The past seems more carefree…
Sometimes, I would just look back at my life over the last 62 years and see how things have evolved.
Back in the sixties, life was simple. My dad worked as a teacher for a meager salary to feed a family of nine. He would come back from school with a pile of books to mark. Subsequently, he would embark on his projects such as calligraphy or some artwork as a side hustle. The shops in the old days used Mandarin characters embossed onto a longboard to indicate shop name which they then posted on the top horizontal column above the entrance to the shop.
My mum was the dutiful housewife, preparing food for all the siblings and myself, putting very simple food on the table which included eggs with some preserved vegetables, a pot of soup, a plate of green vegetables, and usually some steamed or stewed pork, fried chicken if we are lucky and sometimes fish. In those days, we only ate roast chicken and steamed large prawns during the Lunar New Year. That was why we looked forward to the Lunar New Year as a very celebrative time.
There was an unspoken rule. Children study hard, grow up, look for a job, get married and establish their own nuclear families. Most of my siblings finished school by sixteen and they started to look for work. By the time, it came to me, being the last child and an accidental one I believed, the barrel was empty. My parents had aged and there was not enough money to put me through University.
I am glad for the adversity that gave me personal growth and learning. As I watched how my friends went on to study at the university, I decided to look for a job that allowed me to save money. I found my first job as a receptionist at the wage of S$300 at a Japanese construction company. That was thirty-three years ago. Today, that amount would just cover food expenses for one month in today’s cost of living.
I went back to my old estate to find the old flat demolished and the road that I grew up on shortened to a lane as gentrification had long taken over many parts of Singapore and people moved to better build public housing. The place may have transformed but memories linger. Of the big drains that I used to play in, of the old thatched-roof houses that we called attap houses, and of the neighbors I used to have but have not bumped into them for the last fifty years.
What stood out in my childhood? My carefree life. I have never heard of the word ‘tuition’ which I later imposed on my children like a mandatory order. That became the bane of their lives but it was necessary. Singapore was and still is a meritocratic society where the paper chase is significant for one’s future.
My life after school was spent playing. “Be home by six”, my mum used to say. I would hang around the big monsoon drain with my best friend, Bee Lian and we would jump from one side to the other. Other activities included playing hop-scotch, five stones, and making paper dolls.
Sometimes we went to the National Library but I did not pick up the habit of reading. Most times, we would roam the MPH bookstore next to the Library and I was fascinated by Barbie dolls in their various outfits. I told myself that I would own a series of them when I work in future but when I became an adult, my interest in Barbie dolls had long worn off.
Life was really surreal. During the weekends in the sixties, we would often go out with my parents which included my two brothers and me. The rest of the siblings who had turned eighteen and older had their own programs. Either it was an outing to Queen Elizabeth walk, today known as the Esplanade. Sometimes, we would go to Katong Park to swim in its sea swimming enclosure, or Haw Par Villa or to the Botanic Gardens, today a UNESCO heritage site because of the vast and impressive natural developments in this park.
There were not many places to go as Singapore was not developed then and the subway construction plan was not on the cards until the 80s. Recreational places were limited but Singaporeans were creative. My brothers catched spiders to compete against each other much like cock-fighting in some countries. They also caught butterflies, admired them for some time in a pierced bottle then later released them. I would draw paper dolls on hard white cardboard, cut them out and then designed and colored some paper clothes to hang on to the dolls.
I was the model for my brother who experimented with his box-like camera. We went out and I posed for the pictures which he then developed himself in a self-made darkroom. He became a self-learned photographer which came in handy for his later career. My brothers even made our own ramshackle tricycle out of wood and we had much fun. A game of rounders was also a regular activity.
People turned in early those days. The cinemas were a chief source of entertainment and so was the open-air entertainment center called New World. Happiness was riding astride my father’s shoulders after a movie show. My parents occasionally went for mahjong individually in their friends’ houses.
