Rediscovering the romance of Chap Goh Mei

19 02 2014

The fifteenth day of the Chinese New Year, Chap Goh Mei (Hokkien for 15th night) as it has been commonly referred to in Singapore, has traditionally been associated with romance. It was perhaps in the hope of rediscovering the romance of a festival that has been lost in the embrace of modernity that drew a healthy crowd of participants to a walk through the streets of Chinatown on the evening of the fifteenth day this year on what coincidentally was also the western day for the celebration of romance, St. Valentine’s Day that was organised by the Conservation Management Department of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA).

A romantic spot on the streets of Chinatown on Chap Goh Mei.

A romantic spot on the streets of Chinatown on Chap Goh Mei.

The fifteenth night of any Chinese lunar month is of course one that, weather conditions permitting, would be illuminated by the light of the full moon – a setting that certainly is ideal for romance. In the case of Chap Goh Mei, it is a night when Yuanxiao Jie (元宵节) is celebrated, providing an evening for romance to be found not only in the light of the moon, but also in the glow of colourful lanterns; it having been a tradition to have lanterns displayed outside homes and along five-foot-ways, as it was for children to take to the streets carrying lanterns in a fashion similar to the Mid-Autumn festival.

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The search for romance would take many eligible young men and women to the water’s edge - the waterfront along Esplanade was, I am told, a particularly popular spot, from which fruits would be aimed into the water. For the ladies, it would be oranges, representing good husbands, that would be thrown, and for men, good wives taking the form of apples – a practice that I actually did not know about until more recent times.

The lantern parade through the streets of Chinatown on what can be seen as a double Valentine's Day in search for a lost romance.

The search for romance.

While we did not get the chance to toss oranges or apples in the name of romance, we did however get an opportunity to rediscover the romance of Chap Goh Mei and of a Chinatown that would otherwise lie hidden behind the recoloured labyrinth of streets of what would once have been referred to as Tua Poh or the ‘Greater Town’.

The lantern parade.

The lantern parade.

The route we were to take, lanterns in hand, was one of many twists and turns, taking us through a complex of streets that in being referred to as Chinatown, belies the intra-ethnic divisions that did once exist within the greater Chinese immigrant community, divisions that would once have been apparent in moving across the area’s many streets.

Only a thin Ho may enter? The Thin Ho clan association on Ann Siang Road.

Only a thin Ho may enter? The Thin Ho clan association on Ann Siang Road.

The first pause we made was the Ann Siang Hill area where the Cantonese dialect group did have a strong presence. Besides the well known Yeung Ching School (now referred to in the Mandarin form of the name as Yangzheng School) that was perched on top of Ann Siang Hill, there were the many Cantonese clan associations – many of which are still present in the area. Amongst the school alumni are many well known names. This included one that is synonymous with the the lost art of story telling and Redifussion’s Cantonese broadcasts in the 1950s and 1960s, Lee Dai Soh. Another, perhaps lesser known in Singapore, is a certain Xian Xinghai, the composer of the Yellow River Cantata – a work which was to become used as a Chinese revolutionary song. The Yeung Ching foundation does still maintain a presence in the area as is evident from a signboard seen atop a building it owns along Club Street close to its junction with Ann Siang Hill.

The condo in the background would have been where the Yeung Ching school would have stood - atop a since levelled hill the base of which would have been at the condo's sixth floor.

The condo in the background would have been where the Yeung Ching school would have stood – atop a since levelled hill the base of which would have been at the condo’s sixth floor.

Ann Siang Road.

Ann Siang Road.

Club Street.

Club Street.

From Ann Siang Road and Club Street, the procession made its way up to Ann Siang Hill before continuing down to Amoy Street, once a predominantly a Hokkien street, as was Telok Ayer Street where the group was to make a stop in the glow of the beautifully restored Thian Hock Keng temple, a magnificent example of Hokkien temple architecture and a National Monument.

Up Ann Siang Hill.

Up Ann Siang Hill.

The view at the top.

The view at the top.

The pathway down.

The pathway down.

Down Ann Siang Hill.

Down Ann Siang Hill.

Lantern bearers during a pause in the search for romance.

Lantern bearers posing for a photograph outside the Thain Hock Keng temple in the search for romance.

