Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Growing Up Uniquely on Keong Saik Street

Photo by Mark Ong

When news broke that Tong Ah Building would finally bow to yet another commercial takeover in Keong Saik Street, my heart skipped a beat.  Another building changing hands, I thought … another piece of my childhood obliterated forever.

Keong Saik Street, and the many memories it held for me growing up, was slowly vanishing; at least, the Keong Saik Street that I remember…

Named after the prominent Malacca-born businessman, Tan Keong Saik, the Y-shaped street off Kreta Ayer Road was known for much of its history for the ‘trade’ it sheltered; and up to the 80s Keong Saik Street was always mentioned in the same breath as Desker Road and Geylang.

Keong Saik Street was lined with 3-storey houses, mostly in the architectural style of Art Deco or the pre-war shop house. The ones that were used as brothels were easy to spot. They had yellow light boxes above the front door, with the address number in red on them. It fact there were so many of these little boxes, finding a door with a regular address plate (with black numerals) was like striking the lottery. Keong Saik was considered more ‘high-end’ than its other counterpart streets in Singapore, and its denizens were mainly Chinese women aged below 30. As kids, my friends and I would play peek-a-boo along the street, curious to see what lay behind the pintu pagar (the traditional wooden swing doors at the entrance).
Many amahs worked as ‘chamber maids’ within the brothels and made handsome salaries from tips given by the customers and prostitutes. During the Hungry Ghosts Festival every year, a temporary tent would be erected on the street and well-known Cantonese opera troupes invited to perform for the entertainment of the wandering spirits. The amahs would take the opportunity to splurge their takings. They would dedicate huge celebratory banners to their favorite opera artistes, adorned with borders of ‘flowers’ folded from hundreds of their hard-earned dollar bills.

The street was sleepy in the day but very different when darkness fell. Then it became busy with packs of men prowling from house to house looking for the best “bargains”. Unlike in Geylang, there would be no streetwalkers and the ladies would wait indoors in salons that were supervised by “managers”.

For me going to Keong Saik Street helped satisfy my lust -- culinary lust that is. Like any other red-light district, there was always good food around the area, as if to give credence to the Chinese saying, “ 饱思淫欲, When the stomach is full, one would think of sex.” There were a couple of cze cha stalls on the street but one in particular stood out.

If I had a stomach for supper around 9 pm or so, Keong Saik Street offered me two options. It was either a plate of fried cockles kway teow, at 30 cents a plate from the pushcart parked opposite  Kow Kee  (球记every night, or to Kow Kee itself if I had a little more cash to spare.

Kow Kee occupied nearly the entire space at Tong Ah Coffee Shop. During lunch, they would serve wonton noodles and some simple dishes. Come evening, the operators would line the five-foot way and the street closest to the coffee shop with tables and chairs. Business was always brisk and customers would wait at least 45 minutes for their turn at the table. The two brothers who owned the eatery would whip up classic Cantonese dishes at the twin woks, while their younger sister would orchestrate activities as Chef de Partie from 6 pm to past midnight.

Kow Kee had a few signature dishes. Among these were braised pork ribs and bitter gourd (焖豉汁苦瓜排骨) -- a must for me – and clay pot liver (沙煲猪肝), my second favourite. If I ate at the stall, I would order the fish-head noodle soup (鱼头米粉汤); otherwise it was fried seafood bee hoon (什锦米粉) or fried hor fun with prawns (滑蛋虾仁河粉) for takeaway.  I could still remember their unique method of frying mee hoon. The noodles were deep-fried until they looked like the Afro on a black guy’s head turned crispy; then a large ladle of thick gravy was poured onto the mee hoon with a light sizzling sound. To date, Kow Kee was the first and only stall I knew that served mee hoon in this style.

In the early 70s, to eat out at a cze cha stall was a special treat for the family. At a time when a bowl of mee pok tah  (面簿干) cost all of 20 cents; a plate of chicken rice, 70 cents; and a packet of hor fun a ‘whopping’ $1.50, kids would leap for joy at the mere whisper of dining out at a cze cha stall.

While waiting for my food, there were always things to distract me. I’d sometimes see a solitary man pace up and down the street in a sheepish manner and then suddenly dash into a brothel without raising his head; and I’d know that that was his first time! Sometimes I’d see men walk out from the door with contented grins and head for supper. And occasionally I’d see an amah carry a tingkat to buy supper for her mistresses or speed towards a ‘mama’ provision shop to fetch a pack of cigarettes for a customer in the brothel.

Today, there’s little of Keong Saik – the street and its street life – that I recognize. The commercial redevelopment of the area, beginning in the 80s, has seen to that. The three siblings no longer run Kow Kee, and Tong Ah Building has been sold to yet another boutique operator.

