My Heartland – A Portrait of Hong Kah Point

Eighty-two percent (as of Mar 08) of Singaporeans and Permanent Residents live in public housing estates (affectionately referred to as heartlands). I’m one of them. And I love it here in the heartlands. They offer a comprehensive environment where all the necessities that one needs are just a few steps away or even right downstairs. Where I live now, there’s a wet market, a NTUC Fairprice, 2 hawker centers, a 7-Eleven below my block, and rows of shops selling all kinds of stuff and offering services such as medical, beauty, foot reflexology, and photo printing.

However, even though I’ve lived almost all my life in a HDB flat, I hardly patronise the neighbourhood shops other than meals at the hawker centre or getting groceries from the supermarket. I used to get my haircut at the Malay barbershop for S$8.00 but have in recent months, moved to branded salons in downtown malls.

For more happenings in the heartlands of Singapore, go to myheartland.com.sg. You can also 'Like' the Facebook page for posts, updates and reviews by residents living in the estates. You can even share your thoughts about your heartland. Join in the fun!

Increasingly, the small neighbourhood retailers are facing stiffer competition from mega malls in the shopping districts and big retailing chains, retreating to serve a mainly middle-aged customer base and losing the young ‘uns. My recent coiffure migration is a case in point. And it’s a pity I’ve lost the appreciation of getting what I need where I live. Now I spend more time going to get my haircut, and I pay more.

Hence, when I was offered an opportunity to rekindle the convenience of my heartland roots by Hong Kah Shop Proprietors’ Association, I decided to take up the challenge. I was among 8 lucky bloggers who’ve been given a S$150 ang bao (red packet) to eat, shop and play at Hong Kah Point during their Chinese New Year Carnival.

Hong Kah Point – Chinatown of the West

Even though it’s in a different housing estate (I live in Whampoa Drive), I have comfort in the familiarity that all residential towns and estates in Singapore adhere to a common set of planning principles. This way, we can easily orientate ourselves no matter where we are and assimilate into any neighbourhood easily.

But that doesn’t mean we live in a cookie-cutter environment where everything is homogenous. Each town has its own unique identity and specialties. So what will I find at Hong Kah Point? What are the famous food? What’s so special about shopping here? What fun is there to be had in this small neighbourhood centre?

Sitting at the intersection of Jurong West St 51 & 52, Hong Kah Point is a residential heartland consisting of 8 public housing blocks with rows of shophouses (Blks 501 - 508).

When I received the invite for the enjoy-n-blog contest (3 winning blogs will be chosen from the 8 of us), I thought Hong Kah Point is a suburban shopping centre much like Northpoint in Yishun or Compass Point in Sengkang. So I was slightly taken aback when it’s the name of an estate rather than a shopping complex. Most of the bloggers didn’t know it too! Which goes to show that Singapore though small, has many places yet to be explored.

This Hong Kah Point resident must be so proud of his/her home to beautify and decorate even the common corridor. I think this shows how safe the neighbourhood is. Residents need not worry about their belongings being stolen. This flat unit seem so cheery and welcoming!

Meaning of Hong Kah

Hong Kah is derived from the Teochew term for Christianity – 丰家 (Feng Jia), which means a ‘bountiful harvest of households’ or ‘plentiful blessings in homes’. In Hokkien, a Christian is sometimes referred to as someone who jiak hong gah (jiak = eat; hong gah = Christianity).

The place got its name because of an evangelist who managed to convert many of the Chinese residents in the area during the 1970s to Christianity, a harvest of families so to speak. But the Chinese characters are written as 丰加 now (which is phonetically similar to ‘家’ but means ‘bountiful addition’) after a renaming exercise to downplay the religious inklings of the name’s origin.

Blowing soap bubbles, hopscotch, zero point, police & thief, fighting spiders... the playful scenes from my childhood growing up in HDB estates floated back into memory. I feel so young again!

How to get here

Hong Kah Point can be reached by taking the MRT to Chinese Garden Station and transferring to Bus No. 335, or alighting at the Lakeside Station and taking Bus No. 187. You can also walk from Lakeside Station to Hong Kah Point. Just walk along Jurong West St. 51 towards blocks 501 – 508. It’s a less than 10 minutes stroll.

If you take a cab, tell the driver Jurong West St. 51 block 501 instead of Hong Kah Point because like the bloggers, most would not know the estate’s name.

