Thursday, September 22, 2011

Free Clinic

If you have read my very first blog story in July, you'd know that I was born premature. Because of that, and for a very long time, my mom thought I had hernia. Sure, my bollocks were not balanced (a condition I put down to development, not affliction). In time, I would be proven right.

Nevertheless, my mom took this one symptom of hernia and named it upon me. So growing up I was constantly advised not to exert or strain myself too much. I sometimes believed (erroneously) that my good testicle would overwork and burst like a shower, leaving me an eunuch with a high-pitched woman's voice. Ah doi!

Fortunately, I was an active kid and proved many times that I could run, jump and roll around as well as any non-hernia boy. The affliction thus became non-physical, more like a mysterious rash that needed to be gotten rid of. I did what every filial son would do: obliged my goodhearted mom and consumed her various medical concoctions without complaint. It was the same with the many trips to the Chinese "yee sung" or doctors, and to the TCM shops to buy Lo Fu Nai, or Tiger's Milk (see first blog entry, A Premature Baby). I liked getting out of the house so it was a non-issue for me. Plus, going out with my mom, there would always be something new to eat.

Fierce geese
In Geylang, there was a popular free Chinese clinic somewhere along Lor 20 or thereabouts. It was not exactly free, but a visit with prescribed medicine cost only 10 cents. It was only 5 cents if you returned the empty medicine bottle.

Because it was so cheap, my mum brought us many siblings there whenever we were sick. The medicines we got back from that dispensary were often in solution form and dark brown. That colour itself set alarm bells going. It meant that the meds were face-scrunchingly bitter to swallow - and they always were. But that's TCM. If it wasn't bitter, it wouldn't be Chinese medicine. Today, dispensaries add fruit peel extract to make it palatable, especially for the younger patients. My mom would help chase that bitter taste away by giving us some preserved fruit tidbits. Small packets of sourly, stringy stuff that my sister YF also liked.

Oftentimes we kids would go back to the clinic ourselves to take home additional medicines. On several occasions, I remember being chased by geese that wandered about the area. It wasn't in Lor 20 but a couple of streets away along a path that ran parallel to a block of apartments some four to five storeys high. It was painted in light blue and still is. Always there's this one aggressive gander that did the posturing, chasing, and pecking. The rest of the flock just followed his lead.

Dr Phang
If we were sick and needed a Western doctor, my mom would bring us to Phang Clinic. This clinic was situated along Geylang Road somewhere between Lor 27A and Lor 28 and run by a GP and his kind and elegant wife. We became their regular patients and they became good friends with my mom. We stayed in touch even after we moved away from Geylang years later. Whenever my mom visited her medium friend in Marine Parade, she would also drop by to see Dr Phang and his wife. They were a nice and patient couple with no airs about them. Like my mom, Dr Phang's wife was also interested in jade.

Despite the many changes in Geylang over the years, Phang Clinic remained in its location for a very long time. I think it closed only quite recently or had moved away from its present location. I don't see the clinic these days when I drive along Geylang Rd. However, I can still locate it on Google Map.

Visiting Dr Phang's clinic, I did not just get better educated on health and hygiene matters (the many wall posters). The good doctor liked to read National Geographic and would put out issues he had read in his clinic's waiting area. NG was not a common magazine back then. It was expensive both new and old. As a kid, I've seen old copies being sold at Sungei Road Market. The pictures of exotic animals and tribesmen would fascinate me, not to mention the well- illustrated infographics. There were the odd pull-outs and extra posters. I was most tempted to pinch these but the thought of depriving the next reader banished any such thoughts!

TCM - As good
Having been an oft-patient of these two schools of medicine, I've developed an open mind towards their methods and cures. Of late, I liked TCM better because it has improved a lot. It could cure the many general illnesses that plague us as quickly as targeted Western medicine can. In other words, TCM too have their Panadol quick cures.

As a Chinese, I think TCM works better with my body's constitution. In any case, I'm used to it, whether it is to swallow a bunch of small round pills (often eight at a go) or to consume a concoction brewed out of bitter herbs.

A recent bout of illness convinced me that TCM deserves better respect. In many crucial areas like eczema, high fever, internal injuries and spinal nerve rebuilding, TCM triumphs over Western med. But because TCM is still seen as a non-targeted remedy, some folks consider it more 'feel' than science.

But in truth TCM do have many targeted cures. If you are sick, it can send you right back to work after a couple of days of MC. You need not lie in bed to wait for that bowl of medicine - a scene commonly played out in Chinese stories and movies. Few people die or have allergies to TCM.

Mystery illness
Some years ago, I mysteriously came down with a cough after eating some chilli. I was very surprised as I am a frequent chilli and curry eater. I seldom also if ever come down with cough or sore throat before.

As a matter of fact, I consider myself someone with a rather strong and resilient throat. I have never smoked nor drank and led a rather healthy lifestyle. So, for that to happen, it was extremely puzzling and distressing.

In any case, the cough got very bad, especially at night. It became phlegmy and gave me a headache too, not to mention chest pains from some very bone-wracking coughs. I could not eat anything that was oily, chilli, curry, coffee nor chocolate. Each time I did, my throat would irritate and produce phlegm. It went on for two long years.

During this time I searched the WWW a lot and learnt to make various nourishment soups. But while they seemed to work for other people with chronic coughs, they had no effect on me whatsoever. In between soups, I went to see my GP. As expected, he gave me all kinds of cough syrup and antibiotics (narrow spectrum, broad spectrum). But none worked. In the end, he was so desperate he asked if I would try asthma medicine. I told him no. I might have had 'hernia' but I definitely knew I did not have asthma. So I stopped seeing him.

Search for a cure
It was then that I decided to see my Chinese doctor, someone I knew since my teens. But good as he was, I did not agree with his diagnosis. He kept insisting that I was 'heaty' because of my type of phlegm. I'm not a young fella anymore so I ought to know if I was heaty or not. I had also not consumed fried foods very much. In the end, I ate half the medicines he gave me and found them quite useless. The rest I threw away.

One day, while travelling past a block of flats, I saw a Chung Hwa Free Clinic sign. It made me smile as I remembered the free clinic of my youth. (I think that old clinic was run by Red Swastika or some "man zhi wui" society) Right then it occurred to me to go see CHFC about my cough. I knew they were a big chain with many clinics so maybe within that population of doctors, one might know a cure to my condition. It turned out to be quite the inspired idea.

I visited that Chung Hwa free-clinic near my home. I am not sure if it was serendipity or pure luck but the first doctor I saw actually solved my problem. He prescribed me some Western-looking capsules (read: C-A-P-S-U-L-E-S, not the usual TCM brown pellets) and a bottle of greenish-brown solution. After four days, the pills worked. My cough and phlegm were both gone. That night, I slept like I've never slept before. I was so happy I could just hug that Chinese doctor who treated me - kiss him even. If I had known of those pills earlier, I wouldn't have had to suffer so much over the last two years.

However, the joy was short-lived. Happy as I was, my condition did not go away completely. It came back some months later after eating oily and spicy stuff again. I had to take those capsules again. Fortunately, they worked each time. But at the back of my mind, I was still looking for a permanent cure.

Left-field suggestion
One day, I met a doctor who suggested that I try a course of complex B vitamins. Sounded a bit left-field, but as it was harmless, I decided to give it a try. Lo and behold, my throat did not irritate anymore and became stronger; I was soon back to my old curry self again! Over time I was able to eat and drink anything under the sun like any normal person. But still, no coffee or dark chocolate. Somehow they still stress my throat out. I told myself never mind: in time matters might change.

During those years when my throat was problematic, I had completely given up on coffee. So never say never about giving up some long-term addiction. Coffee for me now taste rather offensive and bland. Except perhaps expresso, my all-time favorite.

Pig's gall
So my question at the time was: how could these TCM capsules work so well whilst the rest couldn't? To solve the puzzle, I took a look at the cough medicine container label at Chung Hwa's dispensary and found that the pill itself had only three ingredients. Only three? But what was inside will surprise you. Two were very common herbs found in over-the-counter cough syrups and in cough sweets such as Hacks. The third was...wait for it.... PIG GALL.

