It was 1960s Singapore.
The days of Chinese rag-and-bone men, who collected your old newspapers and bottles on tricycle-powered trucks. Of peddlars plying fresh fruit in two baskets hanging from each end of a bamboo pole balanced across the shoulder. When door-to-door meant walking miles a day in the hot, humid sun from house to house. Before the convenience of Housing Development Board flats in so-called “housing estates”, government-mass produced apartment buildings in tightly squeezed communities. Before health codes and ever more government regulation — of street vendors, hawkers or any such thing. Those were the times when enterprising men who eked out an honest living to send money back home created their own opportunities. One such group of men did just that in front of my house over the big open drain or longkang between the houses and the quiet two lane street.
The children in the neighborhood — mainly myself and cousins from two houses next to mine — spent hours after school playing in that big longkang. It’s funny how our parents never objected. We could have fallen in or caught some disease but nothing of that sort ever happened. After an especially big rain, the drains would be full of rushing water. That was the ideal time for setting off numerous paper boats. Other times, we would catch longkang fish, tiny fish that looked like big tadpoles, in small hand-held nets.
The longkang was a playground for us, so naturally we were concerned and curious over new interest and activity by grown-ups over our drain. These men laid wooden planks bridging the drain and set up shop with their push cart and stools. We learned that they were Pakistani men who had set up a sarabat stall, selling milk-ginger tea, coffee and snacks. They had huge urns with faucets to make their tea. Their top seller was “teh tarik” which is Malay for pulled tea or “teh tarik halia,” ginger pulled tea.
The strong smell of ginger over powered the strong brew of Ceylon tea. A huge dollop of sticky, sweetened condensed milk was added, then the pulling began. Pouring it back and forth between one cup and another cooled and mixed the drink at the same time. The longer the distance between cups, the quicker it cooled and more froth was created. The impression you get when watching this cooling process is that the tea is being “pulled” through the air. Tea “to go” in those days was tea in an empty condensed milk can with a raffia knotted string strung through a hole on the top of the half-opened can.
We called the men who worked the sarabat stall “bhai sarabat” — bhai meaning brother in Urdu, the language of the Pakistanis; sarabat apparently a Malay or Singlish (Singapore-English) word for tea or coffee prepared in this way.
Before long, customers started showing up and tarps were erected to provide shade from the afternoon sun. The temporary look of the original stall was being replaced with a more permanent feel as more and more accommodations and improvements were made and added.
I was a young girl then — there were only men customers here and I was too young to hang out alone with adult strangers, even though they were right in front of my house. So I could only stop to buy a snack every once in a while. My favorite was the bun stuffed with a shredded coconut and brown sugar mixture.
Another favorite of mine was a variation of the curry puff — stuffed with potato curry but triangular shaped, made with puff pastry and crustier and chewier than the typical curry puff. This particular snack was a rare treat for me as it cost much more than a coconut bun and I had to pay for these snacks with my own school tuckshop allowance. These snacks were typical of sarabat stalls and not usually found elsewhere. It seemed to me that Indian or Pakistani shop keepers would often take a liking to me, tweaking my cheek or staring and smiling at me. Like the Indian stationery store owner at Newton Circus who sold children’s toys, comic books and beautiful glittery greeting cards, the Pakistani bhai would sometimes give me a little extra merchandise, even a free coconut bun. Looking back, I must have reminded these men of the young daughters they left behind.
In the meantime, we children had long stopped fishing and playing in our longkang. It didn’t feel the same or safe anymore. Leftover tea and other liquids were emptied into our longkang. The poor fish probably didn’t survive the scalding hot liquids thrown into the drain. We didn’t know what else was entering the water in the drain. And there was too much activity and commerce going on.
I can’t remember how long our sarabat stall continued its business in front of my houe. I had begun to think of it as my sarabat stall as it was in front of my house, not my cousins’. Then one day, there was no more sarabat stall. We didn’t know what happened to it and no one gave us any explanations. It had gone the way it came — without announcements or warnings. I don’t remember going back to play in the drain after the sarabat stall left.
A few years later, the government expanded the road and doubled the lanes from two to four. My garden had reduced in half. We lost a mango tree. Worse still, we lost my favorite big tree near the fence that dropped its yellow flowers and turned the front garden into a magical sea of yellow once a year. The construction workers never got our cement post at the entrance to our driveway right. It kept leaning to one side and never looked right.
And we lost our longkang forever. It got covered up with cement blocks. Thirty years later, we eventually lost the house to urban renewal — a new subway was being built under the house. The government built the subway but never did pull down the houses on that street. Instead it rented them out to fancy restaurateurs, spa owners and car rental agencies.