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.

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