I spotted him walking quite briskly in his flip-flops right in front of me – an elderly man with all his tools of the trade on his shoulder. It was something like a made-shift wooden stand with a plastic bag labelled “Love the Earth. Recycle the bag” hung on one side and a container with bamboo sticks on the other. He might be one of those street-hawkers selling traditional Chinese tea-cakes, those steamed in bowls and extracted with bamboo sticks! He was quite light-footed, perhaps because he had sold off all his tea-cakes and was now on his way home.
This man took me down memory lane. These days, there are fewer and fewer hawker stalls not only because government policies do not encourage hawking but also because we are so worried about hygiene and in particular food-poisoning that we hesitate to patronize. In my childhood days, there were no big shopping malls but only small stores and street hawkers. The latter offered all kinds of delicacies – the aromatic bovine offal and braised squid, stinky tofu, sugar crepes, egg puffs and pickled carrots soaked in vinegar throughout the year. There were seasonal delights like roasted chestnuts, sweet potatoes and ginkgo in winter and popsicles and frozen fruit slices in summer.
Streets in many districts whether industrial or residential were lined with Dai pai dong or the street cooked food stalls preparing fish ball noodles, sweet soups, steamed rice rolls, stir-fried dishes and claypot rice right there before the customers. Dining there in open air could be steaming hot in summer though a big electric fan might be roaring behind and chilly in winter days though fire was raging in the charcoal burners.
Though hawker stalls can still be found in some parts of the old districts, most of these street goodies have now been upgraded and “housed” in posh restaurants. To hope for the best, the taste is still there but what is missing is the coziness and the intimacy of interactions that we are now deprived of. Or perhaps, it’s all so beautiful in my memory as Barbra Streisand sings The Way We Were!
Mem'ries may be beautiful and yet
What's too painful to remember
We simply choose to forget
So it's the laughter we will remember
Whenever we remember the way we were