Saturday, August 13, 2011

Eat and Play

That sandy patch next to my school canteen (see blog Big Field Wild Fence) was where we played games like skipping, marbles and sa ku lei often during recess. Skipping was played mostly by the girls whereas marbles and sa ku lei were played by the boys. But we did have a dialect-speaking girl who was very good at sa ku lei.

Two types of marble games we played. One involved a tough, beige colored marble that was about 1.5 inches in diameter. The other game involved colorful small glass marbles commonly found in fish tanks and containers of water-based plants such as the Money plant. 

The tough marble was called goli or tua goli (big marble). You play a game with it from a heel-sized hole in the ground. The game was simply called Goli and this was how we played it: To start, a line is drawn some distance away from the hole (depending on how big the playground is). Players then try to roll their golies into the shallow hole. The one whose goli enters or lands nearest the hole will start. The one who lands furthest away will become the 'pasang' (target) fella. The starter picks up the pasang goli and drops it at arm's length in front of himself (or whichever direction he so desires). He will then try to knock the goli with his own. If he manages a direct hit, this pasang goli would be knocked some distance away.

The pasang fella then picks up his goli and tries to throw it back to the hole. If he succeeds, the game is over. If not, the next person gets a chance to go at it. If on throwing back, the pasang goli lands not in the hole but a foot or less away, this becomes a "jat" situation. In this case, the next person to hit will have to stand with one leg erect (in the hole) to hit the pasang goli. He can hit the goli in any way he likes - such as between his legs, which was common.

Every hitter must keep a leg in the hole. If he fails to do so, his hit will be disqualified and the pasang goli is replaced and the next person will then have a go.

Golies for this game often came in two types: The tough beige ones and the weaker white ones. The white ones were slightly bigger but more fragile, hence cheaper. They often split into two when hit hard (which made me wonder why buy it at all!). Another way to hit harder and further is to wrap the goli in a handkerchief and swing it like a slingshot. It wasn't a nice thing to do as it seemed like bullying the poor pasang fella! But then, pasang is pasang!

We often bought our golies from a vendor outside the school back gate. He would come on his tricycle laden with toys, snacks, stickers, etc., to entice us. Much later, I would discover that he graduated to owning a toy/snack shop under a block of flats in Marine Terrace (Marine Parade). Great for him, I thought. He's still there. The shop has turned into a houseware sundry shop. But a corner was keep for toys and stickers. His daughter said it was kept out of his dad's fond sentiment of his pioneering days. How sweet!

Oh, this goli game can also be played with a circle drawn. If a pasang goli is still within this limit, it can still be hit by the next person in queue. Only when the pasang goli has left the circle can it be then thrown back at the hole. Sometimes the pasang fella will opt not to throw his goli back into the hole but somewhere near. He would hope that his goli is not shot at and hence have a better chance of holing it nearer.

The other marble game we played involved the small glass ones. We would place the marbles in a small circle (one foot in diameter?) and try to hit them out. The ones out would be picked up and owned. Everyone would contribute the same amount of marbles at the start. A good hitter will try to spin his scoring marble so that more marbles would be knocked out. It's quite the technique! And if your scoring marble lands in the circle, you have to replace any marble that has been knocked out and give up your turn. If not, you can continue after all the marbles have been owned.

The game starts with two lines drawn some two meters apart with the circle placed slightly after the last line. To decide who starts, each will throw his marble out. The order of play  follows who lands nearest to the line. Touching the line is tops! But if more than one person does that, a second round of deciding will be carried out.

Sa Ku Lei is quite the same. But this time, only two lines are drawn. Two persons compete to see who can throw their coin or washer (the bolt and nut sort) nearest. The one who loses has to carry the other person on his back, pick up the coins/washer (whilst still carrying the victor) and then stand behind the line. He would pass the coins/washers to the person on his back. This person would throw the loser's coin in front and try to hit it with his own. If he succeeds, the loser will have to carry him to the opposite line after picking up the coins/washers (a challenge with the guy still on his back). The game continues until the last victor misses. He then gets off the back of the loser and they can then decide whether to start the game afresh. It is common to find four pairs starting at the same time.

