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Feb 25, 2013

Night in Chinatown


Under an acetylene lamp, the barrow man displays his fruits.
Descent into Chinatown does not require the passport of multi-lingualism.  It helps, naturally enough, if you can decipher the strident yells and screams, and perhaps add your own suitably worded contribution to the pageantry of noises.

Baby, strapped to mother's or sister's back, sleeps through the din around the stalls.
But the technicolor qualities of its colour remains, and they are there for all to see and feel - even if the strange signboards and flashing neon lights, adorned with gold and red characters, appear to be no more than a hotch-porch of twisted faces or a winking, spidery scrawl.

Excursions are best enjoyed at night. The glaring heat and incessant onrush of traffic, from gaudy trishas to fat-jowled automobiles, make a day outing something of a nightmare. But once darkness has fallen, the heavy scars and wrinkles of Chinatown's old age are softened under the myriad bright lights that glow with a beckoning warmth.

Her sensitive inhabitants react suitably, dressing up in rainbow-gay frocks and crisply laundered shirts, selling goods on the sidewalk, eating at roadside and market stalls or just wandering about.

Perhaps no place exudes this feeling of incandescent contentment more than the People's Market.  Neatly tucked away between a Chinese cinema, of which its patrons are acutely aware, and Police Headquarters, about which they are blissfully unconcerned, the market during the day is a drab empty series of vast barrack-like structures without walls and separated by wide passages. But at night it becomes an Oriental fairyland.


Restaurants vie with each another for cheapness and quality of  food.  Yellow flames lick out of fiercely burning stoves, on which pots and pans sizzle, hiss, crackle and explode as lumps of pork, fish, prawns and noodles are thrown into the boiling fat. Garlands of chicken, golden-waxen and fat, hang beside red-lacquered ducks to tempt the passer-by.

Garlands of chicken, golden-waxed and fat, hang for the customer's inspection at a wayside stall.
The passages are thronged with people coming in with greedy eyes or those, already replete and happy, going out to the cinema or a dance hall or just to roam around.

Opposite the market are several streets for the exclusive reserve of hawkers and these nocturnal strollers. Only the foolhardly would dare to invade this glittering domain at night other than on foot. The hooting of a car horn finds little respect. Pity the poor tourists crawling through in their taxi.

"Pears! Fresh pears from China," shouts a mobile hawker, slicing their skins with well-aimed strokes from his razor-edged knife. His barrow on wheels is neatly piled, basking under a carbide light made from an empty tin of baby's food.

"How much?" I ask, pointing to the fruit priced in Chinese characters.  "Thirty cents," he shouts, "Pears! Fresh pears from China!" "Ah! You think I don't read Chinese. Twenty cents written there."  A roar of laughter goes up. He dips the sliced pear into a jug of water, and takes the twenty cents with a smile.

A Chinese clerk and his wife bargain for a T-shape vest for their young son, and decide on the one with a picture of Superman. Young Superman himself is less than four years old.  No early supper and to bed by eight o'clock for him - not for anyone in Chinatown.

And next to it is a sort of housewife's stall. Neatly arranged in the same row are packets and tins of shampoo, deodorant, insect powder, abrasives, talcum powder, disinfectant, a baby's feeding bottle and brassieres.

In front hang some small towels stamped with that exhortation common to all Chinese towels, "Good Morning, Sir", with Chinese characters proclaiming "Congratulations on your early  peace!"  How is it that I have only used them at night, scented warm steaming and slapped on the face, to help recover from gargantuan Chinese meals?

Round the corner is probably the  most characteristically Chinese street in Chinatown named after the most essentially Malay or Malay States - Trengganu.  The City Council street nameplate is spelt incorrectly, just to emphasize the paradox.  But Chinatown is full of paradoxes. The young boy selling shirts at the corner is studying "Richard II" between serving customers.  His father owns a grocery, augmenting his income to educate a large family with a shirt stall - looked after by his eldest sons in turn.

Like the City Council, Chinatown makes a brave effort with its English spelling.  There is a "liquors" shop and a "cofe" that sells "cafe".  The French influence does not stop here.  There is Maison Chong, but alas he is a mason.  Then there is the American influence, too, as above the tumult came the throbbing strains of a modern crooner singing from a nickolodeon.

A youngster plays the "Turf King" pin table under the watch eye of a girl attendant.
There they are, several of them, with pin tables, "Turf King" and "Atlantic City" on a demolished site and looked after by a bevy of bright  young ladies.  The warm evening air is filled with an etherialised treacle, as some young bloods push 20-cent after 20-cent piece into "Turf King" or "Atlantic City," with one eye on the popping lights of the machine and the other on its guardian.

Opposite is a small stall called "Heavenly, Heavenly," which sells Chinese pork cutlets.  Nearby is someone whose speciality is stewed sweet potato.

