Friday, September 11, 2009

Edward Williams remembers Sembawang Hills Estate Part 3

When we first moved into Sembawang Hills Estate in 1958, the newly built homes had the old style “squatting” toilet. It wasn’t until about 10 years later that we installed the modern toilet, which allowed users to be comfortably seated while “doing their business”.



The houses had no hot water system. I was told that today most homes in Singapore have a hot water system installed. To shower with warm water, we had to boil a kettle of hot water and pour it into a plastic pail of cold tap water. This mixture of warm water is then poured over your head with a cup or bowl. As kids, whenever we come home drenched by the rain, my mother always insisted that we immediately shower with warm water. If you are recovering from an illness, you’d probably prefer a warm shower too.

The middle of the house was not covered by the roof. It was an exposed, open top which allowed sunlight and ventilation through. In the event of rain, the top is covered by pulling a rope which dragged a sliding corrugated zinc panel into the “closed position”. In its “open position” the panel is allowed to slide backwards to the end, where it is now seated above the toilet and shower. We call this part of the house the “air well”.

A small drain ran through the “air well”. This drain is connected to a bigger drain outside the house. The exterior drain leads to a large monsoon drain along the boundary of the property. In the event of heavy rainfall, water could be seen gushing along the small drain in the “air well”. Occasionally, the drain overflowed and the floor of the “air well” is filled with rain water. However the surrounding areas (the hall, kitchen and rooms) were never flooded as they were elevated about 4 inches above the “air well” floor.

All the windows had grills on them as a safety feature. The front door of most houses had a door and a collapsible gate as well. Most of the terraced homes in the estate do not have space within their property for parking. The local residents parked their cars along the streets, outside their homes. The homes have either terrazzo or mosaic tiled floors. It is not uncommon for the hall and perhaps the kitchen to be tiled, while the rest of the house has plain cement floors.

Most homes had ceiling fans in the hall and in one or two rooms. I cannot remember any homes with air conditioning. I do recall a house that was "converted" into a barber salon which had air conditioning. This was in the early 60s. I think this salon was situated in Jalan Leban. I liked this place because it was so cool inside. As a kid this was probably the only place where I experienced air conditioning. There were 3 or 4 barber seats in the hall of this house which fronted as the parlour. I also liked the smell of the shaving cream. At the end of your haircut the barber would give you “cracks” or “slaps” on your back of your shoulder with clapsed palms. This was supposed to relax your shoulder muscles.

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20 comments:

Zen said...

If we would describe the living condition in the fifties to the kids now, they would probably exclaim: "yuk, so gross!" Well, we lived in different world at a different time. Simple pleasure was a luxury of life by itself - like wearing a pair new pant during festive season, tasting some new delicacies, a visit to the cinema, or just experienced a hair cut your in an airconditioned saloon. Kids relished all these activities with exhilaration and would consider themselves as a privileged lot. On the bucket system, this topic needs no introduction, as chun see has already churned out 'volumes' of it and he took pain to explain its related (noble) occupation.

peter said...

In my primary school we had that kind of toilet. No joke must shit yet cannot tahan the look below. So how?

Simple, shut the nose and breath through the mouth. Somehow never could smell the "thing". I wonder why till this day.

If the worse ever happens which it did, I do it in the bush and walked all the way home. That is why I don't feel bad or shy having to pee in the bushes - must learn to improvise.

peter said...

Something similar to the above but at least modern (but still squatting type) are the toilets on the KTM trains. Also got water hose but you wonder when there is flooding is that due to the water hose or the toielt. What do you think?

Lam Chun See said...

That toilet photo was inserted by me. Actually I wasn't sure whether or not it was appropriate becos Edward did not say explicitly that theirs was a bucket system. He only said squatting type. Anyway, I thot more interesting to have a photo like that. Btw, that photo was taken a couple of years ago at the Chinatown Heritage Centre.

But one unintended effect of that photo appears to be that it has distracted readers from the rest of Edward's story.

Edward said...

Yes, you're right Chun See, everybody seemed to be fixated on the picture of the toilet. I wonder why??? Actually that is not the kind of squatting toilet I was referring to. I have sent you an email with a link to the picture of the squatting toilet I meant.
So you guys, better take your mind of Chun See's toilet and concentrate on the story. Thank you.
Edward

Edward said...

Peter, I was told that many people smoked when using the old bucket system to deal with the unpleasant smell.The cigarette smoke is supposed to drown the other bit, so it is more tolerable. The only time I've used the bucket system toilet was when I go fishing in the kampong. It was quite an experience for me.
Edward

Lam Chun See said...

Aiyah Edward, this type of squatting toilet is already a luxury compared to the bucket system. When I first moved to the HDB flat from my kampong, we had this type of modern and it was one of the biggest improvement over kampong living.

Lam Chun See said...

Yes, I remember boiling water for baths the way Edward described. For kampong houses like ours, the bathroom is usually built separate from the house.

Nowadays, for my house, we have installed solar panels in 2000 and we can have hot water anytime except when the skies are cloudy for a few days in a stretch. Although we spent more than $3k, and the payback period is very long, I still think it was a good decision becos I don't feel guilty about 'wasting' the energy.