The temple, which now stands across from the watchful eyes of the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan, is dedicated to the protector of seafarers, the Taoist goddess of the sea, Ma Zu, does point to the fact that the temple did once find itself by the sea, as did the street it is located at – Telok Ayer Street was in the early days of post-Raffles Singapore, a waterfront to which many immigrants would have come ashore at (it was also interesting to learn that the rebuilt Hokkien Huay Kuan, sitting on the site of the temple’s wayang or Chinese Opera stage built over the then shoreline, was designed with a wide through corridor on its ground floor to provide a symbolic passage from the temple to the now distant sea). This did provide the street with a flavour that went beyond the Hokkiens with several other houses of worship and immigrant reception point coming along the street that were put up by other groups of immigrants including a Hakka clan association, Ying Fo Fui Kuan (also a National Monument) and the former Hakka Fuk Tak Chi Temple which was also used by Cantonese immigrants.

The 'watchful eyes' of the Hokkien Huay Kuan.

The ‘watchful eyes’ of the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan.

The rather interesting walk ended at another magnificent work of temple architecture, the very recently restored Yueh Hai Ching or Wak Hai Cheng temple at Phillip Street. Set inside a within a walled compound accessible through a narrow doorway from which the sight of coils of incense would first greet the eye, the temple (actually two temples side-by-side), also a National Monument, is another wonderful example of temple architecture, -this time in Teochew style. 

The Yueh Hai Ching temple.

The Yueh Hai Ching temple.

Through the doorway to the newly restored Yueh Hai Ching.

Through the doorway to the newly restored Yueh Hai Ching.

Incense coils.

Incense coils.

The oldest Teochew temple in Singapore (its building dates back to the 1850s), the Yueh Hai Ching features a elaborately decorated roof and is dedicated to Ma Zu and Xuan Tian Shang Di. The temple besides catering to the Teochew community, does also attract worshipers from the Cantonese community – especially during the Chinese New Year – the Cantonese and Teochew communities having an affinity with both having originated from Guangdong (Canton) province. More on the temple can be found at the Ngee Ann Kongsi’s website.

Inside the temple.

Inside the temple.

Another view inside the temple.

Another view inside the temple.

While taking a walk in the company of strangers through now sanitised streets of an old world we in modern times may have seemed to have over-romanticised might not fit into everyone’s idea of how they would want to spend an evening businesses have turned into an excuse for money making, it was a walk in which I was rewarded with the rediscovery of the romance of a festival and of times I might not have otherwise been reminded of.

Smoke from large joss sticks in the compound.

Smoke from large joss sticks in the compound.





The celebrating of Spring in the greater town

27 01 2014

The arrival of spring, commemorated by the Chinese by the celebration of the new year, brings much colour and life to the streets of the “Greater Town”, tua poh, as it was known as to the local population. Besides the street market – long a popular source of goods necessary to welcome in the new year, the area since 1985, has also been livened up by the illuminations of an annual Chinese New Year light-up.

No horse run - this year's light-up is perhaps light years ahead ...

No horse run – this year’s light-up is perhaps light years ahead …

Crowds thronging the street market.

Crowds thronging the street market this year.

I managed to take in the festive atmosphere on the streets, packed with crowds that the weekend before  the new year brings, but not before I attended a rather interesting sharing session on the celebration of Chinese New Year held at the URA Centre. Entitled “Cakap Heritage: All About Chinese New Year in Kreta Ayer / Chinatown” and jointly organised by the Singapore Heritage Society (SHS) and the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), the session provided a view not just of how the festival in years past would have been celebrated in the area, but also of the many ways in which Chinese New Year was observed all across Singapore through the recollections of several of the session’s participants.

A bus passenger The an gazes out at the festive light-up. The annual light-up is now a spectacle not to be missed.

A bus passenger The an gazes out at the festive light-up. The annual light-up is now a spectacle not to be missed.

One topic that was discussed at length during the session was shopping. Besides shopping for festive goodies, cards and decorations, Chinese New Year is also when new clothes and shoes – a must for every Chinese, are bought. For some it would be the only occasion to splurge on a new outfit and while many had theirs tailored, clothes for children were often bought from the Tua Poh street market – although as one former Changi Village resident did testify, shopping wasn’t necessarily confined to the streets of Chinatown.

Festive goodies on offer at the street market.

Festive goodies on offer at the street market.

