Thursday, July 20, 2006

Kampong Life (4) - Charcoal Irons


I was pleasantly surprised to see this old iron when I visited my mother-in-law in Ipoh recently. I wonder how many of you have seen one of these. Before electricity came to our kampong, my mother used to iron our clothes with this type of iron.
Do you know how it functions? It’s quite simple really. Just unhook the catch, open the lid and put in red-hot charcoal. Then close the lid, fasten the catch and wait for the iron to heat up.


How about the water-sprayer? Have you seen this one before? If you visit the Chinatown Heritage Centre you will be able to see one like this.


But do you know that there is one even simpler than this. It looks like the pepper container that you often see in the hawker centres.


But wait - there is yet another even less high-tech than this one - do you know what it look like? Give up? Just look at your own fingers lor.

Those days, our school shirts were made of cotton and were uncomfortable and crumbled easily. In the sixties, synthetic materials (like tetoron, rayon ???) started to make their appearance. Some of the richer kids in our school started to wear such shirts. If my memory serves me right, initially there were some rules against this. I remember, in Sec 4 (1968) I too started to wear such shirts and they definitely more comfortable.

Speaking of shirts, my brothers and I; our favourite brand was Lifting. We used to buy from a ground floor shop at People's Park Complex.

But back to the topic of irons. Talking about ironing clothes will certainly remind the guys about their good old NS (national service) days. Oh how we hated Sunday nights when we had to return to camp early to iron our uniforms and polish our boots for drill or muster parade the next day. I still remember our first few days as recruits when our section commander taught us how to do the thousand-and-one tiresome chores such as ironing our uniforms ‘until it can stand’, polishing our boots ‘until can see your face’, pasting mahjong paper on our wooden lockers, and then spraying water on it to make it stretch on drying etc etc. Just thinking about those days when we learned all those survival tricks; how to go to ‘Safticana’ to purchase ‘Quick starch’ and WD40 (for cleaning rifles - we were not supposed to use this – but everyone does it anyway), brasso for polishing our bayonet buckles etc etc, is enough to give one nightmares. It seems as if our meagre $90 allowance was not even enough to purchase all these extras. But I am proud to say, I actually had enough left over to give $40 to my mother each month.


Talking about all those torturous days, I am reminded of our crazy (that is the mildest adjective I can think of) CO or commanding officer, at Officer Cadet School. During the dreaded CO parade, he actually inspected the metal studs at the bottom of our drill boots for rust. Those who were unlucky enough to be picked practically had no chance of escaping punishment. Sometimes, he even asked cadets how many buttons they had on their shirts!!! Can you believe that? And this guy was so ‘wuliao’ that on Sunday nights, he actually went to Beauty World at Bukit Timah 7th mile, where many officer cadets waited for their buses or taxis to return to Safti, and tried to catch those who did not put on their ties!!!

I said it before, and I say it again. I am so glad such dinosaurs are no longer around to bully our children these days. On the other hand, I could be wrong. They may have simply evolved into an even more fearsome species – I am thinking here of course of those commando instructors who tortured one trainee to death a few years ago.

I was quite sceptical when someone told me recently that army boys nowadays do not need to iron their uniforms or polish their boots. For the purpose of writing this article, I checked with one NS boy in my church the other day and he told me this was not true. They still had to iron their No. 3’s and polish their drill boots although not to the extent that we did in those pre-historic days. Yes; some things never change do they?

Those were the days my friend,
We thought they’d never end …..


Anonymous said...

Well, coming from about the same age group, I can certainly remember when we were enlisted in the year 1970, some of our instructors were regular/career personnel who took pride in giving us the new recruits a real hard time.

I believe some of the treatments were quite unreasonable and over the top, but there is always some value in everything, and we just need to pick the best out of every situation. I have gain from some of the experience received, like 5BX at 4:30 a.m. Stand-by-bed at 11:00 p.m. and Change-Parade in the rain. I certainly learned that almost nothing is impossible, and if the next guy can do it, so can I.

Victor said...

What? No settings for 'cotton', 'rayon', 'polyester' and 'silk' on the iron? And no steam but only ashes? I don't know how to use such an iron.

Lam Chun See said...

Victor, you have to read the instruction manual!

Anonymous said...

I am luckier than Alex... My 5BX starts at 6am and my latest stand by bed is 10 pm. No change parade in the rain, but certainly gone through it in the hot sun. I learnt ironing during my army days and will iron my own cloths even now if my wife is busy. This is something positive learnt in the army.....

Chris Sim said...

Funny you shoud label the CO as a dinosaur. The artefacts you showcased here such as the iron and water spray are really "dinosaurs" in their own right. Agreed? :P

From artefacts to army life... woa Chun See, welcome back to a blog that's is truly "Good morning yesterday". Hahaha..

We live the life we choose. We thought we'd never loose. Those were the days, oh yes those were the days!

Victor said...

And was that you cleaning the rifle in that photo, Chun See? You obviously didn't read the camp instructions yourself. Nowadays you could be charged for bringing a camera into the camp and taking photos of camp activities and surroundings some more. said...

I think the COs nowadays (at least in my time) had better things to do, seriously. I would admit my NS days were less "siong" than previous batches and I think it's natural that each batch will compare that subsequent intakes are more and more "welfare". Maybe we ought to start a "Army Days" series of posts at

fr said...

I remember my mother using the iron. I think you have to fan the iron once in a while to make the charcoal glow hotter.

Francis Ho said...

Thanks for doing a fantastic job of keeping these memories alive!

I salute you Sir! :)

Anonymous said...

Yes wearing shirts made of synthetic fibres was a rage at that time, only for a brief period. The advantage was that it was easy to wash and dry, no ironing needed. The big turn-off was that it trapped one's body heat making the wearer feeling uncomfortable. Hence it's back to the wearer-friendly cotton apparels which lasts up to today.

Anonymous said...

Have you ever wondered the Changi Prisoner outfit was same (color and design) as our SAF PT Kit in the 70s?

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