Sunday, July 30, 2006

My Commanders

My description of the punishments we received as recruits in my previous post might give you the impression that our commanders in those days were all unreasonable ‘mad dogs’. This of course is not true. In fact, the commanders that I trained under were mostly gentlemen worthy of our respect. So I would like to share a bit about what I can remember of them.

My First Platoon Commander

My first PC when I was drafted into SBMT (School of Basic Military Training) in Safti in 1971, was a Lieutenant Thing. On the first night after we had ‘checked in’, he came to check on how we were doing and introduced himself. He was dressed in all white PT kit and looked quite dashing. Those days, only officers were allowed to wear white PT kits. He told us that he too was a national serviceman and had graduated from Nantah before he was enlisted. He was with us for only a short while before he completed his NS.

I met him again about 10 years ago when I did some work for the Corrugated Box Manufacturers Association of Singapore. He had become a wealthy businessman running a string of carton box factories, the largest being the Far East Packaging Group, and one of the association’s management committee members.

My Second Platoon Commander

My next platoon commander was 2LT Neo Keng Kok. Unlike Thing Chiang Ching, he was a ‘tan-chia’ or regular soldier. Although he was not highly educated, he was a real professional and we had great respect for him. He was also very fit physically. Whenever we went for runs, he would shoulder the rifles of those of our platoon trainees who were having difficulty. Try to picture it – an officer shouldering 3 or 4 rifles running alongside his men. This was one feat I was not able to emulate when I became a platoon commander.

Platoon Photo. I am seated in front row extreme left. 2LT Neo is seated in the centre. On his left is our section commander – but I cannot recall name.

2LT Neo seemed to like me. I remember one interesting incident when our company was assigned to do ‘fatigue’ work along the ‘long and winding road’ leading to the ‘Boatshed’ on the western coast of Singapore. Earlier, there was a fatal accident involving a land rover at one of the sharp bends. So we were tasked to improve the road by building an embankment with sandbags. As we broke for lunch and rested by the side of a hill, I was punished by one of the corporals. I cannot remember what the offence was, but it was not over food or drinks as what my friend Ivan, the Rambling Librarian, may think. He asked me to run up one of the steep hills. 2LT Neo probably disapproved (看不过眼) of his bullying tactics, but he didn’t want to contravene his subordinate’s orders. So he said, “And Cpl So-and-so will race you up the hill and back.” So the Cpl who punished me ended up being punished himself, and that was one occasion when I actually enjoyed my punishment.

2LT Neo continued to be our PC when we progressed from BMT to Section Leaders Course. But towards the end of our course, he left us to join the newly set up Commando Training School which was located just behind our company lines. Occasionally, we saw him and his buddies being ‘tekaned’ by the tough commando trainers and found it quite amusing.

The last time I met him was when I was an officer cadet in Safti’s Officer Cadet School a few years later, after I completed my university education. He was holding a captain’s rank and was on DFO duty in the cookhouse. Looking every inch a professional soldier with his red beret, he loudly called out; “Recruit Lam Chun See; Platoon xx, Lima Coy”, when he spotted me. I felt quite honoured that he could remember me.


This photo was taken during route march. The place is somewhere behind the Nanyang University Campus. Me looking like a clown with the Troops Marching sign hung around my neck. I had to walk far in front of the rest of the company to stop the traffic.

Disper or you will disper by force

Regular officers in the early days of SAF were usually not highly educated. So we used to be quite amused by the way they mispronounced certain English words. One particularly funny line was “Disperse or you will be dispersed by force” which the officers loudly hailed when conducting what was called IS Operations training. IS stood for Internal Security, and we were being trained to disperse rioters. We had to put on our smartest No. 3 uniforms and metal studded boots with bayonets fixed to our rifles for this training. When the command was given, we had to yell “HA!” in unison.

Although it all appeared rather silly to us at that time, I appreciated it because I have experienced the calming effect of seeing such soldiers patrolling the streets outside the National Junior College in 1969. This was during the time of the May 69 racial riots in Malaysia. Apparently, some thugs in Singapore wanted to stir up racial trouble, and so the SAF soldiers were out in a display of force. It was quite comforting to see and hear them marching in their metal-studded boots.


In OCS, my section instructor was a young second lieutenant by the name of Bilveer Singh. I said young because, strangely, he was the youngest in our section. This was because most of us were university or polytechnic graduates who did NS after completing our tertiary education. Some were ‘disrupted’ cases like me. Others were regulars who had already several years of experience in the army.

He was given the above Chinese name when we went to Taiwan for training. He became friend to some of us after our OCS training. We told him stories of university life as he was headed for the University of Singapore after his NS.


This is a photo of our section. Our section instructor, 2LT Bilveer Singh is standing 3rd from left (he was a ‘modern Singh’ and hence didn’t wear a turban) with me to his left. He made us charge up a hill before taking this photo saying it would look more ‘realistic’ if we were all sweaty and tired looking. This photo was taken in the Safti training area somewhere between Safti and Nanyang University.

A**hole Chan

Coincidentally, my platoon commander in OCS was also a commando. We nicknamed him A**hole Chan not because he was a jerk, but because he liked to use that obscene word.

Lta Chan, didn’t believe in silly punishments like extra drills and stand-by-beds or petty regulations. His main emphasis was on fitness and combat training. There was one occasion when our platoon was punished by our company 2IC to do ‘extra drill’ at night. Half way through, he got fed up and made us practise battle formations instead. It felt really funny doing this type of training, which was usually carried out in the field, in our smart No. 3’s right there in the middle of Safti parade square.

On another occasion, we were returning to our barracks after demolition live firing training. Some of our ‘unlucky’ platoon mates were assigned stores duty, meaning they had to carry the stores back to company lines a few km away. Mind you this was at the end of a tiring day of training. Our platoon IC then ordered the rest of the platoon to fall in and ‘high-port’. That was one word we hated because it usually meant we had to get ready to run and not march. Those days, the standing order was that we had to ‘double’ (run) and not march from point to point. This was to train up our stamina and prepare us for Exercise Starlight in Taiwan, the culmination of our 9 months of officer cadet training. We were so happy when we finally approached the gates of Safti. But our hearts sank when instead of the command ‘kiri belo’ which meant turning left into the Safti compound, our PC ordered us to continue running. And so we plodded on waiting for the order to turn back which never came until we reached all the way to Tuas! Boy, if we had known this would happen, we would have gladly volunteered for stores duty. I reckon that on that occasion, he broke at least 2 safety regulations. Firstly, for any running that exceeded 5 km, we are not supposed to put on steel helmets but only the inner liner (made of fibre glass I think). Secondly, no running was allowed on the main roads.

Staff Rahman

In OCS, our platoon sergeant major was a staff sergeant called Encik Rahman. We all liked him very much as he was patient and gentle – a far cry from the SSG Royston that I knew from 1971. His favourite line was, “Don’t always say say but never do.” Staff Rahman was probably a body builder. One day we discovered how strong he was when he turned out to be the only one who was able to unfasten a stuck rifle muzzle after all of us had tried unsuccessfully.

The last time I met him was probably was about 15 years ago. I met him at the National University Hospital lobby where he was working as a security officer.

Educated Idiots

There were 3 companies in OCS; Alpha, Bravo and Charlie. My company, Charlie Company was the most fortunate. Practically all our commanders and instructors; our OC, CSM, platoon commanders, section instructors, right down to platoon sergeant majors, were very ‘nice guys’ compared to those in the other 2 companies. As such our friends in A and B, who seemed to be receiving punishment all the time, really envied us. The only exception was our company 2IC, a two-pip lieutenant by the name of Toh Peng Woo. He was the nastiest but also the most colourful. We all thought he was crazy and so we nicknamed him ‘toh peng’ which was Hokkien for upside-down. He especially disliked my platoon which consisted mostly of university and polytechnic graduates. He called us ‘educated idiots’.

