Having breakfast in Chinatown in the 1960s was like eating with a large extended family.
It was a sea of familiar faces: the hawkers were mostly people from the same neighbourhood; some, in fact, were one’s own relatives. But mostly, the hawkers were housewives or retirees seeking to supplement meager incomes peddling food on the streets at a time when legislations like the hawker license were unheard of.
This state of semi-anarchy resulted in the explosive proliferation of our street food as we know it today. A shantytown of makeshift stalls sprang up in Chinatown, in the lanes and 5-foot-ways that cut through the ranks of 3- and 5-storey prewar shophouses and Art Deco-style SIT buildings that packed the area between Kreta Ayer Road and Temple Street.
While the shops and businesses occupied the street level, people, including many hawkers, lived upstairs. Living conditions in the upper storeys of shophouses were horrific – even slum-like -- by today’s standards. Individual and even multiple families occupied tiny, dark, airless cubicles. The few toilets there were, the kitchen, and corridors, were shared by everyone. Women cooked into the wee hours in the cramped, often single, kitchen; and there was not an ounce of privacy. The burdens of living were relieved by simple joys like sewing and gossip and plenty of community spirit.
One of these pleasures was food. Different dialect groups would congregate and live in distinct portions of Chinatown, giving rise to clan and other communal associations specific to each ethnicity. In particular, the arriving immigrants brought the food and culinary traditions of their homelands and planted them in Chinatown.
By the break of dawn around 6 am, hawkers could be seen stacking up crates and boxes along the already crowded streets and under the staircases, often assisted by members of their family. Wooden trays would be perched on top of the crates as serving counters and ‘dining tables’. Other hawkers would peddle their food in 3-wheel carts, trundling them through the alleyways of Chinatown. Food would literally ‘fly off the shelves’, and by 10 o’clock the hawkers would wrap up, clean up and head home to the rest of the day’s chores. The next day it begins anew.
The hawkers of Chinatown embodied the diversity of cultural histories and economic realities to be found within that half-square-mile of seething humanity. In fact the personal story can sometimes be as piquant and fascinating as the flavours on the plate; here are some faces and their foods that I remember.
FRIED DUMPLING (炸粽子)
Yong Jie (容姐)-- as she was known in the neighbourhood -- came from Shenzhen after WWII. Rumour had it that she fled with bags of money stolen from her husband, then squandered the loot in Singapore and was reduced to earning a living selling fried dumplings. Yong Jie had adopted a girl -- a common practice among single women of the day – in the hope of securing some care for herself in old age.
Each morning Yong Jie and her daughter would set up a stall at the end of Sago Street, next to Keong Saik Street – the spot no longer exists, having being replaced by Chinatown Complex. She would set a wooden tray, about the size of a school desktop, on a crate. Next to it would be a charcoal stove supporting a wok of boiling oil. She made Fried Dumpling at 10 cents each; in fact, she was the only person I ever knew in Singapore who sold this particular food.
Fried Dumpling was an old Hakka creation that has disappeared even from China. It used to be called “za” dumpling (砸粽); since “za” sounded like “fried” (炸) in the Hakka dialect. It gradually came to be called “zha” dumpling (炸粽), as “zha” was the actual word for “fried” in Hakka.
The version I encountered in mainland China was a dumpling pan-fried until crispy and then eaten dipped in sugar, salt, or a ginger/garlic dip. Yong Jie perhaps took her cue from the Goreng Pisang man, as her dumpling was dipped in batter and fried, and eaten with five-spice salt.
PENNYWORT DRINK image by Mark Ong
Ku Po (姑婆) was a retired Samsui woman who shared a cramped 20-sq-m room with her daughter’s family of six. Every morning she would head to a nearby ice-factory with two thermos flasks. She would line the bottom of the flasks with newspaper-wrapped dry ice, and fill the rest of the space with ice popsicles. She then roamed the streets selling the popsicles to young children.
Past noon Ku Po would head home; along the way she would stop at the market to pick up some pennyworts and pickled lemons. Her grandchildren would wait eagerly for her at home, hoping for leftover ice popsicles; the family then gathers to pluck, wash and pound the pennywort leaves. Ku Po’s daughter then squeezes the pulp for the juice.
Come evening, Ku Po and one of her grandchildren would carry a container filled with pennywort juice to the cross-junction of Banda Street and Sago Lane. At one of the busiest spots in Chinatown, she sets up a makeshift stall selling iced pennywort and pickled lemon juices.
The customers to her stall would probably be people headed to the funeral parlours at nearby Sago Lane; or they would be kids; or labourers who worked at the construction sites and warehouses. Pennywort juice was one of the cheapest ways, it was believed, to ‘cool’ the body and purge it of toxins generated by the hot sun. The pulp of the pennywort, too, had its remedial effects, being commonly applied to cuts, swollen joints, and even acne.
