Sure as Autumn Flame

I’m a sentimental fool for food
December 3, 2009, 11:02 pm
Filed under: Food, Stories from Yesteryear | Tags: , , ,

The familiar whiff of herbs, pepper and home-made goodness laid in the form of bak kut teh soup, rice and stir-fry vegetables. My mouth watered, and so did my eyes. Four long years.

It then dawned upon me how much I missed home-cooked food, and how I long for a simple meal with white rice, steamed fish and vegetables and the ocassional bowl of clear soup. Chinese fare can be exceedingly simple, yet terribly comforting. Mum used to tease me, saying she could not imagine how I could eat the same thing everyday – but to me, it was goodness in the simplest form imaginable, simple in taste, low in calories, and full of comfort.

While I summoned every bit of control within me not to woffle the food down, I relished the joy of heaping rice onto a spoon I could never find elsewhere. Cutlery special only to the home, never to be found in fancy restaurants nor the cheap metalware symbolic of the foodcourts. I carefully scraped the last bit of meat against porcelain plates and bowls unique only to the home, unlike the common plastic plates and bowls that I am so used to in the foodcourt. For a moment, I forgot about the styrofoam and plastic boxes I am used to eating out from, for that moment I taste each grain of rice slowly without the feel of cheap plastic against my tongue.

There is no stove at home, only a heating pad which I can make instant noodles with.

There is an oven for the likes of bake and roast, but along with that oven comes a rule that I could never dirty the kitchen counter nor the floor. And tagged with that rule lies an invisible fine line between clean and oily – one that I could never feel but the mother would detect with her senses.

Rummaging through the kitchen drawers, I count more plastic disposable containers than plates. I find more plastic bags than individual chopsticks and cutlery combined.

I come to dread the Sundays of NTUC and food-court shopping. There is no satisfaction from hunching over a table in Kopitiam, tucking into a meal of MSG and bad cooking oil while an old lady carelessly cleans the table next to you with a murky cloth. You look down at the white plastic bowls…and you tell yourself to stop imagining the worst.

With the increasing number of families not cooking and taking their kids to the foodcourt, I look at these children whose memories will only be filled with white plastic bowls. My heart goes out towards them as they embrace their childhood of meaningless meals.

What I would give, to go home to a plate of steamed fish like of five years ago.


Beauty in Solitude
July 30, 2009, 1:23 pm
Filed under: Arts & Culture, Stories from Yesteryear, Two Cents' Worth

Amidst the ticking time-bomb that we desperately race against, we long to escape to a venue of peace and quiet. How many times have we forked out our savings to drive or fly ourselves to a secluded beach, to listen to the waves crashing and the wind howling in our ears?

As we run the inevitable rat race we seemed to be born in, we crave solitude in our own ways. The echo of the wooden boards answered my churning thoughts of yesterday. The artefacts I stare at breathe a life of their own. Many a time I gaze blankly into a random scroll, a statue dug up from eyes never really focusing. I wasn’t at the museum for an educational trip, neither was I there for a dose of history and heritage. I came to find my own comfort, my nest away from the insanely packed schedule I live my weekdays by.

Time came to a standstill each time I stand along those long stretches of paintings that span the entire breadth of the wall. The sheer size of such grandeur made the rest of me feel small. It is so easy to lose myself amongst these old relics, knowing they have a far richer story to tell than my own little sob tale – and I sigh a long-drawn tunnel of air, hearing my own heart beat dancing to its own rhythm of life in the silent exhibition halls.

I recall standing before Panton’s drawings, hand in hand with the lover of mine. I recall our stark differences in design preferences, and I taste his kiss on my lips in the darkened halls of sublime. Voices blended into murmurs, the shuffling of feet became oblivious to me; my mind is on a flight of its own. I smile at the memory, at the lingering thoughts of that stolen kiss.

