Thursday, February 28, 2008

“CHAP GOH MEH” Celebration at Havelock Road in 1958 (by James Seah)


This is a recent picture of the “Grand Old Building of Havelock Road”. The corridor was elevated above street level in the 1960s. The arrow points to the unit occupied by the Soh Beng Tee Construction Co.


Chinese around the world, including Singaporean-Chinese celebrate "Chap Goh Meh" to mark the closing of the traditional 15-day Chinese New Year celebrations.

It would be interesting to have a chronological record (by year) of first person experience stories about "Chap Goh Meh". "Chap Goh Meh Through the Ages" would serve as a historical record of the different ways people celebrate this traditional Chinese festival in different places around the world.

I remember "Chap Goh Meh" at Bukit Ho Swee kampung 50 years ago on 4th March, 1958 (Tuesday) when I was a 10-year-old kid. [The exact date is traced with the help of the Chinese calendar program on my Treo 650, not that I could remember the exact date so well].

The venue of the Bukit Ho Swee "heartland happening event” was at the 'Grand Old Building" (GOB) at Havelock Road, where shop Unit No. 715 to No. 745, Havelock Road, Singapore are located. I found a best-view spot at the corridor of the coffee-shop at Unit No. 719 beside the Soh Beng Tee Construction Co. office at Unit No. 721.

About 20 workers and the proprietor were having a grand "Chap Goh Meh" celebration dinner when I arrived at about 7:00 pm. There were crates and crates of firecracker stacked outside the office. 4 or 5 earthenware stoves with burning charcoal were also placed nearby.

At about 7:30 pm, I heard 3 rounds of rousing shout of "Yam Seng" from the diners to signal the completion of the company dinner to celebrate another year of business prosperity.

Several male workers then came out of the office. Their faces were red with too much brandy and beer and they appeared tipsy. They were laughing, apparently happy after an enjoyable and sumptuous dinner with alcohol drinks.

The crates of firecracker were quickly opened. There were a few hundred packets of firecracker. The wrapper of each packet of the red firecracker was peeled off at the edge to expose the flint.

The unpacking process was done by a group of 4 or 5 workers while another group lighted the firecrackers on the charcoal fire and threw them onto the road, packet by packet. It was a dangerous maneuver without any safety protection for the workers.

The sound of the firecracker was deafening. Very soon Havelock Road at the GOB was covered in a cloud of dark smoke. Cars which passed through this stretch of the road have to keep the windows wound up. Packets of lighted firecracker accidentally thrown into an open car window could explode and cause injuries to the occupants. Most other vehicles prefer to use an alternative route instead of traveling through the “war zone” for safety reason.

As the unpacking and unwrapping of the firecracker was completed, more workers joined in to throw the packets of firecracker. The tempo and speed of the cracker firing increased tremendously and I had to use my hands to cover my ears. I was also inhaling the toxic firecracker smoke.

After a while, I noticed that the workers at the woodmaking factory across the road have also started to throw fire crackers onto Havelock Road. The factory must have had a profitable year and celebrated it with a "Chap Goh Meh" staff dinner in the same way as Soh Beng Tee, I guess.

It was the first time in my life I had witnessed such a firecracker display.

The workers at Soh Beng Tee continued drinking beer while firing the crackers. They were in high spirit and appeared to be having lots of fun, shouting loudly above the din to the people at the woodmaking factory, "Lets see who can fire the most firecrackers, who can last the longest" ... Oh My God, it was not just an ordinary firecracker display. It was a competition to see who has the most money (Oops...firecracker) to burn.

When “showtime” was over at around 9:00 pm and the billowing cloud of firecracker smoke was drifted away by the wind, I slowly made my way home. There was a constant buzzing sound in my ears and I feared that I would become deaf. I was also stunned and shocked by what I heard and saw at the "Firecracker Fest".

After the firecracker smokescreen disappeared, the bright, the full moon above Havelock Road on that “Chap Goh Meh” could again be seen.

I did not know that it was the first and also the last time that I had the chance to witness such an event in Singapore.Please check out this website if you want to find out why firecracker was banned in Singapore.


James Seah

10 comments:

peter said...

I wonder whether Soh Beng Tee Construction in still around.

