[Source: New Nation, 25 November 1976]
By Sylvia Leow
One hot still afternoon, when the air was heavy with lethargy, I heard again the “tock, tock” call of the mee seller.
I had almost forgotten the sound, seldom heard these days with the springing up of hawker centres everywhere housing all hawkers from the streets.
It brought me way back into my childhood when the cry of each and every street hawker passing through the lorong where I lived as a child punctuated the stillness of the afternoon at home after school was out.
We used to wait in anticipation for these hawkers and they never failed us, passing the house regularly at a certain time so that we could even time our appetites accordingly!
I must have vexed my grandmother, who looked after me in those days, a great deal rushing back from school to demand 30 cents from her, grabbing an empty bowl from the cupboard and then dashing outside the house to wait impatiently for the “ap choek” (duck porridge) man to pass.
That was my lunch day after day through – strangely, I never tired of it although I did quickly enough of the rice and various dishes which she laid out in readiness for me every afternoon!
The “ap choek” man would come at 2.00 pm sharp. At three, came the “ting-ting” man – he was the one who carried a tray of gooey sweet-till-your-teeth-fall-out-concoction so hard that he had to use literally a small-sized pick and hammer to chisel out pieces. Now I wonder why I ever ate the stuff.
The other hawker plying sweetness (and tooth decay) was the Chinese treacle man. To buy his sweet, you had to arm yourself with an odd chopstick first. This you would solemnly hand to the hawker while he would as solemnly and very skillfully wind a lump of sticky treacle onto the chopstick for a mere few cents to lick your heart out!
But my earliest memory of the street hawkers who never pass anymore dates back, believe it or not, to when I was three years old.
I still remember myself seated on the uncomfortable blackwood chairs of the front hall (they had three halls in those days) waiting for the “eng chye ju hee” man to pass and when he did, screaming out loud to alert the household of his coming. Although “eng chye ju hee” is still being sold nowadays, his was the best I’ve tasted!
Childish memories and tastes being what they are, I was probably wrong. But not about the taste of the “loh kai sip” sold by probably the original fat man who seemed to have patronised the same street hawkers in their childhood!
He was a personality in those days. Where other hawkers walked trundling their pushcarts, this man sat in a tricycle with his pot of steaming stew of chicken wings, pig’s innards and kangkong in front of him.
He had someone to pedal the tricycle while he sat in front lording over his stewpot and calling out in a distinctive nasal voice that elongated every syllabus, “loh-kai-sip”.
When you caught his attention, he would motion his pedal partner to enter the compound of your house (those were also the days when most everybody had compounds).
And with a lightning chop, chop and snip, snip that were as much attraction as the food, he would portion out your orders.
Of course, “loh kai sip” is not sold today and even if it was, it would not be the same for it, would be minus the rich red colour which characterised the stew – much of that came from the red food colouring prohibited now, I’m afraid.
Food sellers of today take their business too seriously unlike a certain “char kway teow” man in Penang who drew so much publicity in the press years back because he used to do the a-go-go while frying his kway teow, renember?
In Singapore, we had the “loh ap” man carrying his stewed ducks in covered baskets suspended from a bamboo pole which he balanced on his shoulder and who would throw dice with you before chopping up your order. If you win, you get your order of duck free, if you lose, well …..
And the Indian man selling kropok and candy floss who allowed you to draw straws with your purchase. If you had a longer straw, you win an extra portion!
In those days of low-rise flats, even flat-dwellers did not miss out on the proffered delight of street hawkers. In fact as a child, I used to envy those living in flats because they could then have a basket with a long rope attached, placed conveniently at the balcony so that when hawkers passed, all the fkat-dwellers need do is to attract his attention then lower the basket with money in it over the side of the balcony in exchange for the food. There was then the added excitement of hauling up the basket full of goodies without spilling the contents.
There were others too – the iceball man handing out syrupy, colourful balls of ice concoction for five cents. Nobody wondered in those days whether he washed his hands!
Photo courtesy of Harrison Forman
And the entire contingent of night hawkers with their plaintive cries who only piled at night. Nothing could beat the taste of steaming hot “ee sang choek” (fish porridge), “char siew pow” and “yong tau fu” eaten in the dead of the
night huddled close to the wavering light of the kerosene pressure lamp. You ate not because you were hungry but rather for the experience.
Hygiene apart, I’m afraid the antiseptic sterile atmosphere of the hawker centre brilliantly lit by garish flourescent tubes cannot quite match the excitement if the street hawker.
And with their passing, an entire chapter of Singapore life closed.
Archived photos of the peddler hawkers with courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore.
Memories of “Tok Tok Mee” at Block 9, Jalan Bukit Ho Swee
The aged newspaper article (memory-aid) by Sylvia Leow 43 years ago triggered my memories of “tok tok mee” pushcart stall stationed at Block 9, Jalan Bukit Ho Swee where I lived in 1962.
The stall was located beside the top of the steps and railings in the photo above. The HDB one-room ’emergency flat’ was built after the Bukit Ho Swee fire and allocated to the fire victims, including myself and my family.
How did I remember about the “tok tok mee” stall so vividly? The fish-ball noodle hawker was a 60+ Teochew uncle whom we called “Lau Chua”. The stall was opened daily from about 7 pm to 10 or 11 pm. Almost every night, I would eat Lau Chua’s “dry kway teow mee with more chillie”, my favorite supper for 20 cents.
He was helped by two grandsons, one in Secondary 1 and another in Secondary 2 on alternate days to be on duty. Lau Chua’s grandsons helped to collect orders from the customers in the housing estate and then deliver their orders to them.
During those days, the sound of the “tok tok” on a bamboo instrument to alert customers of their presence, the way Lau Chua’s grandson did. This was back when a bowl of fishball noodles cost 20 cents.
Professor Robert Chia posted the following to Singapore Memory Project on 2/10/2014:
As a young child aged eight, I was quite difficult to please especially with regards to food. Whilst I always remembered my mother (who was of a Nyonya heritage and wore sarong regularly) as being an excellent cook capable of producing the most wondrous dishes especially on special occasions, on an everyday basis I did not much like what was served for dinner in those early days with rice and vegetables being the main diet. I longed for noodles which she rarely cooked. As a result, I found an alternative way to get what I wanted. Each afternoon, after primary school, which ended about 12.30pm, I would run home, drop my school bag and go and help a local noodle hawker doing his regular rounds by serving as an ‘advance guard’. In those early days, like many street vendors, noodle hawkers came around the ‘kampong’ estates on their tricycle carts, usually from early afternoon until early evening, fully equipped with bottled gas cooking facilities, the various ingredients needed and all the necessary paraphernalia required for the noodle hawking business such as chopsticks and bowls in which the noodles were served. My ‘job’, as an advance guard, was to alert the residents of the impending arrival of the noodle hawker by producing a pattern of ‘tick tok’ sounds using a half-section of a large bamboo piece held loosely on one hand and a bamboo stick on the other that was used to tap on the former to produce a familiar rhythmic ‘tick tock, tick tick tock’ sound. This was sufficiently loud enough, especially in the hot and musty afternoons to inform residents of the impending arrival of the noodle man. I would then go and take orders, convey it back to the vendor and when the bowls of noodle were ready, it was my job to serve them to those who had ordered. When their meal was finished, they would leave the bowls outside on their doorsteps and I would then collect them together with the payment and bring it back to the hawker. This I did for approximately five hours each day. And my reward? Well it was a huge bowl of kway teow tng (flat rice noodle) with all the goodies that I had worked so hard for. That, then, became my dinner!!