The winding stairs withhold their magic, their tale of scampering children and tired old grandmothers who have idled on their steps. Each corner of the museum holds its secrets – and they said that if you put your ear to a museum wall, you will hear its stories, and the people who ran their hands along those walls. And as I press my cheek on the cool concrete, I hear the stories my heart believes.

Written for

“No Money, No Honey” – Behind the Brothel Doors in the 1900s

adapted from “Ah Ku and Karayuki-San: Prostitution in Singapore, 1870-1940” by James Francis Warren

It was the year 1897. The surge of brothels springing up along Smith Street and Malay Street marked the area where ah kus and karayuki-sans gathered, where there were whispers by men of the beautiful ladies that sat in those rows of houses, staring at them with a hint of an invite to enter, beckoning them to temptation, to a temporary house of wonder.

“My name is Lee Mei Nyan, and I am 19 years old this year. I reside in a brothel along Hong Kong Street – 37 Hong Kong Street, to be exact. My mamasan (mother, I call her), whose name was Teng Ah Hee, is a 59-year old Cantonese woman who owned the brothel and took care of my sisters and I. Our clients and suppliers address her as kwai po, which translates into ‘keeper’. “

Kwai pos, known affectionately among prostitutes as mamasans, were often brothel-owners. Older women, often married to traffickers or local gang leaders, will have the brothel legally registered under her name, while her husband ran a day-business which can be of any form – tailor, restaurant, trading, supplies – but mainly supported by the brothel’s earnings once dusk has settled.

“I barely remembered the life that existed before I stepped into 37 Hong Kong Street. I recalled being hungry, lost, and being in a huge debt. I owed $327 to a man who smuggled me on board his ship which sailed from Hunan to Singapore, but there was no job awaiting me at the shores of the island. Desperate to be rid of this burden, I approached Teng Ah Hee, who promptly settled my debt with him, fed me, clothed me and sent me up to bed. Work began the moment I woke up, till I tell my story today.”

Treatment of ah-kus and karayuki-sans by the keepers did not appear to be as harsh, although it was in their interest to extract the maximum profit from their “daughter” during her working lease. In the lower-class brothels, stories of long hours, bad food, inadequate health-facilities, and the punishment suffered drove some ladies to suicide, death from tuberculosis, extended depression and mauled memories of their youth. It was often the case of ah-kus, who were bound to their brothel house and limited to interaction with men of similar race (in this case, the Chinese). The karayuki-sans, often the Japanese prostitutes, were allowed to go out freely, and solicit their own clients if they receive an invitation. Karayuki-sans were in men’s eyes, the exotic beauties, the upper-class, and an expensive getaway they could ill afford.

“I was fortunate to be blessed with a slim figure, porcelain-like skin and large doe eyes, rendering myself a favourite among certain clients. Freedom did not exist in my life. I spent the day in the brothel, keeping the rooms and stairwells spick and span, proceeding to prepare myself for the evening at about three in the afternoon. My mother’s traditional recipe of using powder ground from raw rice to cleanse myself gave me a youthful glow. Mamasan has picked my dress for the evening – it is this sheer blouse embroided with intricate flowers, billowing around my waist. My hair is up in a coiffure. The dinner bell rings and I drink a bowl of soup, determined to keep my waist trim for the rest of the evening. And I sit, like a doll, staring out through the open door, smiling at men who eyed me greedily, lustfully, while they mentally calculate whether they could afford me.”

Rivalries and jealousy were an inevitable part of an ah ku’s life. In general, if a male customer was seen to be rough with an ah ku, the ‘sisters’ will stand by one another. The kwai po had the authority to firmly usher the man out of the brothel. But if one were to stand up against her ‘sister’, she found that she was often alone.

“On good days, we went shopping – accompanied by our tai pang po (chaperone, guardian-servant) of course. Mamasan will never allow us out of her brothel house unaccompanied. We had beautiful in-house rickshaws to ferry us to a nearby opera should a client wish for our company, but even so…we were always under the watchful eye of tai tang po, in case we ever run away to become concubines.

