Sunday, August 31, 2008

More than 1 type of kampong in Singapore

My young friend PY of Oceanskies 79 once wrote an article about her visit to Sentosa where she learned about kampong life in Singapore in the old days. I pointed out to her that what she learned was essentially about a Malay kampong. Chinese kampongs like the one I grew up in were quite different actually. Come to think of it, not only were Chinese kampongs different from Malay kampongs, among the Chinese kampongs there were differences too. So I take this opportunity to tell you what I know was different. I consulted my good friend Chuck who grew up in the Hillview area next to a Malay kampong in nearby Bukit Gombak.

First of all there are the games. I believe that the games played by the Malay kids and us were quite different. In PY’s article, she mentioned games like gasing and congkak. But as you have probably read from my articles (you can click on the label Toys Were Us on the right side to read these articles) the games we played were quite different.

There were also a number of things in a Chinese kampong that you would not find in a Malay kampong. These were usually related to the difference in religious faiths; Malays being mostly Muslims. For example, in a Chinese kampong like Lorong Kinchir which I grew up in, pigs roaming freely was a common sight. Another thing which was mandatory in a Chinese kampong was the Tua Pek Kong temple and wayang stage. Depending on the size of the kampong, the size of these two features also tended to be different. During the Lunar 7th Month, opera shows would be performed. I have blogged about this before here.

This is what a kampong where pig-rearing was carried out looked like. Hard to believe that this was Singapore just one generation ago eh? Photo courtesy of Memories of Singapore

A typical Malay kampong house in old Singapore.

Another thing we had was the Chinese Medicine Shop. Practically all Chinese kampongs had one of these. Today, they are still a common sight in our HDB heartlands. Another thing I can think of is the village school. In our kampong, we had a small Chinese school called Chong Boon School (崇文). I spent one year there in fact doing primary one. But later I went to primary one again, but this time in an English school. In those days, they were not particular about ages and so even though I did two years of primary one, I was not over-age.

As I said before, even among the Chinese kampongs there were differences. This was mainly due to differences in economic activity. For example, compared to our closest neighbour which was Potong Pasir, we had more fish ponds whilst they had a lot of vegetable farms. We also had quite a bit of rubber estates. especially towards the Thomson end of Lorong Kinchir. Potong Pasir was to our south and separated from us by Braddell Road. It was mainly a Cantonese area. We used to refer to it as San Par. You can see some photos of the ponds of Lorong Chuan here.

To our west, was Kampong San Teng which is called Bishan today. They too were a Cantonese area and we referred to them as Pek San Teng (Pek San is the Cantonese pronunciation for Bishan). We were separated from them by the Kallang River. I am not sure about the economic activity in Kampong San Teng. What I do know is that they had a lot of cemeteries; and every Qing Ming we would go there for the ‘grave sweeping’ exercise.

I think the population of Kampong San Teng must have been considerably bigger than ours. As such their temple was much bigger and their annual wayang festival was a much bigger affair. My sister and mother used to go there to watch the Cantonese operas. But as far as the rest of us were concerned, the chief attraction of Kampong San Teng was the open air cinema called South Country Theatre (南国戏院) where we enjoyed many hours of watching black and white Cantonese movies. But I suddenly recall one English title. It is Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Please don’t ask me what was so special about this movie. I remember next to nothing about it. I think it was a cowboy comedy. My older brother Chun Chew (Zen) might remember more.

In case you are wondering what an open-air theatre looked like, here's a photo of one in Somapah Village from the collection of the National Archives of Singapore.

Well I hope this short article helps to enlighten my young friends a little about the kampongs that your parents grew up in. Below are some photos from the Lam family album.

Photo of me (right) and my younger brother James. On the left is the pond where we caught our fighting fish. Do you see our dog behind us (butt facing camera).

1951 photo of my mother carrying my elder brother David. I was not born yet. The fish pond like this one was very common in Lorong Kinchir and Lorong Chuan area. So were the coconut trees which helped to bring in some income for us.

You can see more photos of bona fide Singapore kampong scenes at these websites:

Friday, August 29, 2008

Kampong Buangkok Videos

In one of my earlier articles, I mentioned that young Singaporeans simply have no idea what life in a kampong in the old Singapore was like. Well I have some good news. You can catch a glimpse of kampong life in Singapore from the videos below.

