Saturday, December 31, 2005

Why I Started Good Morning Yesterday

The last day of the year is a good time for reflection. I think I should explain in more detail why I started this blog.

Basically I have 2 reasons:

1) To reminisce about the ‘good old days’.
2) To educate the next generation about what life of their parents was like when they were young.

Firstly, I notice that people of my age group or older like to talk about the past. Whenever, my friends or relatives get together, at Chinese New Year gatherings, or dinners or even funerals, they like to exchange stories about the past. The reason of course, is that Singapore, especially the physical landscape, has changed a lot during our lifetime. There are very few places that have not changed during the past 30 years. Many of the places that I saw during my army days in the early 1970’s for example, like the kampongs in Jurong, Bt Batok, Marsiling, Hong Kah, Tampines and Ponggol have all gone. Therefore, I thought, a blog would be a useful place for people like us to network and exchange stories. It is no different from a kopi-tiam or a void deck really.

The second thing I notice is that our children seem to be very ignorant about life back in the old days; and about things of nature in general. Maybe life in Singapore is too fast-paced nowadays, and they have too many material distractions. Consequently, they miss out on many of the simple pleasures of life.

For myself, I make a special effort to tell my children about what life was like when we were kids; and the kind of things we enjoyed as kampong children. For example, I described to my son about how we caught fighting fish from the ponds in our village. He became very interested, and today he has taken up breeding fighting fish as a hobby. My children also keep many pets in our home, including a cockerel they fondly named Mellow. They are fortunate in a way, because my wife is a Malaysian. Our frequent trips back to her home town in Ipoh helped to expose my children to life in a less urban environment like Singapore.

I bet you have never seen a chicken ride bicycle

By the way, do you know what my son calls some of his friends….. ”乡上人“。That’s the opposite of a country bumpkin who is ignorant about modern things. So my second reason for starting this blog is to educate the “乡上“ young people of Singapore.

But what triggered off this project was something that happened during a recent trip to Myanmar. On my way back to the airport, I shared the hotel car with a Japanese man who was a frequent visitor to Singapore. During our conversation, I remarked that Yangon was very much like Singapore during the time when I was young. Many of the old British-style buildings resembled those in Singapore, and they have many crowded old buses like our Tay Koh Yat buses of the 60’s. He was surprised and said that Singapore must have changed a lot during the past few decades. Yes, and too fast, I replied. It was then that I decided I should start this blog.

I must say that I have been heartened and encouraged by the response that I have received so far. Many of the young people who visited my site actually enjoyed reading about all these old stuff. Initially, I was afraid that they may not like it. Some say that reading a first-person account was quite different from learning from the history books. They say they look forward to hearing more stories in my blog.

Another benefit of this project, which I did not realize before was that it helped to promote bonding between the 2 generations. Quite a few young people said that they want to ask their parents to read my articles. Apparently, their parents are quite afraid of the internet and IT; and so they hope to use this blog and my personal example to educate their parents.

I will try my best to live up to these young people’s expectations. But of course I cannot do it alone. I intend to get my siblings and friends to chip in. For example, my old friend, Simon Chu Chun Sing has contributed a few very interesting articles about Chinatown and promised to contribute some more. I have extended an invitation to other people of my generation to share their stories here, but so far I have not received any. I don’t know why. I hope it is because they too would like to start their own blogs; then I will have more blogs to read. Right now, other than Victor’s and Chris’ blog (see links section) the blogosphere does seem to be a rather lonely place for people my age.

In conclusion, I also want to remind myself that it is not healthy to live too much in the past. Like what the title of 尤雅’s song says, 往事只能回味. So I remind myself that our life on this planet is brief ( 短暂). We must also look to the future. That’s why I included a verse from the Old Testament of the Bible at the bottom of my blog which says (in Chinese);

“ 至于世人, 他的年日如草一样。

Happy New Year everyone!

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Winds of War

I just came from a visit to Nikholai’s blog website (Blackbox). His articles reminded me of myself when I was young.

During my OCS (Officer Cadet School) days in the mid-70’s, someone lent me a war novel entitled The Winds of War by Herman Wouk. I enjoyed it so much that I eagerly awaited the sequel, War and Remembrance. Subsequently, I went on to read most of his books, plus others like Holocaust by Gerald Green, Midway, The Longest Day by Cornelius Ryan, and Malaya Upside Down. I had developed quite an interest in 2nd World War events. My father was pleasantly surprised when I asked him to tell me about life in Singapore under Japanese occupation.

