 for chicken porridge. For breakfast, the street market at Lor 7 and 9 had plenty to offer. (Like those round buns with fillings sold by Mr Bean. Back then it was beige in color and filled with black tau sar.)

But what's it like to buy stuff on a normal day like we do now, popping down to a nearby kopitiam or hawker centre for lunch or dinner?

Back then, we did not have hawker centres. We had street hawkers and kopitiams. My own home had a koptiam downstairs. It is still there but it has changed hands many times over since. During my time - besides serving coffee and kaya bread - this kopitiam had stalls selling chicken rice and wanton mee.

A plate of chicken rice was only 30¢. If you had asked for chicken drumstick meat instead, it was 50¢. My eldest sister Alice's favourite was to order two chicken wings and some intestines. That came up to only 30¢. In places like Chinatown, they used to serve chicken rice with black sauce and hot yellow mustard. It goes very well with white chicken meat. Stalls don't do this any more. It's a pity.

If my mom ran low on dishes, she would ask us to tapow pork chop from the kopitiam zhi-char opposite our block. Two breaded ones in tomato sauce cost $1.50. This kopitiam is still around and the zhi-char stall there was once famous for its 'Scissor Curry Rice' (like the one at the junction of Jalan Besar and Kitchener Road). If I am not mistaken, this Scissor Curry Rice place has since moved opposite Lor 11.

At other times, my mom would ask us to buy yong-tau-foo to go with some shredded g-cheong-fun soup which we would get free from our downstairs neighbour who ran a factory. They also manufactured noodles. Two yong-tau-foo pieces cost 10¢. Five was cheaper at 20¢. Back then the fish meat in these yong-tau-foo pieces were definitely "sai tor yu" or ikan parang (wolf herring) - all pure meat. That makes it firm and bouncy. These days, fishball meat is made from other fish and mixed with flour. If the fishball is made from sai tor yu, it's considered 'gourmet'. You'll have to pay a heftier price for it.

On weekends, we kids would often get hungry at about 4pm. That's also when street hawkers start turning up. We could expect a parade of them along Lor 17 where more families were resident. The kok-kok fishball mee seller, the rojak seller and the stewed meats seller (with his wares laid out on two large rattan trays and carried around with a pole on his shoulders) were regulars. This stewed pork seller would often park himself at our downstairs kopitiam serving customers already there. I especially loved his crunchy stewed pig ears - something I had learned to eat chilli with as a kid.

According to my mom, in the early 60s, one could get a stew-meats seller to "lor" (stew) a duck for you for just $1. You had to provide the duck though. Isn't that kind of neat? And apparently "shui arp"  or grass-fed padi field ducks are best for this; else the meats would turn out tough.

If we didn't have all that stewed stuff, I would go tapow chye tow kway. It was only 10¢. With egg, that came up to 30¢. My mom would often ask us to bring an egg along. Eggs then were not cheap, and so folks tried to save money by bringing their own. Hawkers also did not use eggs so often then. They would normally ask a customer before cracking them in. It was the same with mee goreng. We too brought our own eggs for this dish. A plate of mee goreng went for 30¢.

Along Sims Avenue would come this chwee kueh seller with his cart. 10¢  would buy you five chwee kuehs. And they were larger in size than what is served today. And they were cooked in tiny clay bowls, not aluminium ones like today.

Porridge was something we often had as kids especially during the rainy season. It's warm, filling, and nutritious. An old man who lived in a traditional Chinese kampong house (there was a short row of them in Lor 17 next to our neighbouring block) sold very good chicken porridge. A bowl was 50¢. I liked that it came with those crispy golden fried beehoon bits on top. Stalls today don't use this condiment any more. It's a pity because it  makes a world of difference to the porridge, especially chicken porridge. Pork porridge was cheaper at 30¢ a bowl. (Morning peanut porridge and a small plate of fried beehoon cost only 5 cents each at the "small market" at the end of Lor 17. An old lady hawker would carry her stall there and we would sit on small stools along the five-foot way to eat.)

As a comparison of how far prices have shot up, a cup of kopi-O (black coffee) back then was just 5¢. As my family was large (we kids drank coffee too) we would often tapow kopi-O with a tall enamel kettle or giant mug. That came up to just 10¢.

When my family spent a year in Sarawak, we noticed something strange. The hawkers there did not sell char kway teow at all. The more common was fried beef noodles. They cost $1 a plate. My mom also noticed that wet markets there never sold cockles (one of her faves). It was probably because the waters there were too deep. Cockles are usually found in intertidal sand and mud beds. Cockles fried in sambal chilli is one of my mom's favourite dish (and mine too! One hawker stall at the Chong Pang FC at the junction of Sembawang Rd and Gambas Ave (opp the old Lady of the Sea Church venue) used to serve up excellent chillied clams and cockles. When the FC was demolished, nobody knew where he moved to. What a pity!)

Of course, back in those days, housewives slaughtered their own chickens. The birds were cheap, like some 50¢ per kati. A typical bird weighed between one and two katis.

There were other hawker foods that plied along Sims Avenue/Geylang - the place I called home. Strangely, after all these years, that place, somewhere between Lor 17 and Lor 19, is still full of makan places. I guess some traditions don't die, like the red-light district kind over at the side of the even lorongs. There, you can find frog-legs porridge. Nope, I don't remember ever tapowing that when I was a kid. It would be interesting to know when this dish 'leapt' into our Geylang consciousness and food topography.

