Open up a box full of memories at the library

14 04 2013

As part of the Singapore Memory Project (SMP), an exhibition, “My Home, My Library” is being held at the Public Libraries. The exhibition which runs from 25 March to 29 April showcases many precious memories which have contributed by residents of each of the neighbourhoods the libraries are in, with the aim of serving as memory triggers to help more Singaporeans to add to the 830,000 pledges and contributions made thus far to the SMP.

Visitors can take a photo at the exhibition or of themselves at a photo wall, share it on Twitter or Instagram with a #sgmemory hashtag, in order to stand a chance to win up to $200 weekly.

The My Home, My Library exhibition offers visitors a chance to take a photo at the exhibition or of themselves at a photo wall and to share it on Twitter or Instagram to stand a chance of winning up to $200 weekly.

The biscuit tin of keepsakes and memories at the Library @ Esplanade.

The biscuit tin of keepsakes and memories at the library@esplanade.

At the exhibition, visitors will open a biscuit tin of memories, in the way that their parents or grandparents might have opened their tins and boxes with their mementos and keepsakes stashed in them, through a huge human height biscuit tin (which resembles a popular brand of biscuits many would have been familiar with). There are some 500 memories in the tinboxes found across all the libraries and in them, there may perhaps be some which could evoke a memory stashed away somewhere.

Front and Back Covers of the "Log Book" that I used.

My own tinbox of keepsakes includes a book bought from the bookshops along Bras Basah Road.

The exhibition offers visitors a chance not just to relive precious moments but also to win attractive prizes every week in the Snap & Share social media contest. All that is needed is for visitors to take a photograph of an interesting exhibit or of themselves at the photo wall (which has on its backdrop an image of the respective neighbourhood in days past), and share it via Twitter or Instagram hash-tagged with #sgmemory to stand a chance to win up to $200 in shopping vouchers on a weekly basis. What’s more, the most retweeted tweet will win a prize of $50 in shopping vouchers!

The memory submission stand.

The Memory Submission Stand.

Visitors will also have a chance to submit their memories at the Memory Submission Stand – fashioned from a large scale version of the all familiar Carnation Milk tin. Kids will also have a chance to stamp their mark at the at the Kids’ Stamping Station - I know stamping was one of my favourite activities as a child. There are 6 different locally inspired rubber stamp designs and kids can either bring that stamping work home or contribute their work towards the SMP.

The Kids' Stamping Station - surely a hit with kids.

The Kids’ Stamping Station – surely a hit with kids.

In conjunction with My Home, My Library the libraries also organised a couple of tours involving small groups of bloggers. I got a chance to bore a few bloggers all of whom were a lot younger than me, taking them to places in and around the library@esplanade in a nostalgia tour last Saturday. The places involved some which were close to  my heart and some in which I am still able to find memories of times which would otherwise have been forgotten. The places were ones which I hoped could also trigger the memories of the four bloggers who came along.

A stop on the nostalgia tour - the Children Little Museum.

A stop on the nostalgia tour – the Children Little Museum.

The first stop on the tour was at the NParks roving exhibition “Playsets of Yesteryears” currently at Raffles Place. In spite of the rain, we spotted a little girl in a raincoat determined to have a go at one of the swing sets. That brought back not just memories of playing in many similar playgrounds in my swinging sixties (and seventies), but also of times looking forward to the rain so as to play in the falling rain, splashing in the puddles and wading in the flood waters (I still sometimes look forward to doing some of that!). The installation has been organised by the National Parks Board (NParks) for the commemoration of 50 years of Greening Singapore and is in collaboration with the SMP. More on the installation and where it can be seen at can be found in a previous post The 1970s playground reinterpreted.

The temporary Playsets of Yesteryears at Raffles Place.

The temporary Playsets of Yesteryears installation at Raffles Place.

From Raffles Place, a place which holds a lot more memories of days shopping at Robinson’s and John Little’s and having chicken pies around the corner, we boarded a bus which took us to the next stop, Albert Centre. There we had a look at a wet market and at some street traders along the pedestrian mall at Waterloo Street. The market isn’t one that I had my main wet market experiences at, but as all wet markets are, they are (or at least the used to be) where life revolves around, as well as providing a multi-sensory experience with their sights, colours, sounds and even smells. The market at Albert Centre is one which probably carries with it the memories of what the streets around used to hold, the original vendors having moved into the residential cum commercial Housing and Development Board (HDB) complex when it was completed in 1980, having been displaced from the street markets at Queen Street  and Albert Street by urban redevelopment efforts which swept across the area at the end of the 1970s.