In 1985, when NPB (National Productivity Board) sent a group of us to Japan for three-and-a-half months of training, I was the only weirdo in our group who liked to visit war cemeteries. At the end of our training, while many of our colleagues took the opportunity to visit Korea and Taiwan, I and 2 other colleagues chose to remain in Japan for another week. My friends Paul Sum and Low Hock Meng liked Japanese castles and temples whereas I liked war memorials. So I agreed that if they accompanied me to visit the Peace Memorial Park (平和记年公园) in Hiroshima, I would follow them to any other place.

A-Bomb Memorial Dome - 21/12/1985

Memorial Cenotaph, Hiroshima Peace Memorial Muzeum

So we left our main luggage at Tokyo International Centre and took a Shinkansen (bullet train) to Hiroshima. From there, we took the slow trains back to Tokyo, stopping to visit interesting castles and temples along the way; the whole trip lasting 1 week. By the way, I was really impressed by the Japanese bullet trains. We left Tokyo at 9.00 am and arrived in Hiroshima at around 2.30 in the afternoon. Bear in mind this was 2 decades ago. In comparison, my drive to Ipoh over a similar distance of about 600 km took 8 hours using the North-South Highway (not counting the horrible jam at the Spore immigration on the return trip). Before they built the NS Highway, it was even worse. How I wish they would build a high-speed railway between Singapore and Ipoh.

Himeji Castle – 23/12/1985

During my OCS days, the platoon IC had to write a quotation in the IC book. I remember writing these words from a John Lennon song; ‘Imagine no country, nothing to kill or die for’. Since then, I have embraced Christianity and my views on such things have changed. Talented as he was, John Lennon’s vision will always remain a dream, because, without the Prince of Peace, there can never be peace on this earth. And so I cannot sing, “No hell below us. Above us only sky.”

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

I Almost Conquered Gunong Brinchang

Last week I took my family on our annual ‘pilgrimage’ to Ipoh. Every year, around Christmas time, 3 families on my wife’s side; 2 from Singapore and 1 from Kuala Lumpur will gather for a ‘reunion’ in my wife’s home town, Ipoh; joining the 2 families that are there. Of course, top on the agenda is to pay respects to my aged mother-in-law. In order not to inconvenience my relatives in Ipoh, I actually bought a small terrace house in Ipoh, right next to my sister-in-law’s house in Pasir Puteh, Ipoh. In case you think I am very rich, please let me declare that the 2,100 sq ft, free-hold, corner terrace house costs only RM105,000, which in 1996 was only about the price of a COE.

While we were there, my son, who is crazy about pitcher plants, convinced us to go for a jungle walk up Gunong Brinchang, in the Cameron Highlands to look at the natural flora. So we spent 1 night in Brinchang, the highest town in Cameron Highlands and set off the following morning for our jungle walk. Of course, only the 2 families from Singapore were crazy enough to take part in the walk, which turned out to be more of a mountain climb.

The trek to the start point already tired me out!

Altogether, there were 8 of us in the team, comprising my family of 5, plus my sister-in-law and her 2 sons. The oldest member was aged 53 (yours truly) and the youngest only 12. Midway, my sister-in-law found the going too tough and gave up, and decided to stop and wait for us. When we reached about 600 m from the peak, many of us were exhausted and debated whether or not to continue because the path had become more difficult. My 15-year old son, who was the fittest in the group, being a kayaker, wanted to continue. I too did not want to give up so near the destination. Someone suggested that we split; one group to continue, and another to return to where my sister-in-law was waiting. That I absolutely forbade. I didn’t relish the idea of reading newspaper headlines that say; “2 Singapore Families Lost in the Mountains of Cameron Highlands”, or “Minister George Yeo Thanks Malaysian Government for Help in Locating Lost Singapore Families”. In the end, we made the painful decision to turn back, which turned out to be the right decision, because, by the time we reached the main road, I could hardly walk.

Although somewhat disappointed, I was quite proud that I made it thus far. What surprised me too, was that the descent turned out to be more difficult than the ascent. This was probably due to my problematic knees, which caused me to lag behind the rest.

The trip up Gunong Brinchang reminded me of a similar climb up Mt Ophir in 1980 with the Philips Recreational Club. At that time, we camped overnight on top of Mt Ophir. I remember sharing a basha with my colleague and old friend Roger Lee. As he was quite tall, his feet protruded out of the tent, and were exposed to the strong mountain winds. Throughout the night, I could feel him shivering beside me.

During this trip to Ipoh, we also got to visit a pomelo farm. We met a friendly fruit stall owner, and she happily agreed to bring us to her farm about 3 km away. It was a very good education for the kids. We met a couple of farmers who were still fit and strong despite their age. We bought some fresh vegetables from them – when I say fresh, I mean fresh from the ground. This reminded me of my kampong days. It gave me another opportunity to tell my children about life in the kampong.