It's not a misprint. If you break open the capsule and smell the brown powder inside, it is pig's gall. So how did it work? I don't know. I doubt the doctor who prescribed them to me knew too. He was actually an expert in cupping and acupuncture. But I guess if one were to dig deeper, there must have been a concoction in the past that used pig gall to treat sensitive throats. TCM is not hocus-pocus; it's both an art and science that has a long established history.

Just as pig gall worked, maybe that stuff called Tiger's Milk my mom spent good money on when I was a kid was no fantasy herb. It might not have cured my so-called hernia but it gave me back a testicle. I am now as endowed and balanced as Nature intended. Roarrrrrr! Amen to that.

Note: Those TCM capsules that I was prescribed were prescription only; they cannot be bought from the local TCM shop. (Trust me, I tried - in the whole of Yishun). Because they were so effective, Chung Hwa clinics would always run out of them. When I was coughing again, I would actually call the clinic first to check on stock before popping by.  In September 2011, I decided to google "Tiger's Milk" on a whim. It was the first time after all these years that I actually tried to better understand the herb. To my surprise, there was a major news item about it in Malaysia's The Star newspaper. Please see Anecdotal Links for the full story. When I told my eldest sister about this article, she asked if Dr Mahathir had also unbalanced testicles. Well, frankly, I rather NOT know! 

Remembering A Hardboard

There's a place in Singapore where you can literally see the biggest cork. It is out there in full view under the sun for all to see. No, it is not in Geylang, despite a fondness of our menfolk flaunting it there. And it's not that kind of cock either!

A picture says a thousand words. Similarly, a 'c' and an 'r' in a word can conjure up images miles apart.

As a kid, I was rather fascinated with materials. It didn't matter if it was wood, glass, ceramic, jade or marble...I would think about its feel and composition.

Perhaps that is why I have no qualms about sewing or knitting - stuff we had to learn in school. Every type of fabric has its own variety. The same goes for threads, buttons, patches, etc. The list goes on.

An iconic material
Looking back at my childhood, there was one material commonly used in construction and interior design. It is a kind of hardboard composed of fibre and dark brown in color - very similar to the backing board found on old cabinet TVs. The reason for the picture you see at top left.

When new, this type of board was pretty stiff. But as it absorbed moisture from the air, it tended to pop a little and flex. If it got too wet, it would become damp and spongy like some wet cardboard. So, even when it was being used as a wall partition, it could not be placed all the way down to the floor. It would be irrevocably damaged whenever a wet mop brushed against it

Standard partition material
My home in Geylang had this board as a partition wall. It was nailed to a planked wooded frame some three inches wide. For ventilation, a wire mesh of about one and a half feet wide was affixed at the top between the partition wall and ceiling. When we first moved to Geylang, we shared the house with my grandma's family. We slept in a room that had an alcove. Some of us smaller kids naturally slept in that elevated space to make way for the others below. Lying in that high alcove, we kids would peep out and look through the whole house, thanks to this all-round wire mesh grating. If we were so inclined, we could even see our aunts don their make-up and change in the next room. Fortunately, even though we were curious about the adult anatomy, we were even more polite; we left spying to just fun and games. I liked, however, that we could look out of the windows of the next room into the street. As a kid, I didn't like to sleep early and watching shadows pass under the street lamp outside my home was my way of counting sheep. The scene was rather poetic too!

A hardboard partition could absorb sound quite well but it was not sound proof. And coupled with a wire mesh grating above, the whole setup permeated sound rather than isolate it. Privacy in that early home of mine must have been tenuous, given that two families also lived there at the same time.

According to history, this kind of hardboard was invented by a man named William H Mason in 1924. He pioneered its production process and so the original hardboard was called 'masonite' after him. Many different types of masonites were produced. Some were based on hardwood and used as house siding while others were soft and bent into useful shapes. The old houses you see peeling in the deep U.S. South were probably sided up with hardwood. The aged wood and paint give such old houses its weathered look. Besides house construction, masonite materials were also bent into the shape of canoes. Used like this, I think the canoe became lighter. But it had to be pretty well lacquered up to keep it from soaking up water!

A versatile material
In 60s/70s Singapore, brown hardboards could be found in products as diverse as school bags and school chairs, not to mention the ubiquitous cabinet TV back. This kind of hardboard was very easy to drill, so it lent itself well to perforation - why it usually was a preferred material among engineers when it came to using it as a ventilated backing for TV, radio and speaker cabinets. To make it waterproof and last longer, such hardboard materials were often waxed smooth on one side. The other side would be rough with a micro mesh texture.

During my primary school time, classroom chairs constructed from iron frame and hardboards were very common. The hardboards formed the back and seat. Because of this, the seats absorbed sweat and would smell. More than that, in Singapore's tropical climate, these chairs became ideal breeding places for bugs, especially bedbugs. Often, our school would rotate our chairs through a Clean and Fumigate cycle to rid them of the varmint. But, with so many kids in school each day, the infection was hard to contain and so we all got bitten sooner or later. No doubt our mums got all very frantic and concerned. This added to their worry of us kids catching head lice too!

But fortunately, my family had Anthisan cream - a tube of ointment that was very effective against itchy bites (such as mosquito ones). Unfortunately, from year 2000 onwards, Anthisan cream could not be sold anymore over the counter without a prescription. You could still get it from JB though, along with other banned medicines such as those for cough (batuk in Malay). 

Even used in schoolbags
As mentioned before, hardboard materials were once used in the making of school bags. Actually, it was a popular material used in all luggage then, giving rise to the term 'hardcase'. Of course, since our school bags were small, the hardboard used had to be thin. It came in pretty printed patterns too with a 'gathered' pouch on the inside lid. To protect the hardboard case from bruising, plastic corner caps were often riveted on. Studs too were placed at the bottom to keep the bag off the floor. Whether it is a school bag or luggage, they were all equipped with spring-loaded catches and locks. These locks made a loud "brrr-tud" sound each time they were sprung open. And although these locks came with very puny and toy-looking keys, being able to lock the bags gave us kids a sense of ownership and power!

Another thing I remembered recently that was made of hardboard were these popular toy swords that were painted red and gold and very ornate, like those used in Chinese wayang and 60s wuxia films. The swords were flat on one side allowing two to be kept back-to-back in the same sheath. My brother and I would each take one each and 'fight'. But because they were made of hardboard, the sword edge would always blunt and fray. I was so happy to see such a sword again at that Museum of Shanghai Toys in Rowell Road. (A picture of the sword is in Images From My Childhood on the right.)

Losing to plastic and cork
When plastic became the new marvel material in the 80s, masonite and other types of hardboards slowly receded into niche areas. They were no longer used in the manufacture of luggage and school bags - not even as a partition board. Yup, the times we lived in can be defined by the materials around us. I remember a time in the 80s when even cork was fancied as a floor and wall tiling material. A foot-square of cork does give off a folksy Western charm. At the time, many of us know cork through 'stick-on' notice boards. For me, I remember it best as a covering for a computer table I built for my XT PC (with an astounding 20MB hard disk then!). The table looked woodish, loggish and best of all, I didn't need use a coaster each time I had a cold drink with me. The cork top absorbed it all!

Now, isn't cork something? Hmm, where's that giant cork again? Hint: It's not in Geylang. It's at a place where bottle-shaped trees can be found. (For a picture, check out the Geylang Stories Pics album.)

Kids on their metal and hardboard chairs still (1980)

According to friend KK, this cream was popular in the 60s/70s
for healing bedbugs. Called "ba sard ko" by the Hokkiens
(literally 'bedbug ointment'.) 

Shelf unit my dad built in the 60s. I just noticed the
Masonite brand on the hardboard backing (mom moving house)
Lower pix: A closer look at the hardboard. Shelf unit is aged but still

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Old Provision Shop

Shopping is such a civilised activity. I mean if you can stroll, look at goods and bargain a price, chances are that you are in a good place and time not trying to evade an invading horde or being eaten by some wild jungle animal.

Civilisation begets shopping, and shopping fuels civilisation (or bankrupts one!)

Back when I was a kid in Geylang, shopping complexes did not exist. Even Yaohan at Plaza Singapura was not yet built. The nearest thing we got was the Sin Wah Chinese Emporium in Gay World. Its shelves and cabinets gleamed with glass that cast a spell on us kids. And there was aircon. Aircon then was a novel experience. There were only two places near where I lived that had aircon (besides the cinemas, that is): One, the Chinese emporium at Gay World and two, the OCBC branch at Lor 19.