A vegetable vendor at the wet market.

A vegetable vendor at the wet market.

Markets were always fascinating places for me, until that is, when a vendor’s daughter pushed me into a basin of salted vegetables. It is in the markets that I find many of the memories I have of my childhood, although the sights, sounds (one particular sound was that of the cha-kiak - wooden clogs on the wet floor) and smells may now be a little different. Many revolved around live chickens, seeing them in cages, being chosen, weighed, slaughtered and de-feathered and occasionally being carried home alive, struggling in brown paper bags with red and white strings. There are many more memories I have which I do have some posts previously written on.

One particular memory I have of is mutton butchers towering over their huge log chopping blocks at Tekka Market (photograph taken with LG Optimus G).

One particular memory I have of is mutton butchers towering over their huge log chopping blocks at Tekka Market (photograph taken with LG Optimus G).

Just next to Albert Centre is a concentration of street traders at the end of  Waterloo Street and Albert Mall. The area sees high pedestrian traffic because of the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho and the Sri Krishnan Temples in the area which attracts a lot of devotees. Their presence there harks back to days when similar traders were commonly found on many other streets and one can find Chinese medicine men (that were especially common at pasar malams), fortune tellers, cobblers, as well as what one might expect, food, devotional objects and flower vendors.

A fortune teller's stand along Waterloo Street.

A fortune teller’s stand along Waterloo Street.

From Albert Centre, we headed to Bras Basah Complex, another HDB residential cum commercial that came up in 1980 – this without a wet market. The complex was also one which took in many traders from the area it is in. This included the many watch dealers, book, optician and stationery shops that occupied the shophouses that were cleared on North Bridge Road and the bookshops that the shophouses at Bras Basah Road between Waterloo and Bencoolen Streets were well visited for. Those bookshops were where I got my textbooks and revision books such as the ever so popular “ten-year-series” from and their move in 1980s drew many of us who went to school in the area to Bras Basah Complex. While many of the original bookshops have moved out, there are some of the other original stores that remain including some old school stationery shops (where we could get not just stationery but calculators, sports goods and harmonicas) and watch shops which take us back to its early days. Of the watch shops – it was from a similar one in Katong Shopping Centre where I obtained my very first wrist watch, an Otis for $70 back in 1976.

An old school watch dealer at Bras Basah Complex.

An old school watch dealer at Bras Basah Complex.

The next stop we had was Esplanade Park, better known as Esplanade or Queen Elizabeth Walk in the days when it was a popular outing spot to catch the sea breeze and indulge after in some satay and chendol. Back then walks in the evening were always interesting, not just for the sea breeze, the flicker of lights of the ships in the distance, or the beam of light from Fullerton Light that swept across the harbour, but also for the many traders scattered around the promenade. There were the usual kacang putih man, the balloon vendor who supported his colourful air-filled balloons with long tubular ones, and the snake charmer.

In search of the satay club at the Esplanade.

Bloggers +1 in search of the satay club at the Esplanade.

No longer there are the satay club which was at the location from 1971 to 1995, having moved from its original spot at Hoi How Road where we would sit at low tables on low stools and where satay would be piled up on a plate and charging was by the number of sticks consumed, as well as the semi-circular laid out Esplanade Food Centre which went in 1980 and which was possibly Singapore’s first built hawker centre coming up in the 1950s, which had been well known for its chendol. However, there are several memories including the Tan Kim Seng Fountain which used to serve as a marker of the former Satay Club, as well as another first - Singapore’s very first pedestrian underpass (as well as non surface pedestrian crossing) built in 1964 which connects Empress Place with the Esplanade.

Composite photograph of the Satay Club (and Esplanade Food Centre) and Esplanade Park today.

Composite photograph of the Satay Club (and Esplanade Food Centre) and Esplanade Park today.

