Sunday, September 13, 2009

Edward Williams remembers Sembawang Hills Estate Part 4

Freddy Neo wrote that during the period 1958-1970 about 25% of the houses in Sembawang Hills Estate were rented out to British servicemen and their families. I don’t think his family’s experiences with their British neighbour were typical of the social relationship between the British and the locals. From my observation, most of the British families kept to themselves. I cannot recall any social interaction between them and the locals in the estate. I think Freddy was fortunate to have a neighbour who is keen to socialise with the locals.

It was true that the British families were quite intolerant of us during our Chinese New Year celebrations. At the stroke of midnight we used to let off firecrackers to herald the advent of the New Year. One family in our street would set off between 20 to 30 rows of fire crackers, so the noise would go on for about 45 minutes. This was obviously a very expensive extravaganza. We were told that the man of the house was a very superstitious person (and, of course, rich as well). So what were the typical reactions from the British families? They always rang the police to complain. The patrol car would come and go. There was nothing the police could do – after all it was Chinese New Year and firing crackers were one of the many ways we celebrated the event.

I remember a few noisy parties hosted by the British families. They carried on way past midnight, singing and yelling loudly in an intoxicated state, in the garden (outside the house). Yet none of the locals in our street would complain to the authorities. I don’t think this was because we were more tolerant. This could be partly explained by the hangover from the colonial days when the British were our masters.

The English seemed to like our hot weather. I have seen the women lying on the front lawn in their bikinis, reading a book, under the hot sun. Sometimes they had their tops off, but lying on their front and facing towards the front of the house, so the locals could only see their bare backs. At least they were sensitive to our feelings about nudity (or partial nudity) in public.

One English man who lived alone in Jalan Lanjut would create a scene every evening when he returned home drunk. You could hear him from a distance as he walked down Jalan Chengam, calling out loudly. The commotion caused all the dogs in the nearby homes to bark. As he approached his house, his dog would dash out to greet him. It was an amusing scene, to watch him sitting on the pavement with his dog licking all over his face. That’d always give us a good laugh.

We had the same experience at the provision shop as Freddy’s maternal grandmother. This shop, located at or near the corner of Jalan Leban and Jalan Kuras, catered mostly to the British families and treated the locals with some disdain. I think both of us remember the name of this shop, but we’re discreet enough not to publish it.

It’s true that many of the British families had servants to do the domestic work in the house. Even some of the locals also had live-in servants. I realise we used the term “servant” in the old days, but I still find it somewhat derogatory. I’d have preferred “domestic hand”. Many o f the local homes had their laundry done by a woman from the village. An old lady called “Ah Sim” used to come in every morning (except on weekends) to wash our clothes. I remember the brown jagged plank that Ah Sim would scrub our clothes on. She used 2 large basins, one of which had a continuous flow of water. Once the clothes were washed, they were hung on bamboo poles (tek koh) to dry.

The practise of collecting leftover food, vegetable peelings etc was not confined to the British families. My mother used to have a tin of leftovers hanging outside our gate. Someone from the village would collect it every evening. I am sure other locals did likewise. The collected stuff was fed to the pigs and poultry. Once or twice a year we received gifts of eggs from the villager as a thank-you response, which I thought was very nice and generous. Ah Sim also brought us Chinese cakes during festivities. As a Christian my mother would only accept the cakes that have not been offered to the gods in prayers. Ah Sim always made sure that the cakes she brought conformed to my mother’s wishes.

I must relate one almost-tragic incident that happened in the 60s. One afternoon, during a heavy downpour, an English woman was running down Jalan Chengam, screaming frantically. When it rained heavily, the monsoon drain was filled with a torrent of gushing water. Apparently her child was missing, or had fallen into the monsoon drain. I think she was following the flow of the water down the drain, towards the end of the street. At the point where Jalan Chengam meets Jalan Lanjut, both monsoon drains connect to a short tunnel which runs across the road and opens up at the other side of Jalan Lanjut, continuing towards Jalan Mengkudu. A Chinese woman came out of her house and looked at the drain where the tunnel began. I was there with one or two others, witnessing the whole spectacle under the pouring rain. The distraught English woman could only stand there helplessly, crying her heart out. At the entrance of the tunnel was a mesh of branches that must’ve been dumped in the drain by some locals. These had collected at the entrance of the tunnel. Tangled in this mesh of branches was a tiny English child, probably about 1 year old. The Chinese woman carefully waded in the drain towards the front of the tunnel and grabbed the child. The flow of the water in the drain was still quite strong. The child was handed over to the English woman, who was still sobbing uncontrollably. She was clearly engrossed by the shock of almost losing her child. She hugged the child and left immediately. The child had only suffered minor cuts and bruises.

