It is not widely known that my father, who is affectionately known as “Uncle Maurice” by all in the office, is also our Procurement Manager and thus in between office meetings, we typically end up walking around the Joo Chiat neighbourhood trying to decide where to have our lunch.
These walks and lunches often result in him pointing out what Joo Chiat was like for him as a young boy. He had grown up in the now-demolished Rose Garden, directly opposite Katong Shopping Centre. He had distinct memories of grudgingly accompanying his mother (my Ah-Mah) to the Joo Chiat Market at 5 am in the mornings and (less-grudgingly) watching movies in the open-air cinema behind today’s Joo Chiat Complex.
When he was 19, he met a pretty 17-year-old girl, Lacey, at the Chinese Swimming Club and consequently tried to woo her by appearing at her Church, Calvary Assembly of God, at Mountbatten Road. They started to meet weekly in Church on Sunday and even started a Church band, where he took on the role of the guitarist, and her, the singer.
He reminisced that their “pak tor” (dating) days basically consisted of going for swims at the Chinese Swimming Club, where he coached her the Backstroke for a swimming competition, eating Prawn Mee and drinking Soya Bean Milk at the little side streets off Dunman Road and Joo Chiat Road. He would then walk her back to her family home in Haig Road, sneaking in quiet moments on a swing in her garden before walking the five minutes back to his own home at Rose Garden.
Hearing these stories made me realise that his way of showing love has been enduring. Growing up, after our swimming trainings at the Chinese Swimming Club, we would often drive to the junction of Joo Chiat Place and Tembeling Road for my father’s favourite “zi char” store. It checked off everything in his mental dining checklist. “Good value for money”, he would proudly proclaim.
These days, Sophie Choo, my two and a half year old niece, the oldest in her generation, occasionally join my father and I for our Joo Chiat eating sojourns. When that happens, I am transported back a good thirty years as I fondly remember my own childhood where my Kong Kong (my father’s father), my dad, and me would go out on eating escapades around the neighbourhood. Away from the other women in our family, the two most important men in my life would spoil me rotten, allowing me to indulge in whatever I fancied. I am sheepish to admit that family history has a way of repeating itself, and an outing with Sophie generally ends up with multiple pit-stops in the neighbourhood, satisfying her random, child-like desires of char siew bao and gula-melaka ice-cream.
In 2014, my work family at Choo Yilin moved into one of the iconic heritage Shophouses, a mere five minutes away from both my mother’s and my father’s childhood homes. I have often shared that Joo Chiat’s heritage is hugely significant to our brand’s DNA because of the work that we do. What I haven’t shared with you is that Joo Chiat has always been home to me and at least four generations of my family. Joo Chiat is the culmination of family history, spanning generations. It is the stolen moments and halcyon days: of wistful nights and young love on a rickety swing, of curious bright eyes peering through every neighbour's window, of tender weddings and quiet goodbyes, of a kaleidoscope of ice cream flavours as a respite from a warm, muggy Singaporean afternoon spent running, skipping, and tumbling across streets.
It is the confluence of years that embodied youth, happiness, and age - Joo Chiat is, above all, Love.