From Esplanade Park, we moved next to the library@esplanade for the My Home, My Library exhibition there – that provided not just a look at the tinbox of memories but also provided some welcome relief for what was an extremely hot and sweaty morning. From that it was a drive by of the former site of the New Seventh Storey Hotel, and the DHL Balloon, which some may remember as landmarks (the DHL Balloon for a short while) in the Bugis/Rochor area, enroute to the Children Little Museum on Bussorah Street which holds in its toy shop full of old school toys and its museum of many full memories, many reminders of my (if not the other bloggers’) childhood. The toy shop and museum does also provide an appreciation perhaps of childhood toys and games over the generations – from simple cheap to make toys and low cost games, many a result of invention and improvisation, to more expensive and sophisticated ones, to the handheld electronic games which made an appearance in the late 1970s – the predecessors of the handheld video game consoles of today.

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There was time at the end of the tour and before the heavy downpour that was to come, to have lunch nearby. That was at the Seow Choon Hua Restaurant at Sultan Gate, popular for its Fuzhou (Foochow) dishes including Foochow fish ball noodles – which I had. There was also some time for me to share my experiences accompanying my maternal grandmother on a trishaw to the area nearby – Arab Street to be precise, an area she referred to a “Kampong Jawa” (as the area hosted a Javanese community), to do her shopping for items such as batik sarongs and bedak sejuk (powder sold in tablet  form). The street then as it is now, plays hosts to many textile shops – a reminder of a time it was common to have clothes made-to-measure. While such shops in other areas have gone – the popularity of ready-to-wear clothes from the late 1970s onwards meant that demand for textiles fell. Many such shops, especially those found in Toa Payoh Central, turned to selling ready-to-wear clothes and a large concentrations of them are now found only on Arab Street.

Foochow Fishball Noodles at Seow Choon Hua.

Foochow Fishball Noodles at Seow Choon Hua.


About My Home, My Library:

The Singapore Memory Project presents “My Home, My Library” – a nationwide exhibition showcasing personal memories contributed by residents of each neighbourhood. From library romances to tok-tok noodle carts and kampong life, each memory tells a unique story that forms a portrait of our home and our libraries. Take a peek into our treasure trove of stories and share some of your own precious memories with your fellow residents. For more information, please click here. My Home, My Library runs at all public libraries (except for Geylang East which is under renovation) until 29 April 2013.


About the Singapore Memory Project (SMP):

The SMP is a national initiative started in 2011 to collect, preserve and provide access to Singapore’s knowledge materials, so as to tell the Singapore Story. It aims to build a national collection of content in diverse formats (including print, audio and video), to preserve them in digital form, and make them available for discovery and research.

Currently, members of the public can submit their memories for the project by”


Do also read about the impressions My Home, My Library left on some of the other bloggers:






More than just fishy business

16 01 2013

The wet markets we find in Singapore today are much more orderly versions of the wet markets in that Singapore I that grew up in. Yesterday’s markets were always lively, serving not only as places to obtain fresh produce during a time when refrigerators were less common, but also as places where people could come together at a social level. In the age of refrigerators and supermarkets, wet markets are today a lot quieter and are now much less of a focal point. Many come to life only during the weekends and just before festive occasions. Despite this, wet markets are however still very much a sensory treat and wonderful places to discover the texture, colour and smell of a Singapore which through these markets we cling on to. One market I particularly enjoy visiting is Tekka Market. The market had in its previous incarnation been one I have long held a fascination for, its passageways filled with the wonderful aroma of spices and the sight of mutton vendors standing over logs which served as chopping blocks. Finding itself across the road from where it originally was, the market is one which still attracts shoppers from across the island in search of some of best cuts of beef and mutton; the wide selection of fish its fishmongers seem to have more of than those in other markets do; and the exotic offerings such as buah keluak that seem to only be found there.

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Pongal in the Village of Lime

16 01 2012

An area in Singapore I find myself from time to time wandering in is the area that is referred to as Little India today. It is an area full of life and awash with colour, one that over time, has be successful in retaining its ethnic flavour in a way that the other ethnic districts on the island have not be able to. The area is one that has developed from its early days as a southern Indian settlement that had been established along Serangoon Road. It was an area referred to as “Soonambu Kambam” or “The Village of Lime”, an area that during my childhood drew many from all over Singapore. The old market, Tekka, had been the main draw with the hard-to-find range of spices and exotic ingredients, as well as a fine collection of mutton butchers that were available. It was in accompanying my mother to Tekka that provided me with an introduction to the area which developed into a fascination for it. That would have been more than four decades ago, when Singapore had been a very different place. Time has since made its mark on the area – that old Tekka market set has since been pulled down with the market moving right across Serangoon Road. It is not this incarnation of the old that now draws visitors to the area, but perhaps a new market that now pulls the crowds in. The new comes in the form of Mustafa – a departmental store whose reputation has spread far and wide attracting many in search of a bargain crowding its narrow passageways.