Last year, I was approached by three young ladies from the Nanyang Technological University's School of Communication and Information. They were doing a final project on Singapore’s last kampong at Buangkok and as part of their research, they wanted to speak to guys like me who had experienced life in a kampong in Singapore. I roped in my friends Chuck Hio and Peh Seng Ket to speak to the girls.

Good thing I still have their contact and I asked them to put their videos on YouTube to share with you. Altogether there are three videos. Here they are.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Thank you Ms Sarina Md Rasol, Dayanna Md Tahir and Wong Po Fong for sharing your videos with us.

Monday, August 25, 2008

My Grandfather – Tessa Mitchell

My paternal grandfather, Lewis Williams, lived and worked in Singapore in the early years of the 20th century. He was employed by a company called Topham, Jones and Railton and worked in Singapore from about 1911 until about 1930. Topham, Jones and Railton were the civil engineering firm who built the King’s and Queen’s Docks and in 1922 began building the causeway linking Singapore to Johor Bahru.

Recently I was going through some photographs in my late Mother’s belongings and came across two large photographs from my grandfather of the newly built causeway in 1924. These have now been donated to National Archives of Singapore.

Causeway from North

Causeway from South

My father, Frank Ivor Williams, was born in Swansea, but spent his early years with his parents in Singapore. His younger brother, my Uncle Idris, was born in Singapore. Both boys were sent home to the UK at the age of seven or eight, only seeing their parents on their occasional ‘home leave’. Here is a photograph of my father at an early age with his Amah which is dated 3rd March 1911.

Photo of my grandparents

I know very little about my grandparents’ life in Singapore. My grandfather died in 1948 and although my grandmother lived until the early 1960s she did not talk about her past. I think life in Singapore must have been very luxurious in comparison to their later days. They lived in Cliff House (where my uncle Idris was born), a very large and well appointed house on Bukit Chermin Road between the Keppel golf links and Chermin Way. The house is still there and is now owned by the Port of Singapore Authority (PSA) who rent it out. It is apparently not possible to see the house from the road but it can be seen, situated above an oil jetty, from the north west corner of Sentosa. Here is a recent picture of the house taken from the sea.

View of Cliff House viewed from the sea. Photo courtesy of Peter Chan, 2007.

My cousin Martin visited Singapore in 1993 or 94 and was lucky enough to be shown around the house as it was between tenancies. He particularly noted the large and airy size of the rooms – one way to keep cool before the days of air conditioning. Here is a picture of the front of the house taken on that visit.

Photo of Cliff House car port. Photo courtesy of Martin Williams, 1994.

Later my grandparents moved to a large bungalow in Johor Bahru – close to the construction of the causeway. Here is a photo of my grandmother in front of that house.

After work on the causeway my grandfather worked on a geological survey for the new naval base at Sembawang and then on a hydro-electric dam project in Perak.
My family, my sister, Susan Tessier, my cousin Martin Williams and myself have very few artefacts from my grandparent’s life in Singapore. They lived a peripatetic life moving to various engineering projects and were bombed out of their home whilst living in Portsmouth in the 1940s. We have a few water colours of tropical scenes (my grandfather was also a water colourist) and among a few other photographs, this one dated 25th September 1922, of my grandparents and friends swimming at Pulau Ubin.

We also have a mahjong set, some bits of china and a big brass bowl but little else.

I shall be visiting Singapore in mid March 2009 with my husband Brian Mitchell who has also contributed to this blog. He will be looking for memories of his time there as a teenager in the 1960s and I will be looking for those long lasting signs of my grandfather’s time in Singapore – the causeway and Cliff House.

Tessa Mitchell

** More pictures of Cliff House here.

Friday, August 22, 2008

King’s Theatre @ Tiong Bahru

Although I know very little about the Tiong Bahru area, I am familiar with the King’s Theatre at Kim Tian Road. In the early 70’s when Taiwanese movies were a big hit, my older siblings, especially my elder sister and their friends were quite fond of watching this genre of romantic dramas. I used to tag along. Please bear in mind that in those days, we had no internet, no colour tv, no computer games - no pc in fact - and thus the most popular past time for young people was going to the movies.

