Many are the afflictions of the righteous: but the LORD delivereth him out of them all.

    PSALMS 34:19

Chinese New Years and Funerals

Posted: 30 June 2011


Fresh water eels and more eels for dinner and lunch. My dad worked in odd jobs and I remembered well every night he would come home with a full gallon pail of fresh water eels. We were not afraid to touch them because the adults welcomed the arrivals with anticipations for each household would receive their just portions to cook for lunch or dinner usually with Chinese congee served with salted cabbages.

There were fried eels, steamed eels, eel porridges and eel soups. When I was borned, I was so fair that had it not been my nose and cheek bones bearing some semblance to my dad, people would have thought my mother had an affair with a foreign man. The eels were thought to help smoothen the skin even better so I was fed more eels than I wanted to eat to the point of it becoming revolting to me nowadays.
Where did those eels come from? From the digging of the grand Orchard Road Canal. Ha, ha, my dad did his best but I guess the flood this year kind of proved man's best efforts are no match for nature's mysterious fury. So a part of Orchard Road became food for a little kid in Tai Gin Road living next to another canal, the Whampoa.

Now I know why Orchard Road featured so much in my adult life, like it is trying to demand back its portion of me. Believe it or not, the Mount Elizabeth Private Hospital shares my birthday.

From such an open type of communal living, we had to move to a more congested place in Victoria Street for a carpenter friend (remembering Jesus, the Carpenter?), invited my family to live with them with lower rentals. Again, it was a smaller communal living with shared kitchen and a common bucket toilet. But wonders of wonders, inside the kitchen was a well that provided our water for washing and bathing. The toilet was not good for washing of cookery and food so we had a common tap with a large sink at the corner of the kitchen.

Oh yes, I forgot my elder sister who kind of always stayed at the background. I thought I said all four of us living in the Whampoa commune, but actually it should have been five. That's how icognito my elder sister was. Pensive and scared most of the time. But when we moved to Victoria street, she became really noticeable because she was fair and skinny too and much sort after by the bigger boys. School was just one or two street away but she had to cross the busy Victoria Street to the traffic junction so that it became a daily affair for my mother to bring her to school. We were left alone to our own imaginations running hither and thither but getting no where and always geting into fights with the children which always ended me getting the cane when my mother came home.

I have no interest to do carpentry except learning how to shave the wood into smoother pieces of the same block. I couldn't handle the chisel to make the dove tail corners but I enjoyed watching my uncle doing that. To me, he was such a professional. He made tables, he made chairs and he made cupboards. All these were positonally placed so that customers could walk into the shop and buy off rack or ordered custom made ones. There were half cupbaords, hanging cupboards or full size cupboards, single door, double doors, door with anti fly nettings or glass doors. You name it, he made it.

Unlike in Tai Gin road, where I could gather in the Villa of Sun Yat Sen or at the hill top Glass or bread making factory. In Victoria Street the only safe place to play was the temple hall next door but most times we were not welcomed there as devotees would be praying for a better life and great fortunes and enriching the coiffers of the temple guardians.

From this house, two distinct events imprinted themselves in my mind. Chinese New Years and Funerals. Because of the temple ground, we saw crowds and crowds of people gathering round trying to fire off the grandest of fire crackers. During the 15 days of celebration, the street was literally RED. We kids stepped on half blown crackers bits and pieces of blown up cardboard type of red casings. We learnt to hold live crackers in our hand and explode them to show our bravadier. Surprisingly, in the two years we were living there, there were no fires nor anyone getting hurt though we heard the wailing of  fire engines regularly in Victoria Street. We literally strung long strings of such crackers that we gave funny names to, such as Red fierce dragons or Loudest Shouting snake, or Great noise rope, hung on bamboo ends from the rooftops to the ground floor. The louder they sounded and the longest got the most claps and created great happiness and smiley faces.

I don't think I hear any complaints after those 15 days of celebration when the government garbage truck and road sweepers came to clear the rubbish. It was like, hey everyone enjoyed themselves and that was the most important so it was expected to have been able to contribute to clean up the streets. We did not have unfriendly neighbours as we all chipped in to help clear the roadside, the famous "go kaki" or five foot way between the main road and the shop houses.

Victorial street was like the current row of shop houses in China Town facing People Parks Complex, of fragrant barbecued pork and candies, lanterns and joss sticks. The temple had one of the longest and largest joss stick that seemed to burn forever.

But who could have missed the funerals? You know someone rich had died when you see the whole street converted into one long funeral reception area of tables along the five foot way and the loudest of wailing for the dead. Their cries of sadness and grief were so great which evoked dryness of our throats. Somehow, we kids did not get the feelings that they were actually grieving but was story telling as they narrated how good the dead persons were in their lives and how kind and helpful to be taken away so suddenly. It was later revealed that all these wailers and mourners were paid for their services and some were part timers and some professionals. 

We saw sickness too when our own uncle was admitted to the Singapore General Hospital for TB and died but his funeral was in Sago Lane, one of those death houses for poorer families where the wailing was noticeably absent. The carpenter uncle had one son and a beautiful and obedient daughter in law. They had 7 sons or was it 6 but the eldest was born dark with really blackish skin. It was some illness I could not understand, probably some kidney disease. Within that short 2 years we were there, this eldest son died and one year later, the father died and the beautiful daughter in law became a widow. My family kind of felt we had brought  them bad luck so my dad decided to take up a job with the Straits Trading Company who offered us their company quarters but this was in Pulau Brani, an island opposite Sentosa! And this island was where I spent 17 years of my life.

The sending off of the dead in grand coffins and fully decorated trucks or lorries was a sight to behold. Bands in uniforms and relatives in funeral attire of various ranking followed behind in ordered slow marches as the truck inches slowly and slowly away from the main street and once it turned the traffic corner, everyone hopped into the passengers truck (left picture) that followed behind and we all drove to the burial site in Chua Chu Kang, and another round of wailing and procession performed before the dead were lowered to the grave with a special contraption because the grand coffin weighed a ton or two.

An auntie who visited was a Christian Missionary from the Methodist Church and she was not too welcome as she continued to give out her tracts. In some villages, she was even stoned like in bible days.  But she was kind and my mother liked to bring me to visit her hometown church in Johor, so sometimes, we made those long journeys by buses and private taxis crossing the Malaya border in choas and mixed crowds, but being a kid it was a fun all the way as I get to eat those sweet potatoes, cut fruits, fermented tofu or preserved olives and plums.

My grandma was an infrequent visitor as her visits always got my mother disturbed and I don't understand why. Later I discovered that she was working as a family helper in other places but did not contribute much to our family expenses and yet was able to loan 1,000 dollars to the aunty who kept it a secret until my grandma died and she revealed that she had this loan from my grandma. 1,000 dollars was almost like 50,000 those days but when she returned the money after so many years, the equvalent was more like 5,000 dollars or less. And it became clear later why we were treated so nicely because grandma provided the seed money for the carpentry shop.

No wonder my mother was mad with my grandma because she had to struggle and make herself humble before the relatives so that she could get help for expenses a litle here and a little there to get by. No wonder she liked to visit the kind seamtress lady in Balestier Road and the missionary aunty in Johor. Because in her church, we were treated well and my mother was paid for her contribution to cooking for the church members. I helped by announcing to all and sundry that lunch was to be served in a town crier mode which made the members laughing all the time. It was joyous to me. Water in the church was from a well and the water from the church well was clean and cold. But it was not enough to wash away my sins in my later life because I always got into trouble every six month or so. A Island of mine own, moving to live in a Island opposite the present Sentosa!


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