Every so often, the Ghim Moh Food and Wholesale Market would be more hectic than what would usually be expected on a weekend. Continue reading
Despite their transient nature, festive bazaars of any sort can always be distinguished every year by their unconscious regularity. There are the same stands of pussy willows, dyed in all sorts of colours, sitting behind pots of spiral-shaped bamboo coils and cut peach and plum tree branches. There is the same roasted-chestnut vendor standing before his glass-panelled roaster, sending the faint aroma of coffee wafting through the crowd. There are the same intricate red paper cuttings of auspicious Chinese characters, the same fabric plushies of zodiac animals, the same snaking queues for sweetmeats (better known by its Hokkien name bak kwa).
And then there are the details that you notice only after having regularly set foot along the same streets at the same time of year. Along Sago Street this afternoon, I witnessed the vendors kick into high gear at an unexpected visit. “The health department is here,” one old woman hollered, as men bustled out from behind their storefronts to take down the rope that they had used to extend the roof shelters over their stalls. I saw a woman peek out from under a massive blue tarp that had been pulled down from the eaves, iPhone pressed to ear as she kept watch down the street. I’d also begun noticing the gaggles of teenage students on school excursions traipsing behind teachers and tour guides. “I’m going to scare him to death,” one boy chuckled mischievously in Mandarin as he waved a wooden snake in a plastic bag. And then there were the tour groups: American, Taiwanese, Chinese, Indian, Malaysian, standing out with their orderly clustering compared to the stream of local pedestrians who thread down the busy lanes with a single-minded focus.
It never gets old to me. Chinese New Year has always been one of the most special times of the year to me. Even as a young adult, I always find a certain childish glee in surveying rows of deep brown niangao at the Tai Chong Kok bakery, or going to the same Indonesian bamboo cake vendor year after year to enjoy the fluffy white rice flour tubes stuffed with warm palm sugar and buried in sweet coconut flakes and orange sugar. Like what Christmas does to many in other corners of the world, the colours and music and lively bustle that Chinese New Year brings to Singapore always excites me. And the riotous energy (and, sometimes, idiosyncrasies) of the Chinatown bazaars never fails to remind me of that.
While most of Singapore has been swept up in a holiday frenzy over Chinese New Year’s impending arrival, a different sort of frenzy has been bubbling in a small corner of Singapore. Another harvest festival, Pongal, was also approaching, anticipated by the majority of the island’s Tamil community. The Pongal lights had come up over Serangoon Road, looking over Little India’s main thoroughfare, and side-streets closed in preparation for the festivities. In the lull of a Sunday mid-afternoon, though, the lights were not yet lit, giving the streets over to throngs of tourists and visitors.
Along Hastings Road, a small enclosure had been set up to house the livestock who would be vindicated on the third day of Pongal, Maatu Pongal. On that day cattle, considered sacred animals in Hinduism, would be treated to a mixture of milk and fruits, but for now they would be shown off to crowds of curious onlookers. Dairy cattle and long-haired dwarf goats were tethered behind a metal fence mulling over buckets of hay at their audience, their horns painted in different colours as a preliminary symbol of their upcoming veneration. Among the onlookers there was a fascination tinged with reverence for the cow’s life-giving properties, and I wonder how the cattle must have felt about the sweet treats and special attention they would be receiving in just days to come.
I backed out of the street and moved further along to Campbell Lane. What interested me at that point were not the decorations put up for the festivities, however, but the signs of the bustle of daily life I spotted around me. Signboards for goldsmiths leapt out at me from among the rows of shops I walked past, emblazoned in flowing Tamil script or even in gilded Chinese characters from the different chains that had set up shop in this area. A shopping arcade peeked out from a zebra crossing, revealing a pair of men behind a glass counter filled with sandy-white halwa and golden-orange jaangiri. A vegetable stall sat just blocks away from a SIM card shop, giving way to fridges filled with soft drinks and racks of magazines printed in Tamil and Hindi.