The vendor of lizard soup for aphrodisiac qualities,  is famed for his good humour.
Next is the vendor of lizard soup, known for its aphrodisiac qualities, and the seller of dumplings and meehoon, uncooked and raw and heaped in long white appetising strips ready to be plunged into the scalding water bubbling in a copper cauldron at the other end of the stall.

Behind is a coffee shop, packed with customers, labourers, shop assistants, clerks, all sipping black coffee or toying with a fruit drink, smoking, gossiping, shouting, reading a Chinese newspaper or trying to listen to a Chinese prima-donna on the Rediffusion set.

Further along is an indoor restaurant, a slightly more respectable and better appointed establishment, catering for towkays and special occasions.  Chinese sausages, chickens and ducks, cold and waxen-yellow, hang behind its glass windows.

It reminds me of  "The Elegant Flower", in my recent book, with its portly grinning proprietor and his quietly smiling wife in a loudly printed pyjama-costume.  Their speciality appears to be cold bird's-nest water.

At the centre table is a family group, a dinner of welcome being given to an old lady, just back from China, by her dutiful son.  His wife and children and younger brothers and sisters are all in attendance.

The old lady holds back from the series of tempting dishes laid before them, and whenever she moves, does so with gingerly steps, swaying to and fro - doubtless to impress her emigre children and grand-children that she belonged to a conservative and respectble family in the old country, and that the refinements of Chinese fashions of bye-gone days are still with her.

A girl will cut your hair in one of the glittering barber's shops.
Out in the street again, the crowds seem to be swelling, like ants scurrying through an enormous open-air ant-hill.  Above is only the star-lit night, and the lines of washing hung out on poles from the tops of houses.  Over there is a group of plush permanent hair waving saloons, the "White Hibuiscus" and the "Rose Plum," each disporting bright new window curtains.

Finally, around the corner, are what seems to be the main attraction to most tourists - the death houses, where homeless and dying are brought to end their days.  There must surely be a morbid strain in tourists that with all its colour and natural gaiety, it is Chinatown's death houses they immediately make for.

The bereaved sit, sipping their coffee or soft drinks, outside a death house in Sago Lane
But even these have a sort of gaiety at death's door, as friends and relatives of the deceased sit at tables on the roadside sipping coffee, smoking cigarettes and receiving financial contributions, duly acknowledged in black ink on red strips of paper, just like contributions made to picketing workers on strike - a kind of sympathy for the solidarity of mourners.

There is a loud toot on the horn from a large black limousine.  One of the mourners is in the middle of the road chatting with a friend, leaning on a bicycle.  Slowly he wheels it out of the way.

"These are the death houses," shouts the polished guide at the driver's seat.

"Gee!" says one of the old ladies huddled up in the back of the car, "What would they say about that in the States?"

"That's sure interesting," says her friend.  "Now we've seen Chinatown, lets get back to the ship."  The honking car moves on, and the bicycle is wheeled back into the middle of the road.
This article "Night in Chinatown" by Desmond Neill , sounded like a strange and out-of-place Chinatown Singapore today to readers on the blog.

The street names, the buildings, the busy shopping activities, the majority of Chinese-Singaporean residents,  are the same in Chinatown.  Same. Same. But different!

The vivid, colorful description about "Night in Chinatown" article by Desmond Neill was first published in The Straits Times Annual for 1952, sixty-one years ago.  Its a beautiful piece of  travel journalism with polished words like poem.  It brings my mind back to Chinatown at night over six decades ago.  Surreal...

The article and photos with thanks and acknowledgement to The Straits Times Press as a blog for the benefit of nostalgia friends.

This is reproduced from an old article from an old magazine which most people have forgotten about it.

Age does not always determine value.  Just because a magazine is old, doesn't mean it's valuable. And just because it's newer doesn't mean it's worthless.

I am not speaking about collection of old magazines for commercial purposes or as an investment to profit the sales of old magazines like priceless vintage stamp collection.

I discovered an interest in old magazines as helpful "memory aids" with stories of nostalgic memories which were told by the first person stories.  At the moment they were captured, as fresh as their experiences  of  a place, people or event.  Sharing this blog will help to rekindle the fond nostalgic memories of the past.

The writers may have forgotten after many decades later to describe them from memory; or because the writers have passed on.
 

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1 Comments:

Blogger Catcat said...

I still remember abt my beloved village Chinatown godma who lived in Sago Lane for many years related her experience abt death house to me when she was alive. It's true experience n yet suffering was never forget when I often visited her at Sago Lane. There were many funerals ongoing when ones dies day by day at death house. How the dying person/s was fed b4 their death.

February 26, 2013 at 10:25 AM  

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