Aircon novelty
As a kid I was ambivalent about air conditioning. The reason being we spent a lot of time outdoors rather than inside playing games. Sweating was the norm. Another reason was each time my mom and I visited the OCBC bank branch at the end of Lor 19, she would worry about getting a headache going from hot weather into cold. "Yau yit yau dong!" she would lament in our Cantonese dialect. So we kept our bank visits short and applied "fung yau" (medicated oil) on our foreheads afterwards. In comparison, our trips to that Chinese emporium was more leisurely as it would be at night. The aircon there seemed a natural extension of the cool evening breeze outside.

Going to that Chinese emporium was both a shopping trip as well as an outing. We would normally buy our clothes, towels and sporting goods there, including underwear. My dad liked wearing those comfortable "ah pek" white tee shirts, and we boys our singlets. (Now I have taken to wearing those ah pek tees as well! Those of the '66666' brand. Very cooling and comfortable. A friend's son in NS wears them too!) My school-going sisters also got their singlet-like "pui sum" undergarments from Sin Wah Emporium.

My mom liked us to wear singlets because they kept our school shirts less soiled from sweat. So instead of changing our shirts everyday, we did it once every midweek. We thus had to take care to keep our school uniforms clean from Monday to Wednesday. For us active boys, that was a tough thing to do, what with games like hentam bola, marbles and the lot. And to make matters worse, my shirts were also starched to make them look extra smart! Needless to say, they were highly uncomfortable to wear.

As for towels, we would often buy those Good Morning white ones in blue trim. We bought our towels from Sin Wah as well as from the pasar malams (i.e. night markets). I remember these towels fraying often. They were better off as tea towels than for the face. Today, many hairdressing salons still use these cheap 'Good Morning' towels in their hair-styling business.

Pasar malams
Of course we kids loved going to the pasar malams. They were noisy and colourful. Mostly, we liked the snacks and drinks. We would have potong ice cream, kacang puteh, steamed peanuts, sern pow (iced tubes) and roasted chestnuts. There were also the hot and cold desserts like cheng tern, red bean soup, kueh tutu, and fake bird's nest drink. This drink was always very cold (it was kept in a metal tub) and so was very enjoyable. There were also snacks like fried banana and bean fritters, muahchee and mak ah tong (malt candy pulled onto a short stick).

Pasar malams in those days were street affairs with goods and merchanise displayed on canvas sheets over ground, like what Sungei Road Market is today. For light, the vendors would use a pump kerosene lamp. This lamp could get glaringly bright, its mesh bulb mesmerising. It's hotness always reminded me of the sun and I often imagined it exploding into a million pieces like in some sci-fi movie. For that reason, I would never stand too close to one.

At the pasar malams, besides towels, my mom would pick out clothes for us kids as well. With the towels, she would complain that they colour-run. Other things we bought were slippers and second-hand records. I remember clearly stalls selling sarongs for men. Even Chinese men wore sarongs in those days. They were more airy than most pants (except perhaps the ah pek drawstring blue-striped cotton ones!)

The night market stalls were also great for buying small items like sewing needles, shaving blades, nail clippers and that particular thing called a tongue scraper. We have been using tongue scrapers since young, so it was quite amusing to see it being employed in toothbrushes only now.

Neighbourhood provision shop
When it came to sundry goods we didn't go to a supermart. Sure, there was Fitzpatricks and Cold Storage, but they were not exactly your neighbourhood NTUC. Besides, there was a provision shop downstairs where we lived and where we could buy almost anything except perhaps temple joss materials. For joss stuff, there were a couple of specialty shops along Geylang Road between Lor 17 and Lor 19. You can still find such shops near Lor 27. I don't know why but there are many temples in Geylang still. Perhaps the many clan associations there kept traditions alive.

The provision shop below my home was run by a couple and their son. I don't recall their shop name now (see below for update!) but their signboard looked positively ancient with carved letters painted in gold. The shop was setup in typical fashion with goods to the side and a little aisle in-between. The proprietor's desk was at the back of the shop. The shelves inside were made of dark wood and were very neat. Most visible were the sacks of rice, beans and flour...and the drink crates, sauce bottles and very large biscuit jars. A rack with brooms and mops stood by the side at the front. In those days, rice was packed in huge 90/180 katie (approx 55/110 kg) gunny sacks. They were offloaded in this form from the tongkangs at Boat Quay into one of the many godowns there. Or they would be ferried to the distributor shops on the backs of lorries straightaway.

Labourers or coolies would use hand-hooks to load and off-load them, often on their backs threading up and down a narrow plank. Parents used to point at the coolies to remind their kids: "If you don't study hard, you'll end up working as a coolie just like them!" The coolies' work was literally back-breaking!

Back then, those long rice-sack laden lorries had wooden sideboards that were painted with the company's name in red and in Chinese. These sideboards had huge black iron hinges and could be let down during loading/unloading. You could still see some of them today despite the many Toyota Hiace trucks.

At the provision shops, these rice sacks were displayed with the top open. A stake or cardboard would be stuck in to show  price and type. A typical shop would have at least four sacks. You simply indicate how much you want to the provision shop proprietor and he would weigh and wrap it up for you. In those days, rice was packed in brown paper bags and secured with plant cord - the very same string that was used when tapowing (packing) Fried Hokkien Mee. This cord was later replaced by raffia string.

Long bar soap
Another thing that was quite unique shopping at a provision shop was that you could buy your preferred length of soap. General purpose soap used to come in a long bar. Simply indicate how much you need and the proprietor will hack it off for you. You could wash clothes with this soap or as my dad liked, wash his greasy hands after fixing his car. I must say it was very effective in removing grease! (The soap was made by Lam Soon and called Labour. And very good for removing stains, it seems. It is still used by dry cleaning shops even today!)

Yes, besides chopped-up soap, almost anything that can be weighed or packed in odd quantities could be bought from a provision shop. Biscuits, coffee, dried shrimp, mushrooms, red/green beans, etc. It was kind of nice to be able to buy stuff that way. You need not overstock your kitchen pantry all the time. But importantly, you can have a conversation with the proprietor. These days, when we enter a mini-mart, it's just Pick, Pay and Leave. When going to a provision shop, the first thing we did was approach the proprietor. We would ask him if he had this or that. He would always serve us with a smile and inquire about our day or what we planned to cook up. He would be pretty savvy with our routine too, like how often you bought your sanitary napkins, cotton wool roll or bottle of cooking oil.

As an errand boy, I would be tasked to buy sanitary napkins for my family. Womenfolk were secretive about having their periods back then. The proprietor would always be discreet and wrap them shy items in newspapers to preserve their anonymity. But then again, that itself can be a tell-tale sign!

Refillable insecticide
Other things we bought from that provision shop were pails, brooms, and scrub brushes. I remember buying  those black or brown bristled brushes often as we usually wore them out pretty quick. There was also that short broom made completely of plant stalks great for sweeping water off floors (a "sapu lidi") Both of these brushes were handy when we had to clean our bathroom and rear spiral staircase. Those staircase steps were pretty rough and if left unattended, algae would grow amok on them. Another thing we could buy in refills was Ridsect insecticide. We didn't have them in spray cans back then; we hand-pumped instead. We could refill our hand-pumps at the provision shop  where the insect-killing liquid was kept in a kerosene tin. The proprietor would use a small metal siphon pump to fill it up for you. Neat, wasn't it? No worries about damaging the ozone layer with harmful fluorocarbons!

Pulley money bin
One mechanical thing I liked in our neighbourhood provision shop was the money "tung" or bin. It's often a recycled Milo tin hung slightly above head height with a pulley system from the ceiling. To put in money just pull it down and release; a counterweight would bring it back up again. It was a very convenient and secure way to keep monies collected from paying customers. Most of the time, the proprietor place this tung near the front of his shop and another one near his desk at the back. Each acted as a counterbalance for the other. Or there would be a counterweight in the centre.

