Thursday, November 10, 2005

My Memories of Chinatown (Part 1) - Chu Chun Sing

My pal, Chun See asked me to an contribute articles of my childhood days in the Chinatown of Singapore (牛车水). I have actually compiled a series of episodes from recollection of my early formative days as a child in the Chinatown, which many called it - ‘a land where snakes and dragons mixed’ (龙蛇混杂之地). Sadly I had accidentally deleted all these articles in my pc system…really heart-breaking!!!

Yes, I grew up in that sort of place where many exciting yet undesirable habits and incidents came my way and had to this day set my personality and more so caused me to see what’s beyond what this life could bring.

I stayed at No. 6 Sago Street, right next to the famous Sago Lane (沙莪巷 ) where the funeral parlours were housed (also known colloquially as Say Yan Gai [死人街] or ‘Street of the Dead’). That street has always been a taboo to me….never dared to tread in the night not even during the day. Tell you why later….. However when people asked you in those days where you lived I was taught to say, ‘The floor above Zhou Hoong’(周鸿), and not No.6 Sago Street as one would normally do.








Sago Street In the 60's




Zhou Hoong (周鸿) was a Chinese chiropractor (跌打医师) who owned the shop below my place, and supposedly everybody would know him because of his practice in the chiropractic. I used to loiter around his shop and of course nobody took attention of my presence then. I was small-built but with big eyes and you know what? I had double eye-lids. No a bad looking kid but even so…..

Zhou Hoong had a vehicle, a dark green one I remember. He had to wind the torque at the front to start up the car engine every evening when he had to display his mobile store all over the Chinatown or other parts of Singapore then. He had his son to help him; a polio-infected lad walking about with steel structure on one of his legs. We are talking of the 2nd half of the 1950s.






Sago Street Today







The place where I was brought up was not as exciting as many of the present generation would imagine…where the average-income family would put up in a HDB built apartment of 3-4 rooms with ensuite bathroom and a common bathroom. I think, in today’s terms, it can be regarded as ‘ghetto’?


It was just a single room where I had to share with my parents and my 2 younger sisters, and later my 2 brothers came along. There were 10 rooms on that wooden floor, and that meant 10 families all shared the same toilet facilities infested with cockroaches and centipedes. The kitchen was filled with charcoal-burning stoves and some used the kerosene fuel stoves. Hence, every evening during meal time, smoke and soot would fill the air. If during the rainy season (monsoon), tough! Black soot would drop onto your food, condensed from the black ceiling, falling like stalagmites.

It was then that my father decided it was time to move out of Chinatown. The other reason was that he did not want me to engage with the bad influence where the triads and gangsters roamed the streets, either asking for protection money or other devices.

We had no fan in the room and one day my father bought his first electric fan home and got my next room neighbour Ah Kuan (阿坤) to install it. I experienced what it was like to feel hot! Just as the saying goes, ‘When you do not have it, you don’t miss it’. The brand I still remember was KDK, a Japanese make.

Come to think of it, my father who later in life explained to us the reason he had to fetch us (me and 2 sisters) to the Clifford Pier and the Esplanade on some evenings was to get cooled…i.e. chill out! That had always been my highlight because I liked being out to watch the harbour front and the night sky. And when walking past the Fullerton Building it was always filled with twittering sound of sparrows or swallows nesting at the roof crevices. This sound still rings clear in my memory till this day. That area was not as glamorous as we see of it today. It was dimly lit with fluorescent and sodium street lights….Still it was my highlight of the week when being taken out for a walk to the harbour front. I would always pester my father to get us to the kachang puteh man (Indian origin with a tray of assorted nuts above his head). We would pick our choice served in a rolled up conical used paper pack at a cost of just 5 cents and if you wanted cashew nuts that would cost….probably 10 cents, I guess. Not sure because we hardly bought that. May be that is the reason why I like cashew nuts because I missed it as a child.

I had always wondered since I was about 5 -7, where old people came from when I loitered along the side lane below the window of my room. I asked where would these people go to one day ? In my recollection these people never spoke the Cantonese that I knew… they spoke a foreign dialect and they were dressed in black traditional Chinese attire. Looking back they must have spoken their country side dialect known ‘Say Yup Hua’ (四邑话) which is part of the Cantonese county in GuangDong (广东省) province of southern China.

My father could understand them because he spoke to his parents in that dialect while in China. I have never met my grand parents as they passed away while in China when my father had to return to Singapore at his late teens just before the war!

Today my father has moved on in life too and joined those forgotten ones down the memory lane. So what is life I used to ask myself! I remember asking my father that question while he and I were both waiting at the Tan Tock Seng hospital 4 years ago just before he passed away suddenly.


I shall like to continue in the next episode if Chun See would allow me on his blog.



13 comments:

Victor said...

Wah Chun Sing, you really know how to keep people in suspense hor. Said you'll tell us later about 死人街 (Street Of The Dying aka Sago Lane) and just as the story builds up to a climax, you said that you'll continue in the next episode. Pardon me for saying this but in that way, you're very much like Lei Dai Sor (李大傻)the famous Cantonese story teller that used to relate classic and kung fu stories on Rediffusion in the 50s and 60s. He always used that tactic to get listeners hooked on to his stories, episode after episode, hee.

Your story surely brings back a lot of memories for many of us of that generation. Actually I have heard the story of Sago Lane over the radio a few years ago but I shan't spoil the fun for the readers.

