Friday, June 30, 2006

Night Bazaars

Pasar malam or night bazaar in Malay is the mall of yester years. Two blocks away from Block 13 was a large canal with a wide footpath, the normal quiet walkway came alive during the weekends with the night bazaar. Peddlers with make shift stores displayed a wide range of goods and services lined up the walkway lit with kerosene lamps making it a hive of activities as residents swarmed to enjoy the revelry.

We could not, as usual, afford a lot of things and would resort to pilfering by coming up with a strategy to avoid been caught. Our brilliant idea was inspired by the fact that these stalls were badly lit by kerosene lamps. The vendors would therefore not be able to notice much if we approached him in a big group. We would then haggle for cheaper prices, and while the vendor lapsed into a moment of inattention, one of us would move in and pinched whatever we fancied.

Durian was our favourite as it was expensive back then and considered an indelegnce. The Malays had a saying “pawn the sarong for the durian”. Durians were usually displayed on the ground and we would crowd round the made shift store and Richard with his matured look would pretend to haggle for cheaper prices to distract the seller. Conveniently, one of us would kick the durian backwards where someone was waiting to pick it up and walked away.

Over the durians we would often boast and outbid each other of our daring exploits to the point of cooking up tales in order not to be outdone.

Proven techniques used on the mama store were repeated to our delight. Fitness counted and you got no one to blame if you are caught.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Light Up

We could not afford moon cakes and I can’t remember eating moon cakes during mid autumn festival or moon cake festival except for the little cute piglet pastry – a pastry that resembled a piglet lying inside a basket. For us, Mid autumn festival was a sort of ‘evil’ as we played pranks on those excited children swinging their lanterns.

There were two types of lanterns in those days. The cheap ones were made of paper somewhat like a can with bellows. Those who could afford go for the dazzling design – make of colourful cellophane draped over bamboo frames with a holder for the candle in the centre. The evenings leading to the fifteen day of the eight-month of the lunar year became alive with bright colourful lanterns climaxing on the night of the full moon.

We couldn’t afford lanterns and beside paper lanterns aren’t much fun for us as they burnt easily. For us, a lantern had got to be durable and we came up with a brilliant design.

Made from empty milk powder can, we pierced two holes opposite of each other at the top and strung a wire across. The can was sliced with as many grooves as possible lengthwise with a can opener and pressed down, looking somewhat like a bird cage. All kinds of flammable materials are stuffed inside the can to fuel this lantern and using a bamboo stick to hold the wire, and we got yourselves a metal lantern.

Our metal lanterns came in all sizes and shapes. They looked mean and won't get burnt like the traditional lanterns.

As we mingled with other children in the lantern procession, we would intentionally bump their lanterns and watched the children screamed in horror as their lantern went up in flames.

Been competitive, our minds were stretched when we tried to outdo each other.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The Friendly Mama Store

Aside from gleaning earnings from the unsuspecting housewives, we would also turn to the Indian provision stores, more commonly called mama stores (Indian for uncle) for free snacks.

One of us would walk up to the mama pretending to ask for direction or for a change. While he was distracted the others would move into position, grabbing all that we could before the mama noticed us. This was our modus operandi, at which we became quite adept as time passed. We made off with all sorts of things: toys, chewing gums, and candy leaving the man to run after us. The mamas were no match for us as we were much younger and fitter and even so, there is no way they can get us running in their lungi.

Another strategy was to get Richard, a good athlete to snatch something off the store to lure the mama into giving chase. And while the mama ran off in pursuit, we took our time to scoop up the things we fancied.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Hungry Ghosts

My most vivid memories were those of the Hungry Ghosts’ Festival, the seventh lunar month during which the Chinese believed that spirits were allowed free from hell to roam earth for a month.

To keep these ‘hungry ghosts’ away from their homes, people burnt ‘hell money’ outside their houses as offerings for the ghosts to use in the underworld. They also left food such as oranges and bananas.

Chinese operas (wayangs) were performed in marquees and empty seats were left at the front for the invisible ghosts. The performers wore elaborate silk costumes and bright make-up. The ghosts were served food such as fish, meat and vegetable dishes.

The seventh lunar month is believed to be an inauspicious season and one avoids getting married. Similarly, they do not make long journeys. Outdoors activities such as picnics and swimming are prohibited. Drownings and traffic accidents were attributed to the spirits. In short, all auspicious events like weddings, travel plans, birthday celebrations and renovations were avoided at all costs during this month.

To appease the ghosts, wayangs were staged along the streets. Mainly consisting of two stages, one for the operas, the other for the altar and prayers.

