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.
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