Life was not a bed of roses, beautiful lingerie and social parties – like some people thought it would be. I watched Tan Lee Hua gave birth twice – she lost her curves, her breasts sagged, and she brought her daughter into prostitution as soon as the young girl turned 10. It was all for income, she said tearfully, I could almost see her heart breaking as she heard her daughter’s anguished screams on the night of her first customer.

And what was left for a woman when wrinkles, various bodily complaints and grey hair begin to take over? I dread the day I encounter these, for I have no skills to warrant me of a proper job out there, my family is too ashamed to take me back, and I do not know if I can control my spending after having gotten used to all these luxurious beauty items and silk fabrics. Will I waste away behind the alleys, or will I end up working as a servant in the brothel I used to hail glory in? Will I eventually become someone’s concubine, or will I succumb to poor nutrition once my value closes in to zero? Will I have chosen to end my life when men do not lay their eyes on me, or will I cast aside my pride and run the hawkers down these streets?”

Brothel districts major cities like Singapore were sanctioned by the colonial governments to cater to the sexual needs of migrant bachelor labourers. Prostitution in Singapore was directly linked to the economic and social problems faced by families in rural China and Japan, where patriarchy undervalued a female born into the family. A female child was seen to be of little value in over-populated regions, and they would often be forced to migrate or sold by their parents into prostitution. Females, or ah kus, found their worth in prostitution – mainly to assist in much-needed financial support for their parents or kin. Their stories continue in the depths of Singapore’s red-light district Geylang today, merely different people but in the same situation.

Written for

My Affair with the Rickshaw Man
June 4, 2009, 11:49 pm
Filed under: Stories from Yesteryear, Woven Tales | Tags: , ,

…written for

“Lee Jin Xiang was his name, and I liked to call him Jin-ge, for short. They say its an affectionate nickname, but it was really an easier name to shout amidst the roaring din of chatter and aggressive bargaining as we raced through the streets of Chinatown at night. We were young, and bold, and together Jin-ge and I will explore the streets of Singapore, sneak into open-air movies…all the while with me seated by his side, him pulling the rickshaw like I was a bird’s feather.

Jin-ge’s physique was a tell-tale sign of his reputation, his chiselled face, his lean torso, his drenched tee-shirt. He doesn’t really like hanging the towel around his neck – for vanity’s sake – but he knew it would serve its purpose.

I would often find Jin-ge at the Jinrikisha (the original name for “rickshaw”) Station, right at the junction of Neil Road and Tanjong Pagar Road. He pulled a rickshaw, and you could tell it was hard work. He works from 7 in the morning till 7 in the evening, seizing opportunities to ferry those towkays to work, getting beautiful ladies to the markets and back, and finally we would see each other for dinner in the evenings.

He told me once, over a bowl of bak kut teh, that he spent his entire 15 years’ savings on his rickshaw, which cost him $25. That sum of money was what he could earn in a year, I thought. Jin-ge was 23 years old when we started dating. We planned for marriage, three children, and I could hopefully open a dessert stall I could call my own.

Jin-ge’s father was one of the first opportunists to purchase a rickshaw, back in 1880. Jin-ge bought his own rickshaw when he turned 16, back in 1935. He said his rickshaw came from Japan, and he fondly recalled the days he ferried lovely-smelling cheongsam clad ladies my age, and how the regulars used to call him, “Xiang”. How could I not feel a tinge of jealousy when I heard that? I resolved to be the only one to call him Jin-ge, while everybody else knew him by Xiang.

The war came and went, and the rickshaws disappeared one by one. I remember that year in 1947, I turned 22. I remembered walking to the Jinrikisha Station, but for the first evening, Jin-ge wasn’t there. I recalled the days I went back to wait, with home-made desserts I had packed in a paperbag dangling from my hand, but Jin-ge still wasn’t there. He had disappeared along with the rickshaws, and that closed the chapter on my affair with a rickshaw man.”