17 December 2005

Sungei Road (淡水河)- An Assignment Given by Chun See

This is an assignment given to me by Chun See, 'probably one of the oldest known bloggers in Singapore' (a label given by Mr Miyagi - please refer to the link at the side-panel here). Chun See delights in giving assignments to others. He wouldn't even spare school children enjoying their current year-end holidays - just take a look at his blogsite (also linked at side-panel) and you'll know what I mean. Maybe its because he is in a managerial position (he has his own consultancy business) and is used to 'performance-driving' people, i.e. pushing people to perform at their maximum potential. Not that it is a bad thing.

The assignment was given to me some 2 months ago because Sungei Road is a likely 'vanishing scene'. I happen to be not the type who feel comfortable owing people things, whether it is money, work or favours. I would feel indebted - its like bearing a load which I would rather get rid of soonest. But on the other hand, I am sometimes too busy to blog because of other priorities and commitments in life. So somewhat grudgingly, this post was written.

Sungei Road is known in Chinese as 淡水河, pronounced 'Dan4 Shui3 He2' which means 'Fresh Water River'. There are 2 things wrong with the 3-character name - the road runs alongside a canal, not a river. And if you have passed by the canal before, you will see and smell that the canal's water is anything but fresh. It was in even worse condition before the government ran a clean-up campaign in the 1980s to spruce up all rivers and canals in Singapore.

Sungei Road has been around for a long time and I don't mean the physical road itself but the weekend activities of buying and selling of old stuff there. The activities probably started in the middle of the last century - I am not sure because I wasn't even born yet. Yes, Chun See was born around that time. Maybe he can verify that. (The only other place in Singapore I know that has similar activities is in Mohd Ali Lane near Club Street where my good friend Chris grew up. But I don't know if Mohd Ali Lane is still similarly active.)

In fact, the activities do not take place only in Sungei Road itself but also in the vicinity, namely Weld Road, Pitt Street, Pasar Lane and Larut Road. The above photo is a view of Pitt Street from Sungei Road taken today 17 Dec 05 (Sat) at around 5 pm. (Chris, now you know why I was rushing off from our rendezvous - it's because I got an important assignment on hand, i.e. to take a few photos of Sungei Road before the sky turned dark.) As you can see from the above photo, even though the sky was threatening to rain, the area was still bustling with activities.

So what potential buys can you find in Sungei Road? Anything and everything. You can see the assortment of goods which the above seller is selling. From a fan that is missing its blades or blades that are missing a fan; to a bicycle that is missing an owner or an owner that is missing a bicycle. Some of the browsers in the above photo may in fact be looking for things that they have recently lost to a thief. That's why Sungei Road is also popularly known as 'thieves market'. You can pick up a second-hand (perhaps more accurately 'several-hands') mobile phone. Or rather, it could also possibly be a 'third hand' mobile phone. (There is a Cantonese saying - if someone has a 'third' hand, it implies that the person is a thief.)

However, not all the stuff on sale are old - you probably can find the latest blockbuster movie like 'King Kong' on DVD selling for less than S$10 there. They are pirated, of course. Or to use the euphemism which people in the trade like to use - copy (of the) original, and not original copy. Some of the movies you find in Sungei Road have not even made it to the big screen here yet. And for ham sup people like me (as Chun See once described me) adult VCDs are being sold brazenly on makeshift tables for S$5 a piece. (I don't really know how to translate ham sup but it is a Cantonese term used to describe a dirty old man. Not physically dirty but mentally. You should get the drift. Contrary to Chun See's description of me, in reality I am not like that, of course. Even if I am, I would never admit it in a blog on www which is the whole wide world, Chun See. We Chinese are very humble one. It's funny that the English language does not seem to have a term for ham sup. Maybe Westerners are never ham sup, only romantic. But that is a subject for another post.)

The illegal sellers of the adult VCDs will shout, 'Buy 4 get 1 free!' They also know how to use this marketing ploy, you know. (I had wanted to take a photo of them for this blog but I was afraid that they might think that I was gathering court evidence.) If you are not paiseh (shy) to buy adult VCDs, then you should also never be paiseh to haggle over the price because that is an accepted practice for buyers and sellers alike in Sungei Road. They sort of expect it. If you don't bargain as a buyer, you are likely to be overcharged. For example, your return offer for the adult VCDs should be something like S$4 a piece and at the same time you should try to get 'buy 3 get 2 free'. If the seller refuses your offer, just walk a few steps to the adjacent stall selling the same product. In all likelihood, the seller will call you back before you reach the next stall.

