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Friday, August 26, 2011

A Chopper Legacy

Everybody needs a hobby. Mine is tinkering with bikes. It is more so from a need to get mechanical and my hands dirty.

In the 70s, the most ubiquitous bicycle was this Raleigh Chopper bike (see pix left). I don't think I ever owned one as a kid, but I did have a few of them when I was much older. It became a hobby of mine restoring them. Growing up, my brother owned a Raleigh gentleman bike - the one with the white saddle bag behind.

At my primary school (Mattar Primary), a classmate and good friend of mine owned one. The manner in which he got his bike left me rather flabbergasted. You see, this friend of mine, Lee Huat, was only average in his studies. One time, however, he did manage to get all blue marks (not the usual failing red marks!) in his report book and so his dad bought him a bike as a reward. It was the bike everyone was whispering about and eyeing. The Raleigh Chopper. Lee Huat's was blue (well, it could have been be a Kris, an imitation from Malaysia then).

I still remember the conversation we had that day when he invited us over to his house in Circuit Road to see the 'surprise' he had installed for us his closest buddies.

"Wah, your dad got you a bike!" I said.
"Yup!" LH was beaming from ear to ear.
"How come?" I asked, not being very discrete.
"I did better in my exams," he said, still beaming.
"But didn't you get like 30+ position in class?" I asked, in my head, of course.
He then let out the bombshell:
"What did your dad get you? You did come in 2nd."

I felt ashamed and looked down.
"Er, I got caned." Silence.

"What???" He was incredulous, and almost laughing.
"What kind of dad do you have? If I'd scored 2nd, my dad would have bought me...." He couldn't think of anything. I guess he all he wanted was a Raleigh bike. LH was not a greedy fella, maybe why his dad doted on him.

I did not answer, quietly fingering my thigh where the cane marks were still fresh.

Well, that's my dad. His message to me was: if I had scored 1st in one term, I should have gotten 1st again in the next term. If not, anything else was considered a step back, a failure. What my dad didn't consider was that the girl who topped the class most of the time was always miles ahead of us boys. Her final term 2nd spot in P3 was but a blip that I somehow managed to create. I was so happy about it at the time. Being 2nd was normal and quite an achievement over the other competitive boy, CY. Together, the three of us would always score 1st, 2nd, 3rd. Another girl, PC, would occupy the 4th place.

I don't take credit for my good results. An elder sister should because she was always the one to push me to study hard and practice more. I would rather go exploring outdoors or fly a kite. But I do learn things pretty quickly in terms of studies.

Mini, not Chopper
The bike that I actually owned as a kid was called a Mini Bike. It was like the Schwinn Deluxe Stingray (also known as the Stingray Mini). The Schwinn Mini bike was an icon in the U.S. at the time. The Raleigh Chopper was the swinging bike icon on the other side of the Atlantic, popular in the UK as well as in Asia and elsewhere in the Commonwealth. Because of its popularity, bike-makers in Taiwan and Malaysia soon made copies to sell. These bikes looked exactly like the original right down to the Raleigh Co brand plate in front. But instead of the 'RC' monogram lettering, it would be 'ER' (if from Taiwan) or 'Kris' (if from Malaysia). 'ER' stood for Eagle Rider. The other parts of the  bike would spot words like 'Joker', 'Champion' or an abashed 'Chopper'. I've seen one that read 'Chooper'. Later, I found out that the Stingray Grey Ghost model had suspensions and a small front wheel like the original Raleigh Chopper. (See pictures below.)

In 1958 Canada, the Raleigh Chopper was sold for C$59.99. I've never wondered why the Chopper was the Chopper but here it is: In the late 50s, folks started modifying the bicycle with motorcycle parts. They raised the handlebars, put in a banana seat, made the front wheel smaller, the back wheel thicker. All these features were similar to those found on chopper motorbikes.

Vespa cousin
The Chopper design story is quite similar to the other icon of the 70s: the Vespa. That scooter was created out of the vestiges of WWII and was inspired by airplane designs, i.e. the small wheels, single front fork and body casing. These histories remind me of the little boys in my neighbourhood today (more so the Malay boys, I notice). They would take a normal bike and add motorcycle parts like farings and seats to make it look like one. The bike they often use is the China lady bike with a curvy double crossbar. A popular brand is Junqi. The kids would often add an air horn that is powered by an inflated 2-litre softdrinks PET bottle.

First suspension bike
In 1976 when I had moved to another place, I wanted a Chopper but my dad bought me another bike instead. This bike was one of the first to have front and rear suspensions, and had a flatter but curved banana seat (which looked more like a stretched piece of naan). So maybe it should have been known as the bike with the naan seat. It'd cost $160 back then. I liked its modern copper-orange color but that bike was very heavy to carry, partly due to the fact that even its front wheels had drum brakes. The new suspension springs and thicker than normal tires added to the weight as well. It was indeed a mountain bike kind of mountain bike even before people even knew about mountain bikes. Plus it had those Scrambler bike handles, a precursor of those used in BMX bikes). Besides the term 'scramber', these bikes were known as motorcross ones as well. In any case, I loved my Scrambler bike as much as I loved my Mini bike. It was indeed able to handle riding in the mud very well.

As I got my mountain bike, my brother got his Raleigh racer, which my dad had bought from an old bike shop in Joo Chiat Road. For a long time, this shop still had a Chopper bike promotional sign hanging in its lobby from its heydays in the 70s. It could still be there - if the shop had not sold out and become another sleazy karaoke joint in the area.

Restoring Choppers
Sometime in the early 2000s, I was itching to hands-on again and so decided to start a hobby restoring Raleigh Choppers - perhaps as compensation for missing out on owning one. And to start, I needed an old bike to restore.

At the time, I knew reconditioned Chopper bikes were being sold at a shop along Bukit Merah near that famous seafood restaurant. I say 'reconditioned' because not all the bikes there came with proper parts. Some had new types of brakes, some had new tires without the famous Chopper signature color band at its side. They sold for between $700-$1200. I left that shop feeling disappointed and even more determined to do a better job than they did restoring the classic Chopper. What a travesty their efforts were to this icon!

Little did I know that finding spares would be a problem. A huge problem, actually. But first, I had  to find an old bike to begin the process of restoration. I found one abandoned in a dilapidated house near Keong Siak Road one day after a business meeting. Talk about fate!

A girlfriend had a van, so it was quite convenient for me to cart it away. The bike was in moderate condition. There was rust where the parts were chrome before, but still, all the nuts were original. They bore the letter R - a sure sign that this was indeed an original Raleigh bike.

The body of the bike must have been red or orange-red before it become sundried into a rust color. All the  Chopper parts were there: the gear-change lever, the rear book rack, the red reflector spot behind the seat, the tires with the red trim, and the grab bar behind the seat. All were there except for the the white band across the back of the banana seat. I would later replace that from one scrounged from a scrap bike. To my surprise, the gear-change lever worked. But the rear Sturmey-Archer gearhub was stucked; it would need some work I recall telling myself. I've always loved the Sturmey-Archer gear hub and found it superior to the external derailleur used in most bikes now. A Sturmey-Archer is self-contained and needs little  maintenance, so it will last and last. Many bikes from Holland and Japan use them. I still keep an expanded mechanical drawing of the gear hub. It is an astonishing mechanical feat. Presently, someone has gone a step further and invented an auto transmission gear hub for bicycles. It would be sweet to get my hands on one.

Hunting for spares
Restoring the bike was the easy bit. But as mentioned earlier, it was finding the spares that was difficult. But the search was fun and enlightening. I found some great old bike shops and talked to some wonderful shop owners. I also discovered some interesting bikes along the way. At an old shop in Waterloo Street, the owner thought he still had some old tires in his store. He said I could have it for free. He also showed me a real beauty of a bike, an actual Stingray Mini that was modified with the banana seat being supported by two cylinder-suspension units. It was golden yellow in color and had a white seat - all quite similar to that local Mini bike that I had. What a beauty!

At Race Course Road, a bike shop did not have the tires. It had instead some rather retro-looking brake lines.

The owner of a shop in nearby Owen Road was impressed by my effort. I, in turn, was impressed by his range of bikes that were mostly targeted at foreigners with cash to dole out. Among these was a pink Lady Schwinn Stingray Beach Cruiser with matching saddle bags. The owner, like some of the bike shop proprietors I've met or was going to meet, continued to have a love affair with bikes from the 70s even though that era had ended decades ago.

A quaint old shop I came across was located in Lower Delta. Its signboard was hand-painted and still bore a picture of the Chopper. Sadly the old couple there did not have any spares. But they did have an abandoned Chopper on the lawn outside. It was quite a sad and distressing sight. The bike was too far gone to rescue.

A great find/Mini Chopper
I next visited an old shop in Crawford Street, one that I had come across many times while visiting the nearby Golden Mile Food Center (the one with the army-gear shops). They have been there since a long long time ago. If not them, I was wondering, who else would have had some spares left still? Or at least know of someone who did?

