Deepavali at Galicier (the second of a two part excerpt from i ate tiong bahru)

Hi! The first part of this post is here.

Gula melakka is easy to melt and difficult to burn. It’s in many of Galicier’s treats: steamed tapioca, putu mayu, onden onden, kaya jam, ongol ongol and, of course, huat kueh. Gula melakka is used in breads and cookies as well, but its taste can become subdued when used with yeast. Potassium, iron, nitrogen, zinc, selenium and other minerals are all found in gula melakka. It’s the only plant-generated source of B12, which is necessary for red blood cells and a healthy nervous system. Yes!

After getting Soh Kee Soon’s approval, I pick up a few shavings. Gula melakka is softly crystalline, like fine moist sand. Almost gooey. On my tongue, the shavings become a sweetly wholesome syrup.

Customers walking into Galicier are greeted by shelves full of macaroons, containers of kaya jam, lady fingers and at least five kinds of breads. Cakes: Black Forest, chocolate, mango, pumpkin and more. Here and there traditional bamboo containers are used as decorations. On a table, a small wall made of plastic tubs full of cookies of all kinds. Almond combinations abound: coffee almond, cinnamon almond, chocolate almond, green tea almond and more. Like any Peranakan bakery, Galicier has pineapple tarts.

Power 98 reports that the thunderstorms will continue all afternoon, then wishes everyone a Happy Dewali before playing a Guns N’ Roses song. The rainy national holiday seems like any other day. The flow of customers has been steady. Most walk in, but a few park on Tiong Bahru Road, turn on their blinking hazard lights and run in to order.

Speaking in English, a woman tells her two children about the photo of Tan Lok Wee. The woman’s father used to take her there. Jenny, speaking in Teochew, had told the woman the Tan Lok Wee/Galicier story. The woman is excited and emotional. The kids are bored.

Jenny says this sort of thing happens all the time.

Next door, on the corner, is the Prata Paradise. A few doors away on the other side is The French Bookshop. At night, on the other end of the block, the packed tables of Sin Hoi San clog the passageway. Sin Hoi San specializes in seafood. From inside their bubbling tanks, risks of lobsters, casts of crabs and porns6 of geoducks intimidate those waiting at the bus stop.

Most evenings the manager, Cheong Seck Wee, weaves his motorbike through the tables and begins cruising through the streets of Tiong Bahru. His ride is covered with lights, decals and flags. When I lived on the third floor of Moh Guan, I’d watch him from the window. Classic Chinese ballads softly played from speakers on his glowing, blinking motorbike. He rode slowly, like the lost ghost of a parade.

Next to Sin Hoi San is a provision shop, a time capsule from the days when customers bought 20 kilo bags of rice. Now, in the age of supermarkets and 7-11s, the shop sells small things like canned drinks, instant noodles, fruits and bread. A few times a year, there will be baskets of green spiky durians in front. The uncle will sit beside his weathered stand with a knife and gloves nearby.

“Galicier is stuck in the Seventies,” says a newspaper clipping on the wall. I would disagree. Galicier is as timeless as gula melakka, pure water, honey or bread.

(i ate tiong bahru is available on Amazon)

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