Thursday, September 1, 2011

Familiar Roads

Presently, there are a few roads in Singapore that hold some nostalgic significance for me... you know, roads that lead somewhere but will invariably transport you back to a place in time.

'Dai Por' or South Bridge Road 
South Bridge Road in particular was where my mom shopped often. We would go to a shop that sold watches. Next to it was a shop that sold books. They were all a street or so from Poh Heng goldsmith shop opposite the Sri Mariamman Temple. My mom had an interest in jade, so she would visit Poh Heng often to fixed up her jade pieces. She would suss out other places in Chinatown to buy and trade them. Some of these shop owners became friends, like the wife of the owner of the watch shop. My very first watch actually came from there. Whenever she visited 'piew soh' (watch lady), I would hang out at the next door bookshop to browse. That's how I got acquainted with the antics of Lau Fu Zhi and San Mao, that very poor boy from Shanghai. Besides these comics, this bookshop sold mainly Chinese journals and fiction. They also carried stationery items like ballpoints and fountain pens. Parker and Sheaffer were hugely popular then. My dad got his Parker (and ink bottle) from this shop. For me, it was my first 'tombow' eraser.

Outside the watch shop, in the five-foot way, was an Indian man who sold semi-precious stones from behind a glass cabinet. From him, I developed a love for colored gems. I didn't care if they were real or not. They were just pretty to look at. They reminded me of stories of pirate treasures and Arabian thieves like Aladdin.

I still have this collection of colorful jewels. One reminds me of a funny story. I was climbing up my Geylang home staircase one day when I spied something shiny lying between the steps. It was shaped like a diamond and sparkled so. But my hopes were dashed when I discovered that it was nothing but a worthless decorative piece of plastic. That shiny stone had dropped off from an aunt's defective shoe!

Accompanying my mom on her jade sourcing trips was pretty useful. It gave me knowledge about jade and its different qualities and types. For example, there is such a thing called 'pui chong yoke' or burial jade. According to superstitious beliefs, this kind of jade is very good for protection against evil spirits and so was very much sought after. But these kinds of jade are only available if grave-robbing is still a trade. Last I checked, people were more interested in robbing the living!

There was "mah lau" or red jadite, something very common in Taiwan, a big supplier. This was something I learned later during my National Service while doing R&R in Kaoshiung and Taipei. Everywhere we went people were trying to sell us ma lau. It happened also at our army base camp in Hen Chun earlier. However, much of the ma lau sold in Taiwan were the glassy type that was pretty to look at but worthed little.

In time, I learnt to tell good jade from bad. Cracks are the most obvious of defects and can be seen usually with a torchlight held from below. Cracks can be in the main body of the jade or at where the hang-hole is drilled. At times, a hang-hole is not necessary; it depended on how the jade is 'siong', i.e. attached to silver or gold to be later used as a pendant, brooch or earring. Even  fragmented pieces of jade can be turned into fancy bangles with joints and catches.

I also learned to appreciate the different shades of jade green. The deepest and richest green shades are  the best, but it also depended on the shape of the jade piece itself.  The mix of colours is also important. Good  colour variations worked especially well for large pendant pieces and jade bangles. The reason is that they have to match the skin types of the ladies who wear them. How the green in the jade bloomed is also important. My mom would tell her customers: "Jade is alive. Wear it often and long and the jade 'fah wan' (cloud pattern) will grow with you."

In the last decade or so, there has been a modernisation in how jade is used, especially in stringed or roped necklaces. In such setups, jade, combined with beads and knots were made to look tribal. Brown or dark green (what is termed as "tit lung chang" or Iron Cage Green, a kind of dark green verdigris) jade was the popular choice.

For men, the choice of jade was very simple back then. They mostly liked rectangular grass green jade 'siong' in solid gold and worn as rings, especially the business towkays. Some even liked the bigger ones to wear on their thumb finger. I've always found that to be rather Ah Pek or Ah Seng in fashion sense; even as a kid.

I have a small piece of jade given to me when I was born - something of a custom back then. I wore it on a string for a long time in primary school. It was 'siong' with gold. The jade piece did get greener as the years went by. My mom attributes this to my life force, and I think that is why she loves dealing in jade. A piece of beautiful jade is a manifestation of a person's inner beauty. As a kid, I thought that was pretty cool. Looking at some of the sought-after pieces of jade my mom has, they were indeed one of a kind. When the interior blooms of the jade are lush and bursting forth, they look as if they were infused with energy and passion!

