The kampong memories that last a lifetime


Places & History:  Geylang Serai

By Shaik Kadir  for The Straits Times  (ST 22 July, 2009)

The new Geylang Serai market opened earlier this month – on the very same site as the old one.The event brought back many memories for me for I lived in Geylang Serai from the age of eight to 21.  I had seen it grow from a kampong into a conglomeration of ultra-modern buildings.  But it is the area’s kampong days that I cherish most for they are associated with the days of my childhood.After my father died, my mother, my sister and I moved from Chinatown to Paya Lebar and then, in 1954 when I was eight years old, to Geylang Serai.  We lived not far away from a kampong mosque, Surau Aminah, now relocated to nearby Jalan Eunos and called Masjid Darul Aman.  My mother rented a room in a row of attap houses for $14 a month.

My house had no tap, so I had to collect fresh water from the government standpipe a little distance away.  I usually did this at night, carrying two pails.  It took a few trips to the standpipe to fill the water-drum in our tiny kitchen area.  On my last trip, I would bathe at the standpipe, enjoying the cold water, before returning to my room.

There was an entertainment centre in the area called Eastern World Amusement Park.  It had rides, games galleries and snack stalls.  Though the entrance fee to the park was a nominal sum, we children would insist on sneaking into the park through secretly-made holes in the zinc fence.

Besides the park was the Taj cinema, where Tamil, Hindi and Malay movies were screened to packed houses during weekends.  We boys found it more fun to watch cowboy and Tarzan films at the open-air cinema located at Islam Alsagoff.  It cost only 10 cents to watch movies there.

Once, as we watched a travelling wagon on being set on fire in a cowboy movie, we suddenly realised that the screen was really burning –  perhaps because vandals had set it on fire.  The show was abandoned, much to our dismay.

Another popular cinema was The Garricks, which showed English movies.  Located at the junction of Onan Road and Geylang Road, where The Galaxy is currently located, the cinema screened English and Hindi movies.  Its front seats cost 50 cents, as at the Taj, and so we seldom patronised it, though we often went there to look at the photos of the movies being shown.

In front of the Taj, in the area where Northlight School is now located, there were many food and drinks stalls.  Men would play sepak raga there, standing in a circle as they used their legs, shoulders and heads to toss a rattan ball to one another.

Nearby, in an open field, we boys would play with tops and marbles.  In the kite season during windy April, we would watch young men fly kites and engage in “kite battles”.  Boys carrying salvaging poles would run after the “losing” kites, often stepping on food spread out to dry on the grounds or on roaming chicks.  With the curses of residents ringing in their ears, the boys would run away.

Besides the amusement park was a bus terminal fronting Changi Road.  The diesel buses plied routes from the city to Jalan Eunos, Kaki Bukit and faraway Changi Point, while the trolley buses, which ran on electricity from overhead electric cables, plied routes from Geylang Serai to the city.

The terminal area was often crowded with people who had made purchases of the popular wet market on Changi Road, where the Joo Chiat Complex is now located.


Trishaw riders waited in the vicinity to take housewives with their heavy purchases home to the kampungs nearby.

The terminal was littered with leaves from the many Madras thorn trees in the area – and also with used bus tickets.  I would go round with a friend to collect clean used tickets and arrange them according to value, the lowest being 5 cents.  We used the tickets to play number-guessing games.

One day, as we were collecting these tickets, my friend found a 10-cent coin.  We rushed off to buy a packet of nasi lemak – coconut flaved rice with sambal, a piece of cucumber, a tamban fish and a bit of fried egg, all wrapped up in banana leaf, which in  turn was wrapped in old newspaper.  Between the two of us, the food was gone in no time.

Finding the 10-cent coin was a piece of good luck.  But there was another time when I was even luckier.  At the edge of the present Malay Village, there used to be four rows of shops.  One afternoon, I went to a bookshop there to look at some Malay books.  As I was leaving, an elderly man in the shop tapped my shoulder and gave me an old English book.

That book – Grimms’ Fairy Tales – stirred my interest in reading, and I went on to read most of the books in the library cabinet in my classroom.  I was then a Primary 6 pupil at Telok Kurau Primary School.

Some time in the middle of the year, my principal, Mr Ratnam Sabapathy, a strict man who walked around with a cane in his hand, made an announcement during the morning assembly.

“Singapore now has a Prime Minister,” he said.  “He is Mr Lee Kuan Yew – and he was a student at this school.”

This year was 1959, when Singapore became a self-governing state.

Shaik Kadir, a retired teacher, is a freelance writer.

Happy memories of life in a kampung

As a young boy growing up in Geylang Serai, Shaik Kadir was so poor that he used to give tuition squatting on the floor “like a frog” round a kerosene lamp.

43 years-old in 1989, Kadir has written an autobiographical book, A Kite in The Evening Sky, which he explains in “an attempt to preserve the past so that my grandchildren can read what life was like for me back in the 50s and 60s.  The kampong I used to live in is all gone now but the place holds great sentimental value for me.”


According to Kadir, his family was so poor back then that all their possessions could be contained in three trunks, a few boxes and a small cupboard.

However, true to story-book fashion, they were happy.

Like all kampong boys, he flew kites, swam in canals and went to open-air cinemas.

It may not have been an eventful life but there were a few dramatic moments.  For instance, during the racial riots in 1964, he had to hide in a kampong jamban (latrine) to escape.

But his most traumatic experience was his sunat or circumcision – all Muslim boys have to undergo this religious rite – performed when he was about 13.

It caught him totally unprepared.  He relates: “I was playing with my friends when I was told to go home.  The minute I stepped into the house, my grandfather and His barber friend grabbed me and did it.  Till today, I don’t even know if the razor was sterilised.”

Kadir said he was so frightened that after the wound healed, he jumped up and down “to ensure that I was as good as ever!”

Years later, as a father, Kadir made sure his 10-year-old son, Imran, knew what sunat was all about.

Kadir considers his children (he also has an 11-year-old daughter) much luckier than he himself was.  The family can afford to go on holidays abroad whereas he was so poor that his friends had to chip in to pay for his examination fees.

Kadir’s father died when he was quite young and being the eldest and only boy (He has two younger sisters), he became “the man of the family” and left school at 16 to become a teacher.

He was a primary school teacher for four years before he left to join the Vocational Industrial Training Board where he is now their publication editor.


Kadir is content with how his life has turned out.  As he says: “I’m a non-graduate but I’m doing a graduate’s job.”

A man of simple tastes, his hobby is to do up his flat – decorated with frilled curtains, built-in aquarium and artificial creepers – which he takes pride in showing off to visitors.

His wife, Khairon, is his “secretary” who types his manuscripts for him.

Kadir has no consuming ambition to become a “proper writer like Catherine Lim” and treats his writing as a hobby.

“To become a good writer, you must read.  I’ll be happy if I can get a book published every two years,” says this family man.

“For the next 10 years, I’d like to give my children a better life than I ever had.  If I can make it on my own without having anything, they, with all things they have, should be able to do better.”

[Source:  The Straits Times ‘BOOKENDS” by Helen Chia, 17 May 1989].

I had the pleasure and privilege to meet Shaik Kadir for the first time in person at the Singapore Memory Project here .

He presented his memories of Geylang Serai on this blog to share.

Shaik Kadir and our Singapore Memory Project pioneer generation friends occasionally meet together here .


Jerome Lim’s 10 minutes with Her Majesty


Naval architect recalls the visit of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II to his HDB flat in Toa Payoh 40 years ago


The scrapbook has been his family for close to 40 years.

[Source:  New Paper, 15 April 2012]

The cover is royal red and used to have gold lettering, proclaiming “Visit of HRH The Princess Anne, 18th February, 1972”.

The letters have since faded and have been penned over with a black marker pen.

But the memories live on in Mr Jerome Lim’s mind in rich Technicolor.

The details might be a little fuzzy – Mr Lim was just seven at the time.  But he remembers the excitement and awe.

He also recalls the exact time Queen Elizabeth II stopped by: 4.15 pm.  As a Primary 2 pupil, he had skipped school in preparation for the visit.

He reveals that back then, he would usually laze around in shorts at home, but that day, his mother had dressed him up smartly in long pants and a crisply-pressed shirt.

Mr Lim recalls that he was caught completely off-guard, and the TV broadcast showed him leaping to his feet when the Queen arrived.

“I was busy daydreaming, which I used to do a lot.  Suddenly, Her Majesty appeared in the doorway!  I just scrambled to my feet in shock,” he says.

The Queen shook hands with Mr Lim, his three-year-old sister and both his parents, and was then ushered through the flat to take a look around a typical Singaporean home,” recalls Mr Lim.

Now 47, Mr Lim, a naval architect, still remembers how she shook his hand softly with a gentle motion of her wrist.

“She was wearing white gloves.  Very luxurious,” recalls Mr Lim.

“A neighbour told me not to wash my hand, or I’d wash all the luck I’d gotten from shaking Her Majesty’s hand away.

“And I actually tried my best to go as long as possible with washing my hands.  It only lasted until night time, when my mother insisted I wash them.”

The Lims’ flat, on the top floor of Block 53, Toa Payoh Lorong 5, was one of two the Queen had visited with Prince Philip and Princess Anne.

At that time, Block 53 had been built with a viewing gallery on the roof for visiting dignitaries to look out over the estate and see how swampland had been transformed into a new town by Singapore’s public housing programme.

Mr Lim’s flat was eventually also visited by a host of other famous dignitaries, like then Australian Prime Minister John Gorton, who gave Mr Lim a pin with a kangaroo on it.

“It felt good to have a lot of dignitaries dropping by.  You get to see people you usually only see in the newspapers,” he says.  The Queen’s visit remains the highlight of his childhood.

HDB sent Mr Lim’s family the scrapbook after the Queen’s stopover, filled with both colour and black-and-white pictures of the Queen’s visit around the Toa Payoh estate.

It has become a prized possession, Mr Lim says, laughing.

Perhaps because of the visit, Mr Lim is now an avid blogger documenting Singapore’s past.

His family moved out in 1976, but he occasionally revisits the area to relive his memories.

“The front door hasn’t changed since the time we moved out!” he beams.


He has conducted heritage walks for the National Library Board at Toa Payoh, Sembawang and Mount Sophia, sharing his memories about how these places were in the past.

His photos were also used for a recent exhibition at the Toa Payoh Public Library.

The history buff is also involved in the Memory Corps for the Singapore Memory Project, where people can contribute their memories of Singapore.

“I wanted to capture my memories, says Mr Lim.  “I think I had quite an interesting childhood, and a lot of my childhood was spent in a Singapore I can’t find any more.”

This year, the Queen celebrates her Diamond Jubilee after 60 years on the throne.

As for the flat, neighbours say there is currently nobody living there.

Some of the residents who have stuck around since the 1970s still remember the Queen’s visit.

Mr Quek C.S, who has lived in Block 53 since it was built, says: “Of course I remember the Queen.  If you get to see her, you will remember her forever.”

But some of the younger generation still remain oblivious about Toa Payoh’s royal guest.

Ms Cindy Tan, 18, a student who sleeps over at her grandmother’s Toa Payoh flat some nights, is disbelieving.’

“You mean, the Queen really came here?” she asks.

“I thought my grandmother was just joking when she told me.  I can’t believe the Queen would come here when she can go somewhere high-class instead.”


CHANGE:  Toa Payoh housing estate in the 1970s.  It had been transformed from a swampland into a new town.

Rochor Centre with the missing ‘e’


Rochor used to be spelt Rochore -with an ‘e’.  Today, the ‘e’ has disappeared.

In The Straits Times of 19 February 2012, Toh Yong Chuan was in a bid to trace the missing ‘e’, a far more important ‘e’ issue surfaced: the elderly.

An excerpt on this article with courtesy of and The Straits Times to share on this nostalgia blog.

Toh Yong Chuan said:

I was 10 years old when my family moved into a three-room HDB flat across the road from Rochor Centre in 1979.  Dr Toh Chin Chye was still the MP and Bugis Street was lined with street hawkers, not with the cutesy carts in the air-conditioned, dressed-up indoor street in Bugis Junction.

The disappearance of the Rochore constituency in 1988 did not erase it from Parliament records until 2000.  In March that year, there was a record of “Rochore Centre” being mentioned during the Budget debate.  That was the last trace of the old name.

A search among newspapers’ archives also drew blank on when the ‘e’ was dropped.  Also, old street directories or maps that could pinpoint the change of name were not readily available.

But as I got more preoccupied with finding the ‘e’, the more I found myself digging into my memories of Rochor.

Even until the mid-1980s, Rochor was dotted with shophouses that were prone to fire and open drains that overflowed during downpours.

There were three things that Rochor was known for – the transvestites brothels in Johore Road; the street hawkers in Bugis Street; and the bus terminal where SBS bus no. 170 and taxis ply between Singapore and Malaysia.

The bus terminal is still there; but most of the rest are gone.  The brothels have made way for a carpark, Bugis Street hawkers were cleared out in 1985 and the shophouses razed for Bugis Junction to be built.

And it was not just the sight, but also the smell.

My neighbourhood stinks, I used to tell my friends as I dissuaded them from visiting.  The daylong stench came from the nightsoil treatment centre opposite Rochor Centre.

Daily, the nightsoil truck with their distinctive 32 door panels would deposit buckets of human waste at the centre.  The smell got intolerable during hot afternoons.  The nightsoil trucks, also called honey wagons , made their last run in the mid-1980s, the centre closed, and Albert Complex with its OG department store stands at the site today.

The stench of the nightsoil in the day was matched by the odour of urine and vomit in the numerous backlanes and alleys at night.  I would hold my breath and cover my mouth when I had to take shortcuts through them.

The worst smell was the whiff of death, at least in my head, I would try to avoid a row of coffin shops and funeral parlours along Rochor Road, but yet find the occasional nerve to peep into the shops as I hurried past.

But not all the smells were unpleasant.  On my way to school, I would pass by a bread shop and a coffee powder shop next to it.  The aroma of freshly baked bread and coffee beans being roasted, when combined, is divine.

The smells – both pleasant and unpleasant – are also gone today, together with the shophouses and forgotten streets such as Noordin Lane that were wiped off the map.  The missing ‘e’ is not found in my memories of the old Rochor.

And as my frustration grew, I took a slow walk and found myself standing at the fourth-floor void deck at Rochor Centre.  There it was, right in front of me – Rochore Kongsi Home for the Aged – the first trace of the old “Rochore” name.  The ‘e’ has not vanished completely.

It was Singapore’s first HDB void deck old folks’ home.

In a speech at the home’s opening in 1977, Dr Toh explained why he picked the void deck for the pilot project:  “The aged no longer need to feel that just because they are in the autumn of their lives, they will be put away in an institution, alienated from and forgotten by the rest of the world.”

The location of the former Rochor Centre on 5 May, 2019


Rochor Centre before the demolition

The 4-colored blocks at Rochor Centre in red, green, blue and yellow before the demolition.


The colourful HDB flats was demolished to make way for a new expressway.

$24m complex at ‘gateway’ to city

The headline of New Nation dated 5 July 1976.

[This is a model of the $24 million complex for Rochore.

By the end of this year, the whole area, which has some of the oldest slums in Singapore, will be turned into a large modern residential, commercial and recreational complex.

The Rochore “face-lift” will include 572 flats and 212 shops in four multi-storey blocks on a 2.6 hectare site bounded by Rochore Canal Road, Queen Street and Rochore Road.

There will be 481 three-room flats and 91 four-room flats in the 14-storey complex with 480 parking lots in the basement.

The shops will be in a continuous three three-storey shopping podium of which each of the four blocks.  A playdeck on top of the podium will serve as a recreational area for residents.

Queen Street will have a new market with food stalls.  Hawkers will be resettled there.

The present bus station at Queen Street will be re-sited at Muar Road.  There will be six bus bays where commuters from Johore Baru and Bukit Timah area may alight.

Buses and taxis will travel from the new centre at Muar Road to Woodlands and Johore.

A new road will eventually replace the Rochore Canal Road and Ophir Road to streamline traffic at what is being described as the “gateway” to the city from Bukit Timah Road.]


China Street Fritters: From Pushcart to Award-Winning Stall


Ng Kok Hua remembers the days when his family’s business comprised a pushcart with a canvas roof and two square tables in front of it.  Those were the humble beginnings of China Street Fritters, one of the most popular stalls at Maxwell Road Food Centre today.  It was started by his father and uncle in the 1950s and has remained a steadfastly family-run business since.  Their traditional fritters, known as “ngoh hiang” in Hokkien, are aromatic  rolls of spiced minced meat wrapped in soft beancurd skin and then deep-fried.  These are sold alongside fried bee hoon and other items like fried tofu, fishballs and century eggs.


“In the early days, cars would stop right in front of our stall along China Street and people would buy their food without getting out,” Kok Hua recalls fondly.  “We could only operate between four and nine in the evening as the fritters were all handmade, which took a lot of time.  Without a fridge, the food couldn’t last very long either.”

The stall was run by Kok Hua’s father, mother, grandmother and sister.  It fed people from all walks of life – “from tycoons to coolies,” as he put it – but in particular, workers from the nearby shipping companies.  “Sometimes we’d get bullies who pretended to pay on credit, but who were really looking for a free meal,” he added.

