There are these things that you may not expect young boys to enjoy like going to the dentist, or perhaps having a haircut, or accompanying Mum to the market. I for one detested the visit to the dentist and the barber. For some strange reason though, I did, for a while at least, enjoy following my mother on her regular visits to the Lorong 4 market, which was located across the road from where we lived in Toa Payoh.
By the time I got to do that, street markets had started to vanish from Singapore, and living in a spanking new HDB estate, we had the relative luxury of going to a covered market where market vendors were allocated a cubicle like space, complete with electricity and running water, from which they could sell their goods. Still though, going to the market could really be a rather unpleasant and sometimes traumatic experience for a four year old boy, having to tread over the wet slippery and rather messy looking floor tiles, at the risk of not just slipping and falling, but also of having ones toes being stomped on by a cha-kiak clad foot, as well as being forced to inhale the seemingly foul mix of smells that came from the live chickens and ducks, and displays of fish and fresh pork, that permeated the air. (Cha-kiaks are red painted wooden clogs that were popular as a choice of footwear for the common folk in the 1960s).
Perhaps what first motivated me to follow my mother out when we had first moved to Toa Payoh, was the opportunity to put my gleaming new blue rubber wellingtons which I had acquired at a shop near the Lorong 7 market on the walk of discovery around the estate that we did upon moving in. That I insisted would have been the only way that I could keep the splatter of smelly water that would have come from trudging through the wet slippery floor. The market at Lorong 4, Toa Payoh, I was to discover, was a whole new world to explore, the sights and sounds of which are still very much etched in my memory. There would be fishmongers chopping, scaling and gutting, chickens being slaughtered by having their necks slit and drained of blood before being put in some cylindrical metal contraption that de-feathered the chickens, and fishballs being made by hand on the spot.
The fishball vendors would sell a variety of foodstuff with displays of cubes of tofu soaking in water, and soft ones displayed on a platter, salted vegetables being soaked in an earthen pot of brine, and there would also be fishballs soaking in a basin of water which would be scooped up, water and all to be packed into a plastic bag. Fishballs were made in a trough on the floor outside the stalls, and I usually enjoy watching fish being scraped into the trough by a person sitting on a wooden stool, before being mixed with flour. Another thing that I was usually fascinated with was the spice vendor who could be seen mixing his colourful rempah (dry powder or wet paste of mixed spices) from which was always accompanied by the whiff of the wonderful aroma that came from the spices. What I never enjoyed being close to, was a quadrangle at centre of the market which was under a skylight which I suppose also served as an air well. The quadrangle was divided into four stall lots, with each occupied by chicken sellers and bounded by chicken cages filled with live chickens and ducks, which could be picked out, weighed and slaughtered. There was always the overpowering smell of chicken waste that filled the air (despite the ventilation offered by the air well) that I never liked taking in.
The highlight of the trip to the market was always at the end of it, once my mother had finished her shopping. She would always sit me down for my favourite bowl of piping hot fishball kwayteow mee (noodles) for breakfast, which went for 50 cents a bowl then. That was a time when you could get a small portion of fried carrot cake for 20 cents, which was served on a leave. It would be 30 cents if you wanted egg fried with it or you could have a choice of saving on the price of the egg by bringing one of your own. Back then the market was laid out in such a way that the cooked food stalls were placed along the periphery facing the outside, such that tables and chairs could be arranged in the open spaces around the market building, so having breakfast there was always alfresco.
One thing I noticed outside the market was the daily get together of elderly men who wore their shirts unbuttoned, exposing the white undershirts or singlets that they would wear underneath, as they sat sipping their coffee from the saucer. It was common back then to drink out of the saucer, as it allowed the hot beverage to cool more rapidly. On the warmer and muggier mornings, many of these elderly men would sit in their undershirts which would be rolled up exposing their bellies. Something else that was commonly seen was the numerous Nepali vendors who displayed their wares on a piece of cloth that was laid on the floor outside the market. You could see a variety of goods being laid out, including leather belts, belt buckles, trinkets, amulets, gemstones, cigarette lighters and a myriad of other small items.
I did stop accompanying my mother eventually, perhaps when I was about five, not because I got bored with the market, but because she found me to be quite a handful as I would stop to look at whatever caught my attention. There was one occasion, when watching a fishball seller scraping fish, which his daughter who was about my age, somehow didn’t take kindly to. She gave me a hard push and I landed backside first, into a basin of brine and salted vegetables. So it was, that my adventures at the market ended, as abruptly as it had started, and all I could do then was to wait patiently in the relative safety of my home for the tiffin carrier of fishball kwayteow mee, with its lid overturned so as to hold the cut chilli that was usually served with it, that my mother would take back with her from the market.