The Owkang Chicken Sellers

8 06 2019

Unforgettable memories of the sights and smells of buying Fresh Chicken and Other “Chicken” Memories.

A guest post by Edmund Arozoo, once of Jalan Hock Chye and now of Adelaide


Images do stir up emotions. Some are like flashcards that jolt our memories transporting us back in time. For me in recent years, one particular image did just that. Browsing the net, I came across pictures of the memorial sculpture at the site of the previous Simon Road Market in Hougang – the sculpture of a chicken seller and the female customer. This triggered many childhood memories of the “sights and smells” associated with this particular trade and other “chicken” memories. And I wanted to view the sculpture in real time as well as photograph it so that I could use my personal image(s) when I do a post on this subject. I would thus not be infringing any copyright issues.

On my recent trip back to Singapore I caught up with a good friend Rasiah Sabai, a schoolmate and a fellow Jalan Hock Chye kampong “kaki” from way back. I had mentioned to him my quest to visit the sculpture. So meeting up at Serangoon MRT station we caught the train to Kovan station and took a walk down memory lane.

An old Singapore Street Directory map of 6 ½ milestone Upper Serangoon Road.

Starting from Lowland Road we tried to mentally picture where the old Empire Theatre would have stood and where our favourite hawker stalls once were situated. As we headed for the sculpture we recollected and tried to pinpoint where “Daily Bookshop” would have been and the various provision shops, radio/electrical shops and coffeeshops that were past landmarks. Memories of watching the first TV broadcasts standing along the fivefoot path outside the radioshop also came back.

We then stroll down towards the sculpture and I took lots of pictures. Then we did a loop right up to Lim Ah Pin Road, crossed Upper Serangoon Rd and on to the junction and entered Tampines Rd up to where old Jalan Hock Chye was. Both of us were reminiscing as we walked.

An edited picture of the Roadside Sculpture near where Simon Road Market once was.

Since then I’ve been keen on documenting my “chicken” memories. It has been over a month since I have returned back to Adelaide and it is time to do just that. My mind fast rewound back to the days when we kampong kids were similar to the “chooks” that grazed the kampong compounds. We were indeed like the kamong ayam – the original “KFC” – Kampong Free-range Chickens (children).

Free range rooster in our compound.

Most of my neighbours reared poultry. For chicken rearing, the start would be to visit one of the two chicken incubator shops just past the junction of Upper Serangoon Rd and Tampines Rd in the easterly direction towards Ponggol. These shops had huge incubators that could hold tens if not hundreds of eggs. And as kids if we were fortunate to pass these shops at the right time it was hard not to fall in love with the recently hatched yellow little darlings that were placed in flat wicker trays/baskets prior to being sold. Many a kampong chicken started life that way and were reared for their eggs or groomed for their eventual destination of the pot. I do remember carrying a few of these yellow furry bundles of joy home in the brown paper bags that were in prevalent use then.

These small yellow bundles of joy when brought home were literary hand fed by us kids and we watch them grow to hens and roosters. Thus when it was time for them to be slaughtered and readied for the pot it was traumatic for us as they had become almost pets. Oh the trauma. I will come back to this later as nothing overrides the memories of buying live chicken from the chicken sellers in Owkang.

The chicken sellers our family patronised were located at an unsheltered area quite close to the canal running alongside the start of Tampines Road. This canal ran alongside the Simon Road market and travelled underground under Upper Serangoon Road.

The area where these poultry sellers operated seemed in areas remanet of floors of old buildings as some parts of the ground were cemented and there were also remnants of wall edges.

Usually on Sundays as our family made our way to attend the early morning Mass at the Church of the Nativity from Jalan Hock Chye we walked along Tampines Road. After crossing the road, a small pedestrian bridge would take us to the area of the poultry sellers and then through a small alleyway we would emerge on Upper Serangoon Road which we had to cross to get to the side of the market to catch the transport that would take us to church. This alleyway had a number of makeshift stalls that sold different merchandise, a mini bazaar indeed. Only two stalls remain clear in my memory the one that sold clothing material and clothes and the “You Tiao” hawker who sat almost on ground level in front of a huge wok of boiling oil armed with his pair of long chopsticks busily turning the twirls of dough for the ever long queue of customers waiting for their orders to be ready.

It was this early morning walk negotiating the path between the poultry sellers that was mind blowing. In the dimly lit environment we would catch sight of some unscrupulous sellers force feeding chickens with sand and small stones or pebbles. This was so that these live chickens sold would weigh heavier and this would increase their selling price. These were the sellers mum would avoid and if I remember correctly we had a regular seller whom she always went to. But still there were precautions that she and other mums took to lessen the chances of being short changed when buying live chickens and we kids were often deputised to assist.

The sequence of buying life chickens those days was in this order:

  1. the chicken was chosen from amongst the many from the wicker baskets they were in. This was to ensure they were not sickly or perhaps even dead.
  2. the selected chicken(s) were weighed and their price bargained.
  3. the selected birds were tagged and placed in another basket.
  4. from this basket the chickens were removed slaughtered and de-feathered
  5. the “naked” carcass with the metal tags still attached were placed one side for collection.

