Wednesday, July 12, 2006

John Harper Remembers Singapore - Part 5: Shopping

Singapore is and always has been a shop till you drop place. You can probably find goods from all over the world in Singapore. I can remember spending hours in Changi village just looking at the wares that were on offer. I found the plastic ornaments that mimicked ivory really absorbing. There were fishermen, rickshaws, fish, shells and animals. I have to admit to spending some of my pocket money on some of these items. They were used as gifts for my parents. To this day I do not really know whether they liked them or not. When we moved to Yorkshire they ended up stored in boxes because building work was going on. They never did resurface and to this day they are still boxed up as there is building work going on in my own house. I wonder if they might have accumulated some antique value yet as they were purchased in the late nineteen fifties. I do sometimes open the boxes and look at and I do still like them.

Carved wooden items from Bali were another favourite. I think that the wood was teak and we bought several pieces. My favourite piece was the head of a Balinese dancer complete with amazing head-dress. After my parents died, my youngest brother took the piece along with a carved camphor chest. Since his death, the pieces have returned to me and unfortunately because of the building work I have nowhere to display the items. Now that the front room has been finished and decorated we now have the camphor chest in the front room. It really is a magnificent piece of furniture

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Behind the Wayang in Changi Village, there was a produce market with a whole host of vegetables, fruit, meat and fish. We often used to go down there to get squid or prawns to use as fishing bait. We would buy a half Katy of squid and it would last for several days fishing. At the end of each day we would wrap the squid up in newspaper and stash it behind the cricket screens and collect it the following day. As each day wore on the smell got stronger but the bait seemed to work better.

When we lived at Lloyd Leas, the general shop owned by Keng Wah Heng was just up the road and so my brothers and I would often be sent to get a few things from the shop. It was usually something like packets of Weet Bix and cans of dried milk that would have to be reconstituted for use with the breakfast cereal. The shop was an amazing place with tables outside if you wanted to have a cold drink. Then inside there was all manner of goods for sale from battery operated toys plus the batteries that you would need to operate them, ice cream, soft drinks, canned and dried goods. There was also a craze for knotted items done with coloured nylon fishing line. An amazing range of items was available from small birds, fish, dogs, cats and I recall seeing a model of a rickshaw with a man pulling it made of this nylon line. Keng Wah Heng was always dressed in navy blue shorts and a white aertex style sleeveless vest. His feet were always bare except if he went out from the shop when he would put on a pair of flip flops. Naturally enough, my very first pair of flip flops came from his shop. It took me about two weeks to get used to them and to harden up the skin between my toes so they didn’t hurt when they rubbed. It wasn’t too long before wearing flip flops was second nature to me and I would dash in from School throw off the sandals and white socks and on would go the flip flops.

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A 1960’s photo of Changi Village; courtesy of (Memories of Singapore)

Changi Village was a mass of interesting shops. I remember furniture, from inexpensive rattan to more expensive teak and I think next door to them was a shop that sold model aeroplane kits, both plastic and the Keil Kraft balsa jobs. You could also buy lengths of balsa wood, tissue glue and doping resin to build something to your own design or from printed plans that they also sold. If memory serves me correctly, the grocery store in the village was called Jong Fat. One day a week, one of the restaurants made curry puffs and I would be despatched to go and buy some each week after we had moved to Wittering Road just round the corner from Changi Village. Opposite the Police Station was the Newsagent and Bookshop called Abdul Gaffer. Like all shops in the village it was loaded to the rafters with magazines, comics, newspapers and books. On a recent visit, as far as I could tell, Abdul Gaffers was no longer there and in its place, there is an eating place called “The Airfield”. There was a place with this name just round the corner opposite the transit hotel. There was a photographer in this building and I remember my brothers and I having to sit for a formal photograph that could be sent to relatives living in Canada.

For me the most amazing shopping expedition was when we caught a Changi Bus into the city. We got on at the top of the road from Lloyd Leas on the corner near the entrance to Changi Prison. The bus got more and more crowded the closer we got to the city, until there was standing room only. There were passengers hanging out of the doors and I was amazed as we went round a bend on a hill as these passengers swung with the momentum out over the drop down the hill. When we arrived in the city, we went first to the Union Jack Club for a cup of tea for my mother and Coca Cola for us boys. We then got into a taxi and drove around the city. It was an amazing experience with the driver shooting in out of different lanes at breakneck speeds and the horn blaring all the time. Traffic in Singapore nowadays seems better regulated and a lot less pushy. Eventually we ended up at Robinsons department store where we were glad to leave the taxi. This seemed to be the biggest department store I had ever seen in my life with department after department bulging with stock to be sold. It was time for another treat, more Coca Cola and this time some really posh cake with soft gooey icing that had to be eaten with a fork. This was new to me as we always ate cake at home by picking slices up with our fingers!