[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 (Jalan Sayang, Lorong Marican, etc.) nearby 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 few condiments: only chives and chopped up fried taupok. 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)]

Previous story: My Mom's Story II; Next story: A Premature Boy
Related story 1: Street Hawkers; Related story 2: Food Memories; Related story 3: Eat & Play

Wanton Mee in Sembawang that's old school like the one below my home in Geylang. Sweet!

My Mom's Story II

After my mom's marriage to my dad, she still continued to support the family of Kok Leung-suk, in particular, that of Say-ku and Ng-ku. Say-ku had claimed my mom as her own child as she was childless and my mom orphaned, so my mom did her duty as a filial 'daughter'. But Say-ku never really considered her as one.

"We would go marketing and she would refer me to the vendors as Ah Ying. With Ng-ku's kids, she would say 'my daughter or my son this-and-that'," said my mom. This would become a sore point with her in her later years. As a child deprived of parents twice, I can understand her need to be acknowledged. Besides, wasn't she the one making all the sacrifices?

Before Geylang, my family had stayed in Changi. My mom then leased an apartment along Sims Avenue/Geylang so Say-ku and Ng-ku and their brood could have a place to stay. It was more so they could get away from Kok Leung-suk and his detrimental ways. He was by then racking up gambling debts. Earlier, my mom had been the one helping the family pay off those debts, even once working as a tea dance hostess to make ends meet. She didn't have much of a choice then.

But for all that my mom had done, there was little gratitude from this odd-ball bunch. By the early 60s, Ng-ku had succumbed to cancer. Her dying wish was for Say-ku to take over her brood. Thus Say-ku, who was my mom's foster mother, became the mother of another set of children - children she considered more her own. Kids that I would later call my uncles and aunts.

After the death of their mother, my uncles and aunts did not address Say-ku as their new mother; they still addressed her the same. When not in her presence, they would however call her "Ah Tun". That's Cantonese for dim-witted or clumsy. Say-ku was not the brightest bulb in the room. But in life, what matters more is not how smart you are but knowing what you want. Of course, having average good looks help too!

In a sense, Say-ku was lucky. Ng-ku's children were all coming-of-age. Pretty soon, they would leave home to find work. Say-ku could continue to stay at home and be the dutiful parent. More of the same and that's what she did.

From Changi, my own family moved to Sarawak. My dad had an Engineering posting there. My eldest sister could not join us as she was schooling and so stayed behind in Geylang with Say-ku and my uncles and aunts. The younger ones were closer to her in age. Although she got along with the girls, the boys were another matter. One was in particular very mischievious. His name was Ah How. One day, he scratched the family's piano and put the blame on my sister.

Say-ku, instead of finding out who the real culprit was complained to my mom. My mom fired back and said that since my sister enjoyed playing the piano, she couldn't have been the one damaging it. Say-ku then insisted that my sister leave the house and stay somewhere else. That sent my mom into a boil. Here she was giving these people a roof over their heads and they demand that her child leave?

My mom was very close to my eldest sister and knew she was not the sort to lie. In fact, my sister had confided to her earlier that Say-ku was not feeding her well, putting her own family first. Say-ku also did not give her enough pocket money for school. My mother had to get a neighbour to help out first. This despite the fact that my mom gave Say-ku "for sake" or household money even when we where away in another country.

Back from Sarawak, my mother experienced her own unpleasant encounter with Say-ku. The money she gave her for marketing, usually twice the normal amount ($5 x 2 or $10, was already very good for meat, fish and veggies in those days) but Say-ku would spend the money unevenly buying more food for her family. She would even cook in a prejudicial way - favoring her bunch and not our family.

This and the piano incident exasperated my mom. She had no outlet and so confided in my dad. My dad was less tolerant of ingrates and suggested that my mom stop giving them aid. In fact, since Say-ku's kids were coming-of-age, he suggested the family to find their own accomodations. In short, he wanted them to leave. My dad also had his reasons. His own children were growing up. But more importantly, he also knew that some of my uncles and aunts were bullying his kids. (An incident involved an aunt taking my mom's earrings and claiming it was hers. A sister of mine saw that and went to take it back. The aunt insisted it was still hers!)

Say-ku, in a surprise move, told us to move out instead. She claimed they were staying in that Sims Avenue house first. It was then that my mom blew her top and reminded Say-ku that the apartment was in her name and that she was the one who had leased it for their use. In the end, Say-ku and her brood had little choice but to move out to then-new Toa Payoh New Town. Their application to HDB had earlier been successful.

In our Geylang home were three bedrooms, a main hall and a smaller sitting room just before the kitchen. The kitchen was open on one side and needed to be protected from the elements by a bamboo blind. Bath and toilet facilities were further back, right next to the back door before a spiral back-staircase. This spiral staircase is a common sight in the backlanes of Geylang.

When Say-ku and her brood stayed with us, my mom had given them two rooms - one for the boys (there were five) and another for the girls (two + two (adults)). Our own family of nine stayed in the one remaining room. Nine of us in that one small room!!!

To accomodate all of us, my dad had to build an alcove so we kids had space to sleep in. Each nite, half of us would sleep on top, another half would sleep below. So you see, we were not being mean to ask them to leave. We were already making sacrifices for them. But if they posed to be such difficult housemates, there was little choice in the matter.

In Geylang growing up, I had more fond memories of my uncles and aunts than bad. Since they were were older and closer to my eldest sister's age, we spent little time playing together. But they did initiate activities for us kids. The smoking incident was one. The firecracker fight was another.

I also remember accompanying my aunts out on dates as chaperons kind-of. They were blossoming into womanhood and checking out the social scene. What fun it must have been to be of that age in the '60s era of Rock and Roll!

