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.