A news central
Many of our neighbours also patronised this provision shop below our home turning it into a kind of 'news central'. It wasn't so much gossip as who/how everyone was getting on. For me, every post-exam time, the proprietor would ask my mom how I fared. I would be shy but my mom was proud of my achievements. I often did well but was a reluctant student. It means I preferred to be doing something else most of the time!

On school days, school kids who were home early but were latched out would sit outside the provision shop on a stool-bench to wait for their moms to return. The proprietor would help keep a safe eye on them.

As a focal point for the community, and the only place with a telephone, this provision shop also became an utility post. Neighbours who didn't have a phone line would use the shop's usually in the event of an emergency. The proprietor didn't mind; it was simply the right thing to do in those days. Before we got our phone, our g-cheong-fun maker neighbour was our phone reference. Peopled called her to get to us. She would shout out up to us from her open shop rear. "Leong soh, din wah!" (Mdm Leong, telephone!) I had also used her phone a couple of times when uncertain about school excursion matters. My mom would at times make me leave 20 cents beside the phone after a call. She said we shouldn't take advantage of people's kindness.

Phones back then were the rotary type; not many homes had them. At other times, this provision shop would help accept mail parcels on our behalf if we weren't home.

An iconic item in this provision shop was its freezer-fridge, you know, the stainless steel double-door sort with see-through glass and a freezer compartment below. The proprietor kept soft drinks, stout and beer, ice and butter in it. The ice were not kept in cube trays but zinc boxes the size of a small shoe box. I was often sent to buy ice when guests dropped by our home and we needed to serve up cold soft drinks (Yay! We kids would celebrate!) Or when my dad needed it for his stout. Once back home the ice would be ice-picked to smaller bits.

More than just a shop
So you see, the old provision shop is more than just a minimart. It is a social place, a friendly place, a place with ties to what went on in the neighbourhood. It's also a place of comfort and security. Provision shops also made deliveries, something we didn't need because we lived upstairs. Our shop below would make deliveries on a grandfather bike or in their blue beat-up Datsun pickup. This type of pickup (a Datsun model 520) remained popular in Singapore for over three decades - used by almost by everyone in any business. Quite an incredible market leader!

Last of its kind
It was with these reflections in mind that I decided to drop by what could jolly well be the last Chinese provision shop in Geylang and Singapore, something I'd learnt from the folks at the Singapore Memory Project (a group run by our National Library). The proprietor of that shop was a Mr Teo. He cut a portly grandfather figure. And as expected, he was very friendly and hospitable. He was very happy that I showed an interest in his shop. Looking around, the shop was indeed old and original. It didn't look like the provision shop below my old home but it was a provision shop nonetheless.

A few things in that shop were reminiscent: 1. The alcove. This feature was quite common back then. It served as an additional storage space and also sleeping quarters for the shop's helpers. The idea of alcoves was quite prevalent back then, even my home had one. We were a big family and the alcove came in handy when we had to share home with my grandma's family.

2. The bamboo ladder. Mr Teo said this kind of ladder needed no nails to make.  I believe him. I've studied Furniture Design before and nail-less and glue-less furniture was something the Chinese were very good at. An old neighbour of mine used a few of these ladders before. They ran a sweets and snacks distribution business and their shop was set up like a warehouse with walls lined to the ceiling with storage cubicles. So, having ladders was a necessity. I've climbed a few in my time and could still remember the straining 'ack-ack' sound it made when someone put weight on it. Bamboo is a smooth, hard, cool and flexible material that was commonly used back then. At home, we had a couple of dual-purpose bamboo chair-stools. When flipped on its side, the chair became a baby-feeding seat. It was bought when my second youngest sister was born in 1965. I believe it was called the Mother & Child chair. A factory in Kallang still makes or imports them.

3. The very large daching. Mr Teo showed me a very large daching his men had used to weigh huge sacks of rice in the past. He said the sacks of rice weighed some 160 kg each... the maximum weight this daching could handle or indicate on its rod. It was about 3-4 feet in length and weighed some 3 kg by itself. But he couldn't recall where his workers had left the weights. Back then, before compression-type weighing scales became common, people at wet markets used dachings all the time. So did the proprietors of Chinese medicine shops. But theirs was smaller and daintier. You don't need a big daching to weigh herbs! Goldsmiths also used them to weigh gold items!

4. The green door. Past Mr Teo's desk, we came upon a pair of green doors. They were old and crinkly from  years of repainting, but it was the color that piqued my interest. The shade was a kind of green that was commonly found on shopfront boardings in those days. The other two but less popular colors were gun-grey and sky-blue. Quite a few shops in Tiong Bahru were painted gun-grey (especially the laundry shops). Red was used mostly on temples and joss material shops.

5. The wire mesh. This wire mesh I saw ran round the top part of Mr Teo's shop, right above the boardings as a kind of ventilation grating. Its design is old-school. I recognised it because shops used to hang stuff from it: bags, lanterns, brushes, hoses, etc. It doubled as a hanging storage space.

6. A liquor cabinet. The glass cupboard behind Mr Teo's desk was lined with many types of liquor. Johnny Walker, Chivas Regal, Hennessy, etc. It's like a trophy cabinet and is typical. Bars and restaurants used to buy liquor from the provision shops then. Same with families when deciding to bring a bottle to a relative's wedding.

A very civil experience
The visit to Mr Teo's shop was indeed a trip down memory lane. It made me realise that shopping does fuel civilisation; well, at least shopping at a provision shop does. We were less 'shelf' conscious and more civil. It was what neighbourhood shops were all about then, especially provision shops such as Mr Teo's.

Note: I later learned from a neighbour in Oct 2013 across the street from where I lived that the provision shop was called Tan Hiap Heng. The son was called Ah An. In Cantonese, I recall the shop being called "chan hip seng"). 

Geylang Lor 36 - last old provision shop in the area (2015)
Photo credit: zhaobao (SPH)

Monday, September 19, 2011

Street Hawkers

I have mentioned various street hawkers in my blogs before but I think it is good to recap them all in one place.

Perhaps I should start by describing the area I lived in then. My home was an apartment in a terrace block between Lorong 17 and Lorong 19 along Sims Avenue. Back then, Sims Avenue was just a narrow two-lane bi-directional road, with the occasional no. 70 or no. 71 bus rumbling along. Traffic was pretty sparse then. A kid could cycle on the road and not worry too much about being crowded out or hit by a passing car.

What is Geylang
Geylang is quite large, almost like a housing estate. In fact, it is a housing estate made up of three-storey apartment terrace blocks and two-storey shophouses. It is charming in that way.

Geylang has lorongs numbered from 1 to 41 with the even ones bounded by Guillemard Road and Geylang Road on the one side and the odd lorongs bounded by Geylang Road and Sims Avenue on the other. These three roads run parallel to one another. If you look at Geylang Road from an aerial point of view, the lorongs spread out evenly like vertebrates from the Geyland Road main spine. Geylang Serai is further down after Lor 41, where Eunos and Katong begins. If you head back to Lor 1, you'll find where Gay World used to be, right next to the old Kallang Airport (where Mountbatten Road starts). It is now a vacant field.

Geylang uniqueness
Two unique features of Geylang buildings are their spiral staircases and back lanes. In the past, these backlanes were accessed by lorries to collect rubbish and night soil. Once these activities stopped, low stone plinths were erected to prevent large vehicles from entering.

With a map, you can see that these back lanes form a kind of maze that connects one building to the next - crisscrossing the lorongs and main roads. As a kid, we had loads of fun cycling through these back lanes. But we had to be careful as the lanes were full of activity, from residents sunning stuff to small producers preparing ingredients. Sometimes aunties would sit around to chat cracking peanuts and kuah chee.

There were also the many hawkers selling food. But overall, there weren't anything too industrial or toxic to prevent a kid from wandering about on a bike as I recall. Light industries were into printing, ice/ice-cream making, g cheong fun/noodle manufacture, garment cutting, baking, laundry, metal pressing, etc. However, many of these light industries have been moved out since to industrial estates leaving behind only the hardware stores, finance, import/export businesses and other types of office-based enterprise. Maybe the reason why the bars still remain.

No more families
Families too have moved out, as did ours (although we did try to remain). So, after a while, the complexion of Geylang changed from one teeming with families and children to one with office renters and old folks. A recent walk through my neighbourhood saw many ground floor shops closed or shuttered up. Without the families, retail businesses like the sundry goods, provision shops and food outlets found it hard to sustain. After all, when office workers head home to elsewhere, who would be left in the neighbourhood to patronise these shops?