A seemingly popular shop to buy shoes from, was the Phoenix Shoes Company, located in a shophouse along South Bridge Road. Although the shop wasn’t one I was familiar with, it did bring back memories of another shoe shop – further east along South Bridge Road, from which my parents got their shoes from. That shop, the Crane Shoe Store, is one I well remember for how a light green box in which the pair of shoes in the size desired, would come rushing down a chute from the store room above – almost without delay whenever the shop assistant shouted an order out.

The streets come alive in the lead-up to Chinese New Year.

The streets of the greater town come alive in the lead-up to Chinese New Year.

Other experiences ranged from the buying gold jewellery (On Choeng – a goldsmith on South Bridge Road, seemed a popular choice), to waxed products and ducks eggs. A name synonymous with the prelude to Chinese New Year these days, Lim Chee Guan – known for the long queues for what is today a must-have Chinese New Year treat, bak kwa or long yuk (sometimes translated to pork jerky or barbecued dried pork), did also get a mention. A participant did make the observation that queues would have been non-existent back in the 1950s – when it would be difficult for many. Another luxury mentioned was feasting on bats – something that a restaurant by the name of Oriental in the 1950s, was along with monkeys and squirrels, apparently quite well known for.

Shoppers at the street market.

Shoppers at the street market.

One the subject of luxuries, mention was also made of how for some of the less well-off folks – such as the Samsui women, Chinese New Year would be one of the rare, if not only occasion on which they would put meat, in the form of chicken, on the table, saving through the year to do so.  The mention of chicken does take me back to the Chinese New Years of my early childhood, when the second day involved visiting a family friend who helped on a chicken farm in old Punggol – besides the squealing of pigs for their supper and perhaps an unfortunate incident in which I swallowed a loose teeth biting into an ang ku kueh, a memory that does linger from those visits is the sight of a headless chicken bound for the pot, scampering around on the sandy ground. 

The colour of gold.

The colour of gold.

A consequence of the decades of social engineering in Singapore, is perhaps the loss of the use of the Chinese dialects, along with dialect group specific cultural practices such as was observed in the celebrations of yesteryear. Besides dialect group specific such as the Hokkien practice of Bai Ti Gong (honouring the Jade Emperor) still seen today, there are dialect group specific practices that have been adopted by the wider community such as the tossing of raw fish salad, yu sheng - a widely practiced Chinese New Year custom now in Singapore. This was confined initially to the Cantonese –  a gentleman recalled his first experience of it that went back to 1955. Other dialect group specific practices included taboos associated with Chinese New Year such as not sweeping the floor, and not throwing rubbish out of the house on the first days of the new year. 

A young shopper.

A young shopper.

One practice that was common across the community was letting-off firecrackers. The thunderous burst of noise, the acrid smell of gunpowder that lingered in the air and the sea of red paper that littered the streets, would not be something the younger folks would of course remember. Firecrackers which were banned after 1972 in Singapore – the first modern version of the Chingay parade organised in 1973 was offered as to compensate for that. These were however very much an integral part of the celebration before the ban and several of the participants did share experiences from the 1950s and 1960s, before the ban kicked in, such as how as girls they would not dare venture out on their own out of fear of mischievous boys would would lie in wait to scare the girls by throwing lighted crackers at them.

Scenes from Chinese New Years of days gone by ... the smell of gun powder and smoke that filled the air, and the sea of red left behind .... (source: National Archives, www.picas.nhb.gov.sg).

Scenes from Chinese New Years of days gone by … the smell of gun powder and smoke that filled the air, and the sea of red left behind …. (source: National Archives, http://www.archivesonline.nas,sg).

Still on the subject of firecrackers, a Danish couple shared how it was also common practice to let off crackers for the new year. Firecrackers are known there as “Chinese” – the smaller ones “one-cent Chinese” and the larger ones “two-cent Chinese” – a reference possibly to the origins of firecrackers.

Preserved fruits on offer,

Preserved fruits on offer.

Without the sound of firecrackers going off through the night, and perhaps with the distractions of the modern world and the dilution of cultural practices, Chinese New Year does seem a quieter affair these days. Chinese New Year, is however, very much still an occasion for the family to gather – the family reunion dinner is still very much an important part of the celebration for many families. And if one does brave the crowds on the streets of the Greater Town, streets that while perhaps are over sanitised and modernised, are where one does discover that the spirit of Chinese New Years past is one that is very much alive in the present. 