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Raffles Place in 1959. Collection of National Archives of Singapore

As we walked around the city I was amazed at the variety of shops. The aroma of the city was quite different as well with a mix of spices, rotting rubbish in the monsoon drains, dried fish, sisal rope and the acrid smell of lubricating oils. Passing over the Singapore River in those days you would see Junks stretching from one side to the other. The water would also be full of rubbish and have a strong unpleasant smell. I’m sure Terry Pratchett must have used it as the inspiration for the River Ankh in Ankh Morpork in his Discworld series.

When we moved to Tengah, shopping was mostly done at the NAAFI on the base apart from the grocery deliveries that came from the city. The village at Tengah was very small with only about six shops. One where we used to buy firecrackers, a tailor shop and I think there was also a barbershop. In some ways it was a bit of a disappointment after the bustle of Changi Village. Some years later I visited a tailor in Batu Ferringhi on Penang and the tailor there, Vishnu, was the son of the tailor in Tengah village. He had come to Batu Ferringhi via the Australian Air Force base at Butterworth.

Shopping in those days was a lot of fun and a lot less antiseptic than today’s experiences in the shopping Malls.

.................. to be continued

Footnote: I wonder if John and his friends know that Robinson’s at Raffles Place was destroyed by a huge fire in 1972. I also read in Wikipedia that Robinson’s was the first departmental store in Singapore to be fully air-conditioned. – Lam Chun See

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Collection of National Archives of Singapore


Lionel Tan said...

wah! so people at that time...want to blow by aircon went there? or...enter it need to pay entry fee?!?!

Lam Chun See said...

Actually those days Robinson's was a very 'high class' place and not any old kampong kid dare to walk in and enjoy the air-con. I remember going there once in the 60's with my brothers, and they laughed at my 'swaku-ness' when I remarked that I never been to such a high class place before.

It was only in JC before I experienced my first trip in my friend's air-con car. The cool air came out from 2 vents (like those in air plane) behind the rear passenger seats.

And pls don't ask me when I first travelled in a plane or put on a suit.

Anonymous said...

Robinson's was a nice place to visit to see the toys. The best time was Christmas. There was this electric train set which they put up as a static display. It had models of plastic houses, minature people and even plastic grass.

I loved it so much and begged my father to get one for me. He said: "No Son. Too expensive. Better go and study hard". The price then was S$50 and I was just about 8 years old then. And so I went to search for the agent (distributor) who brought in the train set to Singapore. I found the company called TV Mitchel & Co down at Boat Quay (the demolished building just before Elgin Bridge). Too bad, I got no budget because I knew my father would not pay. So I settle for the brochures and everyday I would dream about the toys and how SDanta Clause would make my dream come true.

The last time I saw the train set was when 15 years ago. I was in Brisbane Australia. This time no problem. I wipped out my credit card and signed for S$1,000 worth of Fleishmann trains (opps.... did I get the spelling correct?). The price I paid was only the "Starter Kit" menaing it was a basic set and you needed to add "extras". It was a gift for my son. When we came home father & son played the train set.

Every Christmas when we put up the Christmas tree we have this Fleishmann train set runing around the place. It is about 10 feet in length with rail bridges, steam and diesel locomotives, mail wagons, carbuz, sidings, stations, signal junctions, etc. Total Cost $5,000 and still going on.

Then my mind goes back to the day I saw this train set at ROBINSON'S down at Raffles Place.......yesterday it was only a dream but it took 40 years to turn that dream into reality.

Last week I walked into Specialist Center and saw this model shop selling all sorts of train sets. I overhead a conversation from a man to his son. "No cannot buy. Go and study hard".

Lam Chun See said...

Peter. Thanks for that heart-warming story. Your father's words remind me of this proverb my mother used to tell us (in Cantonese):书中自有黄金屋,书中自有颜 如玉。 - hope I got the words right.

Translated: Within books, one can find houses of gold. Within books, one can find ladies fair as jade.

Hmm .. 8 years old. Wouldn't that be about the time that John was in Spore?

Anonymous said...

Yes, Robinson used to be a high-class departmental store, but gradually it immerses into the local shopping scene. In the early seventies, when I got married, I was pleasantly surprised that the suit my younger brother who bought it from Robinson's looked much better than my custom-made one. It was a case where the best-man outshone the bride-groom. Worse, his olive-green suit cost much lesser than mine.

Anonymous said...

I was googling Robinson's fire and got this. I was one of the lucky ones to escape the Robinson's department fire. My parents took us kids there when we were kids on the day of the fire. All I can remember as a 5 year old kid was that we rushed out and escaped. The next day my parents told us how lucky we were to have escaped such a tradegy. I remembered my mom telling me that there were people trapped in the elevator that died. I saw the destroyed building a day later and you can imagine how shocked I was as a 5 year old.

We immigrated to England a few years after that. I now live in United States.

Anonymous said...

Hi to all,

I am a new employee with Robs, and has just recently completed the orientation class with Robs. We were, of course, briefed about the history of Robs at Raffles Place. My trainer was quoted saying "Back then, 95% of the customers came in to enjoy the air-con, only 5% were here to buy." In the early days, Robs don't collect any fees for visiting the store, with or without air-con. And today, we still continue to have train sets in our Toy departments and Trims decorations for the Christmas season.

Merry merry X'mas to all!