The wayang stage was constructed with wooden scaffolding and the stage lined with planks with gaps in between. We used to go under the makeshift stage to prick at the feet of the opera singers with long wooden skewers. It was hilarious to hear the crowd jeered when the actors reacted in pain. At other times, we would sneak up to the wings, silently sitting there until the climax came, and then joined in by singing gibberish. Sometimes they got so annoyed with us they splashed hot water at us, or chased us away with rods.

Hungry Ghosts’ Festival was memorable not only because of the splashes and dashes of gaudy colours, not only because of the delicious bordering on putrid smell of rich fatty meat which the rich splurged on to save their souls, not only because of the piercingly haunting voices of the opera singers. There was another thing, which made it so alluring: the prospect of gaining money. Prayers were offered by mostly superstitious housewives to appease the spirits. They would also tossed coins into the air as offerings. We would then go search for the coins after they had finished their rituals, and were always delighted in finding extra allowances to spare. It was a taboo to pick up these coins, which were meant for the spirits, but the fear of being cursed was not of concern. The cash was good, that was all that mattered.

Every year we raided the offerings placed at the back of the altar and consumed them at our favourite hangout – tenth floor of Block 13.

What audacity!

The Big Bang

Firecrackers provided so much fun. To mark the end of Chinese New Year’s fifteen days of celebration, the Chinese (not us though) would have a sumptuous dinner followed by the performance of fireworks and firecrackers. Children would play with firecrackers in all sizes and shapes. Each year, on the fifteen day of the Lunar New Year, one of the wealthiest neighbours, Tuck’s family would provide the grand finale. A long cluster of huge powerful firecrackers was dropped from the highest level, the tenth floor to the ground level. The long stretch was a spectacle and a pride for the Block 13. Such acts were a display of one’s status. Sometimes there would be a number of columns of fireworks as each family brought out theirs hoping to provide the longest and powerful performance.

With everyone anticipating for the detonation, every level was filled with spectators waiting for someone to start theirs. It could be a long wait as everyone wants to be the last. However, they had be lit before the clock struck midnight. The minute one got lit, everyone would applause and the residents living beside the porch would rush to close their windows. The explosions were thunderous. As the fire ignited the crackers on its way up, the porch filled with smoke and red paper fragments flying all over. It was incredible. At the end of the line, was a huge assembly of large power packed firecrackers, which were designed to detonate simultaneously. The finale was thunderous bang sending all the paper fragments flying in all directions.

At the end of this awesome display, the ground level was a sea of red paper fragments. Wading and swimming in a six inches thick sea of fire cracker garbage was pure delight. The Chinese called it “man ti hong”, roughly translated meaning a sea of red.

Each year, we would come up with ideas like removing the explosives from the firecrackers and wrapped them up with cigarette foil together with a small marble. This innovation is a self-detonated explosive. Smash it on the ground and on impact, the marble and concrete ground created a spark igniting the homemade explosive. We would try to outdo each other by creating the largest explosion which was limited by the size of the cigarette foil.

Another favourite was to light a fire cracker and to cover it with an empty can and sees it propelled sky-high. As expected, we competed for the highest jolt.

There were some really crazy pranks by other older boys who aimed fireworks directly into people’s houses. Thankfully, we were responsible enough not to imitate them. Firecrackers were banned later as they caused a lot of accidents and fires.

There were other innovations, which were best not described here, as they were probably the reasons the government banned firecrackers in 1971.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Hide And Seek

A favourite when we were young. The game was pretty straightforward, one started off being the tag. The tag leaned his arm against the wall and closed his eyes and placed his head on his arms. While in this position, the rest ran off to hide. After a predetermined period, he went in search for us. The game ended when everyone was accounted for and the first to be discovered ends up as the tag. The standard rules were that the tag must not open his eyes when the rest were seeking cover and the cover area was specified so that the game could be played within a reasonable time.

Lawrence came from a rather affluent family. When he first moved in we took advantage of him because of his trusting nature. We often went to his apartment to play hide-and-seek. If he was the tag, we would seize the opportunity to raid his fridge, while he remained none the wiser.

Once in our excitement, we specified a rather large area where one could take cover. The game did not finish, as we couldn’t locate a few of them. The next day we realised that some had went so far away that it was not possible to track them. Rules must be practical and observed.

As time progressed, we modified the game to include two tags or played them in the most unlikely places – the neighbourhood dump was one of them.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Punching Bags

A sport we often practised. Back then, lightings in lift consisted of a fluorescent tube confined within a cage, presumably to prevent theft. And the lift stopped at the eighth, fifth and ground level. We would enter the lift and with a twist of the fluorescent tube, the lights went off and all of us go for a free for all punching session.