A reflection off a discarded mirror in a back lane. A walk through the Village of Lime does allow for reflection through the windows it provides to the past.

The former Tekka market (with the red roof tiles) was a big draw for many in Singapore (the former Kandang Kerbau Police Station can be seen across Serangoon Road from the old Tekka market) (photo source: National Archives of Singapore).

It is not the old nor the new market that I seek when I visit the area, but it is for the area as it still is today. Despite the encroachment of non traditional businesses – the rag-and-bone trade, budget lodgings, non traditional cafes and watering holes, the soul of the area as it was has still very much been left intact, becoming very much a focal point for many more – the new immigrants and transient workers, who seek the comfort it offers them of a home away from home.

I am drawn to the area by what it still is today.

The Village of Lime is today one that exhibits many moods, moods that are influenced by the time of day, the day of the week, and also the time of the year. The brightest moods are ones seen during the many Hindu festivals – celebrated maybe less boisterously than in the days of old, but one that still adds a flavour that only the area can have. The festivals bring much colour and activity, whether it is the lights and crowds that the lead up to the festival of lights, Deepavali, brings; the noisy street procession during which an extreme act of faith and devotion – the carrying of a Kavadi during Thaipusam is seen; or the four day harvest festival, Pongal, celebrated at this time of the year. Sundays also bring with it a somewhat festive mood, when crowds of transient workers on their precious days off throng the streets and open spaces to escape from the monotony that the long work hours and the stifling confines of their crowded and far-away dormitories bring, creating a new buzz on the streets in the area.

Floral garlands at this year's Pongal bazaar - festivals bring much colour and buzz to the streets of today's Little India.

The Pongal bazaar along Campbell Lane.

Wandering around over the weekend had the added bonus of the Pongal bazaar at Campbell Lane in the lead up to this year’s Pongal celebrations. It is during the lead up and during the four day celebrations that Campbell Lane bursts to life, being where the main festivities are held. This attracts many to the stalls at the bazaar where much of what is needed is to be found – colourful floral garlands, clay and steel pots, and stalks of purple sugarcane and more. The hub for the festivities is a marquee a corner of which an enclosure has been set up to hold cows and goats – a rare sight in urban Singapore, to be honoured during the festival. To get the best feel of the festivities and to soak the atmosphere up, it is best that Campbell Lane is visited during the evenings, when the streets are also lighted up for to celebrate Pongal.

Stalks of purple sugarcane during Pongal.

Cows are honoured during the harvest festival.

A cow is milked at the Pongal celebrations.

Clay pots, decorated with painted mango leaves on sale - new clay pots are used to cook pongal - sweetened rice cooked in milk, as offerings for Pongal.

Steel pots on sale.

Ginger on sale.

Even in the absence of a festival which does change the mood of the place, much of the area’s charm can still be discovered. Best seen on foot, the streets around are littered with colourful double storey pre-war shophouses and is awash in colour. Even when, as I did, one wanders in the relative calm of the morning, there is no shortage of colour on the streets. Sundry shops found around the Dunlop Street area with their displays of fruits and vegetables are ones that immediately catch one’s attention and are ones that shouldn’t be missed.

Having a cup of tea on a five-foot-way outside a cafe.

Onions and potatoes on sale at a sundry shop - essential ingredients in southern Indian cooking.

Gourds on sale.

Wandering around the area and getting lost in the maze of colour is certainly not without reward. There is an astonishing number of places in which the appetite worked up walking around can easily be satisfied (not that anyone needs that excuse for that). And even when satisfying one’s food cravings isn’t on the agenda, it must really be difficult to resist the calling from that nice heartwarming cup of Masala Tea …

A lady dressed in the traditional sari, shops along Dunlop Street.

A lady carrying a young child at a sundry shop.





