Madam Chai Xiu Zhen lived in the attap houses in Changi when she was a child. She recalls the treacherous period of her life – the Japanese Occupation. She was just ten years old then. She then recalls the fun times of Chinese New Year when she could finally eat delicacies like chicken.

Madam Chai Xiu Zhen lived in an attap house before the redevelopment. Picture Credit: National Library Board

I was around ten years old when World War II broke out in Singapore. It was a terrifying experience that will always be etched in my memory. I remember hearing loud explosion everywhere. Terrified, I hid in my house and did not dare to come out. Some of the younger kids in my kampong did not know what was going on and they started crying in fear. When this happened, their parents would tie their mouths with cloth to prevent them from making anymore noises that might agitate the Japanese. We also had no rice to eat back then – only tapioca was available.

That was one of the gloomiest periods of Madam Chai’s childhood. Madam Chia then shares with us the time she enjoyed herself the most during her childhood years—- Chinese New Year.

Family and friends gather for Yusheng. Picture Credit: Lim Cheng Gim

We loved the Chinese New Year season very much and it was something that we would constantly look forward to every year. It was during this period that were we able to meet up and have fun with family and friends. We would also enjoy delicacies. For example, it was only during Chinese New Year when we go to eat things like chicken. As our family was very poor, we rarely had chicken to eat. We would usually prepare food at home as even a plate of chicken rice, which is known to be one of the more economical food now, was too expensive for us to afford.

Another reason why I loved Chinese New Year was the fire crackers and fireworks. I remember the fire crackers and fireworks back when they were not banned. They lit up the sky with loud bangs, and they were so common and cheap. (only 40 cents back then!), almost every house had at least one firecracker to light up, so it was extremely festive whenever Chinese New Year came around. The night skies were so pretty with all the different types of fireworks coloring the dark sky in bright hues. It is a pity that fire crackers are banned in Singapore now.

A lion dance performance on the street in Singapore. Picture Credit: Singapore Tourism Board

Another highlight of Chinese New Year would be our own creation of lion dance. We did not have professional lion dance troupes coming to perform for us as we lived in a kampong, so we had to be creative and come up with our own entertainment. One of my neighbours got a bucket from his mother and put it on his head, pretending to be the lion. We were so amused, and it was funny to watch him prance around and trying to roar like a lion. When we saw that, we wanted to join in the fun and so we got ourselves some red buckets to play with as well.

Now, the government has taken over our kampong and redeveloped it, turning it into a much more modern place that does not have any hints of its past in it. I used to think it was exciting to watch our home being upgraded, but now that time has passed and I’ve grown up, it seems to me that when we lost our kampong, we lost many aspects of our lives along with it. I miss the kampong days when all we did was have fun with our neighbours whenever we had spare time. Nowadays, I only know one of my neighbours, the others are all strangers. Maybe it’s because I’ve experienced a life where neighbours are all friends, but the life that most youth have now seem to be much more solitary and people keep to themselves much more than in the past. I miss the old kampong days.

Chai Xiu Zhen’s story first appeared here on the Singapore Memory Project portal.
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