When the door opened and light streamed in, we beheld ourselves in various states of injury and undress. David was the first to fall victim to these punching sessions. When he first moved into Block 13, we decided to let him have a foretaste of our fun, a sort of orientation before one qualifies to join the band of brothers.

As time passed our sessions became more and more frequent, and more and more violent. David himself would learn the techniques of how not to get injured, and how to cause the most injury – we even developed a strategy of offensive defence, which meant that we would enter into an aggressive frenzy hurling punches and profanities to prevent others from harming us first. ‘Tua sceah buay chun’ meaning vociferous but ineffective.
Once a session got so violent that the lift was knocked out of alignment and we got trapped in the elevator. We were later rescued by the maintenance people.

Offence is sometimes the best defence.


Back in those days, laundry was draped over bamboo poles and placed outside the kitchen to dry. George lived above us and our parents often quarrelled over wet laundry. Somehow, the Lim family had a habit of hanging out wet laundry to drip dry.

When we were at home, we got agitated with this inconsiderate behaviour and participated in the shouting matches. But when we were out playing with George, everything seems normal. We never tried to reconcile.

Somehow, both families never fought except for the regular shouting bouts. It was strange that we fought regularly over the wet laundry but never worked out a solution.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Rabbit House

Block 13 faced no degrading superstition that number thirteen does. On the contrary, its residents felt most blessed to be staying this block, for in Cantonese thirteen sounds like “guaranteed to live”, a doubtless guarantee in these days, but in those days there was no such guarantee.

On the shoulders of Jalan Merpati lined Block 12 to Block 14 and on the opposite, Block 11 and Block 15. Each block rose ten floors and each unit consisted of a hall, room, kitchen with an adjoining toilet, altogether a paltry fifty square meters.

It was not uncommon to find a family of ten spanning three generations living in the tiny apartment. The hall served as temporary sleeping quarters in the night. Every night, there was a man from a large family on the ground level sleeping outside his house as there was insufficient space for the family to squeeze inside the apartment.

Most homes were so crammed that tuberculosis and bed bugs were common plagues. We spent a lot of time getting rid of the bed bugs, an impossible task as they multiplied rapidly in the congested environment. Being annoyed with sleepless nights and constant itch, I came up with the most brilliant idea. I sewed the sides of the bed sheet leaving one end open for me to slip in. I wrapped the opening around my neck and stopped the bugs from entering.

Most families used foldable canvas beds looking somewhat like magazine holders; they were folded and put away in the day. Fridges were unheard of and meals were prepared in the morning after marketing. One would cook lunch and dinner at the same time and left them in a cabinet. In those days, most food storage cabinets had doors with framed wire mesh allowing air to circulate to avoid food spoilage and yet preventing houseflies from contaminating the food. The cabinet legs sat on top of inverted small cups sitting on flat dishes filled with water acting as a moat against the food seeking ants.

There were no phones, no television and no electronics gadgets. No convenience yet so much time to spare.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Moving In

I cannot remember when we moved into Block 13. When we first moved in, we did not know anyone. My brother and I spent our days in solitary seclusion, playing with each other. Before long, we began to notice other boys of our age living around us. The first was Will, the same age as me. He was not very tall, but not very short either, and was of extremely dark complexion. His parents were seamstresses, which meant that they earned enough to live a relatively comfortable lifestyle.

Will, though a little proud of his moderate wealth, was by no means conceited. On the other hand, George, quite easily the richest of us all, was the show-off, even when it did not come to money, and in spite of the fact that there was really nothing spectacularly amazing about him. I remember once we went to swim, and George tried to impress the girls with his infantile macho tricks: he executed a dive from the springboard – or should I say attempted to execute a dive from the springboard – and failed. Instead, he smacked the water ungracefully face flat, inciting riotous laughter from us all. Yet he persisted in informing us that it was a spectacular dive, despite our disbelief. Another time, barely after we had learnt to ride our bicycles, George decided that he would demonstrate to us his superior cycling skills. While going down an especially treacherous slope, he overtook us all by pedalling furiously, only to lose control of his bicycle. He was thrown off, his back and ego bruised, and his bike bent beyond recognition, his expensive clothes slightly shredded. And yet George was one of us. We were inextricably bound together by our yearning for adventure.

Not as rich as George perhaps, but nonetheless still rather affluent, was Lawrence. He was the best mannered and well dressed of us all, and he was the most innocent, a fact accentuated by slightly round and childish features. We used to take advantage of him because of his trusting nature. For example, we often went to his apartment to play hide-and-seek. If he was the seeker, we would seize the opportunity to raid his fridge, while he remained none the wiser.