Zen said...

Peter - You are talking about 'peeing'(xiao pian), into a bush. What happen if the big one erupts. I guess you have to use leaves as toilet paper. When rain comes, with no shelter in sight, please use a large sheet of banana leave (if available) as an umbrella. Nowadays I am quite amused to see an innovative guy using a empty carton box to take cover from rain.

Brian and Tess said...

Yes enough on the toilet system I think! In my house in on the Toh Estate in Changi, newly built in 1960 and used by many RAF and other service people, we also had ceiling fans but no air conditioning (and the main change when I visited the estate with Chun See earlier this year was the addition of ac. And the only places with ac I remember from those days was also a barber shop in what was then the RAF Officers Club and in a record shop in Changi Village. Maybe the top hotels had ac but places where kids would go mostly just had fans.

Edward said...

Ok Chun See, so the squatting toilet we had was already quite high tech compared with the bucket system. Imagine what it was like when we installed the new toilet ten years later, the one which allowed you to sit on. It was like moving into the space age. So comfortable.

Edward

Anonymous said...

Nowadays, there are so many middle-age and elderly people suffering from knee cartilage problems. Without the sitting type toilets, it will be difficult and painful for these people to squat, especially for long periods.

Freddy Neo said...

Gosh, Edward, you bring back so much memories for me.

I lived in a similar house as what you have described. The airwell in the middle was a relief because the inside of the house was quite warm. We changed the squatting toilet bowl to a sitting type in the early 70s only because my mother had arthritis and could not squat and it too me a while to get used to. When I first visited Japan in 1981, I was surprised that they put signs over the toilet cubicles in some places to indicate whether it was western type or Japaneses style. Guess what! The Japanese style referred to the squatting toilets.

Regarding your other queries, Sembawang Hills Estate Primary School was at the old Upper Thomson Road, at the edge of the forest reserve, near to Sembawang Circus. The school is defunct. The buildings were toron down in late 1980s. In its place, there are now some 99 year lease houses. The roads all with have Casurina to them.

The taxi stand at Jalan Leban was put up sometime in the 1960s. One of my maternal uncles, who was then a taxi driver, asked my father to write in the the authority for permission to put it up. When it was approved, the taxi drivers were so happy that without fail, their representative will call personally every year to invite my father to the Chong Yuen Dinner (7th moon festival). I remember attending the National Defence Fund Dinner organised by the taxi drivers which was held at the car park in front of the shopd houses in 1966 when I was in Sec.

Edward, which road were you staying then? If you were a fish hobbyist, you would remember Lam Hong Aquarium down the hill from Jalan Batai where I frequent daily. I remember reading letters for the young owner. After nearly 50 years, I am still in touch with him. The shop is now in AMK Ave. 4. He is now a grandfather. Invariabley when I visit him at his shop, he will introduced me as his more 40 year customers. Without fail, he will slash his prices for me for items that I buy from him. We have become friends. He attended my wedding and I attended his son's wedding about 5 years ago at the Grassroot Club.

Freddy Neo said...

(Sorry. some grammatical errors and missing words in previous post. Also wanted to add further a further comment)

Gosh, Edward, you bring back so much memories for me.

I lived in a similar house as what you have described. The airwell in the middle was a relief because the inside of the house was quite warm. We changed the squatting toilet bowl to a sitting type in the early 70s only because my mother had arthritis and could not squat and it took me a while to get used to. When I first visited Japan in 1981, I was surprised that they put signs over the toilet cubicles in some places to indicate whether it was western type or Japaneses style. Guess what! The Japanese style referred to the squatting toilets.

Regarding your other queries, Sembawang Hills Estate Primary School was at the old Upper Thomson Road, at the edge of the forest reserve, near to Sembawang Hills Circus. The school is defunct. The buildings were torn down in late 1980s. In its place, there are now some 99 year lease houses. The roads all have Casurina to them.

The taxi stand at Jalan Leban was put up sometime in the 1960s. One of my maternal uncles, who was then a taxi driver, asked my father to write in to the authority for permission to put it up. When it was approved, the taxi drivers were so happy that without fail, their representative will call personally every year to invite my father to the Chong Yuen Dinner (7th moon festival). I remember attending the National Defence Fund Dinner organised by the taxi drivers which was held at the car park in front of the shop houses in 1966 when I was in Sec 2.

I remember the Sunday night markets which I used to go with my siblings. When I moved to old Upper Thomson Road, I remember it for a macabre reason. One night in 1968, one of the stallholders went into the forest to relieve himself and stumbled into Gene Koh's body. Freddy Tan had murdered and disposed his body in the forest. I remember the police condoning the area off and there were a lot of activities. PP Vs Freddy Tan was the sensational murder trial of 1969. Freddy Tan was represented by David Marshall and was one of the last murder trials involving a jury. David Marshall succeeded in the defence plea of diminish responsibiliy which made Freddy Tan not guilty of murder but of culpable homocide not amounting to murder. He was sentenced to life imprisonment. I remember attending the trail on some afternoons because I was then studying in a school at Bras Basah Road which was quite close to the High Court.