A world apart: a leisurely stroll through some of the streets of Little India

15 08 2010

Continuing on our back to school walk from Thieves Market, my old schoolmates and I crossed the busy Jalan Besar to what seems a world apart from the rest of Singapore: the charming area known to us as Little India. Set just a stone’s throw away from the city centre and its skyscrapers that dwarf much of the older areas around it, this quite delightful part of Singapore is one that I have always enjoyed wandering around. Bounded roughly by Jalan Besar to the east, Sungei Road to the south, Race Course Road to the west, and Kitchener Road to the north, the main part of the Little India area is alive with the colour and activity that much of the streets of Singapore seems to be missing. The area had mostly developed in the late 1800s, when the cattle rearing trade that thrived from the watering holes that the swamps in the area had provided. Many of the names used for and in the area in fact bear the evidence of this, Belilios Road and Lane being named after one of the pioneers of the trade, I.R. Belilios, as well as obvious names such as Buffalo Road, Kerbau Road and Kandang Kerbau. The emergence of this trade, one that was dominated by immigrants from the Indian sub-continent, attracted many other economic migrants from the sub-continent to the area transforming it into a hub of economic activity as well as a home for many Indians immigrants.

Crossing Jalan Besar to Little India, we passed this beautiful pre-war shop house at the corner of Jalan Besar and Veerasamy Road.

A newspaper advertisement for the White House Hotel at the height of its glory.

The route that we had taken to Sungei Road had taken us within sight of an Art Deco style building at the corner of Jalan Besar and Sungei Road. This had once been the White House Hotel, a building that I have never failed to notice. Its distinctive green windows had long reminded me of the panes of the windows and doors that was with me for the six years I was at St. Michael’s School. The building also served as a marker of the midway point of a journey that I would take once a week in my lower secondary school days. Then I would attend technical lessons at McNair Road in the Rumah Miskin area, and getting to school after workshop classes involved a ride on the bus that would take me through Jalan Besar, Bencoolen Street and Bras Basah Road. The building is also positioned such that it also serves as a marker for the south-eastern corner of Little India, and back when I was in school, the hotel had seemed to have seen much better days. These days, having been given a makeover and painted a pleasant light pastel blue, the hotel which is run by the budget chain Hotel 81, has some of the dignity that the building perhaps deserves for its architectural style restored.

The Art Deco styled former White House Hotel, which might have once been a rather grand looking hotel marks the end of Jalan Besar at its junction with Sungei Road. As a schoolboy I used to pass this building on the bus that would take me from the technical workshops at McNair Road to the school I attended on Bras Basah Road, marking the midway point of the bus ride.

Making our way through Veerasamy Road, we noticed that much of the area now seems to be dominated by the rag-and-bone trade … the evidence of which is not difficult to notice: small trucks buried in paper and cardboard pulling alongside shop houses that overflow with used items; weighing scales chained to posts on the streets; trolley loads of cardboard boxes being pushed around by elderly folk, are within sight everywhere.

The area on both sides of Jalan Besar seemed to be dominated by the scrap and rag-and-bone trade ...

Evidence of the rag-and-bone trade ... a weighing scale for weighing newspapers and cardboard boxes.

Trolleys of flattened cardboard boxes being pushed through the streets of Little India are a common sight.

The quick walk through the very colourful streets also took us through Kampong Kapor Road. Turning left into it from Veerasamy Road, where we could see the Kampong Kapor Methodist Church, somehow out of place in the surroundings. Built in 1930, the Art Deco church building was built to house a growing congregation which had outgrown the original church building in which the church had started. The original building was incidentally the Middle Road Church building that is now part of Sculpture Square. It was where we had earlier in our walk, stumbled upon Ngim Kum Thong’s very intriguing art exhibition.

The streets in Little India are washed in colour.

Kampong Kapor Methodist Church on Kampong Kapor Road. The church started as the Middle Road Church, the building of which is now Sculpture Square.

More of the Art Deco style Kampong Kapor Methodist Church building built in 1930.

Continuing on our walk through Cuff Road, it was interesting to notice that what is still essentially an Indian enclave, shows signs of a strong Chinese immigrant presence. Many of those involved in the rag-and-bone business are in fact Chinese nationals. As well as that, there was also evidence of some western influences. Where else would you see a sign over what is essentially an Indian café selling a fare of fried Indian snacks such as pakoras and samosas as “Hot Chips”?

The area since has through its history been a magnet for migrants from India.

These days, Little India also attracts migrant workers from other parts of the world as well.

Little India these days is also a mix of east and west.

The sight of newspapers and magazines displayed on lines was once a common sight all over Singapore, and is today still commonly seen in Little India.

