Memories of Home at a Corner of Syed Alwi Road (Workers’ Party HQ)

In early 2015, we opened up the the Workers’ Party HQ at Syed Alwi Road for filmmaker Sun Koh to shoot for the Singapore Memory Project. Sun’s mother, Mdm Chen, used to live at the premises. We took the opportunity to do a short interview with Mdm Chen to find out how life was like at the corner of Syed Alwi Road from the 1950’s to the 1970’s, at a time when WP began our walk with Singapore.

Interviewed in and translated from Mandarin by Jamie Lai

Mdm Chen (MC): I am Mdm Chen. My family used to live here. We moved here when I was a month-old and I lived here until I was 24 when I got married. That was in the 70’s. In 1978, the authorities evicted us.

Jamie (J): All of you?

MC: Yes, all of us. There was no compensation because the rent was cheap. The rental for this unit was $19.20 and $16.80 for the other.

J: It’s difficult to imagine these rental rates today.

MC: We only occupied two units. There were 5 Chinese families and 7 Malay families staying here. The neighbours got along well. Life was very interesting then. We never quarrelled. We would often buy food for each other – it was okay as long as we didn’t buy any pork for the Malay families. The children would play marbles in the corridor. The corridor used to be much wider than what it is today – it was wider than these two tables put together [referring to the tables in the HQ]. We would put a long wooden table in the corridor during mealtimes. The whole family would have dinner there. I don’t think you can imagine that there used to be 12 families living here.

The neighbours got along well. Life was very interesting then. We never quarrelled.

J: The place looks too small to accommodate so many families.

MC: This place used to be a lot bigger and longer, but it has shrunk. The only place that hasn’t changed is this room [HQ main room]. If you tear down the wall between the main room and the smaller room, you get a much bigger space. We had more than 10 people in our family living here.

J: So what was in this room?

MC: There used to be a bed here for my parents . We split the other unit into two rooms – one was for my brother when he got married and the other was for the rest of us. Some of the other siblings stayed in this bigger room.

J: So the smaller room behind didn’t exist then?

MC: No, they put up the board and created the room after we moved out.

There was a family with one member who worked as an book keeper [帐房] at the provision shop downstairs. The provision shop was next to the coffee shop that is there today. They would cook and eat in the shop instead of eating upstairs.

There was another shop that sold eggs. They had their own business association [鸡蛋商业工会]. They would also cook their meals downstairs instead of at the communal kitchen upstairs.

One of the units here belonged to the book keeper of the coffee shop. He would use the unit to store his coffee beans, sugar, soft drinks, beer, etc. Nobody lived in that unit. It was just used for storage.

Another unit belonged to an old lady from Guangdong and a son who had lower IQ. It was believed that he had a spell [gongtao] put on him after he went to Malaysia and got married. He was never the same when he came back. The old lady was more than 70 years old. My mother would cook extra food and ask me to bring it to them. They were really poor. They earned some money by helping people to pray and in return, people would give them red packets with small amounts inside. This could be anything from $2 to a few cents. How could they survive like that, especially when her son was unable to work?

There used to be a sea around the red building, and many people fell to their deaths.

Mr Koh: It was a canal.

MC: It was very big. Many people died there. People said the canal was very dirty.

The children would often cross the barriers and enter the red building to pick up the discarded wood chips so we could use them to start fires.

J: The idea of having to start a fire is a bit foreign to me.

MC: You cannot imagine it. Our lives were hard, but also very interesting and fun.

J: Can you elaborate on the food in the area?

MC: There were food stalls on both sides of the road downstairs. There was a lot of good food. We used to sell glutinous rice right below this window. The first stall on this street sold youtiao, the second stall sold otah-kueh, the third stall was ours where we sold glutinous rice and fried bee hoon, the fourth sold chwee kueh, the fifth sold bread, the sixth sold rice, the seventh sold fish ball noodles, the eighth sold kway chap.

There were also many stalls on the opposite side. There was a man who sold prawn noodles out of a trishaw. I don’t know where he got it. I don’t remember where he used to stay either. The man was skinny. His prawn noodle soup was very tasty. There was a stall there that sold peanut porridge, which was run by Cantonese people. They also sold tea cakes [茶果]. What did the next stall sell? Oh, soya bean. Every stall sold very good food.