The red light district
The other side of Geylang behind my home, where the even lorongs are, still thrives. But it is all down to one reason: the red light district.

This red light district used to be restricted between Lor 2 and Lor 8, but a walk the other day revealed that they have now extended all the way to Lor 22 right where Aljunied Road splits Geylang into two. So, even when the back lanes are no longer occupied by residents, light industries and hawkers, they have now been replaced by street hookers. At a few places where residents object to such activities were placed police CCTV cameras. Still, at the other back lanes, I was surprised to find hookers soliciting for business right after lunch. After lunch??? Shouldn't they appear only after sundown? And how the hell can you have sex after a full meal?

In any case, this piece is not about hookers but folks of other mobile trades.

Plying hawkers
When I was growing up, various hawkers used to ply along this lorong-maze haven called Geylang. On weekdays, I was mostly in school during the daytime, so I could only encounter hawkers in the evenings. I remember the man who used to cycle along to sell bread. He would honk his squeeze-air-horn and we would know he is around. He had a wooden box behind his bike with a lid that he could flip down and use as a cutting tray. Ooh, I ate quite a few orange kaya slices from him. Back then, we could only buy "cheem joi meen pow" (local French loaf), cream buns and brown bread from him. The kopitiams only sold white bread, the one with the puff crust.

Bread in those days came straight from the bakery as a whole loaf and with the top crusted. So, before the kopitiam uncle could sell it to you, he first had to shave off its top crust and slice up the rest for you. You could ask to buy half a loaf or full; in thick or thin slices. For me, if I saw that the discarded crust was not too burnt, I would ask the uncle to give me a slice. It was like eating toasted bread!

A slice of this old-style bread was shaped like a chef's hat. And with a little bit of crust remnant, it tasted great, like soft white bread with a little toasty aftertaste. But it all came to an end when square oblong loaves were introduced. They were evenly baked on all sides and no longer crusty. Also, instead of the uncle cutting it up for you, he would shove the loaf through an electric slicing machine. These days, we get bread delivered packed and precut to the supermarkets and even vending machines. If you want toasty bread, you just have to buy them from a specialist bakery. (I just discovered that such old bread (all sliced up) could be bought from 7-11 stores at $1.40 per pack).

Besides the roti man, the chicken porridge seller who lived never my home also went on his evening rounds. At a certain time, I would know he was parked near his home. We never ate at his cart but brought our own pot to tapow. If we wanted to add an egg in our porridge, we would bring our own along. It was common practice then, same when we bought char kway teow and Hokkien mee. His chicken porridge was rustic and full of ginger flavour.

There were two noodle hawkers. One came calling with the usual "kok-kok" bamboo knocker while the other guy, who also sold fishball noodles simply called out to make his presence felt. This latter fella would always come by the front along Sims Avenue. If you ordered three bowls or more, he would deliver to your place, else he wouldn't waste his time (having to collect back the bowls afterwards). Often we simply lowered our stainless steel pot with a rope through our front window (three storeys up!) and haul a serving up.

There was also an Indian man who came by on his tricycle to fry mee goreng. His noodles were really springy and the dry fry sort. Very excellent, according to my mom. We kids usually found the noodles a tad too chilli spicy!

My fave two lady hawkers
On weekends, the area around my house would have more passing hawkers. A pair of my favourites were these two ladies who sold "chee ma wu" and "fa sung wu" (black sesame and peanut paste respectively). They sold them from boxes they carried on a flat bamboo pole across their shoulders. These ladies also wore a blue cloth 'hat' across their heads, the same sort that Samsui women wore but of a different colour. They would call out "chee ma wu, fa sung wu" one after the other.

One thing they would do is stop by my neighbour g cheong fun maker shop to eat unborn mice. They swallow them whole wrapped in lettuce and gulped down with a little wine. This was a common tonic back then, meant for keeping fit, especially if you had to work in the sun and rain like these two resilient old ladies. The way they carried their boxes and walked their bouncing gait is forever edged in my mind. By the way, the mice were hygienic because they ate rice grains and were not lonkang rats. You need lots of rice to make g cheong fun.

Not aluminium
Before Sims Avenue was widened, the houses across my home had courtyards. A hawker who sold chwee kueh (steamed rice cake) used to park his cart there around 4-something in the afternoon. Chwee kueh these days are steamed in small aluminium cups, but back then, the cups were made of clay. I am very sure the clay imparted a different taste to the chwee kueh. And the man did not scoop the kueh off the cups with a spoon. He did it with a small flat bamboo stick Buying this chwee kueh would often come with a warning from my mom: "Sui sum kor ma lo" ("Be careful when crossing the road.")

Along Lor 17 would come the kok-kok mee seller. He sold fishball noodles. But we didn't have to go to his cart to buy because the boy (presumably the son) would walk around with his kok-kok instrument to take orders. You could give him a pot and he would come back with it steaming with noodles. Most times, we would just lower a pot to our g cheong fun neighbour downstairs to tompang an order.

Missing the stewed pig's ears
Around 5-something just before dinner would come the "lo g yuk" seller with his wide basket of stewed pork and duck meat. He would park himself outside the kopitiam. I loved eating his crunchy pig ears and blood cubes. This hawker actually came from a stall set up at the mouth of an alley in Lor 19. I think it is great that they still bother to hawk their wares around the neighbourhood despite having a fixed location. I believe I first learnt to eat hot stuff from dipping those succulent pig ears in chilli sauce, sauce that was not too different from those served with chicken rice.

Nuts and sweets
Another hawker was an Indian man who sold kacang puteh from a heavy round tray he carried on his head. He would walk through our backlane crying out "kacang puteh, kacang puteh". At other times, the "ting-ting tong" (chiseled flour candy) man would come by with his round tray too. Unlike the Kacang Puteh Man, he carried with him a collapsible stand for his tray to rest on. He got his moniker Ting-Ting Tong Man from the way he knocked his nickle chisel and hammer together to cut the quasi-hard candy into cubes. This pink candy was then mixed with icing sugar and edible flour. His hammer was more like a bent rod with a knob at the head. Near my school, we got a couple of fellas who sold mua chee and ting-ting tong together. But for some reason, mua chee survived till today but not so ting-ting tong.

Scoop ice cream factory
Another backlane dessert was scooped ice cream. At the time, I took these fellas for granted because their ice-cream supply shop was just a block away in the next backlane. When it was time to fill-up their tubs again, they would all congregate there in that yard. The best time was when they sold durian flavour. That alley would be filled with loads of discarded durian husks as well as uncles sitting one-legged on stools munching on that king of fruits. The whole place would be filled with that wonderful pungent fragrance. Hopeful children from nearby would hang around the uncles waiting for scraps. Another favourite ice cream flavour was the one with red bean and atap chee.

An antique market building
Lor 17 was also home to a small meat and vegetable indoor market. An uncle who sold "tau fah sui" (soybean milk), "tau fah" (sweetened beancurd) and "leong fun" (chin-chow drink) would station himself by the market. He was the extra incentive to go marketing with my mom because we would always stop by his cart on the way home, to eat a bowl of curd or drink a glass of soybean milk. Often I would have my soybean milk mixed in with my chin-chow, so the drink order was "hark-bak" (black-white). The uncle would oblige without missing a beat. We would sometimes tapow bean curd with a metal tin for my other siblings waiting eagerly at home.

At other times, the rojak man would come by on his tricycle with his mini-kitchen. I don't know why, but all these hawkers liked to stop along Lor 17. I think it is because there were more terrace houses on that side than Lor 19. Or maybe they were just working their way down the lorongs by the numbers. In any case, I am glad they stopped by. They made the place more lively and our diets more adventurous. They also provided a kind of teatime and supper service to the light industry workers there, something I've not thought of before.

Not just food but sundry
Apart from food, there was a hawker who sold brooms, feather dusters, pails, bamboo poles and such household items all stacked into an enormous pile on his tricycle. It was like the width of a bus! I sometimes wondered how he could see his way in front riding behind the whole thing! Maybe there were strategic gaps between his goods for him to look through. This man travelled far. I would see him along North Bridge Road when I accompanied my mom there on her shopping trips.

