Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Edward Williams remembers Sembawang Hills Estate and Upper Thomson Road

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 CafĂ©, 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?


Thimbuktu said...

Interesting guest blog by Edward Williams. Thanks, Chun See.

Reminds me of the days I lived in Sembawang near Chong Pang Village.

Is "gnow hiam" supposed to be "ngoh hiang" - the variety of prawn fritters, pork sausage, century-old eggs, etc?

Anonymous said...

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Zen said...

I frequented the said food centre quite regularly while working in Sembawag and was particularly fond of eating yong tau hoo in one of the stalls. Most remarkable about this stall was that it was manned by two young sisters aged around 12yrs old (elder) and the younger one younger around 10 yrs old - in the absence of their parents. The elder girl did all the cooking while the younger one delivering the food to the customers, all carried out very efficiently. Customers marveled at the ability of the girls, with one old lady praising them, remarking: "it is better to have one such daughter than a few idling sons".

Lam Chun See said...

Zen. Are you sure we are talking about the same place? This is Sembawang Hills between Yio Chu Kang Rd and AMK Ave 1. It is so far away from Sembawang Wharves. Where were you staying at that time?

Zen said...

I am talking about the food centre at Jln Leban, opposite the the sembawang hill estate services post, appeared in the photo in edward story. Now this eating place is newly renovated, and the girls I mentioned could have been married and may have children themselves while many of us are 'promoted' to the grandparents category.

Zen said...

Chun See - I forgot to answer your question. I moved to AMK in 1978 and was duly transferred to work in Sembawang which was nearer to AMK. I travelled to work by bus (TIBS service no.169, which is still plying the the route thomsond rd-sembawang road-yishun- Woodlands). I liked to drop at the eating places mentioned in edward story for breakfast and had frequent lunch on saturday afternoon at Jln Leban food centre, hence evolving the girls story.

noelbynature said...

What are chilli noodles? I've never heard of them in Singapore before.

Edward said...

Timbuktoo, "gnow hiam" or "ngoh hiang" - I supposed they're the same. My hokkien isn't very good, what little I can remember of it. I know it has some deep fried stuff including prawns, and fish balls etc. A sweet sauce is poured over the dish. I don't recall century-old eggs being part of it.

Zen, I cannot remember yong tau hoo being sold at the hawker centre in Jalan Leban. Was this before the mid-70's?

Noelbynature - the chilli noodles I referred to are the "dry" noodles. You either have soup noodles or dry noodles. Usually dry noodles are either "mee pop" or "yew mee". My standard order was invariably: "Ah Seng ahhh ...mee pop tah, hiam cheoh chuay, my kio chup" which is translated as: "Ah Seng, dry noodles, plenty chillies, no ketchup".

Zen said...

Edward: I moved to AMK (Ave.3) sometime in 1978 to be nearer to my work place in Sembawang Wharves which was situated next to the the shipyard. Jln Leban was about five to six bus stops away from AMK. The earliest time I started to frequent this stall should be around this date. The stall was at the the end of a row and could have been overlooked by you.

Lam Chun See said...

I have an old friend who used to live in Jln Leban. Visited him a couple of times in the 70's. Other than that I have never ventured into this estate except for an occasional lunch at the hawker centre and restaurants in recent years. But driving past this estate quite frequently, I get the impression that it had not changed much over the years.

Edward said...

Hi Chun See,

The taxi stand as I remembered it was a simple wooden hut with open windows and one or two doors. The one in your attached picture appears much more elaborate. The original structure does not have any brick paving or plants at the side, let alone little light bulbs and hanging lanterns under the roof. Furthermore there was no sign under the roof, “Sembawang Hill Estate Taxi Services”. The taxi stand in your picture has Jalousie windows (also called louvers). I do not remember any windows in the old taxi stand. Passer-by could see through the “window”, at the drivers inside. So the interior or the people inside were not obscured. It’s like an “open gap” but I supposed there must be some means of covering it when it rained.

The old taxi stand is simply a hut for the drivers to rest, have their coffee and read their papers while waiting for customers to call on them personally. There was also a telephone in the hut where bookings were received.

I last saw the taxi stand in the mid 70’s, when it was still in its “ancient” form. It may have been modernised since. The old taxi stand was situated in Jalan Leban (in front of the row of shop fronts & a coffee shop) – I hope I got the name of the street correct.

Another thing I remembered about this taxi company is their sponsorship of Chinese festivities such as the 7th month “hungry ghosts” festivity and wayangs (my recollections of this is somewhat vague).

Thanks for the attached picture.


Zen said...

My daughter particularly like to eat at the Jln Leban newly renovated probably she can multi-task there: eating at her favourite fish soup stall, doing some shopping at the shop N save at the mini-market nearby, and meanwhile getting her car washed up at the petrol kiosk next to the food centre. The best thing about this place is that parking after 5pm is free. The food at the taiwan restaurant (not the other the one specialising in taiwanese porridge) is reasonably good but the service is notoriously slow. Recently the peranakan restaurant Ivins also moved into the food scene.

Yuet Ling Ng said...

I lived at No 10 jalan Chempedak. My dad is Mr Ng. My two sisters and I lived there for over two decades from the 1960s. I remember the noodles were 20-30 cents a bowl and then increased to 40-50 cents. There was a drinks stall in the hawker centre later where my dad would send us kids to buy cigarettes and beer for him. In those days, you didn't need ID to buy liquor. In the kampong nearby at the end of Jln chempedak, there was a provision store which you reached by descending a flight of steps. In the dim and dusty room, the aunty sold potatoes, rice, sugar etc Over at Jln Leban side was an alley where there was a tikam stall. I remember spending my 10cents pulling paper off the board to see if I would win a dollar. The lady also sold oblong love letters which you could buy which had a paper inside which said if you won anything. Next to this stall was a toy stall where we bought these small metal guns where you threaded a roll of gunpowder dotted paper. When you squeezed the trigger, a small puff of smoke was fired off. My neighbours at No12 Jln Chempedak were ang mo. We used to play with the estate kids in the drains and hid in the larger ones from our parents. Those were the days.

Unknown said...

52 years just rolled by!!!
We lived at 39 Jalan Menarong in 1960!
What a marvellous site!
Regards Ted Jones ex REME

Manohgaran Rajoo said...

I live at 101, Sembawang Hills Drive from 1960 to 1981. I am Manohgaran (Mano) from the Rajoo family.

Anonymous said...

Really wonderful to to read these memories. I translated to share with my mom and I can see how she feels relatable cos she knows many of the ppl and event of things happened. The old lady who sold soon kueh has passed on, her granddaughter has contiuned the business at AMK 226 market (no fried bee hoon). As for Ah Tiam the coffeeseller, may I know where and which stall was that? How old was him then? - Trish.