Chasing the dragon, finding a bunny

25 07 2012

With a small group of new-found friends, I found myself chasing the dragon – the now iconic playground made famous by it being #3 on’s list of the world’s 15 most amazing playgrounds, and one that seems to come to mind whenever the topic of old playgrounds is brought up in Singapore. The playground, the orange dragon of Toa Payoh has recently also made an appearance in ‘Mosaic Memories‘ – an effort commissioned by the Singapore Memory Project on the subject of capturing memories of old playgrounds.

The dragon of Block 28 Toa Payoh.

The dragon of Toa Payoh, sitting proudly below Block 28 in Lorong 6, greets anyone arriving by road into the island that is Toa Payoh, through one of the town’s original three entry points – at what is today called Kim Keat Link. Wearing on its face a bright coat of orange coloured by the mosaic tiles that once commonly featured as wall finishes, it is hard not to notice it. Despite missing swings and ropes that used to dangle from it what would best be described as its steel spine, the playground is still one that is, after some three decades of wear, in immaculate condition. The steel spine, formed by bars of steel bent to form a curved rib-cage like structure that is held together by two continuous round steel bars, connects the dragon’s tail to its head. The head is one which has terrazzo slides built into it – one that seems a lot more durable than the plastic slides that are commonly found in the playgrounds of today.

One of two terrazzo slides on the dragon’s head.

Children playing on the dragon’s spine.

The playground which has achieved worldwide attention through its appearance on’s list of 15 most amazing playgrounds is one the most photographed old playgrounds in Singapore.

It does attract some older kids as well!

Playgrounds with sand always allow kids using them to explore another dimension of play.

The dragon is one of several dragons that were known to reside in Toa Payoh. Besides the dragons seen in the many Chinese temples around the estate, there was first the dragon statue at Lorong 3 that is still there and several dragon playgrounds, all of which were designed by the HDB’s Mr Khor Ean Ghee, two of which are still with us. The first dragon playground was one that was once found in that amazing large play area right at the end of Toa Payoh Town Garden just beyond the look-our tower which is still there. It featured a painted steel face and a pretty long spine and is one that I spent many happy moments at. I especially loved climbing the bars arranged beneath its head – bars that connected to horizontal monkey bars arranged in a circular fashion which seemingly supported its head.

Climbing the dragon at Toa Payoh Town Garden, 1975.

These playgrounds – the orange dragon which sits below Block 28 where my cousins had lived, and the one at the garden which has since disappeared – a victim of the construction of the HDB Hub (the playground was demolished to accommodate a temporary bus interchange as the air-conditioned one was being put up where the original bus terminus had been), were not the ones that I have the fondest memories of. Those memories are ones of the smell of rust on my hands and clothes from the steel of chains and slides that sometimes very hot to touch in the sun, and splinters in my shorts from the wooden see-saw planks and seats of the swings – all of which represented a time when playgrounds were provided a luxury of space and permitted childhood expression in interacting with playground equipment to be exercised in much more creative ways.

The playground in Toa Payoh that I have the fondest memories of (scan of a postcard courtesy of David Jess James – On a Little Street in Singapore).

One particular playground which many of those memories are associated with is the one that was below the block of flats that I lived in, Block 53. That along with the many others I had once had taken so much pleasure out of including one at Katong Park which I well remember for a wood and steel merry-go-round, has long since disappeared. It was one remnant of my childhood close to Block 53, for which my friends and I decided to head to the area following the quick look at what still apparently is an object of childhood worship. The route to the area around where I had lived was one that I had many times in the 1970s taken home from my cousins’ place, but it wasn’t to Block 53 that I headed to this time, but to the area across Lorong 4 to where the market is. The area, disfigured by upgrading works that relieved it of much the nice open spaces it once had – spaces in which itinerant Nepali vendors once displayed wares laid on mats and where men with undershirts rolled over their midriffs congregated, does take me back to the days when two food stalls seemed to communicate with each other. The two which faced each other  each had a sign displayed above the stall – one asked that we “Come Every Day” and the other in what always seemed like a reply had the words “I am Coming”.