A view over the sanitised Chinatown and the modern city that has grown around it.

A view over the sanitised Chinatown and the modern city that has grown around it.

A view of the busy New Bridge Road with the galloping horses of the light-up.

A view of the busy New Bridge Road with the galloping horses of the light-up.





Devotion II

10 07 2013

A photograph of a single person kneeling in prayer before the closed doors of the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple in South Bridge Road, Singapore, at 7.50 pm on 13 June 2013. The temple is a fairly new addition to the area’s landscape, once dominated by crowded shophouses and street markets, having been opened in 2007.

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A walk down Neil Road

30 10 2012

Tucked away in a rather quiet but no less interesting corner of a district of Singapore that has come to be called Chinatown is an area which is often overlooked. The area, in Chinatown’s south-western corner incorporates the Bukit Pasoh Conservation Area, part of the Tanjong Pagar Conservation Area and boasts several architectural gems, which have unfortunately been cast in the shadow of a towering 50 storey public housing development, The Pinnacle@Duxton at nearby Duxton Plain.

Several conservation gems can be found along Neil Road, including what would have been the houses of the very wealthy (judging from the enclosed front yards these units at No. 56 – 60) were provided with.

Units 56 – 60 Neil Road seen in 1983 (from the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009).

The area is certainly one that is worth exploring, not just for the notable clan associations and clubs – one is the Ee Hoe Hean Club, a millionaires’ club dating back to 1895 that is associated with many luminaries including the illustrious Tan Kah Kee, set amongst the many rows of beautifully conserved shophouses. Running partly along the area’s southern boundary is Neil Road which can perhaps be said to lie at the heart of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) conservation efforts – the pilot shophouse conservation project undertaken by the URA stands at No. 9 Neil Road.

The Bukit Pasoh Conservation Area boasts many architectural conservation gems and is also one that has been cast in the shadow of a towering public housing development at nearby Duxton Plain.

The Ee Hoe Hean Club, a millionaires’ club dating back to 1895 that is associated with many of Singapore’s luminaries.

Neil Road starts off where South Bridge Road ends at its junction with Maxwell and Tanjong Pagar Roads, rising up towards the Bukit Pasoh area. It is at this point that a gorgeous and very recognisable piece of architecture, the Jinrikisha Station, greets one’s eye. Built in 1903 in the Edwardian style on a triangular plan with a fairfaced brickwork exterior, the building is one that certainly needs no introduction and is now owned by Hong Kong Jackie Chan. It is just up the road from the Jinrikisha Station that No. 9, which now serves as a home to a Chinese tea shop Tea Chapter, lies.

The Jinrikisha Station at the start of Neil Road – built as a registration centre for rickshaws is now owned by Jackie Chan.

The conservation of No. 9 Neil Road was undertaken as part of a pilot URA shophouse restoration project that took place from 1987 to 1988 that involved a total of 32 shophouses built at the end of the 19th century, with No. 9 selected as a demonstration unit. The restored unit at No. 9 was where HM Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip had tea at during a visit in 1989. The successful conservation project involving the 32 houses was the first phase of a larger effort to conserve a total of 220 government owned shophouses in the Tanjong Pagar area and intended to demonstrate the technical and commercial viability of shophouse conservation. The effort was one that was welcomed by conservationists as it had come at a time when large parts of the city had already been cleared of the pre-war shophouses which once dominated the cityscape.

No. 9 Neil Road – the very first conservation shophouse.

The 220 shophouses are on a 4.1 hectare site that was acquired from 1981 to 1984 by the Housing and Development Board (HDB). The units had contained a mix of businesses and residents including many traditional businesses – one was Chan Pui Kee, an antique dealer and antique furniture restorer which had operated at No. 7 since 1913 (and has since moved to a restored shophouse at Lorong 24A Geylang). The residents of the houses had lived mainly on the upper floors, some at the point of acquisition, having lived there for much of their lives. Many were trishaw riders, craftsmen, and even prostitutes who worked in the area, living in very crowded spaces, renting rooms or cubicles for as little as $4 a month. The acquired houses, many of which had once been in the hands of Arab property owners, were to be demolished to make way for public housing, but a shift in thinking of our urban planners on high density public housing in the city centre saved them from that fate.

Conserved three storey shophouses along Neil Road.