My uncles the boys were more studious. They were a brainy lot and loved to study and play English chess. We were also smart but loved more to work with our hands to build and paint things. Of the uncle lot, I think Ah Chin was the most friendly and well-behaved. Ah How was the worst and would later be estranged from the family. Ah Hin was the youngest son and perhaps the most sociable. He was an intellectual and his inquistive eyes were piercing and questioning. As a kid, I enjoyed being with him, he would teach us things. But I also recognised that he was an adrenaline junkie with a dangerous edge. I would keep my guard up and not be blinkered. Ah Hin was certainly one very cool and steady cat. It was not a surprise then that he joined the Intelligence Service of the SAF when he came of age.

Of all my uncles, I knew Ah Ping the least. He committed suicide the year I was born. He and his girlfriend in a lover's death pact. They were still studying and both set of parents had objected to their romance. Everybody felt sad because he was the brightest among the brood of kids, a scholar in the making. A nice boy even. I would later meet Ah Ping and his girlfriend many times when my family visited Pek San Teng during Qing Ming festival. Their ashes are interned there side-by-side.

Of my two aunts, the youngest, Ah Yim, was very sweet and spoke with an attractive lilting voice. She had an almond shaped face like some classic Chinese beauty. My older aunt, Ah San, was second eldest in the family. She's more gaunt and slim like her real mom; but attractive nonetheless in that way. Her personality was a standout because she had speed-fire wit (often sarcastic). It was also suitably matched to a machine-gun mouth. It was fun listening to her talk. Strangely, she would later marry a rather dowdy chap. If she had married a CEO type, I think she would have gone very far.

Kok Leung-suk eventually passed away in the late 60s. I am not sure how his kids took the news. I know my eldest uncle, Ah Sek, hated him, so it was unlikely they reconciled. With family, it sometimes is very complicated. Kok Leung-suk died of cancer like his fourth wife Ng-Ku, but it was cancer of the large intestine. Quite fitting perhaps because he lived life large and left his shit all over the place. His first wife, Kok Yan-sum attended his wake. Unfortunately, my mom was not around and did not have the chance to meet up with her. They would have so much to talk about and catch up on.

I saw my uncles and aunties more in the subsequent years, often without fail on Chinese New Year. They were, after all, family...even if in an extended and adopted way. We would meet, catch up and then get on with our lives. For me they were one generation ahead so I had little in common with them. With their kids it was the reverse: they were one generation behind. So my relationship with them and their families was somewhere in No Man's Land. That means gatherings can be awkward. Fortunately, after a while, a game of mahjong would save the day.

But for my mom, the fact remains that my eldest uncle is an ingrate (she had supported him until Sec 4), as is my so-called grandma. I wonder why she 'adopted' my mom in the first place when she obviously did not have much love to give. Perhaps their personalities clashed. Or intelligence. Either way, if she had cared a hoot, she should have just let my mom join Kok Yan-sum all those years ago. Wanting ownership of a child is not the same as having one to love.

In Keong Siak Road retired pimps and prostitutes would buy a child to call their own. They did not want to grow old alone. Perhaps my this grandma thought the same, only that she did not expect Ng-ku to pass away so early in her life. In any case, they were sworn sisters, so having joint-custody of Ng-ku's children was a given. Say-ku didn't need to have custody of my mom.

Some of Say-ku's action were downright unfriendly. I remember one time when she was about to change the dining table in her Toa Payoh flat. My mom had told her before to keep the marble top for her. It was still in good condition and marble was something my mom liked. Say-ku instead gave the table-top away to a karung guni man, a stranger. I felt it was rather thoughtless and heartless of her. Was she that "tun"?

On another occasion, after Kok Leung-suk died, he came back in a dream ("wui mong" or returning dream, something that happens during the customary mourning period), and gave her 4-D numbers to buy. Say-ku told her friends about the numbers but did not utter a single word to my mom. When her friends won big on those four numbers (like some $10,000), did you know what they gave Say-ku in return? Only $10 as "cha" or tea money. My mom was so furious upon learning this. She admonished Say-ku: "Why didn't you tell me? If I had won, I would have given you a larger share of the winnings. You really don't have me in your heart." In Cantonese, that would have been "mo ngoh sum".

Just before my uncle Ah Chin died (early of cancer), he told his children the story of how (as a kid) he used to pay Say-ku five cents for an apple. My mom remembers the occasion and had expressed surprise at the time. She had then admonished Say-ku for buying such expensive fruits. She told her it would have been better to buy cheaper and 'share-able' fruits such as watermelon, papaya or even bananas since there were so many siblings. I was also disappointed when I heard that because when Uncle Ah Chin was young, Kok Leung-suk did not quite support the family. Uncle Ah Chin told us he would often return with just $20 or empty-handed from his father's place in Lor 40 after asking for household money.

With Kok Leung-suk's passing, I feel an era had come to an end. He lived at a time when society was still rather chaotic - a time when people largely struggled to make a living. He was certainly a colorful character with his background as an "um pai" and a penchant for many wives as well as the seduction of other people's wives. He certainly left his seed behind.

My uncle, Ah Hin, the one who joined the army, would one day experience that fallout. He bumped into his doppelganger. It was already rumoured that there was someone who looked very much like him in that same army HQ. That person also shared his surname and middle name. Turns out, they were indeed half brothers. What were the odds of that happening?

