Things of the Past
Singapore is a country that thrives in the Present and Future. The skyscrapers, the urban landscape and lifestyle, the young and hip population of techno-savvies, the leap into becoming a "wired" nation of the future - all are icons of its existence. Singapore is necessarily a nation that plays "catch-up" with its vision of its future. It must in order to remain relevant and to survive.
Little wonder then, in its preoccupation with the present and future, that the population has begun to "forget" its past. The younger generations, especially, do not know the country's history. The government, painfully aware of this, began a mass education campaign a few years ago to re-acquaint the people with Singapore's political history, and which is now an integrated part of our schools' curricula.
So, our government and schools take care of the "milestones" of our recorded history - from Singapore's re-birth as a British possession in 1819, through the Japanese Occupation from 1942 to 1945, full self-government in 1959, to merger with Malaysia in 1963 and then separation from Malaysia in 1965. But what of social history? The everyday history of our parents and grandparents?
Born and bred in Singapore, I must confess that I was one of these "ignorant" younger Singaporeans. I did not know my country's history, what had gone on in the past that eventually led to the Singapore that I now live in. I only had a dim idea of what life was like for my parents and grandparents. For the most part, I didn't think it was all that relevant to me.
It was only after I met my husband that I began to more fully appreciate my heritage. He had a love for "old things" - he collected these with a passion and he knew the stories behind them and why they were significant. He picked them up from everywhere, even the ubiquitous garbage dump at the foot of his parents' block of flats. Side-tables, kerosene lamps, locks and keys, whole wardrobes... these were the treasures that told the story of old Singapore, and they were being thrown out because they were out-dated, old... they were things of the past.
We have a theory that old things are thrown out in cycles. When an older generation passes on, the younger generations re-generate - they replace the old with the new, and it is a marked trend and a marked change in lifestyle as we move into the Future. We noticed that the furniture being discarded was of 1940s to 1960s vintage: solid teakwood cabinets, wardrobes and coffee tables that were scarred with age and use. Some of them had beautiful Art Deco designs. What good are they and how are they relics of history? Well, for one thing, you don't see designs like these very often any more, and in Singapore, a lot of the furniture is now made of chipboard, rather than hardwoods. They can also contain important social information: we have a 1950s/1960s wardrobe that still bears the manufacturers' seal, a nondescript little metal tag that gives the manufacturer's name, address and a five-digit telephone number. In today's world of nine-digit telephone numbers, how many of us remember that Singapore's telephone numbers used to have only five digits? In fact, how many of our households even had telephones? Shows you how much Singapore has expanded, both physically and demographically.
Of course, not all of such furniture is discarded and lost forever. Many "antique" furniture dealers are scouting for such diamonds-in-the-rough. We made friends with a staff member at The Salvation Army who said that dealers frequently buy old pieces of furniture that were "donated", restore them and sell them for many times the original price. And such pieces are popular because they are of good quality and simply look great. But are such "antiques" necessarily only for those who can afford them?
Not really. If you have the time and inclination, you can find little nuggets of Singapore history in the streets. One place that my husband and I periodically visit is the "Thieves Market" at Sungei Road. You won't find whole pieces of furniture here, but you can find little mementoes of days gone by. Called the "Thieves Market" because one can never tell where the items being sold came from, you might find genuine antiques. For the most part however, it is a haven for dealers in second-hand electronics and clothes, and it serves the poorer segments of society who go there to buy their daily necessities.
Located in a central part of the city area, somewhere in between the conserved areas of Little India and Arab Street, the Thieves Market is the quintessential flea mart. It continued to operate even after the shop houses and shantytown that used to occupy the area were torn down in the 1980s. In fact, the dealers and vendors display their wares in the open, by the roadside on Pitt Street, Pasar Lane and Larut Road - the narrow lanes that used to serve that plot of land. They are there everyday, from about 9 or 10 in the morning until the sunsets and there isn't enough light to see by, or when it rains. It is most crowded on the weekends, when it also becomes something of a novelty with the tourists, who are "funneled" through the market on trishaws honking loudly for people to get out of the way and blasting loud Hokkien music. (Trishaws aren't what they used to be, but that's another story.)
Both the vendors and customers are a varied lot. People of all ages, jostling with one another to get a glimpse of a bargain. And bargain, they do! And what's on sale? Used stereo equipment, cassette decks, drills, nuts and bolts, clothes, shoes, old chunky mobile telephones, toys, children's and pulp fiction books, magazines with popular 1960s film stars on the covers, clocks, watches, cameras, postcards of old Singapore (some of which actually have writing and stamps on the back), open reel audiotapes... we've even seen old 8mm and 16mm film reels! Replicas of antique vases; religious statuettes; old brass door knockers in the shape of a ferocious lion's head that looked like they came from the doors of a Chinese temple; cigarette cans from the days when cigarettes were sold in tins and not paper packs; kerosene lamps featuring a beautiful woman or scenery as a backdrop that were popular when electricity was not readily available for everyone; rotary-dial bakelite telephones; porcelain teapots and teacups; coal irons; 1970s soft drink bottles still bearing their "Green Spot" or "Fanta Grape" labels (some of which are still capped and have never been opened!); tiny snuff boxes made from broken porcelain bowls and molded silver; 1960s glass baby's milk bottles shaped like a boat with a teat on either end; "banana" notes, the currency that was issued and used during the Japanese Occupation era... the list goes on!
We bought a 1967 coin there. It's special because 1967 was the year that coins were first issued in independent Singapore. We also have a da-ching, a handheld weighing system consisting of a weighing pan on one end of a stick etched with weight markings and small iron weights. These were popularly used in the last century and many shopkeepers would cheat with the da-chings by tampering with the etchings or the weights. The colonial government dealt with the problem by making annual checks on the da-chings. When a check was successfully concluded, the government officials would stamp the bottom of the weights with the year and colonial government seal. So, if you ever come across one of these bell-shaped weights, take a look at the bottom - you may be able to tell the year in which it was last checked. We have two - one stamped in 1954 and the other in 1966.
I've found that "treasure-hunting" is a great way to see and touch things of the past, things that were an integral part of Singapore's way of life, and sometimes, you get to bring them home with you! If you're interested in seeing this particular slice of life in Singapore, dress comfortably, be prepared to exercise some patience and just walk down Sungei Road - you never know what you might find.
Published on 4/18/01