Losing character
I am sure if they bring back the families to Geylang, the hawkers would find it an incentive to ply their trades again. But this is just wistful thinking, like wanting the ability to travel back in time. It is enough just to remember them the way they were. And besides, many old buildings in the 30+ lorongs have been demolished to make way for apartment complexes, just like what happened to the Kembangan area near Still Road. Once that happens, Geylang will become a fortress of souless apartment buildings with no more two-storey shophouses, five-footways and even backlanes. Geylang would not be Geylang. It would indeed be alarming to our heritage, not to mention to both aged and new-school hookers. Geylang, after all, is Geylang.

Note: Check out the link to Ting-Ting Tong Hawker in the Anecdotal Links section. But I remember eating my ting ting tong pink and with sugar and flour. 

Sunday, September 18, 2011

"20 years ago..."

In the 60s and 70s, I remember the Chinese movies we watched on TV were mostly flicks from Hong Kong. They were either modern dramas or period wuxia films.

The wuxia films had some sub-genres. There's the Very Ancient Sword-Fighting ones and the Near-Present Pugilistic. The VASF featured opera costumes, swords, spears and extreme 'qi' techniques. The NPP ones had few or no weapons, mostly relying on fists, kicks and flips and was set typically in a small "chun" (village) or town.

The VASF stars of the day were Tho Tat-Wah, Nam Hung, Leong Seng Po, Tang Pik Wan and Shek Kin. LSP was the older of the group and would often play (1) patriarch of the family, (2) clan head, and (3) family "koon kar" or head servant. Besides him, these roles also went to Cheong Wut Yau and Ng Cho Fan, who, with their gravitas, were both very ideal as martial arts elders. Shek Kin, with his natural evil looks, often played the bad guy. If there was a kid, it was usually Fong Bo Bo, the Shirley Temple of Asia.

In these stories, Tat-Wah and Nam Hung were often fellow disciples along with Pik Wan. There's usually some love triangle going on amongst the "si mui" and "si heng" (fellow disciples) - something frowned upon by their "sifu". Wu Fong would also be in the mix but I saw him and Pik Wan more often in modern dramas.

Mythical martial arts
The martials arts that were depicted in these VASF films were "Yu Loi Sun Jeong" (a palm-energy technique), "Luk Chee Kum Mor" (six-fingered evil lute), "Tin Sun Geem" (heavenly sword), "Ying Yeong Siong Kim" (Yin-Yang double sword), "Bak Kwatt Mo Chau" (white bone evil claw technique), "Kum Koi Gong" (frog technique), "Hut Yee Guan" (beggar-stick technique), etc. Some of these kung fu techniques were later introduced to a new generation through Stephen Chow's most hilarious parody, Kung Fu Hustle, in 2004. It was a mega box-office success in Asia.

In these VASF films were also timeless items such as "Tin San Suit Lin" (Mount Tin snow lotus) and "Sin Tan" (saint medical pills). TSSL was a hard to find cure-all, especially if one is badly poisoned or hit by "Yu Loi Sun Jeong". If you were on the verge of death, a last-resort-cure would be Snow Lotus. But to add to the drama, it is usually very, very hard to find, requiring you to cross rivers, climb mountains to even catch a glimpse of it. It was definitely not sold at the local pharmacy! As for ST, the effects were the same. But it was usually bestowed by a heavenly saint, hence its name. In the 40s and 50s, before wuxia authors Jin Yong and Liang Yusheng came along, many of the wuxia films were either based on real kung fu or mystical story elements - why in some films, we see the wuxia disciples talking to deity figures in the clouds.

Pioneering authors
It was writers like JY and LYS who elevated wuxia elements to a fine art, with things like "dim mak" (pressing of sensitive pressure points usually to immobilise an opponent or to slow the flow of poison through the body), "Qing Gong" (leaping skill) and the various fighting formations found in Wudang and Er Mei kung fu. There were lots more including those found in dark martial arts such as "Jiu Yang Zhen Jin" (Mandarin, Nine Yang Manual) and "Jiu Yin Zhen Jin" (Nine Yin Manual). Both JY and LSY, through their scholarly knowledge and imagination, mapped out the nature of the "Mo Lam" or "Wu Lin" martial arts world where none existed before. Their martial arts novel were neither pulp material nor high-faluting stuff. You could call them a mix of Lord of the Rings (adventure and valour) and Shakespeare (politics and personalities). In secondary schools here, students start to read JY and LYS in Sec 2 as part of their Higher Mother Tongue subject required reading.

A veritable Master Wong
On the other hand, NPP movies were often set in a village or small town that needed a hero's help in combating an "orc ba" (bully) or "san chart" (mountain bandit). Many a times, these movies played up folk hero Wong Fei Hung. Before Jet Li, Kwan Tak Hing was synonymous with this titular role. TH's bulging eyes, gaunt face, lean frame and operatic way of speaking, especially when delivering some gem of Confucian wisdom before dispatching the bad guys were highly impressionable on us young kids. We would swear off doing bad deeds after watching him; probably why our parents encouraged us to watch his films in the first place.

TH wasn't young and I remember thinking what a great grandfather he would make. As a matter of fact, many of his WFH films were done in the early to mid-50s. In 1956 alone, 25 such films were released to the cinemas. Despite his age, Tak Hin was fit and agile.

Unforgettable baddy
A hero needs a nemesis like Batman and his Joker. For Kwan Tak Hing or Wong Fei Hung, his opposite number was Shek Kin. I tell you, you cannot find a man who looked more evil in Chinese cinema.  Shek Kin's slitty eyes,  'broad-sword' eyebrows and swept-back hair all make him look abrasive and conniving. He was so convincing in his bad-guy roles that he was afterwards forever known as "kan shek kin" or Evil Shek Kin, just as Eli Wallach was the de facto bandit in Clint Eastwood's spaghetti Westerns.

In real life however, Shek Kin was a very nice and generous man who once gave away a piece of land to help promote Hong Kong's cultural art scene. Despite his on-screen persona, he neither smoked nor drank and he doted much on his family. Still, he would get spat on or cursed when indignant fans encountered on the streets.

Masters of real kung fu
Both Tak Hing and Shek Kin know real kung fu. Tak Hing learned on the set from the direct disciples of Wong Fei Hung. He would later set up a martial arts school and an old folks' home. As a kid, Shek Kin was weak and sickly so his parents sent him off to learn martial arts, as was the wisdom in those days. But unlike his peers who were usually sent to Chinese opera troupes, he learnt his martial arts direct from the schools. There was Laohan, Chaoyan and Baoding (boxing). But probably the most famous was Ching Woo Athletic Association, an institution made famous by Jet Li in that 2006 film about Huo Yuan-jia. Shek Kin did not learn from HYJ but from his direct disciples. As a matter of fact, Shek Kin was so good that he was certified a teacher-master of the Mantis Fist and Eagle Claw, an aspect of Northern Shaolin kung fu.

Shek Kin retired in 1995 after having appeared in nearly 360 films, 80 of which was as Wong Fei Hung's nemesis. He passed away at age 96. Who said bad guys don't live long?

Modern tearjerkers
In the dramas set in modern times, the usual suspects were Cheong Ying, Wong Man Lei, Tang Pik Wan, Nam Hung, Leong Seng Po, Cheong Wut Yau, Tang Kei Chan (aka Sau Ah Gun), Pak Yin and Pak Suet Sin. Cheong Ying would play the handsome chap/available bachelor; Wong Man Lai the evil or demanding MIL (with the "kwai lan" face); Leong Seng Po the family patriarch; Tang Kei Chan the comedic sidekick or poor suitor (because of his buck teeth); Pak Yin, Pak Suet Sin, Tang Pik Wan and Nam Hung would play the leading ladies. However, the weepies were normally dominated by Pik Wan and Nam Hung. These women could literally cry buckets!

A popular plot device
Looking back at these modern dramas and wuxia films, I am reminded of a plot device that was commonly used then - the "yi sup neen cheen" or "20 years ago" recall.

This recall often happened when a bad guy is about to get his comeuppance. The mother would say, "No girl, don't do it.... He is your father!" or something like what happened between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in Star Wars. Then the back story comes: "20 years ago, on a dark and stormy night..."

