Shawn Seah’s Stories

Badminton During Kampung Days

[In Picture: Shawn’s father playing Badminton in the 1950s]

A few years ago, I asked my father Simon if he would like to share stories of his old neighbourhood of Aukang (Hougang) with me. His stories, and the stories of many others, led to the book, My Father’s Kampung. One story is about badminton. 

Despite his age, my father is crazy about badminton. He once challenged me to a badminton match. Thinking that I could not lose to a much older gentleman, I foolishly accepted the challenge. He duly beat me. Later, I discovered I stood no chance, because my father started playing ‘badminton’ in the kampung using an exercise book as a racquet and a match box as a shuttlecock. He graduated to the real thing using borrowed racquets and shuttlecocks discarded by adult players, which were often so badly damaged that they spun like propellers when hit. In the 1950s and 60s, open-air badminton courts were found across Singapore. For example, the backyard of his Malay neighbour’s house with a sand and clay surface, with proper lighting, was available to the neighbours as a badminton court. The kampung spirit meant that people could walk into their neighbours’ compounds and watch matches. 

By listening to my father, as well as many other seniors, I have learnt more about the Singapore of yesteryear. And through this experience, I have become closer to my father. I believe that through sharing stories, we learn more about where we came from, who we are as a people, and what values define us.

Property During Kampung Days

[In Picture: An artist’s illustration of Kampung Houses in Aukang, commissioned by Shawn Seah]

One of the hobbies my father and I share is talking about the property market—probably every Singaporean’s favourite pastime. He used to tell me about different types of housing options available back in his kampung. The first and most simple type of housing was the “Ah Tup” chu, or attap house, which used leaves for roofs that needed to be replaced every few years. 

Another type of house had zinc roofs and wooden walls, the “Sar Lee” chu. My father recalled that he would know when it rained because it was so noisy when the rain droplets hit the zinc roof. When he was young in the late 1950s, one side of his Sar Lee chu was made of wood and when some parts of it rotted away, he had to patch it with paper, and paint the white paper blue, to match the colour of the walls.

Lastly, the best and most luxurious type of housing was the “Ang Mo Chu”, western-style, brick houses with tiled roofs. When my father stayed at Lorong Buangkok in the mid-1970s, the rent of his Ang Mo Chu was $700 a month. Those were some of the common types of houses people lived in during those times in the kampung. 

While living conditions and quality of life were not ideal back then, the pioneer generation made do with what they had, and their resilience was admirable. In present day Singapore, we are blessed and have much better homes to stay in.

Hawkers in the Kampung

[In Picture: A simple illustration of a Street Hawkers plying his wares in the Kampung]

In December 2020, hawker culture in Singapore was officially added to the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Indeed, hawkers have been around for a long time, way before they were resettled into the hawker centres we are familiar with today. From the 1940s to 70s, there were street and travelling hawkers who peddled a whole range of foods on Singapore’s streets. 

My father shared with me his fond memories of the street hawkers of Aukang and Punggol. He told me about a “Kor Loh Mee Man” who was once attacked by a dog and sought shelter in his garden. Despite this dangerous work, “Kor Loh Mee Man” worked every single day. Only once did he not turn up to work—the day he got married. The very next day he was back at work in the kampung streets, with his wife as his helper! 

My father also told me about the Kacang Putih Man, “Yip Yip”. He was a big Indian man dressed in white, who would always station himself outside my father’s neighbour’s house. He never called out “Kacang Putih”, but instead shouted “Yip Yip”, which became his signature and trademark. 

Things have changed over time. Today, instead of hawkers going to customers, customers are now going to hawkers! And from an activity which arose out of economic necessity, it has now become a potential career path for future Singaporeans. 


Triston’s Story

Growing up, my grandma would always bring me back from preschool everyday. She would be there at 4:30pm without fail, helping me to carry my AppleTree bag, rushing me home knowing I would complain when I miss my daily episode of Hi-5 that aired at 5pm. (It was one of my childhood favorites) I remember me telling her one day while waiting for the lift on the way back home, “Po Po, the lift at 11th floor must wait long long to come down, we take the stairs okay” before dashing off on my glorious stair climbing journey. I guess the young me didn’t register the fact that I stayed on the 9th floor and that my grandma probably didn’t have the energy to scale that far up. But I guess she was worried that at some point, I would trip and fall. She forced herself to keep up with me, holding her hand out to catch me in case I fell while shouting desperately “triston lift here already, lift here already!” , but there was no stopping me. Thats how she ended up climbing all the way to the 9th floor with me.