Stories of men like Kok Leung-suk reminds me of other colorful biographies of folks like Yap Ah Loy from KL, Malaysia and Er Ge Feng (aka as Zheng Yi Feng) of Bangkok, Thailand. Er Ge Feng is seen by many as the patron saint of gambling. I think all their lives make great fodder for TV drama! You know, fiction made real, just like my mom's own fascinating tale.

(It is good to know that recently my eldest uncle had shown contrition and made up with my mom. Maybe the passing of my 'grandma' had something to do with it or that he's getting on in years. It is good to make peace and move on. I also learned in late 2013 that he has been sending my mom a token sum the past months. My mom did help his family settle a $3000 debt when their father, Kok Leung-suk was released from prison (and when he failed to provide the family expense money with his philandering ways). My mom has never asked for these monies back. And they were big sums then.

Previous story: My Mom's Story I; Next story: Eating Out In The 60s/70s 
Related story 1: Crazy Aunties; Related story 2: A Firecracker Fight Related story 3: A Life in Jade

My Mom's Story I

Growing up in an area like Geylang, you are bound to meet interesting characters. During my childhood, there were gangsters, gamblers and pimps. There were bar girls too who were rather nice to this young little boy. For some reason, I brought out the maternal instincts in them. They would ask me to buy stuff for them and tip me afterwards.

Errand done, I would always wonder about their fates as I cycle away with tidbit money. What did they want in life?

A few of them looked fiesty, so I think they also had aspirations and such besides wanting to snag a good man to marry. I come from an extended and complicated family, so I could understand their desire.

That desire might not be such a good thing.

There's a guy among my relatives who's quite notorious. He had three wives and five mistresses. His 2nd or 3rd wife (from two sisters marrying the same man at the same time) was a woman I had called grandma. She was supposed to be my mother's mother. Her children were supposed to be my mother's siblings, i.e. my uncles and aunties.

The operative word here is 'supposed'.

As I mentioned earlier, this has been a rather complicated family.

My mom was born in Seremban, Malaysia. Locally, the place is called Foo Yong. As a child she was given away to lead a better life. She remembers having a brother and sister. Her new adoptive parents then brought her to Singapore to live.

Her new mom found work as a singer in a teahouse - the sort you see in period movies. For side income she mended and embroidered Chinese opera costumes. Her new dad worked for a guy named Kok Leung-suk, 'suk' being the Cantonese word for 'uncle'. More about that later.

Kok Leung-suk was a serial philanderer who found joy in seducing other men's wives. According to my mom, he started off as an "um pai" or plainclothes detective in the local police force. He worked the streets to raid operations in gambling, prostitution, gangsterism, and other vices. I am sure he was no saint, and somehow became very well-off. Enough to marry three and seduce more.

By the time my mom's new dad worked for him, Kok Leung-suk had become a businessman. He owned a lucrative "mai gao" or flour mill. One day, a group of men came looking for him. Their intention was to beat him up. My mom's dad was there at the time and stupidly (or deliberately) said he was Wu Kok Leung. That got him beaten into pulp.

Back home, my mom's new mom was fighting demons of her own. She had just discovered that her hubby had been unfaithful. He had gotten their amah's visiting sworn-sister pregnant. The amah was so ashamed she packed up the both of them and left. This amah was hired to help look after my mom because her new parents were both busy working.

Enraged, my mom's new mom had only thoughts of revenge. She went to a Thai temple and asked for some black magic water. She then went home and poured the cursed water on her husband's back. He was sitting at the dining table nursing his internal injuries at the time. He had been beaten up badly but that was after he had let his wanker willy wander.

Having done that, my mom's new mom locked herself in her room, dressed herself in vengeful red and committed suicide by swallowing raw opium. The next day, my mom's new dad woke up from his day bed and stood by the window. He was still bent from his internal injuries. For a long moment, his eyes locked on a faraway object; he seemed lost in thought. He then laid down again. My mom who saw all that said that was the last time he would ever get up. For a second time, she was orphaned again.

Kok Leung-suk felt bad. After all, it was his folly that got my mom's new dad beaten up in the first place. He had seduced the wife of a Japanese man and that was a no-no given that the Japs were in ascendancy. He lost more than a loyal friend and employee. The Japs would later confiscate his mill and that was the start of his fortunes' decline.

Out of duty, Kok Leung-suk paid for my mom parents' funerals. He then took my now orphaned mom into his family. The whole gang lived in Keong Siak Road, an area infamous for its seedy residents and a red light district. My mom was just ten years old.

But my mom had scant time to reflect on her newly dead parents or new family life. WWII had come to Singapore.


After the war, Kok Leung-suk found work in a government office tasked with the issuing of vehicle licences. My mom settled into her new family helping with chores and all that expected of a young girl.

Kok Leung-suk's first wife was Tuck Mei (but most would address her as Kok Leong-sum). She was a teacher originally from Ipoh. Tired of her husband's philandering ways, she then decided to return to her hometown to lead a quiet life. She had a daughter named Lala, who became my mom's good pal.

There was Ng-ku (fifth aunt), one of a pair of double wives. She bore Kok Leung-suk five sons and two daughters. They would become my uncles and aunties that I grew up with in Geylang. Ng-ku's sworn sister was Say-ku (fourth aunt). She did not have children of her own.

How the two got married to Kok Leung-suk is like this: KL-suk was only interested in marrying the prettier Ng-ku. But Ng-ku and Say-ku were BFFs and insisted that she would only marry if her older sworn sister came along. Kok Leung-suk agreed.

