Text and images by KF Seetoh @ Makansutra
It was really different then. The “sir” dropped off his maid at 8.30 in the morning and left her with some loose change for snacks and drinks. He headed for work and she stood in line, and an incredible one (at over 100 meters long) had already formed by then. Lunch. He popped by with tapau lunch for her and she was still nowhere near the top of the queue. Come evening, at around 6pm, “sir” came back over, replaced her in the queue (her number was up by then) and finally bought a few packets of freshly grilled-on-the spot Lim Chee Guan bak kwa. This, was the 80s in Singapore.
The Chinatown streets were alive then. Photographers were jostling for prime spots at the corner of the second floor hawker centre with their 17mm wide angel lenses to capture the great “cross road of Chinatown” picture (where Smith and Trengganu street cross path). It showed a sea of sardine-packed folks in their festive spirit jostling and worming their way about in a street lit with bare tungsten bulbs and kerosene lamps from the street stalls. The firecracker ban had long been implemented (in the 70s) but stall keepers will slip you a contraband pack under that makeshift table if you just grovelled, smiled and asked for it.
That packet of bak kwa would probably be pre-dinner snacks as your family or parents cooked that all warming and significant Reunion Dinner. The pork, chicken, fish, prawns, abalone, sea cucumber, fresh greens, black moss fungus, mushrooms and dried oysters – all stuff that is not only delicious but auspicious and meaningful – was the spread of the evening. Fire crackers would occasionally break the silence of the deserted streets. Having family and relatives bond over a table of food and dressed in their homely finery (ie shorts, singlets, tee shirts and some chaps would go topless) added to the “homecoming spirit”. Truth be told, it wasn’t really about the food, it was more a reason to thank the Gods for another year of good health, family ties and luck that came your way.
Today, that Lim Chee Guan queue is still there, but not worth a mention nor stunningly long enough that you cannot capture it all on your not so wide angled smartphone camera. A good bak kwa is available all over the island and I know our folks actually avoid Chinatown these days as it is so predictable and festive in a touristy sort of way. A reunion dinner at some fancy outlet with a fanciful menu at some luck induced prices (they mostly end and/or start with the number 8 or 6), is the ritual these days. I know there are still some families who will mess up their kitchens and whip this meal on their own, but they are sadly, heading for extinction. Practicality rules- you don’t have to shop, clean, cook, wash, serve and clean up after, if you can part with $688 for the convenience at a restaurant. I think affluence is killing culture and the true meaning of the reunion dinner.
I was at Chinatown last night (just three nights before the Lunar New Year kicks in) to buy some last minute goodies and decorations. I admit, it was something I have not done in decades ( I usually buy them in the heartlands or off any busy street side shop). I had anticipated the usual midnight human logjam there, but no, it was deserted by 11.45pm. Half the night market pasar malam stalls were closed and most of the others were cleaning up. I breezed into a bak kwa shop, bought two packs and left. No queues, no fuss. It felt like a post Chinese New Year apocalypse. I tried calling some of my lizard buddies (the type that come alive at night and hunt for food) for supper and to chat about it but, most were already out of town. Chinese New Year at home with friends and family in Singapore has lost its shine and meaning.
I also miss the impromptu card game of gin rummy or black jacks when we go visiting friends and family. This was the last time I recalled that gambling actually bonded people. Now, they simply head to the casinos and gamble with strangers or if they are underaged, they swipe on the jackpot app oblivious to all and don’t even seem to appreciate your ang pow. They will yank it off you as they bounce the monkey around on the super-amoled screen.
Perhaps my buddies know something good about leaving the country this time of the year that I don’t. I’ll pry it off them next. Meanwhile, we at Makanation would like to wish all our friends and yet to be friends, a slithery smooth, healthy and wealthy year of the Snake ahead. Gong xi fa cai.