Advait’s Story

One memory I really treasure of a senior in my life is of my grandma. I recall running around the house a lot as a kid, and her keeping up with my shenanigans no matter the time of the day. She would play badminton with me when no one would, pretend not to see me in my hiding spot, only to act all surprised when I sprung out, and tucked me in with a bedtime story. Only now can I appreciate the fact that it must have been extremely taxing for her as a senior to keep up with my non-stop activity as a youngling full of energy, yet she followed me everywhere I went. While I don’t see her as often anymore, I am eternally grateful for the times she kept me company and filled my days with fun and joy 🙂


Jaslyn’s Story

I once did a Community Involvement Project with my junior college class at Ren Ci @ AMK. It was the Chinese New Year festive season and we were going to colour and make paper origami with the seniors there. I was slightly nervous since I don’t usually interact much with seniors. My grandparents stay in Malaysia so I hardly interact with them and if so, only once every year during CNY.I was paired with an aunty who was hard of hearing. That was the first challenge. When it came down to doing the arts and craft activity together, the 2nd challenge we faced was the language barrier. I, unfortunately, cannot speak dialect… But throughout the whole activity, we attempted to communicate with each other through drawing and colouring as well as trying to understand bits and pieces of whatever we were trying to say to each other. I got to know more about her and she shared with me her story. It was very light hearted and we had fun telling each other stuff and doing the activities together. Although communication was difficult, we managed to get to know each other more and I felt very happy at the end of the session knowing I made a friend.


Joanne’s Story

As a child, I would often spend my days wrecking havoc in my grandparents’ home. A treasured memory I have from those times actually surfaced during a mundane day as my grandfather and I watched the morning news. I remember launching myself unapologetically at him, exclaiming a loud “大树要倒了!(The big tree is going to fall)” as my only warning. Somehow, the younger me was convinced that jumping on unsuspecting people was great fun and that my grandfather was a wonderful personification of a great old tree (hence the exclamation). Despite the randomness of that, my grandfather took it all in stride and indulged in my imagination. He had mock staggered before pretending to collapse, conceding that the big tree had indeed fallen before enveloping me in a hug. I remember feeling really happy and cared for back then. This is undoubtedly one of my most treasured memories with my grandfather. It has never failed to bring a smile onto my face and will always leave a tendril of warmth behind.


Jiwon’s Story

University can be tough, with submission deadlines, tutorials, lectures all while trying to spend time with your friends too. It was another one of those tiring, exhausting days when I met Uncle Philip. My mind was full of how I was going to squeeze in many tasks in the small hours that I had, walking into KFC and sighing because I knew I would be cutting sleep again. Uncle Phillip, possibly in his 60s, works at the NTU KFC but he’s not like any other employee or staff. He passed me a post-it note telling me “Don’t sorry, be happy, and smile!” with such a warm greeting that I could not help but smile. It amazed me because I could tell in his expression that there was a genuine care and concern for us, and my heart warmed a little. My workload did not change but the day felt a little brighter, as if that small note contained Uncle Phillip’s love. I could not appreciate him any more.


Ethan’s Story

Back when I was in primary school, my entire family would go for dinner at my Ah Gong Ah Mas place. After dinner, my grandparents would bring out a handful of chocolates and sweets for us. Every time he does, without fail, all 6 of my cousins and I would queue up, from oldest to youngest, just like how soldiers form up in army. It sounds like a pretty small gesture, but it always makes the 7 of us very delighted, like we’re always excited to have dinner there because of the chocolates :)) It made my grandparents happy as well, as they watched us little kids smear the chocolates all over our mouths and devour them with greed. I still go over for dinner frequently but the chocolates are long gone :p


Ernest’s Story

The noodles from the same shop taste familiar – the passage of time has had no influence over the skill of cha chaan teng cook’s, nor its prices. But something had changed in the walk it took for my grandmother and I to get here: a fifteen-minute stroll from our flat in Hong Kong now took close to half an hour, with the occasional break to rest an arthritic joint. In the future we might even have to take a bus.Over well-seasoned soup and soft brisket, we chat about lives – my mother’s, who’d remained in Singapore, what my cousins were up to, my new life in a fancy British university.

My grandmother’s perception of her own world was that of shrinking, as much as it was of expanding. How someone she used to climb mountains with was now dead, how my grandfather was no longer able to pick up groceries like she used to, her frustration at not being able to travel, not even to the mainland. Here and there a phrase would pop up, untranslatable or inadequate in the putonghua we spoke. My Cantonese was laughable – and in any case, was she that interested in stories of matriculation, strange travel anecdotes from Morocco? Swatting my wallet away, she picks up the bill, exchanging a few more words with the waiter I struggle to understand. And onto the next destination. She smiles at me. Funny that I’ve lived here for thirty years now, but never realized there was a film archive so close by- how did you find it? I’m a bit embarrassed to tell her the answer- some listicle on TimeOut Hong Kong. In any case, I find myself as happy to be out here on this quiet weekday as she is.

