|Bukit Panjang Village Wet Market in the 1960's
"Memory’s a funny thing.
With age I find myself forgetting things and remembering those things that don’t really matter.
How long have I been having this problem?
Where did I left?.
Oh, Yes!. Wait a minute. Now I remember.
I remember there was this unforgettable Bukit Panjang Wet Market to the left of my house. My immediate recollection of this market was the many childhood friends I had and still have till today. They were the market vendors’ children. But before I talk about my childhood friends, please let me firstly share with you my recollection of the memorable wet market.
I remember it was not a colossal market but a steel structure building that occupied about half a football field. It had steel H-Bean pillars, slippery cement floors that were forever wet, florescent electrical lighting, asbestos shingles roofing and a large concrete septic tank that stored human excrement. The two toilets were always disgustingly filthy with choked feces and urine. Nobody clean or use them. A monsoon canal that was perpetually cloged with all imaginable garbage flowed at one side of the market.
In the messy, smelly, chaotic and dreadfully hot atmosphere, about 50 to 60 vendors marketed fresh vegetables, meats, poultry, tofu, vermicelli and noodles from village farms and household manufacturing outfits. Dry sundries, spies, herbs, fruits and seafood sold were mainly imported goods. Fresh flowers and plants were noticeably missing as they were dispensable luxury in those days. If I remember correctly, there were no Malay vendor and only one Indian stall selling mutton.
After a minor extension of the market towards the side of the monsoon canal, some food stalls selling stir-fried carrot cake, curry noodles, economic vegetable and rice sprouted up. My Grandma always pampered me with my favorite carrot cake with egg that cost 30 cents a plate.
These municipal council inspectors were conspicuously absent on festive days and the road was impassible to traffic, which were few, anyway. I loved to jolt with the madding crowd and soak myself in the festive mood. It was always an inerasable and enjoyable experience.
If you like to learn more of Jalan Cheng Hwa and its surroundings areas, please click this linkOld Bukit Panjang
|Boh Leng's Poultry Stall
One of my childhood friend, Boh Leng, helped his elderly father at his live poultry stall near the septic tank. Live chickens and ducks were sold in weight and slaughtered on the spot. Hot water and wax were used respectively to remove the feathers of the birds.
Most shoppers would avoid his stall because of the foul smell permeating from the manure of the caged poultry. But I spent most of my wake-up hours with Boh Leng at his stall and I never smelt anything unbearable. Now I understand why night soil collectors were able to endure their menial work.
On busy days, I lend a helping hand at the stall. One incident stands out in my memory. I remember the day I was almost electrocuted and died while helping at the stall. The incident happened one evening on Chinese New Year Eve. As evening approached, I stood on a cage to change a blown light bulb with the electric power on. My hands and feet were wet from de-feathering the chickens. I accidentally held a live wire and the resultant electric shock threw me off the cage but my hand still held on to the live wire. In seconds, my body squeezed and crushed like an aluminum can and I could not breath. I knew I was about to die and fainted.
A few hours later, I woke up in hospital with my Grandma at my side. I was told that a quick-thinking vendor cut off the main electric supply and an off duty Malay fireman resuscitated me. They save my life and my Grandma subsequently rewarded them with simple gifts.
Although it was a near fatal accident, I continued to hangout with Boh Leng. Sometimes, I cycled with him to procure poultry from small farmers in the village for sales in the market. Apparently, from a tender age, Boh Leng was already willy-nilly running a business and today he runs a thriving multimillion dollar enterprise.
Another close childhood friend of mine was Bak Seng, whose parents manufactured noodles and kway teow (flat rice noodle) in a small wooden outfit near where I stayed. I remember when I was 8 years old, a fire completely destroyed their manufacturing facility but they rebuild and prospered.
They also had a stall in the market. Every member of his family of 12 helped in the business. As early as five in the morning, Bak Seng, a teenager, transported baskets of noodles on bicycle to the market. Occasionally, I would help in his "factory" too, but I did it more out of personal enjoyment than rendering any meaningful help. Remember, I was still a teenager then. Today, Bak Seng runs a large, modern and successful noodle manufacturing factory in Woodland Industrial Estate and fervently play golf for leisure.
Incidentally, Bukit Panjang wet market was never upgraded or revamped. It was eventually expunged in the late 1980's to make way for the new Bukit Panjang housing estate
|Old Bukit Panjang Road and shophouses in the 1960's
Like shopkeepers elsewhere in Singapore at that time, they sold a myriad varieties of daily necessities like sundry goods, clothing, Chinese herbs, bakery and general hardware. Many were coffee shops with traditional marble top tables and teak wood chairs. Departmental stores dedicated to selling luxury brands were nonexistence. So were personal services like foot reflexology, spa and cosmetic beauty treatment.
