Monday, July 03, 2006

John Harper Remembers Singapore - Part 2: Acclimatisation

Acclimatisation was the process of getting used to the heat and the humidity. Arriving by ship had given us some time to get ourselves used to it. Nonetheless we were told that it would be two weeks before we were allowed to go to school because we needed to acclimatize. Yippee!!

A friend of my father was on leave at that same time and took us to the beach nearly every day. This of course had to wait until my plaster cast was removed. I am pleased to say that my father had arranged that for the day after we arrived. What a relief to get rid of that awful encumbrance. That first experience of the sea – so warm, the sun burning down, the perfect balance of water temperature and air temperature, we felt that we arrived in paradise. Despite the fact that Cleveleys is next to the sea, we had not learned to swim whilst living in Cleveleys. We were lucky if there were about half a dozen days per summer when it was warm enough to go to the beach. We were taught to wade out in the water up to waist height and launch ourselves forward and to float in on an incoming wave. The water was so warm that you didn’t stand about shivering on the water’s edge wondering if you dare go in.

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Changi Beach in the Sixties (Photo courtesy of
Memories of Singapore)


Soon I was going deeper and was going to chest depth. Next thing you know I was having a go at breast stroke and managing to do that fairly well. Our swimming sessions were at the beach that ran alongside the runway at Changi. Moored out in the channel was a raft and before the two weeks acclimatization was up I could swim out to the raft without help. With the land reclamation that has gone on since, I think the beach area where I learned to swim has now become a part of the airport. I have joked with colleagues as we landed at Changi airport that I learned to swim on the perimeter track on the seaward side!

During those two weeks we developed our tans, I think that was the real reason for the two weeks acclimatization as much as anything. Having blond hair also meant that our hair also lightened a few shades as well, the sun had a strong bleaching effect. During this period we met the local shop owner Keng Wah Heng. His shop was just up the road from our house. We called in there and were treated to a cold drink. It seemed very strange to be served by a Chinaman wearing a sleeveless cotton vest. Heng's daughter, Chew was of a similar age to us boys and often came to visit my mother whilst we lived at Lloyd Leas. Although my mother corresponded with Chew for some time when we returned to the UK, we lost touch during one of our moves. Also during this acclimatization period we were introduced to the Changi Bus company with a trip into the city. I think that in those days the drivers only knew two accelerator positions, foot flat to the floor or foot off and onto the brake for a screeching halt. They used to hurtle along at an incredible pace and it was inadvisable to step out in front of one.


First impressions of the city were of a multitude of smells and sights battering your senses. Exotic fruit, monsoon drains full of rotting detritus, Singapore River covered in Junks from bank to bank, crazy taxi drivers, bicycle trishaws, food vendors cooking on clay pots, Chinese and Indian music, all these assaults on your senses came at you from every corner you turned. The gentile western side of life was there as well with the department stores like Robinsons and eating places where you could get morning coffee and cream cakes. I must admit though that it was the exotic that really made an impression on me.

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Hock Lam Street in the 1960's (Photo courtesy of
Memories of Singapore)


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The Singapore River covered in junks from bank to bank (Photo courtesy of
Memories of Singapore)


As well as the trip into the city there was also a trip into Changi village to be fitted up for school uniform. Much time was spent selecting white cotton shirts, khaki shorts, white ankle socks and sandals. Then came the haggling over the price. "I do special price for Missey because you buy so much". I think my mother managed to get the price down by about another ten percent from his special price, which even by UK standards was fairly cheap. This was a skill that she honed to a much better perfection during our stay.

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Changi Village in 1969 (Photos courtesy of
Memories of Singapore)

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Changi Village today (2006)

By the end of the second week I had realized that it was not a case of the Asians knowing my name was John, and that they all called English boys "Johnny". Up until then I had wondered how they knew my name, although I never did like being called Johnny, it sounded so childish (even to a boy of ten). When I heard my brother Tom being called Johnny, “clang”, it dawned on me "oh they call all English boys Johnny!"


After a few days we also started to explore Lloyd Leas estate on foot and I found that the Younger family who had been quarantined on the boat were living in the same road. So I ended up teaming up with Malcolm to further explore our surroundings. This took us down to Paradise Beach. This was a nice sandy cove with a sandstone cliff that had a house on top. Overlooking the cove was a pillbox that was said to have been built by the Japanese during World War Two; a fertile place for the imagination of young boys.

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Sadly, the place that holds such beautiful memories for John and his brothers is today, part of a prison complex. All you see are walls and barbed wires. One of the sign says “Lloyd Leas Work Release Camp”. It is located at Cosford Road, off Upper Changi Road North …… Lam Chun See, July 2006

12 comments:

Victor said...

"... it was not a case of the Asians knowing my name was John, and that they all called English boys 'Johnny'."

We even have a sandwich in honour of you - Roti John.

peter said...

We also had a female version to Roti John, AUNTY SALLY, our traffic warden.

The cliff mentioned must be Ayer Gemuroh where a WW2 pill box could be found perched up on that cliff. Beautiful place like the "White Cliffs of Dover"....birds flying overhead, koleks anchored below, community center and Malay kampung at the back.

Ayer Gemuroh is now where the Changi Airport Police Station is.

Lloyd Leas had a carpark on Tanah Merah Besar and opposite to a private condominium for prison wardens and families. Was a lovers corner.

peter said...

Name "Missy" was often used in the Outram Road General Hospital (now SGH). Before 1959, the matron of the hospital was English and so were the senior nurses. The locals could only work as "Ayahs", a Malay word to refer to those who helped in pushing the food trolley around the wards, making the beds and attending to the special needs of patients who were bed-ridden. When you needed medical service i.e. the nurse, you called for "Missy".

Shaun Wong said...

Thanks for sharing your stories John, it was a very heartfelt narrative. Looking forward to more of the same. My Changi Village memories consist of driving my then girlfriend, now wife to partake of the then-brilliant nasi lemak.

Lam Chun See said...

Thanks Peter for that interesting bit of history about the geography of the area. How come you know so well?

In 1970, my family rented a holiday bungalow by the sea. I think the road leading to it was Somapah Road. I remember we had to travel along Upper East Coast Rd and Bedok Rd right to the end where it meets Upper Changi Road. Then turn right until we reached (Somapah Road?) and then turn right again till we reached the coast. Wonder it that is the Ayer Gemuroh you are talking about?

Lam Chun See said...

I just realized the irony of it. Lloyd Leas, the place of happy memories for John and his brothers and friends, is also a place of sad memories for many Singaporeans who 'took a wrong step in life'.

peter said...

There were 2 ways of getting there; Somapah Road was correct (the back door) which linked up with Wing Loong Road. The other was through a road at the corner of Tanah Mearh Besar and Nicoll Drive (where the old 2 SIB Tanah Merah Camp was located). The old Somapah Road has disappeared and the prominent landmark today is the church opposite to the Changkat Changi school.

I went swimming there in the early 60s with my cousins and friends.

Lam Chun See said...

Yes I remember now - Wing Loong Road! But cannot even find it in the street directory now.

peter said...

Though you can enter through Somapah Road, whether that is Ayer Gemuroh or Teluk Mata Ikan depends.

If you travel straight down Somapah Road and pass the Red Swastika School, then that's Teluk Mata Ikan. If you turn left into Windsor Drive and head towards Wing Loong Road, that's Ayer Gemuroh. There were single storey "Ang Mo Choo" at Ayer Gemuroh whereas Teluk Mata Ikan had kampung huts. The "Ang Mo Choo" were married quarters for senior British military personnel attached to RAF Changi.

Both places are gone but I can tell you where they are (approximate). Teluk Mata Ikan is the big lokang between TMCC Tampines Course and Changi South Business Park. Wing Loong Road is under 02L runway when the old RAF Changi runway weas extended over Tanah Merah Besar Road. Somapah Village is the lone tree just behind the Singapore Expo where taxi drivers go there and pray for lucky strike.

zen said...

I swam at Changi Point once a blue moon. On one occasion, I found myself drifting further and further out (under current ?) Luckily I knew, being a poor swimmer, I could be easily drowned if I stayed a bit longer. So I quickly swam back to the shore. I read from the newspaper that quite a few people were drowned in this location. Another jinx swimming area could be lagoon at Sentosa. Please watch out.

Julian Crane said...

I also lived at wing loong rd bungalow for three years as a 11 yr old we befriended the locals at the kampong on wing rd I remember a female cook who cooked and cleaned for us Ramala was her name . Opposite our house was the japs headquarters during ww2. & currently occupied in the 69 -71 buy the Aussies we had many fun days swimming off the raft with our wild dog . Those were great days for us kids then, just before Singapore wanted independance & started blowing us up with uk flag bombs burried in the sand

Lam Chun See said...

Julian. I stayed at a holiday bungalow at Wing Loong Rd briefly in 1973. Read my story here.

Do you have any photos of Wing Loong Rd?