Part I: The Architecture
233A Balestier Road was a most remarkable building.
Originally a simple two-storey shophouse right next to the road, I have no idea how it was extended almost four times its depth backwards to form one of the largest and longest houses in the area.
All I know was that by the 1960s, it was inhabited by a huge number of people. Almost all the previous generation of Wees had stayed in it for one period or another before they got too close for comfort.
Today (17 Dec 2005), I was stunned to hear my sole-surviving granduncle talk about how he fell down the steep staircase when he was about five. He’s nearing 80, and though I had spent many nights going up and down that creepy staircase, I never wondered who else had trodden on those wooden steps.
Most of the roof was covered with zinc sheets which meant unbearably hot interiors on warm days or a biting chill during the rainy season. It also meant that any thunderstorm sounded as if the Apocalypse was at hand. I remember when I was about three, there was a devastating downpour and I huddled with my siblings to watch TV as the house sounded as if it was taking millions of watery bullets.
Open air freedom
Joanne and Marie standing in the courtyard. Note the huge washing basin behind them, which was my bathtub on hot days.
What is even more remarkable was the existence of an open-air courtyard that linked the kitchen and living room. This is where we hung our clothes way up high (and learnt how to use a tek-goh most expertly), played with all manner of toys, washed our clothes in the huge stone sink (ala my bathtub), tied the dogs to the side and looked up at the stars in the most quiet of nights. Next to the courtyard was another walled up garden that was awfully narrow and filled with all manner of insects.
Because it was open-air, it meant that we actually needed umbrellas to travel between the kitchen and living room every time it rained! During the abovementioned downpour, the rain was so heavy nobody wanted to get to the kitchen. On normal days, I was always rushing to the kitchen to get my dinner plate, and running back to watch my favourite cartoons
The toilets were just as interesting, especially for folks who have always lived in comfortable HDB blocks or private homes. One was situated next to this room with a huge bathtub perpetually filled with water. I often unleashed my toy frogs or tested streamlined paper boats on that water surface. It was also the source of water if the flush didn’t manage to get rid of the crap, and it always meant lugging an ungainly metal basin that had seen better times.
The other toilet was situated in the middle of the open-air courtyard. For the longest time, it had no water heater. What made it cool was that the concrete floor was incredibly chipped and rough. I was barefoot as a kid and my soles were hardened and badly cracked. The scratchy floor was one great way to remove any dirt embedded in the cracks of your foot. My grandmother also used to kill frogs and chop off their legs there.
Family gathering in the main altar area, circa 1986
No respectable Buddhist/Taoist (we were a mix of both I guess) household would be complete without its altars. If I remember correctly, we had 2 major altars in the house. The main one, situated in the hall linking the shophouse and the kitchen, was flanked by a big portrait of my great-grandmother. Often, I had to do my homework right underneath her portrait, not a fun thing to do since she had this cold stare that reached from beyond the grave. And yes, the house was haunted, as I will describe later.
The fun thing about having a large altar was the proportionate amount of offerings that are “sacrificed” every major religious day. The sacrifices often ended up in my stomach, and I preferred having the white chicken with sallow goose-pimpled skin.
Of course, altars are often used to evoke guilt at all levels. There were more than one occasion when my mum would punish my misdemeanours by making me kneel in front of the altar for the longest time. I wept bitterly of course, not because I believed in ancestral retribution but because my knees really hurt.
The kitchen was undeniably the centre of the household. This was where relatives would gather, have their meals at the squarish table and bitch about everyone not at the same table. At the same time, there were always a dog or a cat slinking below the table expecting us to give them a back rub with our grimy feet.
In those days and in such homes, kitchens were a sooty affair. We used huge tanks of cooking gas, but for some reason the pots were often burnt to a crispy black. The oven was a statement in pitch black, and I was amazed that it was actually still usable for my sisters’ home econs experiments. The scary bit was that it had to be lit with a flame and you would see rows of tiny flames come to life above your jittery hand.
The one thing that kept the kitchen together were the plastic hoods used to prevent lizards and cockroaches from attacking the cooked food. And talking about such pests, our house filled with an incredible number of cockroaches. After a strong rain, I would always expect to see several cockroaches running across the kitchen and altar area as I went to take a leak. We gave up killing them, because they were simply too fertile to control their population. The cats were worthless, doing very little to reduce the roach problem.