In the 1960s, the whole of Chinatown, Singapore, was one giant open-air wet market. The market sprawled along Sago Lane, Sago Street, Temple Street, Banda Street and Trengganu Street -- and being there was an experience.
Chinatown then was an enclave of narrow streets and rows of 4- to 5-storey pre-war shophouses and SIT (public housing) Art Deco buildings.
Conditions were slum-like. The street level storey was usually given over to retail or commercial use, while the upper stories were used as residential units. Individual tenants and multiple families occupied tiny, dark cubicles and shared common kitchens, toilets, and corridors. Times were hard but there were simple joys and plenty of community spirit.
The market itself was a motley conglomeration of mostly mobile makeshift stalls occupying the streets and five-foot-ways. Apart from the grocers and dried goods merchants, there were sellers of rattan furniture and other household knick-knacks. Fresh produce such as pork, fish, fruit and vegetables were displayed on pushcarts and mobile stalls. Chickens would be kept alive in cages and slaughtered before one’s eyes when a purchase was made. It was common to see live chickens transported, tied by their feet in twos or threes, dangling upside down from bicycles.
Several stalls among Smith Street offered more exotic meat such as civet cat, frog, snake, monitor lizard, pangolin and pigeon. By mid-afternoon, the hurly-burly business day would wind down, the carts and cages pushed away, and the area cleared for the other “shift” – the hawkers and stalls of the night market. It was a daily cycle.
The people -- more even than the stalls and produce -- gave the market its ambience and allure. The place was thronged with the neighborhood’s denizens – mainly amahs (unmarried Chinese female domestics), laborers, and odd-job workers.
The smell was indescribable: sweat, dirt, livestock and food, and the distinctive penetrating odor of old stone and wood from the buildings themselves. Fortune-tellers squatted by the wayside, and professional “letter writers” offered scribal services to the largely illiterate crowds. Hawkers touted, haggled, and quarreled; children screamed, and were screamed at; mothers gossiped loudly; and somewhere a dog barked…you get the picture.
Here's a video of Chinatown the way it used to be:
The food of the street market was mainly Cantonese, as the different Chinese dialect groups congregated in their own “areas” within Chinatown. Clan and ethnic associations, understandably, were very strong among the early-arriving immigrants. The Teochews lived around Carpenter Street and South Canal Road; Hokkiens in Telok Ayer Street and Hokkien Street; and the Cantonese around Temple Street, Mosque Street, and Kreta Ayer Road.
I remember, in particular, a stall at the end of Sago Street, next to Keong Siak Street. The actual street no longer exists, having being replaced by Chinatown Complex. The stall consisted of a wooden tray, roughly the size of a school-desk top, perched on a crate. Next to the tray was a charcoal stove with a wok of boiling oil. It sold Fried Dumpling; in fact, she was the only person selling this food that I’ve ever met!
During research, I discovered that Fried Dumpling was an old Hakka creation that has disappeared even from China. It used to be called “za” dumpling (砸粽); since “za” sounded like “fried” (炸) in the Hakka dialect, it gradually came to be called “zha” dumpling (炸粽), as “zha” was the actual word for “fried” in Hakka.
The version in mainland China was a dumpling fried until crispy and then eaten dipped in sugar, salt, or ginger/garlic dip. However, the Sago Street dumplings were dipped in batter and fried, and then eaten with five-spice salt. I’ve tried to replicate the taste as I remember it – and I think I’ve succeeded.
The area across which the market stretched, as described above, was affectionately known as “Da Po” (大坡) in Mandarin. The names the streets were known by in the 1960s: Sago Lane was Si Ren Jie (死人街); Smith Street was Xi Yuan Jie (戏院街); and Trengganu Street was Si Yuan Heng Jie (戏院横街).
Fried Hakka Dumpling
Glutinous rice 1 kg, soaked in water overnight and drained
Alkaline water 2 tbsp
Oil 4 cups plus 2 tbsp
5-spice Salt 1 tbsp
Self-raising flour 4 tbsp
Rice flour 4 tbsp
Corn flour 1 tbsp
Salt a pinch
Water ½ cup
1. Add alkaline water and 2 tbsp of oil to the rice and marinate for 30 minutes.
2. Grease a baking pan and pour the rice into it.
3. Steam for 2 hours.
4. While it’s hot, place a heavy weight on the rice and let it be compressed for 2 hours.
5. Cut the dumpling into pieces.
6. Prepare the frying batter by mixing all the ingredients and letting it rest for 10 minutes.
7. Heat oil in a wok.
8. Dip the dumpling into the batter, then fry it until it turns golden brown.
9. Remove and drain the oil.
10. Dip in 5-spice salt to eat.