How lucky it was that the entrance of the tunnel was blocked by a few branches. The branches could have been easily pushed into the tunnel and out towards the other end. Who knows what the fate of the child would be if this was the case.

I was told that the English woman returned in the evening to thank the Chinese woman who had braved the gushing water in the drain to retrieve her child. If my memory is correct, the drain would be at least 4 feet deep. The English woman would be about 70 today. That lucky boy would be in his late 40’s. We were all relieved that the outcome was a happy ending.

Lam Chun See continues …

If I may, I would like to make a comment regarding our relationships to our “servants”. I think generally the British families seem to treat their ‘amahs’ as they called them with more love and respect. I have come across many cases where British kids, now all grown up, tried so hard to reconnect with their amahs. A very good example is of how Lynn Copping she flew all the way to Singapore just to meet her long lost Amah.

14 comments:

Edward said...

Chun See, A cousin of mine worked as an amah in one of the British homes. On several occasions I accompanied her when she had to babysit their children at night. They treated her very well indeed.

Brian and Tess said...

Could I make one comment on Amahs. I hope my parents treated our amahs well but they would have been unused to dealing with servants. In the UK a family like mine (and my father had only recently been made an officer and my family was very much what would be called 'working class') would never have had servants.

My general comment would be to agree however that very few British service families would have had any real social dealings with local people. We lived largely separate lives, meeting only Amahs and perhaps the grocery delivery men on any regular basis. And I would not deny that many British people would display prejudice against local people and it could be said that this was typical of a colonial relationship. Such attitudes are usually the result of ignorance but also sometimes the result of embarrassment at having to deal with unfamiliar customs and surroundings.

I for one am very very glad to recognise today's Singaporeans as every bit the equal of British people and with 50 years of achievement that few people's can match.

Edward said...

Hello Brian & Tess, Have you read "Out In The Midday Sun" by Margaret Shennan? I'd recommend this book to those with a historical interest of the British in Malaya and Singapore.

peter said...

There was always an air of 'exclusiveness" when it comes to British Servicemen and locals relationship. As far as I know and I hate to generalise all things, those that lived off the bases/camps were married personnel holding the ranks of NCOs and officers. Naturally officers and families lived in places like Prince George's Park, Rochester Park, Alexandra Park and Medway Park. NCOs could live anywhere close to their place of employment. Officer families tend to be more conscious of their origins than NCO families.

There was also variations, whether the private estates were dominated by RAF or British Army families. Somehow, the RAF were more gentleman than the British Army personnel (even today, within the SAF, army is less polished than air force perosnnel).

In those days, British spoke English and as a local unless you could speak English there was no way you could communicate. If you could not communicate in English, you could never join in the fun with the chidlren of the British Servicemen.

One experience I can never forget growing up was to witness family squabbles between husband and wife. I got to hear plates flying in the house, the wife screaming as she was beaten up by her husband, raised voices, and the presence of the Provost who had to intervene in the ealry hours of the morning.

Zen said...

Edward gives a very vivid account of social events in the sixties(?). I believe every race has its positive and negative sides. A case in point was my aunt who worked for a Japanese expatriate as a amah, and his wife who trusted my aunt so much that she left her son to care of my aunt almost 100 percent. Her son was so attached to the amah that he addressed her as 'mummy'. Subsequently the family moved back to Japan, not without a free flow tears from both parties. Before my aunt passed away, she showed me photos of her grown-up 'son' returning back to shower her with much love and appreciated gifts. This shows that a little love, kindness, tolerance, and understanding can go a long way, cutting a path through the race barrier. Are we not all human beings? Our government fully knows the power of kindness in the world of human affairs, therefore started a 'little kindness'(to others) movement particularly aimed at school children for a start, but as far as I know some people are quite skeptical of its success, saying that this campaign has no significance.

