Edward is a new reader of Good Morning Yesterday. He recently posted some very detail descriptions of his memories of the Sembawang Hills Estate in the comments section of Freddy Neo’s article about this area. Since they are quite lengthy, I thought it would be more appropriate to post them here as a separate article.
I lived in Sembawang Hills Estate for 2 decades. Like you (referring to Freddy Neo), my family shifted there in 1958. I remember Jalan Batai well – it is situated on the top of a hill, so you could go down a slope to get to Upper Thomson Road. Jalan Batai connects with Jalan Leban where a row of shops operated. One of them is Radiant Store, which sold shoes, comics and magazines. There was a bar at the corner called Sembawang Café, which was a popular hangout for the Maoris, British and Australian servicemen (members of the ANZUK forces). Besides Radiant Store (which was owned by the Chia family), there was also a store selling fishing rods, reels, hooks, etc. I used to buy my fishing gear from this store. A coffee shop (kopi tiam) is yet another shop in this strip. I remember a cobbler who had his little space outside this coffee shop. He sat on the ground and mended shoes on that spot. He was a very religious man and I have seen him at the Sembawang Baptist Church at night when I happened to go past. Once I saw him having his lunch – which was just one piece of tau pok (a square of fried tofu) with soya sauce. He was obviously very poor and had a large family to feed. A taxi stand** operated outside this row of shops.
There were some hawker stores opposite this strip. Ah Seng was the noodle vendor and Ah Tiam the coffee seller. I loved Ah Seng’s chilli noodles. Another store sold char kuay teow. In the early 70’s this area was converted into a hawker centre.
There were stores selling rojak, gnow hiam, char hor fan etc. You had to pay 5 cents to use the public toilet in this hawker centre. Further up, towards Jalan Kuras there was yet another row of shops. At the corner is the provision store called “Soon Huat”. A few stores away stood a bar called “Kasbah” and yet another bar is situated at the corner end (can’t remember its name). Kasbah was owned by a Sikh family. Mrs Singh ran the bar in the early 70’s, assisted by her daughter Muni. This bar served Indian cuisines. The corner end bar was more western oriented where fish and chips and steaks were mainly served. I also recall a Bak Kut Teh restaurant here. I am not sure if this was the same store where Kasbah used to be.
This part of Sembawang Hills Estate would have many fond memories for the local residents. In the early years the noodle seller would send a kid walking around the estate knocking 2 small bamboo sticks to call out for orders. Tik tok tik tik tok …
I also remember an old lady from the village who wore a sharp pointed straw hat and carried 2 huge pots at the opposite end of a long bamboo pole. One of the pots had soon kwei (steamed bamboo shoots) and the other had char bee hoon. Everyone liked her soon kwei. It costs 10 cents each. This old woman would walk along the estate and call out “tan kwei kwei!” All the kids would rush to their parents for money, to buy her soon kwei. It was so yummy, especially with chilli sauce. I don’t know if she ever ventured far out to Jalan Leban or Jalan Batai.
One of the highlights of the week for us was our Sunday night market or pasar malam. On Sunday night temporary stores stretched for over a mile along Upper Thomson Road. The market offered toys, textile, clothing, footwear, jewellery, records, cooked food etc. Most of the stores were simply wooden tables and makeshift stands where goods were displayed. It was a magical experience, to walk the entire stretch lit by hurricane lamps and immersed yourself in the spirit of the environment. I can still remember “Silver Thread & Golden Needles” sung by Susan Lim as I strolled along the stores. This was one of the popular hits of the time and the record was played repeatedly throughout the night. Of course there were other well-known groups as well, such as Naomi and the Boys, Rita Chao, Sakura Teng, the Crescendos, Thunderbirds and the Quests. This trip down memory lane is making me so nostalgic. Those were the days (no I’m not doing a Mary Hopkins) when only the record existed (EP and LP). The tape recorder was not yet invented.
Our favourite snacks were han chee pang and tutu. Tutu is a small circular steamed cake filled with either peanuts or coconut stuffing. You could also get hot “soup” like chin tung, ang tao tung (red bean soup) and tao swan (usually served with yew char kwey).
A number of gurkhas sold jewellery, seated on the ground with their precious stones placed on a piece of cloth. You could always see a kris-like dagger on the cloth. People knew that the gurkhas were not to be trifled with. There were rumours that the vendors paid protection money to the local gangsters but the gurkhas were left alone.
Most of the vendors traveled there by van. So they were like a “caravan of traders” who moved in on a Sunday evening, set up their stores, traded and broke camp around midnight.
In later years the pasar malam shifted to Old Upper Thomson Road (correct me if I am wrong). I cannot remember how long the Sunday night market lasted. I think it was still operating in the early 70s.
** YG sent me this photo of the of the Sembawang Hill Estate Taxi Stand and wonders if it's the same one that Edward talked about. Edward, are you reading this?
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