Festive seasons were celebrated joyously. For example, on the stroke of midnight of the Lunar New Year, deafening sounds of firecrackers broke the silence and people were elated. But it became a nuisance when people got hurt and fires occurred. A partial ban in 1970 led to a full ban on firecrackers in 1972 and the Lunar New Year was never the same again.
Gone were the smell of ‘gun powder’ that was sharp in the morning air and the carpet of red that resulted from the red crackers that were the symbol of the New Year that had dawned on us. But the images of people firing crackers and throwing at another were scenes never forgotten.
Before the ban, it could get really frightening if someone threw a large cracker in your direction that made you jump. In the evenings, people played with sparklers to light up the surroundings. I remembered not too distinctly someone shot me from far in the arm when they aimed a pop cracker that was supposed to be played vertically and hurt my arm. My mum took me to look for the perpetrator but to no avail.
As children, we looked forward to receiving red packets from our seniors. Those days, we hoped not to feel the coins in the packets as it meant that if the red packets were flat, they contained notes indicating a larger amount. Invariably, it was a dollar note. I would put them into my furry bear tote bag which had a zipper. S$10 was considered a bounty to me.
The Mid-Autumn festival or moon cake festival is popular and is the second-most important holiday after the Chinese New Year with a history dating back 3,000 years when China’s emperors worshipped the moon for bountiful harvests. Coinciding with the full moon on the 15th day of the eighth month of the Lunar New Year, we looked forward to carry paper lanterns of all shapes and sizes that symbolized prosperity and good luck.
We also ate tasty mooncakes, a rich pastry typically filled with sweet-bean or lotus-seed paste which is a tradition. We had a great time. On the field outside the old flat, we laid a plastic sheet on the grass. We sat on it and had a little party with our tea and mooncakes.
One time, my paper lanterns accidentally caught fire because the candle in it fell and burned the sides. Today’s lanterns are mostly made of bulbs that do not have the glory of a lighted flame. But there were fewer fire incidents, panic, and crying.
As the night drew on, my dad and I would lay down and look at the full moon. We talked about the Chinese myth where Chang Er had the elixir of immortality given to her by her husband Hou Yi, an excellent archer, said to have shot down nine out of ten suns that caused disaster to the people. Hou Yi’s apprentice tried to steal the elixir which prompted Chang Er to swallow the potion and fled to the moon and became its spirit. Huo Yi was very sad and died soon after. To commemorate Huo Yi’s heroic action, people celebrated this time of the month.
During the Dragon Boat Festival, called “Duan Wu” (Summer Solstice), my mum would make Chinese sticky rice dumplings the conventional way. It was very interesting watching her. Inside the glutinous rice were marinated pork belly pieces, shelled mung beans, salted egg yolk, and chopped shitake mushrooms. She deftly wrapped the glutinous rice with the bamboo leaves, formed into the shape of a pyramid, and tied it with a straw rope before cooking it. They tasted fabulous and was the highlight of the season.
Legend had it that Qu Yuan, a poet and a loyal high official of the Chu Kingdom during the era of the warring states was slandered and exiled. When the Chu kingdom fell to the State of Qin, Qu Yuan committed suicide by drowning himself in the Miluo River on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month.
To preserve his body from being eaten by sea creatures, the locals threw rice dumplings as they paddled the boats up and down the river and beat drums to scare the evil spirits away. This evolved into the dragon boat racing and dumpling festival today that is joyously celebrated.
Singapore, being multi-cultural has many other festive events but I had only Chinese friends then so I had no opportunity to enjoy myself with friends from other races until much later in life.
All in all, it was a peaceful childhood. There were occasional sibling rivalries and some squabbling about inadequate food. Later, my older siblings sought work after their basic educations and the economy in the house improved.
The years went by and before I knew it, my parents had moved from our old flat to a housing board flat in another estate called Toa Payoh, meaning “Big Swamp” which originally it was. My teenage years were spent in a new environment where other adventures and challenges of life arose.