I was growing up in a grimy old mill town on the outskirts of Bradford, Yorkshire. We lived in an old stone terraced house with an outside toilet, coal fire and no bathroom. On bath night my brother and I would splash around in a tin tub in front of the living room fire. Happy days.
One day my father came home with a broad grin on his face, embraced my mother, and then announced that we would be going to Singapore. My imagination ran wild. I had no idea where Singapore was, but I was picturing grass huts, grass skirts, lions, tigers, snakes and crocodiles. My father was working for the Metal Box company, and I imagined the factory in Singapore to be a very large grass hut.
The first big adventure was the flight. I had never been near an aeroplane before, and the QANTAS 707 was enormous. We argued about who was going to have the window seat, and my brother and I had to take it in turns. I will never forget the route; Heathrow – Rome – Cairo – Karachi – Calcutta – Bangkok – Singapore. And the flight would continue to Darwin and Sydney. At each stop we would disembark for an hour, claim our free drink in the transit lounge, and go back on board for the next leg. So many exotic places in less than 24 hours. In those days it was common for Far-East flights to make multiple stops.
It was night time when we landed at Paya Lebar. My father was there to meet us (he had gone ahead, a month earlier), and with him were a couple of Chinese friends. One was Tan Chen Chok. I don’t remember the other. We became good friends of the Tans over the next few months, but I lost track of them. They lived on Keng Chin Road. I don’t remember Mrs Tan’s name, but they had two children – Ronnie and Alice, and maybe a baby too. It would be interesting to track them down.
I was only half awake as we drove to our temporary home – a bungalow on Marsiling Road. I woke in time to see the illuminated METAL BOX sign as we went past a very modern factory. And the company bungalow was anything but a grass hut.
The next thing I remember was waking up in the most intense heat I had ever experienced. Everything was different. It was about 8am and the insects were making a constant noise. There was a smell … not unpleasant … that I couldn’t identify. The same smell that was everywhere on the island. Singaporeans who grew up on the island wouldn’t notice it. Just as we didn’t pay attention to the stench of coal smoke back home.
I went outside to our extensive garden, and I almost recoiled from the heat of the sun. It didn’t stop me from exploring. And the garden was alive, with insects, birds, butterflies and lizards. Suddenly I was Tarzan in the jungle. As long as I lived in Singapore, I was always fascinated by the living creatures.
On that first day, my father took us down town to see the sights and to do a bit of shopping. My memories are vague, but I do remember Queen Elizabeth Walk, the Singapore River (with its hundreds of sampans and a powerful smell), Collyer Quay with its skyscrapers (presumably bank of China and Asia Insurance buildings). We walked through Change Alley … a wonderland for little boys like me. I had never seen anything like those tinplate motorised toys, and if I had had any money I would soon have spent it. The shopkeepers were animated and pushy … not in a bad way, but they needed to get your attention.
We emerged into Raffles Place. My final memory of the day was of a street hawker selling plastic tumblers. They were unbreakable, he said. He demonstrated this by bouncing one off the pavement and catching it. My mother thought this was a great idea, and she bought a set.
More observations to follow ….