At first, I was a bit disappointed because they said they did not deal with the original Raleigh Chopper but with its many imitations instead, i.e. those from Taiwan or Malaysia. But despair soon turned to joy when the lady confided in me that they had found two mint-condition Kiddy Choppers in a dark corner of one of their warehouses. She asked me if I wanted them. I did not even have to see them to say yes, but I said "You have them here?" A rustle at the back and out came the two mini Choppers.

Frankly, for those of you who have not seen the kiddy version of the Raleigh Chopper, I could have sold you on these two little wonders. They were made from Taiwan but were the exact replica of the original Raleigh Chopper sans the gear-change lever. (Because of their smaller size they did not have the rear gear hub, hence the absence of a gear-change lever.)

Plainly put, they each were a mini version of the Raleigh Chopper. Bikes that were sized just right for a 7 or 8 year old as opposed to the 10 or 11 pre-adolescent for the actual Chopper.

The problem was that the actual Raleigh kiddy Chopper did not look anything like its big brother. It was pretty ugly, to be honest. So, these two Taiwanese-made clones were pretty special. They were then, and even more so now. These two cute bikes even had those colorful handle tassels that the original Chopper came with. How disbelievingly accurate was that? And how cool that they are now mine?

So I quickly said yes and brought the bikes home. They had no problem fitting inside my big Hyundai van.

In the end, I kept one bike and sold the other to a fellow avid collector. Needless to say, he was over the moon with it. But he was quite the grateful fellow and gave me a few stick-on Raleigh badges that were of  the present-day design but yet reminiscent of the original ones - just in case the old badges were too damaged to be restored.

Modified bikes
How did I know what the actual Kiddy Chopper bike looked like? I researched on the Web and also found one at an old bike shop in Syed Alwi Road. This bike shop reminded me of the old shops in Geylang. In fact the building itself reminded me of those in my old neigbourhood. Further down the road were more bike shops. Talking to the customers, I soon found out that these shops made a thriving business out of modifying normal bikes to run on gas. This was before e-bikes became popular or had more models for consideration. Their modified bikes could go at speeds of more than 70 kph! Quite dangerous given that these bikes were not meant to run that fast nor had the disc brakes to do the braking job effectively. And as I witnessed later along Lavender Street, the bike chain would snap when the bike ran at top speed. Some poor shod could be walking around with his toes missing or foot mangled!

A chrome beauty
Probably the most interesting bike shop I came across was in Balestier. It was in the same row of shophouses as the famous tau sar piahs. The owner was a middle-aged man who also serviced motorbikes. He wore a singlet and his arms were greasy and oil-stained. When we got to talking about Choppers his tired eyes became animated. He took me inside his shop and stopped amid a row of new bikes. One bike was covered by fuzzy plastic. He threw that back. Underneath was a shiny and sparkling Raleigh Chopper all plated in chrome! CHROME!??

A Raleigh Chopper fully chromed? Yes, that was how much an owner loved his bike. He even bought it a rather swanky gear-change lever from Holland. Now, how sweet is that?

New generation Chopper
In 2004, twenty-five years after the original Raleigh Chopper ended production, a new Chopper was introduced. It was one of the most anticipated bicycle launches ever. But I found it a disappointment. It had a simulated banana seat (a normal bike seat with an added extension to give it a banana profile) and the gear-change lever was located on the handlebars instead of the old place. The reasons they gave were for modernity and safety, but i think they missed a chance to create an Apple moment, you know, when the masses would go gaga over a one-of-a-kind product. If you want to create an original again, don't fiddle with the parts that people loved most about it. Enhance them instead. This, they did not do.

Whenever I see a chopper bike, I am reminded of my friend LH and the circumstance in which he got his bike. I am also reminded of the different dads we both had. I've often wondered what if our places were switched, how his father would reward me with my good school results. But then again, if you were not made to aim high, you could hardly leave the ground. So, in a way, I am glad to have a demanding father. But for sure, I wished he had, that semester, patted me on the back and said "Well, son, you've tried your best. Now go enjoy your new Raleigh Chopper!" Ta-da! Unveiling my reward with a flourish. Haha, that was good for a  grin and fake cherish of a moment. With my dad, it would never happen. I would just have to study harder. And that, I suppose, would be his not-so-great legacy for me.

Next story: Unforgettable Teachers; Who designed the Chopper? http://www.bikebiz.com/news/read/i-designed-the-chopper-argues-cambridge-inventor/03035

(Next to the Tomawan pix (2nd, below) was a pristine original Chopper I saw in a shop in Waterloo Street in 2012)










My Tomawan Chopper kid bike was probably copied after Raleigh's Tomahawk (see below). 
But I think I still prefer the Tomawan. It's more faithful in design to the original Chopper! This one
was spotted at the Children Little Museum, Singapore. (The hump design of the seat is to prevent the bike from tilting back, a danger complained by parents.)



Monday, August 22, 2011

Dog Bite Porridge

I've mentioned earlier in another blogpost the kinds of memorable food from my childhood. But there is one dish that I did not say much about that is close to my heart: Shredded Chicken Porridge.

I am Cantonese, and like the Teochew, we like our porridge. But there is a difference. Unlike the watery Teochew moi, Cantonese porridge is more robust (thicker) and full of ingredients. The porride is often cooked with different types of pork meats and innards. Century egg and salted egg would be added too. At times, the porridge is served with a platter of sang yue or raw fish - altogether a very heartwarming and appetizing affair.

I know of only one good Cantonese porridge place in a hawker centre in the whole of Singapore and that is Hai Kee Famous Porridge at Amoy Street Food Centre (#01-45). I can guarantee you that it will be different from any porridge you have tasted. They also serve the raw fish platter as mentioned before. Quite cheap given today's inflationary prices. It is normal practice to crack an egg into the porridge before serving. Tell them if you want it like that. This will give the porridge added robustness and a yolky flavour.

When I was growing up in Geylang, my mom often liked to cook us kids Duck Neck porridge. It is what the name implies. Duck necks were the often discarded parts of a roast duck. It still is, actually. Roast duck rice sellers would either give them away or sell them dirt cheap. Some people do not like the neck part for fear of antibiotic and such other growth inducing injections to the duck, but necks are often just as flavourful as the rest of the duck. Maybe more so. There's precious little meat but there is a whole lot of skin. And if the duck is herbal roasted or stewed, man, that neck is super succulent! Herein lies the secret: Roast duck necks are actually very good as snacks to go along with a beer or a glass of sake. If you like, glaze it with honey and sprinkle it over with sesame seeds; then roast it a little in the oven . This will give it added sweetness and aroma and cement its status  further as a special  finger food.

Into Duck Neck porridge go peanuts, century egg, duck meat, parsley, fish cake slices, etc. It is highly delectable and I often wonder why no one seem to sell it at the hawker centres. Duck necks are, after all, still cheap and freely available from the rice stall sellers. They might charge you 50 cents for one or a few dollars for a whole bag. It is seriously value-for-money! The Hainanese has also embraced this Duck Neck porridge and they can cook up a pretty good one as well.

Porridges are not just for sick people. I find eating porridge useful for revitalising one's taste buds, especially after a bout of outside-of-home eating. It somehow feels detoxicating. I used to have a Dutch colleague who said that only old people in his country ate porridge. Well, if they had expanded upon their culinary skills, they could have had more types of yummy porridge to enjoy! In other places of the world, porridge is often oatmeal, not soggy rice.

The porridge that gets to my heart always and which reminds me of a childhood incident is gai see juk or Shredded Chicken Porridge. A man who lived at the first house of a row of kampong houses in Lor 17 used to sell it from his mobile cart. We would often have it for supper and my mom would send me down with a metal pot to 'tapow' (pack) it back, often with an egg for added flavour and nutrition. His gai see juk is not like the pale imitations of today, which taste more like porridge with pieces shredded chicken thrown in. His had subtle chicken flavour and a whole lot of ginger. The ginger acted like lemon on fish and brought out the sweet aroma of the chicken porridge. It was also uplifting and refreshing, this smell of ginger.

I didn't have such kind of porridge again until years later when I took up scuba diving in the later part of the 90s. We trained at the pool in Raffles Institution in Bishan and afterwards, would accompany the instructor and fellow trainees to a bit of supper. A popular place was Swee Kee Chicken Rice opposite Novena. They served chicken porridge too.

The first time were were there, we were hungry and cool. Cool because we had spent like some two hours plus in the pool. We all looked forward to something warm and filling. It didn't matter what that was.

A warm bowl of porridge sounded like a good option and so I ordered one. At Swee Kee, they have a jar of condiment that they leave on each table. It is minced garlic-ginger in sesame scallion oil. When the porridge came, I took two big wallops of it and mixed it in my porridge. My, oh, my. That aroma of ginger and chicken wafed in the air and transported me back to Geylang all those years ago. Back to Lor 17, standing there watching the uncle throw ginger and chicken shreds into my family pot and then scooping porridge into it. I kicked myself for not knowing the popular Swee Kee eatery earlier.

Since then, whenever I want to eat succulent gai see juk, I'd always tapow from Swee Kee's. I would make sure those packets of porridge each had a big wallop of that garlic-ginger condiment. It makes a whole world of difference!