Some of my favourite pieces are not green but lilac. I especially liked those that are carved as miniature  vegetables as they worked best in different shades of green. Brinjals look natural in lilac and pink, as do  longevity peaches. Other common shapes of jade include animals from the zodiac signs: rabbits, pigs, dragons, etc. There are bats, crickets, cicadas and goldfishes as well. Bat in Cantonese sounds like 'fook' for Luck, so it is an auspicious creature to wear as a pendant. The creature is often carved hanging onto a peach, which by itself is a symbol of prosperity.

My mom would also drop by Poh Heng goldsmith shop quite often to get her jade pieces 'siong'. Once there, she would take a while chitchatting. Poh Heng was busy then, with fellow housewives and "ah mahs" in buns doing business there. It was none of my business, so I would pop over to the nearby toy distributor shop. Next to this was a camera one. When she's finally done, we would cross over and stop off at the corner Crane shoe shop (at the junction of Cross Street) to look at shoes. This became a regular shoe shop for me later in my young adult life. A polyurethane soled-shoe I bought there was so freakingly long-lasting that it even outlasted a few girl friends I had.

'For Saeng' or Fire Town (i.e. Kampong Glam area)
I know this area to be the one around the Kallang Gasworks with its ubiquitous ten-storey tall gas tanks that was once at the cross-junction of Victoria and Lavender streets. That such gigantic gas tanks were at the edge of the city area was quite the sight. Many people passed by them on their way to work.

Behind this gasworks was a kampung of timber yards and houses. A Chinese doctor lived there. My mom used to bring me there to see him. Later, his daughter would take over the practice.

My sister worked for a long time in Kranji as an administrator and accountant. By the 80s, Kranji had become Singapore's major timber industrial area. The company she worked for processed raw, sawn timber planks and churned them into door and window frames for export. According to her, workers who worked with timber quite often suffered from a multitude of skin problems - no thanks to chemicals sprayed on the original tree and subsequent timber to kill off insects and other infestations. Many such chemicals were hazardous pesticides. As a consequence of treating these workers, some of the GPs in the area became experts in skin problems. One such clinic was located in Kranji itself, near the food centre. It has since moved to Marsiling.

The same thing happened to that Chinese doctor in For Saeng. By treating workers around the timber yards in that area, he built up a good knowledge of cures using TCM. He was particularly good with eczema and such skin ailments. According to a BBC documentary, no one could quite explain why TCM cures for eczema worked better than Western ones - they just did. Moreover, they worked not as a general prescription, but as a personalised 'ta mak' (take pulse) formula as well. It just made the whole thing more incredible than it already was.

I do not know why my mom brought me to For Saeng to see that Chinese doctor. I don't remember suffering from  any skin problems. Measles, yes, but not any chronic skin condition. Perhaps she was enquiring about a different matter altogether. The reason why I have had time to roam around?

My visits there were full of fascination. I got to play with sawdust, saw how the timber yards worked and most of all, got to play with scorpions. Where sawdust is, scorpions are likely nest, was what I learned. That Chinese doctor also made medicines out of them. There would be jars of these creatures soaked in herbs and alcohol in his home-clinic.

On the Lavender side of For Saeng, just before the casket shops was where my grandfather and his friends had their machine shops. That area used to be full of them and walking along Jellicoe Street, one could literally smell grease and hot metal. Sparks would fly from the welding rods and din from the cutters and grinders  would reverberated around that narrow street. The white shop walls, framed with green painted wood, were greatly stained with greasy fingerprints. I often wondered how the smells and stains would be gotten rid of should the shops be sold for area upgrading. Anybody who has ever worked at a motor workshop knows how stubborn these stuff can be.

These workshops were also the reason why that part of Lavender Street was home to so many hardware shops. You can still find some of them there today.

Around the corner where Penhas Road met Lavender Street, was an old tall apartment block with trademark 1950s green windows. Relatives of my father used to stay in the upper floors. My grandma would later move in with them after my grandfather's death. When he was alive, my grandfather stayed in a big bungalow in Duchess Road in Bukit Timah - one of the many properties he and his friends developed from wealth they earned building and machining stuff during the 50s-60s shipbuilding boom. I think I've got his genes in me as I liked to get mechanical from time to time, with a great interest in power tools and workshop equipment. In school, I was pretty handy with a lathe machine.

My granddad's bungalow was one of those classic Chinese types with thick red pillars in front. It had a rooftop that doubled as a patio with all-round railing. It was accessed via a circular staircase that was located in the kitchen. I liked that kitchen. It had an open design (a large air well) that made the whole house cool and airy. The house did not seem to have many bedrooms. Instead, the space was given to a large living room that was connected directly to the kitchen via a small dining area. I guess my granddad, like me, liked open spaces.