Walking up the incline of the road, there are further examples of the conservation efforts that eventually was to involve a greater part of Chinatown, including several voluntary conservation initiatives. One such initiative is the conservation of the former Eng Aun Tong factory building at 89 Neil Road. As many familiar with the area would be aware of, Eng Aun Tong was a name used by the Haw Par brothers and the factory was where the most famous of their products, Tiger Balm, was once made. Based on information on the URA conservation of built heritage site, the building was built in 1924 in the Neoclassical Style. The starting up of the factory coincided with the Aw family’s move to Singapore from Rangoon (Yangon) in the 1920s. The factory operated until 1971 when production operations were contracted out and production of the famous ointment was moved to the Jack Chia group’s factories in Jurong.

The conserved former Eng Aun Tong factory building – where Tiger Balm had once been made.

The Eng Aun Tong factory building as seen depicted in a 1920s advertisement for Tiger Balm (source: National Archives of Singapore).

Walking past the former Eng Aun Tong factory, one will notice the blue balustrades of a concrete bridge. The bridge is one that passes over what is technically the first rail corridor conservation project. The corridor – now a linear park named Duxton Plain Park was where an extension to the original rail line (pre-1932 Deviation) had been constructed in 1907 to connect the terminal at Tank Road to connect with the waterfront, extending to Pasir Panjang. Operations on the extension were short-lived and the line was dismantled in between 1912 to 1914. A stretch from Yan Kit Road to New Bridge Road was retained as a public park. The park is one that is associated with one of the clubs in the area, a martial arts association – the Chin Woo Athletic Association (精武體育會or 精武体育会), as is evident from a steel sign erected on one of the bridge’s balustrades which reads “精武體育會操場” – the park had long served as a training ground for the association which has had a presence in the area since its formation here in 1922. It has been reported that our first Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew had often watched the association practice lion and dragon dances at the park in his younger days (he had lived as a boy in his paternal grandfather’s residence at nearby 147 Neil Road).

The bridge over the first rail corridor conservation project – now Duxton Plain Park. A sign tells us that it had served as a training ground for the Chin Woo Athletic Association. Living at nearby 147 Neil Road, Mr Lee Kuan Yew had as a young boy often caught many of the associations lion and dragon dance practice sessions at the park.

From this point, Neil Road soon crosses Cantonment Road and takes one west out of the Chinatown district towards another quiet and delightful conservation area, the Blair Plain Conservation Area. Crossing Cantonment Road, I am reminded of the many horror stories I have heard in my younger days that was associated with balancing the clutch on the slope at the junction during driving tests. Those were days when tests were conducted out of the former Maxwell Road driving test centre when the Traffic Police had its headquarters at the building which is today the Red Dot Design Museum. These days, it is across Cantonment Road that we notice a huge police presence – that of a towering new law enforcement complex named the Police Cantonment Complex.

A look into the compound of a conserved row of three shophouses at 56 – 60 Neil Road.

It might be a little hard to notice a little Victorian building that stands beneath the towering complex along Neil Road – especially now with its covered up for restoration work. The very pretty building, despite being very compact, once housed a school, and was where the Fairfield Girls’ School (which later became Fairfield Methodist School and is now Fairfield Methodist School) had operated at from 1912 to 1983. The building, built with the donation of a Mr Fairfield (hence the name of the school) is now part of the Police complex, although intended originally as a childcare centre for staff at the Police complex, the building will now house a Police recruitment centre.

The former Fairfield Methodist Girls’ School (photo on the URA website).

It is beyond the former Fairfield Methodist Girls’ School on the opposite side of the road that we come to the cluster of terrace houses which contains the unit that Mr Lee had spent some of his boyhood years at. Just down from that unit at No. 147, is No. 157 which is probably the jewel in the crown of the conservation efforts along Neil Road. That painted blue in an attempt to restore it to its original colour isn’t only a house which has seen it exterior restored but also one which has had much its fittings and furniture retained and restored and is possibly the best example of a Peranakan or Straits-born Chinese house from the turn of the 20th Century that exists today. The house, thought to have been built in the 1890s, had once belonged to shipping magnate Wee Bin and his descendants, has its interior retained through the conservation efforts of the National University of Singapore (NUS) (which owns the house having purchased it for the historical value of it and its contents) and the URA. Among the wonderfully preserved fittings is a very ornate carved wooden screen which separates the main hall from the interior of the house. The Baba House as it is called now, has some of its original furniture and flooring is well worth a visit. Visits are strictly by appointment only and advance arrangements for heritage tours are required. More information can be found at the NUS website. Do note that photography is not permitted inside the Baba House.