During this trip, I also found time to bond with my children, especially my son. While my wife went shopping with the 2 girls, I accompanied my boy to go fishing. This time around, we managed to catch 4 fishes, as compared to last year when we ‘suffered’ together, because, whilst everyone around us caught lots of fishes, we returned empty-handed.

On the last night, we had a great time viewing old family videos; laughing at how cute the children looked a few years ago, and marveling at how much their appearance had changed. I am proud to announce that I was able put my video editing skills to good use.

I must say that although my family missed many opportunities to visit other countries due to our annual trips to Ipoh, we always had a wonderful time there. One year, we went to New Zealand instead of Ipoh. After spending a tidy sum, my children’s verdict was that they did not enjoy themselves, and much preferred Ipoh. I guess, they always looked forward to these trips because they loved to play with their cousins. The way I look at it, I should cherish the opportunities while it lasted. It is a matter of time before they grow out of it.

As it is, we were able to enjoy warm fellowship with our Malaysian relatives, and strengthen our family bonds. I thank God for the joys of family life. On occasions like this, I often wonder why young Singaporeans deliberately choose to remain single, a topic I frequently read about in Singapore blogs. (Examples here & here)

3 good reasons for marriage

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Special Effects

It’s quiz time again!

Do you know how the special effects like those below were created back in the days of black and white Hong Kong movies, when even the digital calculator did not exist?

The special effects of those days were really a far cry from what you see in today’s movies. Nevertheless, it did not stop us from having a good time at the movies. One particular scene from a Journey To The West (西游记 ) movie remains in my mind after more than 40 years. I remember nothing else about this movie except this one scene. Try to picture it. Wukong (孙悟空)and his master and Piggie are peacefully traveling on a raft on a river. Suddenly, a huge (T-rex size) hand emerges from the water behind them to grab them.

Of course the Chinese action movies those days also had very little bloodshed. The most violent scenes usually involved plunging your sword under the enemy’s armpit!

PS – Going for a break. Here’s wishing everyone a blessed Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Toys Were Us (1)

Dear friends, I am glad to report another case of increased father-son bonding as a result of this blog.

After reading my article about my kampong days, my old friend Chuck, who is in his forties, recalled the toy gun that he and his kampong buddies used to play with. Chuck used to stay at a kampong in the Hillview-Bt Panjang area, where the present Bt Gombak complex stands.

This doting dad actually spent 3 hours to rebuild his gun from memory for his 10-year old son Scott, and shared with the boy his childhood adventures in using the gun to shoot birds, lizards, dragon flies, cockroaches and all sorts of two-legged creatures. Not only that. He drove all the way from their home in Sengkang to Seletar Farmway, to harvest the 'bullets' from roadside plants which grew there(sorry still unable to identify the name of the plant).

Presenting the Scott 327– A product of love and Singaporean creativity

Later, when I had occasion to meet Scott, the kid was so proud in showing off his new toy to me; eagerly explaining to me how it worked and asking me to try it. At first, when I looked at it, I wasn’t terribly impressed. But when I tested it, I was really surprised at its effectiveness in terms of accuracy and range – you could easily fire it across the width of a basketball court and hit a human target.

Here’s how it works.

Step 1 – Pull the trigger back slightly and insert a bullet and release to grip the bullet

Step 2 – Pull back the rubber band to hook around the bullet

Step 3 – Aim and fire by pulling the trigger slowly to release the bullet

To my young friends out there. You must have heard your parents boast frequently about how creative they were in ‘inventing’ their own toys back in the old days. Well; you have just seen one example here.

I will be sharing more examples with you in future articles under the series, Toys Were Us.

Friday, December 09, 2005

What Melvyn Missed

The debate over the famous pianist rages on with several letters to the Straits Times forum page today.

Frankly, I don’t see any need to get too upset over this. I am resigned to this fact of life: The talented and gifted will always get special treatment.

Take the sportsmen for example. During my NS days (which was a very, very long time ago) the sportsmen always got excused from duty while the average Joes like me have to carry the extra load. I suspect it is no different today.

I am reminded of my time as platoon commander in one of the combat engineer companies in 30 SCE back in the 70’s. Both my CSM and Coy 2IC were sportsmen. As such, we hardly ever saw them. (Although the CSM did occasionally appear out of nowhere and made his presence felt by screaming at the Coy HQ staff, and putting a couple of store men on charge and then disappearing unnoticed. Reminds me of this line from the famous poem, Sohrab and Rustum, “Like the lightning to this field I come, and like the wind I go away”) My OC was one of those, shall I put it delicately, ‘trusting type’ who left things pretty much to us. So the company was mostly run by the 3 platoon commanders, all NS 2LTs; which was a bit of a surprise to me – I thought the career soldiers should be much more ‘on’ than us NS boys.

Things got so bad that one day, one of my men, who was on guard duty asked me; Sir, you kena take (extra duty) is it? No. I replied. Why do you say that? Oh; because I always see you on duty; if not DO then standby PC. Sigh.

I know of someone who had a brilliant strategy to take advantage of the army’s high regard for sportsmen. Even though he was never much of a sportsman in school, once he got into army uniform, he became an outstanding sportsman overnight, specializing in one sport after another – depending on which sport was in season. As such, he spent a large chunk of his NS stint staying out of camp. Also, he was on good terms with some of the players in his team, who were themselves captains of other sports teams. Thus, he was able to become a reserve in sports that he knew nothing about; such as boxing. Every time there was a boxing match, he prayed harder than the officer-in-charge for the welfare of the regular boxers. Once his badminton team worn a championship and he went to his Bn CO and asked for 3 days off as a reward for his team members. “2 days. Take it or leave it”, countered the wise commander. He reluctantly took it ……. and then proceeded to see his Bn 2IC and got another day off.

The same applied of course to the talented singers and dancers. I heard some of them never even got to put on an army uniform, let alone carry a rifle and charge up Pengkang Hill. I heard that one of them even became a famous director or something.

Well; back to the average Joes. What can I say? It’s like that one lah. Just grin and bear with it lor; and tell yourself, “I have done my part. I don’t care about others. (Your friend here didn’t get to ROD until age 50 ok). Don’t begrudge the famous pianist. Just think of all the wonderful things that he missed; such as:

1. Blogging about the good old army daze.

2. Gazing at the beautiful lights of Jurong town in the still of the night from Tower 1 of Safti Magazine (the old Safti, now called Pasir Laba Camp – how I detest the government always changing the names of places and established institutions) and contemplating the meaning of life.

3. Gazing at the beautiful lights of Johor Bahru in the still of the night from Hill 180 in Marsiling (they didn’t change the name of that one; they simply bulldozed it away) and contemplating the meaning of life.

4. Watching beautiful tracers* skim the surface of Sarimbun Reservoir during night life firing, chased by their reflections in water below.

5. Trying to follow the path of the 155 artillery shell as it hurtles over a highway to the hill on the other side, in ROC (Taiwan).

6. Seeing many places that most Singaporeans never saw, nor will ever see; from the sand pits of Tampines, to the kampongs of Hong Kah, Bt Batok, Bt Panjang, Marsiling and Kranji.

7. Sleep-walking in a mine field (with dummy mines of course).

8. Sleeping in a flooded foxhole on a rainy night, after trying in vain to bale out the water with your helmet. At least nowadays, if I have difficulty sleeping at night, I can think of that foxhole - definitely beats counting sheep.

9. Buying hot coffee, fried bee hoon and other wonderful snacks from the village lasses in Sungei Gedong at midnight. (I hope my son’s canoeing team buddies read this blog. Maybe now they will understand why WN’s father is such a cheapskate – always like to buy those cheap chocolate wafers.)

10. Last but not least, seeing Lee Hsien Loong clear rubbish in PT kit.
* A tracer is a bullet that gives out light when it leaves the barrel. So you can actually see the path the bullet travels in the dark.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Quiz Time Again (Only those below 30 can take part)

Can you tell me the name of these seeds and their uses?

Hint: Long before some of you were born, we already had Counter Strike.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Homework Assignment

Hi to all students who happen to read this blog. Since you guys are on holiday and quite free, maybe I do your parents a favour a give you an assignment.

In my previous article I mentioned 2 things.

1) 693 powder
2) Ti-tan-heok

How about you guys doing some research about these 2 items and educate the rest of us with your findings?

Deadline is Friday - if no takers, then I remove this posting.

Thank you.

Aiyah - not necessarily students. Anyone who knows the answer can take part. (Pls don't ask for prizes hor)

Sunday, December 04, 2005


Cuts, bruises, falls, bee stings and scalds were quite common place when we were kids. Today, I would like to share about some of the not so pleasant stuff that happened to us as kids - accidents. I want to issue a warning though. Many of the things that we did in the name of fun were downright stupid. To the kids out there: DON’T EVER TRY THIS; AT HOME OR ANYWHERE ELSE!

