Cubicles in Chinatown Heritage Centre

24 Aug

Went to the Chinatown Heritage Centre with a vague intention to start my research into the 1920’s but got totally caught up in the place.

Most striking were the evocations of how people lived then. Compared to now Singapore/ the world was a lot less crowded. But old pictures and show how people were crammed into boats for the voyage here–‘some of the children got sick and died. The bodies were thrown overboard’ sums up such hope and despair.

Before 1893 ‘migration was punishable by beheading’ but still people kept coming. And of course after 1911 with civil war and famine in China even more came from there. It’s easy to think immigration from China is a new thing but it’s been happening for a long, long time.

It was also interesting to learn that for three years–1819 to 1823–when Farquhar was running things here the revenue came mainly from opium, alcohol and gambling but Raffles tried to eradicate these when he returned from Bencoolen in 1823. The gaming houses were abolished by the Common Gaming Houses Ordinance in 1888 because gambling was considered too damaging a revenue source. Interesting how this has been completely reversed (because gambling is just too profitable?) but our 377A originating in the ‘gross indecency’ clause of the Labouchere bill of 1885 is treated as an unshakeable artifact though homosexuality was decriminalised over 50 years ago in the UK where this law originated.

Sorry, got sidetracked… but it’s really fascinating how big an influence chance or what seems almost like the whims and prejudices of those in power can have. How different would things be here if Raffles had supported gambling over trade in Singapore in the 19th century?

The shophouses were 4m to 6m wide, 12m to 18m deep and 2 to 3 storeys high. Much smaller than today’s shoebox apartments! The recreated shophouse cubicles brought home how small and cramped these spaces were. Most of them didn’t have light because the cubicles at either end with windows cost more. The people living there shared a tap, toilet and bathroom and there were occasional fights over water.

I was brought up by a black and white amah jie who used to go back to her ‘ku lei fong’–which I now know was a coolie room–in Chinatown. I always thought that was her own place but just learned two or three black and white amahs used to share a cubicle–taking different off days twice a month to use the single narrow bed there.

My first nanny, Ah Gan Jie, was Cantonese so that’s what I grew up with and could not talk to my parents–at least not my father! He said he had to learn Cantonese to talk to me. I’m told I didn’t start talking till I was three years old. Maybe the language confusion had something to do with that… at that time we were still in England and everyone else spoke English but back in Singapore my grandmother (from Szechuan who taught Chinese at ACS) tried to teach me Mandarin and my grandfather (from Shanghai who had a whole herd of dogs) didn’t talk to me at all!

I’m very interested in how the languages we understand influence how we speak and even how we think. But going deeper into that will have to wait. Though of course I’ll go on squirrelling away nuggets of info as I find them.

The Chinatown Heritage Centre is at Pagoda Street. I will probably go back, to spend more time looking at the cubicle re-creations. No photos allowed inside which is a pity. I would love someone to make short films within the cubicles of what everyday life must have been like in there–sort of fake/reality tv!

An unexpected bonus–found the TInTin Shop also at Pagoda Street. I think I vaguely knew it was there but had forgotten. Got a couple of postcards that I’m going to use for writing character notes on. I’ll probably keep these in a pocket photo album so I can flip through them easily. Most of my physical notes are on plain cards but the occasional postcard is a treat! I had all the TinTin books growing up but no idea what became of them since.

Also visited the Sri Mariamman Temple. Was very moved by the simple devotions of a few men, dressed like workers who had taken some time of in the middle of their work day, who came to do their devotions in the midst of tourists photographing statues. The statues were fascinating though. I want to find out more about who/what they symbolised. The only ones I recognised were Mariamman herself and Draupadi (because of firewalking) and of course Ganesha.

It was wonderful (though very hot!) just walking around. And I realise in a way we have hardly changed. We are still a crowd of people from other places glad to be in a land of peace even when work is hard because there is food and shelter within range.

But I’m glad I did the walkabout and that I enjoyed it. Last week I spent about the same amount of time walking around inside an air-conditioned shopping centre with a friend. While it was nice catching up I found all the presentations and packaging designed to lure people into purchasing unnecessary products almost disgusting. I think this is the good/ bad influence of too much Leo Babauta!




Posted by on August 24, 2011 in Life Happens, Research, Writing Life


Tags: , , , , , ,

2 responses to “Cubicles in Chinatown Heritage Centre

  1. sylvia

    August 25, 2011 at 1:35 pm

    Ooo-o! The Tintin Shop! Many more serendipitous findings on your research walkabouts. I have a Tintin lunchbox which shall one day go to the Botanic Gardens. And what’s that? Air-conditioned malls, a cornucopia of materialism and covetousness, disgusting? ;D

    I’ll like to think Leo Babauta is a good influence as I’ve been following his blog for some time. ^_^

  2. Ovidia

    August 25, 2011 at 7:17 pm

    Exactly! You saw all those poor people too right?

    I’ve been following Leo B’s writing too. Part of the whole focusing & living with intent thing.


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