From everything under the sun, to anything under the sea; whether it is Western pharmacy or Chinese traditional medicinal hall... our heartland shops have 'em all.

The heartlands of Singapore are colourful yet colourless; where different races live harmoniously alongside & trade cultures. In this case, ikan & 椰子.

Must-Eats at Hong Kah Point Hawker Centre

The first thing I did when I got to Hong Kah Point was eat. I’m a yao gui (hungry ghost) of local hawker fare and there’s bound to be some famous culinary talents in every neighbourhood hawker centre. As I’ve never been here nor got much recommendations from a search online, I decided to find my great eats by asking the residents themselves.

My food trail at Hong Kah Point Hawker Centre was literally planned on the spot with liberal counsel from the residents themselves. Many things to Christina Wu, Elsie Tan and Clara Pay for pointing out the must-eats here and adding inches to my waistline!

I think the magic of enjoying a day at the heartlands is the spirit of gotong royong (neighbourliness). I started my day of gluttony by queuing at Heng Heng sliced fish soup stall and asked the lady behind me what’s so good about it. Next thing I know, the lady in front joined in and I soon had a list of must-eats at the hawker centre. There were many recommendations but I managed to only try the following throughout the day…

Who said you can't find beauty queens amongst our hawkers? Here's one at Hoe Kee Kitchen (Unit : #01-39)... Chio bu (hot chick)! Incidentally, her stall sells chicken rice. Christina told me that her son would only eat chicken rice from this stall and could tell straightaway if it's not.

This is the stallowner of Ho Heng Hot & Cold Drinks (Unit : #01-54). I was told that his coffee is very popular & that local folk singer-songwriter 梁文福 used to patronise his stall regularly. What's surprising was that the kopi tao chiew ('coffee chef') was a girl possibly only in her early 20s!

The striking thing about the stallowner of Joo Huat Cold & Hot Drinks (Unit : #01-23) is this - his left facial muscle has laxed probably due to stroke but he readily smiled for the camera. What a contrast with those who are camera-shy even though all the muscles on their faces are fully functional. The stall has a really complete range of local folk drinks from homemade soya bean milk to grass jelly drink to other traditional thirst quenchers.

She's the boss of Heng Heng Cooked Food (Unit : £01-186) & I was told that she has refused many approaches by the media to feature her stall. She initially refused to let me take her photo but she finally relented and gave me a smile. This is a rare shot!

What's so special about the sliced fish soup at Heng Heng is the smooth and slippery fish slices and belachan sauce. Yes, you read it right. Belachan chili sauce for sliced fish soup. Next we'll be having soya sauce with French fries?

Great Finds for Year of the Rabbit

In between the eating, I explored the neighbourhood shops at Hong Kah Point. Since Chinese New Year is around the corner, there’s a carnival going on. I love these heartland carnivals because the mood is very festive with familiar new year tunes blasting from the shops and there’re usually good bargains for clothes, decorations and foodstuff.

Some of the great buys I saw at the Hong Kah CNY Carnival were T-shirts with interesting prints at S$10 and jumbo packets of fish maw at S$8.00 each. The same grammage of fish maw in NTUC Fairprice costs S$12.90 or more depending on the shape and grade (cone, butterfly, or assortment).

My targets at the carnival were again of the yao gui nature. I’m looking for specialty new year goodies and tidbits of Hong Kah Point and found 2 confectionery / bakery that makes their own pineapple tarts fresh daily in the shop. The making of pineapple tarts is an artform and really good tasting ones are hard to come by. So it’s really unusual to have 2 shops that make equally good versions of this snack in one place!

CNY Must-Buys - Pineapple balls from NGT Confectionery (Blk 504, #01-227). The innovative ball shape of this favourite CNY goodie is an adaptation from Taiwan's famous Pineapple Cake (凤梨酥). In my opinion, NGT's version should be the famous one.

All the homemade cookies and goodies are produced fresh in the shop and there's a wide selection at great prices. And their cakes are a work of art!

风骚蜘蛛侠... Check out the very vogue pose of Spidey! No wonder Doraemon is laughing its magic pocket off. The cakes at NGT Confectionery are so colourfully sculpted and well put together, you would rather have your cake and NOT eat it.

This is the boss of Difference Bakery (Blk 501, #01-285). Can you believe she's 50yo and a grandmother? Whatever her shop's baking, I'm eating!

