A slice of heritage in Singapore

As the Chinese community here ushers in the Lunar New Year with wishes for abundance in wealth and good fortune, it’s also a good to get a glimpse of the humble lifestyle of early immigrants who came to Nanyang – the Southern Seas – carefully preserved at Singapore’s Chinese Heritage Centre.

Street market on Pagoda Street where the Singapore
Chinese Heritage Centre is situated [Left]
When the rejuvenated Centre was opened in January 2016, I went to Pagoda Street in Chinatown for an experience of the heritage gallery housed in three shophouses.  The Chinese call this area, Niu Che Shui, literally “cow car water” because in the 19th century, water supply here was mainly transported by animal-driven carts.  This area known as Kreta Ayer or “water cart” in Malay, was originally allocated to the Cantonese and considered the heart of Singapore’s Chinatown.

I walked through a bustling street market to find the refurbished building entrance, marked by a sculpture of the iconic samsui woman and a pair of giant wooden clogs.  

The red cloth head-dress was part of the
standard costume worn by samsui women
Samsui women, acknowledged as the backbone of Singapore for their role in building construction are identified by their distinct red cloth head-dress used as safety helmets and for shade.  The sculpture also captured how these frugal women made their own sandals cut from disused rubber tyres.

Destination Nanyang

Escorted by gallery guide, Karen Chen, I stepped back in time as she shared with me, a comprehensive story of early immigrants that went beyond the 1960s with details of Chinatown’s multi-ethnic community, clan associations, heritage businesses and entertainment.

I learnt that Chinese immigrants or singkeh, desperate for a better life, believed that Nanyang – the region around the South China Sea with streets paved with gold – was where they could make their fortune.  The first Chinese junk that arrived in Singapore in 1821 earned the unfortunate moniker as Hell’s Ship.  Passengers were so tightly packed on board that there was only squatting room.  In their almost 30-day journey to Nanyang, many perished.

Very often immigrants were promised jobs but after surviving a treacherous journey, they arrived to discover that they were cheated by their agents.  To stay alive, the penniless immigrants often sold themselves into slavery and worked for task masters as coolies at the port or on plantations.  Immigrants with various skills eked out a living, plying their trades in the new settlements and many established a reputation in a range of industries that continue to be successfully run by current generations of their families.

Living Quarters

Traditional 8-sided prosperity tray filled with auspicious
sweets to usher in the lunar new year, in the tailor's shop
Karen took me out to Pagoda Street again to show me the covered 5-foot way that linked the front of rows of shophouses.  Traditional shophouses here, built between 1840 and 1900 are two to three storeys high, have narrow frontage of four to six metres wide and 12 to 18 metres deep.  Divided into cubicles for rent, the shophouses were a maze of activities with problems in overcrowding, poverty, sanitation and poor hygiene.  

The 5-foot way was an important place as a playground for young children and trading space for street vendors like hawkers, medicine men, letter-writers, fortune-tellers, knife sharpeners, barbers and sor kai por, women skilled in weaving hair-buns and face-threading.

The lid is used to cover the bucket to prevent
any accidental spills when it was being
removed and taken downstairs!
I was introduced to Tailor Chan of Tuck Cheong Tailor who operated his business at the front of the ground floor shop while physician Ng, occupied the unit upstairs.  As I walked through the ancient building that was once home to early immigrants like tailors, samsui women, mah jie, a traditional physician, carpenter, clog-maker, trishaw rider, food hawker, factory worker and his seamstress wife, I was filled with awe at their humble lifestyle.  

While the tailor’s wife would cook for the tailoring team and apprentices in the ground afloor kitchen, I can sense the chaos as tenants on the upper floor shared a kitchen and that single bucket toilet.

I marveled at how groups of people lived in such cramped conditions in a way of life that they had no choice but to accept.  When I saw the cubicle where mah jie rented as a meeting place on rest days, I readily related to it.  That’s because I was once a ward of a mah jie, a member of the sworn sisterhood of celibate women who worked as nannies, who lived with us for years and she probably met her “sisters” in a space such as this!

Hidden World

The cooking range in a traditional Chinese kitchen
in shared accommodation in old shophouses
Then Karen took me behind a curtain into a hidden world for a peek at how poor migrants impoverished themselves further by indulging in vices like gambling, opium addiction and the industries associated with secret societies.   It was not uncommon to build one’s fortune on another’s misfortune and when plantations, ports and factories needed labourers, the agents or “pig traders” made huge profits by indenturing naïve singkeh in return for their passage and selling them off to employers.

Buying or kidnapping girls to sell to brothels and leisure houses was a lucrative business that also made many agents rich.  In the 1800s it was male dominated town with 140 men to 10 women, who provided the migrants with solace at brothels, gambling parlours and opium dens.  I suddenly understood the origin of the Cantonese phrase, mai chee chai which means “selling piglets,” that I was warned about because it was then a real threat of being kidnapped and sold off by such unscrupulous traders!

Living conditions were often unhealthy as
can be seen from the vermin next to a
traditional earthen pot for brewing
medicinal herbs
Games of chance was a leisure past-time that gave the singkeh hopes of sudden riches but such hopes were often dashed.  It was a vicious circle where coolies may sell themselves for another period of bondage to pay off gambling debts.  It was not uncommon to hear of singkeh who were too ashamed to return to their homeland because they lost their fortune to the gambling and opium habit.