I remember one occasion when we had defense camp on one of the hills. I was holding the appointment of platoon sergeant. At midnight, he came to inspect our trenches and he issued me this command; “Platoon sergeant. Fall in the men for a screwing session!” So there we were; twenty over ‘educated idiots’ with all sorts of degrees and diplomas after our names being ‘screwed’ by a crazy man with probably 3 O-levels on Hill 265 at 1 am at night. Next morning, this poor platoon sergeant kena another round of lashing by the toh peng commander. That was the first and only time in my life I experienced obscenities being hurled at me from a distance of only inches from my face. I tried to concentrate on my reflection in his sun glasses and ignore the showers of saliva.

The last time I met him was in the late 1980’s. I was a trainer in the National Productivity Board, and he was a trainee in one of our diploma courses. I think at that time, the SAF was fast replacing its older officers with scholars of all shapes and sizes. Too bad my specialty was Industrial Engineering and not Business Administration.

Ah …

Those were the days my friend,
We thought they’d never end ….…

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Pay Correct Sir

Every adult male Singaporean remembers that dreaded day. (No I am not blogging about weddings). I am referring of course to the day when we were called up for national service.

For me that day happened thirty-five-and-a-half years ago. A very long time ago indeed. But I remember clearly gathering at the CMPB (Central Manpower Base) in Dempsey Road, and boarding the three-tonner which brought us to this huge complex called SAFTI (Singapore Armed Forces Training Institute) in Pasir Laba Camp along Upper Jurong Road. My kampong friend by the name of Tor Koon (pronounced in Hokkien) was called up on the same day but he was posted to a different camp. His mother was crying as they said farewell. But my mum was not emotional. Maybe it was because my elder brother David had gone in the year before. He was posted to 6 SIR, or Tanjong Gul Camp in the farthest Western corner of Singapore.

This is an old photo from the collection of the National Archives of Singapore showing fresh-faced 19-year olds being herded onto a 3-tonners, probably from CMPB in Dempsey Road, looked on by anxious parents. It reminds me of movies scenes of Jews being sent to their concentration camps in Nazi Germany

As a recruit in 1971, our pay was $90 a month. The army called it ‘allowance’. Since we toiled practically 7 days a week, this worked out to about $3 a day. Life of a recruit was tough. Practically anyone could ‘tekan’ (bash up) us; and training was tough. On days when the going was particularly bad, we used to lament; “kia ji sa kor pai tan’ (today’s $3 is hard to earn). Pay day for most people is a happy time. But for us lowly recruits, it can be a stressful time, fraught with dangers. We had to queue up in front of the company 2IC’s office and await our name to be called, then march up to the pay officer’s desk, ‘berhenti’ (halt) and salute sharply. For some, this simple process had to be repeated several times at the whim of those in charge. When the money was handed to us, we had to put out 2 hands to receive it smartly, check the amount and then salute and say; “Pay correct sir!” (Hey – shouldn’t that be “Allowance correct sir!”?) Some childish officers liked to trick us by deliberately keeping back one $10 note. Those who did not count properly became a source of more amusement for our 'dear' leaders.

(Just in case you didn’t get it the first time) Life of a recruit was tough. Practically anyone could ‘tekan’ us. From day one, we were taught this simple principle in the army. The screw travels in one direction only … downwards. Right at the bottom of the pile is the recruit. There is nothing else below except his bed.

We had a CSM (company sergeant major) by the name of Royston. Personally, I think he was sadistic. . His policy was “punish until drop”. On days, when he was on BSO (battalion orderly sergeant or something like that) duty, he looked particularly fearsome with his ‘walking stick’ and red sash. Us innocent, fresh out of school, 19-year olds learned the meaning of fear from this man.

Once my friend (I shall not reveal his name) was having lunch in the cookhouse when he was summoned by staff Royston. I do not know what big crime he committed, but when we returned to company lines after lunch we saw Royston still working on him until he threw up his lunch.

But I was quite lucky and never got into any serious trouble. Both my platoon and section commanders were reasonable gentleman. I shall blog about them another time. Minor brushes of course there were a few.

Once I was caught drinking Pepsi in my bunk during training hours. I was made to run around the parade square with my Pepsi bottle lifted up like an Olympic torch. When I ran past Juliet (I think that was Lee Hsien Loong’s company) and Kilo company, everyone cheered and clapped.

This is an old photo of the Safti parade square (from the collection of the National Archives of Singapore). The block in the background is the block of my company, Romeo Company, later renamed Lima Company. To the right, behind the troops, is the cookhouse.

Another occasion I was caught eating noodles in the bunk at night. Occasionally, when we got sick of the cookhouse food, we took a bus from Safti (now Pasir Laba Camp) to Tuas seafood village and ate the famous the fried prawn noodles (only 70 cents per packet if I remember correctly). Once someone ‘tar powed’ a packet for me and I was caught by a corporal who came around at night to do a spot check. He put my helmet on the floor and asked me to put one finger on it and then run in circles around it until I got giddy.

But the ones who suffered most, in my opinion were those who were physically unfit. Those days, they do not downgrade you from ‘combat’ vocation so easily. I had a section mate who was quite plump (for guys of our era) and I saw him suffer every time we went for runs and other types of physical training for the entire 6 months of our basic and section leaders training. I resolved that my son should not suffer this type of torture and so I encouraged him to take up sport. Thankfully, he is active in kayaking and so I have one worry less.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Kampong Life (4) - Charcoal Irons


I was pleasantly surprised to see this old iron when I visited my mother-in-law in Ipoh recently. I wonder how many of you have seen one of these. Before electricity came to our kampong, my mother used to iron our clothes with this type of iron.
Do you know how it functions? It’s quite simple really. Just unhook the catch, open the lid and put in red-hot charcoal. Then close the lid, fasten the catch and wait for the iron to heat up.


How about the water-sprayer? Have you seen this one before? If you visit the Chinatown Heritage Centre you will be able to see one like this.


But do you know that there is one even simpler than this. It looks like the pepper container that you often see in the hawker centres.


But wait - there is yet another even less high-tech than this one - do you know what it look like? Give up? Just look at your own fingers lor.

Those days, our school shirts were made of cotton and were uncomfortable and crumbled easily. In the sixties, synthetic materials (like tetoron, rayon ???) started to make their appearance. Some of the richer kids in our school started to wear such shirts. If my memory serves me right, initially there were some rules against this. I remember, in Sec 4 (1968) I too started to wear such shirts and they definitely more comfortable.

Speaking of shirts, my brothers and I; our favourite brand was Lifting. We used to buy from a ground floor shop at People's Park Complex.

But back to the topic of irons. Talking about ironing clothes will certainly remind the guys about their good old NS (national service) days. Oh how we hated Sunday nights when we had to return to camp early to iron our uniforms and polish our boots for drill or muster parade the next day. I still remember our first few days as recruits when our section commander taught us how to do the thousand-and-one tiresome chores such as ironing our uniforms ‘until it can stand’, polishing our boots ‘until can see your face’, pasting mahjong paper on our wooden lockers, and then spraying water on it to make it stretch on drying etc etc. Just thinking about those days when we learned all those survival tricks; how to go to ‘Safticana’ to purchase ‘Quick starch’ and WD40 (for cleaning rifles - we were not supposed to use this – but everyone does it anyway), brasso for polishing our bayonet buckles etc etc, is enough to give one nightmares. It seems as if our meagre $90 allowance was not even enough to purchase all these extras. But I am proud to say, I actually had enough left over to give $40 to my mother each month.


Talking about all those torturous days, I am reminded of our crazy (that is the mildest adjective I can think of) CO or commanding officer, at Officer Cadet School. During the dreaded CO parade, he actually inspected the metal studs at the bottom of our drill boots for rust. Those who were unlucky enough to be picked practically had no chance of escaping punishment. Sometimes, he even asked cadets how many buttons they had on their shirts!!! Can you believe that? And this guy was so ‘wuliao’ that on Sunday nights, he actually went to Beauty World at Bukit Timah 7th mile, where many officer cadets waited for their buses or taxis to return to Safti, and tried to catch those who did not put on their ties!!!

I said it before, and I say it again. I am so glad such dinosaurs are no longer around to bully our children these days. On the other hand, I could be wrong. They may have simply evolved into an even more fearsome species – I am thinking here of course of those commando instructors who tortured one trainee to death a few years ago.

I was quite sceptical when someone told me recently that army boys nowadays do not need to iron their uniforms or polish their boots. For the purpose of writing this article, I checked with one NS boy in my church the other day and he told me this was not true. They still had to iron their No. 3’s and polish their drill boots although not to the extent that we did in those pre-historic days. Yes; some things never change do they?

Those were the days my friend,
We thought they’d never end …..

Thank you John Harper

A big Thank You, Terima Kaseh, 谢谢, to John Harper for his articles.

I am sure many of you are touched by this man’s love for our little country and awed by his amazing memory. The only reason, I think, that anyone can remember such details from nearly half a century ago, is because he thinks and talks frequently about them.

I have also found his articles to be very educational. The last one about Schools for example, has given us some interesting insights into the British Educational System on which ours is based.

His description of the Orchard Road section has taught us something that many Singaporeans, including myself, probably did not know, or remember – that the stretch of Orchard Road in front of the Lido Theatre and Hilton Hotel used to be a two-way street.

Also, how many young Singaporeans know that the Anchorage at Alexandra Road used to be a brewery (Anchor Brewery) and was formerly known as Archipelago Brewery; or that the Alexandra Hospital used to be called the British Military Hospital (BMH) “with a distinctive cross of St George painted on the roof”>

And prior to reading his articles, I did not even know that places like Lloyd Leas or Wittering Road or Meteor Road existed.

Indeed, if I were a teacher, I certainly would ask my students to read these articles to gain some knowledge of our past.

So once again, Thank you John Harper. We hope to welcome you back to Singapore not once, but many times.

Monday, July 17, 2006

John Harper Remembers Singapore - Part 8: School

Hi Chun See,

Here is the latest article. This will probably be the last one that I do for a while. Next Monday I am starting work for seven months in Switzerland and will only get home to the UK once every five or six weeks. I have enjoyed doing these articles for your blog and will be following the blog whilst I am in Switzerland. I feel that I have found several new friends via my writings and look forward to maybe meeting up with you, Peter and Zen next time that I manage to get to Singapore. At the moment I am not sure when that will be. On my personal list of 100 things to do before I die is "visit Singapore again!" It is such a wonderful place that I never tire of visiting it, talking about it and writing about it.


Forces’ schools in Singapore were modelled on the education system in the UK with Primary schools from age 5 to age 11 and Secondary schools from age 11 to age 15, 16 or 18 depending on the level of dedication and attainment. The Secondary system was split into two, the more academic would go to the “Grammar” school whilst the less academic would be given an education that was focused more towards practical skills but with a degree of academic requirement as well. These were known as the “Modern” schools. Which type of school you attended was determined at the age of 11 by the 11 plus examination. This included tests on mathematical ability, comprehension and IQ testing of the type where you had had to identify the next number in various sequences, sometimes arithmetic sometimes geometric in progression. Reasoning tests were also there with strange items to solve like the odd one out in a series of pictures say like a square, a rectangle, a triangle and a circle, with the circle being the odd one out because it is not made up of straight lines. There were also reasoning tests like “man is to hat as dustbin is to a whole list of things that included “lid”. You were meant to choose lid because it goes on top like the hat goes on top of a man.

Arriving in Singapore just after my tenth birthday meant that the 11 plus was the very next thing for me to face when I went up to the final year of primary school. My mother had worried about my school abilities whilst we had lived in Cleveleys and had even gone to ask my form teacher about extra tuition and coaching so that I would be able to pass the eleven plus. She was told in no uncertain terms that that would never happen, as service families are just not worth bothering with as they are always moving on. So it came as a welcome surprise to my mother that a lot of effort was put in by service schools to get pupils up to speed and practised for the eleven plus. The pace was quite pushed and we were set exercises to be done under timed conditions. I can remember we would no sooner have finished a set of arithmetic questions than we would be going on to some of the IQ questions. It was really a hothouse environment for coaching scholars to be able to pass the eleven plus.

Being a part of the post war baby boom or “part of a statistical bulge” there had always been accommodation problems for every class I had been in with either extra desks needed or an extra classroom having to be conjured up from somewhere. Changi was no exception and when I arrived my class was over in the three-story block across the playground in the Secondary school. For the final year at Primary school a new block was built for us just round the corner from the Anglican Church. Because it was intended to be only temporary it was built of wood and thatched in attap palm leaves. There was a bit of indignation at this but this soon simmered down once we got into the buildings as we found that they were a lot cooler than the brick built buildings of the main part of the school. They also had a spacious and airy feel about them. They also seemed to be a lot quieter and I am sure that this helped to contribute to the air of industry in that final year as we prepared to take the dreaded eleven plus.

School was six mornings a week and it was compulsory to attend at least two afternoon activities per week. I looked through the list of options and decided that swimming was a must, as I wanted to improve on my basic achievement of learning to swim in the first two weeks of arriving in Singapore. The second activity I chose was called the “Malaya Club”. Here we learnt about the Federation of Malay states and about some of the trees and plant life. It was during these lessons that I was first introduced to “pitcher” plants in the form of the Raffles Pitcher Plant which I understand if you find any in Singapore now you are not allowed to pick them. Even today I think that they are fascinating plants. During these lessons we were also introduced to the Hibiscus and some of it’s herbal properties. We often used them to make hot poultices; I once had a septic spot on the palm of my hand where I had fallen onto some mimosa and got a thorn stuck. When it turned septic it was straight out and gather up some hibiscus flowers, pour on boiling water then slap the poultice onto the infection to draw it out. It very quickly cleared up with this treatment. I had suggested this treatment to my mother after hearing about it in “Malaya Club”. We were also introduced to number of other trees including the fragrant “Frangipani”. Frangipani are amongst my favourite trees, maybe because I can recognise them easily, but also because of the fragrance which is sweet and heady.

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My swimming progressed well and I soon reached the stage of taking the beginners certificate which entailed swimming a length of the pool (33 yds) breaststroke and crawl. Then I worked up to the advanced which included 3 lengths of breaststroke, 3 lengths of crawl, a length of backstroke and a dive from the side of the pool followed by a dive from the 10-ft high board (about 3 metres for you metric youngsters).

The eleven plus exam was looming, we had moved house by this time, from Lloyd Leas to Wittering Road on the main part of the camp near to Changi Village. I was promised that if I passed the exam, I would get a bicycle as a reward. It was then that we found out that as well as the eleven plus examination, we would also be sitting the Scottish equivalent called the Moray House exam. This was in case any of our parents were posted to Scotland on their return to the UK. The exam days came and went and didn’t seem all that stressful. It was my first experience of being herded into a large hall full of desks with very stern and official looking invigilators, a large clock on the wall to show how much time you had used. Some found it intimidating but we had been coached so well most of our class just sat down and worked through the papers like it was a normal classroom exercise. Once the exam was over I then began to worry as to what would happen if I passed one exam and not the other. Would I still get that bike? I so desperately wanted that bike. It turned out that I need not have worried as I had passed both exams. So I got my first bike. I went down to Changi Village with my dad and we had a look at what was on offer and found one to fit me. It was a German cycle called Heiko. It was of the “sit up and beg” variety as most bikes were in those days with pull up brakes. Learning to ride it is of course another story.

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Signboard for Bourne Secondary School in Gillman. The motto says "Keep Faith". According to Lynne Copping , The Alexandra Grammar School was renamed Bourne Secondary School in 1964.

At this point I should have been moving on to Changi Grammar but my father was posted to RAF Tengah on the other side of the island. There was only a primary school at Tengah and so we were taken by bus to Alexandra Grammar School at Gillman Barracks close to the city. Each day became a well practised routine, my mother would wake me at about 6:00 each morning and I would get up wash and dress, make up some milk for my breakfast and for my younger brothers who were still asleep. Then breakfast would be a couple of Weet Bix biscuits with milk and some coffee made with Carnation evaporated milk. I can’t stand the taste of it nowadays but when it was all you get, you had to get used to it. I would put Radio Malaya on to listen to the start of the day’s programs which always started with “oh what a beautiful morning, oh what a beautiful day”. At the point where he sings about elephants eyes, the bus would be passing our house up to the top of Meteor Road. At the top the bus would turn round and start picking up. From Meteor Road we would head across the light controlled runway sometimes having to stop for Canberras and Venoms taking off laden with armaments. This was during the time of the “Malayan Emergency” where the communist insurgents were being dealt with. The UK government didn’t want to call it war after having spent so long at war, hence the term “Emergency”. From there we proceed along what is now the Choa Chu Kang Road towards Bukit Panjang and then turn right towards Bukit Timah. Along the way we would pass “Metal Box” and “Ford” factories picking up some more passengers at Foo Yong estate just before we got to Bukit Timah. From there we would make a small detour off Bukit Timah Road to pick up an officer’s daughter and then proceed back onto Bukit Timah Road down to Newton Circus and exit onto Scotts Road until we reached Orchard Road. On the corner of Orchard Road, there were always magnificent posters for films at the Shaw Brothers Cinema. The most remarkable was the poster for “The Vikings”. I didn’t get to see this film until some years later when we returned to the UK. From Orchard Road the bus would take us along Tanglin Road and then turn on to Alexandra Road driving past the Archipelago Brewery. Once we had passed the British Military Hospital (BMH) with a distinctive cross of St George painted on the roof, we knew we were almost there. I think the hospital is now known as Alexandra Hospital. Just after the hospital was a bend and then a left turn into Depot Road where we would be dropped off to walk up the hill to Alexandra Grammar School whilst the bus carried on to the Alexandra Modern School.

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Two of the 3 RAF white buses that Jeff Pittman says served Bourne as school buses in the '60s. Numbered TB1, TB2 and TB3 they where for RAF children, and the designated routes were for Tengah based families.

Most days the journey would be uneventful, there was a sing song along the way with all the Scout favourites like “You’ll never go to heaven” (On an RAF bus, cos an RAF bus, wont take all of us.). Popular songs of the day like The Everly Brothers’ “Wake Up Little Suzie”, and Elvis Presley’s “Teddy Bear” and “Wont You Wear My Ring Around Your Neck” were also firm favourites. In 1959 there had been a long period without rain and the day that the Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew announced that if it didn’t rain soon, drought measures would have to be put in place. Well, of course it started to rain early that morning and it just kept on raining heavily. On the way back home the bus was brought to a standstill by the floodwaters near the biscuit factory. We were stuck there for a long time. Eventually the waters subsided enough for the bus to get through. When we got to Bukit Timah Road the canal that runs between Bukit Timah Road and Dunearn had overflown it’s banks and those people that lived in tents alongside the banks were trying to dry out their few meagre belongings.

At AGS I was introduced to science. As well as the General Science lessons we also had some lessons called Applied Science. I find it hard to put into words the thrill I found in science. The general science looked at some chemical reactions and the differences between mixtures and compounds. There was also some physics in there looking at the expansion of metals when heated. The applied science covered topics like electromagnetism and how bells and solenoids worked, transformers, microphones and telephones how batteries worked. There was even a visit to the telephone exchange where we could see all these applications at work. This was a subject that I could get wrapped up in and at the Christmas exam time I managed a score of 98%. This was indeed the start of a passionate and lifelong interest in science and the application of science.

At the start of the autumn term we were more or less assigned to forms in date order of our applications. Because of the move from Changi to Tengah I was down at the bottom of the list and ended up in form 1F. The Christmas exams were used to grade us and I moved up to class 1B. Despite having a wonderful memory for all sorts of things I cannot recall the names of any of the people in form 1B. However, from form 1F, I do remember a Graham Miller but that is probably because I met him a few years later in the UK on a canoeing course.


Sport was never my forte. I hated gymnastics and even smacked my head trying to do a handspring. I guess I was just basically clumsy. I also hated running though the cross country runs we used to do took us on a route out the back of the school and onto the hilltop and around a small Kampong before heading back to school. The runs were only short as we didn’t have much time and the heat made it hard work. Swimming was a completely different matter and we always had a least one lesson a week at the swimming pool. In water I guess I was like the ugly duckling transformed into a swan. I was very fast at breast stroke and was picked to train for the school team. I attended the first weeks training but there was no RAF transport back to Tengah. There were three of us from Tengah and we managed to persuade the bus from the Naval Base to take us and drop us off in Bukit Panjang. From there we walked a little way over the level crossing and maybe walked for about fifteen minutes before somebody stopped and gave us a lift. When I got home my mother hit the roof and put her foot down saying that if there was no transport back to Tengah then I was not going to be attending the training sessions. So that finished my promising start as a competitive swimmer. Well, that meant I could enjoy swimming without having to put in all that rigorous training.

AGS was where I first experienced learning a foreign language formally for the first time. In the first year we were introduced to French. I found it fascinating though I was never good at French I was probably in that band of scholars that hovers around the middle, neither doing well but not doing badly. One of the French teachers was a Madame Hook and I am sure that she used to wear a cape to school and seemed a very strange woman. Maybe I dreamed up that bit about the cape, I’ll have to check with my friend Raymond Clayton to confirm that.

Form 1B had the disadvantage of having a distracting view out to the approaches to the harbour. I do remember being distracted sometimes by the large ships passing by particularly if the lessons were getting a bit heavy. At the end of the summer term we were scheduled to return to the UK just as the term finished. We were supposed to be returning on the SS Nevassa a slightly newer ship than the Dilwara that we come out to Singapore on. I recall seeing the ship coming into harbour and thinking I’ll be on that the day after tomorrow. Unfortunately, it was not to be. My father came down with a bad bout of influenza and was quickly followed by my two brothers. This meant our leaving was delayed and we ended up flying home from Paya Lebar airport on a Hunting Clan Britannia turbo Jet. This was another first for me flying in an aeroplane. It was so memorable for me that I can remember the registration of the aircraft as G-APNB. The other thing that is memorable is that this was the last aircraft that my father ever flew in and it was duly noted down in his flying log which he had kept up to date since ferrying aircraft across the Atlantic during World War II.

(Photos of Bourne School courtesy of Maurice Hann, and Memories of Singapore)

Another One Bites the Dust

An Old Photo of Capitol Theatre courtesy of (Memories of Singapore)

(This article was first posted on on 8 Jul 2006

Ravi Veloo is going to be very disappointed. In 2001, he wrote; “There is now a movement in England to preserve its older cinema halls, some of which are quite beautiful. Fortunately, there is a similar move to conserve the lovely old Capitol Theatre in Singapore, a historical and marvellous building, and one which holds a lot of fond memories for many a Singaporean.”

Last Sunday’s Life Section of the Straits Times carried an article headlined, Capitol Downhill. It went on to describe the derelict state of the 76-year old grand dame of the cinemas in Singapore, saying that it was ‘reeking of urine and its doors rotting. Unless a new owner can be found for it soon, Capitol looks set to join the ranks of
Odeon, to be demolished and replaced by a spanking new shopping complex or hotel,.

Blogger Readymade (
Farewell to my Capitol) does not believe there will be any takers for this building and fears that the beautiful structure would be torn down soon. “Despite its nostalgic value, a check with the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) shows that it is not gazetted as a conservation building.” said the ST report. Or as Readymade so aptly puts it “Nostalgia alone doesn't count for much here.” So he asks us to “take a minute or two to remember the grand old dame of Singapore cinemas”. And this is what I will do.

There are 3 things that I remember about Capitol.

Firstly, the unique ornate design of the cinema hall itself: very high ceiling, stately columns, a pair of maidens on white winged horses and zodiac signs. Watching a movie from the circle seats was really quite an unforgettable experience.

Secondly, I remember the huge shiny curtains and stage. I recall there were a couple of occasions when they had live performance on stage before the actual show began. Unfortunately, I cannot recall other details.

Thirdly, any mention of Capitol Theatre will bring to my mind the unforgettable movie;
The Chinese Boxer (龙虎斗), starring Wang Yu (the One-Armed Swordsman) and Lo Lieh. I remember what a thrill it was to watch this trend-setting martial arts movie with my brother, David one afternoon after school. Although the story was a no-brainer; you know, the typical Chinese hero vs Japanese baddie story, and the action was nothing to compare with Bruce Lee’s or Jet Li’s or any of the other kungfu action flicks of today; but it was a totally new experience for us in 1970. Some of the unforgettable scenes include Wang’s character practising his ‘iron fists’ (铁砂掌), and the grand show-down between the two, literally, fuming antagonists in the snow.

I don’t remember any other movie that I have seen in this theatre. Can you?

John Harper Remembers Singapore - Part 7: RAF Changi Scouts

When we lived in Cleveleys in the UK I had put my name on the waiting list to join the Cubs group. However, because I was friendly with a boy who had been thrown out for bad behaviour my name never seemed to make it to the top of the list. So when we moved from Lloyd Leas to Wittering Road and the Scout Hut was just over the road from the old Changi Post Office at the end of Wittering Road my father put our names down for the Cubs. He came back a week later and told me that there were spaces in the Scouts and that I would be allowed to join although I was not quite yet 11 years old. I went along to my first meeting and joined Kestrel patrol, shoulder flash colours Blue and Green. It was the start of a long involvement that was memorable, challenging and most of all enjoyable. I can still remember those early days of learning to tie knots, simple first aid, starting with the four basic points of the compass N,E, S and W expanding it to 8 Points with NE, SE, SW, NW and then further subdividing the compass to give the points in-between NNE, ENE, ESE, SSE, SSW, WSW, WNW and NNW, learning all those symbols and all about contour lines so that you could read a map and setting it to magnetic north. These were amazing days and I soaked it up like a sponge. It wasn’t too long before I had passed my Tenderfoot badge and underwent my investiture into the movement. Then started the work on my second class badge with more knots, lashings, and first aid.

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1954 photo of scout activity. Collection of National Archives of Singapore

Although we were only there for a few more months we were present for a few events. One was a fund raising event in the field next to the old post office. There were many different stalls set up where you paid money and tried to win it back by overcoming the challenge that had been set. There were all the old favourites like the bendy copper wire circuit with the copper loop that you had to negotiate around the bends without touching the bent copper wire and completing the circuit causing the buzzer and lights to light up. Funny, you never seem to see that nowadays. Then there were the coin rollers where you won a prize depending on which card you managed to land your coin on cleanly. Probably the most fantastic contraption was the rolling horse made of small metal barrels mounted on a central shaft with well lubricated bearings. The idea was to get from the horse’s tail where there was a fixed barrel over the rotating barrels to the fixed barrel by the head. Not many people managed to do it. I think that the only one who did was an airman who managed to do some sort of leap frog movement that leapt him over the rotating barrels. He had several tries before he managed to perfect his technique and probably spent more than he eventually won.

One night we all caught a bus over to RAF Seletar for a campfire singsong. There were benches all around the fire built up in tiers so that everyone could get a good view of the fire. I think that all the Scout Groups from all the armed forces stations on the island had been invited and it was a really big occasion. I can’t remember all the songs but I do remember, Ging Gang Gooley, You’ll never go to Heaven, Quartermaster’s Stores. The Yanks are Flying Fortresses at Forty Thousand Feet was a particular favourite with its gory refrains about jumping without a parachute and being scraped up off the tarmac like a lump of strawberry jam.

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Old Map of Changi Area

Without a doubt though, the biggest event we ever had was what was known as a "Soap Box Derby" on the hill of Cranwell Road. It was organised by the Scouts leaders and boys and their fathers built carts with pram or pushchair wheels and the boys raced them down the hill. I managed to scrounge a set of pushchair wheels from somewhere and my dad got a steering mechanism put together in the station workshops that bolted onto a lightweight plywood frame. That was then painted up in Kestrel Patrol colours with broad bands of Blue and Green. In preparation for the event one of the Wing Commanders who was associated with the Scout Group arranged for road closures and diversions. Traffic approaching from the city direction met a road closure sign at Calshot Road just by the swimming pool at Selarang and was diverted along Changi Road and past the guardroom to emerge and turn right by the Astra Cinema. There was a similar diversion in the opposite direction. There was a happy, competitive atmosphere as we lined up for the race. Each cart was allowed a pusher to get you started and my mother was my pusher, and could she push. I flew off very quickly and was just in the lead for a while. Unfortunately there were quite a few casualties, including myself. I was in the lead as we had built a really slick, lightweight and streamlined cart with small pushchair wheels. I was really flying down the hill and the tyres must have overheated and expanded off the wheel rim and my cart just turned over and I ended up in the grit and clay at the edge of the road with badly grazed elbows and knees. So it was home for a quick bath full of antiseptic and then straight round to sick quarters near the guardroom to get bandaged up. I think I was in bandages for about a week that had to be changed daily but no lasting damage was done apart from some scars that took a few years to go.

Detail map of Sop Box Derby Area

My scouting continued when we moved to RAF Tengah but as they say, “that is another story” and I think some it was covered in my piece on leisure time.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

John Harper Remembers Singapore - Part 6: Cultural Harmony – Racial Tension

Despite the fact that my mother was a Canadian, before coming to Singapore I had not been aware of cultural differences other than there being Scotsmen to the North of England and Welshmen somewhere out to the west. Other than in films I had never seen anybody with a different skin colour. Now here we were in Singapore with many different skin colours. The darkest were the Tamil Indians with their very dark almost black skin tones. Chinese with their supposed hint of yellow was something that I could never really make out. Malays were a sort of golden brown, whilst we Europeans had a range of colours from pasty white to golden brown tans with degrees of pinkness or just plain blistered red if they had just arrived. My eyes had been opened to the rich tapestry of skin colours and facial characteristics.

One couldn’t help but be aware that several different languages were being spoken and in many cases the Asians around you spoke more than one language including English albeit sometimes badly. It didn’t take too long to get used to the meaning an Asian was trying to convey in his fractured English. We knew a few Asian people. The daughter of Keng Wah Heng, the local shopkeeper at Lloyd Leas was a frequent visitor to our house and when we moved to Tengah there were several boys from the nearby village who were members of the scout group. There were about three of them that I would class as more than just acquaintances, even friends. None of this seemed unusual to me. My mother being Canadian, we were brought up to be tolerant of other people whatever their colour or creed simply because she was aware of what it was like to be different. We never did manage to teach to say ALU MIN IUM it always came out ALUME A NUM. Similarly Tomatoes were TOMAYTOS.

Racial tolerance was not the norm in Singapore. An email conversation I had with David Dance a former head boy of Alexandra Grammar School, he was head boy whilst I was a spotty faced first year, hints at a racially intolerant society. “The Tanglin Club was for Burrah Sahibs, very colonial, very pukkha. We were not members; very few service people were, although I suppose the odd General might have been. Singapore at that time was a very snobbish place, and racism was rife. I never at any time in my six years there mixed socially with anyone but a white person and neither did my parents.” This is in complete contrast to my mixing with Ah Chew from the shop and the village members of the Scout troop. My own feeling is that what is described here is a denial of experiencing a rich cultural experience.

Racism was not confined to between the Brits and the Asians. One day a Chinese peddler was doing the rounds of the camp selling cloth. My mother invited him in to show what he had to sell. After seeing a lot of different materials my mother asked our amah to come in and help her decide which would be best for making a dress. The peddler immediately flew into a rage and said he was not going to stay in the same room as our amah, packed up and left without making a sale. He then went a made a complaint at the guard-room about my mother letting a Malay amah come into the same room as him. My father was called in by his senior officer and told that the complaint had been made and what did he have to say. His reply was “as the man was invited into our home to display his wares he did not have any right to complain about who was invited in to look at his wares”. He also added, “I now wish to make a formal complaint about the peddler’s abusive tirade in the presence of my family and staff”. That particular peddler never was allowed back onto the base ever again.

After we had been in Singapore some months we started to hear, “Merdeka Merdeka Merdeka” on Radio Malaya about every half hour. This was during the lead up to Malaya gaining independence from Britain. Following Malaya gaining independence, Singapore remained as a British colony until preparations were complete for independence to be granted. For some people, independence for Singapore was not coming quickly enough. There were riots in the city and some service families made preparations to leave and go home. For us living in Changi at the time, we saw absolutely nothing of the disturbances except that for about two weeks there was an armed guard front and back on the gari taking us to and from School each morning. Our family decision was that it seemed to be centred in the city and we wouldn’t even think of leaving.

My father also spent some of his time socially with members of the Singapore Regiment he came into contact with. He visited some of them at their homes and also had meals with them. Whenever we went to “The Islamic” restaurant on Beach Road, he always said that he would have preferred to have eaten downstairs rather than up in the posh restaurant upstairs. So although I put some of my racial tolerance down to my mother I think that a large measure also came from my father. I also feel that it allowed me to gain much more experience from life than if I had been a racist bigot.

My youngest son is now going out with a Japanese girl and I know that some families in the UK would be horrified. My own feelings are pleasurable ones, I am pleased that my son is going out with a truly nice girl and that he is gaining a wonderful cultural insight into the Japanese way of life. He has paid two visits to Japan with her and visited her parents. In some ways I think that my love of Asia has rubbed off onto him.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

John Harper Remembers Singapore - Part 5: Shopping

Singapore is and always has been a shop till you drop place. You can probably find goods from all over the world in Singapore. I can remember spending hours in Changi village just looking at the wares that were on offer. I found the plastic ornaments that mimicked ivory really absorbing. There were fishermen, rickshaws, fish, shells and animals. I have to admit to spending some of my pocket money on some of these items. They were used as gifts for my parents. To this day I do not really know whether they liked them or not. When we moved to Yorkshire they ended up stored in boxes because building work was going on. They never did resurface and to this day they are still boxed up as there is building work going on in my own house. I wonder if they might have accumulated some antique value yet as they were purchased in the late nineteen fifties. I do sometimes open the boxes and look at and I do still like them.

Carved wooden items from Bali were another favourite. I think that the wood was teak and we bought several pieces. My favourite piece was the head of a Balinese dancer complete with amazing head-dress. After my parents died, my youngest brother took the piece along with a carved camphor chest. Since his death, the pieces have returned to me and unfortunately because of the building work I have nowhere to display the items. Now that the front room has been finished and decorated we now have the camphor chest in the front room. It really is a magnificent piece of furniture

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Behind the Wayang in Changi Village, there was a produce market with a whole host of vegetables, fruit, meat and fish. We often used to go down there to get squid or prawns to use as fishing bait. We would buy a half Katy of squid and it would last for several days fishing. At the end of each day we would wrap the squid up in newspaper and stash it behind the cricket screens and collect it the following day. As each day wore on the smell got stronger but the bait seemed to work better.

When we lived at Lloyd Leas, the general shop owned by Keng Wah Heng was just up the road and so my brothers and I would often be sent to get a few things from the shop. It was usually something like packets of Weet Bix and cans of dried milk that would have to be reconstituted for use with the breakfast cereal. The shop was an amazing place with tables outside if you wanted to have a cold drink. Then inside there was all manner of goods for sale from battery operated toys plus the batteries that you would need to operate them, ice cream, soft drinks, canned and dried goods. There was also a craze for knotted items done with coloured nylon fishing line. An amazing range of items was available from small birds, fish, dogs, cats and I recall seeing a model of a rickshaw with a man pulling it made of this nylon line. Keng Wah Heng was always dressed in navy blue shorts and a white aertex style sleeveless vest. His feet were always bare except if he went out from the shop when he would put on a pair of flip flops. Naturally enough, my very first pair of flip flops came from his shop. It took me about two weeks to get used to them and to harden up the skin between my toes so they didn’t hurt when they rubbed. It wasn’t too long before wearing flip flops was second nature to me and I would dash in from School throw off the sandals and white socks and on would go the flip flops.

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A 1960’s photo of Changi Village; courtesy of (Memories of Singapore)

Changi Village was a mass of interesting shops. I remember furniture, from inexpensive rattan to more expensive teak and I think next door to them was a shop that sold model aeroplane kits, both plastic and the Keil Kraft balsa jobs. You could also buy lengths of balsa wood, tissue glue and doping resin to build something to your own design or from printed plans that they also sold. If memory serves me correctly, the grocery store in the village was called Jong Fat. One day a week, one of the restaurants made curry puffs and I would be despatched to go and buy some each week after we had moved to Wittering Road just round the corner from Changi Village. Opposite the Police Station was the Newsagent and Bookshop called Abdul Gaffer. Like all shops in the village it was loaded to the rafters with magazines, comics, newspapers and books. On a recent visit, as far as I could tell, Abdul Gaffers was no longer there and in its place, there is an eating place called “The Airfield”. There was a place with this name just round the corner opposite the transit hotel. There was a photographer in this building and I remember my brothers and I having to sit for a formal photograph that could be sent to relatives living in Canada.

For me the most amazing shopping expedition was when we caught a Changi Bus into the city. We got on at the top of the road from Lloyd Leas on the corner near the entrance to Changi Prison. The bus got more and more crowded the closer we got to the city, until there was standing room only. There were passengers hanging out of the doors and I was amazed as we went round a bend on a hill as these passengers swung with the momentum out over the drop down the hill. When we arrived in the city, we went first to the Union Jack Club for a cup of tea for my mother and Coca Cola for us boys. We then got into a taxi and drove around the city. It was an amazing experience with the driver shooting in out of different lanes at breakneck speeds and the horn blaring all the time. Traffic in Singapore nowadays seems better regulated and a lot less pushy. Eventually we ended up at Robinsons department store where we were glad to leave the taxi. This seemed to be the biggest department store I had ever seen in my life with department after department bulging with stock to be sold. It was time for another treat, more Coca Cola and this time some really posh cake with soft gooey icing that had to be eaten with a fork. This was new to me as we always ate cake at home by picking slices up with our fingers!

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Raffles Place in 1959. Collection of National Archives of Singapore

As we walked around the city I was amazed at the variety of shops. The aroma of the city was quite different as well with a mix of spices, rotting rubbish in the monsoon drains, dried fish, sisal rope and the acrid smell of lubricating oils. Passing over the Singapore River in those days you would see Junks stretching from one side to the other. The water would also be full of rubbish and have a strong unpleasant smell. I’m sure Terry Pratchett must have used it as the inspiration for the River Ankh in Ankh Morpork in his Discworld series.

When we moved to Tengah, shopping was mostly done at the NAAFI on the base apart from the grocery deliveries that came from the city. The village at Tengah was very small with only about six shops. One where we used to buy firecrackers, a tailor shop and I think there was also a barbershop. In some ways it was a bit of a disappointment after the bustle of Changi Village. Some years later I visited a tailor in Batu Ferringhi on Penang and the tailor there, Vishnu, was the son of the tailor in Tengah village. He had come to Batu Ferringhi via the Australian Air Force base at Butterworth.

Shopping in those days was a lot of fun and a lot less antiseptic than today’s experiences in the shopping Malls.

.................. to be continued

Footnote: I wonder if John and his friends know that Robinson’s at Raffles Place was destroyed by a huge fire in 1972. I also read in Wikipedia that Robinson’s was the first departmental store in Singapore to be fully air-conditioned. – Lam Chun See

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Collection of National Archives of Singapore

Saturday, July 08, 2006

John Harper Remembers Singapore - Part 4: Food

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My brothers, Tom and Bob with Sati, the Amah, in the garden at Meteor Road, Tengah

The great bard said “If music be the food of love – play on”. For me it was more a case of “Love the food – let the music play on”. Singapore food was and still is famed for its variety, quality and taste. You can find every taste of the globe in Singapore. It was a family ritual to go to the families club overlooking Changi airfield every Sunday for lunch. For the first few weeks, as my brothers and I were fairly young and unadventurous with food, it was egg and chips with lashings of tomato sauce. Each week our parents would try to persuade us to try something from the Asian food part of the menu. Each week we steadfastly refused and ordered egg and chips. I was the first to give in and was persuaded to try the special fried rice. There was ham, chicken and prawns in it. After the first mouthful I thought “wow, why have I been so silly and been insisting on egg and chips all these weeks”. I would like to say that I branched out into all sorts of dishes, but no, fried rice was safe and I stuck with that for some time. Eventually I did get more adventurous and started to work my way down the menu.