Now, rediscovering my favourite gai see juk is one thing. I've also rekindled memories of a time when I suffered an ignominious injury because of that. I was as usual, walking in the backlanes of my area when I came upon a huge Alsatian dog. Unlike most Alsatians, this one liked to bark and growl. The owner (that porridge seller) kept him on a leash. But sadly that leash was just an inch too long that day. As I tried to squeeze past that dog in the narrow backlane, it lunged. It bit my ass leaving two neat and small puncture holes. I held back my tears and tried not cry, and slowly ambled my way home, which was just a short backlane away.

After reaching home, I dared not tell my parents for fear of being scolded, so I rubbed Zam Buk on the wounds and tried my best not to show that I had a sore bum. But a few TV shows later, I was convinced I would catch rabies and so confessed. I told my sister first and then we told our mum. She, of course, was pretty livid. But mostly she was concerned. She brought me to Phang Clinic (our family doctor near Lor 27) and there I received an injection for tetanus. I am not sure if I was ever given a shot for rabies. In any case, I think that has no cure after a certain stage (like foaming at the mouth). I felt much better and was able to sit at the dinner table with half an ass without having to explain really hard why.

Next story: A Chopper Legacy

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Crazy Aunties

The house that I moved into at Geylang Sims Avenue was previously occupied by my grandma, uncles and aunties. They were in their teens then, the youngest being eight or more years older than I was. Their family background is a bit complicated. I call them my uncles and aunties but they are actually my mom's adopted family. My mother's parents perished soon after the war and she was left in the care of a good friend of her dad's. In those uncertain times back then, it was normal to have sworn sisters and brothers so you could guarantee some future for your own children should something untoward happened to you.

My uncles and aunties real parents also passed away early in that Geylang house, why subsequently, the tenants after us would complain that it was terribly haunted. They would often see a man and woman in their 40s appear in the hallways. Perhaps that one time when I saw a pair of ghosts was actually them.

My aunties' mom passed away because of cancer, so her sister-in-law took over as mother to her children. They all treated her like a mother but called her "say ku" or fourth aunt.

Into this mix was an aunty from my father's side. She stayed with us for a while. Her stay didn't last long because she was rather insane. My mom often told us how at certain times of the month, this aunt would remove her sanitary pad and showed it around, asking (in Cantonese): "Eh, why like that one?" -even when you were busy cooking over a wok.

This brood of uncles and aunties from my mother's side consisted of three sons and two sisters. There was another son but he committed suicide with his girlfriend soon after his parents disapproved of them dating. Back then parents were very strict about such a thing while still studying. It was a pity because that boy was a brilliant student. The other boys in the family were also a studious lot and loved to read and play chess. The eldest seemed to have the greatest potential and my mom was asked to sacrificed her own studies so she could work and help send him and the others to school. She shouldn't have because he was quite the ingrate, never quite repaying my mom for her sacrifice. My mom was intelligent so she could have made something more of herself if she had the chance to finish school.

In those days, studious people tended to have a rather narrow outlook in life. They also had poor people skills and most times think the world should all behave in a certain way. I think my uncle took it as his birth-right that people should help him through school.

Unlike my uncles, my eldest aunt was a talkative person who was very witty and had an opinion on almost any subject. She was the one who dated this guy from a tailor shop near Gay World and who drove a Mini. We often accompanied her as little chaperons.

One day, at our home, she ushered us children into a room. It must have be a Chinese New Year holiday or something because we had other children visiting also. We thought she was going to teach us a new game or tell us a story. Instead she whipped out her cigarettes and proceeded to light one up. She then passed it to me. "Take a puff," she said. Whoah! I was surprised. Is this really happening?

My dad smoked but he was very adamant that we didn't. That made me very curious. Many a times, when my dad sent me out to buy cigarettes from a neighbouring Mama store, I was tempted to light one up but didn't. The closest was to put one to my lips and pretended. Now, finally given the opportunity to smoke one, I took it and puffed. I think I choked and coughed almost immediately. Tears welled up in my eyes. It was altogether quite terrible!

The other kids took turns to puff. Our decision was unanimous: Smoking tasted awful! How can anyone smoke such a foul thing!

My aunt laughed and took back what was left of the cigarette. "See," she said, and wagged a finger. "This is why you all shouldn't smoke." I think she made her point that day. I am grateful because that unpleasant moment of smoking stuck forever with me. Not once was I ever tempted to start. Not in school, not in the army during National Service.

The only thing I tried a few times was a cigar. And that was because it was a bit of a craze in the late 90s, together with wine appreciation. Even girls smoked cigars then, preferring the slim ones.

So I was only five when I started smoking and stopped.

Another aunty that was rather unusual was this lady who was a good friend of my mom's. She lived in Bedok along Lor Haji. Her husband was a pharmaceutical rep so they were pretty well-off. They stayed in a single-storey bungalow not far from a big kampung there. Going to their place was like driving into a jungle. And because the house was surrounded by vegetation, mosquitoes abound after sundown. We often had to take a cab there and bring along "mun yau", which was a tiny bottle of Axe brand medicated oil good for bites as well as a repellent.

This aunty had a daughter. I always remember her as someone very pale and skinny. According to my mom, she was always having terrible periods, why she was often pale and weak. The last time I saw her was at a Pre-U seminar in the old Nanyang University campus. I wonder how she is doing now, if she still looked as pale as a vampire (great for a role in Twilight) and if she still suffered from menorrhagia. Kind of ironic and tragic for a vampire to suffer from that disorder, actually.

I think a reason for her being so weak could be that her mom had not wanted her in the first place. When she was pregnant with this 'cousin' of mine, she actually wanted to abort the child. Apparently she and her hubby didn't get on very well. He travelled often because of his work and she didn't quite like that. This aunty was rather pretty in a vivacious way. She had one of those beehive hairdo  popular with many Hong Kong actresses then, coiffure like those worn by Siu Fong Fong and Chan Poh Chu. She also liked to dress in designer pant suits, altogether quite the "happening" chick in those days.

The way she went about her abortion was classic. Instead of going to a doctor about it, she decided to climb and jump off a coconut tree. Staying near a big kampung like that big one in Jalan Haji in Bedok meant she was not short of coconut trees to choose from. And she choose did. Another method she tried was to eat copious amounts of pineapple. This method was common folklore then. In the end, I don't know what happened, but my 'cousin' was born. She was a sickly baby and grew up so. The only consolation was that her dad dealt in drugs and could give her free medicines for her condition.

Because my aunties were older, they kind of adopted me and my brother as godchildren. The eldest aunty doted on my brother while my youngest aunty wanted to do likewise with me. But I had have enough of crazy aunties and resisted. Besides, she was too nice and pretty. I just couldn't see her as aunty material. Nope.

Related story: Book of Life and A Firecracker Fight Next story: Dog Fight Porridge

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Static Baby

People sometimes liked to categorise themselves as 'morning persons' or 'night persons'. For a long time, I believed I belonged to the latter. My mom would agree. She said as a child, I was hard to put to sleep. One time, she got so exasperated that she simply sat me in front of the TV and went to bed. This happened not just once; I do remember watching much static well into the dead of night on several occasions.

Was this healthy? Did it impair my visual cortex?

I don't know and don't YET know. What I do know is that whenever I needed to do my homework from school, I had to have the TV on. It could be Math, Science or English... I could still get it done and yet follow the storyline on screen. Later in adult working life, I discovered that I could multi-task pretty well. The world outside could be falling apart yet I could design a tuner, test two TVs for color difference and talk to HQ overseas on the phone. Maybe that's the reason why I became a TV engineer early on in my career. Perhaps all TV engineers are like me.

I worked for Thomson TV and one time I was sent to Indianapolis in the U.S. to help troubleshoot a problem. Guess what? All the engineers there each had a 9-inch TV on their desk. They could be watching a Super Bowl game or a Michael Jackson music video... Nobody cared. As long as you do your assigned work, YOU COULD WATCH TV THE WHOLE GODDAMN DAY. I felt I had finally found my commune; to finally be among the other static babies from the rest of the world.

Of course, the joy did not last. I had to come home to Singapore. But that experience assured me that it was alright to be a static baby. Like an equaliser, we could tune ourselves to be receptive to many inputs. It didn't have to be sight or sound alone.

As a baby sitting in front of static, that was what I did. I could see the static but I was hearing my dad snore. I heard the static but saw my siblings all sound asleep. I watched and heard the static but saw shadows from the street below pan across our bedroom wall. Yes, it was static, but it did not matter. It was night and night with its peculiar noises and slideshow.

It is weird to be remembering all these when I cannot even remember my old girlfriends' telephone numbers... Numbers that I'd dialled often and meant so much. So why is it so difficult to recall them? Are they sealed up in a mind-vault once the relationship is over? I wonder if women have the same trouble.

With the advent of TV many women also use the medium as a babysitting tool. My mom would feed us while we watched cartoons on TV when we were very young. I particularly remembers the evenings or cartoon time. According to her, we were easier to feed like that.

We watched cartoons after school and we watched cartoons on Saturday mornings. I think these are universal activities amongst kids from all over the world, even today. Ask any TV programmer and they would probably admit to the same thing.

