The last light-box on Keong Saik Road

30 07 2021

Taking a walk around Keong Saik Road recently, I could not help but marvel at its transformation into a hip and happening neighbourhood. It was certainly quite a different place when I caught my first glimpse of it back in the 1980s. A walk that I took with a former schoolmate around his neighbourhood, opened my eyes to what seemed to to illuminate the seemingly dimly lit Keong Saik Road by night. That hastily executed detour from the planned excursion route left a vague impression the well-known side of Keong Saik Road and what each of its many lamps on which unit numbers were marked on, identified. The street’s gentrification in more recent times has seen to the dimming of the old lights of Keong Saik Road to the extent that they have all now been completely extinguished. What does remain to remind us of the street’s colourful past is a now famous tale of it that has been wonderfully told by Charmaine Leung in “17A Keong Saik Road“, and in physical terms, a last light-box at No 8 Keong Saik Road found atop its back door. Housing one of the street’s last brothels to operate, it seems that the sushi restaurant that will soon occupy it, will be keeping the light-box for posterity.

Now hip and happening, the area around Keong Saik Road is a place with quite a past.

The triangular site formed by Keong Saik Road, Jiak Chuan Road and Teck Lim Road, which now features a collection of quite well patronised eating and drinking spots, was where Keong Saik’s was colloquially called Sam Zau Fu (三州府) in Cantonese. This was with reference to the “residences” lining the triangle of streets that made up the main sections of Keong Saik’s red light district. The district did have a long-held reputation as an area to indulge in the vices even before the brothels, as we knew them, came into being when Keong Saik was a haven for courtesans or entertainers who found employment in the area’s tea houses and rich gentlemen’s clubs.

The last light-box. Will it be kept?


The courtesans, many of whom were extremely young and trained in a manner not too dissimilar to but without the rigours of the geisha in Japan, were equipped with skills to perform with the yuetkam (月琴 or yueqin in Mandarin) and/or the peipa (琵琶 or pipa in Mandarin). It was for this reason that the term peipa chai (琵琶仔) or “young pipa player” was used to refer to them. In them the wealthy club-goers and tea-house patrons would find ready mistresses. These mistresses who might have been “bought-off”, were also housed in the area and the common name for Teo Hong and Bukit Pasoh Roads in Cantonese, which is Yi Nai Kai (二奶街) provides an indication of one of the areas in which this occurred. Yi nai, which translates literally from Cantonese into “second milk”, is a euphemism for “mistress”. The tea houses and entertainment venues began to morph into houses of ill-repute and by the end of the 1950s, Keong Saik Road acquired notoriety for being a place in which “high-class” brothels operated. The term pipa chai seemed at the same time to have been extended in its use to describe the brothels’ working ladies.

One of the last “lights” of Keong Saik – seen in March 2014.

While conversations we do seem to frequently have about Keong Saik Road’s past are all too often dominated by what did go on after dark, the street does have many other facets to it. It was only in 1926, that the street was given a name — after a founder of the Straits Steamship Company and a Municipal Commissioner Tan Keong Saik. Host to a number of associations and religious institutions, the street benefitted from the colour that religious festivals and celebrations injected into it. One festival that still enlivens the street is celebrated by the Chettiar community every January or February during Chetty Pusam on the eve of the Hindu festival of Thaipusam. The community’s temple at Keong Saik Road’s junction with Kreta Ayer Road, the Sri Layan Sithi Vinayagar, serves as a point to pause in the journey taken by the silver chariot carrying the image of Lord Murugan from the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple at Tank Road and back to it. The return leg of the chariot’s journey to Tank Road is accompanied by a colourful and lively procession of kavadis or “burdens” that takes a route down Keong Saik Road before making its way along Neil and South Bridge Roads on its way home.

Keong Saik Road and the Sir Layan Sithi Vinayagar Temple during Chetty Pusam.

While the visible traditions of the Hindu temple still plays a big part in adding flavour to Keong Saik Road, the same cannot be said about a number of traditions associated with the Chinese community there, partly because of changing circumstances and demographics of the area’s population. One lively Chinese practice that has gone that way is da siu yan (打小人) —  “petty person beating”. Also translated as “villain hitting”, the rather interesting practice was enacted with great gusto at the site of the Oriental Theatre, which was right across Kreta Ayer Road from the Sri Layan Sithi Vinayagar temple. Out of sight, it has not been put out of mind by those who have witnessed the practice such as Richard Lee. A description of it that he provides is found in a Facebook post, which reads:

There was a perimeter wall of the old Oriental Theatre that served as a “prayer” wall for people to “打小人”.

Villain hitting, da siu yan (Chinese: 打小人), demon exorcising, or petty person beating, is folk sorcery popular in the Guangdong area of China, Hong Kong & Singapore (and is) primarily associated with (the) Cantonese. Its purpose is to curse one’s enemies using magic. Villain hitting is often considered a humble career, and the ceremony is often performed by older ladies, though some shops sell “DIY” kits.

Villain hitting (打小人)
Make use of a varieties of symbolic object such as the shoe of clients or the villain hitter or other religious symbolic weapons like incense sticks to hit or hurt the villain paper. Villain paper can also be replaced by other derivatives such as man paper, woman paper, five ghost paper etc.

Sacrifice to Bái Hǔ (祭白虎)
The hitters have to make sacrifice to Bái Hǔ if they want to hit the villain on Jingzhe. Use a yellow paper tiger to represent Bái Hǔ, there are black stripes on the paper tiger and a pair of tooth shapes in its mouth. During the sacrifice a small piece of pork is soaked with pig blood and then put inside the mouth of the paper tiger (to feed Bái Hǔ). Bái Hǔ won’t hurt others after being fed. Sometimes they will also smear greasy pork (a piece of lard) on Bái Hǔ’s mouth to make its mouth full of oil (so that it is) unable to open its mouth to hurt people. In some regional sacrifice the villain hitter would burn the paper tiger or cut off its head after making sacrifice to it.

Pray for blessings (祈福)
Use a red Gui Ren paper to pray for blessings and help from Gui Ren. The red 貴人紙 were pasted onto the wall nearby. The nearby perimeter wall also served a spot for a series of drying racks for drying pig rind in the sun. The man who did this is my friend’s Ser Huat Ho’s grandfather….. The dried pig rind were then deep fried and sold to food vendors.

– Richard Lee

Another widely observed religious practice on Keong Saik Street — at least for the womenfolk — that has gone in the same direction as villain hitting is the annual observation of the Seven Sisters Festival on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month. Based on accounts in oral history interviews and descriptions provided by the prolific muralist Yip Yew Chong, it was quite a big occasion in Chinatown, especially along Keong Saik Road. The commemoration of the festival, which revolves around a folktale of star-crossed lovers who were permitted to meet across a bridge formed by swallows (or magpies depending on the locality) once a year, is sometimes thought of as a Chinese version of Valentine’s Day. It was especially popular among the unmarried womenfolk, which included the majie, for whom Keong Saik Road’s Cundhi Gong was a religious focal point. During the festival, paper offerings to the feminine half of the lovesick couple — the weaver fairy and the seventh of the seven fairy sisters that the festival is named for, are made. Offerings include ones representing vanity items such as combs and lipstick. Flowers were also made. Before being burnt, the offerings were put on display, some on a bowl fashioned out of paper together with miniature paper dresses, items of embroidery, as well as freshly made cakes and fresh fruits. Participation in the festival started to dwindle in the 1960s and by the 1970s, hardly any of the highly visual displays were seen on the street.

The five-foot-way of the Cundhi Gong.

The last of Keong Saik Road’s vanishing light-boxes:






Bearing a burden through the streets of Singapore

22 01 2019

Chetty (or Punar) Pusam / Thaipusam

With a greater proportion of folks in Chinatown preoccupied its dressing-up for the Chinese New Year on Sunday, a deeply-rooted Singaporean tradition that took place in the same neighbourhood, “Chetty Pusam”, seemed to have gone on almost unnoticed.

Involving the Chettiar community, “Chetty Pusam” is held as a prelude to the Hindu festival of Thaipusam. It sees an especially colourful procession of Chettiar kavidi bearers who carry the burden from the Sri Layan Sithi Vinayagar Temple on Keong Saik Road through some streets of Chinatown to the Sri Mariamman Temple and then the Central Business District before ending at the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple on Tank Road.

The procession coincides with the return leg of the Silver Chariot‘s journey. The chariot, bears Lord Murugan or Sri Thendayuthapani (in whose honour the festival of Thaipusam is held) to visit his brother Sri Vinayagar (or Ganesh) in the early morning of the eve of Thaipusam and makes its return in the same evening.


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More Photographs of Thaipusam in Singapore:






Kavadis on Keong Saik

8 02 2018

In photographs: the start of the colourful procession of Chettiar kavidis from the Sri Layan Sithi Vinayagar Temple on Keong Saik Road to the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple at Tank Road. The procession, along with a Silver Chariot procession, is held every year as part of Chetty Pusam on the eve of the Hindu festival of Thaipusam.


Thaipusam in Singapore: