Category Archives: books

The Woes & Wu’s Of The 555

These little booklets evoke a lot of nostalgia for the older folks amongst us.  Have you ever wondered how the notation “555” came into existence?

These gained notoriety as “buku hutang” – a sort of credit booklet which villagers used to chalk up their debts as they bought household items and food on credit from the kedai runcit (sundry shops).  The idea was to pay up lump sum at the end of each month when they debtors got their gaji (wages). 

Unfortunately, this practice often became an insidious debt-trap, as it encouraged a “buy-now-worry-about-paying-later” mindset.  Thus, for quite a number of folks, it became a Book of Woes.

Legend has it that the Chinese “victims” often looked inside these booklets and would cry aloud “wu wu wu” and, well that sounded like “555” in Mandarin.   The rest is history.

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Of Scholars & Undertakers…

And the Twain did meet ..

Mention the name Carnarvon Street (or ” lam chan na” 烂田仔, in Chinese, meaning “poor quality swampy fields”) and, am sure the old folks of Penang will remember that was the go-to place for Books/Stationery and, Coffins !     The street was lined on both sides with maybe two dozen bookshops and a dozen casket shops.

In my secondary school days, this street was my favorite haunt – of course I went only to see and buy the books and stationery, not those fabulous “longevity lumber” or “big houses” (Chinese euphemism for coffin).    Well, I moved out of Penang in 1984, so no chance to patronize the latter business.

I have not undertaken a trip back to this place ever since moving out to Singapore in 1984.  I think there must have been a lot of changes.  People still die, but am not sure if people still read as much.