Cynthia Wee-Hoefer reminisces on growing up in the Peranakan heartland during the 50s and 60s.
It was a rather dusty lane, leading to the original Marine Parade, a seaside promenade, on one end, and to the main East Coast Road on the other. This is where I grew up, and I recall a childhood swirling with the language, habits and culture of the Peranakans who lived alongside the Eurasians, China-born Chinese, Boyanese Malays, Jews and an exotic parade of Indians of all castes and colours. This was Singapore at the end of British rule and the dawn of independence.
I grew up in a lane off East Coast Road which was affectionately known to Katongites and trishaw riders as Longkang Besar. While it is true that a large open drain channelled the flow of water and debris from the inland to the sea at Marine Parade, it always baffled me why others referred it as Jacob’s Lane. It was only recently that a former resident, Eddy, revealed that a tall, dark and skinny Eurasian named Jacob lived there. There was no street sign to say that it was East Coast Road, but the houses numbered 150A to 150P indicated the location of 16 terraced houses to the postman. The lane was obscure, tucked between a row of double-storeyed shophouses and elegant setback terraced residences on the main road. When giving instructions to friends and taxi drivers, I had to say that it was ‘after the Joo Chiat traffic lights, the small lane on the right, opposite the Shell station.’
Our beloved Sandy Lane was flanked by neat rows of raised terrace houses with curlicue frescoed fronts, patterned mosaic steps and a narrow veranda. The houses were pretty and deep to accommodate three bedrooms, a living room, a dining room, and a kitchen covered by a zinc roof. There was a toilet (originally of the bucket system but modernised years later), a bathroom, and an airy basement that worked as an additional storage space, sleeping quarter and hide-and-seek playground. Our courtyard was enclosed by high walls which separated us from the neighbours, but the noises still penetrated across, providing lots of juicy details especially when family quarrels exploded. A door to the back lane served us well when the tong-poon lady came by daily to pick up swill for the pig farm. It also came in handy as an escape route when the ‘wrath of the rotan’ loomed over us. They don’t build houses like these anymore.
We were surrounded by greenery and nature. From the entrance we faced a mature frangipani tree (which we turned into a tree house) and fruiting guavas, while rows of spider lilies and periwinkles bordered the drain. Giant tamarind and flame of the forest trees provided shade . We were never short of asam or biji sagar seeds for our five-stone games.
The boys had an unlimited supply of fighter spiders which were stored in matchboxes with a single leaf for food and spittle for drink. The moths and insects attracted to the lights at night were caught and showed off and later released. My favourite was an insect which had a hard shell at its thorax. When pressed against the matchbox or tin case, its head would instinctively knock the surface several times, which made a great game where we had to guess the number of times the insect would knock against the box.
The lane was always potholed in areas and a bane for the poor trishaw rider or the hawker with his tricycle. On rainy days, we had to tread carefully over the puddles and woe to the newcomer at night, who with one wrong step could end up with soaked feet and trouser cuffs.
We caught tadpoles after the rainy days which we took to school for our science class. During the dry season, we had to sprinkle water from a tin can to keep the dust down. Resourceful as we children were, we found endless use for the bare ground. With strokes of a stick, we would create hopscotch diagrams, circle games, start and finish lines for our endless races along the traffic – free lane. Naturally, we dug up holes for bolah lasing, a game whereby one player rolled a tennis ball towards an arrangement of holes in the ground. And if it lopped into your hole, you had to grab the ball and try to hit any one of the players. If you failed, you were penalised by standing on one spot with your back facing the rest of the party while someone got to hit you, the target, with the tennis ball. Whatever game caught our fancy — marbles, hide-and-seek, rounders — it was almost always played en masse with the neighbourhood children, and outdoors in the late afternoon when the sun was about to set.
The neighbours. Starting from the last house of our lane, we had a Jewish family comprising the eldest sibling Uncle Solomon, his unmarried sister Ramona, and another sister who was the mother of our playmates Michael and Haskell. Haskell was dark-haired with thick eyebrows and an unmistakably Jewish nose, and Michael was fair haired with blue eyes and a winning look. We played as kids did, without prejudices and absolutely no awareness of cultural or religious differences. Then suddenly, one day, we were told that the boys and their mother were leaving for good to start a life in the new state of Israel. They left behind Uncle Solomon who supplied the confectionery to bakeries and who was said to have given the recipe for the marzipan and sugar icing that made Cona’s sugee cake a classic. Cona’s was the landmark confectionery of Katong, situated at the top of our lane.