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Old photo of food stall in Bugis Street; courtesy of (Memories of Singapore)

Once a week, one of the restaurants in Changi Village made curry puffs, a parcel of curried minced meat in puff pastry. Curry was something that we had experienced back home in the UK; you know the fairly mild stuff with apple and raisins in it. We quickly adapted to the stronger taste and heat of real curry and the curry puffs were a regular favourite. After a few months in Singapore, my father instituted a family tradition of going into the city on the first Sunday of each month. It was always fairly predictable, taxi in to the Union Jack club and we boys would spend a couple of hours in the swimming pool being fed Cocoa Cola when we got thirsty. Dad of course, would be slaking his thirst with Tiger or Anchor beer. After the pool we would then go to the Islamic restaurant on Beach Road. It was here that we were introduced to Indian curry. I have to admit I was a bit worried at the thought of possibly a very hot curry and went into defensive mode. “Do they have fried rice?” I asked. “Well sort of” my father replied, “ but it’s a little bit different to Chinese fried rice and it is called Briyani”. A little fearfully I said, “OK I’ll have a prawn Briyani”. Brother Tom followed suit and after a bit of humming and hawing Bob agreed to try it as well.

The food arrived and “Wow” Mum and Dad had ordered chicken curry of some sort and we were given side dishes of boiled egg, mango pickle, pineapple, peanuts and shreds of coconut. The three dishes of Briyani arrived with their dishes of curry sauce. The table was groaning under the weight of it all. The taste was absolutely out of this world. I had never tasted anything like it before in my life. The combination of spices, the fresh prawns and the flavoursome rice was the epitome of perfection. Instant conversion, even to this day, Prawn Briyani is one of my favourite dishes. I’m drooling at the thought of it even now almost fifty years later.

Curry now became a regular part of our diet. My mother even sent a recipe back to her friend in the UK who had originally given her the recipe for curry with raisins and apple in it. She included several side notes in it like, “Yes that really is dessert spoons and not teaspoons”, and a warning “You’ll find that it has a very warming sensation.”

Food seemed to be an integral part of being in Singapore. In fact one thing that you are often asked is not, “How are you?” but “Have you eaten yet?” As you walked along the five foot way you would often come across somebody sat with a clay pot charcoal barbecue cooking sticks of Satay. Satay is another of the wonderful dishes of Asia. Meat is marinated in a spicy sauce with chillies, ginger, lemon grass to name but a few of the ingredients and served with a spicy sauce containing coarsely ground roast peanut. As darkness fell, Changi Village would come alive with hawker stalls. Often the self-contained stall was built around a tricycle making it extremely mobile. They would be lit with a paraffin fuelled Tilley lamp. The most popular dish seemed to be noodles, which of course came in all sorts of shapes and sizes.

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Photo of a satay stall of old; courtesy of (Memories of Singapore)

Food arriving on bicycle wheels seemed to be a normal part of everyday life. The Magnolia ice cream man would arrive, park his bike on the stand, one of those pull-down jobs on the back wheel that lifted the back wheel off the ground. The ice cream was in an insulated box mounted on the carrier over the back wheel. He would ring his hand bell as soon as he had parked his bike and be surrounded by mothers and children seeking to purchase his wares. Inside the insulated box must have been like a timelord’s Tardis because there were family sized blocks, wafer blocks in a variety of favours, and ice lollies, milky strawberry or plain milky, blackcurrant, strawberry and even Durian ice lollies.

Durian is a fruit that I can only describe as an acquired taste that I never managed to acquire just as I have never acquired a taste for some of the riper cheeses. To me the smell of the fruit was like an open sewer. Even on returning to the east several times over the intervening years, I find that I just cannot get my nose past that smell despite trying several times. It has been described as having the smell of a drain but a taste like heaven. It is a highly prized fruit for Asians and it is a great compliment to be offered a slice. I found that I had to mentally close my nostrils and try to keep them closed whilst I ate the fruit. It never really worked and it is probably the only fruit that I have never taken to despite my best efforts. My brother Bob however quite liked durian. His work often took him to Asia, (lucky man), and he used to tell the tale of how he once bought a couple of durians and walked through Robinsons department store. By the time he left the store, there were six female sales assistants following him and the aroma of his durians.

Fruit of course was another food that arrived on bicycle wheels. The fruit seller was known as Mary and she had an amazing variety of fruit for sale. There were pineapples, apples and oranges, mangosteens and my particular favourite rambutan. The rambutan is related to the Lychee but the skin has long hairy like protrusions that give it its name, as rambut is Malay for hair. This might sound a little off-putting but the red skin peels away easily just as if you were peeling a thick skinned orange and then inside you find what looks a little bit like a white plum. The white fruit covers a stone. Biting into the fruit it is juicy, fragrant and sweet without being excessively sour. Describing the fragrance is difficult and all I can say is that it is rambutan. If pressed I would describe it as floral, sweet maybe a hint of lavender, maybe a hint of orange but only the vaguest hint as the fragrance is so subtle. This might all sound a bit pretentious or even a bit wine buff, but I can only say; well that’s rambutans and I love them and I would gladly pay the air fare to go back and taste them again and again if only I could afford it.

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Having mentioned Mary I must digress from the topic of food and in doing so I make no apologies as I am raising a very interesting and important point. Mary was an extremely exceptional lady, not only did she give rambutans to the children who patronised her stall, which in my book made her pretty special, she had also been awarded the O.B.E. She was really a special lady, as some of the prisoners of war in Changi Prison will testify. She played an important part in helping escaped prisoners and it was for this that she was warded the O.B.E. On the return to British rule, she was granted the freedom to sell her fruit anywhere on the military bases at Changi. I know this is only a short paragraph but Mary probably merits a whole book to herself and I hope that somebody will do the research one day on a topic that will reward the researcher tenfold.

So having made that important digression from the subject of food let us return to the topic in hand. I was going to say that one of the strangest fruit was the Pomello but there are probably other candidates with equal provenance to the claim. Anyway, the Pomello was a fruit we tried and it was a citrus fruit about the size of a melon that was like a cross between a grapefruit but not as bitter, and a fragrance with a hint of orange. The flesh inside was segmented in a typical citrus fashion but inside the segments the soft bead like structure of an orange or lemon was a bit more fibrous and you could remove little sachets of fruity, juicy material and pop them in your mouth one by one.

I mentioned Mangosteens earlier, the skin is semi-hard and purple and likely to stain whatever it comes into contact with. The flesh inside once again is juicy and distinctive, impossible to liken to anything from Europe. All I can say is, travel to the Far East and try for yourself.

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To correct any impression you might have that life was one exotic eating orgy (maybe it was) the amah used to prepare what we consider as perfectly normal English dishes. Her repertoire included egg and chips, mince and mash, pork chops with peas and mash as well as the exotic dishes like curry. Sunday roasts were very rare though as it was the amah’s day off and we usually went to the families club for lunch (special fried rice).

Singapore changed my outlook on food. Rice was no longer a dish that was served as a sweet pudding. Rice had a thousand and one possibilities; it also came in many varieties although at this time I was only able to differentiate two types, short grain for rice puddings and long grain for savoury dishes. Nowadays I prefer boiled rice to boiled potatoes but I do have to admit that any form of fried potato is almost equal to any form of rice, boiled, fried or risotto. The one exception to this would be “congee” or rice porridge. It’s a nice non-irritant dish when you have diarrhoea but it has nothing else much to commend it although the Tanjong Pagar area of Singapore is noted for it where it is served with all sorts of extras (it needs it).

It was almost impossible to avoid soggy breakfast cereals with the high humidity and we very quickly adapted to the Australian version of Weetabix called Weet Bix. The biscuit was a lot harder and seemed very resistant to humidity problems. Fresh milk was virtually unheard of and so powdered milk (KLIM) was the norm. We had a special mixer for making up the milk. A tall glass cylinder was three quarter filled with water from the refrigerator, powdered milk added and then a plunger with perforations in the disc introduced into the cylinder to push the powdered milk up and down to get it to wet out and dissolve. It required several minutes of vigorous pumping to get all the powder to dissolve.

