Friday, December 04, 2009

The pastimes of the older generation and stereotyping kampong lads - Edward Williams

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.

Related posts:

1) Days of black and white TV
2) Rediffusion and Big Fool Lee
3) Chun Chew’s article about gangsters in his school days


Lam Chun See said...

I received this request from a reader. Any one like to contribute your questions.

I visited your blog, Good Morning Yesterday. Thank you for all the good memories of Singapore.

In fact, I will be doing a quiz (Q&A segment) in a company's D&D this coming 13th Dec 2009.

I would need questions of old names of buildings of Singapore.

Example: I will ask: - "Standing tall today is the building called Paragon. What was the name before it was called Paragon?"

I'm trying to look for some answers on the internet but to no avail. Would need about 10 questions like this.

Wondering if you could help.

peter said...

Paragon comprised 2 old buildings; Fitzpatrick Supermarket + Orchard Building

Brian and Tess said...

Interested to read about mah jong - I well recall it being played in the lanes around Changi Village in the 60s - and like many UK families we returned from Singapore bearing our mah jong set (I think my sister still has it) and indeed we continued playing it for a while.

Oh dear - that story of the nose clearing! I am sorry to say I still have a very strong memory of bus passengers hanging out of those old Payar Lebar Bus Company buses and doing the same - best not to be too near the bus when it happened!

Thomas C B Chua said...

Mr Lam, tks for sharing your blog. It really brings back memories of yesteryears. It is good of you to put them on record least they just vanish.

Victor said...

Surely, the quiz master should not be expecting anyone to draft the quiz questions for him. For example, he could visit blogs like yours and mine, and after ploughing through the Old Singapore Quizes, come up with questions like:

1. Name a garden which was popularly used by marrying couples for their outdoor photography in the 1970s?

2. What was the building which currently houses Chinese Heritage Museum formerly used as?

3. What was the building now occupied by Fairfield Methodist Church on Tanjong Pagar Road formerly, i.e from 1958-1985?

4. What was Bestway Building in Parsi Road formerly?

There, I have drafted 4 questions off-the-cuff for the quiz master. He should be able to come up with many more if he puts in some effort.

Zen said...

During the kampong days I noticed many old folks had loud voices (not only hainanese), letting off their 'vocal cannon' without much inhibition. On one occasion my wife and I attended a kampong wedding in the midst of a farm setting. One old man who had a thunderous voice let off a 'volly' and this prompted the quick-witted and humourous MC to plead to the guests in teochew: "Please do not talk so loudly or you may frighten the ducks and cause them to take flight".

Lam Chun See said...

I believe there was a lady in our kampong whom we labeled 'tai sang por' or 'loud-voice lady' in Cantonese.

Edward said...

I wonder if the old folks speak loudly because they’re short of hearing? Quite often this is the case with the hearing-impaired.

zen said...

I believe this loud talking is part of rural folk culture. To them talking in this manner reflects closeliness. In other words, they meant kinship for each other, but the problem is this loose 'vocal cannons' could not keep silent even when discretion is called for. Only last saturday morning when my family was shopping at the giant supermarket at Sembawang Shopping centre, one chinese national(male) with a booming voice started letting off his 'artillery' which startled quite a few shoppers close by.

Edward said...

Amongst the Chinese nationals, the Shanghainese speak loudly in public too. But the loudest PRC national is reputed to be the Beijingnese (Chinese from Beijing). One morning I was standing in a crowded peak hour city tram when a loud, shrilled voice of a woman could be heard by everyone (unless you are extremely hearing-impaired). I tell you this is eerily blood-curdling. I could tell that she’s Beijingnese. She had to be. She was just having a normal early morning chat (in Mandarin) with her husband (I presumed) sitting in front of her. I think most of the commuters thought they were having an argument. I felt quite embarrassed standing there. Silently, in my mind, I wanted to explain to them, “No no no, they’re not having a fight. Just a lively high pitched conversation between a couple … nothing to worry about.”

Zen said...

People of different countries have their own respective national traits. When I was working in the port I mixed with many indians, day in and day out. One day I, together with my wife, paid a home visit to her close friend. During our conversation, her friend asked me whether I was many indians in my work place. I was dumbfounded and asked her how did she know? She replied that she knew because I was shaking my head subconsciously like an indian during our dialogue. My goodness, it was as though I had too much bollywood influence and the indian national trait simply permeated into me.

Edward said...

That’s true Zen. We tend to pick up the characteristics or mannerisms of the people we associate frequently with, such as accents and bodily movements. Years ago an Australian classmate visited me at the flat I was sharing with a Singaporean colleague. I was talking to my flat mate when my Aussie classmate was quite annoyed and said, “Speak English!” We both looked at her and said “We are speaking English!” Ha, we were speaking Singaporean English! She thought we were speaking in our local language or dialect but really we were speaking in our accent. But yet when we speak to an Australian we tend to change our accent so as to make ourselves understood better. Someone once remarked, “Ah now you chiat kan tan” (now you eat potatoes). Just like you shaking your head like an Indian. Are you sure you weren’t wearing a turban as well?

