Nostalgic Snacks

Lemon Tablets still sold in
petrol station convenience stores!

While queuing to pay for petrol at their convenience store counter, my eyes wandered – taking in the sight of promotion items like chocolate bars and isotonic drinks and the neatly arranged rows of sweets and snacks.  I thought of how these colourfully packaged treats are always strategically placed close to the pay-point to tempt customers to pick them up as impulse buys. They are just an arm’s reach away and the sheer variety available makes it easy for anyone to fall prey to the sweet temptation.

My eyes swept across the attractive choices of mints, lozenges and chewing gum, passing each product without pause but my gaze landed and locked on the little golden tubes, propped up within see-through bulk packs!  It occurred to me that I’m reading its brief description in English for the first time, because when I used to eat “Lemon Tablets,” I didn’t care about its name.  The sight of this popular schooldays snack – now even labeled with barcodes – brought back a flood of fond memories as I was pleasantly surprised that they are still sold, even from modern convenience stores in petrol stations!

A collection of nostalgic schoolday snacks

These slim tubes made it easy to slip them inside my school uniform’s pinafore pocket and smuggle into my desk in class after recess.  On hot and humid afternoons, when the teacher droned her way into the lesson, I will sneak one tiny lemon tablet from the desk and pop it into my mouth.  The slowly melting tablet will emit a citrusy scent that not only tastes pleasant but will also perk up my sleepy senses.

The description on the packaging said the Lemon Tablets contain Ubat Cina or Chinese herbs but it’s a perfect combination of sweet and sour flavours.  When I used to commute to secondary school in non-aircon public buses, I employed its stay-awake effects especially on the long journey home to Masai after extra classes.  Sometimes I forgot to remove it from my pocket and even though I later discovered the tablets looking crushed and damp in its golden foil wrapper, there was no reasons to let it go to waste so I would finish off the melted mess in one greedy go!

Don't miss that tikam board on top right!

At a recent review of a bistro designed in a 60’s theme, I was charmed by the ambience but the most nostalgic spot must be at the entrance where simple wooden shelves were lined with biscuit tins and snack bottles that reminded me of the sundry shops next to my Ah Kong or grandfather’s house at Jalan Ngee Heng.  It’s reminiscent of the shops in bygone days with tins of Marie biscuits and Jacob’s cream crackers and snacks like chocolate wafers, chewing gum, the ubiquitous Lemon Tablets and packs of Mo Fa Kor preserved fruit bits.  On the wall above there was a board stapled with cheap toys and even a tikam board – a game of chance to win prizes for a mere 5-sen if you were lucky!

I was forbidden from playing the tikam game but I used to watch and when I saw how this lucky draw works, I realised this was one of the earliest ways for youngsters to enjoy the thrill of gambling.  A friend, who admitted to being a regular tikam player, told me that he even had a favourite lucky spot on the tikam board and always picked this particular spot.  But I don’t know if he always won a prize from picking this spot!

Popular snacks on sale from candy cart
at Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk

While kiddy snacks, games and toys of yester-years deserve a place in the museum, it’s simply nostalgic to see them again today, not only as props in retro-fitted restaurants and cafes but some are still sold in convenience stores and some supermarkets.  At Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk recently, I couldn’t resist joining the curious crowd to see the colourful display on a candy cart.  They probably have never seen such an array of outdated snacks and junky toys, and were just discovering the interesting merchandise.

One of the items was Haw Flakes – small, stout tubes tightly packed with 10-sen size red discs of sweet-sour flakes of preserved hawthorn fruit.  I noticed they are now wrapped in gold foil instead of plain paper inside its classic red label.  While swapping memories of the way we used to enjoy this snack, another friend confessed that he and his sister used to have fun pretending these flakes were taken as part of their Holy Communion rite!

I also spotted the pastel-coloured, crispy discs of wafers, another favourite snack that I often used to buy from the school canteen.  I can’t remember exactly but I think it was sold at 5-sen for two fragrant pink, green or yellow discs and it was worth every crunchy bite.  I had two ways to enjoy it; either to quickly munch my way non-stop through the disc or to melt each and every little nibble on my tongue to make it last!

Customers at the candy cart along
Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk
Snack makers of yester-years were considered very creative then when they produced sweets in powder form that were sold in little packs designed as plastic cola bottles.  The sweet powder, available in several fruity flavours, should be enjoyed with a tiny straw as in drinking from the little cola bottle.  But since I’m more into help-me-stay-awake-nibbles, this sweet was not on my favourite schooldays snack list.

My sister, Pearly, was a great fan of Mo Fa Kor preserved fruit that were then sold in little rectangular paper sachets printed with purple Chinese characters and a portrait photo of its creator, Cheong Chee Ming, on the pack’s reverse side.  After keeping the opened packet for a while, this snack often ended up looking damp in its crumpled wrapper but now this tasty nibble is available hygienically packed in plastic packets and tubes as well as in various forms like pastilles, candy and even in drinks.  I think its pure nostalgia to enjoy these soothing products today and see that familiar label with its distinctive portrait of that gentleman looking back at you!

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 16 March 2012


  1. Whoa! Indeed it brings back memories although I was living in Muar, we also had the same kind of nostalgic snacks! Good job you are doing, with the different posts going down memory lane! Keep up the good work!

  2. Anonymous3/20/2012

    If I remember correctly, those lemon tablets came in 2 different flavours, one with the gold packaging and the other silver