Broadcast on Gold 90.5 FM, Vintage Show, 19 August 2018
Chinatown began from the next street – Philip/Telok Ayer Streets. The population mix of the Market street residents was about 90% Indian and 10% Chinese.
The Indian resident population was about 1,000 and many more used to come into the area during office hours. There were Tamil Muslims wholesalers and retailers, Chettiar bankers, Hindu Tamil provision shops, Sri Lankan Tamil lawyers, Brahmin and Malayalee office workers, Sikh Jagas, Gujerati (Hindu & Muslim) spice traders, Sindhi retail shops and Hindi Paan shop owners. All of India was represented here. Even what we call Little India in Serangoon Road today, though much large in size is not as diverse. It is mostly a Tamil area. MARKET STREET WAS TRULY A MICROCOSM OF THE BREADTH AND VARIETY OF INDIA. This was very special.
I grew up there in one of the shop houses in the 1960s and 70s till it was redeveloped in 1977.
During office hours it was like any other commercial area and it was quite multi-racial. By about 4pm, offices would close in those days, and the commuting workers would return home and the Indian workers would come out to enjoy the cool air after closing their shops by 6pm. The area will become an entirely Indian area with men loitering on the streets and in Raffles Place Park.
They would be in their sarongs and 555 cotton singlets with small transistor radios listening to Tamil radio – with MGR and Sivaji songs softly wailing into the night. They all lived in bachelor dormitories mostly on the upper floors of the shophouses. 10+ workers would stay on one floor and have common cooking facilities. I don’t think there were any resident women in the area. If they brought their families over to Singapore then they would move out to alternate quarters.
But there used to be some children, especially in the Chettiar Kittangis. All boys, they would stay with their fathers and attend schools nearby like – Gan Eng Seng, Peck Seah, Trafalagar, ACS, RI, etc. They would come out and play football or badminton at Raffles Place.
The day would also be interrupted by the call to prayer 5 times a day from the nearby Masjid Moulana shophouse mosque along Market Street. The mosque is still there but underground, below UOB bank.
Many shop houses did not have permanent staircases to save valuable commercial space along the 5-foot way. A mobile wooden ladder was lowered through a hatch on the second floor to the street level. The resident employees would come down in the morning by 8am and the ladder will be removed. They could only go back up to their quarters only at night at about 7pm, when the ladder was lowered down again.
Another common sight was the “pail” lift. On the street level, there will be many itinerant vendors of mee goreng, rice, soup, satay, magazines, tea, etc. From the upper floors, a pail on a rope will be lowered with money in it as payment. The vendor will take the payment and put the change and the purchased item into the pail. Then the pail will be lifted up by hand.
By 9pm the area quietens down as people mostly would prepare to sleep by then. In the morning they would usually wake up by 6am and the shops would open from 8am onwards.