Besides the knowledge of the additional weight increase through sand and stones, we were also schooled to scrutinise the actual weighing process. The daching was the prevalent weighing machine then. These hand held scales could be manipulated through a slight of hand. Whilst the thumb and index finger held the string that was the fulcrum and all eyes were focussed on the pointer at the opposite end of the balancing rod, we were always told to be aware of the little finger that would sometimes be used to covertly tilt the scales in the sellers favour. In the commotion of balancing a squawking, struggling chicken hanging from the dachin the action of the little finger could increase the sale price by a few cents.

It was a well-known fact as stated by K S Neoh in his blog post – Weighing In On The “Dacing”: 

It was also widely known that sellers sometimes manipulated the implement to cheat customers either through deft handwork ………..

The use of the little finger to tilt the scales (adapted from the picture by K S Neoh).

As mentioned above, once the chickens were selected, weighed and the sale price negotiated, the birds were tagged with metal numeric tags around their necks for identification of ownership and placed in a separate wicker basket. It was the responsibility of us “deputies in short pants” to ensure that “our” birds were not switched.  Thus we stood in the midst of all the activity while our mums went across to the Simon Road market to do their marketing for the various chicken dishes she had in mind.

Who can forget the sight of the assistant(s) reaching into the “sold” basket grabbing one of our birds, plucking away at the feathers around the throat region then with a swift action of a knife  slit at the exposed skin Then holding the bird tightly, manoeuvre the neck above a bowl so that the blood could be collected. The grip had to be secure or else you would literally witness the scene of chaos of a “headless chook” running around.

Once the bird was limp and lifeless, it would be dipped into a basin of boiling hot water and quickly removed and the de-feathering would commence. Throughout this ordeal the birds would still be wearing their identification tags. Once completely naked the birds would be place into another basin and when all of our purchases were ready they would be place in our market baskets and their tags removed.  Then us deputies then had the honour of helping our mums by carrying the basket of “naked” chickens home all the time eyeing the edges of the “you tiao” wrapped in newspaper that mum had bought. It was a nice reward for our services and would complement the cup of hot coffee she would make when we got back home.

I do not think those who have been deputies would ever forget the sights and smell of buying fresh chicken then. The smell of spilled blood, wet feathers and chicken poo are not easy to forget .Now we just decide which tray we want to buy or point to the supermarket staff the pieces that we want.

Coming back to our own chickens as I mentioned it used to be traumatic because of the attachment through hand feeding them when they were littlies as well as watching them grow.  The adults would try and shield us from seeing the particular bird being chased and restraint, slaughtered, etc. It was sometimes hard to sit and have a meal of what was once close to us. But those days we had to eat whatever was on the table or go without a meal.

Those hens that were layers normally had longer lives as nothing beats the taste a freshly laid egg. It was when they stopped laying then it was time for the chopping board.

An occasional bonus was when a neighbour’s hen would take a short flight over our fence and come into our compound. Then observing where she was scratching the dirt and which bush she would nestle into, we would wait for the usual clucking to announce that she had laid an egg. And sometimes out of habit she would return to grace us with more free eggs.  Those were the days too when we could bring our eggs to the various hawker food vendors and get them to include the eggs in the dish at no extra cost rather than pay more if he had used his own eggs. I do not think the present day hawkers at the Hawker Centres or Food Courts would entertain this now.

Thank you Rasiah! Our walk down memory lane took us back in time as we tried to pin point where our favourite hawker stalls were especially the good ones. We had lots of laughs during that warm afternoon walk delving deep into our memory banks and tagging fond memories of people, faces and names to sites and locations still standing. But the sights and smells associated with the chicken sellers was a re-run hard to forget.

Edmund Arozoo  

June 2019


 

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Well Well Well – A Natural Resource Lost

24 06 2016

Well Well Well  – A Natural Resource Lost
A guest post by Edmund Arozoo, once of Jalan Hock Chye, who now takes a look back to his kampong days from Adelaide.

Bore Water Warning Sign


I have recently returned from a tour of the northern remote arears of South Australia. It is usual for the motels in these arears to have warning signs over the sinks cautioning guests not to drink water from the taps as the supply is usually from bore water.

As described on the SA Health website:

Bore water is groundwater that has been accessed by drilling a bore into underground aquifers (water storages) and pumping to the surface. Aquifers may contain chemicals and micro-organisms that are potentially harmful. Some of these chemicals are naturally occurring (such as those present in soils and rocks) while others are a result of contamination.

Confined or deep aquifers are usually deep underground which helps protect the water source. These types of aquifers are usually covered by more than 20 meters of rock or clay which act as a natural filter preventing microbial contamination. Unconfined or shallow aquifers are not protected by thick layers, because they are closer to the surface above and are susceptible to both chemical and microbiological contamination.

Thus while bore water can be used for cleaning and showering it cannot be used for cooking and drinking. Water from rainwater tanks is used for this.

This brought back memories of my kampong days in “Owkang” where at one stage in the past the whole area depended on underground springs to provide water for all purposes. Virtually every house had a well or a large well was shared by a group or cluster of nearby houses.

