Back Alley Fireworks: Lai Tuck Chong

Posted by on Jun 11, 2014 in From the Archives | No Comments

When Lai Tuck Chong’s uncle brought home a huge bag of fireworks, it erupted into a friendly firefight in the back alley — leaving him huddling under his mother’s frying wok to defend against enemy fire!


Children grimace and cover their ears in anticipation of the fireworks’ explosion.
Image credit: National Archives of Singapore, SPH

My dear uncle had this piercing look that could be interpreted in two ways: (1) He was going to beat you into a pulp unless you confessed. (2) He was going to beat you up no matter what. Either way, it was best not to make eye contact with him for more than a microsecond. 

The problem was, he was the only uncle who liked to play with us kids. The rest were all into their A-Go-Go (local discotheques playing popular music) phase. At first, it was quite unnerving and we would hide or give some excuse. Some of us boys resorted to playing tea with our sisters. Yes, we got that desperate!

The turnaround came one Chinese New Year. We were playing fireworks in the backlane when he came and joined us. He’d brought along cans, sticks and a rather big bag. With these, he taught us how to blow stuff sky high. How to make poppers with stone and paper and how to make an even bigger firecracker from the smaller ones. From that big bag out poured some of the most gobsmacking firecrackers — stuff we all wanted to buy but had not the money for. Stuff that whirled, rocketed and yes, screamed!

The whole firefight became something of a Shock and Awe campaign in Iraq: you could literally see streaks of light fly across space as we traded fire with one another with those handheld rockets.

The ones that whirled spun on the ground with tails of flint-fire when ignited. Those that rocketed either had a long stick that you held or planted in the ground. The other rocket kind you simply aimed and pulled on the string. Either one would scream like a banshee towards its target once ignited.

Image credit: Varun Khurana

A firework bursts out of an empty Coke bottle.
Image credit: Varun Khurana

During firecracker time, all the boys and girls carried with them a joss stick each. You took care to light the firecracker properly and you took care also not to poke each other’s eye out with that glowing point. (This was especially so clambering up and down those spiral staircases at the back).

That year, our firecracking shenanigans ended up in a firefight between houses. Imagine the setup: Three lanes of homes facing each other with two levels of staircase landings and staircases (the back of the Geylang houses with three intersecting backlanes (forming a T)). Include the homes right across the road and you’d have at least four battling sides!

Image credit: TC Lai

An example of the staircase landings where Mr. Lai Tuck Chong had to duck to defend himself against errant fireworks.
Image credit: Lai Tuck Chong

The whole firefight became something of a Shock and Awe campaign in Iraq: You could literally see streaks of light fly across space as we traded fire with one another with those handheld rockets. Of course, the combatants across the road were lower and at a disadvantage. They also had to fire out from window grills. We, on the other hand, were on superior ground: We needed only to stoop below the parapet to avoid being hit. However, our parapet was balustraded and so we had to use our moms’ kwali (frying wok) as a shield.

That was a delirious time and even the adults joined in the fun. Midway through the firefight, a crash of glass was heard. Someone’s ba gua above the window had been smashed! A ba gua was a type of mirror that houses put up to ward off evil, and so, it was a taboo thing to touch, let alone damage. More retaliatory rockets flew, as did colourful profanities in Hokkien. We kept low and quiet hoping one of the other sides would take the rap.

In the morning, people woke to assess the damage. The backlanes littered all over with red smithereens of firecrackers exploded, the smell of gunpowder still pungent in the air. Incredibly, no one was hurt. Since it was Chinese New Year, all hostilities the night before were forgotten, even if you had a ba gua broken!

Image credit: EL

Children step out into the debris of the paper from the firecrackers.
Image credit: EL

I have never forgotten that fantastic night of how we huddled under a kwali with crazy rockets exploding all around us. Or how this uncle ‘directed’ the firefight. For a moment, I glimpsed his mad, playful genius. In the following years, I became more interested in his comings and goings and he slowly became a kind of hero. The family today remains amused by his eccentric choice of girlfriends over the years. However, even as he got more social, he never once told us what he did in the army. I can imagine him saying “If I tell you, I would have to kill you.” That glint in his eye hasn’t totally gone away. Hmm, it is better not to chance it.

Mr Lai Tuck Chong’s story first appeared here on the Singapore Memory Project portal. Read more memories of Chinese New Year firecrackers here and here — and comment to let us know your own!

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