It was my Abah who created the special memories that his children, now grown and raising children of their own, cling to and savor.
His family excursions ranged from outings to the Botanical Gardens to all-day beach trips at Tanah Merah.
At the Botanical Gardens, we became our own botanists on a hunt for plant species desperately needed for our own garden at home. The new plantings were furtively gathered under the watchful gaze of packs of monkeys who roamed freely and occasionally terrorized unsuspecting five-year-old girls helping their Dads. The trip to the beach, on the other hand, was almost always preceded by an unending dialog.
“Why it is called Tanah Merah, Abah?”
“Because the earth is red colored. That’s why they named it Red Earth.”
“But why is the earth red colored?”
“Because God made it that way.”
You get the picture.
One of Abah’s special trips was the trip to the Esplanade. This time there were no 20 questions of whys, just trying to pronounce a difficult-sounding foreign name. “Esplanade” didn’t roll out easily out of little girls’ tongues. I don’t think it was easy even for the adults who should have known better. Somehow, it sounded like ass-plan-at just as Nassim Road where grandma Siti lived was to me “Nam Sim Rod” until I grew up and knew better.
The Esplanade was a beautiful, idyllic promenade along the mouth of the Singapore River. There were no hordes of monkeys in this park. Once in a while you could spot a sampan floating by and it reminded you to make an origami sampan to set float on the nearby longkang (drain) when you get home.
The Esplanade park featured a wide brick walkway with benches under big, old shady trees that led to the Satay Club at one end. No, there are no membership fees to enter the Satay Club. It’s not an expensive country club like the exclusive British SRC (Singapore Recreation Club) and the SCC (Singapore Cricket Club) at each end of the Padang (Malay for field) across the street. It was just a collection of satay hawkers who rented stalls at this outdoor food center and anyone — the real people — could come and eat there.
The Satay Club was the best reason for coming to the “Ass-Plan-At.” The Malay satay men would squat next to their small hot charcoal grills, fanning the hot coals with one hand and dabbing oil on the skewered meat with homemade lemon grass brushes on the other. The meat was marinated with coriander, turmeric and lemon grass. You could hear it sizzle as the fragrant satay smoke wound its way up your nostrils.
We sat at round concrete tables and round concrete stools, waiting patiently as Abah put in the orders of tens of either chicken, beef or goat or a combination of them. The satay would come with the sweet, spicy peanut dipping sauce accompanied by roughly chopped cucumber, raw onion pieces and cubes of rice ketupat steamed in coconut leaf casings to dip in the sauce along with the skewered meat.
As satisfying and memorable as the satay was, Abah had something even better planned. Dessert was Es Kachang or ice with nuts, the South-East Asian version of shaved ice. The shaved ice came mounded into a cone and drizzled with sweet colorful syrups and thick, gooey condensed milk.
Abah instructed me as to the proper way to eat Es Kachang.
“You see this ice? It’s a mountain. And you have to dig a little cave into the side of the mountain.”
My eyes lit up.
“Why? Because there’s a little treasure inside this mountain. And you have to discover what it is. The trick is not to make this mountain topple all over you. Then you’d have a disaster on your hands.”
Together Abah and I took turns digging a little pathway into the core of our mountain. We discovered red beans, green slithery pandan noodles, tiny cubes of jello and even corn. But the big prize was to find that one round creamy coconut heart. You don’t always get this in every shaved ice dessert. It all depends on the availability of this delicacy and the hawker’s generosity.
As with everything, the Satay Club came to its end. When it closed down in 1995 to make way for the Nicoll Highway Extension, land reclamations from the sea and two new waterfront concert halls, there had been 28 satay stall owners. The Satay Club had a thriving business and stayed open from sunset to early morning every weekend. With the closing, the satay hawkers dispersed and were never quite able to recreate the success of the Satay Club elsewhere on the island.
As for Abah and me, there will always be the little mountain of ice and the little hidden treasure that we share just between the two of us.