And then I noticed the streets were teeming with foreign construction workers. Many construction workers hail from southern India or Bangladesh, eking out a living doing back-breaking manual work under spartan living conditions in return for meager pay. Many of them go un-noticed, sometimes even vilified, by locals. Today was the only day in the week they had off work, and they looked significantly more relaxed in their plaid button-downs and T-shirts. A pair of men walked out of Tekka Centre, each toting a plastic takeaway cup of kalamansi juice and bantering with a relieved vigour. Lines of them snaked out from the back of the hawker centre, waiting for their turn to send money home to their families from the ATM. Men sprawled over the grass, sat together on ledges and talked quietly over cigarettes. I even saw them roaming around a playground. One man had a go at playing with the fitness equipment while his companions looked on, a shy smile crossing his face.
I began to feel distinctly out of place and yet, I was touched. It can be hard to identify with the people we perceive as below us as multi-faceted people, to think of them as having interests and aspirations of them. I felt like I had seen a more human side to these construction workers that day, one that cut through and defied the warnings I had heard from misguided stereotypes of their propensity for violence. I walked away that afternoon feeling like there was a group of people that appeared almost inaccessible to me, and whom I longed to be able to understand.
It was that time of year again–for pineapple tarts and bak kwa, red packets and pussy willows, revelry and family. The Year of the Goat had breezed into town, and nowhere was the pulse of a new spring more deeply felt than in Chinatown.
In the middle of the day, a steady tide of visitors was already coursing up and down the length of Temple Street–a sign that the annual Chinese New Year bazaar was gearing up to full swing. For a while we retreated into the shelter between the wooden walls of Mei Heong Yuen Dessert’s flagship store, spooning up milk pudding and black sesame paste as we watched faces roll by, with some stopping for brief moments to exchange the fleetest of smiles, the storefront of a man selling preserved persimmons. When we stepped into the crowd, we found ourselves being swept along, and occassionally engulfed as the stream of human bodies–made up of as many middle-aged men as young ladies, tourists as there were locals, and grandchildren as there were grandparents–closed around us.
All sorts of vendors had decided to seize the oppurtunity to make a quick buck. Stands of cherry blossoms and rows of potted orchids gave way to stacked jars of almond cookies and bags of Taiwanese fruit jellies and dried kelp. Across from a man selling oranges attached to leafy branches was another surrounded by pendulous glowing red lanterns. Old women sitting amidst pairs of beaded slippers and wooden clogs would be replaced by stores selling Chinese-surname-themed brushes and zodiac plush dolls around the corner. The crackle of coffee-roasting chestnuts wafted alongside rows of deep green Buddha’s fingers and hourglass-shaped gourds. In the opposite street bristled all manner of New Year decorations in festive shades of red and gold, as sacks filled to the brim with peanuts and melon seeds beckoned to passers-by. No matter what they were selling, each stall-holder went about their job with an almost fevered determination, spurred by competition with their neighbours and the frenzy of activity around them. The mishmash of colour from their juxtaposed wares and the hollers that’d periodically pierce the air above us seemed to be harbingers of the beginning of yet another festive season.
On our way, we encountered a shabbily-dressed old lady wheeling a metal trolley purposefully past the stalls, the only one in the crowd who didn’t seem to be caught up in the heady bazaar atmosphere. As we watched, she approached the nearest bin and lifted the lid, looking in for discarded cardboard boxes which she could hope to sell for a meager sum of cash. As she returned to her trolley, my mother pressed a ten-dollar note into her hands. With a sudden warmth she began speaking profusely in Cantonese, “Thank you, miss! Happy New Year! Best of health!” Looking to me, she added, “Is this little lady your daughter? May you have progress in work!” before we again went our separate ways.
In their own ways, our encounter with the old lady and the presence of the street market appear to befit the Lunar New Year. The latter is a celebration of the pragmatism and entrepreneurship that had characterised the Chinese for many a generation, while the other serves as a reminder of the need on such a family-oriented time of year to really bring festive cheer and fortune to the people and places it’s most needed.