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