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. 

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