Wednesday, October 30, 2013

From my Inbox – Judith Johnson remembers my kampong

Below is an email that I received from Judith Johnson a few weeks ago. Judith lived at Chiltern Drive in Braddell Heights in the 1960s, and remembers seeing my kampong. To help orientate you to the places Judith describes, here is a scan of the Braddell Heights area from my 1963 street directory. What is indicated as Lorong Chuan here was my kampong. It was a dirt track, and people knew it as Chui Arm Lor in Hokkien; which meant Water Pipes Road. Our address at that time was 288 Ang Moh Kio, Singapore 19. The name Lorong Chuan only became known to us when it was upgraded to a metal road joining Braddell Road to Serangoon Gardens. The truncated Chui Arm Lor was renamed Lorong Kinchir, and our address was changed to 21-A Lorong Kinchir.
You can read more details in the opening pages of my book, Good Morning Yesterday.
My house is marked by an X in this map. Judith's house was near the sharp right-angle bend in Chiltern Drive. Braddell Heights was elevated above Lorong Chuan.

Dear Mr Lam,

I chanced upon your site when doing a little research prior to possibly organising a 'stopover' in Singapore on my way to visit my son who now lives with his family in Perth.  My husband and I have been visiting Australia regularly now for several years and I have strongly resisted revisiting Singapore as I felt it had changed out of all recognition and I did not want to be disappointed to find that it was now just a sanitized version of what I remember.

I flew to Singapore in 1959 and attended the RAF Changi Grammar School.  We did not live in Changi as my father was in charge of the Joint Air Traffic Control Centre at Paya Lebar Airport until our return to England in 1963.  His 'mess' was at RAF Seletar, but we lived in a house on Chiltern Drive in Braddell Heights.  I was so surprised to find that the estate and its houses are still there.

During the last couple of hours I have been nearly moved to tears exploring the wealth of information about life in Singapore during the 60's.  We stayed in Katong Grange Hotel (which was then right by the sea) until we were allocated a 'hiring' by the RAF at Braddell Heights. My father joined the Singapore Swimming Club.

The front of our house faced north and directly opposite was a rather ugly square cement structure which was I believe some sort of sewage treatment.  Whatever it was, it was possible to climb up on top of it and as a 13 year old tomboy I liked nothing better than escaping up there from where I had an excellent view of part of the local kampong.  I watched daily life unfolding before me - the ponds, the pigs, the 'night soil deliveries, smoke rising from cooking fires and children playing in the dust.  Sometimes I could hear the sound of a nearby wayang or funeral procession, at others the chattering of the mahjong tiles in a neighbouring house.

It was not long before my curiosity got the better of me and I plucked up the courage to find a path round the side of the 'bunker' (as it had been christened by my father!) and made my way into the village.  I can remember squatting down to watch a woman cooking over a fire and throwing freshly gathered green vegetables into a cooking pot while the chickens scratched nearby and the cockerel crowed.

I don't recall talking, but I'm sure that we communicated in the innocent way that only a child can.  I felt as if I had stepped into another world and I believe that I often had a strange sense of separation from the 'real life' of the island as I went back to my bungalow where our amah lived in he small quarters behind the kitchen. 
My school friends all lived in RAF houses at the air bases and probably had less occasion to be involved with local people. I used to take the bus early in the morning to ride at the Polo Club before the heat of the day, travelling with all ages and races.  I remember the shoe repair man calling, the brush and household goods seller, the gully gully man.  We were very friendly with our Chinese neighbour Kenneth Cheong and his family.  Looking at the map on your site I'm sure our house was very near your kampong.

A couple of years ago we had a long holiday in Burma, much of which I found very poignant as it reminded me so much of Singapore in the 60's, and ever since I have been toying with the idea of going back, which I swore I would never do.  I am not very computer savvy and have never done more than read blog and forum entries, not having the courage or inclination to write anything myself.  I don't do Facebook and haven't ever used Friends Reunited, but was fascinated to read all the posts on your site.
Your website I'm sure is serving a great need to preserve the memories of what was a unique time in the history of your island.  I'm so glad that I stumbled upon it.

Best wishes,

Judith Johnson - daughter of then Sqn Ldr David Cutts and Margaret Cutts (dec'd)

Hi Judith,

Thank you for sharing your memories of Singapore. You are quite ‘fortunate’ in the sense that Braddell Heights has remained relatively unchanged over the years. Most of the roads are still there, although the houses have mostly been rebuilt.

I can understand why you are afraid to visit Singapore. You probably fear that you would be disappointed to find that everything you remember about this place has changed beyond recognition. But still, I would recommend that you come for a visit. I suspect some of the places you frequented, such as the Polo Club along (along Thomson Road?), are still there. Anyway, some of my UK friends whom I had befriended through my blog have visited and I even brought them around to see some of the places that they knew.

I have attached a scanned map of the Braddell Heights area from my 1963 street directory. My house is marked with an X. You will see that we were practically neighbours. And we are probably around the same age too. I am 61. As what I told my UK friends, John Harper and Brian Mitchell, who I visited recently when I went to UK, it’s so strange. Back in the 60’s we stayed so close to each other physically, and yet we were living in different worlds as our paths never crossed. Now we are living physically thousands of miles apart, and yet we have become friends.

If you do come to Singapore this year, I would be happy to be your guide and show you some of the places that you knew, such as Braddell Heights, Polo Club and maybe Bartley Road and Paya Lebar Rd.

Chun See


exnavalbase1412 said...

how sweet the own recall in the former Naval Base - we were all living literally in the same enclave yet, I've not crossed paths with expats of my age, let alone made any was not uncommon..!
But like yourselves, we are now able to be friends from miles apart (in my case 2 Poles apart!)....keep staying in touch, you guys! God bless

JollyGreenP said...

I had exactly the same fears as you. However, my youngest son would often ask me "what was it like in Singapore daddy?" I never felt that I could adequately explain to him. Then the company I worked for was taken over by a large multinational resulting in a windfall when they bought all the share options in the employees share incentive scheme. SO i was able to say to him the next time he asked that as I could not tell him I would show him. We spent a fortnight in Penang a few days travelling down Malaysia with a couple of days in the Cameron Highlands and then six glorious days in Singapore. Yes Singapore had changed but for me the magic was still there. Since then I have been back several times and now that I am retired I try to visit each winter as the warm moist air improves the condition of my lungs.

The only proviso I would add is that you will probably find it such a wonderful. experience that the typical three day stopover en rout to Aus is just not long enough. Nowadays, when my wife and I visit we book for three to four weeks and stay in one of the budget chain hotels (Fragrance) in Geylang where you are more likely to find the truer unsanitised version that you remember. Slightly seamy side as it is the red light area,brothels are the ones with red house numbers but all part of the rich tapestry of life. Cheaper hotel= able to stay longer and come back again.

HG LEE said...

The remaining path of Lor Kirchir from Lorong Chuan was cleared just a few years back when they build "The Chuan" condominium.
Would pass the junction when I take bus serivce "104" from bus-stop beside "South Country Theatre" to Serangoon Garden Circle bus Terminal and walked to Hwi Yoh Secondary School from there.

Anonymous said...

judith is the kenneth cheong referring to from 6 chiltern drive? if so he is my grandfather

stephen cheong

Brian and Tess said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brian and Tess said...

I am rather late in joining in this conversation having been away on holiday but I would echo John's (Jolly Green Pea) views about and encourage a stay. We stayed for a week in 2009 and discovered some significant places for both of us even after all these years - and yes sitting within a largely transformed land and urbanscape. Its finding those admittedly few places - and perhaps building a relationship with some bloggers on this site and beyond that make the trip worthwhile. If you are flying past it has to be worth a short stopover - I understand the reluctance, you don't want to be dissapointed and the nostalgia for time in 'Spore is strong but its worth the risk!

Judith Johnson said...

Thank you all for your generous advice. I am sure we will stopover next time we fly east. I am also certain it will not just be a short stay and I shall have to prepare a 'plan of action'. One of my top priorities is to ask my brother to get all of our S'pore 'slides' digitised for future reference and research. I have some black and white photos and quite a bit of Standard 8 cine, but a lot of transparencies!
I am sure that Stephen Cheong's grandfather Kenneth was the gentleman who lived 2 houses west on Chiltern Drive. When we were there he had small children. He did however, if I remember rightly, visit my parents in England after we returned when he maybe was over on business. He would have known them as David and Maggie (there was also another couple who lived a few doors further along, almost on the corner - Bob and Greta Duncanson - who he may recall). I am finding this whole experience quite moving and look forward to further developments....

Anonymous said...

Hi Judith , my dads name is Henry and his sisters are Pauline and Mamie. My grandmothers name was Monica.
My grandfather worked for general electric company back then. He is 88 today.

Right opposite were the Lokes.

Does this ring a bell? Stephen

Judith Johnson said...

Hi Stephen, The name Henry rings a bell as one of Kenneth's very small children (I have a memory of your amah running around after him with a spoon full of food trying to get him to eat!)Pauline and Mamie don't sound familiar, but Monica sounds right for your mum and I do believe that your father worked for GE. (Afraid the Lokes don't strike a chord). I am 66 on Friday, so your grandfather would have been in his early to mid thirties when we were there and your father 3 or 4. My younger brother was called Jeremy and was very blond and had to wear glasses with a patch over one eye - he was about 6) I realise that your grandfather is now a very elderly gentleman but would he be able to recognise my parents from a photo if I sent one to you? Judith

Lam Chun See said...

Judith. I am already drooling at the thought of seeing 1960's photos of Braddell Rd. Before Lorong Chuan was built, my brother and I would cycle out to the main road (Braddell Rd) and chain our bicycle to a lamp post or railing facing Dunsfold Dr and waited for the bus to bring us to our school at Braddell Rise School. That's why that rather alien name, Dunsfold is forever etched in my mind.

I am keeping my fingers crossed that you have a photo of this place to share with us.

Anonymous said...

Hi Judith
Sure, my email is


Unknown said...

hi judith, I too have the same feelings as you, I was born in singapore and left when I was 11 in 1968, and have not returned since. our family were members of singapore swimming club. we lived on seah im road mt faber. we could walk to the top of mt faber. our house was a black and white bungalow which I recently found a picture of it when I googled black and white houses. it was for rent and still looked the same. im still toying with the idea of going back. I think my time in singapore was the best time of my life. life changed so much when we came to australia.

wordy wise said...

Hi Mr Lam—what wonderful evocative writing! I'm writing a book on the meaning of home for Englishwomen who arrived in Singapore in the 1950s and '60s and stayed to make it home. I'm looking for material on the Katong Grange Hotel and the RAF Grammar School in Changi where one of my subjects taught in the early 1960s. I noticed Ms Johnson refers to both in her comment on your post. Would it be possible to put me in touch with her? Thanks much, Mandakini (

Unknown said...

Hi Judith,

I stayed at the Katong Grange Hotel a couple of times during flights to Australia in the early 60's. My father worked for BOAC so we were on "stand by".
I can remember being amazed that there was no glass in the windows, just wooden shutters.
Another odd memory is that of the kitchen staff emptying a wheelbarrow full of rubbish into the sea every morning.
I hope the hotels no longer follow this tradition!
I now live in Australia but have never wanted to return to Singapore as I imagine it's just like any other Asian city such as Hong Kong and Tokyo.
Happy memories,

Unknown said...

Hi Judith,

I stayed at the Katong Grange Hotel a couple of times during flights to Australia in the early 60's. My father worked for BOAC so we were on "stand by".
I can remember being amazed that there was no glass in the windows, just wooden shutters.
Another odd memory is that of the kitchen staff emptying a wheelbarrow full of rubbish into the sea every morning! I hope the hotels no longer follow tjis tradition.
I now live in Australia but have never wanted to return to Singapore as I imagine it's just like any other Eastern city such as Hong Kong and Tokyo.
Happy memories