In a recent visit to 13 Streets, I was amazed by the dramatic changes in its environment, especially the improvement on hygiene and cleanliness. The streets are named after auspicious animals and I once lived in two of them. Living in 8-storey Chinese tenement houses that had no elevator, it was never a problem for me to climb the stairs. The dirty streets had uneven paving and flooding commonly occurred on rainy days, which greatly affected the accessibility and connectivity of the neighbourhood.
Many automobile repair shop owners run their businesses on the ground floor. Vehicles waiting for body and paint repair services were parked on the street. This common yet unwritten practice causing street obstruction was undertaken at the expense of public space. One day when my father was on his way back home, two vehicles were parked right in front of our building’s entrance. His head was hit by the small van’s tailgate which was not closed properly. The community members were very alert to the surroundings ever since this accident.
Despite the unsatisfactory living environment, there was a close bond between the neighbours. I remember the chubby, elderly grocer at the end of the street was so generous that he accepted deferred payment if the customers were running out of cash. His body looked less bulky when he rode on his bike for rice and liquefied petroleum gas delivery. There was also a tiny tuck shop on the other end. The days I walked home with my two sisters after school, the female owner always greeted us warmly, even though we did not buy anything from her. Whenever we called her by a prank name “soy sauce woman” (which sounds similar to “boss woman” in Cantonese), she would nod and answer with an amiable tone. We doubted if her hearing was clear enough to realise our prank. Besides, I used to buy a pound of loaf bread every time I visited the traditional bakery shop at the corner. If I was lucky enough to meet the time when egg tarts were freshly baked from the oven, the male shop assistant would always give me one for free. His generosity somewhat frightened us after we found out he was the owner’s son and never visited again.
In my re-visit today, I found 13 Streets has become a quieter and tidier neighbourhood, with less obstruction caused by on-street parking and huge improvement in environmental hygiene. The messy streetscape that annoyed me no longer exists, but so do the familiar faces. A sense of ambivalence grows in my heart seeing such changes!