CNY Must-Buys - Pineapple nuggets from Difference Bakery. They have a secret ingredient that makes the skin really soft & fluffy. I'm not exaggerating when I say they melt in your mouth.

This sweet 8yo girl with cheeks you just want to pinch from the candy stall was affable beyond your age. Here's how she told me her name... "L E E spacebar Y I spacebar J I N." Keyboard generation!

Other than delectable CNY tidbits, no celebration would be complete without getting some decorative banners and auspicious ornaments to usher in good fortune for the next 12 months. My family prefer to recycle our decors but that doesn’t mean I don’t like checking out the designs of each year’s festive acccessories. 通过时下的照片,就让我给大家拜个年,希望相片中的吉祥讯息感染您在兔年里的运程!

It's Chinese Lunar New Year! Time to get all red, gold and loud! Some of the decorations are going at 3 for S$5.00 only. Very cheap... lelong lelong (good bargain, good bargain)!

玉兔今年要放假啦。让我们骑着金兔奔跳过健康、丰裕的2011年!

吉祥扑向您!May great blessings and good fortune pounce on you and all your loved ones!

HUAT AH! Money come, easy money come quick quick! 祝大家兔年里得财不费力、一份耕耘,百分收成、鸿运自来、不劳而获!发发发!

希望今年会行桃花大运!May love and romance be like contagious diseases that keep spreading all year round!

Cultural Gem – Cheok Keuw Bridal Company

Talking about romance, there’s one shop that’s not to be missed when visiting the neighbourhood – Cheok Keuw Bridal Co. at Blk 506, #01-180. This shop is a living museum right in the HDB heartland retailing the essentials for a traditional Chinese ceremony.

The family business was started 50 years ago and has been passed down from parents to children. The second generation owner is Clara Pay and she shared that the legacy of the shop may very well end with her as she has no heir to take over and her brother’s children aren’t interested. So better go take a look before this gem gets lost to time.

爱你在心口要开。Let me tell you how much I love you with a kiss! Cheok Keuw has the biggest collection of cute Chinese nuptial couple figurines I've ever seen. They would brighten any occasion, not just weddings.

The outstanding decor notwithstanding, anyone who comes here will be rewarded with an intimate peek into the Eastern nuptial traditions and customs through the antiquities on sale. Clara will also patiently explain what, how and when to use the items according to the varying practices of different dialect groups.

Clara freely shares all her fascinating knowledge about the intricacies and dos and don’ts during a Chinese wedding process. I spent quite a lot of time at her shop and learnt so much from her. Thanks Clara!

With its abundance of antique collectibles and eye-catching decor, the quaint little business trumps many downtown shops in terms of having uniqueness, character, & a service level that's almost impossible to match.

But the shop also has another poignant story, and that is the story of Clara. At the age of 19, she was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer and later in her 30s, she had breast cancer. But talking to her and being in her pressence, one would never know her health woes unless you read a newspaper clipping framed up in a corner about her struggles with the diseases. The Chinese article was written in 2006 when she was in her 40s. She is still undergoing chemo treatment now but she’s full of life and very delightful to chat with.

Feels like I'm in the movie set of 花样年华 (In the Mood for Love) where the rich colours of nostalgia is fused with retro class.

Of all the numerous auspicious objects that are used during a traditional Chinese wedding ceremony, the tea set, lamps and nutpial candles are the top 3 quinessentials. Here are the symbolic meanings behind each of them :

Tea Set - When the newlyweds offer tea to the elders, it’s a sign of respect and when the elders sip the tea, it shows acceptance of the new addition to the family. The tea ceremony also serves to announce the marriage to both sides of the family clan. The tea cups will always come with a handle to represent the ear, meaning that the couple will listen to their parents-in-law.

My parents had this exact tea set for their wedding tea ceremony! We used to display it in a glass cabinet in our 3-room flat until we moved. I think it's somewhere in the storeroom now. Seeing it at here made me want to search for the set and display it again. After all without it, I wouldn't have been born!

Nuptial Candles - These candles are lighted to annouce the new union to ancestors. Sort of like an otherworldly email or sms to inform the ancestral spirits of the new family member so that they can watch over him/her. One of the candles would have a dragon motif (male) while the other has a phoenix (female) and they are usually lighted in this pairing.

双龙双凤的龙凤烛?婚姻不是一龙一凤的吗?Hmm... Seems like tradition is more open-minded than we think with a double dragon and phoenix nuptial candles instead of one of each.

