Before the advent of sensationalised Facebook articles and 140-character snippets of information on Twitter, newspapers were the go-to source for news and lottery updates. The ubiquitous newspaper stand along the road still exists, but technology has slowly, but surely, seen to their decline. We sat down to hear the story of Lam Siew Ping and her mother, Mdm Low Eng Hoon, who sold newspapers in the late 1970s to 1980s.
“Ma pew po! Ma pew po!”
Those three words are no longer heard echoing down the corridors of Housing & Development Board (HDB) blocks and around hawker centres. Armed with stacks of newspapers, these energetic, young, teenage boys were a common sight – and sound – during the 1960s to 1980s.
Ma pew po (马票报) simply referred to newspapers that contained winning lottery numbers. Back then, these lottery newspapers were only available during the weekends.
According to Siew Ping, whose mother Mdm Low Hoon Eng, used to own a newspaper stand in the 1980s, weekends selling lottery newspapers were more profitable than any other day of the week.
Mdm Low in blue, in a family portrait, circa 1972. Siew Ping, far right, is the youngest of the lot. Photo courtesy of Mdm Low
“Whenever it [was] the weekend and the 4D results [were] out, everybody [would] be waiting by the stand,” recounted Siew Ping. “Once the papers [arrived]… wah…they [would] be sold out very fast. You [had to] quickly get the coins ready, which we did in stacks, because everybody ganchiong (anxious).”
In the early days of Singapore’s independence, everything was about survival. As playing the lottery could cost as little as 45 cents, it meant that everyone had a chance of striking it rich without investing too much. Hence, it is not hard to understand the excitement surrounding the delivery of ma pew po.
For Siew Ping and her mother, the arrival of ma pew po meant higher profits for their newspaper stand, however marginal.
“On weekends, our income [could] reach $14 or $15 a day,” said Siew Ping. “On weekdays, not so good. Maybe about $10.”
“Because ma pew po were an additional five cents mah,” added Mdm Low. “So we [could] earn a little bit more.”
Mdm Low was about 43 years old when she started her own newspaper stand. She had previously only worked odd jobs, mostly as a housemaid and washing dishes for street stalls and a nearby institution. Her husband had left the family when Siew Ping was very young.
Mdm Low in the middle, and Siew Ping on the right in light blue, circa 1990. Photo courtesy of Mdm Low
The opportunity arose when the boss of a prolific newspaper stand business – whose family she had once washed clothes for – told her that he needed people to help him sell newspapers and asked if she would like to do so. Mdm Low agreed and began selling newspapers at Circuit Road in 1980.
Mdm Low sold newspapers at night. She continued to work odd jobs in the day, as it allowed her to spend more time caring for her younger children.
“Newspapers back then were only [delivered] by nighttime – at around 6pm,” said Mdm Low. “And you’d be buying the next day’s paper. That was how it was like last time.”
Siew Ping shared that newspaper stands then were mostly situated at bus stops, because “it was convenient for people alighting from the buses to drop by, buy papers and make their way home.” It helped that there was a large food centre behind the bus stop where they were located, which meant more customers for them.
As a newspaper seller, and like all outdoor businesses, Mdm Low’s biggest enemy then was the weather.
“When the rain came, it became troublesome,” recalled Mdm Low. “We [would] scramble to keep everything covered if [it were] just a light drizzle, and put on our raincoats. But when the rain [got] too big, we [would] hide in the kopitiam just behind us.”
“But as much as possible, we tried to stay at the bus stop,” Siew Ping chimed in. “Because once you moved elsewhere, even into the coffee shop, you [would] lose some customers.”
Work at the newspaper stand typically started at about 5 or 6pm and Mdm Low would call it a day at around midnight. Together with her younger children, they would keep their makeshift table and stools, made from scavenged materials, and lug them home on a trolley along with any unsold magazines.
“At the end of the day, we [would] return unsold newspapers,” said Siew Ping. “But we [had] to bring back magazines and whatnots, because they came out with new issues only monthly or fortnightly.”
The lift at their flat did not stop at every floor, instead it stopped on the sixth floor, two storeys above theirs. Hence, they had to climb down two flights of stairs every night, with their trolley full of things. It was tough, but thankfully, Mdm Low’s children were there to help her out. She eventually retired from selling newspapers between 1986 and 1987, to take care of her grandson.
Siew Ping, 52, and Mdm Low, 80. Photo by FJ Sai
When we asked Mdm Low if there was anything then that she would have done differently to make a living for herself and her children, she said simply, “I’ve never given thought to that. To me, my children are most important.”
“I’m fortunate now and that’s all that matters.”
Written by: FJ Sai
This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign