Disappearing roots: remembering the S’pore of my childhood

Old memories and old buildings/landmarks have their place and significance in a fast-changing Singapore. History’s lessons often reach their zenith only when tied to a physical anchor.

By Corrinne May

As a child, I skinned my knees countless times in the sandy playgrounds and on concrete sidewalks as I ran around chasing my brother within the void decks of our Ghim Moh estate. I remember, as a 6-year old, pleading and whining for 20 cents to buy the chicken-flavoured Kaka snacks from the mamak stall downstairs just so I could get that little surprise toy hidden within.

I have fond memories of following my mother to the wet market in Ghim Moh estate, walking around the maze of stalls, trying not to slip and fall in my slippers and inadvertently getting my toes wet from the water that drained off from the fish counters and vegetable stalls to the mosaic floor, listening to her bargain in Teochew to the vegetable seller who in the next minute would start talking to another customer in Malay and juggle that with hawking his wares in a smattering of Hokkien and Singlish.

I remember too, a long-gone time, when hawkers at the wet market used to sell live chickens, kept in metal cages, and how as a child, I often wondered if they were cooking those same chickens in the huge, metal barrel-like vats that stood next to those cages of chickens.

So when I heard the news that the Ghim Moh hawker centre and market is going to undergo some major renovations in the later part of 2014 and most possibly lose the façade that it had for the past 30 years, my heart starts to mourn the approaching loss of one of the last stomping grounds of my childhood.

For many Singaporeans living in fast-changing Singapore, many of the places we knew and loved as children or young adults have all but disappeared. I suppose that is the price we have to pay for living in a land-scarce country where constant urban redevelopment is the norm.

The book and stationery store in Ghim Moh that my brother James and I used to frequent as kids, closed 4 years ago after 30 over years in business. I used to relish the fact that it had changed little over the course of the 30 over years, the shelves still stocking the same types of notebooks and jotter books that I had bought as a 7 year old kid, the same little trinkets being sold behind the cash register. It was our childhood landmark and it had allowed me to literally trace my childhood footsteps on its same worn concrete floors. Now all that stands in its stead is a beauty/spa shop.

I used to attend the Raffles Girls Primary school because it was located just around the corner from the Ghim Moh estate. I knew every nook and crany of the school and played along the longkangs that skimmed the perimeter of the school. That school building too has been torn down and in its place are new buildings that are additions to the Henry Park School.

The same goes for Raffles Girls Secondary School. The building that stands there now is not the one I attended school at. That was, long ago, torn down to make way for the present. And soon this present building will be gone to make way for some other building with a better economic return on the land.

I am often envious of my husband Kavin’s link to his physical past in Seremban.

Hardly anything has changed between how he remembers the Seremban of his childhood and how Seremban is today. He can still point out all the physical food stalls that he used to eat at as a child. In fact, I’ve come to love these same stalls because he has brought me to try the food there. The Liang Ji Wanton Noodles, the Ya Zhou laksa noodles and the his favourite fish ball noodles stall…well, they are all still where they used to be when he was a kid. And now he can share his love for his hometown food places with Claire, our daughter, who has grown to love the fishball noodles that her Papa grew up eating.

Yes, in Singapore we have pictures in museums and books reminding us of our heritage places. Many of our favourite communal places such as the old National Library, the Singapore National Theatre, the Van Kleef Aquarium, or even the old playgrounds of the past can only be read about nowadays in books or on signposts commemorating where they used to stand.

We are physical beings. We make sense of our world and our relationship to our world through our senses. Sometimes, it’s not enough to just read about it. We have to feel it, smell it, touch it, collide with it so as to form our own memories of it, our own stories, and in turn share those experiences and stories with others in the same tangible fashion.

History’s lessons often reach their zenith only when tied to a physical anchor. That is why it is one thing to read about the Great Wall of China in a school textbook. It is a completely different thing to stand at the Wall itself.

I am thankful for the little opportunities that I have to share some of my childhood memories with my daughter Claire. Just a couple of months ago, when I made a trip back to Singapore with Claire, we wandered over to the aquarium stall in the wet market section of Ghim Moh Market.

The owner still looks as youthful as I remembered him from 30 years back. I was overjoyed to have the chance to bring Claire to the stall and she, like myself so many years ago, was fascinated by the flicker of gold and silver fish swimming around the many neatly stacked aquariums. She too, like I did many years ago, stared with fascination at the spool of wiggly worms slowly trembling and unwinding orange brown threads and the terrapins climbing to constantly one-up each other on their little plastic Everest in their small smudgy tank.

It was heartwarming to share a slice of my childhood with Claire in a most tangible way, and we brought home a little fish that day for her to remember the occasion by.

About the same time, I noticed that a big shady tree just outside of the Ghim Moh market had been removed and in its place stood a skinny scrawny tree that could not shade the little dog that was sitting under it, desperate for some shade in the scorching mid-day sun.

Why, I asked the shopkeeper close-by, had the nice shady tree been removed, only to have this small scrawny tree in its place?

“They replace the trees every few years because they don’t want the roots to crack the concrete.”, he replied. Very practical, logical answer. Very…Singaporean in some sense.

It got me thinking…

Are we as a country planting roots only to uproot them later, even before the roots have had time to mature? Yes, perhaps the concrete might crack. Things might get a little messy and unpredictable. But surely, life is beautiful in its natural state. Call it sentiment, call it romance if you will, but I’m convinced that old memories and old buildings and landmarks have their place, their significance in fast-changing Singapore, to a degree that has not yet been fully realized.

There is a new playground now at the place where my brother and I used to play at. Gone are the sand pits for building up sand castles and digging for treasure. In its place, are ‘safety-first’ rubber mats. And in the place of those lovable local-flavoured dragon structures and watermelon play structures that I used to play in as a child, are pre-fabricated plastic and metal structures that look like carbon copies of the playgrounds I see in Los Angeles.

It’s all very sleek, safe and effective, but I miss the grit. I would rather see the sweat of years etched out on a wrinkled face than a smooth botoxed face devoid of expression and character.

I’m pretty sure I’m not alone.

*This article appeared in www.mothership.sg

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