The most popular of these mushy (picture boy in bell bottoms, girl with long hair running slow motion on beach with romantic song in background) movies were based on stories by a very famous Taiwanese novelist by the name of Qiong Yau (琼瑶). These movies usually starred the most famous Taiwanese actors of the day. The two male names that come to my mind are Alan Tang and Chin Siang Lin. There was a very popular actress but I cannot recall her name. At one time she was married to Patrick Tse Hsien.

One movie that I remember seeing in King’s was 一帘幽梦. Like most of such movies of that era, it had popular movie theme song. I think this one was written by the very famous song writer 劉家昌. I can’t remember the singer though. I don’t particularly like this song actually, but somehow, it sticks to my mind. I do like many of 劉家昌’s other songs; such as 爱的天地, 我家在那里 and this one which became a Taiwanese ‘National Day song’ - 梅花。Come to think of it, maybe I enjoyed the songs more than the movies. One other movie theme song which I liked was 在水一方 which was sung by the famous Theresa Teng.

Fig 1: This is a 1955 photo of King’s Theatre is from the National Archives collection.

Fig 2: The is a picture of a cinema ticket dated 1960. Notice the price of $1 and the words; “In aid of National Theatre Fund”. I believe this is not a normal ticket for a movie but maybe some kind of fund-raising concert. The J23 refers to the seat number. The Chinese words in those days were all 繁体。

When I was older and had my own car, I accompanied my parents and their friends to King’s occasionally. Like the theatres in nearby Queenstown or the Imperial theatre that I blogged about earlier, King’s Theatre is no more. I don’t know in which year it was demolished, but it must be in the 80’s because I could see it in my 1981 but not in my 1993 street directory. On the site where it once stood, they are building another ‘Plaza’.

Whenever I pass by this area, I remember the King’s Theatre.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

“Tiong Ma-Lu” as the Cantonese would say (Part 2) – By Peter Chan

It was a strange phenomenon to see that every corner shop was a coffee-shop or a provision-shop except the one at the corner of Seng Poh Road and Eng Hoon Street. I recalled it was run by an English-educated shop-keeper who had a wife who was always heavily made-up with Elizabeth Arden cosmetics, bright red lipstick and dressed in a tight-fitting frock. Her husband sold sweets in big glass jars and office stationery. Next door was Kamy, the only music shop that sold cartridges, cassettes and single-records. It was here that I bought my first cartridge “The Carpenters” album. Further down Seng Poh Road was “Majid” and Yuen Cheong Provision Shop. Majid was Indian and the only shop selling fabrics such as Swiss Voile and was popular with Tai-Tais who came in chauffeur-driven Chevrolets, the Flamingo Night Club hostesses in Great World and the ladies who walked to the Seng Poh Road Wet Market. There was also a ladies hair-perm saloon and a dress-making shop on that street. If I am not wrong, Roland Chow, the famous hair stylist first started as a small saloon at Seng Poh Road. In terms of medical facilities, there was a Kwa Clinic; perhaps one of two clinics on Seng Poh Road.

For good reasons, property values vary between streets. Eng Hoon Street being more “commercial” earned a premium. Eng Watt Street was quieter and became homes of kept mistresses. Brighter academic students came from Moh Guan Terrace. If you check around, past government scholars and famous doctors came from Moh Guan Terrace. Tiong Poh Road boasted of fine artistes from educators to musicians. Even MM Lee’s wife, Madam Kwa Geok Choo was from the pre-war SIT flats. I guess the story should be very different today.

Fig 1: Hock Lee Bus #3 passed through Tiong Bahru Road from Outram Road. The building in the background is a boutique hotel today

Hock Lee Bus #6 served this estate from the Chulia Street terminus. I often waited at the Tiong Poh Road bus-stop for my grandfather because he brought home “The Malay Mail” newspaper, the English comics section was fantastic. The other bus-stops I believe were at Moh Guan Terrace in front of the Tiong Bahru School, Yong Siak Street after Bo Bo Tan Garden, Seng Poh Road (opposite Seng Poh Lane), and Kim Pong Road where there was a POSB branch. I knew this bus route very well because I went by bus with my grandfather to attend the Chinese night school at the Ning Yuen Wei Kun premises; Great Eastern Life Building today. For me, the fun began not in the classroom but behind Poh San Dance Studio. There was a small stream to cross and it required a fine balance with out-stretched hands on a narrow plank to get to Outram Road.