In the front small garden, my granddad had a rambutan tree that was overrun by black ants. Next to it, was a chiku tree. Whenever I am there and was 'high tide', I would be ordered to pee on the trees. Back then, the poor black ants got rained on a lot by me. It was not all fun as I also worried one might drop and bite my 'gu gu jiao'. So such visits to the tree was often a hurried affair.

On the other side of the driveway was a frangipani tree. On our visits, my mom and I would collect the fallen flowers and dry them in the sun till they turned brown. Then, we would use them like tea leaves and make a brew out of it. How did it taste? Well, very pleasant, like Jia Jia Liang Cha (a popular canned herbal drink).

Every time I visit this relative of mine in Penhas Road, me and my cousins would roam the area. We would observe the nearby casket shops and be fascinated by all that grieving and embalming of the dead. I was never afraid, believing death to be part and parcel of life. The only thing I didn't like was the way our Chinese cemeteries were organised. It was all very haphazard unlike the neat affairs in Hong Kong. My previous visits to sweeping tombs at the old Pek San Cemetery Hill reinforced this view. And I think the  present Pek San columbarium in Bishan is one of the poorest designed facilities in Singapore. It has non-existent ventilation, poor layout and exceptionally boring features. They should tear it down and build a better one.

'Ngau Chay Sui' or Chinatown
When I was young, Chinatown market was in the streets, not in some building with a carpark. In some old videos, you can see a woman selling live meats of snakes, turtles, frogs and rabbits. We bought our first and only rabbit pet from her. It was a brown female hare and we named it Bumble. Bumble lived with us in Geyland and elsewhere till it died of old age - some eight years later. That rabbit loved its coffee and white bread and also our power cords and Japanese slippers. Somehow, my mother, in her own unfathomable wisdom,  managed to toilet-train it. Bumble was an affectionate rabbit and we all missed it when it passed away, especially my brother, who treated the rabbit as his own.

This meat-seller's stall in Chinatown held a fascination for me. It was always a blood and gore affair whenever she was in business.  Even if you didn't buy anything you could just gawk at her many wire cages of animals both wild and tame.

My mom made friends with quite a few of the hawkers in Chinatown. Over the years, even  after they had  moved to the new building, she would make it a point to still shop there. Chinatown wasn't near at all to where we lived, but my mom claimed the vegetables were always fresher than what we could get up North.

In those days, my dad loved eating chicken rice in Chinatown. The hawkers then were street vendors and we would just sit by the side of the road for our meals. I remember that the bak cham gai (white chicken meat) was always eaten with yellow mustard, not just black sauce and chilli. This pratice stopped with Boon Tong Kee sometime in the mid-90s. These days, when I tell my younger colleagues about this, they would look at me quizzically as if I'm mixing Chinese cuisine with Western. That old-way of eating is the reason why I keep a bottle of Hot English Mustard at home. Besides chicken white meat, it is also good for all sorts of meats, especially sausages. Eating fried noodles one time, I discovered that English mustard gave it a fantastic lift, not unlike wasabe. But less a cranial attack. That yellow mustard somehow works well with soya sauce. Fusion food chefs will no doubt confirm this. You can even try it on Maggi noodles.

With the advent of shopping centres, the shops in Dai Por began to disappear. The distributors, however,  remained longer. At the time, it was quite fun walking the five-foot ways to observe the different businesses. In Kallang, the gasworks were moved to Senoko; the giant tanks were removed in 1998. The river behind was cleaned up for recreation long after the timber yards were closed and moved to Kranji. That Chinese doctor's practice was taken over by his daughter and moved to King George's Avenue. As for Lavender Street, many of the buildings around the casket businesses are still there but Jellicoe Road has changed. A row of the workshops was demolished, replaced by a condominium.

I always think back to my childhood days whenever I visit Lavender Food Square (usually for that excellent Bugis Street Beef Noodles). This stall is rather unusual in that it still serves the condiments of salted black beans and jin chalok like they did back in the days when transvestites still plied that famous street. According to the stall owner, they kept it that way because the older folks were familiar with that way of eating. I'm glad they did because a new-gen guy like me learned to like it too.

My grandfather passed away in 1981. The bungalow he lived in was sold and replaced by a multi-apartment complex. All the trees in front were gone, including that rambutan one I nourished. I often wonder what tales my grandfather would tell if he was still alive. And my grandma? Last I heard, she spent part of my grandfather's riches travelling all over China. We did have relations (and land) still in Guangzhou.

No comments:

Post a Comment