A 3.5m by 3m room in a three-storey tenement house on 7 Pasar Lane, where Ong Boon Kok, 51, lived with his hawker parents and four elder siblings from 1964 to 1979. There were three smaller rooms on the same floor, occupied by other families and a group of rickshaw pullers.
We lived on the third floor of the house, which was divided into four rooms and a common area for wet clothes to dry. Our neighbours included two other families and ten rickshaw pullers. Our room was at the corner and it felt like one big extended family because there were more than 20 of us squeezed on one floor.
My parents ran a Teochew porridge stall three doors down the street and they often kept me at home while they were working. I spent many afternoons watching the activity on Pasar Lane through a small window. The area was a hangout for gangsters, and policemen. Whenever anyone set up their makeshift “stalls” without licences to sell goods, there would be people on the lookout for "地牛" (teh gu) or local authorities. Once there was any sign of them, someone would shout "地牛来了!" (teh gu lai liao!) (authorities are here in Hokkien dialect) and you could see everyone swiftly packing their items and fleeing the scene.
Fires were common then because the houses were close to one another and mostly made of wood. They were so frequent we got used to evacuating our houses. Each of us in the family had our specific roles of what to do and bring along whenever there was a fire warning. It was almost like clockwork. I was in charge of a wooden chest with the family’s important documents and valuables.
On the ground floor was a temple where there were all sorts of statues and cages of snakes. People would donate money to buy rats or chickens to feed the snakes as part of religious offerings. As young boys, my friends and I would marvel at how the snakes could swallow the rats and chickens whole. Somehow, the snakes also had a way of escaping and would suddenly appear on the third floor, dangling on our roof or walls.
On our floor lived close to 10 young men who were rickshaw pullers and coolies. They would challenge me to play table tennis – if I could hit 1,000 times against the wall they would give me a sweet. I would practise for days.
We called them “dan shen han” (bachelors in Mandarin) because they worked very hard and left their families back in China in search of jobs. They were always smoking opium, a strong, bitter smell that I won’t forget. Many of them contracted tuberculosis, which was incurable at that time. It was common to see patches of blood along the corridor from the coughing and spitting.
A number of them committed suicide. I figured it out after a while because they would line their possessions neatly on top of their little chest – shaver, comb, and money. Some would play it safe to carry their identification card on them so people knew where they lived. The next thing, police would appear to clear out their belongings, just like that.