What cartoons did we watch? Mostly the Hanna-Barbera ones like Scooby Doo, The Flintstones, The Jetsons, Tom & Jerry, Quick Draw McGraw, Penelope Pitstop, Mr Magoo, and Yogi Bear. We also had The Pink Panther by Fritz Freleng, an absolute gem. I liked watching Top Cat also because its initials were similar to mine (when I was in NS later, people nicknamed me Top Cat). Then there's the Warner Bros gang of Road Runner and the Coyote. Or Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. ('Rabbit Season' was a top classic featuring the both of them in a "Shoot me now or shoot me later" pronoun tussle.)

And boy, did we love Ultraman. Every now and then, Ultraman would fight a different monster. But the same thing always happened: The fight is prolonged, Ultraman's energy is sapped, he fights as if life hangs by a thread. He then escapes into the sun to refuel, returns to fight the monster again, and defeats the creature.

We kids identified with Ultraman because of all that. No matter how difficult the situation, we would become superhuman and overcome whatever obstacles that stand in our way. Crossing our arms like Ultraman might not provide us with an energy beam but reaching for the sun gave us renewed hope and energy. In any case, that's how I saw it in my later years. But as a kid, you get suckered into watching Ultraman suffer and comeback stronger each time. The monsters were also stupid. You know they will die in the end no matter what special powers they possessed, or how ridiculous their claws/tentacles were.

Do you know that Ultraman weighs 35,000 tons? Can run at 450 kph? Or that his energy is only 3-5 minutes long? Thanks to the World Wide Web, I now know these facts. But back then, these facts weren't quite explained. And come on, Ultraman's energy was way longer than the five mins before his chest light blinkers on and off as a warning that his battery is low. (At last count, Ultraman had over 30 special powers).

But the biggest attraction of Ultraman back then was that you could be someone else by just squeezing on some sort high-tech stick. In the story, it was always some kind of baton with a button much like a light saber without the light. Later, this evolved to become gun shaped.

I also learned later that once in a while this 'baton' would be passed on and a new type of Ultraman would be introduced. To date, there have been 29 of them. The 30th - Ultraman Saga - will be introduced next year in 2012. I also didn't know that over the years there had been fake Ultramans. Creatures that looked like some sort of Ultraman but were evil. He is often enhanced by some dark color in his costume or some evilly shaped eyes. No more the salted egg (ham tan) look. In Hong Kong, Ultraman is known as ham tam chew yan or salted egg superhero. This is in reference to his bulging white/yellow eyes.

The good news is that Ultraman is still popular amongst kids after all these 45+ years. You can still buy and collect various VCDs and DVDs of his exploits. Watching them now as an adult, I also begin to wonder why I ever liked McGyver so much. It looks very predictable and dated now. But not for Ultraman. The cast changes, the Ultraman transforming baton is passed on to the next generation, cities look a little more modern (but still burned and flattened by the monsters in the end), and Ultraman's brothers come and help defeat the invading monster and chuck it back into space. The stories still stand tall in our minds just as Ultraman did in the 70s in all his 40 metres before flying into the sun.

The stories were also no different from any formulaic Indian movie, why I think Ultraman the TV show beats McGyver any time. And kids being kids, they will never outgrow such primitive story premises. Good Vs Bad; Weak Becomes Strong; Struggle Becomes Success. Good-Triumphs-In-The-End.

You might say McGyver is a hero but he is also OCD (obsessive-compulsive) when it came to solving problems with gadgets. As a character, he is ripe for a parody. I wonder why nobody has done it yet.

I have watched TV till static come on and then some. What I've learnt is that if you are selective about what you watch, you can learn a hell lot more than reading a book. Call it "programmed video education"; we all do it, don't we? Watch TV to keep up with popular culture, for instance. When I was in Public Relations, I did just that. How else could you  relate better to a client in a light moment? Talk about families? Nah.

And the information could come in handy when savvying up a speech for a top CEO.

So, I am glad I am a Static Baby. I've watched a lot of TV for the right reasons but mostly, it is because I am a night person. The VCR and now DVD recorder has helped. But for the moment it is Blogspot that leads me into the dead of night. PC monitor static, anyone?

Next story: Crazy Aunties

Friday, August 19, 2011

Head Tunes

You know how ditties are: once they get inside your head, they will grip never let go. It's what folks these days term an "earworm". I have a ditty which I have been singing since I was five or seven. It's in Cantonese and is about a man who one day, while having satay along Beach Road, thought he saw an old flame and decided to approach her. He then got beaten up by her male companions and even lost his job over the incident. He also recounted how he and this girl named Molly first met and fell in love. The war then came and they lost touch with one another afterwards.

Surprisingly, this ditty did not come from Hong Kong which for a time was very caught up with playful and parody tunes. Cheng Kwan Yin (Min) was the king of this period. He was comparable to the fame of Weird Al Jankovic in the 80s (well, at least in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia).

Cheng's songs were not just about funny lyrics set to a popular tune - they were also about witty conversations between two people... Why Cheng often sang with a partner, usually female. These conversations could be about anything under the sun. A famous one was about getting a treat of roast duck from a friend (which later became a song about fat ladies learning to play football in a hotel and then falling into a river). Or about why a couple should go to a teahouse for tea and a dance. There's even a song about having a salted-egg (ham tan) meal!

These light-hearted tunes first appeared in the late 50s and early 60s and quite a few had Cha-Cha and Ah-Go-Go rhythms with them. For a kid, tunes with such funny lyrics like Body Full of Ants (Cantonese, chow sun ai) or Please Walk Faster (hang fai di ler wei) were hilarious and offered countless hours of priceless repeat singing and play-acting.

I supposed I shouldn't have been surprised to learn that this particular Cantonese ditty in my head all these years was not actually from Hong Kong but Singapore.

When I again set eyes on that album cover (with the National Theatre icon as backdrop no less) after so many decades, I was immediately taken back to those lazy Sunday or Saturday afternoons when my mom or dad would put on a record or two. We had a record player that was set in a cabinet. It also had a built-in radio. (See pics below)

The cabinet was of two levels: Two sliding panels on top, and a pull-down door below. It was longish and low and had those short slim round legs that pointed out and capped with brass - a very typical design feature in those days to protect the wooden legs from mopwater on the floor. It was all very typical '60s design that was part classic, sedustive, and rather full of swanky attitude with its tin-strip trims at the edges. I still am enamoured with such furniture today. They really break the boxy designs of today's unimaginative pieces.

That unforgettable tune I mentioned earlier had a title. It was called Tam Sha Lei, the nickname of the character in the song. The other indelible song in my head was Hawaii Five-O. "Tat tat tat tat da daa...tat tat tat tat tat daa...." As a kid, Jack Lord's suaveness was what I aspired to. Growing up, I never did forget this tune nor Lord's 'curry-puff' hairdo. (Aren't you glad that there is now a brand new Hawaii Five-O series? You can watch it with your grand-kids and when they become old, they can also think back to the time they spent with you humming that irresistible theme music like you did when you were young with your parents!)

Some other records we played frequently were Russ Hamilton's We Will Make Love, Skeeter Davis's End of the World, Elvis Priestly's Blue Hawaii. A Mandarin record that held a special place in our hearts was Xiao Bai Chuan or Little White Boat. It had that classic song Ma Ma Hao or Mother is Best. Like the rest, Xiao Bai Chuan was a 45 rpm record. Only Presley's a 33 rpm because he simply had too many songs.

Quite a few Chinese singers also crossed over to sing in English, at times simply replacing the words in Mandarin with English. One particular creation went like this:

To you I have a thing called Love.
It is always in my heart.
I recall I fell in love when we met I knew...
But why did you keep ignoring me,
Makes me feel that I'm so alone.

My love for you is true that I know,
Please don't make me feel blue.

Another one was:

All pretty flowers bloom in the month of Spring
And by the riverside we see lovers stroll
Under the tree they sat and kissed,
You and I are in the Wonderland of Love.

Think of the love we gave
when we're all in love
My love is true that I know
But you changed your mind
You found a new sweetheart
Oh, oh, no I'm not what I was before
Oh, oh, no I'm not what I was before

I think the above two songs worked very well as transplanted creations (not an easy thing to do). People have tried it with Cantonese opera with disastrous results!

There were also a few international English hits that got inside our heads. Two in particular: Butterfly and Will The Circle Be Unbroken. Apparently Butterfly was a song made famous by Danyel Gerard in the 70s but got rewritten and sung by Jim Ed Brown. Here's the one from my childhood:

You are bright as a night full of moon
Butterfly you have left much to soon
You have found you have wings and now you wish to fly
Please don't go, oh please don't say good bye.

Butterfly, my Butterfly now I know you must be free
Butterfly, don't flutter by, stay a little while with me.

In your mind there's someone far away
And you'll miss all the fun if you stay
You believe that love is elsewhere to be found
But you're wrong, it's here, just look around.

Butterfly, my Butterfly now I know you must be free
Butterfly, don't flutter by, stay a little while with me.

Look around, look around and you'll see
Better loved then by me you won't be
And if you fly away you break my heart in two
Please don't go -- I'm so in love with you.

Butterfly, my Butterfly now I know you must be free
Butterfly, don't flutter by, stay a little while with me.
Butterfly, my Butterfly now I know you must be free
Butterfly, don't flutter by, stay a little while with me.
Butterfly, my Butterfly now I know you must be free
Butterfly, don't flutter by, stay a little while with me. 

