by Kenneth Lyen
This morning I was rushing to deliver some newly composed music to the recording studio, I took a different route and went by a part of Chinatown that had recently undergone considerable changes. Along South Bridge Road, several blocks of 9-storey flats were entirely dismantled and replaced by an expanse of grass.
What was also torn down was my Dads old clinic. He was a general practitioner for nearly half a century, caring for several generations of Chinatown inhabitants. My Mum was a receptionist-cum-nurse in his clinic. When it was first opened, there was no air conditioning, and only a ceiling fan kept the air circulating. Equipment like metal tongue depressors and needles for injections had to be sterilised by boiling for reuse. In the early days, all medicines came as tablets, and children who could not swallow pills had the tablets crushed into a powder by the dispenser, using a mortar and pestle.
I spent my early childhood after half-day school in the clinic, doing my homework, waiting for my parents to finish work and then drive me home. I have fond memories, and often wandered around Chinatown.
The surrounding area was relatively poor. I would look at the dirty barefoot children playing in the park opposite. There was no public sanitation, and faeces and urine were passed into metal containers which were collected daily by the night soil carrier. He would carry two buckets at a time, slung on the ends of a wooden pole. Sometimes when coming down the narrow stairs, the containers would swing too vigorously and the urine would slosh and spill onto the floor. Outside, carts were pulled by buffaloes and often dung was found in the middle of the road, emanating a foul smell and attracting hordes of flies.
My Dad used to do house calls in swampy remote parts of Singapore, only accessible by dirt tracks. The roads at night were pitch black as electricity and road lights had not reached those areas. As a child he would sometime bring me along. I can remember the timber kampong houses with thatched or corrugated iron roofs. They were lit with kerosene lamps. Water had to be drawn from wells. Hanging on the walls of some of these houses were opium pipes.
The patients were very grateful that my Dad would make the long and arduous journey to see their sick elderly relatives who were too debilitated to get to a clinic. They would offer us drinks comprising a raw egg with the intact yolk skillfully placed into a glass of boiling hot water and sweetened with a tablespoon of sugar. We were supposed to down the egg yolk in one gulp. Often these families did not have any money, and so my Dad was paid by fruits, vegetables, eggs or even live chicken, which he would bring home. We always had a plentiful supply of food, although malnutrition was prevalent in the poorer parts of Singapore.
Singapore has changed. There are no kampongs left. Most people live in public flats. We take running water and electricity for granted. Doctors rarely do housecalls. As I look at the piece of grass where once stood my Dads clinic, I look back with sadness and nostalgia, because with the demolition of my past, all thats left is a fading childhood memory.