In VASF, this kind of 'reveal' would often involve rival martial arts heads, who had some liaison in the past that produced progeny who later go on to champion opposing schools of wushu. In NPP films, it would involve a mother who was once jilted by a rich family's son. Twenty years later, their paths cross and the secret is out. Or it could be that the mother was once raped by the bandit some two decades ago. Sometimes, the girl in question would start the sob story by having to "mai kor chong fu" (sing to bury a dead father) often in the street and in front of some rich man's home. The lady of the mansion takes pity on the poor girl (and mother) and hires them as servants. In time, the girl learns that her new employer's daughter is actually her half-sister, but not before falling in love with her half-brother. The head of the family also realises that the new servant mother was his first love and this causes friction between him and the present wife. He was the poor scholar who left her to marry the rich lady.

A complicated affair
Yup, it can get pretty messy relationship-wise in the movies of the 50s/60s. Maybe it is because back then, men had many wives and cases of incest and abandoned children/partners were aplenty. But how often does it really occur in real life? In a news report recently, a sperm donor was overwhelmed when he found out that he had fathered 150 children over a period of ten years. So, ten years from now, their mothers will go "Yee sup neen chin..."  or "Twenty years ago....". See how it works?

As you can imagine, things being revealed by the 20-Year Recall often elicited shock, disbelief and tears from the affected person, usually a poor, hapless and lovelorn girl. And the scene would often play out on a dark and stormy night heralded much by thunder and lightning. Mothers really know how to choose their timings. Or maybe the kids in question would engage in a bit of incestual liaison in a disused temple or abandoned hut....all because of rain. Guys do get it on easily after seeing a girl in a wet tee or samfoo.

Avoid the 20-year curse
So, the next time when you find yourself taking refuge from rain with a guy you fancy in a quiet, private place, do have your wits about you. Keep your knees closed and talk about family history first. It might save your kids much pain 20 years later! Or perhaps in future, we could all carry ICs (identity cards) that spell out our degrees of separation genetics-wise. Like some Quick Response photo-snap thingy, you can email your info to a checking agency toute suit. Saves a lot of future heartbreak!

Friday, September 16, 2011

Screen Idol

Question: Which actor, male or female, has acted in the most films?

The answer will surprise you. According one source, the actors are:

1. Mel Blanc (LA, US) 876
2. Adoor Bhasi (Kerala, India) 549
3. Tom London (US) 512
4. Bud Osborne (US) 505
5. Prem Nazir (Malayalam, India) 483
There's a female in the list at No. 8 (454). Her name is Bess Flowers.

If you didn't know, Mel Blanc was the voice actor behind Bugs Bunny and some other cartoon characters in Loony Tunes. The other actors and actresses on the list have had long careers, so their film credits pile up. Unlike Mel Blanc they were mostly famous in their own part of the world. You might act long but world fame can still elude you. On the other hand, actors who act short can gain disproportionate fame, like James Dean.

Most films in one year
A more intriguing question could be: Who has acted in the most films in one single year?

Aha, now the answer is not so straight forward. These days actors and their agents worry about overexposure (and for young actors: peaking too soon). Movie investors worry about  risk, as more movies tank at the box office than succeed. So finding an actor in three or more films in a single year is rare, even more so if the role is leading-man or -lady.

There's also the fact that a movie takes on average 6 to 36 months to script and film, so it would require special circumstance and deliberate arrangement for an actor to be in so many set locations at the same time. Of course, if a sequel has been planned for a movie, then the film gets made faster - even before the main one  has wrapped up shooting. This was the case in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings The Two Towers and Return of the King.

Economically, it is sensible to sequel a film, especially if it involves loads of special effects, such as the Transformers series. It would be a waste if an expensive f/x team is disbanded after just one movie. The new Hobbit movie is the same - it is filmed at the same time as its sequel. This method of making movies can help also protect 'actor assets'. I doubt the Harry Potter movies would have been made if there was too wide an age gap between sequels.

Which actor?
So, back to our question: Which actor or actress has the most films in a single year? And what is that number?

My instinct is to think of actors and actresses with short careers but big demand. The first thing that comes to mind are the Youtube wannabes. But they act in clips or webisodes, not full-length movies.

Another category of actors and actresses to consider might be those in the porn industry. For example, Tori Black appeared in 200 films during her first three rookie years. It is understandable for a hot actress like her to be in such huge demand given the industry she's in. Two hundred films in three years means 63 films a year, a very high number for any working thespian! Even for one who regularly works in the buff.

I'm not sure if she values such a record but she might be sore losing it or sore about creating a new one! Either way, that's a very productive figure. However, porn films shouldn't count. I think they use the same sets over and over again (what I imagine to be). Maybe even the same script but in a different accent! ("OH MY GOD!" in French, German, Albanian, etc) So maybe 63 films a year is rather easy to achieve.

In the 60s and 70s, the Chinese movies we get on TV were mostly those from Hong Kong. They were in Cantonese mostly. As one of that dialect group myself, I often consider myself privileged to be watching them in my mother tongue. But it was unfair to my friends of the other dialects. In those days, even TV serials were in Cantonese or Mandarin. Only the Chinese operas were in Hokkien, Teochew or Cantonese. I don't think boys in their prepubescence years will be excited by such traditional performances!

Two megastars
The two most popular stars in the 60s and early 70s then were Siu Fong Fong and Chan Po Chu. They were young but incredibly famous. I think it boils down to three reasons:
1. They were young and pretty;
2. They could sing;
3. They had Peking Opera background training as well, which meant they could dance and move well in period films.

These three talents or gifts are what the movie industry folks call a Triple Threat - actors and actresses who could not only act but sing and dance as well. Normal actors are usually very wary of such talented people. They worry their leading man/lady roles will be stolen from them. Or that they end up in supporting roles. But if you are TT-hot, the studio will go all out to make a quick buck off you. And that's what happened to Siu Fong Fong and Chan Po Chu. Incidentally, they are called Josephine Siao and Connie Chan on the international stage.

Of the two, Connie Chan was the most productive. Between 1959 and 1972, she made some 105 movies. In 1967 alone, there were 32 of them. 32??? How does one make 32 movies in a year?! It's mind-boggling! Even A-listers in Hollywood don't make that many, then or now; not even in a whole decade!

Josephine Siao herself made some 62 films, a lesser number but she was no less famous. Her advantage was that she had already made a name for herself as an award-winning child actress starring with mommy-favourites like Toh Tat-Wah and Yu So-Chau, often in period mystical stories. She would be the naughty girl who creates unwitting trouble for everyone.

Opera trained
Both JSiao and CChan studied Peking opera under famous master Fen Juhua. And as they got more popular on stage, they were soon transplanted to wuxia film roles. Interestingly, JSiao would often play the male lead and CChan, the female...often as heroes in love or disciples of opposing kung-fu masters. (I was always tickled why the other characters in the movie couldn't see that JSiao was actually a girl!)

Later, as both grew into young pretty women, they would be paired off with handsome actors like Lui Kei, Cheh Yin (Patrick Tse), Wu Fong and Shek Kin. With them, during the second half of the 60s, the studios churned out numerous musicals, rom-coms and action movies. I particularly remember the cat burglar or Robin Hood 'do-good' movies with JSiao as Bat Girl and CChan as Black Cat. These films were actually influenced by the James Bond genre which took off with a bang in the 60s. Even Japan was not immune, as characterised by their own 70s spy films. There were send-ups also such as the hilarious "What's Up, Tiger Lily?".

Singers too
As JSiao and CChan driffted into their own respective leading lady roles so too did their fans segregate into two rabid camps. They would scream and fight whenever these two stars dropped into a city for a visit. I wonder how they will behave in this day and age with social media like Facebook and Twitter. The fact that JSiao could sing English covers of popular songs was one up against CChan. This particular ability of JSiao was featured in a number of her movies. She could speak English quite well too.

Watching such thief and spy movies should have encouraged me to become one; and they kind of did. And they were reflected in the toys I bought and played with. Two favourites were a gun and torch concealed in dug-out books. They were small and could easily be concealed in the palm. You can see pictures of them in the link Paraphernalia From My Mattar Primary School Days. I had also a pair of collapsible spy binoculars too, you know, the one that collapsed into a flat case no bigger than a pack of cigarettes. They were popular in the 70s for watching soccer at the National Stadium. You can still buy a pair of them today. (Laughingly I saw one used as a futuristic tool in JJ Abrams' Fringe in Season 1, by one of those mysterious men in a fedora hat no less!)