Fig 2: The open space between Block 59 and Block 66. Yours truly at the age of 3 years is standing at the spot which is now the red concrete steps. The car garages are now restaurants or catering kitchens. Block 82 Tiong Poh Road’s favorite red-brick façade as captured by photograhers can be seen in the leftmost photo

There were a few open spaces for play. The car park between Blocks 59 and 66 at Seng Poh Lane was a small playground with swings and slides at both ends. It was not elevated as it is now. Blocks 60 – 67 were car garages. Often I saw trishaw-riders at the car garages taking their breaks to play “Chiki” or smoked that long-awaited hand-rolled cigarette. The residents from Eng Hoon Street, Eng Watt Street and Tiong Poh Road had to compete for space; sometimes football was played in the midst of an archery game. Kite-flying was done on the roof-top of the post-war SIT flats at Lim Liak Street. Otherwise we walked over to the University of Singapore Medical School sports field next to the MacCalister Flats. Before the CTE acquired parts of the sports field, we walked through Keng Kiat Street, a route also taken by the Malaysian medical students who rented rooms in the pre-war SIT flats. We dare not go further to another sports field nearer to Jalan Bukit Merah because there was a Malay cemetery there.

I believe the Tiong Bahru pre-war SIT flats will stay the full course of its 99-year tenancy from 1967 because it is classified as a heritage site. Except for the block numbers which get me confuse, I prefer to reference the place by street names.

Fig 3: The original opaque olive glass was provided by the SIT (circa 1939). This type of glass was used for the internal and external windows. Since the Pre-war SIT flats were multi-storey, there was a need for a common area staircase like in this photo. What was really unusual was a glass panel door that was similar to the windows. After 1967, each house-owner decided to do away with the windows and today we have a mix of aluminium sliding window panels, louver windows and wooden doors.
Read more about Tiong Bahru Bahru at the Tiong Bahru Estate Blog.

Monday, August 18, 2008

“Tiong Ma-Lu” as the Cantonese would say - By Peter Chan

Today’s pre-war Tiong Bahru Estate is different from my time. It is very colorful because there are enclaves of Chinese temples, dormitories for South Indian foreign workers, Filipina nurses working at the nearby Singapore General Hospital, YAMCs (Young Adult Married Couples), Chinese restaurants, and wine bars among the owner-occupied houses. Lately it has served as the backdrop for film producers such as “Sayang Sayang” (circa 2008) on Mediacorp 5 and Eric Khoo’s “Be With Me” movie (circa 2005). I have also seen Medicorp 8 serials using the backlanes off Seng Poh Road and Tiong Poh Road as back-drops.

My grandfather moved in from Tras Street to the pre-war SIT flats in late 1937. Incidentally the original house at Tras Street still stands and renamed as the Acclaim House. The Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) flats were built and offered for rent by the British Colonial Government. In 1966 the HDB, in the first acid test for public home-ownership, offered the SIT flats for sale to the existing tenants. I understand there were many criticisms and grouses from the ground and it prompted the speedy intervention of the then Prime Minister. Many took up the government offer for alternative public housing but our family took up the government offer. We paid S$20,000 for our flat.

For some people, Tiong Bahru area is an area bounded by the CTE, Yong Siak Street, Kim Pong Road and Tiong Bahru Road. For me my best recollection is on the Pre-war SIT housing. I guess it is due to my observations as a child who grew to adulthood and the stories that were told to us by our forefathers.

Fig 1: Seng Poh Road (circa 1953) viewed from Tiong Bahru Road. The empty grassland would be the future post-war SIT flats. The Chinese temple was on the left. The Seng Poh Road Wet Market had not been built yet. According to my father, the wet market ground was occupied by squatters who grew tapioca during the war-years. Is the landscape the same today?