In the unfortunate event that you are overcharged, don't expect any recourse from CASE (Consumers' Association of Singapore) because all of the traders in Sungei Road are unlicensed operators - most of them fly-by-night, both figuratively and literally speaking. Come nightfall, you don't see them. You may also not see them again the next day or ever after. Or in the case of the illegal adult VCDs sellers, they may be in jail the next day. I once bought a 'copy original' DVD (not adult kind) from Sungei Road that would not play on my DVD player. Over the next few consecutive days, I went back to look for the seller but he was nowhere to be found. So it's still the same old advice from me - caveat emptor or buyers beware.

There is also no warranty on products sold. There is no such thing as a 'no questions asked return policy' because the seller may not be there to ask you any questions. And don't bother to ask for any receipts either. Most of the traders don't even know how to write, let alone give you a properly printed receipt.

Incidentally a few months ago, I caught a Mediacorp Chinese TV documentary on Sungei Road. Featured in the documentary was one Mr Toh Hai Leong. He is a Singapore-based freelance film critic who writes for independent film publications such as Screen International and World Paper. He directed the movie Zombie Dog which was shown at ISEAS in Nov 2004. This show was a joint effort with local popular filmmaker Eric Khoo and some others. The film Zombie Dog had earlier received a New Paper review. In the review, Mr Toh claimed that he lived from hand to mouth by buying and selling wares at Sungei Road, simply because 'I prefer to starve to death than to compromise myself to a 9-5 job like a Zombie Dog.' I mention about Mr Toh here to demonstrate that not all sellers at Sungei Road are uneducated. In fact Mr Toh was educated at the same time as me, in the same school and the same class in Sec 4. He peddled at Sungei Road out of necessity and I believe, out of principle too.

Like what Chun See said, this scene at Sungei Road might not be there for long. Already all the old buildings that used to stand there have been cleared in recent years. In their place are empty grass plots that have been fenced up to prevent trespassers from entering the state land. (Notice the fence behind the seller in the above photo.) However you need not fret, this scene has now been blogged into eternity by me.

Sungei Road will be gone sooner or later for sure. It has largely been replaced by another means of trading which is popular for IT literate people like me. It will be the subject of one of my subsequent posts.

So how many marks do you think I deserve for this post, Mr Lam?

08 December 2005

My Family's China Trip in Nov 2004

This post was first inspired by Frannxis' Shanghai trip. Frannxis didn't say explicitly that he was going to Shanghai. Always very secretive, he only said that he was going to an Asian country that was prone to bird flu. At the same time, he posted a photo of Shanghai's city at night. But Frannxis might not be going to Shanghai after all - he once misled me that he owned a certain make of car in the same way... but he didn't.

Secondly, I read Kenny Sia's 'Everiday Shanghai Engrish' yesterday. It was only then that I remembered having taken some similar photos when my family visited Suzhou, Shanghai, Wuxi and Jiangnan in November last year. The educational tour was jointly organised by my elder son's school and its sister school. I put up this post only now because I didn't have a blog then.

We stayed mostly in Great Wall Hotel in Suzhou. I would say that it was a 4-star hotel. This hotel did not lack amenities. With more than 200 participants, including teachers, students, parents and guardians, we were entitled to use this conference hall (which was not designed for small meetings) for most of our activities:

The hotel food was not particularly appetising but it was palatable. The cooks were very generous with the use of lard - our soup usually came with a layer of oil on top and sometimes even chunks of fat pork can be found floating on it. The food was also generally too salty for our liking. Despite these minor irritations, we were very grateful that we weren't served this dish:

With the Snoopy lookalike cartoon, it should be clear to non-Chinese readers what meat they were peddling. In any case, I will try to do a translation of the key phrases:

狗肉 = Dog's Meat

The red sentence that the dog is pointing to, says: "Hua Jiang dog's meat - try it once and even immortals who pass by will not be able to stand steadily." What a catchphrase! And I thought that eating this meat will make people (especially men; don't know about immortals) stand steadily.

You think that eating dog meat is cruel? Well, at least the dog was dead long before it was eaten. Not these creatures though, which were found tied up and arranged neatly in a tiny refrigerator with glass panels just next to the dog-dish sign:

These are called 'Shanghai hairy crabs' and they are freshest if they are slaughtered just before they are cooked. So they may be spending several days alive and tied up in the fridge until someone is willing to part with about S$15 to savour one of them.