Our canteen also sold toys sometimes, especially those that came with sweets and candies. A particular one I remember (and still own) came with a paper tube of sugared coconut shavings that no kid could resist. The toy itself was a disk held by a loop of string (two pin holes side-by-side in the middle). To start, the loop of string is stretched over the middle fingers. It is then wound up by twirling the disk round and round. Then, by pulling on the now twisted string, the disc would spin and wind again. It's a toy that depends on having a good momentum. Two players could then 'fight' each other by pitting their discs against one another. Most times the fragile discs would chip and break from violent contact. It must seem dangerous today but back then, we didn't worry too much about such things. We simply bought a new one and played on. I think our school later banned the toy. Really, the broken plastic chips could fly into the eyes!

This school ban made this game even more dangerous later. We would make the discs out of flattened bottle caps instead. So instead of fragile plastic, the discs became sharp metal! They could really cut fingers. I would usually use this kind of spinning disc to 'polish' concrete so as to watch sparks fly. I believe this disc game was called Yeh Yeh back then.

One snack that got us all totally hooked was called satay. It's not your typical satay but thin and triangular slices of some kind of sweet, sticky meat on a stick. The meat was some kind of dried fish or jellyfish supposedly BBQed. However, eating them now, they taste full of MSG - maybe why we kids got hooked last time. Still, this snack was utterly addictive. At the time, each stick cost five cents each and we ate it often after school waiting for our school buses. Today, they are sold in fan-shaped packs of a dozen sticks each or so at the supermarkets or shops like Uncle Tidbit, imported mostly from Malaysia and Thailand. (One brand lists the ingredients to include jelly fish, starch, salt, sugar, chillies and vegetable oil.)

Recess time was always a frenzied time of buying food, gulping it down and then play. Because I was very active, my mom would always tell me not to eat the yellow noodles as they were filling and I would get a tummy ache if I ran around. As a result, I often queued up for beehoon (rice vermicelli) in soup instead.

The beehoon soup came with fishball slices and fried shallots. It has a simple but lovely aroma - why to this day I still have a preference for beehoon over the other types of noodles. It'd cost 20 cents for a bowl then. The lady at the Chinese noodle knew me well. I just have to turn up and she knows I would order fishball beehoon!

Another dish I liked in my school canteen was Mee Rebus. Nothing fancy, just yellow noodles and gravy. But it was quite flavourful because the gravy was made with small dried shrimps and topped with taupok and beansprouts. The mee rebus was served up on small enameled metal plates. For some reason, I remember the ones with the colour lilac and red trim best. Because the plate was enameled, parts of it would get chipped and rusted from knocking while washing. They looked rustic and rather charming in that way.

I once had the same kind of simple mee rebus in the 90s, but it could only be found across the Causeway in a row of shophouses just right after the lorry customs on the right next to the sea. Needless to say, it was popular because it was simply delicious!

The other food fetish was curry puff. The lady who sold it would give it to you on a small piece of recycled exercise book paper or tracing paper. On the counter would be a bowl of orange-coloured chilli sauce. We kids absolutely loved to drench the curry puff with this sauce. It's actually a chilli sauce that had garlic and lime in it - something akin to the chilli sauce that accompanies chicken rice today but not quite the same. So far, I only know one place that still serve up this chilli sauce: the snack bar at the canteen in Yishun Polyclinic (the old one next to Khoo teck Phuat Hospital). What a discovery after all these years! Sadly, the proprietors changed after the polyclinic shifted location to be nearer the bus terminus.

For drinks, the most popular and common one was Pineapple Juice. Not the thick concentrated yellow juice that we find in drink cans today (e.g. the Lee brand) but the one that has been diluted and sweetened to a clear yellow-orangey colour and sold in a transparent acrylic tub. At the bottom would be small triangular slices of pineapple to add flavour. Whenever the drinks lady served up her drink, she would first churn the bottom of the tub to unsettle the pineapple slices. She would then scoop the drink and some pineapple slices into the glass (we all drank from glasses with no straws then; hygiene was such). After the drink, the pineapple slices would often stick to the bottom of the glass - why there would always be plastic cocktail forks on hand. There would also be a bowl of dark soy sauce with cut chilli too. Everybody knew at the time pineapple went well with that. With a little added sugar, it was even better!