My soft-spoken grandfather was an ARP (Air Raid Protection) warden at the onset of WW2 and loved to tell us “grandfather stories”. Promptly on a Saturday at 5 pm, he brought his grandchildren on a heritage tour. There was a string of us walking and laughing; the older ones holding the hands or piggy-back the younger ones (youngest was 2 years of age), as we walked down the corridor of the pre-war SIT flats. I believe this experience is one reason for our close bonding till today even down to the level of our children. By the way if you thought that we were “hum sup”, I like to point out that Tiong Bahru pre-war SIT ground floor flats have bedroom windows that face the main street. A slight breeze blows the curtains wide open. We saw the air raid shelter at Block 78 and the spots where sandbags lined the streets. My grandfather pointed-out to us where the first Japanese bombs landed on the pre-war SIT flats; funny thing many did not explode after landing on the flat roof-top. The Japanese bombs landed in Tiong Bahru Estate because they missed their target at the Singapore General Hospital.

Fig 2: Singapore General Hospital’s A&E Department which was replaced by the National Cancer Center

Fig 3: Behind the bus-stop was the Sook Ching “Desk” during WW2

Eng Hoon Street does have a bit of history. It was the path taken by the retreating Australian and Indian soldiers when Singapore was about to fall to the Japanese in February 1942. My grandfather told me the soldiers took off their uniforms and helmets, and threw away their medals on the street before heading towards Cantonment Road. The kids picked up the left-overs but soon threw it away because the Japanese soldiers entered Eng Hoon Street to set-up a Sook Ching “Desk”. After the war, it was the street that sick patients from all parts of Tiong Bahru Estate walked all the way through College Road to get to “Say Pai Por” A&E Department.

For some reason, the Cantonese group was the dominant group at Eng Hoon Street since 1937. The Hokkiens and Teochews, the Cantonese being the minority, in other parts of the Tiong Bahru Estate. So we conversed in Cantonese with our immediate neighbours. This all changed after 1966 when other dialectical groups moved in. At one time our immediate neighbour was the Chinese comedian Wong Sar, the “Skinny One”; he was Teochew-speaking. The Cantonese families felt the other dialectical groups were “loud-mouth” but for me I found Teochew girls especially better looking than the others.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Freddy Neo remembers living next door to British families in Sembawang Hills Estate

I grew up in Sembawang Hills Estate. Our family moved there in 1958 when I was 6 years old and we moved out on Deepavali Day (sometime in October) in 1979. Our house was a one storey terrace house facing the Pierce Reservoir. The estate was developed by the Bukit Sembawang Group, parceled out from its vast rubber plantation in central Singapore. My father paid $11,000 for the house. Today after 51 years, a similar house (unrenovated and un-redeveloped) is going for about $900,000.

From 1958 to about 1969, about 25% of the houses in the estate were rented to British Servicemen and their families. They were mainly the lower ranking servicemen up to the rank of corporal, mainly from the Army and Royal Marine. Occasionally, you might see a sergeant and his family staying in one of the houses but they were mainly new arrivals on transit until they can find better accommodation.

The terrace house we stayed in was really quite small and quite badly constructed. There was a small living room and three bedrooms at the side. In the centre of the house there was an airwell where the bathroom and toilet were situated. A small kitchen completed the build-up of the house. There were some open spaces in front and behind the house. Many families including mine, brought in the back area to make the kitchen bigger. I remember that ventilation was quite poor. Until my siblings got married and moved out (from1964 onwards), there were 12 of us in the house, my parents, my nine siblings and I.

Up to late 1968 when the UK Government started winding down their military presence, the house to the right of our house was always rented out to a British Serviceman and his family. In the beginning it was quite a novelty for us who had just moved from a kampong in Sembawang, to see them at such close proximity. You could always tell the FOBs (fresh-off-the-boats) from those who had been here for some time but had just moved in from another house in Singapore. The FOBs were the ones who had pale (sometimes freckled) faces, and initially would spend many hours in our hot tropical sun. Not knowing the intensity of the heat, they (especially the wives) spent many hours lying around in the small garden in front of the house sunbathing. We locals thought that only the Englishmen were crazy enough to sun-bathe in the middle of the day. This is particularly true in the Singapore context. After two days, as they turned lobster red and felt the pain from the peeling skin, they would learn that the tropical sun is not the same as the sun back home. It was not something to be trifled with. Even locals who are properly acclimatised will collapse from heat stroke if they stayed too long in our hot sun. Soon, the FOBs would learn and they would not be seen outdoor sunbathing under the noon sun again.