Kok Hua and his elder brother Richard began helping out at the stall in 1972 when their father fell and dislocated his arm.  The patriarch passed away three years later and Kok Hua took over the running of the business.  In 1979, the Ngs moved to a different space on the same street, but this time with a real roof over their cart.  They peddled their popular fried fritters there till 1987, when the government relocated them and their fellow hawkers from China Street to Maxwell Market.

The simple set-up of their new space fostered both camaraderie and conflict between the hawkers pooled together a sum of money to buy more tables and stools for their customers,” says Richard.  “But this often caused arguments because the customers would sit at those tables but order from the stalls that didn’t contribute to them.”  Still, the open concept meant that the hawkers could communicate easily, which for the most part helped to build good relationships.  Richard says that the vibe has changed now that the centre has been renovated.  With each stall confined to nine-foot-square space, there is little opportunity for the hawkers to chat throughout the day.

Nevertheless, for patrons, it is all about the food, the familiar favourites that they return for year after year.  China Street Fritters is still as popular as it was in the 1950s.  It consistently receives accolades for its good food and was even invited to cook at the presentation of the President’s Award for the Environment, held at the Istana, the official residence of the President of Singapore, in 2010.


Source:  “Savour Chinatown” by Annette Tan and photography by Mervin Chua.

Annette Tan is a food writer, editor and food stylist.  She is a regular contributor to numerous magazines and newspapers in Singapore and the region.  She is the editor of The Miele Guide, Asia’s first independent restaurant guide and has lent her talents to various cookbooks including Heritage Feasts: A Collection of Singapore Family Recipes that was named Best Cookbook – Singapore at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards 2011.  She is also a culinary instructor at TOTT, and lives and works in Singapore.

Mervin Chua – His earliest memory of photography was the smell of burnt magnesium filaments wafting from the flashcubes of Kodak Instamatic cameras.  Since then, he always incorporates a sense of touch and scent as part of the visual cache of an image.  The Singapore-based photographer has contributed to many regional magazines and has lent his eye for detail to projects such as the award-winning Heritage Feasts: A Collection of Singapore Family Recipes.


Courtesy of “Savour Chinatown”.  This publication is supported under the National Heritage Board’s Heritage Industry Incentive Programme (Hi2P).

Memories of Maxwell Road Food Centre

A few of the related blogs on this topic posted here and here to share.


At the end of South Bridge Road, on the corner of Maxwell Road, is a hive of gastronomic activity.  The Maxwell Road Food Centre draws hungry crowds throughout the day, who come to sup at their favourite stalls, including stalwarts such as Tian Tian Chicken Rice, China Street Fritters and China Street Hum Jin Pang.  Built in the 1950s as a wet market for the Chinatown area, the site was transformed into a temporary hawker centre in the 1980s.  It housed hawkers from nearby China Street, who were relocated to make way for urban redevelopment.  “In those days, the layout of the centre was more open,” recalls Madam Foo Kui Lian, who owns the perennially popular Tian Tian Chicken Rice stall.  “We hawkers would communicate with one another by shouting across the stalls.  We built friendly relationships by chatting around the common washing area.”

While hawkers like Madam Foo hold fond memories of the space, diners remember it differently.  Set smack along the main thoroughfare where people ate, the common washing area collected stacks and stacks of dirty dishes that piled up high during peak hours – not a particularly appetising sight.  When the crowds ebbed, the hawkers would perch themselves on tiny stools and do their washing up.  The oily dishwater ran into clogged drains, which in turn spilled over onto the floors.  Poles of sugar cane sat nearby, their porous flesh soaking up the polluted water before heading for the crusher to yield sweet [though terrifyingly unhygienic] sugar cane juice.  Yet despite these unsanitary conditions.  Maxwell Road Food Centre remained a favourite culinary destination where a glorious variety of dishes, from Chinese delicacies such as turtle soup and pig’s brain to rickshaw noodles and Chinese kueh [cakes], drew patrons from far and wide.