A five foot way - typical of pre-war buildings in Singapore ... now serves as a convenient parking space for all kinds of small vehicles ...

Moving back northwards along Serangoon Road, we crossed over the road near its junction with Belilios Road to the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple. The temple is one of the oldest Hindu temples in Singapore, the history of which is well summed up in the temple’s website. The temple is dedicated to Kaliamman, more commonly referred to as Kali, the Destroyer of Evil, a popular goddess with the workers who were said to have been involved in the construction of the temple in the late 1800s.

The Sri Veeramakaliamman on Serangoon Road is one of the oldest Hindu temples in Singapore, having been constructed in the late 1800s.

Inside the Sri Veeramakaliamman temple.

A Hindu priest inside the Sri Veeramakaliamman temple.

Floral garlands and offerings on sale at Belilios Road next to the Sri Veeramakaliamman temple.

After a short break at Chander Road where we had Masala tea at Masala Hut, we then made our way to Tekka Market, passing by the North Indian Shree Lakshminarayan Temple, and walking through the mall at Belilios Lane / Krebau Road, through the small lane by the former residence Tan Teng Niah, and out to Buffalo Road. This took us across to the HDB complex that houses the new Tekka Market. The original Tekka Market was actually located across Serangoon Road from where the current market is, and had when I was a child, been a source of fascination for me. I remember the shopping trips there with my mother during which I would take in the wonderful aroma of spices and look forward to seeing the mutton sellers towering over their huge chopping blocks which had been cut from large logs. So, I was pleasantly surprised to see that smaller versions of these chopping blocks are still used by some of the mutton sellers – the only difference being that they stand firmly on the ground and do not seem to tower over me any more. That certainly give me a shot of nostalgia as we continued to wander around the market.

Scenes from the colourful shophouses of Chander Road ...

A liquor store on Chander Road.

Beet Root on display at Buffalo Road.

Tekka Market today ...

Fresh fish at Tekka Market.

The log chopping blocks that I was very taken with as a child.

Out of Tekka Market, we decided to head back to school again by MRT. This was not before we encountered a long snaking queue that we might have mistaken for one of the queues that offer a pot of gold to a lucky punter in one of the many lotteries that we have here. These queues get especially long when the prize on offer is not just a pot of gold, but the equivalent of several pots to the tune of a few million dollars. Thinking it was probably a queue for one of these, we were quite surprised to see that it wasn’t. The queue had in fact snaked its way to a POSB ATM machine! I had only prior to this, seen monster ATM queues during the seasons of shopping frenzy, that form in the Orchard Road area, and from my recollection, I don’t think any of these were anywhere as long as the one I was looking at that day – perhaps only a third the length of what I was seeing!

The long snaking queue at the POSB ATM ...





Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh

2 12 2009

As a child, the days of December would bring with it the anticipation of Christmas. Christmas would mean smart new clothes, a frenzy of shopping, glorious food, and of course Christmas presents! Over the years, Christmas has become a celebration not just for Christians, but for almost everyone else in Singapore. We see Orchard Road and the Marina areas being transformed into a wonderland of lights and decorations. Crowds have started to throng the streets and shop tills are beginning to be busy. Christmas now is celebrated with much enthusiasm, aggressively promoted by the shops and restaurants. So much so that what Christmas means to most of us is very much how we saw it as children.

Christmas back when I was growing up, was a quieter affair amongst family and close friends. The highlight for me was the Christmas eve dinner with the extended family, usually followed by midnight mass. As a prelude to mass, the story of the birth of Christ would usually be played out … a story that has fascinated me since childhood, particularly the part relating to the Three Wise Men, following a star from the East bearing precious gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh, to pay homage to the Christ child, I suppose that the concept of gift giving was derived from this.

Christmas Decorations from a Simpler Time - Robinson's at Raffles Place, 1966

The more elaborate decorations of Christmas today (Source: Frasers Centrepoint Malls)

As a child, I would wonder what Frankincense and Myrrh were that made them gifts fit for a king. The names alone brought with it a sense of mystic. I did not realise until much later that Frankincense and myrrh were both resins from shrubs that grew in the southern Arabian Peninsula, used in anointing oils, as incense or as burial spices, and perfume making, precious, as it was rare and much sought after back then. Somehow, I never got to see what they looked like unitl a recent visit to Dubai, where I wandered around the spice and gold souks (or markets). Interestingly I also discovered that trade in Frankincense and Myrrh is very much intertwined with that of the spice trade. It must have been the same back then.

Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh as seen at the Gold and Spice Souks of Dubai

The walk I took through Spice Souk was particularly interesting. The colours of the herbs, spices and aromatics on display was certainly a sight to behold. As I wandered through the narrow alleys, venturing into some of the little shops lined with displays of spices, I was greeted not just by the Persian spice traders who manned the shops, but also by the rich aroma of herbs and spices that filled the air, the aromas bringing me back to the sundry shops and spice mills of old Tekka market in the Singapore of my childhood.

Colours of Spice Souk (From Top Left Clockwise): Saffron; Lavender; Garlic; Red Peppercorns; Nutmeg; Rosebud.

Display of Spices at Spice Souk

Dried Oregano Leaves

Herbs and spices were very much a part of Christmas when I was growing up as well – I remember the smell of cinnamon and cloves as I helped my mother stir the pot of ingredients, over the stove, that went into the glorious dark fruit cakes she baked for Christmas. Just the thought of her fruit cakes and the delicious food she prepared for Christmas makes my mouth water! My favourite dish was the Ayam Buah Keluak which she often prepared for Christmas and other special occasions … the thick curry gravy, a cacophony of spices, thickened and coloured black by the black paste that the Buah Keluak, seeds with a nut like appearance with a hard black shell, are filled with. While the fillings of the Buah Keluak we get in the Peranakan restaurants in Singapore are usually prepared with a mixture of meat and the black paste, my mother would prepare hers with just the pure black paste, mixed with a little sugar to reduce the slight bitter taste of the Buah Keluak.





A Touch of Spice

1 12 2009

A Touch of Spice is a delightful Greek movie that revolves around Fanis Iakovides, a professor of Astronomy. The audience is transported back to his childhood in Istanbul, spent amongst the spices in the shop his grandfather owned, and his later somewhat confused childhood years in Athens, after his father, a Greek citizen, was deported from Turkey, following the troubles in Cyprus.

Spice, plays a central role. The young Fanis is told, spice is essential in life as in food – making both tastier. In one scene, Fanis’ grandfather is seen teaching the young Fanis astronomy, and Fanis is told that “astronomy”  is concealed in the word “gastronomy”, going on then to relate the heavenly bodies to common spices: Pepper, like the sun, it warms and burns; Mercury like cayenne is hot; Venus is cinnamon, sweet and bitter – much like a woman; and salt is the earth, as life requires food and food requires salt to flavour it.

Pepper, warm and it burns ... the Sun ... Fanis receives a lesson in astronomy and gastronomy from his grandfather in A Touch of Spice.

Watching the movie does bring me right back to my own childhood … I was never far from the aroma of spices that escaped from my grandmother’s kitchen. It wasn’t hard to distinguish the distinctive smells of the spices that would fill the air: “kayu manis” (cinnamon); “lada hitam” (black pepper); “bunga lawang” (star anise); “jintan putih” (cumin); “bunga cengkih” (cloves); “jintan manis” (aniseed); “ketumbar” (coriander); “buah keras” (candle nuts), were among the spices that were commonly used in our kitchen.

Old Notes on Spices from my mother

Beyond the kitchen, I looked forward to the visits my mother made to Tekka Market and Little India. The market, also referred to as Kandang Krebau Market, then stood at the corner of Serangoon and Sungei Roads, across Serangoon Road from where the market is located now, was where my mother got her supply of mutton for her stews or curries. Entering the market building, we would often make our way past the sundry shops and spice mills, from which we would be greeted by the wonderful aroma of spices that wafted from the shops.

Spice shop in Little India, 1980 (Source: National Archives PICAS, http://picas.nhb.gov.sg)

Sundry and Spice Shop in Little India today.

I was not one who was fond of the wet markets of those days, but Tekka somehow always captured my imagination. The colourful sights within the market building as well that provided by the petty traders who displayed their wares on the streets around made Tekka a fascinating experience for me. One of the sights I would look forward to were the mutton sellers …  a strong smell of fresh mutton would tell us that we were approaching the mutton stalls as we walked through the market. Before long we would see the rows of white and dark red goat carcasses that hung from huge meat hooks, and the mutton sellers, shiny meat cleavers in hand, perched over the huge chopping blocks that must have been cut from fairly large diameter logs – a sight that I always held a fascination for!








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