As pennywort juice had a unique intense rawness to its taste, heavy syrup was added to ‘sweeten’ it, and a glass went for 5 cents.
DRIED COD PORRIDGE image by Mark Ong
Mui Ku (梅姑) was a retired ‘ah mah’ from Shunde who lived in a small room with a roommate, a ‘sister’ from the same province in China. The two old women had accumulated some savings from their days working as ‘ah mahs’; but to help stretch it, they prepared a Shunde recipe to sell -- dried cod and peanut porridge.
Dried cod was a cheap source of umami in southern China, where Mui Ku came from. It was usually grilled so that its flavour would come through completely when the cod was used as base for stock. Sometimes the dried cod would be blended into powder as part of the marinade in wonton and meat loaves.
Mui Ku would wake up at 4 am to set up the charcoal stove. She would grill the dried cod and hammer it with a stone pestle; meanwhile the porridge was set to boil for the next two hours. The pulverized pieces of dried cod, as well as peanuts, would be added to the porridge. She would then fry noodles in batches and store them in aluminium pots.
Mui Ku’s partner would have already set up the stall made up of wooden crates under the staircase of the shophouse where they lived. At 6 am, Mui Ku would man the stall while her partner delivered orders to nearby residents on a round metal tray. They charged 10 cents for a bowl of porridge and delivery was free.
By afternoon, their business day done, the 2 friends would go around Chinatown scavenging for cardboard to sell as scrap.
It was rare for a Eurasian family to live in Chinatown in those days. Auntie Rose, along with her family, was considered ‘rich’ by the neighbourhood because her husband worked at a bank. However, Auntie Rose would bake cakes and kuehs in her spare time to earn some extra pocket money. The neighbours and friends would come to her house next day to collect their orders. Apart from butter cake and Swiss roll, I remember most vividly her Serikaya.
Serikaya is nearly impossible to find today, and most Singaporeans have never heard of it. Even in the early years, it was only well-to-do Eurasian and Peranakan households that prepared Serikaya, and it was usually for their own consumption. Serikaya is a custard of egg, coconut milk and sugar, with pandan leaves for a delicate fragrance – and it has always been laborious to make.
Serikaya was usually eaten with toast or as accompaniment to steamed glutinous rice. Even back then, Auntie Rose hardly made this confection, as Serikaya didn’t have a long shelf life and refrigerators weren’t that common.
Mr Chua did not operate a stall but he supplied ingredients to hawkers in Chinatown. He worked in a kelong and so was often away for days at a time. His family looked forward to his homecomings, as he would bring fresh sea-catch such as groupers, snappers -- and even a tiny crocodile once. After the family has had their pick, the excess would be sold to the neighhourhood hawkers at a discounted price, and one item in particular was much sought after: pickled mangrove crabs.
The family would pickle these mangrove crabs, or ‘wa kee’, in bottles and distribute them to Teochew porridge stalls around Ellenbourgh Market. The wa kee were small crabs that inhabited the mangrove swamps feeding on the propagules, or buds, of the mangrove plant. They emerged from their mud-burrows at dusk and were known to climb as high as 6m up a tree to forage. To harvest the crabs a net was held at the base of the tree and a long stick used to scare or dislodge them, dropping them into the net.
The Chuas would soak the crabs in soy sauce or vinegar, together with garlic, chilli and coriander leaves. The Teochew in particular considered pickled wa kee a delicacy and relished them with porridge.
STUFFED INTESTINES image by Mark Ong
The Lees were Hakka. Mr Lee held an administrative post at the bank and so the family could afford a whole shophouse storey to itself. Mrs Lee was a good cook and many a time the aroma of her cooking would fill the area around her kitchen.
On festive seasons, Mrs Lee would reserve 'ikan parang' (wolf herring) from the fishmonger and set up a mini-factory in her hallway. She would scrape the flesh from the fish and beat it into paste. Her 3 children would stuff this fish paste into various vegetables, churning out ‘yong tau foo’ which would then be delivered in boxes to families nearby who had preordered them for dinner.
There was a particular dish that only a true-blue Hakka would order from Mrs Lee -- stuffed egg custard in animal intestine. Its preparation was, like many traditional dishes, laborious: the intestines had to be cleaned and flushed with water. Eggs would be whisked with meat stock and poured into the intestines, which then had to be slow-boiled in simmering water to avoid the intestines bursting. Finally, the cooked intestines were cut into 1.5 cm-thick slices and eaten with a dip or cooked in a broth.
Note: This article first appeared in ZbBz on September 2014 as 'The Flavour of a Life'.