Gambling was so rampant in the early 20th century that the British authorities revoked licensed gambling and prohibited it except during the 15 days of the Lunar New Year.  Gambling dens, however continued to flourish under the protection of powerful secret societies or triads.

For the singkeh, joining a secret society was not a matter of choice as the society would look after the welfare of its members, find him work and take care of his burial, if he should die here.  Joining the brotherhood also had its hazards as the societies vied for territories and businesses and members often got into violent fights where lives were lost.
Heritage Entertainment

Traditional wooden clogs - male [Left] and female [Right]
versions - and the plastic strap [Top Right] would be
nailed down after the buyer's foot was measured!
While over-crowding, poor sanitation, crime and violence earned Chinatown an unsavoury reputation, the indomitable spirit of the community, vibrant street markets and 5-foot ways, defined the soul and character of Chinatown in the 1950s and 1960s.

For children who created their own fun playing on the 5-foot ways, it was a treat to watch cartoons for a few cents, by looking into viewers on mobile carts equipped with film projectors.  Called, Cinema-on-Wheels, this form of entertainment gradually declined in popularity when regular television transmission started in 1963.

Archive photo of storyteller with his audience and the
jar with the burning joss stick!
The hustle and bustle of busy street markets would wind down to quieter moments when the storyteller sets up his performance area to entertain an avid audience.  It was a simple source of affordable pleasure for illiterate labourers who would sit down around the storyteller and let his animated voice transport them to another realm, away from the reality of their difficult life.

Karen pointed to the burning joss stick in front of the storyteller whose story would last as long as it burned.  She said he was also a masterful time keeper whose story would reach a cliff-hanger just as the incense stick burned out!  To hear the continuation, listeners would willingly fork out a few more cents for the storyteller to light another joss stick!

Another form of entertainment, Chinese opera, was a treat everyone in Chinatown looked forward to.  The street form of opera was held in the open to celebrate the birthdays of deities while theatres built by wealthy businessmen usually hosted shows by troupes from Hong Kong and China.

Death Houses

A cross-section of old shophouse where immigrants
used to live together in such cramped conditions
I’m told that it was a practice for the Cantonese to move the ailing elderly to death houses or funeral parlous at Sago Lane because they considered dying at home inauspicious.  T he final section of the gallery has a somber and haunting ambience that mirrored the harsh reality of being left to die.  The death houses also provided a place for the destitute and those without family or relatives, to die and receive a burial.

Dying was also a lucrative business for death house operators who usually had a funeral parlour downstairs.  Karen said that very often, those who appear to be close to breathing their last, would be dressed in their funeral clothes and placed inside a coffin to await death so as to make room for new admissions to the death house!

In 1961, the government banned the death houses and by the late 1960s, all the shophouses on Sago Lane were demolished, with part of the road demolished for the construction of the Chinatown Complex.

Authentic Features

While itr was pure nostalgia to taste a slice of history in the authentic recreation of the sets, it was also eye-opening to experience first-hand the migrants’ cramped living conditions.  I certainly gained a deeper appreciation for their resourcefulness, resilience and sense of community that developed with communal living.

A folded canvas bed, used by the tailor's apprentice,
 propped up against the wall by a wooden bench
In the tailor shop, I picked up the telephone when it rang and listened to the conversation in Cantonese between the tailor and his customer.  It was a typical chat between customer and his tailor and I was amused to hear the astute businessman in Tailor Chan, introducing a new “cool” fabric when this customer expressed interest to tailor a new suit!

Another soundscape I heard near the kitchen where Mrs Chan had prepared dinner, gave me an idea of the close ties between the tailor’s family and his apprentices.  I understood how she was telling the apprentice in a typical nagging tone to get Tailor Chan to the table to eat his dinner.

It was fascinating to see a unique peep hole on the floorboard of the upstairs front room occupied by the physician.  Karen said he had the advantage of a room situated above the 5-foot way where he could take a peek to ascertain if any patient seeking help, was genuine.  She said some front rooms in traditional shophouses had trapdoors on their floor, large enough to lower a basket down to buy a steaming bowl of noodles from a passing vendor who usually sounded their presence by beating a distinctive rhythm on bamboo sticks!

This 8ft x 8ft cubicle was where the Kong family of eight
used to live!
While we often take our modern conveniences for granted, it was humbling to see the cubicle where the Kong family of eight used to live.  Karen said the cubicle incidentally also measured 8 ft by 8 ft.  She shared an anecdote about how the family was annoyed by a pesky rat which often raided their suspended meat-safe.  The creature however, came to tragic end and its remains are left on the floor as proof that it does not pay to steal!

Fast Facts

Chinatown Heritage Centre at 48 Pagoda Street, Singapore, is open daily from 9am to 8pm and closed on the first Monday of the month.  Two guided tours per day starts from 2.30pm and 4.30pm.  Details of entrance fees for adult, child and seniors available at http://chinatownheritagecentre.com.sg

The writer [Centre] with gallery guides, Karen [Left] and Marjorie, pose for a "we-fie"
at the end of the tour of the rejuvenated Chinatown Heritage Centre at Pagoda Street, Singapore
A version of this was published in The New Straits Times, Life & Times on 4 February 2016

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