David was the most well fed even though he was not the wealthiest. This was attributable to the fact that his mother was Cantonese and therefore cooked very well. He was the last of us to move in; as a result he was often sidelined by us. Soon David became one of us, his integration made even more seamless by the fact that he was terribly good at impersonations – he could imitate Charlie Chaplin and The Three Stooges, all of who we watched at the television (much to our novelty and delight, for indeed televisions were extremely expensive in those days) at William’s place, of course.

While David was talented at acting, Peter, another of us, was talented at his studies. He was most definitely the cleverest of us all. His intellectual capabilities were only matched by his passion for swimming. In fact, he was the one who sparked off our interest in the sport. Because he swam so often, he grew tall and muscular in a short time. His younger brother, Richard, was the comedian. He was always ready to participate in pranks and practical jokes, and he was an interesting person to be with. He was typically attired in a sleeveless shirt, probably because the weather was hot and humid and he wanted to feel cool.

We knew almost everyone and we could walk into each other’s home like we were part of the family. There was no barrier, young or old, rich or poor.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Humble Beginnings

In the beginning I knew only of my brother and myself. We did not use the English names we use now; instead he was called Ah Teck and I, Ah Heo, both of which betrayed our Hokkien ancestry. For my brother his name was of special significance – it means bamboo in Hokkien, and indeed Ah Teck was as thin as his namesake, and I was not much better. Unfortunately we were not of the merchant class; our father was a bus-driver and our family was big, which meant only one thing – poverty. And yet we were not as poor as others were poor, at the least we had a roof over our heads, thanks to the widespread provision of inexpensive housing. Still, in the face of household expenditure, school fees, textbook expenses and spending on clothes, there was rarely enough to go around every month.

Our father did all he could to procure food for us. Rarely did we have anything much more than rice. Our meals were supplemented now and then with ‘phor’, that is to strengthen the constitution, we would buy the cheapest slab of pork liver, layer it with ginger strips and a pinch of salt and blanch the mixture in boiling water to make a soup – the poor man’s tonic.

Our diet was exceedingly meagre, at most thin gruel with soya sauce and occasionally achar, a pickled vegetable or perhaps ikan bilis, tiny silver fishes dried in the heat of the sun and fried with a little chilli.

At times, we slept with empty stomach or water filled stomach to ease the hunger. It was hard for Dad to see us suffer and on the flip side, we knew that Dad borrowed and pawned in order to keep the family.

Chicken is served on the table once a year on Chinese New Year. The prized cut being the chicken thighs were reserved for my third sister and my youngest brother. Both of them, Dad’s favourites - the brightest and the youngest.

Meal consists mainly of a meagre portion of meat and the occasional braised duck and pig. We had coffee shop near Block 13 with a stall selling braised duck and pig. Dad would send us to queue up before the stall opens for business. The standard instruction is to get three duck heads and a dollar of pig head and ear meat. The reason was obvious, they are cheap.

There was the infrequent wedding dinner, where it is customary to bring along pots so that leftovers would be muddled up. The concoction is a superior stew of sorts would last us for days. This was the only luxury, we knew of at that time.

My brother and I will labouriously search through the stew and shout out in ecstasy if we would find a piece of meat or fish.

Those were the days of insufficiency and we learnt quickly to appreciate whatever was placed on the table.

Friday, June 16, 2006


Dad often spoke of the time when we were living in Neil Road located in Tai Seng vicinity, a place known for notorious gangsters. I can't seem to recall no matter how hard I try.

For my beginning, I knew of only a gang of boys, a band of brothers, who managed to find amusement in the unlikeliest of places in an unlit elevator, along quiet corridors, muddy, murky drains, on mischievous pranks of the highest order.

Block Thirteen was a playground for the sons of its residents. Situated in a now quiet and run-down estate of Singapore rises lankily and lazily a tall building, once the crowning glory of a newly industrialized country.

This was life then, our lives, my life, for I was one of those boys, crazy and lanky as the building we lived in, our arms and legs too short for our bodies, our spectacles ridiculously large, our pants equally appalling. Yet we knew not that our silly affections would go out of fashion one day, ridiculed by our children, we lived in that moment, for that moment.

One may wonder why I wish to tell my story. It is not, as may be assumed, because of nostalgia, which is a weak sentiment only possible at reunions, or in the dead secret of the night. I ache for the past. I miss it from time to time. I am telling this to share a history, my story.

This is my story, our story peculiar to our little group only. I think.