I thought you’d like to watch a Bruce Lee film, I smile back. At least this time the translation is forthcoming – 李振藩, this one I knew. Yet two kinds of doubt gnawed at me: was this a little journey motivated by the guilt of not having watched Hong Kong cinema on the big screen, or even a guilt at not spending time with my grandmother? At the box office these doubts dissipate. My purchase of a student ticket is accompanied by my grandmother’s insistence that the cashier scrutinize my university card. Just to be sure, she translates its prestigious English name, quite loudly, twice. My embarrassment first wavers, then I let myself share a bit of that pride. Two postcards are snatched into her purse – two days in she’s noticed I collect them – and we head into the theatre. The film is easy to follow, timeless in technicolour and well-choreographed stunt kicks. Students at a dojo clash, the Japanese antagonists are soundly defeated, and Bruce Lee emerges as stoic hero. I wonder if my grandmother had watched these films upon their initial release, back in a crowded Causeway Bay cinema. In loud whispers I receive some trivia: the names of now-dead actors, a set somewhere she recognizes, how my mum used to go on movie dates too. When the lights come on, I realize I’m the youngest in the cinema. The only other person with a full head of black hair is a man looking to be about forty. How nice that was, my grandmother comments as we step out into the afternoon sun. Think of all the other old people who don’t have their grandchildren to bring them around – that must be quite sad! I’m glad you’re around.

Visit more, I don’t know how much longer I can still walk and accompany you. She prepares to head off, but I notice the sign of the building. One picture won’t hurt, right? The middle-aged man is having a smoke. In broken Cantonese I ask for his help with a photo. He looks as flustered as I do, even after I switch to my slightly-less-broken Mandarin. Finally he tries English: California-accented and agreeable. We pose for a picture. He tells us he’s making his annual trip to Hong Kong too, and happened to bring his mother out today too. How long are you here for? Till Christmas? That’s a long time, I’m just here for four days too. We swap stories briefly- he works in advertising, or something, and his kids have never been to Hong Kong. A passing understanding flashes between us.

There’s not much time we spend in this city, and our family grows old. Guilt, perhaps? Take care of your grandmother, he waves, before walking off. I’d like to say the same too. Time suddenly seems that much more fragile. My grandmother returns my tote bag to me, postcards nestled within. What did you two talk about, she asks. Americans are funny – wasn’t he the one scolded by the usher when he used his phone during the film? I think about it for a moment- yeah, he must have been the one. Nothing much, I tell her- let’s go for dessert somewhere? I’ll pay. Such a lovely boy, she beams.


Jessy’s Story

My most treasured memory I have with a senior has to be my grandma. Grandma is a simple lady who gave her entire life to the family. She was a wonderful cook, and kept the whole family very very well fed despite always getting scolded by her children for cooking too much and wasting food. I will always remember seeing her in the kitchen, always busy cooking up a nice hot meal for us. I will always remember her chasing me out of the kitchen (she never wanted to let anyone help her no matter how tired she was) and asking me to go rest instead. I will always remember how she never once got to eat food that was hot, or even warm, simply because she was always busy making sure we were well fed. Grandma was a simple lady who never really got to enjoy life. I never really got to spend a whole lot of time with her before she became an angel again, but I will always remember seeing her smile when I ran to her as a little kid. In her little ways, she taught me to be kind, to be selfless and in some ways, she shaped the work ethics I have today. She will always always live on in me, and she will always be my favourite senior. Ah Ma, I love you and I miss you.


Valerie’s Story

When I was in secondary school, my 70 year old grandmother used to be an active soul. The energy she had hid her age well. On a typical day, she would be chatting with her friends on the phone for hours or catching up on the latest Taiwanese drama on TV. After school, she would wait for me to alight from the bus before taking a stroll to the nearest McDonald’s for a vanilla ice cream cone. Those memories are truly unforgettable. Fast forward 5 years, an unexpected headache she had turned out to be a stroke and months of hospitalization. Her health and memory deteriorated. She can hardly remember us these days. On good days, she would call us by name and ask us about our day at work. On not-so-good days, she would hardly speak a word to us. Simple questions like “What did you have for lunch?” goes unanswered. We see her struggling to recall what she ate an hour ago; we see her trying to recall our names and sometimes her own. We see a different side of my grandmother, not the energetic grandmother that I hold memories of. Life for her and the family has since been completely different; and we are adapting to it everyday.