Wednesday, July 27, 2011


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.

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