Auntie Ramona was a bespectacled, unattractive, small woman with ample breasts that sagged to her belted frock. She was always complaining of the noise we made, of the dust we kicked up, whatever. But she held the future in her hands. She was a card-reader, a fortune-teller, and she always had this VIP client who arrived in a chauffeured Morris for her regular session. It was Mrs Felice Leon – Soh who was a member of parliament, a rare female from an emerging political party. Decades later, someone recommended a card-reader in Tanjong Katong, and it turned out to be Mrs Leon-Soh! My family was not close to the Jewish siblings but our immediate neighbour was friendly to her. I remembered being passed some unleavened bread to taste. When Uncle Solomon succumbed to illness years later, I heard the details of the midnight funeral service at the Jewish cemetery in Thomson Road, and how the shrouded body was buried legs first in a standing position. Eventually, lonely Ramona went the way of her brother and with her, our Jewish connection.
One outstanding neighbour was the Oliveiro family whose life we witnessed by looking over the common wall into their veranda and living room. They similarly must have viewed the calamities of our lives from the other side. We were introduced to the Eurasian culture up close in this way. The only son of the family was five years older than me, and he always took the lead with board games and card games with children of his age group. His grandmother was a true Eurasian lady who taught her daughter-in-law, who happened to be a soft-spoken Teochew Chinese lady, the family recipes of devilled curry, fruit cake and Sunday roasts. She was also known to have taught the Hainanese family that ran Cona’s the sugee and fruit cakes for which they were well known.
The Oliveiros inspired us children with their mesmerising Christmas tree, decorated with old-fashioned Christmas crackers, shiny glass baubles and fairy lights. Every Christmas we would lean over and bend our little heads as far as we could to look at the pretty sight. Finally, one day the family decided to upgrade to a newer model (the tree was fake!) and we somehow inherited the discarded one. It was our childish fantasy-come-true when we got the consent to doll up and display the tree in our living room right next to our altar with the Buddha statue, oil lamp and burning joss-sticks.
Mickey Oliveiro was the leading Hawaiian guitar-player of the 50s and 60s. He was part of a band of part-time musicians who played in cabarets and clubs like the one in Seaview Hotel on weekends and festivities. And that meant rehearsals on Sundays with his buddies. So my young life was filled with the tunes of Blue Hawaii and other hip-swaying melodies. Meanwhile, our family gramophone belted out Bill Hayley, Elvis, Chuck Berry, The Shadows and so on. By the time I reached the awakening of my own hit parade of the Beatles and Stones, I found the melodious pull and twang of the electric Hawaiian guitar to be punishing. Mickey collapsed from a heart attack and took away the sound with him completely before I came to hear the familiar strains once again when I befriended a Peranakan girl living in Queenstown whose father loved his Hawaiian guitar.
Several more Eurasian families lived in our vicinity. There were the Esses, and I remember in particular Yvonne, the daughter, who was fair-skinned and blue-eyed in contrast to the other family members. Then there were the D’Cottas with a large brood of children, the Barkers and their daughters with their ringlets à la Shirley Temple, Dr Paglar, and a few others. I got to know more families when I went to Katong Convent, where my elder sisters had already forged friendships with the Pestana and Minjoot girls.
As for the Peranakan families in our lane, they almost formed the majority. They were distinguishable in a special way. The fathers or men of the house spoke English with some Baba Malay when they greeted each other, the womenfolk babbled away exclusively in Baba Malay with a sprinkling of ‘trendy’ English words like ‘for goodness sake’ and ‘gives me high blood pressure’ while their young ones spoke mainly English.
The politeness in tone and formality in addressing each other always marked the good breeding of the Peranakan family. An older male was always referred to as Incik or Ba; an older woman was called Tachi and a younger one Adik or Nya. An elderly woman was Bibik or Umbok. As for terms for family members, one had to follow closely the guide of an elderly person. A definite faux pas was to bypass it and address an elder as ‘aunty’. Peter Wee’s mother, the regal Mrs Josephine Wee, once openly chided me for calling her ‘aunty’ as we are related. But try as I might I cannot seem to remember the right term.
Baba families love to party, everyone says so. That probably explains why there was seldom a quiet moment in a Baba household. Lau jiat is the word. At Mummy Jane’s (she’s my godmother), there was always someone come-a-calling or a mahjong or cherki game in progress. She supported her ageing mother and two daughters as a widow after the war by being a tontin chief and taking the ‘tin’ from the players of the various games. She also rented out her back room, and made nonya kueh and delicacies for the working women. Her house where I was always stepping into as my other home, was probably the beating heart of the Katong I knew.
Mummy Jane, now approaching 90, was admirable at that time; she was tiny but very vocal, frail but hard working. (Like several others, she too has left her beloved house to live in a high-rise flat with her granddaughter in Tampines.) She sewed the manek (beaded slippers) with such skill that she was always taking orders to sew from friends even when her eyesight was marred by cataract. Every free moment would be spent bent over the wooden pidangan , picking beads and stitching while her ears were tuned to the Redifusion for the race numbers, or to the gossip of visiting friends and mahjong kakis.