At the corner end of the canteen was a guy selling cakes/creamed bread buns and kueh-kueh. Cream buns were very popular back then. Kids often snacked on these when there was nothing else to eat. The sweet buttery cream would burst through the centre at each bite. It was a great treat for those of us starved of western buttery delights! If not this, then it was the local bun with coconut filling.

The same stallholder also sold another popular snack that was a precursor to the popular Monster instant noodle snack of the 80s that kids still eat today. This potato stick snack are currently sold in Japan Home and those $2-a-pack biscuit shops. Damn chockful of MSG!

The snack is still the same orangey colour. Instead of short sticks (about 1 cm), it now comes in small puffed squares. During my school time, this snack was packed in small clear plastic packs like most "kiam sern ti" (sour/sweet treats) that were sold. We would bite off a corner to get to the main contents, often in mid-stride running to another recess playtime engagement! Haha!

One popular cake from this stall was a small butter one that is shaped like a chef's hat (see butter cup cake pix below). A small piece of tracing paper wrapped around its middle. But as it was butter cake, this piece of paper often got very oily and unpleasant!

Another popular snack during primary school was a cordial drink frozen in solid ice tubes called "sern pow" (Hokkien). Packed in a thin, tubular plastic bag, you have to bite off a corner end to suck at it. My fave flavour was orange.

A later one was sweet plum with the she mui (salted plum) visible at the bottom. This sern pow was a great bit of ice to suck on and run about with - which we often did. Most shops still sell sern pow with their stick ice cream today but at one time, the plastic tube used was not the same thin polystyrene type. It was thicker and came with its own twist-off tab. Since 2011, I've noticed the old sern pow coming back. It sold for 30 cents, a far cry from the 5-cents we used to pay. In a matter of months this 30-cent price went up to 50 cents - quite ridiculous even in a time of rising food prices.

In class, we had milk. It was part of the school's milk program to help skinny kids grow.

The milk came in individual hand-sized plastic packs that often flopped about in the shallow bin trays that were brought to class on Milk Day. These trays would end up sloshing with spilled milk. The milk packs were white with a silhouette print of a cow. The color of the print would indicate the flavour. There was vanilla, strawberry and chocolate. We kids loved the chocolate and would rush to be the first to get our hands on that. I found vanilla to be quite nice too. I remember strawberry flavour being a little too strong for my liking. But I must confess, sometimes the smell of all that milk in the bin tray made me want to puke.

Yes, recess time was a time we kids looked forward to after some periods of tedium in class. If we got too active, we would return with sweat and grime. We all carried handkerchiefs then, so it was no big deal. Sometimes we washed up in the toilets before going back to class. In those situations, the handkerchiefs came in handy and we would hang them out along the edge of our tables to dry. I sometimes wondered what our teachers thought of that.

Back then my siblings and I got our pocket money on the day itself. It was usually 50 cents (if I was taking the school bus then). I always carried a sling water bottle. After spending 20 cents on a bowl of beehoon, I would still have 30 cents left. That's quite a bit still and I would reserve it for snacks outside of school while waiting for the school bus. In that open space, were quite a number of hawkers.

A man sold his peanut candy bars. The block bars were beaten and rolled out with a large F&N glass drinks bottle. An old lady sold mark ar tong (Cantonese, a kind of twisted malt candy) from a small metal pail. Another hawker couple sold waffles from an iron griddle from a tricycle stall. I loved the waffles but could seldom afford them. The peanut candy was great but they stuck to the teeth too easily. Eating mark ar tong was like licking a lollipop.

Fortunately, I can still get these treats if I want to. An old lady used to sell that mark ar tong in Holland Village, stationing herself and her small metal pail next to that large Indian mama shop well known for its array of magazines. This old lady would twist the malt candy out with two short sticks for a dollar. For the peanut bar, I would get it from Sin Thye Cake Shop along Sembawang Road (just after Khatib Camp). A Hokkien friend was thrilled to discover this place. He had also eaten the same as a child. For waffles, they are sold everywhere nowadays, especially at neighbourhood cakeshops. But there's a distinction: They are mostly pandan flavoured. In the old days they were yellow, unflavoured and crispier. Still, waffles are waffles what with their unmistakable aroma. It's an aroma that brings back sweet, sweet memories of a bygone time!

Next story: An Artful Teacher

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