A window into the past that sees more of the present.

Around the market are three four-storey blocks with ground floor units populated by shops of all kinds including several which date back to the days of my childhood – all found in the L-shaped Block 94. One is the end next to Lorong 4 where the well-known Soya Sauce Chicken Rice Restaurant Lee Fun Nam Kee can be found. It wasn’t this that attracted my friends and me back, but the unit at the other end where an unmistakable shop front of a barbershop with its barber’s pole, is one that hasn’t been changed since the shop first started just a little over four decades ago. The barbershop, the Bugs Bunny barbershop, started there in 1971, moving into the corner unit which had been previously occupied by an ice-cream parlour, Yum-Yum – the original occupants which had operated for about two years. I was sad to see the parlour close – it had a long American diner style counter with stools, but the Malay barbershop was definitely a welcome addition – I hated my visits to the Indian barbershop which shared a unit with a ladies hairdressing salon (as was very common then) at Block 54 for the crew cuts I inevitably had ended up with, and I very soon became a regular customer of Bug Bunny which is a Malay barbershop.

The front of the Bugs Bunny barbershop is one that hasn’t changed since it first started in 1971.

Where Indian barbers have had a long and established tradition in Singapore (and across the Causeway in Malaysia), Malay barbers only really started establishing themselves in the late 1960s and 1970s. The arrival of Bugs Bunny came at a time when the Malay barbers began to set the standard for male hairstyles in Singapore and when there was a rapid expansion in the number of Malay barber shops – the origin Malay barbers were the few who operated independently. They started to set the trend with their ability to improvise and give their customers styles that went beyond the closely cropped cuts that seemed to once have been a standard, becoming very popular also with school boys. Bugs Bunny might also have started a small wave in naming Malay barber shops after popular cartoon characters – another that I later frequented in Ang Mo Kio was named Pink Panther.

Some of the inside (which was recently renovated) still looks the same … the barber chairs are the same ones the shop started with in 1971.

I was pleasantly surprised to hear that a few of the barbers at Bugs Bunny are ones that were there since it earliest days – while business had tapered off over recent years, especially with the preference for more upmarket salons and also with the arrival of the Japanese style barber chains, there was still a steady enough stream of customers during the Sunday. At the urging of some of my friends, I decided to have a haircut and I soon found myself stepping into a world that I had not seen since 1976 – when I had moved out of Toa Payoh. As I sat on the barber’s chair once again … chairs which I was told were the same ones from the shop’s early days, I became quickly immersed in a world I had once familiar with, the smell of talcum powder bringing back not just memories of a shop which even with its recent makeover, still seems very much the same, but also of the other barber shops of my childhood. Talcum powder is generously applied especially so in Indian barber shops, thinking about which brought back memories of staring into the wall to wall mirrors both in front an at the back, reflecting reflections that seem to be reflected an infinite number of times … and in those reflections is a world that for much too long, had been one that was lost to me.

A world that for too long has been lost to me.


To market, to market

25 05 2010

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.

Street markets such as this one seen in Penang were a common sight in Singapore once upon a time.

Colourful street marketshad all but disappeared by the time I started accompanying my mother to the market.

Cha-kiak display at the museum.

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).

The now upgraded market at Lorong 4, Toa Payoh was a source of adventure for me some forty years ago.

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.

Live poultry in cages were once a common scene at the wet markets in Singapore.

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.

Chickens were slaughtered in the quadrangle of space at the centre of the market building below the skylight, now occupied by dining tables and chairs.

The skylight over the centre of the market building today.

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.

The periphery of the market building was were the stalls selling cooked food were, with tables and chairs laid out in the open spaces around the market.

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.

The open spaces around the market used to be filled with tables and chairs and was where elderly men gathered sipping coffee from saucers, sometimes with their undershirts rolled up over their bellies.

The area where you might have once be greeted by diners having breakfast sitting and Nepali men laying sheets on which wares they were selling were displayed.

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.

The market aisle where I had my baptism of brine, where there used to be a row of fishball sellers on one side and vegetable vendors on the other.