Zen said...

I guess if I want to go into a sikh temple I need to wear one and if possible to learn some punjabi, but I still do not look like an indian. One day out of curiosity I asked my younger daughter who is in the media industry why our local newscasters speak with such heavy 'ang mo' accent. Her reply was that the station wants them to have an international appeal and acceptance. I am thinking to myself, is it really so?

Edward said...

There are modern Sikhs who cut their hair short and don’t wear turbans. It’d help if you can sport a little beard though. And yes everybody who’s in the “international” customer service industry has to learn to speak with a western accent. In India those wishing to work in the “telephone support” service industry (like a help desk) enrol in special schools where they are trained to speak with, say, an American accent. On several occasions I rang Microsoft Support for assistance and was connected to a help desk in India. The same happened when I rang my ISP for technical support after my modem went silly.

Zen said...

From my observation of those people who wear turbans, from the hair-health point of view, it is not healthy at all. Imagine in tropical singapore where people sweat a lot, where is the ventilation to the heads? not mentioning the comfort part. According to my sikh friends of the older generation, wearing turbans is compulsory for religious reasons, just like what the songkoks and tudongs are for the muslims. Modern sikhs are actually defying tradition and of course in a modern Singapore society, their more open-minded elders tend to keep one eye closed.

Edward said...

I know Sikhs who apply olive oil on their hair and skin. It’s supposed to be very healthy. Zen you may be right about ventilation to the head. By the way, I have yet to meet a bald headed Sikh.

Zen said...

Edward - To be frank, I had seen a sikh who took off his turban and his hair condition didn't look good at all - like arid grass grown in patches. However, many local men (I included) seem to lose a lot hair when growing old, but the younger men are the one who are worrying.

Edward said...

OMG Zen you mean there are Sikhs who are balding? “Like arid grass grown in patches”? This is even worse than Kojak! Yeah, our hairs seem to get thinner as our waistlines get bigger (the middle age spread). Don’t you worry too much – just relax and join the exclusive vintage club of the “Lau Goh’s”

Zen said...

There was an occasion (in early seventies) when I went to a nightclub where a famous taiwanese singer was performing. Wang Sa and Ya Fung were there to provide a side sketch which was so good that the audience could not help laughing. They were bantering, pulling each other legs, as like true buddies. During an interval I went to the toilet, passing a small room with the door slightly ajar, and I took a peep inside. I found Wong and ya fung both sitting at their respective dressing tables, staring straight into the mirrors with grim faces, without talking to each other, as though they were strangers sitting apart. I was taken by surprise of this sudden change of behavior - laughter and jokes at the front stage and icy indifference at the back room - what happened? A few years the newspapers reported that these two famous local comedians had spitted. So what we see upfront is not the same with what we see behind the facade.

fighting fit said...

One factor that possibly contributed to making folks in the old days talk loudly is they lived in kampungs, and they probably had their own small farms or fields. The distance between each other isn't like being in the next cubicle of our modern days. To ensure that Ah Kow heard you from about 30 meters away where he was tending to the chickens, you had to shout. Or speak loudly. Like a sargent addressing the platoon on the parade square. Booming voice was the norm.

Erwin said...

It's nice to read about the area where I used to live/work for 2half years. I used to have a clear view of the reservoir from the top of Sembawang Hills estate. The sunset is beautiful there. Makes me wanna visit it again after reading this.

I'm not going to write defensively or give many outputs on the factors to why the Hainanese has been portrayed as the loudest among the Chinese dialects in this article. Perhaps it is true. As true as the recollective experience by Edward that recalls the Hainanese as the closest knit group amongst the Chinese during that period of time. One contributing factor is because of the "clanship" among the Chinese community which was much stronger during that time. (Secret society was also very much alive during that time ... even during the time when I was in school during the 90s). The Chinese have since assimilated very well into what it is today. Hopefully, the young generation of Singaporeans won't deny the fact; that not everyone during that period of time was exposed to higher education, affluent lifestyle of fine dining and wine tasting activity they are enjoying today.

“A generation which ignores history has no past and no future.” --Robert A. Heinlein

I'm Singaporean in my 30s, grew up with a Hainanese family who ran a Chicken rice stall in Sin Ming Road. Part of the family came to Singapore to assimilate from Hainan Island, China during the 70s. The older folks even spoke Malay... but not as loud! (I'm Baweanese (malay dialect group) with a Dad who was born in Bawean Island, Indonesia)