A charming aunt
Of my two screen idols then, my favourite had always been JSiao. She had big eyes, a nice profile and high cheek bones. She could easily have become a model! She was skinnier and taller than CChan and looked more sophisticated.

You might think growing up with so many of JSiao's movies was a blessing, but in my case life was rather difficult. Probably "uncomfortable" would be a better word. You see, I had a young aunt who looked like her, and so every time she visited, I would look at her funny. She must have wondered often if there was anything wrong with this nephew-kid of hers. To make matters worse, like JSiao, she also had a rather unique voice. I would listen to her and become spellbound.

One day, the dream broke. This aunt went and got married. I remember regretting not growing up fast enough at the time. I was curious as to who this handsome guy was who stole my 'idol' away. I mean, he better be better looking than the grown-up me! Perhaps someone looking like Lui Kei or Patrick Tse?

Turns out that he was rather crap-looking. His face was pockmarked and chubby - features I thought not possible on the same face. Tough guys (like Charles Bronson) have pockmarked faces and square jaws. Chubby guys got smooth skin and puffy cheeks. But he had them both, which was rather weird. My other aunts nicknamed him "fatt sui meen pow", which is Cantonese for waterlogged bread.

I don't think my aunts were mean about it; they just have nicknames for everybody then.

Though my young aunt's new hubby had these weird facial features, he was actually rather pleasant. He was a nice and friendly man generous with his ang pows during Chinese New Year. So overtime, this nephew was rather appeased and became less disappointed with him for being so incompatible with his beautiful screen idol stand-in.

A yen for education
Despite their star power, JSiao and CChan retired at the peak of their popularity. Both went on to further their studies, which had been put on hold because they started acting young. CChan came from an impoverished family and was given away to begin a career in Peking opera. She would return some 25 years after her retirement to perform again on stage opera or modern. Stage seemed to be her favourite medium. Her latest outing was in 2006 with Adam Cheng in the stage play, Only You.

After her retirement, JSiao had a brief marriage. She remarried again and furthered her studies. JSiao did make a return to acting in 1977 and a few more times in the 80s. She even did well as a director once. But to many people, her real comeback was in1993, in Jet Li's wildly successful Fong Sai Yuk. She played his mom in that historical dama. During this time, the media discussed her absence from the silver screen again and brought to light the real reason for her leaving the Hong Kong movie scene. JSiao, who was born deaf in her left ear, was slowly going full deaf in the other. She had such a tough time concentrating on her role in FSY, that she had to rest between takes.

I am very sure she has gotten better since. There have been tremendous improvements in audio technologies for the deaf or near-deaf. Cochlear implants are safe, effective and common. But I am sure deafness will not slow down someone like JSiao. She has now a masters in Child Psychology and has founded in 1998 a movement to end child sexual abuse. Today, she leads the ECSAF as president. I read my first book on child abuse not long after leaving Geylang, so she is my idol in more ways than one. Then and now.

[I've only just found out that JSiao was the original singer of that children song classic 'Mama Hao' (see Anecdotal Links). We have a copy of that record still, which we often played living in Geylang! My oh my!)

Note: I don't care much for the porn industry, but economically and technologically, it is interesting. Many advances in the IT field have been driven by their need to send content over high-speed networks and with video-on-demand. Now, they are driving next-gen Web interactivity and visuals through stuff like remote sensorial devices (moving actuated dildos at $7 a minute) and 3-D augmented reality. As one insider commented, "Any 18-year-old with a high-definition camera can make a sex film. The studios need to provide more interactivity and depth in content." By depth of content, I think he means more parodies in both film and computer games. "Bonecraft" is a parodied game of "Starcraft" and "World of Warcraft". The aim of the game? To have more sex with Elvin women. I think JRR Tolkien will turn in his grave. Or maybe chuckle?

Monday, September 12, 2011

Billy The Cat

Remember the Beano comics from the UK? As a kid, I had a neighbour who loved that comic book. I would hang out at his shop/home to read. Later, I pestered my dad to buy a few copies from our regular book haunt: Sungei Road "Thieves" Market. Back then SRTM (or SRM for short) was like that famed Thai Chatuchak Market. The stalls were proper stalls and had a great variety of goods. Perhaps British troops withdrawing from the country was the reason. The Beano comics we bought were thick annuals, which was a great read on a rainy day!

Besides the antics of Dennis the Menace, there was another story series that I liked: Billy the Cat. Actually, it was Billy the Cat and Katie, the girl (cousin?) being the other half of this cat-suit wearing/crime-fighting duo.

However, their suits were nothing feral like Cat Woman's or Batman's. They looked racer-like with the helmets and visors covering their heads and eyes. They remind me of blind Geodie in Star Trek: Next Generation, altogether pretty advanced. I don't think it was ever explained how the visor worked; it just was. As a kid, I found that visor to be quite cool.

Cool too was that claw-like thing that hung by their side. The kids would use it to haul themselves up high walls and to catch the bad guys with. That claw was also handy in rescuing themselves from binds and such. As a kid, I would make myself a paper claw and throw it at the railings to pretend scaling them. At one time, someone gave me a keychain that came with a small alligator paw. I would pretend that it was the Billy Claw and play with it as such during my idle moments. It's funny how memories are sometimes triggered!

Besides the claw, the kids in Billy the Cat and Katie also fought crime with a mission backpack that held all kinds of tools and tricks. That made us kids feel like we were mini-James Bond spies or spy kids (like that same-named US movie).

One particular gadget Billy and Katie later deployed (and that I enjoyed tremendously) to fight crime with was this bunch of remotely controlled robots that moved and behaved like real people. They were not huge - just a foot high, which made them the more endearing. At a time of clunky robots, these smooth walking/talking humanoids were quite something. I remember thinking: "Whoa, how advanced! When will we ever see something like that!?" Besides behaving like humans, these robots were also able to act together in a sort of group dynamic - perhaps empowered by swarm intelligence? I recall the tiny robots looking very much like mini-versions of Billy and Katie in costume, which meant they looked like miniature Iron Man(s) running around!

That was my first introduction to remote control, robots and advanced robotics all at one go. Later, those tiny robots would remind me of the ones Arthur C Clark imagined in his Rama book series, robots that were brought into space to help explore an alien object. A better visual of the robots would be the agile ones in Will Smith's I, Robot, albeit on a much smaller scale! You know, if such tiny intelligent dynamos do exist and go rogue it would be very, very scary indeed!

In the past year, I had worked hard to bring in programmable robots to help kids better learn robotics at a public center. These were also foot-high and could be programmed to dance, perform tai-chi and even do a slow cartwheel. These robots had a somewhat humanoid but skeletal look, made of aluminum and  interconnected by servo motors at the joints. At the time, a local polytechnic had also created a software version of them - one that you could program and place in a virtual environment. The best thing was, with the friendly computer interface, you could actually also control the real-world robot with whatever the virtual robot had learnt. It was all pretty useful and convenient at the time. But the real gem was allowing it to navigate in 3-D virtual space. One could indeed play the role of virtual 3-D architect.

There have been many advances made to such small humanoid robots. Many of the cheaper ones now come from South Korea. I, for one, hope to see a small agile robot with a smart vision system or one with true AI. It's not so different a wish I had back in the 70s when I was reading Billy the Cat. Sigh, sometimes advanced technological ideas do take a long time to become reality, just like 3G networks and their companion smart mobile phones! (That took 10 years! My goodness! Who knew then!)

But at least one good thing did come from reading Billy The Cat: it inspired me to go on to learn electronics, in particular, RF. I am actually and naturally a more mechanical guy but I thought learning electronics (and RF) would aid my natural abilities. How true!. Perhaps one day I will return to fiddling with transistors, diodes, servo motors and programming software to build a humanoid robot. After all, I was nominated once for a national technology award for building something very useful. Stuff like this is not beyond me. Sci-fi dreams can come true, don't they?

Click here for a sample of the comics. ;-)