Chinatown Then and Now

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					ETL201 – Assignment 2

A Recollection of Chinatown We are thankful to Lieutenant Jackson who drawn up the 1828 Master Plan which incorporated Sir Stamford Raffle‟s town plan. Otherwise we would not have the Chinatown today. Have we ever wondered how big exactly is Chinatown? The core of the Chinatown is in an area of less than a square mile on the west and east by New and South Bridge roads. It can be divided into six districts which are Kreta Ayer, Telok Ayer, Ann Siang Hill, Bukit Pasoh, Tanjong Pagar and Boat Quay. Back then; Chinatown in Singapore was not at all just a Chinese town. Since the time of European-recorded Singapore history, the Armenians cultivated the hills of Tanjong Pagar with spice plantations. The Palmers, a Eurasian family, built their house at the end of the present day Shenton Way. Then the Parsi community moved in and established themselves in the Anson area as merchants and traders. The Malacca Malays settled in Kampung Melaka on the South Bank of the Singapore River. That was where the oldest surviving Muslim place of worship, Omar Mosque. As for the Chinese, they were settled according to their dialect groups. We could see that the Teochews were settled along the bank of the river and as for the Hokkiens, they occupied the area in Telok Ayer. The majority of the Cantonese occupied places like Cantonment Road, Smith Street, Sago Lane, Neil Road and Pagoda Lane and most of the streets along Chinatown. The main feature here is Neil Road and its surroundings, where the interviewee has stayed before the Singapore Urban Redevelopment Authority announced it‟s decision to redevelop the place.

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Background The most memorable place of Chinatown would be 82 Neil Road where Madam Lau Yoke Wah used to live in. She has lived in 82 Neil Road since 1936 to 1985 before she shifted to Rumah Tinggi. At present, Madam Lau Yoke Wah does visit the Chinatown to buy some necessities or foodstuffs and also to have breakfast or tea with her friends from Chinatown. Born as the second daughter in the family, Madam Lau takes up the responsibility to take care of the rest of her siblings and there are as many as thirteen of them including her. Their family was lucky to have the whole unit of the shop house to themselves as it was passed on from their parents. They made use of the opportunity to rent out some of the cubicles to immigrants who were single or with families. For immigrants who were with their family members, they could rent a cubicle all to themselves at $4 to $5 per month and as for the single immigrants, usually men, they paid monthly rental at about $2 and they occupied the larger cubicle on the second floor. There was a back lane where the night soil collectors collected the night soil and also to allow the tenants to clean themselves before entering the house. It was also where the kitchen and air well was situated. And there was no oven or gas stove but only stoves that used charcoals to cook. At the centre of the house, there was another air well which they reared some ducks and chickens and plants as well. It was also a place where the tenants get together to catch up on news from the Redifusion (a radio station) and also to exchange some gossips.

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Neil Road and Keong Saik Road Being a resident along Neil Road, Madam Lau related that Keong Saik Road just behind their house. Most of the time, they would keep the back door leading to the back lane closed unless their family was cooking or doing their laundry in the kitchen. According to her, the back lane leading to Keong Saik Road is usually very insecure. Especially at nights, there would be drunkards and even sex maniacs hanging out around the back lane. The reason was that Keong Saik Road was where most of the brothels were located. There were lots of young ladies from China dressed in their prettiest outfits poaching for “potential customers”. Usually, the people who visited the brothels were lonely single male immigrants, businessmen and even some family men. Despite the so called uncouth side of Chinatown, there was still a much cultured and upright place where most clubs and associations were found. Cantonese who were early settlers in Singapore mainly set up these clubs and associations. They provided support to new and clueless immigrants in terms of finance and accommodation and job opportunities. The associations also help the new immigrants write letters back to China and also to remit money to their families. At times, they held some meetings and gatherings to watch operas and have tea and play Chinese chess. In this way, they could find out about the members‟ conditions in terms of work, lodging and finance. One would feel a sense of belonging with the support of their own members.

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Sago Street and Sago Lane However, not all new immigrants were able to survive the tough living conditions. Those who could not survive and passed on were found along Sago Lane, shrouded in a straw mats. Sago Street and Sago Lane were lined with businesses catering to the dead. There were funeral parlours side by side, and other shops which made coffins, provided embalming services, sold flower wreaths, prepared the wake, and made paper effigies of houses, cars, wheel chairs, and even air planes There was a shop that dyed clothes for anyone obliged to go into the customary three years of mourning. Clothes were soaked in a large earthenware jar in order to dye them black. It was rather spooky to walk along this area in the nights. Smith Street Along Smith Street, one could see fortunetellers making predictions for people. There were many ways of telling fortunes; throwing coins or conch shells to see how they landed, shaking numbered fortune sticks, picking up screwed up balls of paper with Chinese characters like „Water‟, „Mountain‟, „Rain‟, „Sun‟ or „Moon‟. These characters symbolized different meanings. According to Madam Lau, they interpreted „money coming‟, „trouble from mother-in-law‟, „obstacles‟ or „bright future‟ respectively. She used to follow her mother to have her fortune told. Some times, the fortunetellers would read faces, especially the size of ears and nostrils, the bushiness of eyebrows and the position of moles on the face and body. Besides the fortune telling, eating houses and medicine shops were found along the streets. There was also the famous Lai Chun Yuen Chinese Opera Theatre that the residents got the permission to repair after the bombing during the war.