That all changed in March 2000 when a S$3.5 million renovation transformed it into the organised, sanitised hawker centre that it is today.  “Each stall now measures nine feet by nine feet, which is larger than the six feet by eight feet stipulated by the National Environment Agency,” says Richard Ng, co-owner of China Street Fritters and hawker representative for Maxwell Road Food Centre.  “The building’s structure is such that its original pillars are set nine feet apart, so the stalls had to be arranged that way.”  Still, despite the relatively generous stall sizes, the new centre proved to be ill-equipped for the searing tropical climate.  Diners complained that the centre was too hot for any kind of culinary enjoyment.  The simple solution: more fans.

While Maxwell Market, as it is fondly known to locals, continues to be a popular food hub in Chinatown, Richard says that the vibe is decidedly different now.  “The bonds between the hawkers were much stronger in the days before the renovation.  Because of the cubicles, people tend to keep to themselves now.  They can only interact with each other after peak hours, unlike in the past, when the activities in the stalls were visible to all.”  [Source: ‘Savour Chinatown’ – Stories, Memories & Recipes book].

Heritage Food Culture – Roadside Hawkers


In the 1950s and earlier, roadside hawker stalls were unlicensed before the hawker centres were built in Singapore.  The archived photos above with courtesy of the National Archives of Signapore.

In the 1950s when my father was working at Kheng Seng Chan at Telok Ayer Street, he often eat his favorite “ngoh hiang” at the China Street roadside stall.  At that time, the stall was operated by Kok Hua’s father.

Later, when I was working at the Outpatient Services Department, Ministry of Health at Kadanayallur Street next to the Maxwell Road Food Centre, my favorite “ngoh hiang” at the China Street Fritters stall run by Kok Hua.  From one generation to another generation, the homemade stuff with secret recipe by Kok Hua’s father passed to Kok Hua remain unchanged ….. the heritage food culture and the hawkers in the family.

Food is a personal preference that the favorite of the father will not necessarily be the favorite food of the son or anybody else.   Incidentally, my father’s favorite “ngoh hiang” of the China Street fritters was passed to me and no change of our taste.  Anyway, we do not know how nice we like the food unless we try them for the tasting experience.


Led by local celebrity and food connoisseur, Moses Lim, the media entourage at the Singapore Food Festival was given an intimate insight to Maxwell Food Centre, and was introduced to six heritage hawker stalls such as China Street Fritters, well-known for its traditional handmade Hokkienngoh hiang’,


A Taste of Tradition at Jewel Changi Airport


Lim Chee Guan:  The Bak Kwa Specialist. 

The story of Singapore bak kwa specialist Lim Chee Guan goes back 80 years.



For the Chinese, the weeks leading up to Lunar New Year are a flurry of activity, housewives would busy themselves with spring-cleaning and filling their homes with an abundance of auspicious foods and ornaments.  Wherever possible, only the best must be purchased, which might explain the snaking queue that always form along 203, New Bridge Road in Chinatown.  This is the headquarters of Bak Kwa retailer Lim Chee Guan.

Widely regarded as one of the best quality Bak Kwa in town, the store sees a massive hike in sales in the run-up to the festivities.  Those in line often wait over an hour to buy their precious package of Bak Kwa – sweet, sticky and tender slices of pork jerky grilled to smoky, charred perfection.

Bak Kwa is essentially thin marinated slices of meat [usually pork] cooked over a hot charcoal grill, Lim Chee Guan also sells lap cheong, also known as Chinese sausage.


The Lim family, led by second-generation owner Mr Rod Lim


Lim Chee Guan was started by Xiamen native Lim Kay Eng, who came to Singapore in the late 1920s as a teenager.  Kay Eng’s parents had hopes that he would study hard and become a doctor in China, but studying was what Kay Eng dreaded most.  So he packed his bags and came to the new land as a penniless lad.  Whether or not his parents approved was unclear.  “This was essentially what he told me about his coming here,” says his son and second-generation owner of Lim Chee Guan, sixty-year-old Rod Lim.

Kay Eng did whatever work he could find.  He held stints as a provision shop assistant, a plantation helper and a coffee shop assistant, and eventually saved enough money to start his own little stall selling titbits and – having learnt the art of preserving meats from his mother and grandmother in China – bak kwa.  His first shop was located at the foot of a nondescript staircase along Chin Chiew Street before Kay Eng upgraded to a better venue in a coffee shop corner along New Bridge Road.


In the early days, Kay Eng prepared his meat by cutting thin slices off a slab of pork with a long, sharp knife.  The slices were marinated in a mixture of sugar, fish sauce and other ingredients and then spread over a sieve to dry.  “In those days, my father only barbecued the meat when a customer came to order it.  People were willing to wait.”

