On nostalgia, Tiong Bahru and getting older

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I know hitting my thirties is hardly even considered getting older, but after traipsing through Tiong Bahru area with the boy today, it hit me now, what it meant then, when older folks lament of how things change, while we were younger and impatient and thought change necessary for greater things to happen in our bright future ahead of us. That a transformed Singapore was better able to handle our dreams and ideals then. I used to read Kim Cheng Boey’s Between Stations thinking him as one who was too reminiscent of the past, but suddenly now I shared in his thoughts too.

“You are an emigrant to those you left behind and immigrant to your new friends. But in between the tags fall of. You lose the certainty of the state you are in, as though you are on a train whose front half rests in one state and whose back carriages lag in another. In between, you pass the same stations again and again, stations whose names blur and become interchangeable and you forget if you have a destination…”

So a recent posting by Bridgette on Facebook about her visit to Tiong Bahru area and how some of the old provision shops, confectioneries and coffee shops are slowly making way for one too many indie pretentious cafes in the area inspired me to explore a little more of that region and share in some of the steps she took in her recent exploits as well.

In spite of the dizzyingly humid weather, we walked around the lanes of old Tiong Bahru through the SIT preserved colonial buildings rather extensively and the afternoon spent there left the heart a little heavier and emotionally burdened than when we first started out.

We popped into Hua Bee Coffee shop at Guan Moh Terrace after lunch at Tiong Bahru Market, just so we could sip a cup of Teh-C and take in the sights and sounds about. I don’t know if I was overthinking or romanticizing, but for some strange reason, everyone else sitting down and having a drink at the coffee shop seemed to have a deep connection to the place and it lent a comfortable and real atmosphere to the natural nostalgia of the humble coffee shop with its heavy marble tables and old-fashioned tiles. As we sipped away, I noticed an elderly man walking by with a plastic bag filled to the brim with empty cans and as he took each step laboriously, I felt as if the merciless harshness of time left no thought for human emotions. He dropped his bag and I was about to get up and help him but despite his labored movements, he managed to pick it up on his own quickly enough. He stopped as a bulky middle aged man who sat by the entrance to the coffee shop handed the can collector his empty drink can.

can collector: kam sia (thank you)

bulky customer: Man man lai, lu ka tia. (take it easy, your leg is hurting you)

Just the simple exchange left a poignant image in my head against the backdrop the sultry afternoon heat, and time just stood still there and there as tears welled up and fell from my eyes. Life gets harder as we age and though comfort and joy can be found in the everyday routines of work such as setting up shop and collecting empty drink cans, no romanticizing can deny the actual pain, aches and sores that come with age. As we left the coffee shop and asked the owner for directions to He Cheng Provision Shop, he told us that it had already been vacated and rented out to a brand new cafe owner. I said “but I thought it was only supposed to be in June?” The coffee shop owner said no, it has already moved out. As I turned dejectedly to walk out, a man sitting close by and who overheard our exchange, took a benign glance at us, and looked down at his coffee, nodding away to himself knowingly, as if filled with the same regret we were feeling at the loss.

We went to Books Actually after that and I kept wondering to myself, how does this little indie book store compare with the new cafes around that I am so determined to boycott now? I love the initiative of book stores as a dying culture, yet it being in the heart of old Tiong Bahru made it seem like yet another anachronism that I struggled to reconcile with.

Drips, 40 Hands, Orange Thimble, Tiong Bahru Bakery…all run by young ones with fresh ideals, how many would remain holding the fort for the business till old age, the way the folks of Tiong Bahru Market and the surviving coffee shops in the vicinity have been and still are?

It wasn’t a day that was easy on the heart and I don’t know why the sense of loss was felt heavily, but I know I should be back again soon enough…

“I felt chastened, that I should be wallowing in nostalgia for things I’ve barely experienced, and displaced – that these retirees should adapt so easily to the new Singapore while I count the losses each year. I am confronted with my own malaise; the problem is me, not the government or the people. I have never been able to be at home in the present; the only place I can feel at peace in is the past, and the only people I can be at peace with are the dead.”

– Change Alley, Kim Cheng Boey

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