1963 Map of Sembawang Hills Estate (Phase 1)
The Sembawang Baptist Church was situated on the end of Casuarina Road where it met Old Upper Thomson Road. In this two-storey building sermons and hymns were conducted in Mandarin. The cobbler of Jalan Leban was one of the regulars here. I suspected that he only attended the night services, due to his work commitments. Large pieces of white paper hung on a simple wooden stand where the words of hymns were written. The lay preacher used a long stick to guide the congregation along the sheet, as they sung. I cannot remember if musical instruments accompanied the hymns being sung. I have a vague recollection of an organ being played. Lay preachers taught Sunday school in two rooms upstairs. During Christmas Eve, parishioners go carolling in a lorry, visiting many homes in nearby villages and the estate till the early hours of the morning. They returned to the church at about 5 am, were fed a simple hot meal and slept on the floor of the rooms upstairs and on the hall downstairs. It was a lot of fun for the young ones especially, spending the night away from home.
The terrace house at the corner of Nemesu Avenue and Old Upper Thomson Road was used as a Presbyterian Church. Sermons and hymns were conducted in English in this church, led by Pastor Heng who sung with a soprano voice. The church had a small organ and I believe a guitar was occasionally used to accompany the hymns being sung. Many of the estate locals attended this church. Services were often conducted at the front of the house, under an extension. The parishioners here were generally younger than those at the Sembawang Baptist Church. Because it wasn’t a “standard” church building, the informal atmosphere in this terrace house was more like a Sunday school which suited the younger crowd here.
A row of shop houses were congregated in a strip besides the Sembawang Baptist Church. I can only remember 2 of the shops here – a coffee shop (kopi tiam) and a provision shop. At the back of this row of shops, facing Thomson Road stood a number of hawker stalls. Two of the stalls were operated by the son and daughter of the cobbler of Jalan Leban. Their stalls sold ice ball, ice kachang and tahu goreng.
In the Chinese provision shop the usual household goods were retailed but I remember it for another reason. At the back of this shop was a slot machine which my friends and I had many attempts at trying to beat the odds. If you enter by the rear of the shop and asked for the machine the owner would remove the gunny sack which covered it. The back of the shop was the storage area for sacks of dry goods like rice, flour and sugar. It was dimly lit and had a distinct musty smell. The slot machine was, of course, illegal in those days. It cost 10 cents for each pull of the lever. Three reels would be spun and if the pictures were all the same when the reels stopped, then you won. You could win from 30 cents up to 70 cents if you hit the jackpot. It was a great thrill to hear the coins hitting the tray for every win. The 70 cent payoff was rare; most times you won 30 cents and occasionally 50 cents. It took only several minutes before we lost all our money to the machine. The next weekend we’d be back again for another go. We were convinced that there was a way to pull the lever which would deliver the jackpot. We tried everything possible – from slow motion pulling to a fast quick jerk of the handle. Nothing seemed to work. After several weeks we decided that it was a scam!
The coffee shop was a typical Chinese kopi tiam of the 50s and 60s with ceiling fans and spittoons under the tables. There was an Indian stall inside which sold curry, rice, roti prata, chapatti and murtabak . The most unforgettable thing about this kopi tiam was its toilet. Only once did I attempt to use it but when I pushed the door opened, what I saw was simply too revolting to describe. So I‘ll spare you the details. There was no lighting and the stench was so overpowering. This toilet was the worst I’ve ever seen; one quick glance was enough to eliminate any pressing reason for you to be there.
I took this photo of an old coffee shop in Kelapa Sawit, Kulai, recently. The ceiling and ceiling fan that Edward mentioned above must have looked like this – Chun See.
The owner of the coffee shop was a Chinese man who wore a singlet, pyjama shorts and slippers. He had huge lumps on his shoulders and back which looked like benign tumours. He was obviously not concerned about the effect of its appearance on his customers. One day my friend and I dropped into this kopi tiam for a cold drink after a jog along Old Upper Thomson Road. The kopi tiam owner chipped a block of ice on a container with an ice pick and then plunged his bare hands into the container, scooped up some ice and filled two glasses with it. Soft drinks were poured into each glass. The cooled drinks tasted most refreshing, and we silently hoped that his hands were clean. As we were enjoying our drinks and conversation, he stood in front of us, 2 tables away, leaning against the counter and … to our horror he slipped his hand under his pyjama shorts, and casually scratched his scrotum, seemingly oblivious to those around him. My friend and I looked at each other and a thousand thoughts must’ve flashed across our minds. Thoughts like “will we survive this episode?”, “what deadly diseases will we be afflicted with in the next 24 hours?” etc. This old chap obviously wasn’t concerned about personal grooming or habits, or its impact on his customers. Of course what he did was socially unacceptable because it was done in public, rather than in the privacy of one’s home. We made a note that in future we would order our drinks without ice or glass. Just drink it straight from the bottle with a straw.
Clearly the standards of hygiene at this coffee shop were appalling. The revolting toilet was used by the coffee shop staff as well as the Indians who operated the curry corner. This scenario was quite typical of the 50s and 60s – unclean toilets (an understatement) coupled with unhygienic practices (personal habits and food handling). Many hawkers were just as guilty, especially where the washing of their dishes and cutleries were concerned. A basin of water could sometimes be used for a long time, until the colour of the water turned greyish with remnants of food floating about. This usually occurred when the hawker does not have easy access to clean water. Of course the advent of the food centre brought about vast improvements in food hygiene.
Food handling practices improved from the late 60s on, mainly in response to the government’s initiatives. Today all food handlers have legislative obligations to fulfil, such as typhoid inoculation, chest X-ray and a basic food hygiene course which includes personal hygiene and grooming, cleaning and sanitation. This is a giant leap forward, and no longer should we fear the ghastly toilets or being served by staff with poor personal habits.