Enjoy food and tours at HeritageFest

Enjoy food and tours at HeritageFest
At the Singapore HeritageFest, there will be food stalls manned by young hawkers at the National Museum and performances by Nafa students and alumni as well as Indian performing arts company Bhaskar’s Arts Academy.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

In celebration of all things to do with Singapore culture and history, this year's Singapore HeritageFest is chock-a-block with activities that go round the clock and even spill over to Pulau Ubin.

For the next three weekends, you could choose to tour Tanglin Halt before the sun rises, following hawkers and newspaper delivery men as they start their day at 4am.

Or venture to Pulau Ubin, where you can watch the premiere of Royston Tan's new documentary, Homecoming, about former Ubin residents who still visit the village, and also new settlers on the island.

Of course, no respectable festival of Singapore heritage can do without food - there will be a recreation of Singapore's 1960s street hawker scene on the lawn of the National Museum.

All the participating stalls will be run by young hawkers, second- or third-generation entrepreneurs who have taken on their family business.

Singapore HeritageFest, which is in its 13th edition, has a sprawling programme of more than 130 activities, including neighbourhood tours, talks, performances and parties, often for free or for a small fee. It runs across three weekends from today to May 15.

Organised by the National Heritage Board, the festival is about sharing "lesser-known stories and creating new memories", says festival director Angelita Teo.

The festival attracted 1.6 million visitors last year.

Online registration for activities opened last Friday and, so far, nine tours and trails are fully booked. These include food trails in Changi Road, Joo Chiat and Balestier, as well as a specialist tour of Pulau Ubin by anthropologist Vivienne Wee.

The Chinatown Expert

Retired paediatrician Ho Nai Kiong, 78, is an expert on Chinatown. After all, he grew up there and returns to the area regularly even though he now lives in Bukit Timah.

The eldest of eight children, he lived on the second floor of a shophouse in South Bridge Road from 1941 to 1964, and subsequently spent the next 51 years as the chairman of his family's jewellery business On Cheong Jewellery in the same road.

His youngest brother runs the business as managing director now.

The soft-spoken grandfather of six will share his tales of having 75 years of association with Chinatown at a talk on Sunday as part of the Singapore HeritageFest.

In an interview with The Straits Times, Dr Ho easily recalled childhood memories and the Chinatown of yesteryear.

He studied at Yao Hung School in Upper Hokkien Street during the Japanese Occupation.

However, he did not enjoy it as "school life was boring - we were not allowed to talk, leave the seat or make any noise".

When the air raid siren sounded, he would be happy instead of scared because it meant class would be dismissed.

Dr Ho's father, Mr Ho Yew Ping founded On Cheong.

After he died in 1965, Dr Ho had to take over the reins of the business as he was the eldest son - all while studying to be a doctor at the University of Malaya.

He still has many photos of his neighbourhood taken with a boxy Mamiya camera starting from when he was 11.

Until the 1990s, there were at least 10 goldsmiths in South Bridge Road.

"They were mainly run by the Cantonese so that was the most common dialect you heard on the streets."

The busy roads were populated by rickshaws and, in the evenings, crowds congregated in Smith Street which would transform into a bustling hawker street.

"People would go there after work as there was nowhere else to go and for the poor, they would rather be out than go home to their cramped cubicles," he says.

Eventually, people began moving out of the area as they were resettled in flats and other professions such tailors, provision shops and dentists popped up.

Chinatown has changed greatly since and Dr Ho says he misses "hearing Cantonese walking along the streets and over the radio".

"It's a different atmosphere now," he says.

Good old kampong life

Even though Potong Pasir is all built up now, author Josephine Chia has no problem locating where her childhood kampung once stood more than 50 years ago.

Seamlessly weaving her way through the HDB blocks along Potong Pasir Avenue 1, she stops at Block 107.

The vivacious 65-year-old then points out a helpful landmark: a distinctive mock-Tudor house standing on elevated ground across the road.

She recalls: "The British used to live there so when we were very hungry and desperate, we would pick chikus and rambutans off the fruit trees in their compound or dig through their bins for food."

Growing up in a poor Peranakan family in Kampong Potong Pasir from the 1950s to 1970s, Chia wants to impress upon the younger generation, especially girls, the value of education in her talk on Sunday at the National Museum.

"It was not the norm during my time to send girls to school. Whatever money there was went towards food and education for the boys," she says.

The fifth of eight boys and girls of a housewife and bill collector, she begged her mother to let her go to school.

Her mother agreed and together, they sold nasi lemak to fund her education.

She worked through primary school and helped her mother with chores at home too.

Her hardscrabble childhood made her a stronger person, she says.

"It taught me resilience and to appreciate things in life now," she says. She is divorced with two children and four grandchildren.

The writer has penned her childhood experiences in Kampong Spirit Gotong Royong: Life In Potong Pasir, 1955 To 1965. The memoir, which is one of nine books she has written, won the Singapore Literature Prize 2014's non-fiction award.

Her old neighbourhood had a strong kampung spirit. She says: "We used to sit outdoors once the sun had set and people had finished work... and everyone would come together and share stories, recite pantuns (Malay poems) and sing songs."

With no money to buy toys, the children devised games such as hantam bola, which is similar to dodgeball, and horse's hoof, where they moved on half-cut coconut shells on their feet to race around the kampung.

She says: "We had to make up toys and games out of nothing and that really brought out our creativity."

In her kampung, the Chinese lived a little farther away, rearing pigs. On her side of the village, were mainly Malays, Indians and Peranakans such as herself. Because of this, Chia mixed with the different races and they all communicated in Malay.

"When I was growing up, I never realised that people were different from me. We were not aware of race until much later and that was one of the lovely things about kampung life," she says.


This article was first published on April 29, 2016.
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