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Trengganu Street At the corner of Smith Street was Trengganu Street. It was the heart of the Cantonese area. You could hardly run out of entertainment along the street with the operas, coffee and tea shops, restaurants and brothels. These establishments catered to the opera crowds at night and they were just as lively as early morning. In the morning, the street markets would sell everything under the sun, from snakes to sausages, chickens to toads and cookies and cakes as well. Fresh food can be bought directly from the street market and good bargains too. Conclusion From Madam Lau‟s recount, I could feel that she misses the good old days in the old Chinatown. Besides spending the days with her family, she could also get anything she needs in the old Chinatown. Things and even people are easily accessible. Imagine having the whole unit of the shop house to their family, they could earn some extra income apart from working for others. As the family expanded with some siblings getting married, they stopped renting the cubicles to tenants. After she got married, she shifted to Rumah Tinggi. But she never forget going back to Neil Road to take care of the household, helping out with the cooking and laundry. It was there that she could be with the rest of her family, her siblings and her parents to get together to have their meals before they went back to their flats. Now that Chinatown has been redeveloped, brothels, street markets and funeral parlours were all cleaned up. What that is left behind are the shop fronts selling clothes, cloths, cookies and cakes, shoes and lots of eating-houses. We could still see some old

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ladies sitting by the roadside peddling some jade ornaments, vegetables and some cookery. Although the restoration and renovation was a success, there should still be a place for things of old, not just for the tourists to enjoy, but for ourselves and our children too. We could enjoy the rich culture and tradition left behind by our forefathers and mothers. We should learn to rejoice in our background, celebrate and treasure our culture because it is after all our heritage. It should still be a journey into the essence of Singapore‟s indigenous cultures when we visit Chinatown.

References: 1. MOE, Understanding Our Past, Singapore: from Colony to Nation, (Federal Publications, 2001) 2. Geraldene Lowe-Ismail, Chinatown Memories, (The Singapore Heritage Society) 3. http://www.arts.nie.edu.sg/his/cc%202.2%20(Chinatown).htm

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Profile of Interviewee: Name of Interviewee: Madam Lau Yoke Wah (Born in year 1936) Nationality: Singaporean Language: Cantonese Duration of interview: 2 hours Venue: Rumah Tinggi Transcript for Oral Interview When did you start residing in Chinatown? Since 1936, the year that I was born. Were you the only daughter? No, I have an elder sister and 11 other siblings. I am ranked second in the family. Which part of Chinatown did you reside in? 82 Neil Road, and it was the whole unit of the shop house. Was the shop house big enough to accommodate all of you? Yes, it was 2 storeys high and we sleep together in one large cubicle. What was the interior of the shop house like? There were a few cubicles along the corridor that lead you to the air well and then the kitchen. There was another air well at the kitchen too. As for the 2 nd storey, there were 2 large cubicles where the single male immigrants stayed. There was also an eating area right above the corridor that lead to the first air well. How much was the rental then? For the single men, they paid about $2 per month, as for those who stayed with their families, they paid about $4 to $5 per month.

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What were some things that you used to have? At that time, we did not have oven or gas stove, we used stoves with charcoals to cook our dishes. And we reared some ducks and chickens at the air well in the first storey. We also had Redifusion (a radio station) to listen to when we were cooking and also for the tenants to listen to while they gathered at the air well to chat. What were some places in your surroundings that gave you a deep impression of? Oh yes, there were a few places; Neil Road and Keong Saik Road, Sago Street and Sago Lane, Smith Street and Trengganu Street. Why do you name Neil Road and Keong Saik Road together? They are quite close to each other, either at a turn you could get there or one street is just behind another. So, what were the features of Neil Road and Keong Saik Road? You could find lots of clubs and associations along Neil Road. Mainly Cantonese formed these clubs and associations. They provided lots of support to the new immigrants. New immigrants could get recommendations to work, financial help if they needed, and sometimes lodging too. They also held meetings and gatherings to see to the conditions of the new immigrants, how well they were coping then. Letter writing and remittance services were provided too. They had recreations like opera, tea sessions and Chinese chess sessions together too. As for Keong Saik Road, it was really sleazy. Brothels were found along the road and we could see lots of drunkards and sex maniacs. It was always not safe to use the back lane and we would keep the back door closed tightly at night.

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Sago Street and Sago Lane? Dead bodies were found, shrouded in straw mats. There were funeral parlours side by side, and other shops which made coffins, provided embalming services, sold flower wreaths, prepared the wake, and made paper effigies of houses, cars, wheel chairs, and even air planes There was a shop that dyed clothes for anyone obliged to go into the customary three years of mourning. Smith Street? We could see fortunetellers making predictions for people. There were many ways of telling fortunes; throwing coins or conch shells to see how they landed, shaking numbered fortune sticks, picking up screwed up balls of paper with Chinese characters like „Water‟, „Mountain‟, „Rain‟, „Sun‟ or „Moon‟. Besides the fortune telling, eating houses and medicine shops were found along the streets. There was also the famous Lai Chun Yuen Chinese Opera Theatre that the residents got the permission to repair after the bombing during the war. Trengganu Street? At the corner of Smith Street was Trengganu Street. It was the heart of the Cantonese area. You could see operas, coffee and tea shops, restaurants and brothels. These establishments at nights were just as lively as early morning. In the morning, the street markets would sell everything under the sun, from snakes to sausages, chickens to toads and cookies and cakes as well. Why did you shift to Rumah Tinggi? I got married and at that time HDB flats were springing out then.

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Did you visit the shop house again? Yes of course! Things and even people are easily accessible. Imagine having the whole unit of the shop house to their family, they could earn some extra income apart from working for others. I went back daily to help out with the cooking and laundry. My husband and I had our meals together with my parents and siblings.

*I give permission for this work to be digitally stored and made available by NIE for educational and research purpose. 181003. Tan C.W. weitan@singnet.com.sg

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