Sunday, 18 November 2012

My old Seang Tek Road neighbourhood

In case anyone is curious enough, this is my favourite Hokkien Mee hawker stall on the island. It is located right opposite the first entrance into the Kuantan Road Market. I've known of its existence for more than 50 years but had never attempted to try the food until several months ago. The big irony is that I've known of this family and their business ever since I was small. You see, our families were once neighbours in Seang Tek Road until we were forced out by a new landlord who wanted to use our homes for other purposes.

The chap's name is Ah Leng. He is about my age, perhaps a bit younger. Obviously, when we were just young 'uns, the Hokkien Mee stall was run by his father, a loud but jovial character named Tua Bak who, in the afternoons, would pull up a chair and sit fanning himself on the five-foot way of the house with his singlet rolled all the way up till his armpits. His favourite expression? "Wah kor, eh!"

We never got to socialise much. Dunno why my grandparents and parents refused me permission to go mix with them. But we were neighbours, all right.

My family stayed in the corner lot of a row of four townhouses within yards of the road's junction with Dato Kramat Road. The house number was 10. Beside the house was a narrow alley way which ran the whole length of the building before it turned sharply left to join a wide alley off Perlis Road at the back of our home.

I do not know about its reputation now but long ago in the 1960s and 1970s, Perlis Road was one heck of an infamous place that rivalled Irving Road in notoriety. They were the hotbeds for prostitution and other questionable activities after dark. My father used to ride a Honda motorcycle at that time. Sometimes when a vehicle parked itself at the front of the house, it would be impossible to push his motorcycle into the house from the front and he would have to come in through the back door. It was my job to open the metal backdoor for him to push the bike in or out. From about eight o'clock onwards, I would always see shadowy characters congregate in the corners. Occasionally when things got heated up a bit, someone would accidentally crash or fall onto the backdoor and startle everyone, especially my grandmother. But they were harmless to us and we just left them to their activities. Come to think of it, there was little that we could do too. The authorities knew of the goings-on but their raids were few and far in between. In the mornings though, the deserted back alleys would reclaim their apparent innocence and sometimes I'd see joss stick makers spread out their joss sticks to bake in the sun.

To the left of my home was an Indian apom stall. The skinny hawker was quite a colourful character, very dark skinned and toothless. He stood out in his white dhoti. He used to live in a house somewhere across the main Dato Kramat Road. Mighty good business, if I remember correctly but by noon, he would have already washed the whole stall and floor clean. Tambi, he always called me, and I would always refer to him as the aneh-neh man. His apom was basically white, made from a batter of flour, milk and coconut water, which gave it a slight sourish taste. For all I know, it could have contained some tuak (fermented coconut water) too. My aneh-neh man would always entertain special orders. Like, for example, he would mix an egg into some of his flour batter before cooking for us. His other variant was just to break open a small hole in the egg shell, push a chopstick in and stir up the yolk and albumin, and then shake the egg contents onto the apom as they cooked in the earthen ware. I don't get to see much of the traditional clay pots nowadays as modern apom sellers have moved on to metal mini-woks.

So my home was actually one of four townhouse units in Seang Tek Road. The facade of this row of buildings looks so different now. Whoever owns the buildings had knocked down the front walls on the ground floor and put up metal shutters. I still get a tinge of sadness every time I pass by my old home.

My old home, the corner unit, as it looks now in 2012

We stayed in the corner unit and right next to us was Ah Leng's family. On his right was an old and dark sundry shop which I always found interesting. At the slightest excuse, I would go there to buy stuff wanted by my mother or grandmother. The proprietress was a nice elderly lady, quite plump. We always called her Chai Tiam Mah Ah Chim. She was a first-generation Chinese immigrant and the most fascinating thing about her was her bound feet. As a result, she always had a great deal of difficulty walking. She had several grandsons and one of them, Bee Loo, was my age. We both went to the same Westlands Primary School. I think that it was in 1966 that he died suddenly of an unknown cause. We never attempted to find out the details. We just accepted that one day, he was gone.

The fourth house in our row of townhouses was rented out to a small bakery. We knew very little of the business there except that once in a while, I would be asked to buy one of their small butter cakes. I clearly remember that a cut cherry would be stuck on top of the cake. It was always a treat to take the cake home and then dig the cherry out while nobody noticed. But of course, my mother always knew where it had went. Into my stomach.

Beyond the row of our four townhouses was a longer stretch of other residential townhouses. We had even less interaction with the people there except to know that a retired nurse lived in one of those houses and her son eventually ended up as a teacher in the Penang Free School. A trishaw man stayed at the farthest end of this row of houses. Somehow, my grandmother knew him as Sek Lim and come every April, she would book him to peddle us to the Batu Gantong cemetery for Cheng Beng. I remember leaving the house in the trishaw at about six o'clock in the morning. All around us it was still dark, but by the time we reached York Road or Batu Gantong Road, daylight had broken and we could see the roads covered by an impressive layer of yellow flowers from the Angsana trees. For a long while, Uncle Sek Lim ferried my grandmother to other places too. For instance, every time she was sick, we would arrange for him to take her to the International Clinic at MacAlister Road. Peter Tan Ewe Aik was the doctor there. I do know that he was somehow related to my grandmother's side of the family. When we were forced to move out from Seang Tek Road in 1980, I was told that he came by to claim some of the nonnya antiques in the house.

So what else do I recollect of my old Seang Tek Road neighbourhood? Well, there was a small temple across the street diagonally from my home. Once or twice every year, the temple would have some sort of celebration and there would be a puppet show over three days. Because the sundry shop was almost directly in front of the temple, the puppet stage would be set up on the five-foot way. You can imagine the din and noise over the three days, especially at night until about midnight. This was one aspect of my childhood days that I found most uncomfortable. Occasionally, I would be so fascinated with the hand puppets that I'd go watch the puppet shows briefly but I never got to understand what went on onstage or offstage.

Oh yes, one final comment and it's about the alleys in this part of the city. The alleys were all inter-connected and it was possible to walk all the way from New Lane to Pahang Road without having to use the Dato Kramat Road. As mentioned earlier, my backdoor opened out to the alley from Perlis Road. If I were to cross this road and turn left, I'd soon come across another alley wide enough for a trishaw to navigate through but not cars. This was a crooked alley which would end at Irving Road. On the opposite side of the road was a wide backlane that joined up with New Lane. There used to be a mechanic here. My father knew him well and later, I also used to use him when my own motorcycle needed servicing. This mechanic's shop is closed now. Opposite the front of my home was another backlane that connected Seang Tek Road to Malacca Street. After crossing Malacca Street, it might still be possible to find a small gap between two rows of houses which would join up to an alley that opened out to Siam Road. There, another backlane would take me to Pahang Road.

So this is it: a rough recollection of my childhood days in the old neighbourhood around Seang Tek Road. Had been meaning to write about it for a very long time but was unable to find the inspiration. There are more memories but I shall leave them to another time.

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