Thursday, May 27, 2010

Mike Robbins’ fond memories of Singapore

Hello Lam,

Just recently found your site. It is nice to know that you are trying to preserve memories of old Singapore.

My wife and I were fortunate to spend three years on the island from 1966-69 living mainly in the Naval Base at Sembawang. We have been back twice since 1969, and the changes that have taken place make the place almost unrecognisable.

Surprisingly our first flat in Cairnhill Road was still there as was our house in Sudan Road - photos of that attached. The only noticeable change from the outside was the house now had air-con.

Our last visit coincided with the first F1 GP on the island - very impressive. We broke our return journey from Bali. We were very fortunate to still have contact with a pen friend of our daughter who was born in Singapore in 1968. She took us out on a trip down memory lane - back to Sembawang and to our old house. We also enjoyed a nostalgic curry in Changi village. It is a pity that so much of old Singapore has been lost - fond memories of old Bugis Street playing noughts and crosses with young children in front of the bars - for a few cents!

Our one regret is that we lost touch with our amah in Cairnhill Court. Her name was Lee Boon Yong. She was a much valued member of our family. She had one son only called John who would now be about 50. She originally lived in a kampong near Bukit Timah, but was re-housed in the early flats in Toa Payoh. Yong was our first amah in Cairnhill Court off Cairnhill Road not in Sembawang. In the house in Sudan Road,we had a couple who lived in the servants quarters at the back of the house. The amah's name there was Yok and her husband we also knew as John. He worked in the base but was also a very good pastry cook.

I have other old photos and documents from that time some of which I could scan I think if you would like to add to your collection.

It was interesting to see that the old oil fuel depot at Sembawang still had some tanks standing which I understand feed the nearby power station.

Have fond memories of working closely with a ship's chandlers company - Soon Aik in Outram Road - the Quah family. Went to a family wedding on the rooftop at 225 Outram Road. Also have fond memories of taking our young children into the botanical gadrens, buying a small cone of peanuts and watching the monkeys sneak up and snatch the whole paper cone from their hands. How times have changed!

Keep up the good work to preserve for the next generation

Best wishes

Mike Robbins


Icemoon said...

Looks like not all amahs wore black/white with pigtail. Boon Yong is not Cantonese name either.

Zen said...

When the british left Singapore in the early seventies, the naval basin (shown in the last photo) was returned to the Singapore Govt and in turn allowed the Port Authority to run it initially as a timber port which can also handle general cargo. I was transferred from keppel to this naval basin (deftford rd) now known as Sembawang Wharves in 1978. I have fond memories the surrounding scenic environment - those beautiful bungalows, chong pang wet market and food centre (canberra rd), those old naval warehouses at Admiralty West Road (next to the senoko power station) and the list goes on, not forgeting the delicious duck rice sold at a stall just outside Sembawang Shipyard. The generous lady stall owner worried that we would be still hungry usually served a portion meant for two persons. Sometime we ate at the Naafi canteen run by a hainanese chef who served excellent chicken pies. After work we like to drop in at a bungalow (similar to the one shown in the photo) which was turned into a Naafi store which sold genuine goods from UK and the quality were really good. These were the happy days.

peter said...


Being an amah does not mean you must be from the black & white "tribe". This "black & white" usually the privilege of the rich class - British, Europeans and towkays. Others make do with amahs clanned in normal samfoo. There were also Malay amahs who wore sarongs. I think the difference could also be the scope of work and duration of work. Samfoo type usually are considered part-time help because they dont "live-in". They do general cleaning and washing but no cooking. Samoo type/sarong type usually are married women with families. Black & white were singles.

Lam Chun See said...

From time to time, I read of our British friends saying how much they missed their amahs; and how they regarded them like a member of the family. For example Lynne Copping describes how she and her brother were so elated to be re-united with their amah here. If I recall, Derek Tait also has a photo of their maid in one of his books. And then there is Tessa Mitchell's almost century-old photo of her grandfather's amah.

It's quite touching actually. I think it is an admirable trait of the English people that even though they were the colonial masters, treated their amahs with such dignity and love. I believe this is something we Asians are lacking far behind won't you agree? Here (both in Spore and Malaysia), to our great shame, we regularly read of cases of maid abuse in the press.

Zen said...

Centuries back many countries including europe and asia practised feudal system. Even before the american civil war, black slavery was rampant in the US. Now what happen? a black american has been elected to lead the nation. In tiny Singapore we still have some people who have feudalistic mentality despite the fact that generations ago, some of our fore-fathers came to this land as forced labour - very sad indeed.

Anonymous said...

Mike Robbins,
Please scan your old photos and include it in this site cos Singapore has lost its heritage, history and culture, and your photo provides a important asset to preserve those history.

Anonymous said...

Peter is right.Black/white maids lived in with the family whilst samfoo cladded help went home every evening.
Does anyone know who owns the big houses along Sudan Road (in pic) now or if they are now government property like a lot of old colonial houses?The ones still standing & not sold to greedy developers anyway.

Edward said...

Chun See, I do agree with you that some of our locals treat their amahs poorly. We used to call them “servants” in the 50’s and 60’s, a term I find quite derogatory. I think “domestic hand” would be more appropriate. Anyway I personally have heard recent stories of harsh treatment of foreign domestic hands by Singaporeans who should know better. It’s quite disappointing, especially from a country which have been colonised and invaded in her brief history. You may be right in saying that the British generally treated their amahs with more dignity and love. My cousin worked for a British family in our estate during the 60’s. She was treated as a trusted member of the household which included 2 young children aged about 5 and 6.

fizlikwilam said...

I came to your site via search of the school I went to the barracks Majeed pandan Johor and I went to St. John's School in Singapore.
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Wee Tong said...

I would like to get in touch with Mike Robbins - I am from the quah family referred to in his posting. can anyone help? Please email me at thanks quah wee tong

Lam Chun See said...

Hi there Wee Tong. I managed to dig up Mike's email address. Thot I lost it when I switched to a new pc. I have forwarded you email address to him. Hope there is no change in his email address. I do hope that the two of you can reconnect.

BTW, have you read my article about Outram Park? Since you used to work there, do you have any old photos that you can share with our readers?