The spot in Chinatown where the Kreta Ayer Theatre stands used to be a grass-covered hilltop with a park. I remember roaming that hilltop to play on its swings and seesaw, hunt grasshoppers, and scrounge for earthworms – there was so much for a 6-year-old to do in that little park! The time was the 1960s.
Also on the hill was a community center that housed one of the few televisions in the neighborhood; the young and old were drawn to that TV like moths to a flame every night. There was also a crèche where working parents would leave their kids during the day. When evening fell, old folks would gather in the park to enjoy the breeze.
I remember an old storyteller, who would sit with a kerosene lamp and narrate tales in Cantonese from classics such as The Three Kingdoms and Journey to the West. For a small fee, you could rent a tiny stool from him on which to listen. During intervals in the story, he would wind his way through the crowd holding a milk can. Clink! clink! -- in went the small change. He was probably the first busker Singapore ever had!
During the Hungry Ghosts festivities that occupied the Chinese 7th lunar month, huge wood-and-canvas tents would rise on the hill. Beneath these tents you’d come face-to-face with colorful paper effigies of Chinese deities that stood as tall as 4 meters or more. They would be accompanied by joss sticks, just as tall, and shaped like gargantuan firecrackers with small figurines on wires studded on its surface. As a kid I would surreptitiously pry these figurines loose when no one was watching, and bring them home to play and to display.
Some tents were built to stage grand Cantonese operas. In those days it was common to have famous opera artistes specially brought in from Hong Kong to perform. It was believed these performances would provide entertainment for the dead; but the living seemed to benefit more. There would be proper seating for members of the sponsoring clan or association and its guests, but scores of other folks from the neighborhood would bring their “unofficial” seats – stools, benches, and even wooden crates -- and plant them permanently on the ground for the duration of the sometimes weeks-long theater.
In time the opera performances were no longer limited to the 7th lunar month; the tent became a permanent stage, and later still a theater was built.
There was a patch of hillside where the flower, rhoeo discolor, (common name: oyster plant) grew abundantly. I used to harvest these flowers to bring home to dry in the shade for a couple of days. I would boil them with rock sugar and winter melon candies. Folks believed the flower was good for the throat and helped reduce thirst, but I loved them simply for their unique flavor. Sometimes, I used them as base for agar agar and jello; however, the oyster plant is hard to find in the market. You might occasionally find the leaves of the plant but its flowers are virtually non-existent, so you might need to grow them yourself.
Much has changed to the hill and its park. The low-rise buildings that surrounded it have been replaced with the present HDB blocks; the hill has been all but flattened, and today you wouldn’t even think that a hill once stood there.
Rhoeo Discolor Drink
Rhoeo Discolor 120 g
Water 2.5 litres
Winter melon Candies 100 g
Honey Rock Sugar 100 g
|It is commonly known as 蚌花 in Chinese|
- Boil the leaves, melon candies, and water for 1½ hours.
- Add honey rock sugar and adjust according to taste.
- Serve it hot or cold.