Shopping these days usually means heading to a mall or trawling the internet. Back in 1960's, most trading in Bukit Panjang took place out on the street, or in small, dimly-lit stalls or shops. Many of these trades had been delegated to history. I remember there were two unique shops that are extinct today. One was a chick/duckling hatchery shop and the other was a maternity shop with rooms for wealthy mothers to give birth. Incidentally, my father worked in one of the only two bicycle shops near the police station.
Among the rows of shop houses were Chinese Clan Association buildings like Hokkien Kuay Kwan, Hakka Assocaition and China Yuping Min Fraternity Building. These are the only buildings that are still standing today apart the one and only Lee Huat Motor shop.
Then, Bukti Panjang Road was a vibrant and busy thoroughfare that link the city to Johore and Choa Chu Kang. Buses and taxis were few but pirate taxis were aplenty plying the streets at pre-agreed fare without meter. Night market or "pasar malan" vendors did brisk business every Friday night along this road.
|Endearing Sin Wah Theater at Bukit Panjang Village
And of course, all pioneers of Bukit Panjang will surely remember the endearing Sin Wah Theater, the only zine claded cinema in our village that screen mostly Hong Kong Chinese movies, with occasional western from Hollywood.
|Zinc roofed shops along Jalan Cheng Hwa. First shop on the left was beside wet market.
Unlike shophouses along Bukit Panjang Road, only about 20 small wooden zinc roofed shopshouses lined both side of Jalan Cheng Hwa, selling mainly provision and sundry goods. There were Chinese medical shop, barbers, stationary, tailor and hardware shop too. Mr. Sim Wong Hoo's 沈望傅 (Chairman of Creative Technolgy) parents operated a provision shop at the end of the lane near a "wayang' stage.
Towards the end of 1970's, my father managed to acquire a bicycle shop beside the "wayang" stage. In reality, his shop was a tiny attap hut, the size of two latrines, with no water or electricity. But he did a boomy business as his was the only bicycle repair shop in Bukit Panjang Village and every villagers who owns a bicycle came to him for repair and services. From this humble hut and one of my younger brother today owns a multimillion dollar HDB shophouse and a thriving bicycle business. He helped my dad from a young age and picked up a skill which I did not.
On festive occasions, Chinese street opera (wayang) performed at the "wayang" stage for the amusement of deities at a nearby temple and these performance were usually paid for by wealthy Chinese businessman or clan associations. Consequently, such performance became the cheapest form of entertainment for the villagers. I remember my elders would place wooden benches in front of the stage to book a strategic spot, days before the performance started. And whenever a "wayang" was staged, scores of cooked food vendors would ply their trade along the narrow road thereby transforming Jalan Cheng Hwa into lively and rowdy lane.
Of all the shophouses alone Jalan Cheng Hwa, my most vivid recollection is a simple standalone shop (attap hut) occupied by a Teochew elderly man nicknamed "TayGu". He was stout, single, lived alone and always shirtless. He made a living selling cooked cockles at 30 cents a bowl at his hut. To increase his sales, he ingeniously allowed customers to try their luck with a dice game of 4-5-6 with him. If a customer wins in three continuous throws, with each throw having a total higher than his throw, the customer gets another free bowl of cooked cockles. Additionally, by paying 10 cents, anyone could gamble with him for a free serving without buying. I always lost to him. I heard he left for China in late 1980's and died there.
In the 1960's, "Ya Sua Bay" was well known as a notorious enclave with gangsters of the "kung tong" triad. They frequently clashed with a rivalry "lee-sun" (23) triad that controlled the wet market areas. Many youngsters were members of these gangs. Fortunately, I avoided them and they never trouble me. Shopkeepers and street vendors had to pay "protection" money to these gangs or face harassment. Strangers wondering in the areas were often intimidated or assaulted. Secret gambling and opium dens were aplenty in the village.
A Chinese language village school called "Cheng Hwa Primary School" stood at the top of the hill. Like all my siblings, poor children in the village studied at this free primary school that was managed and funded by Hokkien Clan Asssociation. Majority left school prematurely to work or lean a trade at a very young age. Interestingly, black and white Chinese movies were screened in the open school court on weekend evening for a10 cents entrance fee.
As a growing up teenager in Bukit Panjang Village in the 1960's, life was a simpler world altogether. But we were not pampered, spoilt or soft. We were resourceful and had to use a lot of our imagination to get and play with what we wanted with whatever little we have. This probably taught us to "never say die". I hope the memories of my childhood would inspire you to dare to dream the impossible and never, never say die! .
On a personal level, I hope this blog post will become my legacy of memories for my future generations.
|"Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving"