Sunday 26 April 2015

Remembering Bukit Panjang Village and My Childhood (Part II)

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?
What problem”

By Lohcifer at Loh And Behold 

Now, let me continue from where I left.
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.
Street Vendors
During weekends or festive days like Chinese New Year, a kaleidoscope of colors, fragrances and boisterous noises  would dominates the small road (Jalan Cheng Hwa) that run along the market. Unlicensed street vendors from nearby villages lined both sides of the narrow road selling an assortment of goods that competes directly with the market vendors. Each tried to eke out a living despite the risks of arrest, fine and confiscation of their merchandise by "TayGu" (Hawker Inspector).
(60年代的街边小贩,这两个人就是小贩局的執行员,当时称他们(地牛).......These two were executives of the hawkers and were called "ground cow" - 地牛 "TayGu-in Hokkien dialect")... 

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

About a hundred, two storey concrete shop-houses lined both sides of the kilometer Bukit Panjang Road. Because the villagers were predominantly Chinese, majority of shopkeepers were Chinese with only one or two Malay barber and Indian provision shops. 

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. 

With only a few ceiling fans running, patrons endured the stuffy, smoky and hot atmosphere in uncomfortable plywood chairs. But a ticket cost only 50 cents and popular shows like "Lui Sun Chair" (Three Lui Sisters) could run for weeks. Poor village teenagers like me would sneak in among an adult crowd for free show. After being caught a few times, an usher would recognize us but we repeatedly sneaked in when new ushers were in attendance. Only on Chinese New Year day, when I had extra cash from my "ang-pow" money, did I ever bought a proper ticket to watch a Western movie. 
Zinc roofed shops along Jalan Cheng Hwa. First shop on the left was beside wet market.
By the way, Bukit Panjang was also known as Zhenghua in mandarin and Ya Sua Bay (Coconut Hill End) in vernacular Hokkien. I reckon there were plenty of coconut tress at the hilly area when early settlers first arrived in the early 1900's. This strange name refers to the villages settlements behind the wet market and along the short gravel Jalan Cheng Hua lane. 

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"


ksraj said...

You brought back fond memories of lalan cheng hua. I remembered an old chinese man play a flute through his nose. He does it so well. I use to buy hot bean curd there and watch him play. The wet market and and sin wah theatre is unforgetable. MY mom brings me for tamil show there on sat midnight. I studied in Bulit panjang pr sch from 60-63 and subsequently at Bukit panjang Govt Hight school from 64 - 67. Stayed at jalan tevk whye

Diary of a Singaorean Cabby said...

Hi, ksraj,

Nice to know that you also have fond memories of BP and Jalan Cheng Hwa. In our twilight years, such memories seems to occur more often than in our youthful years. Maybe its a beacon at the end of our time tunnel. So be it. Enjoy while we can, bro.

Anonymous said...

I read your blog post about Bukit Panjang village and it was most enlightening. Plenty of details and I can see you have many memories of the area.

I am working with the CCs of Bukit Panjang, Cashew and Zhenghua on a book about Bukit Panjang town. Part of the book will focus on the history and heritage of the area, and I’d like to include your memories here, in order to paint as detailed a picture of the town in the past as possible.

Please let me know if you’d be available to meet and talk about the town? I’d like to clarify some of the points you wrote about as well as ask you other questions about Bukit Panjang. Alternatively, if you are busy I could send you some questions via email.

Many thanks, and best regards,

Diary of a Singaorean Cabby said...

Hi, Alvin,

I'm glad you found this post enlightening.

Yes, please email on any inquires you've on Bukit Panjang.

James Lim

Unknown said...

We ventured to Syed Alwi Road to try the infamous Hakka beef balls and yong tau foo (酿豆腐) on a Saturday morning. We decided to take a walk to the coffee shop

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Anonymous said...

Can you share more about the sin hwa theatre and opera back in the village?

Unknown said...

Who remembers Auntie Huay? She puts on a lot makeup and sits below the overhead bridge asking for money. Hehe

Unknown said...

I grew up at 66-F Chua chu kang road. The old Police Inspector bungalows opposite Phoenix Road. I dad was the inspector at the old bukit panjang police station. Lolx.

Unknown said...

Hi James, thank you so much for writing about Jalan Cheng Hwa. In the 1970s to 1980s, I spent my childhood weekends and school holidays at my maternal grandparents' house at Jalan Cheng Hwa. I remember taking the public bus with my mother and alighting at a bus stop along the Upper Bukit Timah road. Then we had to walk into the Jalan Cheng Hwa kampong. It was quite a long distance walk before we reach my grandparents' house. The access road which we had to walk to get into Jalan Cheng Hwa from the bus stop was a road with long canal (long kang) on both sides. I love going to Jalan Cheng Hwa because I could then play with my cousins in the big open space. My childhood home was a 3 room HDB flat at Taman Jurong, that's why I appreciate the big open spaces at Jalan Cheng Hwa kampong. I really miss the old kampong days at Jalan Cheng Hwa.

Albert wong said...

I use to live in jalan teck why,
I be fond memories of those pic.
That you be posted.

Albert wong said...

Please post more pic.i ready enjoy
Seeing those pic. Bring back the good old day.

Albert wong said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Albert wong said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Albert wong said...