Say-ku and Ng-ku were sworn sisters whose adoptive mom was called Ah Por (grand-old lady). This old lady apparently adopted five kids so she could have children look after her in old age. Apparently three of her other adopted sons worked at my grandfather's company/shipyard, Tong Lei (Mandarin tongli: 'together benefit'). That's how they got to know my dad and subsequently my mom. Ah Por and family were all from "tong shan" (Tangshan), China. My mom remembers that every festive occasion, lots of special food had to be prepared like in the old village days. It did not matter if financial circumstances it or not. Ah Por was always insistent of the old ways.

However, these special occasions were often marred by fights and quarrels when the family gathered. A couple of times, the dining room's sole light bulb would be knocked out sending glass pieces showering down on the generous food spread below. It was disappointing for my mom after slaving hours at the stove and so one time, she told Ah Por not to hold anymore celebratory feasts if the fights were to go on. My mom was then in her early teens. But despite her age, she had never been afraid to speak her mind.

However, it was through these feasts that my mom honed her cooking skills. Ah Por would ask for various tongshan foods to be cooked: yam cake, tapioca cake, "fatt go", etc. Even the cooking did not always go peacefully. There was a girl who shared kitchen duties with my mom. She would steal my mom's lighted charcoal each time. Never once would she bother to return the favour.

"She would also steal the use of my family soap. Back then, we all used this bar soap that we could cut into smaller blocks and air them on the bathroom ventilation sill. When hardened, it would last longer. But this girl, Un Nui, would take them and never replace. Because of her, we would always quarrel. And she would say some very mean things. This made living there very unpleasant," said my mom.

So, after the drama of my mom's parents' death, into this new quarrelsome family my mom went.

At the time, she had a few 'mothers' to call her own. It was not yet decided but that would soon change. One day, Kok Leong-sum's daughter came looking for my mom. -She had traveled all the way from Ipoh. She said my mother was to accompany her back to Malaysia to live with Kok Leong-sum. My mom was happy as she had found Kok Leong-sum to be kind and generous. She also believed that being a teacher, Kok Leong-sum would give her an education. Not many girls had a chance to do that at the time. My mom was smart and loved to learn so she was looking forward to joining First Wife Kok Leong-sum in Ipoh.

Having packed her few belongings into a cloth bundle, she was about to leave with Lala when Say-ku unexpectedly returned from her daily mahjong session. She asked where my mom was leaving to. She stopped them both when she learnt the reason. Or rather, she stopped my mom. "Go tell your mom since I am without child, Ah Ying (my mom's name) should be be mine," she told Lala.

With that, she chased Lala away. My mom could only stand by the doorway and watch Lala disappear down the stairs. That was the last time she saw her.

My mom would forever afterwards look back on that fateful day and wonder what could have been. At about the same time, Kok Leung-suk's fate would take a twist and my mom's life would change again, but not for the better.

In his government job, Kok Leung-suk was found guilty of taking bribes and then convicted and sentenced to 3+ years in jail. According to my mom, Kok Leung-suk did not finger anybody, he took the rap himself - why the longer jail term.

Kok Leung-suk was also into debt, some $3000. My mom would borrow a $100 to slowly repay the debt with $5 as interest each time. Slowly, the interest mounted.

To make ends meet, my mom then had to stop schooling so Ng-ku's children could continue with their education. By right, my mom was the eldest and she should have been given priority. But she was an outsider and Say-ku insisted the boys came first. She was in particular referring to Ng-ku's eldest Ah Sek. In effect, my mom had to give up her education for him. Not only that, she had to earn income to supplement what the now jailed Kok Leung-suk could not provide. And the two ladies were not the sort to do hard labour.

Fortunately for them, Kok Leung-suk earned a bit of luck. Queen Elizabeth II ascended the throne in 1953 and in so doing, an amnesty was declared all over the Commonweath. After serving a year plus in jail, he was released. That might have been good news but Kok Leung-suk was still the wine-and-dine philanderer he'd always been. He cared little about family. Thus the family situation remained uncertain. My mom remembers always having to ask Kok Leung-suk for household/marketing money or else he would conveniently forget.

One day, my mom found a suitcase containing some $10,000 under a bed. Kok Leung-suk had stashed it there for safekeeping. She told Ng-ku and Say-ku about it and suggested that they take it and start a life somewhere new.

A life without Kok Leung-suk was no different than their present circumstances. But the two women refused. Not only that, they then went out and "yum cha" as if to celebrate the fact that Kok Leung-suk was not poor. My mom was flabbergasted. How stupid could these two women be?

As years went on, and as my mom got older, she had to find work to support her adopted family. One time, at age 17, she had to work as a tea dance hostess to help clear the debts. It must have been tough on my mom as she had always been prim and proper. But my mom had also a steely resolve. Coupled with a quick wit and a good sense of humour, she could make light of any unpleasant situation. By 17, she had met a man who would take care of her. They would later have a child.

But it was meeting my dad that her life-situation changed for the better. My dad's family was well-off and owned several properties. My mom leveraged on that to give fly to her natural enterpreneurial instincts. She traded in jade and tried her hand at starting a chicken farm. Eggs were a precious commodity back then, especially the large, white ones. But a dishonest partner put an end to that.

She recalls this: "I gave my partner the seed money to start the business, but he would always come back to ask for more. I wondered how much chickens could eat in a single day! I later confronted the feed merchant about this but my partner was smart and would present himself there each time. The feed merchant couldn't say anything with him present. But one time, out of earshot, the merchant lady whispered, 'You better not carry on with this business.' To further confirm my suspicions I went and visited my partner's home. He was not in at the time but a neighbour pulled me aside and told me that the man was up to no good. 'He would burn incense and curse you bad luck once you leave,' she said. The next day, I returned on the pretext to discuss business. I purposely left an umbrella behind. True enough, once I left, he would burn incense and curse me behind my back. I asked him what he was doing. He gave no reply and became shifty. There and then I decided to end any business dealing with him. Previously, each time I visited, he would lay out a big spread of food and drink. On this occasion, he did not even offer me drink of plain water. I was so disappointed with his hypocrisy that I just wanted to drop the whole thing. I did not even want my share of the investment back. It would have been a figure of about $600-$700. Not a small sum then.

"This episode taught me that certain people cannot be trusted at all. They not only cheat you of money, they would curse you to hell as well," she said, rather ruefully.

I felt bad for my mom when she told me this story of her life. I've known her to be an easy-going lady, someone who made friends easily. She was not a calculative person and would give you her share of food if you had none. But I guess that was an important lesson for her to learn in business. We kids also understood later why she would always warn us to be extra careful of friends who asked for favours. To be able to distinguish between the genuine and the fake.

In my own dealings, I've come across folks who would borrow money from you just so they did not have to use their own funds. It was quite rampant in the 1990s when investment in shares and stocks was taking off. But seriously, a person who cheats you of money and burns incense to wish you ill is truly diabolical and evil. Have these people no conscience at all?

Previous stories: Small Figurines; Next story: My Mom's Story II
Related story 1: Crazy Aunties; Related story 2: A Firecracker Fight Related story 3: A Life in Jade

Colorised B&W photo of my mom from My mom was a fan of Doris Day's dresses.
This pic from 1956 when she was 22 (It think).

Small Figurines

As a kid in Geylang, I couldn't wait to grow up quickly enough. I wanted to be 'big' enough to play basketball with the older kids in our backlane, ride a motorbike, drive my dad's ridiculously long Volvo station-wagon, and to walk into one of the many cabaret bars in Geylang to see for myself what the fuss was all about.

The very pale ladies in silky robes that emerged from the bars in the morning with a cigarette or glass of brandy in hand also added to the mystery. Why did my mom say these places were bad? Were these pale ladies vampires? Did vampires also smoked and drank?

Christopher Lee's vampire was sometimes on TV. The only thing he drank was blood. Maybe the brownish stuff in the ladies' drink was diluted blood, not brandy. After all, the police would know if anybody drank blood, right? Folks would go missing. Folks like that vagabond who lived on our neighbour's staircase landing and who would disappear for weeks on end. We seldom saw him in the day too!

Now that I am older and not so vampire-frightened, my worries come in a different form and shadow. I worry about my continued good health; I worry about how long my aging mom would still be with us. I know it is a topic all growing-up children worry about at some point in their lives. We all want our parents to be with us forever in good health and in good humour. Not ravaged by illness or a nasty temper. Nor bewrapped in stinky diaper.

I also wonder what I should do with my mom's beautiful collections of figurines when she goes. They are in showcase cupboards which I do not have space in my apartment for. Unless I throw something out. My housemate?

My mom has this habit of collecting and arranging stuff in a glass cupboard for display. She has a particular fondness for jade and tiny figurines.

I don't know when this habit began but when I was very young, I remember we having a longish display case full of preserved exotic insects. There were stick insects, dung beetles, dragonflies, grasshoppers, butterflies, etc. All were placed with deliberate thought in a setting made of driftwood, twigs, dried leaves and ferns. Though the insects were all dead and preserved, they looked very much alive. Only the pin through their thorax gave any indication that they would be stuck there for eternity.

Come to think of it, my mom's hobby could have begun when she started helping a neighbour paint some plastic bendy toys for extra money. I remember the Pink Panther and Snaggle Puss ones. They were just thin rubber toys with a flexible, wire skeleton. A simple construction, but you can pose them anyhow you want!

When we moved to our new home in the north, we had a huge display shelf running the width of our living room. On it my mom would place stuff to exhibit. Among the items was a Chinese scenery scene carved out of cork. I'm sure you have seen these before. She would also have those small Chinese display racks that held miniature porcelain plates or cups.

When my mom again moved to a bigger home later, her hobby grew too. This time, she purposely made cupboards with see-through glass fronts. They were tinted a little to help protect the things inside from UV light.

Her collection soon consisted of popular toys from MacDonald Happy Meals and KFC. She also had collections of small cat figurines, small vases, assorted animals, miniature deities, etc. All in all, they would take up some three to four standalone cabinets.

In one new cupboard, there's a piece of driftwood especially painted in gold for a flower arrangement. I like this piece. It hints of Japanese ikebana kado but is all-Chinese. It says in sum what my mom is all about: She might have had little formal schooling but she's all wit, humour and artist rolled into one. Even the art of preserving insects she experimented and learnt on her own. Not bad for someone who had to look after six kids full-time at the time.

I have also picked up the habit. I think this kind of thing is part of one's DNA. I remember once reading about a set of identical twins separated at birth. They grew up in separate countries but both liked to wear flannel shirts and chose wives with the same first names. What's even more amazing is that both had built a bench around a tree in their respective gardens.

So I guess my mom's habit of building collections is in my blood, only that I like to display things that I've picked up from my travels only. -That and good quality miniature cars. I don't do flower arrangement but used to give my girlfriends handpicked and self-arranged ones. I like to sculpt but only in my head. I don't have living space for the real thing!

Previous story: Meeting Dai Ma; Next story: My Mom's Story I

Habits die hard. My mom still displayed miniature stuff on
on her shelves after moving to a smaller, more manageable
apartment. Previously, the figures were in display cabinets.  