There used to be many funeral parlours in Sago Lane. I attended a wake of a relative in one of these parlours when I was a kid of no more than 10-year old. I was with my mother, of course. In those days, going to a wake of a close relative meant that you would stay overnight and not just for one or two hours.

Anonymous said...

Chun Sing (Simon) said....

Thanks for the comment Victor. I was a keen fan of Li Dai Sor too. In fact the very first martial art action story I picked up as a child was from him in the now famous stories written by Jin Yong (金庸 ), Shen Diao Xia Lu (神雕侠侣 ) and She Diao Ying Xiong Chuan (射雕英雄传 )。 May be that taught me to be good at telling stoires too...may be that explains how my friends used to call me 火王。 If you would stay tuned I hope to share more of my Chinatown experience.

Chris said...

Hi Chun Sing. I had my childhood in Club Street, just a stone's throw away from Chinatown, and I had an entry on it in my blog.

Unfortunately, I didn't get much opportunity to explore Chinatown then, because of my age. The only time I was there was during the Chinese New Year season, when my mum used to bring us there to buy New Year goodies and to shop for our new year clothes. But I do remember the wet market there, with all kinds of wild animals for sales - some as pets, others to end up on the dinner tables..

You should really start a blog of your own, Simon (gee, are Chun See and Chun Sing related?) It's really quite easy if you just follow the on-screen instruction as you install blogger.

frannxis said...

During childhood and the teen years I frequently went to Chinatown during weekends and the school holidays. My uncles lived there.

I liked the night market then. It was unlike the night market we see nowadays. You could even buy pornographic books and magazines from some roadside book stalls.

When my mother died, her wake was held in Sago Lane.

Anonymous said...

I used to stay in Cross Street in Chinatown until just before entering primary school. Although I was so young, I still remembered going to Tau Fu Gai(Dou Fu Jie) with my mother to buy food. My relatives also spoke Say Yup Hua and I couldn't understand what they were talking about because my parents never taught me that dialect. Sago street used to have many funeral parlours and I used to be very scared when I walk past that street. My family stayed in one of the rooms above a shop house and my sister and mother had to cook meals using a stove that burns wood. The toilet was the bucket system type and when the bucket collection man comes to collect the bucket, I used to hide for obvious reason.

Anonymous said...

I used to stay in Cross Street in Chinatown until just before entering primary school. Although I was so young, I still remembered going to Tau Fu Gai(Dou Fu Jie) with my mother to buy food. My relatives also spoke Say Yup Hua and I couldn't understand what they were talking about because my parents never taught me that dialect. Sago street used to have many funeral parlours and I used to be very scared when I walk past that street. My family stayed in one of the rooms above a shop house and my sister and mother had to cook meals using a stove that burns wood. The toilet was the bucket system type and when the bucket collection man comes to collect the bucket, I used to hide for obvious reason.

Kristy said...

Great pictures and stories. Thanks very much for sharing these with us. I just mentioned you in my blog today as well. I really can't wait to read more. Keep it up!

Anonymous said...

SLS

I have just revisited this blog and found your comment. I'm interested to visit your blog site, can you tell me the full name of it?

Simon (Scotland)

Anonymous said...

Even though I have never lived in Chinatown nor participated in its activities in the past, I could rediscover it in this story of Chinatown's past. If only you could describe how Chinatown was like at a certain period of time(maybe the 1920s or 1950s or something)...It would be more lively and interesting. And also useful for my report of Chinatown... I look forward to a 'next episode'. But are you going to post or is it already posted somewhere? Seems it has been 2 years since anybody commented though...

peter said...

There are many places/events in Chinatown one could 'write" but can be challenging. For example"

1. Japanese WW2 torture chamber at Smith Street (which looks like the pre-war SIT flats at Tiong Bahru). The building was demolished.

2. The poor small kids who sang and sold kana/cigaretes to diners at the old People's Park Market (where People Park now stands)

3. The old magistrate court at the junction of New bridge Road, Cantonment Road and Outram Road

4. Outram School (now Outram MRT Station)

5. The Cantonese brothels near the Indian temple at South bridge Road

6. Of course Keong Siak Street brothels

7. Someone already mentioned about the human waste collection center at Park Road (behind People's Park)

8. Yum Char at Nam Tong

Tom said...

Looking at the at the old photograph of Sago street with all the stalls and the washing hanging out of the windows, and then looking at the second photo with the street all cleaned up by the way the street looks a lot better know than it was in 1961,I remember back in 1962 and one night the gurkhas were doing a Internal exercise around Sago street and I was to be one the bad guys I was told to climb up on to the roof of one the houses and when the Gurkhas came to look for me I was to get of the roof and I was to let them see me and I was to run down the street and while was runing a black dog bit the back of my left leg and and about two days later I landed in the hospital for three weeks even know I still get a aching feeling at the back of my leg that is why I will never ever forget Sago Street.

Luke Tan said...

Interesting. My dad bought a lease from the government in 1992 for 6,8 and 10 Sago. These three shops are inter connected. He spend a lot of time in that building. He loves these old buildings and I spend quite a bit of time there as well. All that I know will be from 1992 onwards, and from there I have develop an interest on old building. I really like to take more of this history and encapsulate it into murals on the wall adjoining the laneways of 6 Sago Street.

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