Please wait for me don't fly away...

Popular movies also played a huge part in filling our heads with Pop culture tunes. And they got further ingrained when we performed them for school assembly time. For my school, assembly time was always on a Monday at the start of the week. It is usually peppered with talks either by the principal or teacher or guest (e.g. a talk on health). It was also a time for classes to perform on stage.

One time, when it was my class' turn to perform, we decided to do a rendition of the theme song We May Never Love Like This Again from the  movie Towering Inferno. Well, you can imagine the hoohah that arose when we kids decided to sing such an 'adult' song. But we stuck to our guns and the teacher in charge had no choice but to acquiesce. In any case, we put in many hours of practice and sang our hearts out on that appointed day. Our teachers and fellow students responded enthusiastically. You could say we brought the house down! But thankfully, it was brought down with applause, not fire (haha). It was also quite poignant because it was our last year in school. So, We May Never Love Like This Again was like a farewell tribute to our strict but caring teachers. I remember feeling adult singing that song too, tearing a bit each time we came to the words "Don't stop the flow, we can't let go..."

Come to think of it, the song's lyrics were very apt for the occasion, not so for a burning, flaming building.

I think the reason we chose that song was because the school had brought us to watch that movie during a school cinematic excursion. We didn't go to any of the big fancy cinemas but a makeshift, tentaged one with benches and chairs. There was no aircon... But we didn't really minded. We were just glad that the doors were only flaps. If a fire did break out (like in the movie), we could all run out and not be burnt inside to an agonised crisp. That excursion was one priceless education in fire safety and evacuation!

Our other song choice was Scot McKenzie's San Francisco. "If you are going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair..."

A teacher also changed The October Cherries' Beautiful Sunday to Beautiful Monday; her goal being that school on Monday was something to look forward to. The lyrics went something like: "Monday morning up with a smile. I think I'll go to school for a while. Hey hey hey, it's a beautiful day! I've got a teacher waiting for me and I know what she's going to say. Hey hey hey, it's a beautiful day!")

Years later, when I started researching these songs of my youth, I came to learn a few things. One, Tam Sha Lei sounded much faster when I heard it as a kid. And when Russ Hamilton sang, "I will buy you the moon", he actually meant he would buy his girl an engagement ring. It's an Irish euphemism.

Like most people, I sang London Bridge Is Falling Down, Sing A Song Of Sixpence, Mary Had A Little Lamp, Ten Little Indians, etc., etc., as a young child. But the little ditty that brought me the most pleasure and enjoyment was Tam Sha Lei. I would often hum it when I needed cheering up like when National Service training got lonely and tough. Or when I needed reminding that I am Cantonese. This was particularly the case after a long period of backpacking in Europe. It could be that the song's humour paralleled mine (I could write funny poems with computer code even). Or it could be that whatever happened, it was Que Sera Sera, what will be, will be - just like what happened to the poor Mr Tam Sha Lei.

Note: By right, Tam Sha Lei should be pronounced as "Ham Sha Lei" - 'ham' being salty in Cantonese. But I've known the song as Tam Sha Lei since childhood, so I am keeping it as such. Next story: Static Baby

In mid 2014, I received a box of records from my brother. I had thought they were lost forever. He was moving house again and decided not to keep them. He then returned them to my mom who knew I wanted to collect them. ;-) The collection contains some of my fave listened to ones, including those Simon Junior songs mentioned above. Songs from his Dream of Spring album and his bilingual ones from the album Fang Xin Jing Lu Shui (Young Woman's Heart Calm Like Water - direct translation). See below for pics!

Deep Deep Love song: Click here

Dream of Spring song: Click here

The record player and radio cabinet is the one on the left. It has a 'sunrise' logo.

A closer look of the cabinet with records on the left.

A Home On The Hill song: Click here








The entire 45 RPM collection (with one strangely playing at 78 RPM).





One of these is a story record!









Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Reel Surprises

Growing up as a kid in Geylang, I think I laughed more than I cried. I laughed with my buddies in the backlanes, I laughed with my buddies in school. I think I was generally a happy-go-lucky kid. My dad might seem fierce and stern most of the time, but he had his moments of levity, especially when it came to his choice of movies. I think his favourite was a series by The Crazy Boys - a French troupe of guys who often found themselves in silly situations created by the jobs they took on. It's a bit like those Hong Kong escapade movies in the 80s starring Alan Tam,  Richard Ng and the rest of the Lucky Stars gang. Or the Hui brothers comedies with two more kakis in the mix. The actors were all skinny, wore bell-bottom pants, and had long wavy hair...very typical of the times.

The movies were often named after their latest adventures, such as The Crazy Boys Go To The Supermarket or The Crazy Boys At The Games. In their own country France, they were known Les Charlots (Charlot was what Charlie Chaplin was affectionately called there). Here, we watched all their movies dubbed in English.

TCBGTTS is available on Youtube if you want to watch it again. You will understand why a kid would laugh until his sides split. The action or antics were often ingeniously contrived and their actions slapstick, much like Chaplin or Harold Lloyd. Lloyd was a fella I watched quite a bit as a kid. I found him more modern and deadpan funny than Chaplin.

As for the TCB movies, me and my siblings would watch and imitate them afterwards with cardboard boxes and blankets as props. Come to think of it, they were quite like the Monty Python gang although their stories were less ironic in humour and execution. And less gross than Jim Carrey's in the Ace Venturer series. How times have changed!

Another movie surprise my dad sprang on us was the one about copulation between animals. It was called Sex and The Animals and people often wondered why, as a kid, I was brought to see such a brazen documentary movie. My answer would always be, It's never too soon. Maybe it helped that we kept and reared pets as kids, so by age five, we knew all about birthing and dying; just not so clear about what's in-between!

Sure, we have seen dogs do it unashamedly by the roadside, sometimes stuck backside-to-backside. Sex and The Animals gave us that and more. For every sexual encounter between animals, there's always a courtship dance between  them first. Often the male being the more gregarious one. The movie wonderfully moved our understanding of domestic sexual behaviour to those in the wild (Africa).

Some of the scenes were quite memorable, like the one with the bull elephant and his super long penis that dragged on the floor. Or that scene with the frog that refused to let go long after the act was done. (The clip came complete with a 'clingy' love song.) What impressions did all these leave on a young boy? 1: Don't despair, your penis has great potential for growth. 2: That some animal babies are actually better equipped than human ones straight out of the birth channel. So, are we the superior species or are they?!

Sex and The Animals was thankfully a no holds-barred kind of documentary. I would hate for it to be a half-past-six treatment, else we kids would have learnt nothing. But (and it's a BIG but) the movie was all about animals. I was naturally curious about the human being in all this. A year or two later, the National Museum came to my educational aid. At the time (for some reason best known to the museum folks) they had a booth that played an uncompromising clip of a woman giving birth - vaginal frontal and all. It was a pretty bloody and gruesome sight. I was enraptured by how such a huge thing in a woman's belly could come out. Haha, I thought then that a woman's privates was pretty elastic. Little did I know that certain conditions made it so!

The other movies our parents brought us to watch were those with Bruce Lee or David Yu, who was recently seen in Peter Chan's Wu Xia movie. David Yu was made famous by that One Armed Swordsman movie (it's on Youtube). He later starred in The 13th Prince or Si San Tai Zi. I think it was him. I often get him and Wang Yu mixed up. They both look alike and were very popular martial art actors back then.

The one thing, however, that stuck in my mind about these sword-fighting movies were the extraordinarily cruel punishments meted out to offenders and traitors. One popular method was the Wu Ma Fen Shi (Mandarin, literally Five Horses Splitting The Body) punishment to tear a person to pieces. Sure, tying a person's limbs and head to one-horse power devices don't sound like much, but hey, it must have been a terrible sight for the family members to watch... and parts to collect afterwards. The last time I saw such cruel punishment was in the movie, The Stoning of Soraya M. I recommend it to anyone who wants to get a feel of what it would be like to live under the Taliban as a woman. Or any syaria Muslim regime, for that matter. Everything and anything can get twisted to someone's end. And it is so easy to find an excuse to stone a woman. Another movie was The Kite Runner (based on the book of the same name).

No one can escape the influence of Bruce Lee growing up in the 70s. He was a demi-god in the eyes of young Chinese boys, including me. After watching Lee's The Big Boss, I immediately wanted to go find a girl to rescue and avenge for. But then all the girls I knew were the ones in school. So, we boys often got into fights not because the argument was particularly hurtful (or had Hokkien vulgar words like cunt ni nia ma) , but we all just wanted to show how Bruce Lee we were. I think our female classmates must have scratched their heads or rolled their eyes in exasperation. Luckily, most of the fights were short. We often landed on our bums trying to perform roundhouse kicks. It was both funny and embarrassing. How to fight when the bum is sore and pants split? Ha, ha...

The cinemas we went to often were Lido (Orchard), Odeon-Katong (Katong) and Cathay (Dhoby Ghaut). We also went a couple of times to that drive-in cinema in Jurong. That was some experience watching the movie from our family's long Volvo car (see blog Boot View). During Chinese New Year, and because we had relations in Keong Siak Road, we often used our ang pow money to watch movies at the old Oriental Theatre near Chinatown. It was in the present Oriental Plaza location.

