Eat and play


Singapore Memory Project
Lai, Tuck Chong

That sandy patch next to my school canteen (see blog Big Field Wild Fence) was where we played games like skipping, marbles and sa ku lei often during recess. Skipping was played mostly by the girls while marbles and sa ku lei were for the boys. But we did have a girl who was very good at sa ku lei.

Two types of marble games were played. One involved a tough, beige coloured marble that was  about 1.5 inches in diameter. The other game involved colourful small glass marbles commonly found in fish tanks and containers of water-based plants like the Money plant. 

The tough marble was called goli or tua goli (big marble). You play a game with it from a heel-sized hole in the ground. The game is simply called Goli and this is how we played it: To start, a line is drawn some distance away from the hole (depends on how big the playground is). Players then try to roll their golies into the shallow hole. The one whose goli enters or lands nearest the hole will start. The one who lands furthest away will become the 'pasang' (target) fella. The starter picks up the pasang goli and drops it at arm's length in front of himself (or a direction he chooses). He then try to knock the goli with his own. If he manages  a direct hit, the pasang goli would be knocked some distance away.

The pasang fella then picks up his goli and throws it back to the hole. If he succeeds, the game is over. If not, the next person gets a chance to go at it. If on throwing back, the pasang goli lands not in the hole but a foot or less away, this becomes a 'zhat' situation. In this case, the next person to hit will have to stand with one leg erect (in the hole) to hit the pasang goli. He can hit the goli in any way he likes, such as between his legs, which was common.

Every hitter must keep a leg in the hole. If he fails to do so, his hit will be disqualified and the pasang goli is replaced and the next person will then have a go.

Golies for this game often came in two types. The tough beige ones and the weaker white ones. The white ones were slightly bigger but more fragile, hence cheaper. They often split into two when hit hard. (One way to hit harder and further is to wrap the goli in a handkerchief and swing it at the pasang goli. It wasn't a nice thing to do as it seemed like bullying the poor pasang fella! But then, pasang is pasang!) We often bought our golies from a vendor outside the school backgate. He would come on his tricycle laden with toys, snacks, stickers, etc., to entice us. Much later, I would discover that he graduated to owning a toy/snack shop under a block of flats in Marine Terrace (Marine Parade). Great for him, I thought.

Often a circle is drawn. If a pasang goli is still within this limit, it can still be hit by the next person in queue. Only when the pasang goli has left the circle can it be then thrown back at the hole. Sometimes the pasang fella will opt not to throw his goli back into the hole but somewhere near. He would hope that his goli is not shot at and hence have a better chance of holing it nearer.

The other marble game we played involved the small glass ones. We would place the marbles in a small circle and try to hit them out. The ones out would be picked up and owned. Everybody contributes the same amount of marbles at the start. A good hitter will try to spin his scoring marble so that more marbles would be knocked out. It's quite the technique. And if your scoring marble lands in the circle, you replace any marble that has been knocked out and give up your turn. If not, you can continue after all the marbles have been owned.

The game starts with two lines drawn some 2m apart, with the circle just slightly after the last line. To decide who starts, each will throw his marble out. The order follows who landed nearest to the line. Touching the line is tops. But if more than one person does that, a second round of deciding will be carried out.

Sa Ku Lei is quite the same. But this time, only two lines are drawn. Two persons compete to see who can throw their coin/washer nearest. The one who loses has to carry the other person on his back. Pick up the coins/washers (whilst still carrying the victor) and then stand behind the line. He would pass the coins/washers to the person on his back. This person would throw the loser's coin in front and try to hit it with his own. If he succeeds, the loser will have to carry him to the opposite line picking up the coins/washers on the way. The game continues until one victor misses. He gets off the back of the loser and they can then decide if to start the game afresh.

Our canteen also sold toys sometimes, especially those that came with sweets and candies. A particular one came with a paper tube of sugared coconut shavings that no kid could resist. The toy itself was a disk held by a loop of string (two pin holes side-by-side in the middle). To start, stretch the loop of string over the middle fingers. Wind up the string by twirling the disk round and round. Then, by pulling on the now twisted string, the disc will spin and wind again. It can work up to a good momentum. Two players with spinning discs would 'fight' each other spinning at each other's strings. Sometimes the discs would break, but back then we didn't worry too much about sharp pieces flying into our eyes; we just played on. This game would later become more dangerous: We would make the discs out of flattened bottle caps. These were sharp and could really cut fingers. I would usually use this kind of spinning disc to 'polish' concrete. Sparks would fly.

One snack that got us all totally hooked was called 'satay'. It's not your usual satay fare but thin and triangular slices of some kind of sweet, sticky 'meat' on a stick. They were some sort of dried fish or jellyfish supposedly BBQed. However, eating them now, they taste full of MSG, so it was not very healthy for us back then. Still, utterly addictive. At the time, each stick cost five cents each and we ate it often after school waiting for our school buses. Today, they are sold in fan-shaped packs of a dozen sticks or so at the supermarkets or shops like Uncle Tidbit, imported mostly from Malaysia and Thailand. (One brand lists the ingredients as: Jelly fish, starch, salt, sugar, chillies, vegetable oil.)