The best part of life in Katong was the casualness of dropping in at a friend’s or relative’s house. One always visited with a small gift — a bag of rambutans from the garden or a bottle of pickles, and sometimes this was reciprocated with something or other from the larder. Such was the camaraderie. In the afternoons, one Bibik Burok (‘Ugly Bibik’), her hair rolled into a shell-bun and decorated with three pins, dressed in a cotton baju panjang and sarong batik would arrive on a trishaw carrying two bakol ( stacked trays) of nonya cakes for sale. Not only did she sell her confectioneries, she was a prime tell-tale, peering through her round gold-rimmed glasses and spitting her chewed-up sireh ever so often. But the cakes were varied and delicious; some of the cakes will probably never surface in the counters of the shops here.
Following the nonya cake seller, was the roll-call of other street hawkers. The yong tau foo man, the loh mai kai seller, the aap-bak (duck) seller who would roll the dice with you for half a duck, the rojak keling man, the chee cheong fun woman carrying her two loads on a bamboo pole and the satay man with his wares and little stools. There were many more itinerant vendors who sold anything from needles to facepowder, household wares, and the man who sharpened your knives and scissors for a small fee. The children’s favourite was the Indian man who sold thin wafers and spun sugar from tin cans with glass windows, he also carried a crudely made game board where you rolled a ballbearing down a chute to numbered holes. If it landed on a certain number, you got a special treat. It was a harmless form of gambling or incentive. The bread man was a bhai (Indian from Bengal) who rolled up on his bicycle which had a cabinet filled with the triangular curry-puffs, sugee biscuits and various sweet buns and bread. The Indian milkman made his rounds with a can stacked on his head; he was a sight to behold, barebodied with white dhoti and shaven head and a ponytail from the crown. The other interesting Indian was the kachang (nut) seller with a proud curled moustache who balanced a large tray of fried lentils, sugar-coated peanuts and other savouries on his head. The strange thing was that the hawkers from their diverse origins spoke the common bazaar Malay with lilting accents that we took childish pride in mimicking. Our street was just filled with the friendly calls and honks from the congenial vendors. Everyone was living very modestly, some were subsisting on little, so that the two cents or three cents that went into the hawker fare was considered a big treat!
Mandi Safar at Marine Parade. The happiest time of my childhood must have been spent at Marine Parade, a seafront promenade which was established from the beginning as Crown Colony land. To get to the beach, we had to cut through a sandy lane through a small Malay kampong and the side lane of a once-grand bungalow. The kampong folk were Boyanese, dark coloured sea-farers from Riau who eventually settled in this part of Katong. There were at least 10 families who had tiny palm-roofed huts which grew in number with the population. They drew water from a well and had an outhouse a distance from their dwelling which was unfortunately near enough to our house! We always watched from a distance the rituals of their life — the circumcision ceremonies of the young lads and the garlanded horses they rode during this grand event, the colourful wedding rites and the Hari Raya celebrations.
When one of the womenfolk came to help out with the laundry, we got invited to their houses for cakes and drinks. They lived simply but were such proud householders decorating their fronts with flowering shrubs, coloured lights and neat curtains. One family stood out from the rest, that of Mak Neng’s who was the matriarch. The son and grandchildren spoke English to us, she made cakes and snacks for sale from her tidy kitchen, they were also the most prosperous as the son eventually owned a car.
Marine Parade was everybody’s playground. Every Sunday or public holiday, we children used to enjoy the festivities the park would hold. There was a weekly joget or dance in a bungalow house with a roomy veranda, next to the beach mansion of Tan Lark Sye (both now demolished). Eager Malay lads and the odd Baba would cough up some money to have a spin with any of the beautified dancing girls doing the energetic ronggeng. The air was heavily scented with the fragrances of the day — Evening in Paris and bunga chempaka and jasmine in the ladies’ coifed hair. The fashion of the day was the body-fitting baju and sarong ensemble that the Dutch-Indonesian singer Anneke Gronloh popularised. It was quite thrilling to stand on our toes to try and get a view of the action The other activity that went on was the parading of groups of girls and boys (mostly Malay) when broad hints were passed by a daring youth to the giggling missies. It was a clear case of boys flirting with the girls, and somehow, I am sure, some teasing ended up with marriages.
The biggest event in Marine Parade when the area became totally packed with picnickers was the mandi safar, an act of ablution which was originally a Hindu practice and later considered un-Islamic and no longer carried out. Families would arrive with pots of food, seats and mats and a portable radio and party away with abandoned merriment dunking into the frothing sea and playing games. It was sheer delight to watch young and old, the well-off and the poor, put aside their daily grind for a day of pleasure. For the rest of the community, the crowd added to their day of leisure as they tried to get a seat at the outdoor Teo’s cafe which was a two-storey bungalow house where hawkers sold some of the best kueh pai tee, laksa, yong tau foo and satay on the island.