Please help keep this posting alive.
The words ya sea ber, the gangster name
Remind me of the old day.
Dear James, do u be more of such pic. To share.

Albert wong said...

Yes, I do.i frequently go there.
I visit the Friday night market with my parent (I am not a good user nor a hp savvy .I hope we can keep this post alive. Please!)

Albert wong said...

Can someone please tell me , how the come my name appear as Don punish the dog.??? I am a computer idiot. I really
Confuse.yet I am very excited about all
The posting here.its a gem to me.

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HC said...

I studied Primary 1 in Zhenghua Primary School in 1983, before my parents moved me to another school. I remember the school was built with wooden planks and the toilets still used the bucket system. I dared not move my bowels in school!

Wena Poon said...

I found this blog while Googling Bukit Panjang. My various relatives owned and operated businesses there! In fact we might have connections to some of those vendors in these old photos - do you personally own these photos? I'll email you for more reminisces. Thanks so much for writing about Bukit Panjang, you help us younger generation see very clearly the landscape of our ancestors (which have only been verbally described to us...and often by very old people who are very vague).

Wena Poon said...

I found this blog while Googling Bukit Panjang. My various relatives owned and operated businesses there! In fact we might have connections to some of those vendors in these old photos - do you personally own these photos? I'll email you for more reminisces. Thanks so much for writing about Bukit Panjang, you help us younger generation see very clearly the landscape of our ancestors (which have only been verbally described to us...and often by very old people who are very vague).

mrwilliam said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
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Sean Parker said...

Thank you for sharing a clear view of then and now.
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Anonymous said...

Hi James,

I'm currently researching about Bukit Panjang, I was wondering whether I could get in touch with you, could I please email you to ask you more about your memories of Bukit Panjang? let me know where to get your email address, thank you!


Anonymous said...

Hi James

Do you know where the places in your old pictures are in our current Bukit Panjang/CCK/Teck Whye/Woodlands Rd?

Alan said...

Coming across your posting and bring back all my childhood memory. I should be one of your customer of your father's bicycle shop at that time. I remembered the bicycle repair shop was located at end of a downhill slope after the CC and next to a provision shop. I always cycled from my grandfather's home deep inside the village (quite near the reservoir) and parked my bicycle behind your shop to schooling at BPES. I like your detail description of the wet market. I used to help out selling aquarium fish along the roadside next to the wet market's canal. You are right. When "de niu" raid, have to escape fast with whatever we could carry. Thank for this good posting.


Diary of a Singaorean Cabby said...

Hi Alan,

I'm glad my posting brings back fond memories of your childhood in Bukit Panjang Village and thanks for your nice compliments.

I'm now in my twilight years at 74 and is back residing in Bukit Panjang at Fajar.

After 40 years of transformation, Bkt Panajang is now unrecognizable.

It seems that my life (residence) has been a circle and I'm happy with it.

Alan, wish you good health and happiness..


James Lim

Albert wong said...

James , thank you for bringing back those find memories..that will be great if we can meet up for coffee, I guess we have plenty to share..

Elangovan said...

James. Wonderful memories. You have a genuine love of life gone by . I lived at lorong Malai/Lorong Sigar rubber estate. Attended BPES between 1963-1968. Can only rmember the strict teachers back then like Kanda.I was in Green house and the school 100m and 200m champion from 66-68.
Loved the old place with lots of birds. And who can forget our only theatre with cockroaches 🤣. And the carrot cake then was so perfectly done as should be. Crispy on the outside and firm inside and only 15 or 20 cents.
Loved the sarabat stalls with the prata and tea especially at Ismail's across the road opposite BPES

Diary of a Singaorean Cabby said...

Hi Elangovan,
Yes, I remember that Kanda-samy too. He taught Maths and would tell James Bond 007 stories after the exam. That's the only good and unforgettable thing about him. In the sixties, I lived behind those Indian/Malay sarabat stalls beside the wet market and Malay kampong. My love of loti-prata and Indian curries till today originates from those stalls. The present Bkt Panjang Park at Pang Sua Pond (Saujana Rd) with lots of rock boulders is the former Lorong Malai. Best Wishes, Elangovan. Cheers!!

Elangovan said...

Thanks James. Lost touch of all school friends. Wish i had kept in touch. But we did not even have a Residential telephone. Btw which year was yours

Diary of a Singaorean Cabby said...

Hi Elangovan,
I think I finished my Pr.6 at BPES in 1961 and BPGHS in 1965.
Love letters were the way to communicate with my sweethearts and
I still have of those letters, some in Mandarin. Sweet memories.

Elangovan said...

Wow James. Regular Romeo huh. Btw i have a friend about your age and studied in same school as yourself. Name is Nagaretnam. Any recollection

Diary of a Singaorean Cabby said...

Hi, Elangovan,
Happy New Year 2022.
Yes, Naga was my classmate in Sec 4 ane we were close friends during our school days.
But after we graduated and we went on different paths in adult life.

James Lim

Elangovan said...

HI James. Thanks for the response.
Btw my elder brother Parndian also studied in BPGHS. Class of 67 i think. So you still live in Bukit panjang. Naga is somewhere at Pending Road

Anonymous said...

Hi I am Rose.. I would like to reach out to u if we could use these pictures and u could share more about bukit panjang. Could u contact me at