As well as the all time favourites Coca Cola and Pepsi Cola a whole range of soft drinks were available at the NAAF and swimming pool including Ice Cream Soda, Sarsaparilla, Lemonade, Orangeade, Cherryade and Ginger Beer. Ice cream soda was nice with a scoop of ice cream in it and was known as an Ice Cream Soda float. Other favourites at the pool were the Coconut Ice slabs and my good friend Raymond Clayton reminded me recently that you could also get giant pickled onions at the pool. I met up with Raymond 40 years after we had been in Singapore after bumping into his elder brother at a Singapore schools reunion that was held in London. The reunion is also a chance to relive the food as the group usually goes on to Soho for a Chinese meal.

I’m also pleased to say that I still enjoy food in Singapore whenever I have made visits related to my work. I am a fan of the food courts and hawker stalls. Early childhood influences have certainly their mark on my food preferences.

….. To be continued.

Here are some photos of a Pomelo farm in Tambun, near Ipoh, Perak, Malaysia. I visited this farm last year with my family. – Lam Chun See

Picture No. 1 – This is view of the pomelo farm. The pomelo trees are in the background. The farmers also plant vegetables to supplement their income.

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Picture No. 2 – My 3 children and their cousins posing in front of a cluster of pomelo trees. Did you know that each tree can produce up to 200 fruits?

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Picture No. 3 – Here’s a picture of a pomelo that not many Singaporean kids are familiar with.

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Friday, July 07, 2006

John Harper Remembers Singapore - Part 3: Leisure Time

School was from 8:00 each morning until 12:30 each day and to make up the hours included Saturday mornings. So leisure time was all afternoon and evening plus Sundays. For many of us kids it was get the homework done and then head straight down to the swimming pool. These were particularly good pools going from about 2 foot 6 inches deep to 11 feet at the deep end with a springboard, ten foot board and twenty foot board. We would be in and out the water and there was always a session at the NAFFI kiosk, Coke or Pepsi and coconut ice. At the end of the afternoon it would be onto the bicycles and pedal back across the runway and back home for tea. Round about six in the evening it would get dark and that would be the signal to head for home, listen to Radio Malaya and then about eight in the evening it was off to bed ready to get up early in the morning. Next morning about 6:00 it was time to get up to head down to the city for another day at school.

Once a week there was a Scouts meeting and that was one of the few days that we were ever allowed to stay up late when there was school the next day. We had some amazing times. My first experience of camping was when we went off to the Singapore Scouts campsite at Jurong. At the gate into the camp we collected tents, pots and pans and duckboards for sleeping on. We wondered what these were for. The camp site was on bare clay and we erected the tents finding it difficult to knock the pegs in. There was also advice that we should dig a trench around the tent but the ground was so baked so hard that we managed to chip about an inch channel around the tent. Two days later when it rained the lesson of keeping everything off the ground and the need for a channel round the tent was quickly learned. With a typical tropical thunderstorm the minuscule trench quickly filled with water and within five minutes the tent was like a streambed. We quickly put on swimming trunks and went out in the rain with spades and dug the trench about six inches deep piling the soil between the trench and the tent to improve the barrier. Digging was of course much easier now that the clay was wet. The following day we rolled the sides of the tent up to allow all of the wet bedding and clothing to dry. Typically, having dug the trenches, there was no more rain all the time that we were there.

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Jurong Park Scouts Camp. Collection of National Archives of Singapore

The site was plumbed with toilets and showers albeit cold showers but that was quite refreshing in the Singapore heat. Next to the site was a rubber plantation and each morning the tappers would come round to collect the accumulated latex and cut a new slice of channel to keep the latex flowing.

In the scout troop were several Asian boys from the Tengah village just next to the RAF Tengah base. There was Kim who was Chinese, Johari an Indian Moslem and Ranjit who was Indian Sikh. There were one or two others but my memory lets me down and I can’t remember their names. Mixing with Asians at this young age and having a Canadian mother taught me the value of racial tolerance. I feel that it greatly enriched me although I didn’t realise it at the time. We all mucked in together with general tasks, games and learning together.

One of the highlights of camping trip was a visit to the old Japanese submarine pens where we all went fishing. It was rumoured that there was an octopus in the pens and there was even a tale that a boy from the RAF Changi troop had slipped in the water and came out with octopus tentacles wrapped around his leg. It sounds a bit far fetched to me now but when I was eleven it sounded fairly plausible to me. On the way back to the campsite, Mike the Scoutmaster bought a load of pineapples for the lunch the following day. Each patrol was given some custard powder to make custard to go with the fruit. One lad said that he knew how to make custard and proceeded to make it whilst the rest of us got on and trimmed up the pineapples and created pineapple rings. Everybody lined up and was given their allocation of two pineapple rings and then the custard was poured on. We all sat down and before too long there was much groaning and moaning when we tasted the custard. Our custard expert had only forgotten to put the sugar in. Any way, once the custard was scraped off the pineapple rings were wonderful, there is nothing to compare with taste of fresh pineapple.

We had a few trips with Scouts and one that was really good fun was a trip to Pulau Ubin a small island just off the coast from Changi. We travelled over from Tengah and then caught a motorised canoe over to the small island where we bivouaced under army capes and cooked food over open fires. In those days the island had very few inhabitants and the main activity was quarrying. Much of the timber work in the quarry had been lashed together using square and diagonal lashings. The spot we camped on was directly under the flight path for aircraft coming in to land at Paya Lebar airport which was the main Singapore airport in those days. I can remember seeing Constellations with the triple tail and Brittanias.

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Thanks to Acroamatic for these 2 beautiful photos of the Ubin quarries today (Pedal Ubin - a photoset on Flickr)

Aside from swimming and scouts, a gang of us would often gather on our bikes and go off to the scrubland at the end of road and meet in one of the perimeter fence towers. There we would usually gather some wood and make a fire and smoke the cigarettes we had pinched from our parents. It was all bravado stuff, I don’t think anybody ever inhaled the smoke. There was also a little bit of woodland with a few remains from a crashed Beaufighter nearby and we often used to gather round it and drift off into fantasies of being a pilot and shooting down Japanese warplanes. One time when we visited the wreckage I found a papery snake skin that had been shed. A few weeks later I was confined to home with a really bad cold. The group had met at the wreckage without me and my friend John Smith, and yes that was his real name, picked up what he thought was a shed snake skin. Oh no it was not! It was a sleeping cobra. Fortunately, before it could bite him, he was quick-witted enough to throw it away from himself and the snake slithered off into the undergrowth. Another gathering place was the old disused Japanese runway. Being boys, there had to be a gruesome tale attached to the runway and there may be an element of truth in it. The tale was that the runway was built by prisoners of war, many of who were slaughtered on the spot and thrown into the diggings to be covered over with foundation material. Out of respect for the dead prisoners, when the Japanese surrendered the runway was decommissioned and allowed to fall into disrepair.

Because we spent so much time at the swimming pool our hair turned dramatically lighter and picked up a green tinge. I’m not sure whether it was colouration caused by the chlorine in the water or whether it was being coloured by minute algae.

Whilst we lived at Lloyd Leas, one of favourite pastimes was to go down to Paradise beach for a swim and inspect the machine gun pill box that stood guard over the cove. I remember one day going down there and there was a very high tide so we laid on top of the sea wall and watched the small fish feeding around the wall. Suddenly the sky turned black and there was whizzing noise. When we looked up there was a whirlwind waterspout right in front of us. My mother shepherded us straight into the pill box where we watched it traverse the cove coming about two feet in front of the pillbox. And then make its way out to sea and fizzle out. It was an incredible sight.

Sunday afternoons were always quiet and I would sometimes save a few prawns from my Nasi Goreng that I always had at the families club for Sunday lunch. I would then head down to the fenced in swimming area next to Changi Yacht Club known as the Pagar and spend the afternoon fishing, using the prawns I had saved as bait. Sunday afternoons in Changi village would often see large groups of people playing Mah Jong and cards. The atmosphere in the village was always very relaxed on Sunday afternoons.

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