Lam Chun See said...

I think in the 50's, when guys of my group were still very young, we generally regarded the white man as living in a world totally removed from and beyond us. Let me cite two examples.

1) On a couple of occasions, some Caucasions rode horses (slowly) through our kampong. It was an unforgetable sight for us and the dogs went wild with barking. Wow .. horses. We have never even seen them before except in movies; we didn't even have tv back then.

2) Whenever we saw a plane in the sky, we chanted a rather offensive dittty in Hokkien about the 'red haired' (ang moh) people. (I repeat, I was very young.). Actually I am very tempted to repeat it here just for sake of education, but I'd better not. Who knows what this could lead to? But notice that we associated aeroplanes with White man.

Lam Chun See said...

Brian's observation that very few British service families would have had any real social dealings with local people is probably true. My friend John Harper was probably an exception.

peter said...

Our parent's generation sometimes "to be blamed". They associated anything about Caucasians do like "kissing in public", showing more cleavages than necessary, sexy panties, smoking, etc as revolting. Today everything has changed. Generation Y should have it better than Baby boomers like us because your parents have seen it all and done it all. Hurray!

One time I told a friend from Britain that I accompanied a white girl to church, the congreation raised their eye brows. "What, you not afraid their children not Chinese anymore?"

Anonymous said...

Actually, the situation is quite similar in Serangoon Gardens too in terms of British and Australian servicemen staying at the estate. I remember a few of my neighbours were Causasian when I was staying at Portchester Avenue in during the 60s. I would see their kids running around the street barefoot. They seemed to like that. I never talked to them though.

Victor said...

What? You got topless shows half a century ago without going to a car wash?

Zen said...

Presently we live in an estate that has at least two third of its residents caucasians (mostly as tenants). Some of their kids are very exuberant, kicking football in all direction, which at times land into our houses. I complained to Mr W, our nearest neighbour, of his two sons who areapparently are the ring leaders of this group of kids. Mr W promised me that he will control his sons and after incident we become good friends. One day we found his wife, who appeared to be an aloof lady, was unable to go to work due to torrential rain, and Mr W was unable to fetch her to work as he has only a motor-cycle for transport. My wife and daughter saw their predicament, promptly offered Mrs W a lift to the MRT. Now the couple becomes our good neighbours as well as friends. They even seek my daughter's advice where to shop (at various towns) in Indonesia which my daughter knows well after making many business trips there. Sometimes we need a little initiative to break-through the wall that divides people.

Andy Young* said...

Been reading your blog a bit, Chun See. Find them absorbing and informative. So just my two cents worth on these postings and about people in general.

One conclusion though, it's never about race, language, religion or even culture. It's always the individual.

A Canadian caucasian friend drove two days, all the way from Winnipeg, to meet me in Vancouver. Then he drove home with me in the car. We took 10 days sightseeing as we travelled eastwards. He paid every dime without even allowing me to settle a meal. He was my university mate and a neighbour in Winnipeg for some years.

It happens all the time. I've had Canadian, Kiwi (NZ), Scottish and British neighbours who were all so kind and helpful when I was in their countries.

I got the same treatment when I lived in Indonesia and Malaysia. Great neighbours.

Shouldn't we be just as helpful and neighbourly too when they are here?

It's always the individual who may be nasty and quarrelsome... or the nice guy who makes our global society a lovelier place to live in.

"When I walk through that door,
Baby be polite,
You're gonna make me sore,
If you don't treat me right,
If you don't want me to be,
Cold as ice,
Treat me nice!"
Elvis Presley.

Cheers.

Andy Young* said...

Sorry, 4th para. should read, "their country."

Zen said...

I had a very good impression of Malaysian hospitality. I went to KL many years back to attend a cousin's wedding. Another cousin brought to one of his girl friend's home. Being a total stranger to this girl, but nevertheless I was treated like a VIP. Her mother cooked a variety of peranakan dishes for us to eat, meanwhile made sure that we at ease, like in our own home.