When I started work at the PSA, or Port of Singapore Authority, which was earlier known as Singapore Harbour Board, in the early sixties, I often had my breakfast and lunch at Tian Lye Street. It was located at what is today, the Tanjong Pagar Container Terminal. It was quite near to my work place which was at the tail-end of two major roads – Tanjong Pagar Road and Anson Road. Tian Lye Street was a right angled street, off-shoot from the end of Anson Road, with a three coffee-shops scattered at closed quarters, lined with licensed street vendors on both sides of the street. As you entered the street from Anson Road, after a short distance, there were two coffee shops opposite each others.
The food sold was not much different from present coffee shops, but there was a world of difference in the prices. For instance, the price for a plate of char siew rice was fifty cents with a large glass of Chinese tea thrown in foc. A plate of yee mee or hor fun cost eighty cents coated with ingredients like pig liver, pork, large prawns, sotong and kailan or chye sim. What a deal. The cost of living then was low, but then so were our salaries.
There were two Cantonese old ladies selling bananas, my favourite fruit, medium size similar to those branded Del Monte sold presently. In Cantonese, we call it ‘hiong ngar chew’. These two old ladies looked like retired amahs making a living in their old age, sitting side by side just to have company, especially someone to talk to. Guess what was the price of three bananas? Ten cents.
One of the more popular food stalls was called Maidin, run by an Indian Muslim who sold a great variety of curry rice with different ingredients such as: mutton, chicken, sotong, beef and the likes. Morning was busy time for Maidin. Port-workers would rush down the street and ordered the food , packed by him using banana leaves and newspaper as outer layer; all done at super speed. The end product looked like a pyramid secured by a rubber-band. The food from this Muslim stall, especially the sotong/vege/rice packet was simply delicious. Port workers would likely buy a can of teh-halia from a sarabat stall next to Maidin. (When I say 'can', I don’t mean modern coca cola type can, but the recycled condensed milk can.)
Meanwhile, the chye tau kueh, fried by an old Teochew man with his son assisting him, did a roaring business, frying up a storm – mainly the white type, with egg, minus the sweet sauce. This was his specialty; but if someone asked for the sweet type, no problem, he would kindly oblige. One of our Operations officers, Michael simply loved the chye tau kueh, and before he ate, he would hum his favourite tune : “Gura Racha, Gura Racha”, some kind of Mexican tune. The best part was, Michael never failed to buy extra packets of this lovely food for his staff, and one packet was reserved for me. Isn’t he a great officer?
I will stop here. Next time, I will blog about three unforgettable incidents that happened in Tian Lye Street, one minor, and two ugly ones.