Recess time was always a frenzied time of buying food, gulping it down and then play. Because I was very active, my mom always told me not to eat the yellow noodles because we would be easily filled and get a stomachache after running. So I often queued up for beehoon (rice vermicelli) in soup instead.

The beehoon soup came with fishball slices and fried shallots. It's simple but has a lovely aroma, why to this day I still have a preference for beehoon over the other types of noodles. It'd cost 20 cents for a bowl then. Another dish I liked in the canteen was mee rebus. It was very simply prepared with mostly just yellow noodles and gravy. But it was quite flavourful because of the small shrimps in the gravy. It was served on small enamel metal plates. For some reason, I remember the ones with the colour lilac and red rim trim best. Because the plate was enamelled, parts of its rim would often chip and rust. It happened often to these kind of plates back then due to constant knocking during washing. But it's kind of charming in a rustic kind of way.

The other food fetish was curry puff. The lady who sold it would give it to you on a small piece of recycled white paper. On the counter would be a bowl of orange-coloured chilli sauce. We kids absolutely loved to drench the curry puff with this sauce. It's actually a chilli sauce that had garlic and lime in it - something akin to the chilli sauce that accompanies chicken rice today.

For drinks, the most popular and common one was pineapple juice. Not the thick yellow juice but one that has been diluted and sweetened to a clear yellow-orangey colour, served in a transparent tub. At the bottom would be small triangular slices of pineapple for added flavour. Whenever the lady served the drink, she would churn her tub so the pineapple slices would stir about. She'd scoop the drink as well as slices of the pineapple into your glass. These slices often stuck to the bottom, why there were always plastic forks on hand. There would also be a bowl of dark soysauce with cut chilli too. Everybody knew pineapple went well with dark soysauce and chilli with a little sugar.

At the corner a guy sold cakes and creamed bread buns. These were very popular back then. Kids often snacked on these when there was nothing else to eat. The sweet buttery cream would burst through the centre at each bite. A wonderful treat! And the same stallholder would also sell a kind of orange-coloured potato-flavoured short-stick (1 cm) snack that was very popular with us kids. They'd come in small clear plastic packs (repackaged, I presume), not like the shiny foiled packaging of today. I think we liked it because it was flavoured with MSG (we didn't know it at the time, of course. But the snack is still available today). One popular cake was a small butter one that is shaped like a chef's hat. A small piece of tracing paper wrapped around its middle, supposedly for holding so the fingers would not get dirty. But as it was a butter cake, this piece of paper often got very oily too!

Another popular snack was a cordial drink frozen in solid ice tubes called 'sern pow'. Packed in thin plastic, we often bit off the end to suck on the sweet melting ice. My favourite was orange. A later one was sweet plum, with the 'she mui' (salted plum) visible at the bottom. It's a great bit of ice to suck on and run about with, which we often did. Most shops still sell sern pow with their ice cream today but the plastic is not the thin polystyrene type anymore. The new packing is tough to chew off and comes with twist bit at the end.

In class, we were often asked to subscribe to the school's milk program. The milk came in individual hand-sized plastic packs that often flopped around in the bin trays they were brought in. The trays would be littered with spilt milk too. The packs were white with a silhouette of a cow, I think. The color of the cow would indicate the flavour which was often vanilla, strawberry and chocolate. Us kids loved the chocolate and would rush to be the first to get that. I found vanilla to be quite nice. Strawberry was a little too strong.

Yes, recess time was a time we kids looked forward to after some periods of tedium in class. If we got too active, we would return with sweat and grime. We all carried handkerchiefs then, so it was no big deal. Sometimes we washed up in the toilets before going back into class. In these situations, the handkerchiefs came in handy and we would hang them out along the edge of our tables to dry. I sometimes wonder what our teachers think of this.

Back then me and my siblings would often get our pocket money on the day itself. It was usually 50 cents (when I was taking the school bus then). I often brought my own water bottle. So, after spending 20 cents on a bowl of beehoon, I would still have 30 cents left. That's quite a bit still and I would reserve it for snacks outside of school while waiting for my school bus. In that open space, a man sold his batted peanut candy bar (beaten and rolled out with a large F&N glass drinks bottle). An old lady sold mark ar tong, a kind of twisted malt candy from a small metal pail. A couple sold waffles from an iron griddle. I loved the waffles but could seldom afford them. The peanut candy was great but they stuck to the teeth too easily. Easting mark ar tong was like licking a lollipop.

Fortunately, I could still get these treats if I wanted to. An old lady used to sell that mark ar tong in Holland Village, stationing herself next to that large magazine Indian mama shop. She would twist the malt candy out with two short sticks for a dollar. For the peanut bar, I would get it from Sin Thye Cake Shop along Sembawang Road (just after Khatib Camp). A Hokkien friend was so thrilled to discover this. He also had it as a child. For waffles, they are sold everywhere these days, especially in neighbourhood cakeshops. But there's a distinction: They are mostly pandan flavoured. In the old days they were yellow and unflavoured. Still, waffles are waffles what with their unmistakable aroma. It's an aroma brings back sweet, sweet memories!