The most common injuries were stepping on broken glass bottles. Apparently, there were quite a lot of broken bottles lying around. How they got there I have no idea. Kampong kids our time liked to run around bare-footed. So it was inevitable that we occasionally stepped on broken glass (as well as pig dung which was also in plentiful supply because we had a neighbour who reared pigs and let them roam around). When that happens, of course our mother would do the bandaging using gauze and iodine. Sometimes, she would grind a white tablet called ‘luk-kou-sum’ in Cantonese or 693, into a powder to apply to the wound together with yellow lotion. But I believe it was a kind of anti-bacterial medicine.

Occasionally we also stepped on thumb tacks when we walked around the house barefooted. How on earth could thumb tacks be lying around so that kids can step on them, you may wonder. Truth is; I am not sure. What I am sure about is the pain that it caused. My own suspicion is that, it had to do with the rugs that we used to cover the wooden floors in the house, and these were held down by thumb tacks.

We also had a couple of pretty serious accidents. Regrettably they all seemed to happen to my younger brother Chun Meng. There was this one occasion when my older brother Chun Seong and I were playing with an empty condensed milk can. I don’t know what got into our heads to play such a stupid game. We were tossing it back and forth when Meng happened to get into the line of fire. He suffered a nasty cut on head. The culprit who threw the can was not me.

An even more serious accident happened to him when Seong and I played with spears which we made from the spine of attap leaves. We sharpened one end and hurled them at pile of freshly plucked coconuts. If you look at the photographs that I posted in the earlier article on Our Kampong, you would have seen that there were lots of coconut trees in our kampong. Many of them actually belonged to us. Once or twice a year, buyers will come around with sharp scythes tied to long bamboo poles to harvest the coconuts. It really was an amazing sight. We liked to watch if the coconuts would fall the workers’ heads. The plucked coconuts were then stacked into a tidy pile of maybe a couple of hundred to await other workers to come and de-husk them.

This was another interesting process. It’s a bit hard to describe but I try. Basically, they embed a huge knife in the ground with the blade pointing upwards to about the groin height. The workers, wearing leather aprons will then slam a coconut into the blade and push the coconut downward and forward with both hands to remove the husk in one swift motion. This they repeated swiftly and with great skill until all the husk is removed. Subsequently a lorry will arrive to load up the de-husked coconuts. One guy is stationed on top of the lorry while his partner will toss the coconuts 2 at a time up to him, which he caught with practised ease. We kaypoh kids would stand around to help in the counting to make sure that we did not get cheated. Then they would pay our parents and drive off.

So there we were, Seong and I, throwing our sharp spears at the pile of freshly plucked coconuts, and our younger brother Meng was happily seated on top of the pile. Unfortunately, my elder brother’s aim was not so good (remember the tin can?) and his spear hit Meng on the left thigh. We will never forget the sight of the spear dangling from the poor kid’s thigh. Nowadays, we occasionally joke that if the spear had landed a couple of inches higher, today we would have 1 niece and 1 nephew less.

Another accident that took place at our house happened to our cousin Chee Keong. The guy was climbing up our guava tree to pluck guavas. Lost his footing and had a nasty fall. We learned a couple of lessons from his misfortune. One, we learned the meaning of the ‘chim’ word “dislocation” because he suffered a dislocated shoulder (or was it elbow?). We also learned what a cast looked like when he returned from hospital. Anyway, that accident did not prevent him from getting an econs degree and subsequently rising to become a top dog at PSA.

Finally let me tell you about the time my brother Chun Seong stepped on a rusty nail. One night, we decided to sneak out of the house, he and I, to follow some of the other kampong boys to catch crickets at a deserted house nearby. It was very dark, and we had to use torch lights to hunt for the insects. Suddenly he gave a yell, and on examination, we found that he had stepped on a rusty nail which penetrated right through his rubber slippers. We were in a dilemma because we did not dare to tell my mother for fear of getting a thrashing. Fortunately, there was a budding doctor in our midst. He told us to use the slippers to slap the sole of the foot to dissipate the ‘poison’; and then to bandage the wound with ‘ti tan heok’ or iron-nail leaves in Hokkien. I believe the correct name for the plant is (落地生根), you know the type where, if you toss a leaf to the ground, days later, many small plants will grow from the edge of the leaf. I don’t know which hospital the kid is now practicing in, but his treatment apparently worked, and today, my brother Chun Seong is happily enjoying his retirement in that beautiful country down under.

There were many other accidents here and there and most of us have the scars to prove it; but I have only selected a few of the most dramatic ones for mention here. Maybe my brothers, on reading this blog may be able to add some more details.

My brother Meng who suffered because of our stupidity with me
(holding the Kodak Brownie camera case)

My brother Seong, who can’t aim straight trying to light a fire-cracker. Behind him is our durian tree.