Another thing my mom liked collecting were these airline
wine sample bottles. Some still sporting old MAS logos.

Vintage and new. I did own a Mini Sport once. ;-)

An assemblage of knicknacks. ;-)

Meeting Dai Ma

Shortly after I turned six, I came to know that I had another mother. I was on a scooter ride with my dad and he had brought me to visit a 'friend'. This friend was a woman who lived in a temple of sorts in Kim Keat.

It was when my dad asked me to call her "dai ma" that I began to wonder about her. 'Dai' is the Cantonese word for big, meaning also 'first'. By asking me to call this woman dai ma, my dad was essentially saying this woman was his first wife.

I didn't quite understand all this at the time. My dad was a strict disciplinarian and I often did as I was told. And so I called her 'dai ma' - softly at first as I felt strange calling another woman my mom. But dad would reprimand and say to voice it louder. I reluctantly did so, else any disobedience would bring a sharp slap up the back of my head. It was his habit, something my mom disliked. What if they became stupid, was her repose.

I don't know when my mom got wind of this 'other' woman. I think it was my younger sister who let the cat out of the bag. From that day onwards, this dai ma became The Other Woman. My mom would curse and swear everytime this Other Woman was mentioned. And she would tell us to never call her Dai Ma. We kids were then caught between a rock and a hard place. So we would do one thing and afterwards confess to another. None of  us were happy. But we were mostly on our mom's side. We later got to know that this Other Woman had adopted a child. Her name was Ah Woon. Mother did not have kind words for her either. It did not help that this girl was rather vain.

My mom, true to her generation, would always lament that my dad was under this Other Woman's spell or "kong tow" (Cantonese for black magic). She would often visit her temple medium friend in Marine Parade to get counter measures. I'm not sure if they were effective at all.

This Other Woman was very unlike my mom. She had a lean and longish face and was skinny. She smoked (well, my dad smoked too) and from what I could tell, she ran a mahjong den beneath a temple in Kim Keat. She could talk to men folk like they were her buddies. And she was much older than my dad. (More the reason my mom believed it was kong tow at work.)

My dad would years later send me an old photograph. It pictured him standing with this Other Woman in front of a small white bungalow. Underneath the photo were the words, "My first wife." His first wife? It was the first time he made such an open admission.

Well, after so many years, I was not shocked any more. We had suspected as much. My mom's theory is that this first wife could not give birth, why my dad went and married the second time. This second union produced six kids: Me and my siblings.

What I don't know is if my granddad knew anything about this. He and his generation of guys usually had one or more wives. Some wives were even sisters. We cannot really judge them because in those times women had little economic opportunities. When times got bad, they would become less picky and just marry for survival. If a guy could provide home and board, it was better than being homeless and worse, a bargirl or prostitute. And some guys did have a gift of the gab and wandering loins.

My grandad was well-off, so he ought not to have a shortage of women eyeing to be his second or third wife either. It was said he had four, most of them staying in the Bukit Timah and Lavender Street areas. He started his workshop business there and later expanded into real estate. His workshop building is still there in that wonderful row of shophouses, the ones with the angular balconies. They have been conserved and now exist as part of a condominium. You can see them just outside V Hotel topside of Lavender MRT station.

My grandad was a soft-spoken man with a beautiful head of silver hair. It is sad that I got to know him late and did not get to record the events in his life as I would now as a Memory Corp ambassador. He had thirteen children. The last I saw him was on his death bed in a hospital. Prior to that, he lived in his big Chinese-style bungalow in Duke Road, Bukit Timah. I would visit him with my parents and enjoy plucking fruits like chiku and rambutans from his garden. We would also pick frangipani flowers from his driveway and used them as tea leaves for a herbal drink.

Years later, my sis would meet up with my dad to get some answers from him. He had no good ones to give. He was staying with Ah Woon and her kids then and he confessed that they were just waiting for him to die to collect their inheritance. I could only sigh when I heard that. That's what that can happen when the kids are not of your blood and genes. But then again, good parenting can help void that. And it was apparent my dad hadn't been a good parent to either family. I wonder what my grandad would say or do about his son's sorry situation. Give him a good smack up the back of his head? That would be nice to watch.

(Afternote: I later found out that my dad's first wife was another woman. She left him after finding out that he had a mistress. That mistress was dai ma.)

Previous story: Mahjong Session; Next story: Small Figurines

Mahjong Session

In my 20s, whenever people learned that I was Cantonese, they would naturally assume that I could play mahjong. And when they also learned that I was from Geylang, they would assume my skill level to be very high!

Well, these folks were not too far off in their assumptions.

I learned to play mahjong at a very young age, even before primary school. You can say it was my education in lieu of kindergarten. With so much fun in the back lanes of Geylang, we kids did not have time to go home, let alone attend preschool!

I have six other siblings. We all learned to play mahjong watching my mom move her tiles. She would teach us as we stood beside her during a session. My mom's mahjong sessions were often at a neighbour's house opposite ours (see pix). That neighbour was Ah Lam-soh. (Madam Ah Lam, that is)

From the back circular staircase of our apartment, we could look into her kitchen across a back lane. Their apartment proper faced Lor 17 whilst ours faced Sims Avenue. In Geylang, the back of our houses all emptied into back alleys. We could talk/shout to one another and watch each other's back, so-to-speak. Once we open our back door or roll up that kitchen bamboo blind, we could see and talk to one another. I miss that kind of open-plan interaction.

