“Don’t bother, it’s just 50 cents,” I told her benevolently, feeling like Jack Ma donating some spare change.
While the rest of my day was spent basking in the glow of virtue, the incident also got me thinking: what can 50 cents even buy today?
Slices of cut fruit, if I’m lucky. The standard price for a slice of papaya has risen to 80 cents at most hawker centres—and an exorbitant one!!!! dollar!!! at SF Fruits—but stalls at Maxwell Food Centre still sell it at 50 cents (doing the work of higher beings, these stalls).
50 cents can also buy. Uh.
I can add an egg to my porridge. Or choose to have my meal packed in a luxurious but earth-murdering takeaway container for 20 cents.
Buy a canned drink at Valu$?
Why would any rapper name himself after this useless denomination? What happened to the days when I could buy a plate of fried rice for 40 cents or a cup of “pink champagne” soft drink for 20 cents? (Anyone remembers these or did I come up with that in a pseudo-inebriated state when I was young?)
Yes, I grew up and left primary school. But I hear that primary school meals cost at least a dollar today. One dollar?! What is happening to the state of the world?
If a very very young working adult like me is already experiencing such angst about the rate of inflation plaguing this city, imagine the existential despair that someone older feels when they compare the cost of living half a century ago to that of today.
You know what they say: misery loves company. So I sought out the grand oracle of the house, my mother, to commiserate with her over the depressing memories that a 50-cent coin can trigger.
When I just started work in 1971, I can buy fishball kway teow at 30 cents only. So I always buy the 50-cents one! … Now 50 cents cannot buy anything la. Maybe a sweet?
“When I just started work in 1971, I can buy fishball kway teow at 30 cents only. So I always buy the 50-cents one. Hen feng fu [It was a feast]!”
Moreover, delivery was included in the measly 30-cents cost. Before Foodpanda and Deliveroo and whatever enslaved animal courier we have today, the hawkers themselves would wheel their carts to your doorstep.
“Last time those stall you don’t need to go to coffee shop, they push [their stalls], they stop there, you go and buy,” my mother recalls fondly.
It was an age of industry and the self-made meal and person: if you wanted an egg in your kway teow, “You [just] bring your own egg, they add the egg for you.”
Dessert was similarly affordable.
“Last time the ice ball is only 10 cents. It’s not like now the ice kacang. Really like a ball like that one. 10 cents only. Then you can buy kacang puteh. Only 5 cents.”
But after this rhapsodic reminiscence inevitably comes the crushing reality of the present.
“Now 50 cents cannot buy anything la. Maybe a sweet?” My mother laughs so derisively that it aches my heart and wallet—my wallet more than heart.
“The kway teow, from 50 cents, then 70 cents, then 1 dollar, 1.50, 2 dollar. Increase until now, 3.50. [And it’s already] the cheaper one … Toa Payoh there the Koufu 4 dollars. At Balestier the food centre it’s even more expensive, 4.50.”
“4.50?! My favourite char kway teow at Old Airport Road starts at $5,” I grumble indignantly and shake my fist at gentrification and inflation.
“Tell us. What does it all mean? What is the meaning of 50 cents?” I wail.
“I don’t know this answer,” my niece replies serenely.
I had forgotten—like the obscure Zen koans they dispense, one must approach sages in an oblique fashion.
“What would you do with 50 cents?”
“I am going to buy something that costs 50 cents that I need.”
“Wise one, please tell me more.”
“I will buy papers so I can do work. I will also like to buy a coin pouch.”
I am stunned into silence by this insight. Exchanging the object for its container? Discarding content for form? Is this the route to nirvana?
“How would you feel with 50 cents?” I press further.
“I feel happy!”
“Nothing else. No more. Bye bye!”
As my niece retreated to the sanctuary of her bed and my mother to her nightly workout at the fitness corner, I pondered the implications of my niece’s pronouncements. Had I turned into someone from the finance ministry, “a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”?
How do I rediscover that pure joy my niece sees in that almost-worthless-except-for-buying-papayas-and-eggs chip of metal?
Impossible. I am now a working adult. Joy is no longer a word in my vocabulary.
If that can’t soothe my frayed soul, then I really don’t know what else can.
This year’s Fifty Cents Fest will run on the 27th and 28th of July where diners can experience authentic Hokkien fare and other traditional dishes at affordable prices, priced from $0.50 to no more than $3.
Reserve a seat at the festival with Chope now! Exchange 400 Chope-Dollars to secure 2 seats at The Fifty Cents Fest! Each redemption is valid for 2 seats during the selected 2-hour time slot at Chope’s seating area. Securing of seats can only be done on ChopePerks via the Chope app. Other terms and conditions apply.