In those days in the 1960s, my paternal grandparents were considered one of the slightly better off folks in Singapore. They stayed in Chinatown. Unfortunately, the place where the house once stood is now the Hong Lim Complex/Fook Hai Building. There are no pictures of the place available and so before my memories failed me, let me pen down what I can remember during the short and infrequent visits that I spent there during my early years.
In those days, Chinatown was informally divided into different zones or rather streets. Each street houses a special trade or people from certain part of China e.g. Sago Lane where all the death houses were or Teochew Street where all the Teochew stayed. My grandfather’s house was in Pickering Street (if my memory served me correctly). This street was devoted to small business and was rather orderly unlike the next street where there were street hawkers.
|The house looks something like this|
The house itself was a 3 storey shop house. Unlike many of the other houses in Chinatown, the whole house ie all 3 floors were occupied by my grandfather’s family.
|The next street with the stalls was something like this|
My grandfather runs a wholesale medical shop. The ground floor was the main shop where there was a typical counter with samples of herbs and ginseng displayed in wooden/glass counter. At the back of the shop was a small office and right at the back was an air-condition storeroom. And I guess that was what set my grandfather’s apart from the other business in the area. They were one of the few business that actually had air conditioned! The most interesting thing about the ground floor was that to get from the front of the shop to the back or to upstair, one need to use a short corridor just next to the office. And guess what else is located in this corridor? Can’t guess? It was a urinal! And there was no door to the urinal. Just a swinging half door (like those in the cowboy movie) and anybody walking by can see the back of the person inside doing his thing! What a weird place to have an urinal but all the guys use the urinal because it was much better and more convenient than using the ‘toilet’. But more about the toilet later.
On the 2nd floor, there was a nice big kitchen. And it was exclusively ran by a ‘Mah Che’ or what is more commonly known as Amah, the black and white servant. I remembered this old lady well because she was probably the kindest person in the household and whenever we visited, she would try to sneak us some food. The main hall was in the front and this was where everybody else who is not marry sleeps. It was also the dinning room, TV room and everything else rolled in. Dinner was usually split into 2 tables. The adults will be seated around a round table while the children were seated at a long rectangular table. It was a noisy affair but the worse part was sleeping when everybody squeezed together on the floor. And by everybody, at any point in time there was at least 12 – 15 adults and kids.
|A similar looking toilet but the one at my grandpa’s house was much cleaner|
Up on the 3rd floor was the sleeping quarter of the married people. In line with the thinking in those days, the eldest grandson also had a room to himself. At the back of the 3rd floor was a sort of work area and it is also here that the toilets are situated. The toilet was split into 2 – a bathroom and a WC. Inside the bathroom was a tiled half height ‘pool’ sort of container and it was constantly filled with water. Everybody who bath just scooped the water from this container. No such things as overhead shower and certainly no hot water. Those who need hot water had to boil their own kettle of water and pour in into a small pail and mix it with cold water from the basin. Next to the bathroom was the WC. At that time there was no modern flushing in that part of Chinatown yet so the WC was a platform and under it was a bucket. So those who need to do their business simply climb up the platform, remove the lid, squat and bomb away! Needless to say, we children used to the luxury of modern toilet in town avoided it like the plague. And of course, it is used only for big business. To do small business, naturally we use the what else? the urinal on the ground floor of course!
And then there was a mysterious 4th floor which we children hardly get to go up to. It was as I remember an open courtyard where the laundry and herbs were left to dry. All I can remember about this place was that it seems like a very mysterious place the type that one seen only in movie but because we were hardly up there, memories of it is scarce.