Ah Lam-soh and my mom got along well. Her children were about our age and we would play together while my mom and her mahjong kakis got on with their pastime. If we children didn't stay in the house, we would be in the back lane chasing after one another in some sort of game - be it hopscotch, soccer, etc.

Of course, at one stage, I got very interested in mahjong and would stick by my mom's side to learn more. She welcomed that. Mahjong is a bit like cards. It has suits and running numbers as well as directional and specially named tiles. There are also 'flower' tiles that number from 1 to 4. And you can play the game with joker tiles as well (they function just like the jokers in playing cards). With joker tiles, the game finishes much faster.

The mahjong I learned as a kid was based on the old Flower system where the winner may not be the one who captures the winning tile. The Flower system allocates points according to the kind of hand you have. So even if you are the one who "wu" or gamed, and if your hand was weaker, you could still be paying out more. The modern game has a winner-takes-all system. Besides, in the old Flower system mahjong game, you have to count and add up the points according to the tiles you have and manner of gaming. Figure out who pay who and by how much.

I remember this Flower system to be troublesome when real money was used. The points could translate into odd sums. With the new Hong Kong/Taiwanese style of playing, the sums are always in "fans" or multiples. If the base is 50 cents, then one fan $1. Two fans is $2, and three fans, $4, and so on in multiples ad infinitum.

The more fans you have when you game, the more money you would win.

So the aim of a HK/Taiwanese mahjong game is to build a hand so well as to win many multiples. And since only one player can win, there is no worry that the hand you have is weaker than the other players. You collect what is due you. Suppose your gaming hand is worth 6 fans, then you would win: (at 50 cents base): $1/$2/$4/$8/$16/$32 = $32.

The base amount (50 cents)  is what you get when you game without a fan. Usually gaming without a fan is considered amatuerish, and most games exclude that. Some seasoned players even set a minimum fan to game. In Cantonese, the base game is called "gai wu" or 'chicken gaming'. In my family, we usually allow a gai wu if a weak player is involved. But it is not much fun because winning at a basic level means there is no need to build a strong hand. (Imagine building a strong hand to be later "sabo-ed" by an easy chicken-gaming hand!)

In the fan way of playing, the person who throws the gaming tile has to pay double. This rule makes players think more carefully about the tile they want to discard. It is not so in the Flower system of playing. If you have a good hand, you just try to game. So, not much skill is developed in trying to out-play (or out-fan) another player. Luck hence plays a bigger role in the Flower system.

Up till the late-80s, mahjong was still played the Flower system way in Singapore and across the Causeway in Malaysia. Slowly but surely, it was edged out by the simpler and more straight-forward HK/Taiwanese way of playing.

Regardless of which system is used, there are many ways to play mahjong. My mom's approach is to be sensible. She'd lose less and win more. Another way to play is to go for broke. This is fine if all four players do the same. And mahjong can be played by three players instead of four. But the pace is very quick!

I have never paid much attention to mahjong, always treating it as a family social game to be played during Chinese New Year. As a social game our stakes are small, so no one would really go all out to win one. It's all left to chance and a little bit of skill. We rather expend the energy to chit-chat while clacking the tiles.

It was only when I started playing with my Engineering classmates that it got really competitive. Partly as a matter of pride and partly for bragging rights. But mostly, we were just trying to game in all sorts of  combinations to win BIG. So playing a strong hand became habit.

My uncle and aunty used to marvel at my skill. They really thought I had some wonderous skill bordering on the supernatural.

They forget that when four players play a certain way, luck has a part in it. If I'm lucky, I really cannot explain why. But then again, you have to position yourself to take advantage of that kind of luck. It's playing statistics to your advantage.

But over time this uncle/wife couple got so besotted with being 'mahjong gods' that they lost quite a bit of money. In the end, they swore off the game. Really, being highly educated folks, they should have known better.

For me, although I play well, I usually find playing mahjong beyond "two dongs" or two East winds, rather boring. Well, unless you have a few whiskey buddies to play and talkcock with at the same time. Really, there's nothing better than that. And always only play mahjong with people for social, not monetary gains. Being a good loser tells a lot about a person. And set the rule beforehand to say that the biggest winner must buy supper; it tops the evening-social best.

And it's not just the Chinese who play mahjong; I know Indians who enjoy the game too.

I had an Engineering classmate, Guna, who would not stand by idly to watch us Chinese boys play. He wanted to learn, so we taught him.

At the beginning, he would use a code sheet to help him tell apart the Chinese character tiles. When I saw that, I asked him to put it aside and to just remember the tiles by sight. He soon learned the words after a short practice. He was most grateful for my intervention.

Guna also got good at points-counting, i.e. summing. We were playing with Malaysians so we used the old Flower system of play (Guna himself was a Malaysian as well).

At the time, many Malaysians would leave their hometowns to study and work in Singapore. Our country's exchange rate was much more favourable so the guys would work, save money and return to Malaysia to do get married or settle down.

Frankly, Singapore's Engineering sector would not have grown nor flourished without these Malaysian counterparts. Quite a number of them settled here as PRs too. It's great to have friends who come from another country; you learn not a few things. And I've learnt that over a game of mahjong and some whiskey, one can learn even more!

Previous story: Unusual Eating Habits; Next story: Meeting Dai Ma

Below: View of Ah Lam-soh's apartment (2nd level) from our home's back-balcony. We lived on the 3rd floor. Pix taken Oct 2012 (note the dilapidated state today). Many of the apartments are now rented out to PRC workers of restaurants or factories there.