They were one of my first few computer customers from the Building and Construction Industry back in the early 1980s. The other was Archurband Architects. I think they were one of the few "Ah Beng" companies that used IT very early in their business.

Still remember we had to teach them how to use speradsheet - I think it was called "Supercal" to compute fo Paroll for workers and Quantity Surveying Cost Estimates, if I still got the term correct.

Victor said...

CNY eve (just before midnight) and Chap Goh Meh were the busiest times for letting off firecrackers. I remember some businesses and households burning long strings of firecrackers which were dangled from a few storeys high. After that, the streets would be paved with a red sea of paper bits which were remnants of the exploded firecrackers.

Brian Mitchell said...

I was very surprised to read about the restrictions on firecrackers in Singapore. When I arrived from the UK in February 1960 my coach journey during the night from Payar Lebar airport to my hotel was rather boring - most places were in darkness but every now and then the night was lit up by firecrackers going off. They are indelibly written into my memory as one of my first experiences of Singapore.

JollyGreenP said...

I remember the sound of firecrackers exploding at CNY time in 1958, if I remember correctly it was the year of the dog. We were not allowed out that evening as it was perceived as being too dangerous with all the firecrackers going off. The morning after we went down to Changi village from Wittering Road where we lived at the time. We found the village shops were all closed and the red casings of the firecrackers were inches deep on the ground. Sifting through you could find unexpldoed crackers and we collected up several dozen. We took them home and stripped open the crackers collecting a pile of powder. My younger brother Tom insisted on lighting the pile of powder so I handed him a box of matches. Foolishly he thrust a lit match into the middle of the powder which flared up and burnt his hand. He went into the house wailing and insisting that I had told him to light the powder for which I duly received a sharp clip around the ear from my mother. Fortunately Tom was not badly burnt and returned from a visit to the MO with a bandaged hand which healed within a week. For me though, I still resent that clip round the ear all these years on!

Zen said...

It is traditional practice for the Chinese to fire crackers on a happy occasion. The problem was the indiscriminate firing of crackers especially during CNY before the ban, causing loss of lives and limbs, not to mention wide spread fires resulted from such irresponsible act. It was a final straw for the then PM Lee to slap down the permanent ban which lasted up to this very day. Just take for example of a notorious area - Chinatown - where people randomly throwing down loads of potent fire crackers from higher buildings, practically causing a 'fire-storm' to dodging vehicles and pedestrians below. Can a forceful, no-nonsense man like PM Lee stomach such senseless act just for the sake of CNY celebration?

Lam Chun See said...

While I support the ban, I find that Chinese New Year is no longer same without the sounds and the smells, especially of fire crackers.

Lam Chun See said...

My brothers and I also did that silly thing that John and his brother did with the firecracker powder. We were just luckier.

Zen said...

Firing crackers in a kampong was also quite dangerous in the sense that most folks lived in attap huts. Throwing crackers at ferocious dogs was real fun for naughty kids, seeing them fleeing in in all directions as though being struck by lightning out of the blue. I was also guilty of participating in such a cruel and frivolous act. Luckily no SPCA guys were seen around otherwise I would be in trouble. I must say that I had a grudging dislike for unfriendly dogs after being bitten by one without apparent good reason (that was before my fire-cracker attack on them). I did not provoke the dog. It rushed out from its owner house and bit me from behind while I was riding a bicyle along the main road. I truly believed the culprit simply hated me instinctively.

Brian Mitchell said...

Since Zen has owned up to using firecrackers to scare dogs I will admit (with great shame) that my friend and I were on the beach at Changi and put firecrackers in the claws of crabs and lit them. the results do not need describing. I am still ashamed of this act!

lim said...

When I was a kid, new shoes and firecrackers were the two things I really looked forward to on Chinese New Year. I would buy those packets of mini-sized fire crackers, then separate them into individual pieces and store them in a tin can. On the first day of CNY, after putting on my new clothes and new shoes, I would set off the first cracker with great excitement.

I've not seen firecrackers for a long time after the ban, until I visited my relatives in Fujian in 2014. It was then that I realised that worshipers routinely set off firecrackers when visiting the temples. Some temples, however, don't allow that.