Then there was the culture shock which I think cut both ways. The FOBs had to have a breaking-in period, I suppose, and get over the culture shock. Nothing like going through it on the ground. First, the FOBs find the smell (we call it fragrance) from our Asian cooking quite repulsive. Many times when my mother was frying salted fish or blachan, we would get queries about that "terrible smell". And one of us had to explain to the enquirer about what we were going to have for lunch or dinner. After a while, the smell will be tolerated. No more complaints or queries. But we too have our adjustments to make initially. In those days, the local Chinese do not take much mutton and beef. These meats were seldom featured in our family's diet. We ate mainly fish/pork and vegetables and have poultry (duck and chicken) only during major festivals like Chinese New Year. My mother, in fact, abhorred mutton and beef. The smell (fragrant?) when these meats were being grilled was repulsive to her. Our British neighbours grilled these meats practically every day and the smell as the meat was being cooked, permeated into our house which caused my mother much discomfort. I remember she often complained about the smell. She said that people who ate these meats after a while also acquired the smell. I think that this is cultural prejudice.

Then there was the noise. The servicemen and their families had to tolerate the noise from our big family. But come Chinese New Year, things got worse. They could not stand the loud noise from the firing of firecrackers over the Chinese New Year. Those that have been here for some time will close their doors and windows and ride out the holidays. It must have been quite hot and stuffy for them because the house had no air-conditioning. Or they would take the opportunity to go away on a holiday. Some FOBs tried to take matters into their own hands. I remember there was a serviceman (a FOB) who demanded of my father that we stop immediately the firing of crackers. This was at the stroke of midnight of CNY's eve. He said that he and his wife were trying to sleep and their baby was crying. He made the demand rather aggressively. At that time (in the early sixties), firing of crackers during Chinese New Year was a cultural thing so he was running smack against local culture which his own commander would not have approved. My father told him that we and our neighbours would not stop until all the crackers have been lit and advised him firmly to lock themselves in the house, close all doors and windows and stuff cotton wools in their ears. For the rest of the Chinese New Year holidays he would not bother us again knowing that we were not so easily intimidated.

But the noise was not all one way. We also tolerated some noise from our neighbours. Some of the servicemen have regular Saturday evening parties where there would be a lot of music and booze. At that time, the local population was not familiar with this kind of house parties. Then there was the horseplay. It was quite an eye opener to see adults engaging in boisterous horseplay. I remember a corporal and his friend who were playing hide and seek with their wives. They climbed to the roof top of our house to hide and broke a few tiles. At that time I was already in secondary school and I was assigned the task of telling this corporal about the broken tiles. He gave me $20 for the broken tiles which in 1967 was sufficient compensation.

At that time, the local population was a conservative lot. For example, I don't ever remember seeing my parents kissing each other in the children's presence. Thus, it was quite amusing to see the open display of affection between the couples.

Some of the servicemen families went out of the way to engage us socially. I remember this sergeant who would bring us children to places in his Vauxhall. Once he brought my sister, younger brother and I with his family to Johore Zoo and ended the afternoon at a milk bar at Jalan Kuras where we had banana split. At that time, it was quite a big deal to eat ice cream in a milk bar. This was sometime in 1960 and I would have been about 8 years old. Another elder sister was then in secondary school and he would coach my sister maths on some evenings. I cannot recall his name but I can remember his son, then about 5 years old, was called Barry. Barry loved coffee and would come over every afternoon for coffee when he smelled the coffee brewing from my mother's pot. I have posted a picture of Barry here. He is seen with my sister, younger brother and me. Barry would be in his early 50s today. There was another sergeant who came over one Chinese New Year's eve to celebrate the festivities with us. When told by my elder brother (who was only pulling his leg) that the Chinese believe that the later one goes to sleep on Chinese New Year's eve, the longer one's life would be, he accepted the challenge and stayed up the whole night with him. He liked my mother's chicken curry so much, that thence on until he moved away, whenever he had a party, he would asked my mother to cook a pot of chicken curry for him.

