What did the old folks in my neighbourhood (Sembawang Hills Estate, Phase 2) do to pass away their time while their children are at work? A group of them in the estate went for morning walks at Pierce Reservoir. One old man had a morning ritual in his front garden which I observed for many years before setting off to school. He stood near the fence, pressed one of his nostrils closed with his finger, and sneezed out hard, expelling mucus from the open nostril. Then he repeated the process with the other nostril. I assumed the mucus from both nostrils landed on or near the same spot. After this he cleared his throat by letting off a loud rolling sound and spat out some phlegm. I never knew if this landed on the same spot as the mucus. Once he was finished with this morning ritual, his wife would join him on a walk to Pierce Reservoir. On the way there they were joined by their friends, usually of the same dialect group. I noticed there were many Hainanese in this group.
Of all the Chinese dialect groups, the Hainanese is the loudest. Their conversations seemed lively and often sounded like an argument. That’s just the way they talked. But the Hainanese is the closest knit group amongst the Chinese. They consider each other as brothers and sisters. If a Hainanese has a problem, all the other Hainanese in the neighbourhood helped out. For example, if someone passed away in a Hainanese household, all their own kind will be there helping with the funeral arrangements, cooking, serving the guests and washing up after. There is an unmistakably strong familial bond amongst the Hainanese who considers each other as “kar ki nun” (own people).
In the afternoons some of the old folks played mah-jong. The games were played for money and I heard that you could lose up to $30 per day (or night) if you had a bad run. That was a lot of money in those days. Sometimes they played at night, even into the early hours of the morning. It was usually the women who played mah-jong. It was almost like a “Mothers’ Club”. My mother sometimes joined them, but only during the afternoon. Usually she played in her own mah-jong group.
In the evening it was not uncommon to see a family enjoying a stroll around the estate in their pyjamas accompanied by their dog (no pyjama for this one). If the weather was warm, the men and boys donned pyjama trousers and a singlet.
The old folks also enjoyed listening to Rediffusion, especially the storytelling programmes in Chinese dialects. A series (covering one complete story) could last several weeks. Households who could not afford a radio set in the old days subscribed to Rediffusion for only a few dollars each month.
When television was introduced into Singapore in the early 60s not many families could afford one. By the late 60s almost every home had a television set. It was, of course, black and white television. Colour television was only introduced in 1974. Anyway, the ethnic Chinese programmes, such as the Wong Fei Hong movies (that Chun See mentioned in his article on open-air cinemas), were very popular with the entire family. Chinese comedians like Wong Sar and Yah Fong were the oldies’ favourites. Although the comedians spoke Hokkien, I noticed that every dialect group enjoyed their shows.
The grandparents have an important role in looking after their grandchildren. For the little ones who stayed at home, Ah Kong and Ah Por would be their constant source of companion. Primary school children in their early years were often escorted to school by grandparents. This approach allowed the parents to be gainfully employed.
One day an old man passed away in the next street. As is common with Chinese custom the coffin was brought home. The family had a temporary canvas shelter built at the side of the house (it was a corner house) and the coffin and an altar were placed at the front end. Anyone was welcome to come in and pay their respect to the deceased. This was done by lighting an incense and saying a prayer at the altar. After that they could sit on one of the many tables and food and drinks will be served. I cannot remember how many days the coffin was kept there but the “open house” funeral preparations went on throughout the night. One night a group of men from the kampong at the back of our estate came into this house, paid their respects and sat down on the table. When the host asked if they’d like some refreshments, they requested a set of mah-jong. She obliged and brought them the mah-jong set. They played mah-jong till quite late. She came to my home and spoke to my mother about the guys from the kampong, afraid that they were gangsters who could cause trouble. My mother then went to her house and saw the kampong lads who called out to her “Ah Sor” (“aunty” in Hokkien) as they knew her. My mother then reassured the lady that they were not trouble makers from the kampong, just young men enjoying a game of mah-jong. She was relieved to hear that. Of course, the night ended with no incident.
The funeral incident illustrates a fairly common attitude of the estate residents towards the village lads. Village or kampong people were sometimes stereotyped as either gangsters or potential trouble makers, uncouth and prone to anti-social behaviour. Admittedly, many kampong men often punctuated their sentences with excessive expletives that sounded more threatening than is the actual case.
I have made many trips to the kampong at the back of our estate for fishing trips (to Asia and Cathay fishing ponds, for example) and to buy groceries from the local shop. It was just behind Jalan Lanjut and Jalan Mengkudu, not far from Lorong Kinchir. My neighbours and I have fished in their muddy streams for cat fish and once a group of us joined some of the kampong boys to smoke out a bee hive on a tree. I have worked in a provision shop run by the villagers, ate communal lunch with them and got to know some of them quite well. Thankfully I never had any trouble with the village lads. The most terrifying experience I had was being nearly attacked by a flock of aggressive red nose geese (“hor ark”). The pigs usually ignored me, preferring to lie in their muddy haven while the chickens and ducks were too timid to be a threat. Stories of gangsters and secret societies in the villages have in part contributed to the negative stereotyping of villagers. The snobbishness of some of the estate residents was another contributing factor. How often have I heard derogatory references made to villagers (e.g. “sum par loh”), such attitudes born of deeply ingrained prejudices.
Singaporeans are now better educated and have more comfortable lifestyles. I do not know if the society is more egalitarian or whether such prejudices still prevail given that the kampong environment is vanishing.
1) Days of black and white TV
2) Rediffusion and Big Fool Lee
3) Chun Chew’s article about gangsters in his school days
Ideas@Work: Tapping Employee Ideas for higher Productivity - My book on Staff Suggestions Systems Ideas@Work: Tapping Employee Ideas for Higher Productivity (165 pages, 6” x 9”, perfect bound) is now available in Sin...