The stories behind Bugis' familiar faces

The stories behind Bugis' familiar faces
PLAYING BY EAR: Madam Phoa, 71, busking outside Albert Centre Market and Food Centre on a Sunday. She does not know music theory "but I can play what I hear on the radio".

YOU might have spotted them before - seated or standing, under trees or on concrete pavements, come rain or shine.

These faces in the Bugis area are so familiar, but their stories are far from humdrum.

I start outside Albert Centre Market and Food Centre on a lazy Sunday afternoon. The sun is no longer beating down, but the humid air clings like a second skin. Yet, 71-year-old busker S. Y. Phoa looks very comfortable under the shade of a tree.

She cuts a cheerful figure in a yellow trenchcoat, her nimble fingers dancing on the keyboard before her. Secured to its front is a heart-shaped box, with a handwritten "Heartfelt Thanks" taped over it.

"I don't know theory," she confides, "but I can play what I hear on the radio."

Madam Phoa tells My Paper she was a childcare teacher for 20 years but pursued her passion for music in retirement. She had wanted to learn the piano since she was in secondary school, but financial and time constraints were always in the way.

She eventually took up keyboard lessons in her 30s, although she remains more comfortable reading solfege than standard musical notation.

I wander on, pausing at the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple. Shrouded in a blanket of smoke and fragrant incense, devotees bow to the Goddess of Mercy, while flower sellers in their broad-brimmed hats wait patiently nearby, under red and yellow umbrellas.

Amid the quiet buzz is fortune teller Chen Xiaoliang, who looks to be in his 40s. His booth consists of two plastic stools and a black carrier bag. A makeshift table is balanced precariously on the bag, upon which lie the tools of his trade: a traditional wooden abacus, tattered copies of the lunar almanac and a pair of bronze turtles.

Mr Chen says his clients hail from as far away as Shanghai, South Korea and Germany, but he did not plan initially on becoming a fortune teller.

According to him, he did very well in his studies when he was young and would have been able to pursue a career in law or medicine, yet these dreams were dashed when his parents chose to end his education early.

Undeterred, he chose the less trodden path of fortune telling over his brother's machinery business at the "auspicious age of 38", as recommended by a fellow fengshui master. He has not looked back since.

"I was told that my fate would be better than his. And it's true... I am better off now," he says with a chuckle.

K. K. Yap, 70, does not share such optimism. For the past 10 years, the chestnut seller has been up at dawn, shovelling chestnuts into a giant wok of heated sand. He then transports the roasted chestnuts to his stall in Queen Street.

"Chestnut roasting is an art," the aficionado beams when asked about the secret to his chestnuts. "It lies in the length of the roasting period... I can only say it depends on experience."

However, his mood soon turns sombre.

"We used to sell at least 500 packets on a good day. Young people nowadays just don't eat this any more. It's a pity."


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