Rod recalls simpler times in old Chinatown when evening outings constituted a night out at the movies at either the Oriental Theatre or the Majestic Theatre across the road from the shop on New Bridge Road.  They lived on the second floor of a shophouse near Eu Tong Seng Street above a watermelon seed shop.  Their immediate neighbours were the Tang family, who own Swee Kee (Ka Soh) Fish Head Noodle House.  “Our house faced their pantry area.  We could look right into it and see what they were doing,” says Rod.  “Every morning I would wake up and wait impatiently for my maternal grandmother to take me to the nearby market to have something to eat.  In those days, the food was simple.  I loved the char kway teow (fried rice noodles) from Mosque Street and the fried bee hoon (vermicelli) from the street peddlers.  After school, I would head down to my father’s shop to play.”

This ‘play’ include imitating workers at the shop, helping with sales and inadvertently , learning the ropes of the business.  By the time he had completed his education, Rod was, in his father’s eyes, ripe and ready to join the family business.  “I tried to look outside the family for work when I left school,” he says, “but my father didn’t approve.  He never said it explicitly, but I knew that was how he felt.”

Rod joined the family business and took its helm when his father passed away in 1988 at the age of seventy-nine.

Today, he runs Lim Chee Guan with the two sons, Jerre and Benny, who have injected their own brand of modernity to their traditional family business.  Their bak kwa is now prepared in a modern factory and some of their packaging is in sleek black, once considered as an inauspicious colour for any Chinese business.

“I never expected my sons to join me in the business,” says Rod.  “But I’m glad they have.  With their good education, they can take it to another level.”

Lim Chee Guan Bak Kwa new shop at Jewel Changi Airport




Source:  Book “Savour Chinatown” by Annette Tan, photography by Mervin Chua and other unidentified contributors for materials posted on this blog to share with thanks.


Reflections … food for thought


Food culture is the talk of the town over every dinner table at home, at hawker centres and kopitiam.

Hawker Culture in Singapore is an integral part of the way of life for Singaporeans, where people from all walks of life gather at hawker centres to dine and bond over their favourite hawker food, which are prepared by hawkers.  Over the years, this unique combination of food, space and community has evolved into a microcosm of Singapore’s multicultural society, with stalls selling Chinese, Malay, Indian and many other diverse type of dishes.

Many of these hawker dishes originated from the food cultures of different immigrant groups who settle in Singapore.  Over time, they have evolved to become the distinctive local dishes that we love, and form an import part of our food heritage.

The city state is home to many open air food courts where vendors, known as “hawkers”, serve dishes such as chicken and rice, noodles and meat skewers at relatively cheap prices.    It described the city state’s food centres as “community dining rooms” which form part of the country’s identity.

Singapore announced last year it would nominate its hawker culture to be designated as intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO, and if successful it will join items such as traditional Japanese cuisine and Belgian beer on the list.

Senior National Heritage Board official Yeo Kirk Siang insisted the bid was not meant to show the city’s street food was “better” than that of other countries.

“It’s not about countries trying to prove that their cultural practices are better, unique, or that it originated from the country,”

“What the nomination is about is whether the cultural practice is valued by the community within that country … and whether they are committed to safeguarding these practices within their countries.”

Officials also hope the bid will encourage the younger generation to get more involved in the street food business.

A related blog on heritage food culture in Singapore over the decades here .

Some hawkers have been awarded Michelin stars by the culinary bible, which has had a Singapore edition since 2016.

Please watch the UNESCO Nomination – Hawker Culture in Singapore video here .

Food for Thought

There is no such thing as a social class of food for the rich or the poor.  However, there is a division of a society based on social and economic status at the restaurants where the people are dined.

The rich and the famous would patronise the 5-star hotels and restaurants for their meals and well-dressed appropriately.  At official events for businessmen, the invitation cards would mention the ‘dress code’ to be properly dressed.

The wealthy people also enjoy food.  When they dine at the food courts, they would be simply dressed and not dressed in the same way they dine at the restaurants.

Video for Food

Please watch this amusing video here .

The young pretty Chinese girl, daughter of a farmer, works very hard daily to help the family to cut big trees, carry pails of water, plough the farms, harvest the fruits and vegetables.  She needs to eat heartily for strength and energy.  Her mother would cook to feed the hardworking and her young sister daily.