A recent photograph of one of the two wells in the township of Two Wells, north of Adelaide E. Arozoo 2016

A recent photograph of one of the two wells in the township of Two Wells, north of Adelaide (E. Arozoo 2016).

From memory the whole area around my kampong seemed to be “springy”. You did not have to dig deep to strike an underground spring. I clearly remember the little pits we used to have for burning garden waste and rubbish. The pit was essential to ensure that the fire was confined and did not pose a threat to the attap roofs of the surrounding houses. Gradually these pits used to become shallow and required a “re-dig” to maintain this confinement of fire and ashes. Often, when the dig was in progress we would strike water seepage. Also occasionally as kids when we roamed the area during our carefree time we would come across a natural spring by the side of a lane.

The wells somehow seemed to be connected by underground streams. I remember how we used to be puzzled by the appearances of fish in our well.  We knew our neighbours kept fishes in their well to prevent mosquitoes from breeding. We did not need fishes because our well was in constant use.

A photograph taken by Edmund Arozoo's late father from his album. A well at one of the two houses he stayed at in Jalan Hock Chye.

A photograph taken by Edmund Arozoo’s late father from his album. A well at one of the two houses he stayed at in Jalan Hock Chye.

Our well also underwent regular cleaning after a few years. A couple of odd job men would be employed to do this. After draining as much of the water in the well using the buckets one of the men would descend the well using a wooden ladder and scrape away at the silt that had built up through the years. The slit too was brought to the surface via the use of buckets. It was during this process that when we peered down the well we could see the supply source of our water. I clearly remember seeing water spouting out from one side of the well wall very similar to that from an underground pipe. In my mind then I could imagine an underground stream with water flowing thorough to all wells around that area. And that seem to explain the presence of fishes in our own well.

Once the well was cleaned and the water level reached the normal level my grandmother who lived with us used to do the cleansing ritual of dropping in a palm sized piece of alum (Aluminium sulphate) into the well. Alum I learnt later in my Chemistry classes is used as a flocculating agent in the purification of drinking water by creating sedimentation of the particles and rendered the water crystal clear. These days the side effect of exposure to alum is debatable.

The level of water in the well fluctuated with the seasons and the rainfall. After days of heavy rain the level would reach almost ground level and we had the task of keeping the level down by scooping up buckets of water and emptying the contents into the drain. In the hot dry months the level would drop quite a bit. But during all of my years of living there thank goodness our well never ran dry.

Another photograph taken by Edmund Arozoo's late father from his album. A well at one of the two houses he stayed at in Jalan Hock Chye.

Another photograph taken by Edmund Arozoo’s late father from his album. A well at one of the two houses he stayed at in Jalan Hock Chye.

The method of drawing water at our place was with a metal (galvanised iron) bucket attached to a fibre rope with a big knot at the free end to prevent the rope from slipping though our hands.  Some wells had a pulley system  hung across the well but that meant having to reach out to the middle of the well when the bucket was raised to drag the bucket in while still holding on to the end of the rope. This task was very difficult for kids with our shorter arms. In contrast at our place when we kids reached the height that enabled us to look over the concrete ring perimeter of the well we could draw water on our own. Often the rope would slip through our hands and we would see the bucket sinking to the bottom.  But at hand there would always be the bamboo pole with a hook attached to one end.  Retrieving the bucket was a simple method of using this pole and  hooking on to the bucket handle and then slowly raising the pole with the bucket dangling from the hook.

One of the chores assigned to us as we got older was to fill up the big earthen jar in the nearby bathroom.  Folks of my generation would remember having to use a ladle to scoop up water from these jars to take a bath. Water from the well and the jar was usually cool and thus baths were quick and very “refreshing”.

With communal wells it was common to witness neighbours bathing in the open dressed in sarongs and often having conversations with whoever else  was around the well!

Water used for drinking was boiled in pots using the charcoal stoves which always stayed alight with glowing embers to enable quick rekindling of the fire.  But waiting for the water to boil took a while. Then with the introduction of thermos flasks the hot water was stored so that there could be instant access when needed. This was great if you needed a hot drink late at night (Holicks or Ovaltine …)

On reflection well water was truly Nature’s gift to everyone in the kampong. We did not have to pay a cent for the usage and there was abundance for everyone.

JeromeLim-1850 Well

An abandoned well in an area reclaimed by nature in Singapore.

I sometimes wonder what has happened to this underground water course in the current area around Houggang with the area now well built up. We had an incident a few years back around my current house where a neighbour in the next street below ours had flooding in his garage. This never happened before and there was an investigation by the local council into the cause. Modifications were made to all our houses on the street to ensure storm water drainage adhered to the Council regulations. But this still did not stop flooding until it was finally discovered that one of the newly built houses on our row required deep excavation to remove huge rocks before the concrete house footing could be laid. This resulted in change in course of the subsoil drainage. And following a few days of wintry rains the water took the new course of draining into the garage. Provision had to be made to address the problem and thus stop the flooding.

So where have all the undergrown streams in Owkang gone? Maybe like the kampongs they are lost forever!