“Ow buay boh kwee”, is Hokkien for “There are no ghosts at the back” (后面没有鬼)
These are 2 common expressions that kids of my generation used to hear on the buses back in the 50’s and 60’s. They were uttered by the fierce bus conductors who wanted us to move to the rear of the bus and not crowd around the entrance.
Today, with the help of my friend Peter Tan who is about the same age as myself, I would like to continue from where Brian Mitchell left off, and tell you more about the bus taking experience of the ‘old days’.
It was the sight of a crowded old bus in Yangon last year, like this one, with people standing at the steps, that nudged me into starting Good Morning Yesterday. Photo from the collection of the National Archives of Singapore.
First a bit of history of the Buses of Those Days.
I must warn that what I describe here is purely from memory and not research and thus cannot vouch for the accuracy of dates and names.
Prior to around the mid-60’s, there were several small bus companies operating in Singapore. These were mostly family businesses and poorly managed. As such the service was terrible. For example, many of the conductors and drivers were gangsters. Some names that come to mind are: Tay Koh Yat, Easy Bus, Keppel Bus, Kampung Bahru Bus, Green Bus, Bedok-Changi Bus, Changi Bus, Hock Lee Bus, Ponggol Bus, Paya Lebar Bus and STC.
Later, presumably through pressure from the new PAP government, they were amalgamated into 4 companies; UBC, ABS, STC and ABC. Conditions improved, but were still unsatisfactory. Sometime in the early 70’s, the government sent in a Government Team of Officials to clean up these companies and formed a single bus company called SBS (Singapore Bus Services). I believe, our present minister for National Development, Mr Mah Bow Tan was a member of that GTO. I read their report when I did my university final year project at the SBS (more about that another time).
1960 Photo of Paya Lebar Bus at Jalan Kayu Village (Courtesy of Peter Tan)
As you might expect, the buses of those days were all bone shakers. For example, whenever it rained, nobody would take the seats next to the windows. Why? Because the windows, which were usually the sliding type were often jammed and could not be raised and thus rain would splash onto the seats. Unless you were a ‘Hercules’ you wouldn’t dare try to draw it up; especially if there were school girls around. Imagine how malu (embarrassing) if you were not strong enough to do it.
Breakdowns were a common occurrence. Whenever a bus broke down, all the passengers would have to debus and wait at the roadside for another one to come along. When it did, you can imagine the mad rush and the packed condition.
Two brands of buses that I can recall are International Harvester and Isuzu. When I was studying at the Prince Edward campus (Those days, the University of Singapore’s Engineering Faculty was housed at the Singapore Polytechnic at Prince Edward Road), there was a bus terminus across the road. Next to it was a big car park which would be turned into a open air hawker centre in the evenings. Every morning, the drivers would rev the engines of their Isuzu buses for ages, and the noise was a great disturbance to our lectures.
About these dinosaurs, Peter recalls:
"Buses in the 60s had wooden floor panels unlike the metal ones we see today. Sometimes there were gaps between the panels and we could see the transmission and the road below us. Standing passengers stood along the aisle and you know what some school boys would do when they need to get down from the bus ... leave you to imagine .. "
Packed Like SardinesAs expected, buses were often very crowded. Sometimes the bus was so packed that you didn’t need to hold the overhead railings to maintain your balance. The situation was not helped by the fact that many kiasu passengers were reluctant to move to the front and rear sections for fear that they would not be able to make it to the single entrance/exit which was usually at the centre of the bus. Consequently, we often had to cling on the side rail at the entrance of the bus with one foot on the steps and our bodies hanging out of the bus like in the photo above. Sometimes, the bus conductor used his metal ticket punch to knock our fingers in an attempt to dislodge us.
One thing we liked about this dangerous practice was that we were able to enjoy a bit of natural air-con ….. plus we needn’t pay the bus fare. Another dangerous thing we liked to do was to imitate the ticket inspectors by jumping off the buses before it came to a complete halt. We would hit the ground running.
Undated Photo of bus along North Bridge Road (Courtesy of Peter Tan). Notice that there is only one entrance/exit near the mid-section of the bus. Passengers were reluctant to move to the front and rear of a crowded bus because they did not want to push they way to the exit when it was time to get off.
The Ticketing System
Besides the bus driver, there was a bus conductor whose job was to collect the fare and punch the tickets. The tickets of various denominations were mounted on a metal pack with thick rubber band (like those for pyjamas). He carried a canvas satchel for the coins.
Bus conductors of those days were usually rough characters. In fact many were gangsters. Of course, they were not as disciplined as the bus conductors of today. For example, the driver often parked his bus at the roadside next to a coffee shop, with all the passengers inside, so that they can buy their breakfast. Sometimes, they would simply drive into the bus depot, again with all the passengers, to top up their petrol tanks.
Occasionally, a bus inspector would board the bus and made random checks. After he had inspected your ticket, he would make a small tear to authenticate it.
Besides the above, Peter also has some fond memories of his bus rides:
I recall one botak conductor from Green Bus who could balance on one leg when the bus was swaying from side to side. He boasted he was the "Monkey God" and indeed he could really imitate one.
I often took Green Bus to Tek Kah to get to school. What I liked most was when the bus had to be changed at the depot because the bus was konking-out (due to steam coming out from the radiator, or gear cannot change).
Because my school was in Bras Basah, sometimes we saved 10 cents by walking to Queen Street (where Rochore Center is) to board #1 Green Bus. Otherwise if we wanted to catch the sight of Convent girls we stood at Capitol (Stamford Road) for a STC and got off at Selegie Road and walked over to Rex Cinema (facing KK Hospital) to catch Green Bus.
When my school relocated to Grange Road in 1972 for a short period of time, I took the Amalgamated Bus Company’s #200 via Sixth Avenue to Holland Road (facing Chip Bee Estate) and then a #12 via Queenstown to River Valley Road. To our delight, we discovered that there were also pretty girls studying in the Queenstown area.
Those were the days when X films were banned in Singapore but available in JB (Johor Bahru). So we took UBC (formerly Green Bus) #170 to JB to watch at the Rex Cinema. Then we stayed longer for the evening and went to Mechinta Night Club down at the Lido beach to watch a striptease show.
Green Bus had its depot at 6 ½ miles Bukit Timah Road, where the present McDonald’s HQ stands, opposite Bukit Timah Plaza. There were 2 sections. 1 section was where they kept the buses (nearer to the railway track) and the other section (closer to King Albert Park) was the workshop. When it was time to change buses, Green Bus entered through Clementi Road and stopped at the workshop area, we got down and switched buses, and exit into Bukit Timah Road.
- The Changi Bus kiosk in town (North Bridge Road opposite to Captiol Cinema where St Andrew"s Church is, got this photo for you),
- The STC terminus up at Siglap Hill (you still see an unusual U-shaped road built specially for STC to make a turn from Changi Road into town,
- The STC Workshop at McKenzie Road (the red brick faced workshops and open-air depot nearer to Rex Cinema),
- The STC terminus for Nissen bus at Upper Aljuneid Road,
- JB Green Bus & Singapore-Johore Bus terminus,
- Tah Kok Yat terminus at Satay Club (which is the road nearest to Shaw Tower in Beach Road),
- Hock Lee Bus terminus at Chulia Street (right in front of OCBC Center today),
- STC teminus at Shenton Way (after the old Singapore Poly),
- Paya Lebar Bus kiosk at where City Plaza is now.