Baba House at 157 Neil Road – now owned by NUS and managed by NUS Museum was beautifully restored from 2006 to 2008.

Units 157 Neil Road (Baba House) seen in 1982 (from the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009).


The walk along Neil Road was part of a guided walk “Neil Road/NUS Baba House Walking Tour“, one in a series of tours conducted by the URA in conjunction with the URA Architectural Heritage Awards 2012. While registration for two of the remaining tours are closed, there is an ongoing exhibition at the URA Centre Atrium until 10 November 2012 which showcases the five award winners. The exhibition is open Mondays to Fridays from 8.30am to 7pm and on Saturdays from 8.30am to 5pm. It is closed on Sundays and Public Holidays.






The other side of the moon

15 09 2012

In a fast changing world in which there often are just little reminders of the past to cling on to, it is always good to come across old world traditions that have not been displaced by the new. One area in which we are able to see this is in the making of mooncakes by some of the established mooncake bakeries, one of which is Chop Tai Chong Kok. I was able to visit the bakery very recently just as the making of mooncakes was being ramped-up as the Chinese eight month, in which the Mooncake or Mid-Autumn Festival is celebrated, approaches.

Mooncakes are still made in the traditional way at Chop Tai Chong Kok.

Having been in the business for some 77 years, the shop has long been one of the popular brands in traditional Cantonese style mooncakes, attracting long queues for the sweet delectable treats it produces in the lead-up to the Mid-Autumn festival. It now produces the mooncakes it is well-known for, as well as other Cantonese style pastries and confectionery, in a shop lot in Ubi Avenue 1, having had to move its business in 34 Sago Street when Chinatown was being cleaned-up during the conservation efforts which have given us the sanitised version of Chinatown we see today. The shop has since opened a retail outlet back in the shophouse in which the business started – one that is now rented.

Long queues seen at the original shop at Sago Street in the lead-up to the Mid-Autumn Festival (photo taken off one displayed on the wall of the shop).

Having had to move out of their Sago Street premises during the remaking of Chinatown, the business now rents the same unit and operates a retail outlet there.

Although now made in newer premises, little has changed in the production of Chop Tai Chong Kok mooncakes since the days of the late Mr Tham Kah Chee who arrived from China in 1935 and started his business at Sago Street. The preparation of the dough as well as the lotus and bean paste fillings to the pressing of dough wrapped balls of paste into the round shaped mooncakes in wooden moulds that the late Mr Tham himself would have used is still very much done by hand. I was able to observe part of this process which involved five persons standing around a wooden topped table, very quickly transforming flat pieces of dough and pre-prepared balls of paste into unbaked paler versions of the famous mooncakes. The sounds of wooden moulds on the wooden table top took me back to the days of my youth when I would wander around the old streets of Chinatown to catch a glimpse of shop fronts brightly coloured by cellophane lanterns and for a chance to watch unbaked mooncakes being made on tables lined along the five-foot ways as the Mid-Autumn Festival approached.

Little has changed in the preparation of ingredients and in the way the mooncakes are made even with the mooncake maker operating in newer premises. The mooncakes are still considered to be the best among the best of traditional Cantonese mooncakes in Singapore.

The business is now in the hands of the second and third generations of the late Mr Tham’s family, with a grandson, Weng Seng, now involved in the running of business. Facing many challenges including he arrival of many new players in the market, the introduction of newer variations of the traditional pastry, changing tastes, the small local market, as well as in employing people willing to labour in the bakery, their mooncakes continue to remain popular with Singaporeans due to their commitment to tradition and quality. Being one of a few organic businesses that has reclaimed a place in a Chinatown where many other businesses have found it hard to return to, the desire of the new generation taking over to maintain the relevance of the business in the face of new challenges does spell hope that they will, for some time to come, continue to serve as a reminder of a world that would otherwise have long been forgotten.

The business in now in the hands of the Mr Tham Kah Chee’s children and the next generation. His son Mr Tham Wing Thong seen here is still very much involved in making the pastries.

Fillings (lotus paste with egg yolk seen here) prepared by hand are rolled into a ball and placed on trays ready to be wrapped in a skin of dough.