Keong Saik Street has opened itself to another kind of hospitality business. Some people might see it as a ‘healthier’ turn of events. For me, I miss the colourful – and educational -- encounters I had on that street as a kid.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Wonton Mee Redemption

Near where I lived as a little boy in Chinatown was a famous mini noodle factory. On its shop front was displayed all manner of fresh and dehydrated noodles, wonton skins, and other flour-based products. I was fascinated.

And I enjoyed watching the whole process of noodle making too. It looked so well organized and mechanical; everyone had his or her precise role and activity. And they looked comical, with white flour on their faces and bodies, just like in the movies when the actors threw powder at each other.

I remember well my first attempt at making noodles – because I nearly died doing it. Kneading the dough was so tedious that I almost gave up halfway; and I swore I actually had biceps and triceps for the first time in my life after I finished. But that was the easy part. Because then came the rolling. Have you ever tried getting an even thickness on a piece of dough the size of a seat cushion? I finally ended up with a pile of stuff that looked like anything but noodles.

I still see this whole episode in my nightmares.

Now, life is kinder to me. I can borrow a mixer and a pasta machine from a friend and suddenly I feel like Superman. Nothing can defeat me again. With some leftover duck eggs in hand, I was ready to face my demons and conquer my phobia…

Wonton Noodle
Flour                           900 g      
Duck egg                    90 g                         
Chicken egg               270 g       
Potato flour                45 g          
Alkaline water            35 g                          

1.        On a flat surface, gently form a volcano with ¾ of the flour, with a hole in the center.
2.        Sprinkle salt evenly.
3.        Drop ¾ of egg in the middle of the flour.
4.        Start gently mixing and kneading.
5.        Add the remaining flour and egg bit by bit during kneading.
6.        The dough should be firm and not stick to the fingers.
7.        Once done, wrap dough in a cling wrap and let it rest for at least 30 minutes.
8.        Roll it out by hand or use a pasta machine.
9.        Dust with flour and let it dry.

Note: Duck egg gives a certain degree of elasticity to the noodle texture. If duck eggs are unavailable, just substitute it with the same amount of chicken eggs.

Method of Cooking:

1.        Boil sufficient water for 5 minutes.
2.        Lower water to around 95°C.
3.        Blanch noodle until cooked, for about 3 minutes, in a kitchen sieve.
4.        Remove noodle from the hot water and dip it into a pot of room temperature water and rinse thoroughly. Meanwhile bring the hot water to boil again.
5.        Blanch noodle in boiling water for 15 seconds.
6.        Noodle is ready to be served in soup or tossed dry.

Method of Tossed Dried Noodle:

Wonton noodle       35 g
Lard/oil                      1 tbsp
Sesame oil                 ¼ tsp
Oyster sauce             ½ tbsp
Light soy sauce         ½ tsp
Chilli sauce                1 tbsp

1.        Cook 30 g noodle (follow above instructions).
2.        Meanwhile, mix the rest of ingredients thoroughly in a serving bowl.
3.        Toss noodle well with the sauce.
4.        Serve with meats of your choice.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Tian Qi – No Monkeying Around

I was introduced to Tian Qi, a Chinese herb, when I hit puberty. This was a period where I would, literally, grow by centimeters when I hit the sack. Yes, we humans only grow when we sleep. And this herb was believed to help the body to generate and regenerate new cells for growth.

There was a legend about how Tian Qi was discovered. A monkey was once badly injured by a villager. After several days however, the monkey was seen to have made great progress in recovery. The villager decided to trail the monkey and spied it digging some roots to eat. After the monkey left, he dug up the root and took it home. And that was how Tian Qi came to be a frequently prescribed medicine among traditional Chinese physicians to this day.

The herb is usually used in conjunction with Ginseng, because it is believed that Ginseng is great for improving “qi” or energy while Tian Qi delivers benefits to the blood and bones.

I wasn’t the only one taking this herb; my pets loved it too. I would grind the herb into powder and mix it into their food, and I was convinced that Tian Qi helped heal my animals’ cuts and wounds faster.

As I grew older, I would often boil the herb according to the recipe below. Tian Qi is also known to stabilize blood pressure and prevent stroke.  I would add pork trotter and chicken feet to further supplement the collagen in my body. Tian Qi is easily available from Chinese medical shops.

Tian Qi & Ginseng Soup

Tian Qi (田七)                      10 g, sliced thinly
Ginseng (泡参)                    20 g, sliced thinly
Pork trotter                           500 g
Chicken feet                          300 g
Chicken                                   400 g
Honey dates                         6
Chinese yam                        250 g, cut into chunks
Water                                      4 litres
Salt                                           2 tsp

1.          Put both Chinese herbs in a cloth bag. Secure the opening tightly.
2.          Blanch pork trotter, chicken feet and chicken for 5 minutes. Drain and rinse meat under tap water.
3.          Add Chinese herbs, honey dates and Chinese yam in a pot of water. Bring to boil.
4.          Add meat and boil for 10 minutes. Lower heat and simmer for 2 hours.
5.          Season soup with salt.
6.          Serve hot.