Chronicles Of The Good Morning Towel – by Kat Ngoi
There’s a fine line between treasure trove and junkyard status when it comes to forgotten items of old that qualify as museum relics. To many Singaporeans, the extraordinary Good Morning towel is designated to be treasured. Synonymous with the bygone era of Singapore, it has acquired an endearing heritage quality over years of tradition.
It’s hard for anyone who has lived long enough in Singapore not to recognise the ubiquitous flimsy white towel with its distinctive blue edged lines. Its conspicuous cursive ‘Good Morning’ English greeting is an odd match to its bold red Chinese translation and the character ‘He’ (pronounced ‘Her’) flanked by a pair of ferns, but its very kitsch design was what made it so unique.
My memories of the endearing eponymous towel is rooted in my childhood from a scene set in my grandmother’s 70’s Joo Chiat kampong. Those were the days a village of multi-racial residents forked out a small monthly rental of less than twenty dollars to my ‘Ah Ma’ (grandmother) — the fearsome ‘Choo Zhoo’ (‘landlady’ in the Hokkien dialect) whose late husband had owned the plot of kampong land.
As kids my Ah Ma made no qualms about wiping us down constantly with a Good Morning towel after our rough tumble and play on the kampong grounds. One afternoon we were humiliated in one of Ah Ma’s public chastising, as the near-naked kampong children watched my brother and I forced into an impromptu cleaning ritual. Some cowered behind the fabric of their mother’s batik sarongs while a few dangled their skinny muddy bare feet from atop the nearby rambutan tree like random pigeons on a cable. A scruffy-looking bunch they were — sweaty, tanned, lean-as-chopsticks little boys in bare torsos scratching at their mosquito sores and fanning away flies without their gaze ever leaving the two of us.
To them we were strange specimens of immense interest as landlady Choo Zhoo dabbed away and tried to scrub the sticky perspiration and dirt marks off our recently incurred filthy adventures at the nearby ‘longkang’ (drain). The Choo Zhoo sighed as she repeatedly rubbed then wrung out from an enamel basin of water, that thinly woven, once-white-but-now-brown ‘Good Morning’ towel.
My Ah Ma amassed a massive collection of these towels. I remember how they were stored. Rolled up in thick bundles held together neatly with beige rubber bands, like how she stored her bundles of rent money hidden in old musky drawers smelling of moth balls and Bigen hair dye. Speaking of hair, my Ah Ma’s locks were something out of a kampong’s legend. At dawn when the sun is yet to cast its orangey glow, there was the old lady, just visible in the twilight, still clad in her long batik sarong, engaged in her morning beauty ritual. She would brush her thick wavy locks, then tease and sculpt them into a remarkably tall pompadour with a bunch of hairpins. Hunched over the large mint green enamel basin painted with peonies, she refreshed her face, neck and shoulders with what else but a trusty Good Morning towel.
Looking at the yellowed vintage sepia wedding photos of my grandparents, my only clue to how my grandfather Ah Kong looked, I often imagined when she was a young wife of twenty-something, Ah Ma would have laid out a fresh clean Good Morning towel for her husband dutifully every morning, next to a fresh basin of water for him to refresh himself.
And such must have been how the ubiquitous towel lent itself to an astounding array of household and commercial applications. One imagines that right from the early days the utilitarian towel would have wiped many a sweaty brow as it draped from the sun-baked necks of impoverished coolies making a hard living as indentured labourers and rickshaw pullers boosted by Singapore’s entrepôt trade. The trusty towel would have similarly been the accessory of choice for the coolie’s female counterpart, the Samsui women labourers who worked on construction sites lugging heavy building materials and clearing debris.
Generations later, it continues to be a part of daily life in Singapore, where it can be seen flapping to dry in the breeze pegged on rows of ‘teck-gou’ (bamboo poles) first sighted in kampongs like my Ah Ma’s, then a decade later, from HDB verandahs. As a face towel or hair towel for grooming it has traversed eras and multi-generations, including being a regularly spotted essential at the many multi-ethnic hairdressing salons and barber shops of Singapore.
The Good Morning towel, I imagine, easily and ideally sterilised in bulk quantities, would have served the paediatric ward in hospitals like the KK Hospital, the memorable birthplace of a sizeable proportion of Singaporeans as early as 1938.
Is there anything this hardy towel has not seen or served? In our kitchens it was and is still swathed over wok covers, pots and pans, multi-tasking as a tablecloth, a rag and a tea towel. It faithfully joined us at the table for daily home cooked meals or grand celebrations at the local restaurant. It was even the flimsy substitute before oven gloves were commonly used in most Asian kitchens, and it was what prevented our steamed paus (buns) from getting soggy.
As a cleaning product, it’s still working as hard as it did in the yesteryears to bring the round granite marble table tops at old coffeeshops to a shiny gleam. Now still seen in modern pantries of offices in Singapore’s CBD, in the old days the Good Morning towel wiped clean every surface — from our dinner tables at home to our classroom and canteen tables. It even helped keep the dust off rusty tins of expired Jacob crackers waiting to be picked up from the cluttered forgotten shelves of corner provision shops. We all have memories of those same charming retro provision shops that recycled a used Milo tin (suspended from a rope tied to a beam) as the proprietor’s makeshift cash register.
Today, the most widely seen and distributed ‘Good Morning’ towel is the particular thin grade ones marked with the Chinese character ‘He’ (which means ‘harmony’) embellished with a pair of leafy ferns. Those mysterious red numerals ‘96’ below it are apparently the manufacturer’s cryptic code to differentiate the various sizes and grades of the range of GM towels. Its lesser seen line-up includes 97, 98 and 99, with each number assigned to an accompanying Chinese character such as ‘xin’ (new), ‘xin’ (trust) and ‘hao’(good; well). Its Chinese tagline, “Zao An Ju Jun” translated into English, means “Good morning gentleman”.
The younger generation may be surprised to find Good Morning towels still available for sale today. While its eye-popping price of ten dollars or more for a dozen today may put off younger Singaporeans, those who appreciate vintage style would find the cost insignificant. Ten dollars is cheap when one could own a piece of treasure to preserve a time-honoured tradition at home.
This article was first published as a contribution to the overseassingaporean.sg website
as ‘SG50 Icons of Singapore #22 – Good Morning Towel’ (17 June 2015), just one of the many initiatives to commemorate Singapore’s 50th National day celebrations. We were stoked to have used the Good Morning Towel to wipe down tables at Barang and it remained a regular kitsch style retro accessory tucked into the waist of our black aprons until the day we closed. It’s certainly something from my childhood that’s endeared itself to me.