Welcome to the Eat, Shop, Play, Love blog. This is a writing experiment that aims to lend a voice to the millions of Asians around the world who have left their native countries to live their lives in a different place, for whatever the reasons may be. Read the authors' profiles here.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Una Ragazza on Love: Home is Where the Heart... (Part I)

Growing up in Chinatown in Singapore was a busy, noisy and colorful affair. My life revolved around a fascinating two-block radius in the neighborhood of Telok Ayer, meaning "bay water" in Malay.

Learning to bid at a neighborhood charity auction with Ah Ma
At the front of our shophouse was Ah Gong’s stall of immaculately cut fruit and crates of Coca Cola and Fanta bottles. Beyond that, to the left, the five-foot way (shophouse corridor) led to my favorite hangout, the neighborhood mama shop, where I spent many, many afternoons deciding the best way my 15 cents should be divided among the large array of candy, gum and kiam-sng-tee (“salty, sour and sweet” preserved fruits). 

As a child, I liked my orange peel salty, sour and sweet

If I ventured a little further west, I could lean against the gates of Chongfu Primary School as I unwrapped my sweets and admired the five-storey-high building, the tallest structure known to me at age five.

Chongfu: The big school on the block
Opposite the school was Thian Hock Keng, the oldest Hokkien temple in Singapore that was dedicated to the Taoist goddess of the sea and patron of sailors. I remember the sale of flowers, incense and food offerings outside the temple, and the giant buses carrying tourists in funny hats and giant black boxes slung around their necks. They often stopped by Ah Gong’s shop to buy a soft drink, where they paid his tourist price of “wahn doll-ah.”

Thian Hock Keng was built with donations from Chinese immigrants grateful for safe travels from the motherland
To the right of our shophouse was the focal point of the neighborhood -- a coffee shop fronted by an amazing muslim-food stall that sold fried chicken, lontong (curry rice cakes) and nasi lemak (creamy rice with chicken, chilli and anchovies). The coffee stall was at the back of the shop, where I used to sit and watch the uncle prepare my breakfast of milo, half-boiled eggs and roti kahwin (toasted bread  lathered with egg-jam and butter), which he occasionally  scrapped with a small metal  knife if he’d left the bread on the grill for a little too long.

The cross-generational appeal of half-boiled eggs and coffee-shop coffee
The shop also housed a delicious economy rice stall, which was a local concept of rice heaped with your choice of meat, vegetables, egg and tofu. My sister and I frequently ordered our favorite szechuan vegetables, pork cutlet with a lobster-red sweet sauce and tofu with minced pork, which the proprietor delivered directly to the dining room behind our fruit stall. Lunch before afternoon school was always tasty and satisfying.

Finally, across our shophouse was a mosque -- which I later learned  was our landlord  -- and Telok Ayer Green. The latter may be the tiniest park  in Singapore, but at that time, crossing it felt like an exhilarating excursion that would literally bring me to the edge of my childhood world.

In the 30 years since I'd left, Telok Ayer Green has been spruced up to include bronze statues of coolie immigrant life in colonial times
In the mid 1980s, due to urban renewal plans, our entire family and all our neighbors were uprooted and relocated to other parts of the island. Back then, I was a pre-teen who was growing up fast, and eager to see a new world. I could always come back to visit, I told myself.

Years went by and I would go on to live in many different neighborhoods around Singapore and within Europe and the United States. During this time, Telok Ayer underwent massive transformation to scrub away its grittiness and increase its tourist appeal.

When I last visited in 2011, my beloved shophouse had been turned into a little food court, flanked by a Korean eatery and an espresso cafe. Office workers from the nearby skyscrapers were pouring onto the street during the lunch hour, fighting for space alongside the many tourists seeking proof of the co-existence of a temple and mosque on my narrow little street.

Despite the gentrification, Telok Ayer remains the ‘hood where my heart is, the place that I believe most shaped the person I am today

I never thought I’d feel so strongly about anywhere else I’d ever live. Until a recent move to my third neighborhood in New York.

Ah Gong and his giant homemade starfruit juice strainer at the back of our shophouse

Telok Ayer the way I will always remember it
(to be continued)

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[Some pictures taken from the Internet]


  1. thanks for your article 


  2. Great read! Thanks for your story.