That wasn't the oldest cinema I've been to. I think the oldest ones were in JB in the 80s and early 90s before they got demolished for new urban spaces (a.k.a shopping complexes). These were similar to the one I went to in Admiralty Road East two years after I left Geylang. This cinema still had those old wooden swivel seats with PVC cushions. They were sticky and some were ripped, exposing bits of coconut husk filling. The whole place was musty and stank of urine. I was feeling wary because such seats were very susceptible to bedbugs and you would get bitten leaving with welts on the back of your legs after a show. Me and my buddies searched for some decent seats and sat down to watch what I think was the last movie for this rundown cinema. I believe it was called Canberra and it stood opposite the present Terror Camp Recreational Club.The movie we saw that day was Christine, the one about a devil-possessed car.

I think the experience for most kids going to the cinema ranks second only to going to the toy shop. Besides the movie transporting you to another time, another place, there were always the snacks and various types of kacang puteh. The white sugared peanut was a favourite amongst us siblings, as were the steamed chickpeas. Later, I learnt to eat the curry-flavoured ones.

Probably the most unforgettable movie I saw in my young life had to be Melody. It was about a couple of 10-year classmates finding romance and eventually rebelling and eloping to get married. The movie was directed by BBC old-hand Waris Hussien and screenplayed by Alan Parker (who is better known for his darker scripts). Melody was basically a movie vehicle for the many Bee Gee songs (Melody Fair, get it?) Surprisingly, people from all over the world would have the same sentiments about the movie: That it was  unforgettable, brought them back to their own childhood loves and losses, and ultimately, to a time where they spent a shared moment in the darkened hall of a cinema or TV with their moms and dads. 

They laughed, we laughed, they cried, we cried. For an hour and a half, we would forget that our parents were the strict disciplinarians they were back then. That they were just as human as we were. We felt connected, but just. With my dad, it was always only just. However, I could never fault him for some of these movie surprises up his sleeve. Or was it really my mom's idea all along? Hmm.

And oh, if you want to know which animal has the longest penis, it is the boring barnacle. It's penis is 50 times the size of its body. Yup, it goes out of the shell and gets waved about quite a bit. One hopes no fish will find it a delicacy. Amen to that.

Next story: Head Tunes

Monday, August 15, 2011

A Gay World

Besides Geylang, I also lived near two worlds: Gay World and New World.

Gay used to be such a happy word.

These days, it has connotations of sexual orientation. You can't openly say you are gay anymore even if you mean it. It is better to say "thrilled", "excited", or just plain "glad". I think glad is on its way out. It sounds rather archaic. A good test is to include the word in a rap. Somehow, any rap with the word 'glad' makes it grandmother safe. So.

In any case, growing up in Geylang, one cannot escape not going to Gay World. It was situated near Mountbatten Road end, on the side of the even lorongs opposite Lor 7. I lived on the side of the odd lorongs and would often use them as a reference. Today, the even lorong side is where you have the red light district. It begins right from where Gay World has left off.

My most vivid memories of Gay World were about shopping and the basketball and wrestling activitiess at its stadium.

Gay World at the time had a Chinese emporium called Sin Wah Emporium and my folks would bring us kids there to shop. It's your typical departmental store set up: wares displayed upon rows and rows of glass shelves. The walls paneled in mirror. Us kids liked to run between them to play peek-a-boo often getting reprimanded by our mom. "Break anything and you'll pay for it!" she would sharply say. Still, a visit to the emporium meant looking at new things from far away. We knew about China, that it was a big country somewhere across a big ocean. At the time, we thought all Chinese dressed alike, you know, in their green Mao suits; and that they probably saluted like Hitler. At one point, I thought how cool it was to have a grandfather as a leader. That genial Mao portrait was everywhere, even on collar pins.

I wore singlets to school as an undershirt and these were often bought from Sin Wah. Another garment item we bought from there were these round-neck "ah pek" tees that my dad liked to wear around the house often accompanied by just his inner shorts. These tee shirts were made of polyester but was cool to the touch. They were very popular with the uncles who manned the TCM medicine shops; it became their signature wear. Trishaw uncles also wore them, as did uncles who made and served coffee at the local kopitiams (coffeeshops). That's a lot of people saying that this garment was cheap and comfy to wear.

Today, I buy them whenever I can and use them as pajamas tops. They used to come in Rabbit brand, but the current one is Chung Tai with five sixes (66666) on its label. Man, they are cool to sleep in and do not crease as much as cotton. Very comfortable!

Us kids loved Sin Wah Emporium for its toys. Toys back then were made of tin and were often springwound for action, not battery operated. If they were, there would be flashing lights and sounds; or that they ran around a track.

During my childhood time, we began seeing more plastic toys. So our toy box was became a mix of tin and plastic playthings. Some of the toys we bought from that emporium over the years included a toy gymnast that went round and round on a single bar; a xylophone; a set of Chinese checkers; a pair of Chinese fighting swords (that were flat on one side and could fit together in the same scabbard); an inflatable beach ball with segments of colour that we brought often to Changi beach; a battery-operated red plasticky robot that shuffled along and whose chest would open with guns blaring; a twirling rattler toy for babies that made a 'klong-klong' sound (you would hang this over their beds); model airplanes of CAC, China's main airline. Oh, we bought our Airplane brand of badminton racquets, shuttlecocks and nets from Sin Wah Emporium too, including skinny ping pong bats, and balls.

There could be more but these are the ones I remember best. (And I was mightily pleased (glad?) to see all these toys and more (e.g. the old brown paper provision shop bags with red-white strings) at the Museum of Shanghai Toys in Rowell Road some years back. And some shops have started selling that soothing rattler toy again (for less than $6). Funny isn't it, how something so long ago can still be useful?!

My favourite toy was actually a stuffed dog that came in a checkered vest that seemed Scottish in design. Or looked like a bartender. It had a dachshund dog kind of face that reminded me of that famous but rather droll cartoon dog, Droopy. I think it was a detective or something. But this stuffed dog was bought from a large stall/store along the Lor 7 morning street market, not from Sin Wah. We often bought pillows and blankets from that stall/store as well. (That large 'stall/store' was a makeshift boarded up place. Maybe it was an extension to a five-foot-way shop there.)

At Sin Wah, because we were a large brood and curious, we would often lose ourselves in the store. To gather us, our dad would whistle something like a  phew-wee-wit! sound and we would all run back to him. My mom wasn't very please about it b'cos she didn't like us being herded like dogs. But in a crowded place where kids like us could only see the shoulders and backsides of adults, this kind of whistling was effective, and perhaps, reassuring.

There were many snack stalls in Gay World itself and one of the things we liked was steamed peanuts. If we could get candy floss, that was a real treat!

I think I grew up at the tail-end of Gay World's popularity. It slowly morphed into a basketball and wrestling venue, not so much for amusement and shopping... probably because of competition. Chinese emporiums were everywhere then, even one in Katong somewhere near that famous red-house bakery. The one at People's Park Complex - Ta Chung - was hugely popular for its size and range of goods. Ta Chung remained popular for a long time during which many other emporiums were being absorbed by Emporium Holdings. This company then re-branded them or opened up new ones in all the major housing estates.

As for the stadium, I went there once for a basketball match. The seats were concrete steps that ringed the court. The roof reminded me of the old hawker centres where the supports were steel girdles and thin. The place didn't look very much like an international venue, more like a club venue for boxing or badminton.

In the 50s and 60s, Gay World was known as Happy World. It was renamed in 1966. The place seemed plaqued by fires and one time, I remember cycling with my buddies to go look-see at what the fuss was all about after hearing sirens blare along main Geylang Road. The rumor was that it was started by gangsters. As a kid, I was told gangsters resided mostly in Lor 23 along Sims Avenue, not far from where I lived, actually.

When we moved from Geylang to Rangoon Road, I was already in P6 and took public bus to school. Rangoon Road was an offshoot of Serangoon Road and my way home meant alighting outside of New World along Jalan Besar and walking through its grounds. Then I would cross Serangoon Road and Race Course Road and walk along Sing Avenue before hitting home. The houses and backlanes reminded me of Geylang. It was a nice, quiet neighbourhood.

I could use Kitchener Road but hey, walking through New World was much more fun. Actually by then, New World was already in decline and the only place still open for business was an electronics arcade parlour that played 10-/20-cent games. There was also an outdoor shooting gallery that offered shots at glass bottles.

I would usually linger at the amusement centre and use up my leftover pocket money for a game of pinball, space invaders, or a bit of helicopter flying. That last activity refers to a small metallic helicopter in a clear glass cabinet, all table top. Connected to the centre by a rod, you fly the helicopter via two joysticks - one for speed, another for direction. It had realistic sound and you could land on spots that lighted up. Decades later I would find the same toy at Toys R Us. But instead of a cabinet, this time you play the helicopter on the ground over a large plastic city map. It also came with cardboard that folded into city buildings. The mechanisms of this helicopter were all the same. Boy, did it bring back those New World arcade memories!

If I was not playing at the arcade, I would go shoot bottles at the outdoor shooting gallery. Its target bottles were all strung up on strings, five to six on each one. The rifles used then were compressed-air ones supplied by a cable. The bullets were not of the pellet sort but long and compacted into a thin tube that loaded like normal ammunition. That was the only time I encountered a rifle like that. The lady who operated the stall was quite nice and would sometimes offer me extra ammunition for free. The rifle was rather heavy for a boy my age though.

At times, New World at night would turn into a pasar malam or night market. I remember buying my first and only Elvis Presley vinyl record there. My mom called him "mau wong" or The King of Cats because he always acted cool. She also liked Russ Hamilton. (We kids all learnt to sing "Oh yes, we will make love" quite loudly without realising what it meant. Or chorus "I'll buy you the moon" from that song Wedding Ring. There was also the mistakable voice of Skeeter Davis, etc., etc. They all ring loud and clear in that ancient jukebox in my head.

We stayed in Rangoon Road for a year before moving far, far away. I was sad to never have to traipsed through New World again. Its leftover amusement businesses did just that: Help a kid relax from taxing school work for one afternoon. I think I did good in my PSLE because of that. The same can be said for Gay World although it was more famous for its cabaret shows (famous HK singer Sun Ma Jai performed there in 1963 according to my mom) and Eng Wah cinema. I probably would have gone to Gay World more often had it been on my side of the street (separated by the busy main Geylang Road). But those few trips there with my family were truly special and wonderfully gay and happy moments.

Next story: Reel Surprises

Saturday, August 13, 2011

An Artful Teacher


One of my favourite classes in Mattar Primary School was Art class. We had this petite Chinese lady (Ms Chan?) who was very open in the way she taught art. It did not matter whether you were a boy or girl - everybody did what was taught. And so I learnt how to sew, knit, embroider, even crochet. Since then, I've always been glad that I was given the opportunity to learn these seemingly unmanly skills. If not for her, when would I ever get the chance learn to do all these? Knit a pair of baby booties for my first born? Nah, I don't think so. I think my in-laws would look at me funny.

This art teacher also taught us loads of other stuff. We made floor mats out of plastic matting and raffia string. We learnt to draw portraits accurately using the grid reduction/enlargement system. I produced very life-like images of QE II and Lee Kuan Yew (our then prime minister) with this method - impressive results for a 12-year old!. At that time, we were very interested in collecting stamps and quite a few in my collection bore the British royal mark and their images. But in the end, I think I took an image of the Queen from a magazine as reference.... Crown, jewels, everything!

We played around with paint quite often. Real household paints needing turpentine to wash off. We would drip-dress the insides of bottles and jars to make colorful vases out of them.

In another project we would first cover a piece of drawing paper with starch and then sprinkle paint over it by flicking the  bristles of a toothbrush with our thumbs. The paint would hit the starch and spread gently like dye in milk. We could also create twirls by dragging a satay stick through the starch; the whole scene would look like some universe filled with colorful stars and galaxies. I believe these sort of psychedelic patterns were quite popular in the 60s.

One time, we learnt to make use of black to create colour.

Sounds impossible? Actually it is quite easily done! For it to work, you would have to use crayons instead of paint. First, fill square grids on the drawing paper with color. Afterwards, cover the whole thing with black. To create patterns of multicolor, gently scratch on the surface of the blackened drawing paper; the colours beneath will show through. The only problem with this method is that we had to use a lot of black and each box of crayons only came with one. Before long, we wouldn't have enough black for another art project!

Come to think of it, this is how pixels work, turning from black into color.

The knitting was quite unusual but we did it nevertheless, learning to knit scarves. I still remember owning two aluminium knitting needles of the colour gold and twisting wool here and there over the needles like some grandmother from an Enid Blyton story.

Many a times, our projects were preserved and kept for exhibition during school Open Days. A cushion cover embroidered with two chrysanthemums was my contribution at one time. Another time, I sewed together a small stuffed elephant and sold it for $20 - a princely sum then! It came in a kit with different patches of felt. For the wool filling, I recycled stuffing from a bolster. We used real cotton back then.

There were other animal designs too and the kits were quite commonly used in class. I think you can still buy these ready made kits from art-craft stores like Dragon Superstore, which was a very popular destination for sewing/knitting enthusiasts at People's Park Centre.

Another time we were taught to make miniature furniture out of plywood. I sawed and nailed together a dresser with a stool. Despite its small size I managed to equip it with a mirror too. I made it to fit a little doll I had. I have five sisters and I learned to appreciate a pretty doll from them. We also played tea parties together. Well, when you are young, you don't think too much of these parties. And of course, someone had to play the daddy!

I did pamper this doll once when I crocheted a hat and scarf out of red wool for her. Crocheting is such a simple thing to do but doing a big piece required effort.

We also carved vegetables (potatoes/carrots were common) to use as printing blocks. I made a pillow case with a print of trees with them.

I cannot thank this art teacher enough for all the skills I've learnt from her, especially the sewing bit. It came in useful during National Service. It also came in useful as an innovation aid. So many times if a fabric cannot be glued or stapled, why not try sewing and buttoning instead? To me, surgeons sew, fashion designers sew, so it is no big thing for a guy to learn to sew.

With sewing, I've learnt to make attachments to pouches to hold handphones, torches, etc. I've also used a zipper to organise a pair of Nokia headphones; recycled a side pouch from a disused golf bag as a general carry-all; and done countless repair jobs to pants and shirts. It is really a handy skill!

I wish I knew more about this art teacher of mine. Most of all, I want to thank her for making me learn all these skills with my male and female classmates. It made me realise that such skills are not gender specific from an early age. And that is some very useful 'sex' education!

Next story: A Gay World

A redrawing of LKY portrait for classmate Sally, who remembered me drawing it! But this time drawn in marker ink. :-) An effort almost 40 years later!

Eat and Play


That sandy patch next to my school canteen (see blog Big Field Wild Fence) was where we played games like skipping, marbles and sa ku lei often during recess. Skipping was played mostly by the girls whereas marbles and sa ku lei were played by the boys. But we did have a dialect-speaking girl who was very good at sa ku lei.

Two types of marble games we played. One involved a tough, beige colored marble that was about 1.5 inches in diameter. The other game involved colorful small glass marbles commonly found in fish tanks and containers of water-based plants such as the Money plant. 

The tough marble was called goli or tua goli (big marble). You play a game with it from a heel-sized hole in the ground. The game was simply called Goli and this was how we played it: To start, a line is drawn some distance away from the hole (depending on how big the playground is). Players then try to roll their golies into the shallow hole. The one whose goli enters or lands nearest the hole will start. The one who lands furthest away will become the 'pasang' (target) fella. The starter picks up the pasang goli and drops it at arm's length in front of himself (or whichever direction he so desires). He will then try to knock the goli with his own. If he manages a direct hit, this pasang goli would be knocked some distance away.

The pasang fella then picks up his goli and tries to throw it back to the hole. If he succeeds, the game is over. If not, the next person gets a chance to go at it. If on throwing back, the pasang goli lands not in the hole but a foot or less away, this becomes a "jat" situation. In this case, the next person to hit will have to stand with one leg erect (in the hole) to hit the pasang goli. He can hit the goli in any way he likes - such as between his legs, which was common.

Every hitter must keep a leg in the hole. If he fails to do so, his hit will be disqualified and the pasang goli is replaced and the next person will then have a go.

Golies for this game often came in two types: The tough beige ones and the weaker white ones. The white ones were slightly bigger but more fragile, hence cheaper. They often split into two when hit hard (which made me wonder why buy it at all!). Another way to hit harder and further is to wrap the goli in a handkerchief and swing it like a slingshot. It wasn't a nice thing to do as it seemed like bullying the poor pasang fella! But then, pasang is pasang!

We often bought our golies from a vendor outside the school back gate. He would come on his tricycle laden with toys, snacks, stickers, etc., to entice us. Much later, I would discover that he graduated to owning a toy/snack shop under a block of flats in Marine Terrace (Marine Parade). Great for him, I thought. He's still there. The shop has turned into a houseware sundry shop. But a corner was keep for toys and stickers. His daughter said it was kept out of his dad's fond sentiment of his pioneering days. How sweet!

Oh, this goli game can also be played with a circle drawn. If a pasang goli is still within this limit, it can still be hit by the next person in queue. Only when the pasang goli has left the circle can it be then thrown back at the hole. Sometimes the pasang fella will opt not to throw his goli back into the hole but somewhere near. He would hope that his goli is not shot at and hence have a better chance of holing it nearer.

The other marble game we played involved the small glass ones. We would place the marbles in a small circle (one foot in diameter?) and try to hit them out. The ones out would be picked up and owned. Everyone would contribute the same amount of marbles at the start. A good hitter will try to spin his scoring marble so that more marbles would be knocked out. It's quite the technique! And if your scoring marble lands in the circle, you have to replace any marble that has been knocked out and give up your turn. If not, you can continue after all the marbles have been owned.

The game starts with two lines drawn some two meters apart with the circle placed slightly after the last line. To decide who starts, each will throw his marble out. The order of play  follows who lands nearest to the line. Touching the line is tops! But if more than one person does that, a second round of deciding will be carried out.