At the corner of the road I was telling you about earlier [diagonally left to the HQ], there were two aunties selling fish.

J: They weren’t selling the fish in the market?

MC: There was no space in the market so they went across the road to set up their stalls.

J: So they were selling fish together?

MC: They were selling next to each other, but they were doing separate businesses.

There used to be a market [directly opposite the HQ] and they sold everything, including poultry and fish. Whatever you were looking for, they had it. The only thing you had to worry about was not having enough money to buy what you wanted [什么都有的,只怕你没有钱]. The provision shop on the side of your HQ did wholesale of dried goods. In the past we used to buy them directly by jin.

The place next to Sheng Siong now, used to be a laundry place. It was run by people from Guangdong.

J: So you identified people by their dialect groups?

MC: Everybody did.

The coffee shop downstairs occupies two units today, but half of it used to be a provision shop run by Teochew people. The other half sold noodles.

Next to the provision shop was the egg-seller. Next to the egg-seller was a staircase. That was the rear staircase of this building. There were two staircases like there are today.

J: So the staircase on the further end used to be the front staircase?

MC: Yes. Then next to the staircase was a man who sold chickens, and somebody who sold dried goods. There was a small space next to them where an Indian man sold candy. This was followed by a medicinal shop, a provision shop that was also run by Teochew people, [indistinct], and a shop which sold gold. There were many shops along the stretch! There was also a shop which sold peanuts, tofu skin, preserved vegetables. The kind Teochew people eat with porridge. They had small preserved crabs.

J: I have never seen them.

MC: They were small and delicious. You don’t see them around anymore. Even if anybody were to sell them, they would be expensive. At least $20. Very expensive.

The last shop on the street sold flowers.

J: You remember everything very clearly.

MC: When you exit through the back door and cross the road, there is a street selling lots of food at night. The food in the past was delicious and cheap. Food these days all seem to taste the same. Food in the past was cooked with real skill, for example, when frying hor fun, the noodles had to be covered after frying, then left to simmer, before frying again. The food would still be piping hot and delicious after bringing it home. It was really good! You don’t have anything like that today. The ingredients today are pre-cooked so there isn’t much taste at all.

J: Do you know if these stallholders have shifted and where they have shifted?

MC: No la! They were all chased away. Many of them have stopped selling food. They were all very old.

In the past there was a pau shop at the Swee Choon coffee shop [not sure if it is the same Swee Choon today]. The paus were really good. You can’t find paus like that anymore.

J: Sounds like everything tasted good in the past.

MC: Exactly! They had real skill and used the best ingredients [真材实料]. They didn’t try to cut corners. It is very difficult to find the same taste today. There isn’t a single stall today with that sort of taste. They [her family] say I’m picky, but it’s not that I’m picky. It’s just that I have grown up around these markets and I know what it’s supposed to taste like. You can’t find it anymore. I started selling food with my mother when I was 9 years old.

J: No wonder you remember everything so clearly.

MC: Exactly. I was very familiar with this place and all the stalls.

J: Do you know where your old neighbours have moved?

MC: I don’t know. We have not been in contact. It’s strange that I have never run into them either. I have only met the egg-seller’s daughter. I know where she is. She is selling chickens at a market in Ang Mo Kio. It has been difficult to find them.

J: Why don’t you ask your daughter to help you?

MC: I can’t even find them and I know them personally, what more my daughter who does not know them. It is very difficult to look for the people from your past. There was a girl whom I used to fight with when I was growing up. She is now a grandmother like me. When we used to meet up, we still reminisce about how we used to fight when we were younger.

J: It’s a good thing though right, to still be in contact?

MC: I am only in contact with her sister now. I don’t know where she is anymore.

J: Her sister doesn’t know where she went either?

MC: She does, but I think her sister doesn’t really keep in contact with her. They don’t seem to have a good relationship. The sister has never said it, but I surmised as much from her tone.

J: So your husband didn’t stay around here?

MC: He didn’t, but he stayed near Beach Road which is quite near.

J: How did you meet each other?

MC: We met through someone else, which was very common in the past. Most people in that era met that way.

The other day, my sister told me, “Do you know what has become of the room we lived in?” I said, “How would I know?” I used to walk around here after I moved out, but the door was locked and we couldn’t come up so I haven’t been back in a while. She told me this room has become Low Thia Khiang’s club [刘程强的俱乐部] today.