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Traditional Biscuit Makers


The completed hand-made tortoise-shaped biscuit for sale



Gin Thye – A Traditional Teochew Confectionary


Established since 1964, Gin Thye is a Singapore homegrown heritage brand that specialises in traditional Chinese and wedding pastries, offering specialty items of various dialect groups such as Teochew Wu Se Tang, Cantonese Si Se Bing, Hokkien Hong Zhi Bao, Hainan Jian Dui, as well as traditional peanut cookies, kuehs and cakes to tantalise your taste buds.

A Chinese Heritage of Love…

Specialising in traditional Chinese wedding pastries, Gin Thye is a reputed household name that has been devoted to serving Singaporeans with its nostalgic bakery selections since 1964.

Keeping up with the times…

Harnessing the vast knowledge, skills and expertise in baking, Gin Thye has progressed, modernised and invested in R&D to embrace innovation and creativity to bring new life into its bakery business. While focusing on new recipes and new creations, Gin Thye remains committed to the quality, taste and authenticity of its products, being particularly selective on the choice of ingredients, abiding by its time-proven techniques and ensuring the consistent results. Coupled with the craftsmanship of experienced pastry chefs, excitement abounds with the launch of each fresh concept.

… while keeping traditions alive


Gin Thye plays a pivotal role in preserving Chinese customs with its traditional handcrafted confections for customary ceremonies and festive celebrations. Those delightful goodies form a precious part of our culture, stories and memories that are invaluable. We want to continuously share this appreciation for traditional foods that will always hold a special place in our hearts.

Spreading the love

With expansion plans to the global markets, Gin Thye is set to spread its passionate love for Singapore’s unique cuisine with our international friends and pass on this cultural heritage to our future generations.


Gin Thye Guo Da Li Bundle – Teochew Custom


Sweet way to announce a marriage

Long ago before the days of the Internet online email, messenger, Facebook, Twitter, etc Chinese brides and grooms-to-be announce their marriage with friends, relatives and colleagues are given as a prelude to the wedding ceremony, and as a way of spreading news of the marriage.

In ancient times, when a daughter married into her husband’s family, the wedding banquet was given by the parents of the groom.

They would also arrange for the wedding biscuits or cakes to be distributed by the bride’s family to announce the wedding to friends, relatives and colleagues.

For Chinese Singaporean who are Teochew dialect group, the Teochew wedding biscuits was a form of confirmation that the marriage would take place.

In traditional Chinese society, a number of bedding and clothing articles had to be sewn and embroidered before the wedding and the time span between the engagement and before the wedding.

The tradition of the wedding biscuits originated from China and remained unchanged for many generations.

In olden times, the groom’s family prepared gifts of jewellery, clothes, textiles, incense, candles, candy, dried foods and placed them in square containers called sheng to send to the bride’s family.

The gift was merely symbolic, and was always returned to represent the bride’s family’s uncovetous nature.  But the tasty wedding biscuits, a treat in a simple agricultural society, were generally not returned.

In 1973, one food company began marketing Western-style butter cookies, to be used for the same purpose as the cakes.  The small, crisp cookies often flavoured with nuts or chocolate, won instant popularity for the simplicity and convenience.  The cost of their production was also lower than for cakes, as the process could be easily mechanised.

Soon, other companies began marketing carefully baked and packaged wedding biscuits.  Western-style cakes, candies and other sweets are also packaged and sold for wedding purposes.

Cookies are now the most commonly given form of “wedding cakes”.  Traditional biscuits, like the handcrafted confections from Gin Thye, have not disappeared but are more popular in smaller areas.

Selected YouTube videos related to the blog

Variety is the spice of life. Gin Thye Cake Maker was inaugurated in 1964, with its flagship outlet situated along Sembawang Road. Providing various types of cakes and confectionary, from everyday favorites to custom orders for traditional festive season such as Teochew, Cantonese and Hokkien weddings, customers can experience “variety as the spice of life” through its various offerings.

The “Tuesday Report” in Chinese were screened on MediaCorp TV in 3 parts shared below:

The videos are posted as Part 1 , Part 2 , Part 3 .

Published on Jan 31, 2013

The fifth episode of NHB’s “Heritage in Episodes” project focuses on a traditional Teochew bakery, its range of traditional products, its past as well as its future.

Please watch the video here .


The archived photos shared on this blog with acknowledgement of the National Archives of Singapore, National Library Board, National Heritage Board and unidentified contributors with thanks.