Trays of fillings for the morning’s mooncake making.

A flat round piece of dough is rolled and used to wrap the pre-prepared fillings. Lotus Paste, Red Bean Paste and Green Bean Paste with lotus seeds are traditional fillings used.

Covering up the filling …

A ball of dough wrapped around the filling ready to be pressed into a mould.

Pressing a dough into a wooden mould – the moulds used are those handed down by the late Mr Tham Kah Chee.

A fully pressed mooncake in the mould.

Knocking out the mooncake from the mould.

Voilà!

The mooncake is then placed in a baking tray destined for the oven.

Trays of unbaked mooncakes.

A close-up.

Mid-way through, the baking mooncakes are taken out to be glazed using egg-yolk.

Glazing the mooncakes.

A tray of freshly baked mooncakes just out of the oven.

Once out of the oven, the freshly baked mooncakes are transferred to wooden paper lined trays to cool down.

And given a light brush over.

Customers can opt to have their mooncakes wrapped in a traditional way.

Traditionally packed mooncakes.

And take them home in traditional brown paper bags – we used to call these chicken paper bags as such bags came in handy in bringing live chickens home.

A stack of paper bags … customers can also opt to have the mooncakes packed in square boxes and brought home in plastic bags or corporate gift paper bags.

A favourite with the kids … ‘piglets’ in baskets …

Similar methods are employed in the making of piglets.

Other traditional pastries are also on sale at the retail outlet.

Almond cookies.

Mooncakes on sale at the Sago Street retail outlet.





Chasing the dragon through streets of red and gold

25 01 2012

I did something I’ve not contemplated doing in a long time over the weekend which was to brave the crowds on the streets of Chinatown on the eve of the Chinese New Year. I must admit that it wasn’t the street market with its offerings of red and gold and festive goodies that drew me, but rather the opportunity to photograph the 108 metre long illuminated three-dimensional Water Dragon decoration that has for the last month or so, dominated the divide between Eu Tong Sen Street and New Bridge Road at the junction with Upper Cross Street, but since I was already there, I took the opportunity to take what was a thoroughly enjoyable walk around the street market as well.

Beside the street market, another draw to Chinatown in the lead-up to the Chinese New Year is the light-up which this year features a 108 metre long 3D Water Dragon.

The crowds on Pagoda Street on the eve of Chinese New Year.


Dragons, big and small, were everywhere this Chinese New Year.

Last day offers by vendors hoping to dispose of their excess stock attract crowds to the Chinese New Year street market.

Strolling around the street market, I realise that despite the sanitised version of streets that were once never without that spark, there is still some of what is missing to be found on the streets as they come alive in the lead-up to the Lunar New Year. Then as it is now, Chinatown is a focal point for shoppers seeking the essential to welcome the New Year, as they throng the narrow passageways left through streets lined with stalls that offer goods of red and gold – colours considered most auspicious by the Chinese, bringing colour and excitement that remind us of a now distant world.

Melon seeds - a must serve during the New Year.

Groundnuts too ...

Picking tangerines. Tangerines symbolise gold and are exchanged during the New Year for luck and prosperity.

Chopsticks on sale.

The market draws more than the local shopper – tourists mingle with the crowds, as do more recent residents of Singapore – many from a world from which our Chinese ancestors made their passage from in search of a better life and the world which gave us the festival we now celebrate. It is the new arrivals to our land that seem to bring the new Chinatown now to live, much as the ancestors to our older Chinese citizens would have done in very different surroundings. There was a different feel to the surroundings this time as well as a late afternoon downpour threatened to dampen the atmosphere that was building just as the crowd thickened in anticipation of discounts offered by vendors seeking to dispose of excess goods before the streets fall silent for the New Year. Although the downpour did thin the crowd on the streets as many sought shelter in the food outlets that were still opened late on the eve of the New Year, there were still plenty who umbrella in hand, braved the sudden deluge in search of a bargain.

The late afternoon downpour failed to dampen the atmosphere.

A shopper and her daughter under an umbrella.

More recent arrivals from China gathering for a reunion away from home along a five-foot-way in Chinatown. Part of the renewal has seen Chinatown becoming a focal point for the new arrivals from China, as much as it was one for the arrivals of old.

