Of Clogs and Chinese Pastries
Graeme’s last day in Singapore was spent in Chinatown as we combed the shops for wooden carvings for his new apartment. In the midst of this expedition, we met 3A for a quick lunch and bless the girl, she brought some freshly made egg tarts from Tong Heng for dessert.
I’ve loved this diamond shaped ambrosia of the gods since my first bite at age 12 when I was visiting my mother. Her office was near Chinatown and during my visits, she would always take me on an excursion of the tight little alleys, bustling shops and colourful characters. Chinatown was a wonderland of sights, sounds, smells and tastes to me.
I particular liked the side street where languorous snakes slithered in ignorant bliss of their forthcoming fate of being bled, skinned and stewed as Chinese medicinal and tourist attractions. The old Chinese lady in her dark blue sam foo and black trousers who served the most delicious beef noodles but spoke nary a word of English. The Indian temple that stood incongruously right in the heart of Chinatown with the soothing low hum of chants, spectacularly painted statues and enchanting chimes that lured me to peek past the huge wooden doors at its entrance.
My mother used to let me run free in the streets of Chinatown, encouraging me to visit every stall and talk to as many people as possible. This was such a novel experience and change from my grandmother’s extremely proper and tight control at home that I would be filled with a heady sense of freedom as I roamed the busy streets. I would stand next to the snake man as he skinned the snakes. I remember he used to marvel and point out the little “kwailo kid” who never cringed or ran away at the first sight of blood dripping from a newly skinned snake. He did not know I grew up in a kitchen. Nothing fazes you when you have seen live chickens strangled, pigs disemboweled, crabs stabbed in the eyes and what not. Fear Factor has nothing on my grandmother’s kitchen.
The turtle soup lady was another favourite. I had my first taste of turtle soup when I was visiting my grandfather and when I saw the stall, I made a beeline for it. For some reason, the sight of a lone little girl perched on a tall wooden stool slurping away on turtle soup seemed to amaze the locals. I would then wander to a stall filled with colourful wooden clogs. I like wooden clogs shops because my grandfather used to bring me to visit his friends who made wooden clogs. I loved those visits!
The stooped old men who shuffled painfully half bent in the dark and dusty grottos, the smell of perpetual saw dust, and the piles of sawn and polished wooden clogs were extremely novel for me. I was intrigued by the wooden and metal equipment clasped between the legs of these old artisans as they pared wooden curls from blocks of wood to shape the distinctive bases for the wooden clogs. I wanted to try these but they would never let me, fearing that I would hurt myself.
I could barely communicate with the Chinese-speaking old clog makers as they petted my hair and marveled at my skin but the kindly twinkles and indulgent smiles on their faces told of their fondness of me. One of them always called me Rose for some reason and had a suspicious wet sheen in his eyes when he looked at me. He always said farewell by pressing a little pink paper wrapped lao puo bing aka old wife's cookie into my small hands and a tight, shaky hug as he blinked away his tears. I never forgot him and always wondered why he was so sad.
Despite their simple lifestyle and exhausting work, they always stopped for tea when we visited and laid out treats for me. I knew even then that they were giving me treats that they denied themselves. Their lot was a hard one and it was obvious they lived on the brink of poverty. Wooden clogs making was a dying art and people just were not wearing and therefore buying wooden clogs anymore.
With each delicate bite of the little Chinese pastries offered by these kind old men, a growing realisation hit me - I might not see them again the next time I visited. They were so old and so stooped and like them, their art was dying. My heart would grow heavy with a persistent, gentle sadness as I realised that the brightly red wooden clogs and my visits were perhaps the most vibrant things in their lives now. A forgotten art. A misplaced group of artisans. A life spent stooped in the service of others who have cast them aside.
I remember my last visit to them. I always left reluctantly because I loved visiting them but that last visit, I knew somehow I might not see them again. True enough, I did not return to Singapore for many moons and when I asked after them, my grandfather told me they had passed away. I think mine might have been the only tears shed for these forgotten old men lost in the dusty annals of Singapore’s neglected history.
When I saw the wooden clog shops in Chinatown I remembered these old men. I naturally gravitated to them but it was a disappointment as I could tell the wooden clogs were machine made and the shop keepers wooden tourist peddlers. Chinatown has changed tremendously from my childhood romps. It has lost that spark of the unexpected, the bustling noises, smells and feeling of unfettered trading that made Chinatown so special. Nowadays, it is colourful, manufactured and contrived. You still get the occasion shop of delights, the wonderful smell of food and the call of enterprising shop keepers but to me, it has lost its soul.
I miss the Chinatown of old and wish the clean, newly painted and spruced up version could recapture its raw liveliness and buzz. Till then, I only go to Chinatown to buy the occasional delicacy and dim sum. As I stroll the sanitised streets of Chinatown, memories of Chinatown past and Chinese pastries will always be tied to dusty, wistful sadness shaped by the worn, calloused hands of a group of lost wooden clogs makers.
One of my favourite places is Tong Heng. The smells from this small corner shop right in the main streets of Chinatown are heavenly. The rows of Chinese pastries always make me drool. My mother was the one who introduced me to their egg tarts, which looked like no egg tart I had ever seen. For one, they are diamond shaped while I am used to seeing the common circular discs of golden eggy goodness. And Tong Heng’s egg tarts are massive! They look like they have been on steroids.
I had not eaten the egg tarts for a very long time and 3A’s thoughtful contribution to lunch ignited the embers of dim sum mania. I adore dim sum. If you put me in a dim sum restaurant and told me to stay there for an hour while you ran errands, I would have consumed almost every type of dim sum available in the place and still be eating when you came back to collect me. This is a true story by the way.
The memory of the silken egg custards encased in crumbling, crispy pastry lingered in my mind for weeks after that. When I was at the office recently, I made a point of passing by Tong Heng so I could purchase a box of their egg tarts for 3A Gurl & Hubby. Of course, 3A and I consumed a couple before the husband even returned.
I have never had egg tarts that tender, smooth, tasty and unforgettable. I swear Tong Heng’s egg tarts are addictive because I went back again shortly after and purchased two to chomp on as I made my way to the office. And no, my office is not really on route from Tong Heng … my greed made me make a wide detour just so I could feast on the egg tarts.
That afternoon, still egged on by my gluttony, I decided to purchase some dim sums from a nearby coffeeshop. I’d seen the delicate little puffs, rolls and dumplings in this shop but had never tried any. My decision was based on a faltering appetite that would not allow me to eat normal portions. Small portions were all I could manage so dim sum seemed like a sensible and fun option.
Miniature char siew paos so cute I just had to purchase some were surprisingly delicious. The pastry was fairly soft and fluffy and the barbequed pork filling slightly sweet but on the whole it was still a nice repast. I also bought some beancurd skinned wrapped dim sum with a savoury seafood filling. The skin was a little tough for my liking and the filling a little too salty but paired with a sweet chilli sauce, it was fairly decent.
I wrapped up my small dim sum meal with the divine egg tarts from Tong Heng. They were too fabulous for words. Bugger, just writing about them is giving me cravings. I wonder if I have enough time in between meetings to go get some today …