“La Boutique Chinois”

To our young mind our house and school were the most important buildings; yet, the next place that impressed us most was our Chinese corner shop

Down Memory Lane

To our young mind our house and school were the most important buildings; yet, the next place that impressed us most was our Chinese corner shop. Like all rivers of the world – where civilization flourished on their banks – those shops were the centre of activity of the neighbourhood where most of our food came from, under the guardianship of the Chinese shopkeeper.

Invariably situated at the crossroads, the shops were so different – they were wooden and tin sheet buildings, never thatch-roofed like most houses. They had shutters that the shopkeeper would slide out every morning to reveal a glass showcase (‘vitrine’) containing some odd expensive articles, like China wares. The floor was stone-paved with some cement in between the joints. The shopkeeper had an accent quite unlike ours; he would address us in nasal, short, high-pitched guttural and disjointed phrases. When they talked among themselves we would stretch our ears, hoping to unravel any meaning, but in vain. It was all Greek to us. Maybe all this polarized our feelings and made those shops enigmatic spots to be visited often.

The sweetmeats

Generally only one door led into the shop and to the inner wooden counters; but sometimes there would be two, in which case the shopkeeper and his wife would be more vigilant – keeping an eye on whoever came in or went out. Looking back we would always wonder why did these shops look so dark inside, with a dull atmosphere full of many smells. Later we would realize that the shopkeeper could not waste money on electricity. And the smell, from all those articles – grains, cereals, dried fish, cakes, ripe bananas or kerosene – would be mixing in a close crowded space, where Mr Ah Koon, or popularly known as Zorro, had tried to pile a maximum of goods, to satisfy a maximum number of clients of the vicinity.

The shelves behind the counter were overloaded with goods, be they canned sardines or the unforgettable reddish glenryck salmon and the coloured bottles of lemonade, or green, round Milo boxes. Way down below those shelves would be square wooden containers in which would be stacked all sorts of cereals, rice, lentil, dhal and beans. In those days the bunches of bananas were hung on to some wire strings fixed high to the ceiling; in a corner of the counter would be a flat ‘vitrine’ in which were found some sweetmeats like syrupy ‘Gateau Piaw’, unforgettable pink, white or green ‘Gateau Coco’, or ‘Gateau Kostey’, some oxo cubes – which we had never tasted; a small china plate containing sardines in oil. Many people would drop in and buy a loaf of bread (pain maison) with one or two sardines sandwiched in, while the pickled small chilies would be on the house – free!

It was fun for us children to watch with some glee at the to and fro movements of those rare flies or wasps caught inside the showcase. And on the other end of the counter would be more coloured sweets kept in “pot banc” (glass jar) – such as ‘sucredose’, ‘la Poudre Maiye’, marble like colourful ‘Gateau Canette’ or ‘Gateau Papaye/Gingembre’ or ‘sipek’ – all sufficient to send young children dreaming. In one corner of the shop, behind the counter, there would be a pile of salted snoek fish, or some dry, blackish, mauve coloured octopus – the caviar of the poor. In another corner would be sacks full of rice and other cereals in jute canvas. Tucked inside were large, smooth scoops made of large coconut shells, turning black with time and over use. They would serve to decant the grains from the ‘bal’ into triangular brownish paper sacs before being weighed in a beam balance for the client.

And if we had come with our bottle we could buy oil for cooking – which Mr Ah Koon would scoop out of 20-litre tin containers with the help of a metallic, roundish measuring spoon of different sizes – and pour into our bottle via a metallic funnel. But the kerosene tins were kept apart to prevent confusion, for that pungent liquid was our fuel for the night lamps. If we were lucky enough we might be entertained to the siphoning of those fluids from big drums onto the containers; the shopkeeper would use a metre-long tapering metallic tube which he would plunge into the drum, and pulled in and out a central plunger from that tube, to get the liquid out through a top side curved beak onto the container. For us children that was magic.

When the time to settle account came, we got more amazed to see the shopkeeper murmuring some mumbo-jumbo under his breath, while manipulating a rectangular beads- bearing contraption, pushing those black beads to the left or right, going up or down on different rows. Sometimes we would pay on the spot; but for bigger sums we would bring our notebook – the famous ‘Carnet La Boutique’ – where Mr Ah Koon would scribble the amount of credit given, while jotting the same in his own record.

no-man’s-land

As we grew up we would become aware that to some shops were annexed a completely different semi-darkish room, which had always remained a no-man’s-land to us children. That place would flare up with activity around 5 p.m. as men would be seen trotting inside. Perhaps we were too dull-headed to have ventured there; if we had we would have seen a few old wooden tables and chairs, and many a honest, hard-working men would be there, sitting, talking, smoking, with glasses of some transparent liquid in front of them. Sometimes they would drink wine also, because it was cheaper. On the shelves would be a few bottles of “Good Will” stuff. Those were an expensive luxury, not accessible to everyone, served with a greyish, thick metallic peg measure.

Those poor men would while away their time and money, drinking and chatting almost every early evening. Years later rumours would have it how the sober clients would be served the genuine stuff at first – and as the hour ticked by and they got tipsier, one shopkeeper got more cunning. He would gradually dilute the rum with water before decanting into his peg measure. And smart would be the half drunk, light-hearted, happy client who could detect the difference. As the drink itself was already a drain on the drinkers’ purse, it was no question of going for special snacks or ‘gajacks’—it was sardines and bread all the way; years later accommodation was made for that luxury: curry ‘ourite’ and fish ‘vindaloo’ became the favourite with the patrons. Unfortunately this special room would gradually become a den for the unemployed, for the less fortunate men and would cause a lot of misery in some families.

Behind that shop would be the living quarters, and still further back could be a compound well barricaded from the surroundings by odd pieces of tin sheets, where we had never ventured.

Fernand

It must be said that all those shops round the corner always had an open verandah on the street side; so down the years it became a favourite port of call for the jobless, poor, uneducated men who might have been doing their best to make both ends meet. They would meet their pals and while away their time, talking about football, politics or their miserable family life and difficulties, about fate playing them a bad turn, always praying that a good Samaritan would come along and relieve their unquenchable, persistent thirst.

How could we forget those Sunday afternoons when the kind, soft- spoken odd jobs men -the fortyish, thin and medium high Fernand with his brother Roota – would be at one of the shops at Ah Koon, some 100 metres from home. He would be playing his banjo, singing some soft, nostalgic, heart-rendering sega songs, while drinking Malaga wine, accompanied by his friend Ti Roger. As the afternoon went by, the small gang would amble down Pasteur Street to the north end, to reach Zorro‘s shop, at the other crossroads. They would continue their fun of discovering the virtue of music and vocal renderings. They did not have the means to go to the seaside, so they had to while away their Sunday making the to and fro trip from one shop to the other, giving an air of light festivity to the evening while lamenting on the whys of such a hard, miserable and poverty-stricken life.

That was the memorable past of bygone times.

 

 

* Published in print edition on 23 March 2018

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