The Road Itself
My two uncles and an unidentified fellow standing along Balestier Road, circa 1950s.
Balestier Road was described in the 1980s by The Straits Times as “the most dangerous road in Singapore” for the most number of accidents per kilometer.
Even today, its narrow roads are flanked by countless illegally parked cars whose owners just need to get their Bak Kut Teh fix. Personally I loathe driving there because you always find yourself stuck behind some moron who didn’t signal right or avoiding yet another wanton jaywalker.
Yet this was the road I spent half my childhood tranversing. While cars zipped by, I would be happily walking on narrow ledges next to the drain canals pretending to be a tightrope walker.
When the coast was clear, I would practice my jaywalking technique just to get to the shophouse opposite. (A truly ugly transvestite lived on the second floor, so I never stayed on the other side for too long).
Cars drove a lot slower then, and my hot rod was my sister’s bicycle that let me speed happily around the unpaved roads. Today, one grumbles when one drives over bumpy roads, but back then, I hardly got to travel over anything that wasn’t horribly rocky.
The Gambling Den
My grandmother watering the plants outside the house. Behind the plants was where the gambling den would operate on and off.
Right outside our home was a disused opera house. Behind the opera house was this garden that became a gambling den somewhere in the late 1980s.
Every morning after my mum drove off to work, I would hang around that area, studying all manner of ants or walking the dog (who had the strength of two boys, tugging me along everywhere). One thing I learnt was how the fire ants could be attracted to the ends of lallang leaves, perhaps because they had a fascination with long and green thingys.
The den itself was nothing special, apart from the numerous pieces of cloth used to cover the shenanigans within. And no, if you think it was filled with men drinking beer and flipping cards, you couldn’t be more wrong. The wagers were over little bowls of fighting fish and everyone looked kind of bored most of the time.
There were originally two temples next to the house – Tai Ji Ya and Tua Pek Kong. Only the latter remains today, but I spent way too much time hanging out in these two smoky places.
Tai Ji Ya
Tai Ji Ya was the more exciting place, thanks to the temple mediums.
In the day, they were like snoozing coolies. always shirtless and surrounded by wispy trails of smoke. At night, when there were important rituals to carry out, they were transformed into otherworldy creatures deities, hopping around barefoot with no sense of pain and no powers of human speech.
How many times did I, as a young boy, stand there and watched as they flayed their own backs, poked their cheeks with skewers and slit their tongues with this really big sword? After a while, it all seemed pretty normal, especially when the show’s over and you walk back home to watch the regular TV channel.
Life with these old men was a lazy crawl. On certain Saturdays, I would enter their little rooms where they would be watching yet another pirated videotape. One memorable one was Shaolin Temple, starring Jet Li, that got the temple more than its usual share of visitors.
One elderly caretaker with coke bottles for glasses taught me how to smoke at a very young age (5? 6?). My mum would have flipped if she found out that I spent some time trying to hold my breath as long as possible to prevent the smoke from spewing out of my nostrils. Anyway, he died within a year of being a Cigarette Sifu and I no longer had a source of cigarettes.
Because I was exposed to smoking so young, to this day I can have a fag or two without any further craving. It’s fun to shock people once in a while anyway, because I don’t usually smoke, drink or take drugs thank you.
Ah Lai’s father used to work right next to Tai Ji Ya in his makeshift shed, which in turn was next to the python pit. Here he would weld metal parts the whole day. He later went blind from overexposure to the welding procedure
Behind this temple was a huge stone enclosure that held this fricking big python. It never bothered to escape its prison, probably because of the constant supply of food. It didn’t really stink either but how would you feel knowing a huge snake lived just a few meters from your home?
Tua Pek Kong
Tua Pek Kong was a little less exciting but my mum spent most of her free time there gossiping and folding “gold” paper.
Now this was (still is) a really polluted place because it was always filled with worshippers and their huge stick of incense. One regular practice by the temple folk was to put pieces of meat between the teeth of the small stone tigers, and I always wondered who gets to eat the meat afterwards.
Earlier this year I brought Isaac to see the tortoises that lived within the administration block and was stunned to see the tiny amphibians I knew as a kid still crawling around with gusto. The ladies there didn’t recognise me, but it had been 15 years since I last stepped into the building.
The Martial Arts School
You would think that it is way too cool to stay next to a real martial arts school. Yes, the wonders of Balestier Road never ceases. We stayed in 233A but often the mail went to 233B instead, or vice versa.
The school was run by the old man who trained all the body doubles in SBC’s early swordfighting serials. Every afternoon he and his sons would crack a whip or two but I was never really interested in their training. I believe they could punch through bricks and all that jazz, but they never displayed qing gong (air-walking) or crazy somersault flips often enough to perk my interest.
What was memorable was how often their cracking whips disturbed my daily afternoon naps.
The kungfu masters moved out somewhere in the mid-80s and I had forgotten they existed till I started writing this.
Anyway, the neighbourhood was a huge playground for me. For some strange reason, I never got into any trouble apart from the occasional fall. Neither did I hang out with the other neighbourhood kids much, probably because my mum looked down on their scruffy clothes and behaviour.