My father worked for the Metal Box Company. He served his apprenticeship at the factory in Shipley, Yorkshire, where the can-making machinery was made. In 1961 he was posted to Singapore as factory engineer for the Metal Box factory at Woodlands.
Metal Box owned some bungalows on Marsiling Road. One of these was our home for the first few months of our stay. Marsiling Road in 1961 was a completely different road to Marsiling Road today. The old road has been lost to development. The old street map shows its position. The red cross shows the approximate location of the bungalows.
This area of Woodlands was still semi-rural. Apart from the Metal Box factory, there weren’t many other major buildings in the area. Just beyond the end of our drive was a rubber plantation. We had a clear view across the Straits to Johore Bahru. In hindsight, it was an immensely beautiful property and location, and it was a great privilege to live there, if only for a few months. At least, I thought it was. My mother was not so happy. It was quite isolated, and I think she felt rather vulnerable. In hindsight, she may have had a point.
I can’t remember how many bungalows there were. Two or three. I do remember our neighbours, Mr and Mrs Bloody Robinson. Mr Bloody Robinson (as I called him) was a colleague of my father, and I recall that he liberally peppered his conversation with the “B” word. These days, we hear much worse, but back in 1961 it wasn’t considered nice to use the “B” word in the presence of ladies and children.
The bungalow itself was a fine property, with a spacious living area, and separate quarters for Kim, the amah. There was also a tennis court, which we hardly ever used. But what fascinated me was the wildlife. Birds, bats and monkeys in the trees. Lizards, snakes, termites, ants, butterflies, caterpillars, centipedes and even the occasional giant rat. The whole garden was teeming with life. Yorkshire is not without its wildlife. From my window I can observe several species of birds, and the occasional squirrel. But there is nothing like the variety of species, the colours and the sounds that existed in that garden.
I conducted experiments. For example, placing red ants in a jar with black ants. They fought like gladiators.
Our first snake took us by surprise. There are no snakes in Yorkshire. My brother, Richard, spotted a curled up snake in the flower bed. He told my father that he had seen a dead snake. Dad wasn’t sure that it was dead, and sure enough, when he prodded it with a broom stick it sprung into action. Dad killed the snake and buried it. Better safe than sorry. I was sorry to see it killed, but we didn’t know if it was poisonous. We were novices in this wild place.
On another occasion I discovered a flying lizard. I saw it glide across the grass and land near the drive. I knew what it was straight away. I had read about flying lizards. I wanted to catch it, so I ran indoors and grabbed a jam jar. I placed the jam jar behind the lizard, then put the lid in front if it. The lizard turned round and launched itself into the jar. What a prize! I took it to school for the nature table. It didn’t stay there long. One of the other boys felt sorry for it and released it. I was annoyed. I didn’t care about the lizard’s welfare. I just wanted my brownie points.
One evening, returning home in a taxi, an enormous iguana crossed Marsiling Road. It must have been four feet long, maybe more. The taxi driver was very interested, and stopped the car to chase after it. I don’t know what he wanted, but my mother had to persuade him to drive us the rest of the way home.
I don’t know the whys and wherefores, but we left Marsiling Road after a few weeks of house-hunting. Presumably the company bungalow was a temporary facility for newly arrived employees.
All good things come to an end, and our stay at Marsiling Road lasted only seven months. But the impressions have lasted a lifetime.
It would be interesting to know how much of the wildlife has survived the urbanisation of Singapore, or whether all the interesting animals have retreated to the nature reserve.
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