Elsewhere, I found several signs using atrocious English. All rules in the book that could be broken were broken - there were typographical errors, spelling errors, translation errors, factual errors, syntax errors, context errors and even 'word order' errors, if there is such a thing. (If there isn't, it has just been invented.) These errors would make the 'BIG-MEETING HALL' sign above seemed very well-written by comparison. This sign was spotted near an old bridge:

To save you the trouble of straining your eyes in order to have a good laugh, I have transcribed the English portion here, as it appears:

TONGGUI BRIDGE - Lodated at west of The ShanTang-Bridge. First built during The Ming Dynasty Hongzhi, single hole of stone arch-bridge. Tradition there were five color cloud be found above the TongGui-bridge at Longxing 2 year, so also be called RuiYun-Bridge

Hmm... I didn't know that the Ming Dynasty people played golf on a single hole course. And I always thought that clouds came only in 2 colours - black and white.

Here in Singapore and internationally, you often see ambulances with the word ' AMBULANCE' painted on their bonnets as a mirror image:

We all know that this is done wilfully so that the drivers in the cars in front of these emergency vehicles who could not see the flashing lights nor hear the noisy sirens could at least read from their rear-view mirrors that there is an ambulance behind them and they are supposed to give way to it. However, a Red Cross vehicle that supplied blood in Suzhou got the words all wrongly painted. It would 'supply blood aid first', no matter what the situation was:

Maybe they wanted to help Malay learners of English understand what they do.

With all the confusing signs and chaotic traffic in Shanghai, I better not cycle in that city even though I am an avid cyclist. Otherwise, my bicycle may just end up like this:

Notice that there were many onlookers but no helpers. To make matters worse, one typical ugly and selfish Singaporean was busy snapping photos for his blog.

Of course I know that some of my blog readers like to see old scenes in Suzhou. So how could my post be complete without some of such photos? These scenes could well be the same as those in Singapore in the 1950's -70's:

A barber shop in Suzhou. The LPG tank was probably not used for cooking the barber's lunch but for the gas water heater just above the sink. If you wanted a hair wash, you'll probably have to do it in the sink. Daytime temperatures in Suzhou during the month of November can be quite cold - below 10 degree Celsius.

A scene you would probably only have seen in those 'bull cart water' days in Kreta Ayer of Singapore.

A trishaw rider who was willing to take both locals and tourists alike.

An elderly man sitting in a rattan chair by the pavement, reading his morning papers.

A street market selling all sorts of household and personal goods - shoes, clothings, etc.

I hope Frannxis will post some of his holiday snapshots when he comes back.

02 December 2005

A Scenic Drive

I just collected my Renault Scenic 1.6A yesterday and I would like to share my first impressions of the car with everyone here.

Having driven Japanese cars for more than 2 decades, I must say that this car needs some getting used to. First, everything (except the driver) is so stiff - from the sounding of the horn to the opening of the hatch. Another thing is that everything seemed to be in reverse (except the forward gears). Like having light controls on the left of the steering column and the windscreen wiper controls on the right. I am still activating the windscreen wipers everytime I make a turn. (Now I understand why some drivers of big continental cars seldom signal when they turn, haha.) Two flashes of light means 'unlock' for my Corolla (for the Scenic, it is one) and while one flash of light locks my Corolla, it unlocks the Scenic.

The car feels quite sluggish, more so perhaps because I am careful not to overstress the engine during the run-in period. If the fuel consumption gauge in the computer is accurate, I should be getting about 20% less mileage than my Corolla G9 (which could get almost 13 km/l). This is without any change in driving pattern (I wasn't even speeding with the Scenic.) With the high prices of petrol lately, I am getting worried.

I am particularly worried when Sales Facilitator (Renault's name for Sales Executives) told me NOT to lock my car when filling petrol. When I asked why, she said, "It's because the pump attendant may accidentally break the locking pin at the fuel tank opening." This locking pin, which is made of plastic, would protrude when the car is locked. If you or the pump attendant closes the fuel door with force while the pin is protruded, the pin may break. And it costs $280 to replace the whole assembly, unless you don't mind having the fuel door unlocked all the time.

By the way, the charming lady in the photo is not my wife - she is the Sales Facilitator. And if you are wondering about the number plate, it is just the cheeky side of me to show what number I would have bidded for if the gahmen had allowed the SEX number series, wahaha.