Wet from the rain, I decided to make a move as day became night, but not before seeking the best vantage for a photograph of the Water Dragon. I soon found it, thanks to the hundreds of photos that have been posted. It was then time for a reunion of sorts – not the ones I miss that were always accompanied by the sounds of a Tanjong Pagar Railway Station that has since fallen silent, but one in which tradition has been abandoned – a sign perhaps of who I have become in the brave new world I now find myself in.

An aerial view of the Water Dragon and the light-up.





The living streets of Shanghai and the less Singaporean Singapore that we have become

29 06 2010

One of the things that struck me when I was wandering through some of the streets of Shanghai was that many of the streets were “living”, despite the modernisation that has engulfed much of the city. It is much the same in many of the cities of Asia where there is an interesting mix of old and new, of tradition and modernity, where old trades are often found amidst the office blocks and shopping malls that have sprouted up alongside the older buildings where people are living as well as making a living very much in the same way they may have done half a century ago. It is always nice to see that in a city, it is the living streets, each one different from the other, that often give a city its character.

Singapore has an absence of street life which can still be found in many of the modern Asian cities.

It's always nice to see vendors on the streets that cater to the day-to-day needs of the people who live in the cities rather than to the tourists.

In Singapore, we have unfortunately lost all that. Wandering around the streets of Chinatown one morning, it felt as if I was in an empty amusement park before opening time. It was empty, devoid of all life. Not the Chinatown that made Chinatown, Chinatown. This is a sad reflection of what we have become. We had wonderful living streets, some that never slept, where people lived their lives on, where colourful food stalls lined the streets, stalls selling produce in the mornings, dried sundries, clothes and whatever one needed all day, and brightly lit food stalls serving a delicious choice of street fare that somehow seemed to taste that much better off the streets. There would be the crowds that throng the streets all day, housewives doing their marketing in the mornings, shoppers looking for a bargain in the afternoons and the multitudes out on the streets in search for a sumptuous feast. We now have lost all that to the glitzy shopping malls, office blocks and the giant amusement park that Singapore has become. A reader Greg, lamented about our lost buildings around the Raffles Place and Collyer Quay area – yes there were certainly some magnificent examples of colonial architecture that we have lost, replaced by towering masses of glass and steel. Not only we have lost that, we have lost the soul of what Singapore was. Even in areas where attempts are made to conserve some of the beautiful edifices, the structures stand without a heart and soul, as it is in Chinatown. Where we once saw people going about their day to day lives, we now see hordes of tourists fooled into thinking it is the genuine Chinatown they have been brought to. Where traditional trades supporting the day-to-day needs of people living around had once thrived, the buildings now are saturated with businesses that give the tourists what they think they want at a price that is set by the profits that the landlords and business owners so crave.

An already somewhat sanitised Chinatown in 1984, with some semblance of street life. The corner of Smith and Trengganu Streets is seen here.

The same corner today ... where tourist shops being rented at high prices have replaced what were shops catering to the day-to-day needs of the people around.

The streets of Chinatown today are quiet and without the soul that made Chinatown what it once was.

The streets of Chinatown are no longer coloured by life on the streets, but by symbols that fool people into thinking that the Chinatown they see is authentic.

Where traditional businesses once thrived, shops selling expensive suggestions of what we would like tourists to see Chinatown as.

Street markets of the tourist kind - nothing like the atmosphere found in the street markets of old.

Much of the effort to modernise Singapore took place when I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, when many were moved out of the streets of the city and the villages in the rural areas into the housing estates that lack the character that the older streets and villages had. I suppose some may argue that that is the price of progress that we must pay and that we should be thankful for improved conditions in which many of us now live in with comfortable housing units, clean water and proper sanitisation. But, we have paid a price in that we have in sanitising Singapore, also sanitised the richness and diversity that could only be found in Singapore. In modernising Singapore and in attempting to selectively retain what makes us Asian, we have also discarded not just the street life, but also the many unique sub-cultures that were very much a part of what made Singapore, Singapore. We have become less of the unique Singapore that the tourist board might have many believe, but a Singapore that bears very little of the microcosm of Asia it once was.

The streets of Shanghai each have a unique character that is lacking in much of Singapore.

Where you can still find people plying trades that were once a common sight on the streets of Singapore.

The streets of Singapore used to be filled with vendors selling wares and produce that cater to the needs of the ordinary folk on the street.








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