Sa Ku Lei is quite the same. But this time, only two lines are drawn. Two persons compete to see who can throw their coin or washer (the bolt and nut sort) nearest. The one who loses has to carry the other person on his back, pick up the coins/washer (whilst still carrying the victor) and then stand behind the line. He would pass the coins/washers to the person on his back. This person would throw the loser's coin in front and try to hit it with his own. If he succeeds, the loser will have to carry him to the opposite line after picking up the coins/washers (a challenge with the guy still on his back). The game continues until the last victor misses. He then gets off the back of the loser and they can then decide whether to start the game afresh. It is common to find four pairs starting at the same time.

Our canteen also sold toys sometimes, especially those that came with sweets and candies. A particular one I remember (and still own) came with a paper tube of sugared coconut shavings that no kid could resist. The toy itself was a disk held by a loop of string (two pin holes side-by-side in the middle). To start, the loop of string is stretched over the middle fingers. It is then wound up by twirling the disk round and round. Then, by pulling on the now twisted string, the disc would spin and wind again. It's a toy that depends on having a good momentum. Two players could then 'fight' each other by pitting their discs against one another. Most times the fragile discs would chip and break from violent contact. It must seem dangerous today but back then, we didn't worry too much about such things. We simply bought a new one and played on. I think our school later banned the toy. Really, the broken plastic chips could fly into the eyes!

This school ban made this game even more dangerous later. We would make the discs out of flattened bottle caps instead. So instead of fragile plastic, the discs became sharp metal! They could really cut fingers. I would usually use this kind of spinning disc to 'polish' concrete so as to watch sparks fly. I believe this disc game was called Yeh Yeh back then.

One snack that got us all totally hooked was called satay. It's not your typical satay but thin and triangular slices of some kind of sweet, sticky meat on a stick. The meat was some kind of dried fish or jellyfish supposedly BBQed. However, eating them now, they taste full of MSG - maybe why we kids got hooked last time. Still, this snack was utterly addictive. At the time, each stick cost five cents each and we ate it often after school waiting for our school buses. Today, they are sold in fan-shaped packs of a dozen sticks each or so at the supermarkets or shops like Uncle Tidbit, imported mostly from Malaysia and Thailand. (One brand lists the ingredients to include jelly fish, starch, salt, sugar, chillies and vegetable oil.)

Recess time was always a frenzied time of buying food, gulping it down and then play. Because I was very active, my mom would always tell me not to eat the yellow noodles as they were filling and I would get a tummy ache if I ran around. As a result, I often queued up for beehoon (rice vermicelli) in soup instead.

The beehoon soup came with fishball slices and fried shallots. It has a simple but lovely aroma - why to this day I still have a preference for beehoon over the other types of noodles. It'd cost 20 cents for a bowl then. The lady at the Chinese noodle knew me well. I just have to turn up and she knows I would order fishball beehoon!

Another dish I liked in my school canteen was Mee Rebus. Nothing fancy, just yellow noodles and gravy. But it was quite flavourful because the gravy was made with small dried shrimps and topped with taupok and beansprouts. The mee rebus was served up on small enameled metal plates. For some reason, I remember the ones with the colour lilac and red trim best. Because the plate was enameled, parts of it would get chipped and rusted from knocking while washing. They looked rustic and rather charming in that way.

I once had the same kind of simple mee rebus in the 90s, but it could only be found across the Causeway in a row of shophouses just right after the lorry customs on the right next to the sea. Needless to say, it was popular because it was simply delicious!

The other food fetish was curry puff. The lady who sold it would give it to you on a small piece of recycled exercise book paper or tracing paper. On the counter would be a bowl of orange-coloured chilli sauce. We kids absolutely loved to drench the curry puff with this sauce. It's actually a chilli sauce that had garlic and lime in it - something akin to the chilli sauce that accompanies chicken rice today but not quite the same. So far, I only know one place that still serve up this chilli sauce: the snack bar at the canteen in Yishun Polyclinic (the old one next to Khoo teck Phuat Hospital). What a discovery after all these years! Sadly, the proprietors changed after the polyclinic shifted location to be nearer the bus terminus.

For drinks, the most popular and common one was Pineapple Juice. Not the thick concentrated yellow juice that we find in drink cans today (e.g. the Lee brand) but the one that has been diluted and sweetened to a clear yellow-orangey colour and sold in a transparent acrylic tub. At the bottom would be small triangular slices of pineapple to add flavour. Whenever the drinks lady served up her drink, she would first churn the bottom of the tub to unsettle the pineapple slices. She would then scoop the drink and some pineapple slices into the glass (we all drank from glasses with no straws then; hygiene was such). After the drink, the pineapple slices would often stick to the bottom of the glass - why there would always be plastic cocktail forks on hand. There would also be a bowl of dark soy sauce with cut chilli too. Everybody knew at the time pineapple went well with that. With a little added sugar, it was even better!

At the corner end of the canteen was a guy selling cakes/creamed bread buns and kueh-kueh. Cream buns were very popular back then. Kids often snacked on these when there was nothing else to eat. The sweet buttery cream would burst through the centre at each bite. It was a great treat for those of us starved of western buttery delights! If not this, then it was the local bun with coconut filling.

The same stallholder also sold another popular snack that was a precursor to the popular Monster instant noodle snack of the 80s that kids still eat today. This potato stick snack are currently sold in Japan Home and those $2-a-pack biscuit shops. Damn chockful of MSG!

The snack is still the same orangey colour. Instead of short sticks (about 1 cm), it now comes in small puffed squares. During my school time, this snack was packed in small clear plastic packs like most "kiam sern ti" (sour/sweet treats) that were sold. We would bite off a corner to get to the main contents, often in mid-stride running to another recess playtime engagement! Haha!

One popular cake from this stall was a small butter one that is shaped like a chef's hat (see butter cup cake pix below). A small piece of tracing paper wrapped around its middle. But as it was butter cake, this piece of paper often got very oily and unpleasant!

Another popular snack during primary school was a cordial drink frozen in solid ice tubes called "sern pow" (Hokkien). Packed in a thin, tubular plastic bag, you have to bite off a corner end to suck at it. My fave flavour was orange.

A later one was sweet plum with the she mui (salted plum) visible at the bottom. This sern pow was a great bit of ice to suck on and run about with - which we often did. Most shops still sell sern pow with their stick ice cream today but at one time, the plastic tube used was not the same thin polystyrene type. It was thicker and came with its own twist-off tab. Since 2011, I've noticed the old sern pow coming back. It sold for 30 cents, a far cry from the 5-cents we used to pay. In a matter of months this 30-cent price went up to 50 cents - quite ridiculous even in a time of rising food prices.

In class, we had milk. It was part of the school's milk program to help skinny kids grow.

The milk came in individual hand-sized plastic packs that often flopped about in the shallow bin trays that were brought to class on Milk Day. These trays would end up sloshing with spilled milk. The milk packs were white with a silhouette print of a cow. The color of the print would indicate the flavour. There was vanilla, strawberry and chocolate. We kids loved the chocolate and would rush to be the first to get our hands on that. I found vanilla to be quite nice too. I remember strawberry flavour being a little too strong for my liking. But I must confess, sometimes the smell of all that milk in the bin tray made me want to puke.

Yes, recess time was a time we kids looked forward to after some periods of tedium in class. If we got too active, we would return with sweat and grime. We all carried handkerchiefs then, so it was no big deal. Sometimes we washed up in the toilets before going back to class. In those situations, the handkerchiefs came in handy and we would hang them out along the edge of our tables to dry. I sometimes wondered what our teachers thought of that.

Back then my siblings and I got our pocket money on the day itself. It was usually 50 cents (if I was taking the school bus then). I always carried a sling water bottle. After spending 20 cents on a bowl of beehoon, I would still have 30 cents left. That's quite a bit still and I would reserve it for snacks outside of school while waiting for the school bus. In that open space, were quite a number of hawkers.

A man sold his peanut candy bars. The block bars were beaten and rolled out with a large F&N glass drinks bottle. An old lady sold mark ar tong (Cantonese, a kind of twisted malt candy) from a small metal pail. Another hawker couple sold waffles from an iron griddle from a tricycle stall. I loved the waffles but could seldom afford them. The peanut candy was great but they stuck to the teeth too easily. Eating mark ar tong was like licking a lollipop.

Fortunately, I can still get these treats if I want to. An old lady used to sell that mark ar tong in Holland Village, stationing herself and her small metal pail next to that large Indian mama shop well known for its array of magazines. This old lady would twist the malt candy out with two short sticks for a dollar. For the peanut bar, I would get it from Sin Thye Cake Shop along Sembawang Road (just after Khatib Camp). A Hokkien friend was thrilled to discover this place. He had also eaten the same as a child. For waffles, they are sold everywhere nowadays, especially at neighbourhood cakeshops. But there's a distinction: They are mostly pandan flavoured. In the old days they were yellow, unflavoured and crispier. Still, waffles are waffles what with their unmistakable aroma. It's an aroma that brings back sweet, sweet memories of a bygone time!

Next story: An Artful Teacher