However, the Hokkiens and Teochews light the candles in a dragon-dragon or phoenix-phoenix pairing. This unusual practice of lighting a ‘same-sex’ pair is somewhat unique to Singapore. The bride’s family would light a pair of dragon candles to annouce the addition of a son-in-law, while at the bridegroom side, a pair of phoenix candles are lighted to annouce the coming of a daughter-in-law. This way, the ancerstors don’t get gender confusion!

Lamp - Light and lamp has many meanings but the main one at a customary Chinese wedding represents fertility. 灯 (light) sounds like 丁 (child) so by lamp lighting, it is a wish for the couple to go forth and multiply! I wonder if there’s any effect on their offsprings if they light different lamps. For example, if they light a lava lamp, the child will grow up to be hot stuff; laser light gets them a scientist; red light guarantees the child a place in the lewd industry, etc. I think my parents lighted a disco ball at their ceremony.

OMG! 这样的 pattern 也有人要啊?! Cappuccino 的这副表情是因为看到丑媳妇/女婿吗?Did the dog just saw Corpse Bride?!

It is definitely worth making a special trip to Cheok Keuw even if one is not in the vicinity or plan on having a traditional Chinese wedding. It’s very enlightening to just stand there and listen to Clara advise her clients on the symbolic meanings and usage of the different items while feasting the eyes on all the heritage knick knacks. Furthermore, there’s a very adorable and docile coffee-coloured poodle named Cappuccino in the shop that’s bound to have you asking… how much?

13 Hours at Hong Kah Point

After a day eating and shopping, it’s time to see how the Hong Kah Point residents have fun. I cancelled an appointment to help my friend with party arrangements and missed another friend’s house party at night to attend their resident Singing Competition.

Was it worth the sacrifices? Well, it’s not really my kind of thing but I must say I was pleasantly amused. They can really sing and from those I’ve heard, all of them can cause earthquakes with their diaphragms! Many Hokkien songs were sung that night and they all looked so professional and confident. Oh, and they really dressed up for their performance too.

The folks at Hong Kah Point sure knows how to celebrate the year end and CNY festivities with performances, singing competitions and karaoke nights on a public stage. HKP Got Talent or what?!

Looking for the next heartland idol? When I took my seat at the makeshift performance arena, I was bracing myself for bad singing & shoddy showsmanship. But I soon realised there was no need for ear plugs. The voices were bigger than the small stage & they're so pro!

Everyone gets to shine. There were about 30 contestants & some of the golden agers really amazed me with the vitality in their voice. It was also really fun to see what the contestants wore. I totally dig the tackiness! It's good cheese.

Am I auditioning for the singing competition? I can only wish I'm able to carry a tune like the contestants... Even the seventh month getais don't want me to scare away our 'good brothers'.

Since I ended the day at Hong Kah Point on a musical note, I thought it apt to conclude this entry with a Hokkien song I recently fell in love with. Due to the nature of the language and its domination in the most awful of curse phrases, Hokkien songs have often been associated with the uncouth, unpolished and tacky. Just as how hip Singaporeans may consider it uncool to shop at neighbourhood stores or get a haircut in a heartland salon. They prefer the glitzy, air-conditioned downtown malls and famous brands. I preferred them too.

I never thought I could last half a day at a small neighbourhood centre like Hong Kah Point but I did. Thanks to Siow Har who came along & that gotong royong allure of the place! It's the people that gave me the stamina to eat, play and shop for 13 hours here.

But having spent such a long time at Hong Kah Point (I was there at 9:30am and left at 10:30 pm), I would say, give the businesses in your estate a chance. You may discover a type of ‘merchandise’ that money cannot buy; an at home feeling while shopping, eating and playing. And many of these heartland shops are changing the way they do business and the products they offer so some of the things we find here can not be found anyhere else. Like this song, Hokkien (heartland lifestyle) has become and can be hip!

Let’s not forget our roots and incorporate them into our higher aspirations so that we can enjoy a wider repertoire of lifestyle experiences unique to Singapore. All hail good English, proper Mandarin… and endearing Singlish!

The title of this song is 《保庇》(bo bee) by 王彩桦 (Lotus Wang) and it means ‘bless / blessings’ and ‘protect’. With this absolutely charming and joyous tune, I wish everyone a protected and blessed year ahead!

If you would like to see more photos, please click here.

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