Edward, which road were you staying then? If you were a fish hobbyist like me, you would remember Lam Hong Aquarium down the hill from Jalan Batai (near to the kampong house) fronting Upper Thomson Road where I frequented daily. I remember reading letters for the young owner. After nearly 50 years, I am still in touch with him. The shop is now in AMK Ave. 4. He is now a grandfather. Invariabley when I visit him at his shop, he will introduced me as his more 40 year customer. Without fail, he will slash his prices for me for items that I buy from him. We have become friends. He attended my wedding and I attended his son's wedding about 5 years ago at the Grassroot Club.

peter said...

Was this Gene Koh, the son of millionaire Koh Bok Tai, one of the big Chinese contratcors who provided road-making equipemnt and tar to the PWD? I think the murder was because Freddy quarreled over a loan made by Gene and about a red sports car (maybe a MG).

Edward said...

Freddy,
I lived in Jalan Chengam for the first few years and then intermittently due to family circumstances. I am still trying to recall Sembawang Hills Estate Primary School. If it was situated in Old Upper Thomson Road, then it was probably close to Casuarina Walk. There was a field over there where the local boys played soccer in the evening. Perhaps this was part of the school. Yes, I do remember the aquarium at the foot of the hill where Jalan Batai stood. I have been to this aquarium a number of times. I am not really a fish hobbyist like you, more of a “fisherman”. I forgot to mention that another of my favourite food at the pasar malam was “poh piah”. Of course I’d always have mine with chillies.

My daughter has just told me that I have to stop signing my name at the end of my blog comments."It’s so formal and simply not required". That's another new thing I learnt today.

Zen said...

For we oldies, signing our names has some significance, just like those ancient chinese officials using their own personal seals to stamp on documents, thus effusing an elated feeling from within. Talking about the squatting toilet bowl, my eldest daughter insisted to have one of this installed in one of our toilets at our previous home. After reading of people having phobia of using public toilet (the sitting type) due to the AIDS scarce, and also medical reports favouring the use of the squatting toilet bowl to prevent a person from developing piles problems, I begin to see the virtue of such toilet.

Freddy Neo said...

Peter,

Yes, Gene Koh was the son of a millionaire, Koh Bok Tai. He sold a truimph car to Freddy Tan for about $5,000 plus. Freddy short paid him by $300. He went to see Freddy to collect the shortfall. Freddy lost his temper, hit him with a walking stick and killed him. He kept his body for two days then disposed it in the forest reserve. Freddy Tan pleaded sudden fight and diminished responsiblity to say that it should not be murder but culpable homicide not amounting to murder. Two psychiatrist testified for him. The jury agreed that Freddy had succeeded in the defence of diminished responsibility. He was not sentenced to death but to life imprisonment. It has been brought to my attention that the defence counsel was not David Marshall but another famous criminal lawyer of that time, SK Lee. The prosecutor was Francis Seow. I can't remember who was the judge.

Edward,

I remember Jalan Chengam because my maternal grandma used to live in a terrace house there as well. The back of the house faced the undeveloped area, the Hokkien called "cheok sua", literally granite hill. This would now be the St. Nicholas View houses, St. Nicholas Convent, all the way to AMK Avenue 4. Reading your story of the English boy who got swept away in the monsoon rain, has brought my memory back to a similar incident which happened in a heavy downfall one afternoon sometime in 1967. This incident did not have a happy ending. The young son of a ethnic Chinese taxi driver (my uncle's colleague) from Sembawang Taxi Stand was swept down the monsoon drain at Jalan Leban. His body was recovered near to Radiant Store where the water from the monsoon drains converged before flowing into a canal that flowed into the Kallang River.

Anand said...

Upper Thomson Road…seventh mile…Sembawang Hills Estate…five petrol stations…that light blue taxi hut that still stands proudly on Jalan Leban…little aquarium shop down the hill from Jalan Batai…SAHE supermarket…one of the first 7-11 stores to open in Singapore…the popiah man at the hawker centre who never seems to age…the ngoh hiang stall that started selling Western food also…running down steep hills to get to the bus stop via short-cuts…the amazing Chinese kampong and its ritualistic temples bordering AMK Avenue 1, bread man, rojak man, satay man, ice cream man, vadai man…cycling on wide roads in Thomson Hills…Pierce Reservoir…Old Upper Thomson Road…the little bus terminal with just services 71 & 73…Sembawang Hills Estate School…playing in the forest while waiting for the school bus…Casuarina Crescent/Drive…buying tikam at National Store…taekwondo classes at Teacher’s Estate…playing football at the Ahmad Ibrahim School field…getting clothes tailored at Jalan Gelengang…three doors away, Ah-Bee would deliver your provisions to your doorstep…

Annette said...

Anand i remember sembawang hills estate svhool - was from there! And yes that bus terminal only had 71 and 73! And yup we played near (not in, for me, as i was scared) the forest while waiting for oour buses! Such memories! I forgot the store was called National Store!!