After watching a travelogue on TV, Chew Lian was inspired to recall her childhood: the visits to her aunt’s farm, eating pineapple slices over the drain, and keeping an ear out for the ice-cream man’s ringing bell. 

The Singapore that Chew Lian remembers. Image credit: Chew Lian

We were watching a travelogue featuring a rural village in China. The villagers were collecting their food for the day – harvesting fruits and vegetables, and gathering escargots from the river.

“Your eldest auntie used to grow vegetables like these more than 20 years ago. She had a plot of vegetable farm,” I said to my seven-year-old niece, Cherie.

“Oh, does the farm looked like the one we saw on TV?” Cherie asked.

There and then, I wished my paternal auntie still have her plot of vegetation so that my niece can experience a semblance of kampong (village) life.

My mind did a stroll down memory lane….

One of the first farmers of locally-grown Chinese cabbages circa 1978. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore

I was only four years old when we last visited our auntie’s farm in Yio Chu Kang. But I can still remember my auntie in her farmer’s get-up – grubby shirt, long pants rolled up to the knees, big straw hat secured around her face with a nylon string – hunched over at the vegetation and plucking up fresh, green, leafy vegetables.

Oh, how I missed the run-down but simple kampong house with its cement flooring that stained our feet grey, the bedroom with mattresses on the floor, and the remote toilet a few meters away from the main house.

It was at this laid-back, rural setting that we hailed my dad as a super-hero, for he could catch a housefly alive by the wings, and imprison them inside empty bottles.

How I miss the simplicity of life in rustic Singapore, when ah peks (old uncles) drank kopi and teh-o (coffee and tea) from saucers that accompanied the porcelain cups; when coffee shops were redolent with the smell of oily yet great-tasting roti prata (Indian fried pancake), char kway tiow (a type of noodles) and other local delights; when you knew that the ‘ice-cream man’ has arrived when you hear the distinctive ring-a-ding-ding.

Kacang Putih
A kacang puteh vendor at Victoria Street 1980. Image credit : National Archives of Singapore

Then, we bonded with friends at playgrounds which had sand bases, see-saws, swings and merry-go-rounds; and we often crossed the road to the empty field to watch my dad and his friends play football. We indulged in kacang puteh  (an assortment of nuts, beans and peas) during our occasional movie outings.

My memories of school was filled with images of students playing ‘zero-point’, ‘five stones’ and ‘catching’. I can still picture my classmates and I squatting along the drain outside the classrooms, brushing our teeth and spitting the remains into the drain. And I relish the times when my friends and I would stand straddling at the same drain while savouring a generous slice of pineapple dripping with dark soy sauce.

five stones
Five stones’ is one of the traditional childhood games of the past. This game is played with five triangular cloth bags filled with rice grains or sand. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore

Those days, bus conductors carried a huge puncher and punched our brightly-coloured bus tickets to indicate the bus fare we paid.

The local provision shop used to stock row upon row of biscuits in shiny metal tins, and I liked watching fragments of coconuts go in the top of the grating machine and slide out at the bottom like snowflakes falling onto the floor.

Those were the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of my unique childhood in the blossoming garden city called Singapore.

Ms Chew Lian’s story first appeared on the Singapore Memory Project portal. Read more about memories of old Singapore here and here, and comment to let us know your own!

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