Compared to the locals, the servicemen and their families were living a life of luxury. While we lived quite frugally, they spent quite freely. Hence, around where they lived, businesses were set up to cater to them. Near our house at Jalan Leban and Jalan Kuras, there was a pub, three provision shops (Ang Mo Chup in Hokkien), a general shop (selling things like toys, bicycles), a radio shop, a milk bar, all catering to the servicemen and their families. The people who ran these businesses made it clear to us that the locals were not welcome to patronise. Once my maternal grandmother went to buy a packet of chocolate biscuit from one of the shops and complained about the steep price to the shopkeeper. She was told straightaway that "down here we sell to the Ang Mos, so don't complain about the price if you want to buy". When this was related to my mother, she was incensed and commented that wait till the Brits go back, then these businesses will be begging for our custom. Her words were prophetic because one year later in 1965, the British PM Harold Wilson announced the British withdrawal East of Suez by 1971.

Some of the food was brought to their doorsteps. There was an ice cream truck (Datsun Pickup) which came around at least three times a day and a fish and chips truck that came around every evening. But the British would never buy vegetables or meat from our local wet markets because they said it was dangerous healthwise to buy uninspected produce.

All of them had day servants who would come in the mornings and go back home in the evenings. They were paid about $200 a month which was not bad. The servants were mainly lasses from the kampongs around the estate. Knowing that the serviceman family would prepare a lot of food which would generate much waste, some villagers make daily rounds to collect uneaten food and potato peelings which they cooked with the swirls to feed their pigs. The cries of "missy peelings" would be heard when the villager arrived for the food waste."

I think this photo, courtesy of Peter Chan of bare-bodied British soldiers sunbathing in the midday sun in Chestnut Drive well illustrate what Freddy described above. - LCS

Monday, August 11, 2008

From My Inbox: Freddy Neo writes

Dear Chun See,

I came across your blog quite by accident through Google. Since then I've been stealing some time here and there to read your posts from way back in 2005.

Great stories of your yesteryears. I've been reliving my past through your posts. I especially enjoyed reading your account of village life at Kow Tau Kio.

There are many parallels and your stories have jolted my memories. For example, I was born in the same year as you, have nine siblings, (five elder sisters, three elder brothers and a younger brother). My father, brothers and I spent many weekend afternoons in the Pierce Reservoir fishing and roughing it out.

I was enlisted into NS on 11 January 1971 (recruit in Kilo Company across the Safti parade square from Romeo Company). By the way, we reported at CMPM, which was then in Kallang occupying the Nissan huts in front of the PA HQ, not Dempsey Road.

I was born in a kampong West Hill Road in Sembawang next to the British Naval Base. The house had no electricity, piped water or modern sanitation. My father worked in the Royal Navy in Naval Base as a Chief Clerk, so the house was quite near to his work place. But going to school for my older siblings was a real problem as the house was quite far from Sembawang Road. My father was from ACS which was then at Telok Ayer Street. He took his Senior Cambridge Examinations in 1930. My sister still has his certificate which shows that he scored distinction in Bible Knowledge (though he wasn't a Christian and remained unconverted when he died in June 1981). I was never in ACS though I've two sons who are now in the IB (International Baccalaureate) programme in ACS(I).

We moved to a terrace house at Jalan Batai in Sembawang Hills Estate in 1958 when I was 6 years old. Jalan Batai is on a hill facing the Lower Pierce Reservoir, near to the Upper Thomson Road side of Lorong Kinchir. Our immediate neighbours on the left were two spinsters, Pearl and Ruby Tan, who lived with their bedridden mother. We moved out of the Jalan Batai house in 1979. Two years ago a skeleton was found in the spinsters' house and I was quoted in the Straits Times relating about what I remembered about the sisters. Jalan Batai is in Sembawang Hills Estate.

From 1958 to about 1970, about one quarter of the houses in the estate were rented out to British Servicemen and their families. Our next door neighbour on the right were often British. Some of them were quite nice and allowed the children to play with us. Maybe I should contribute a piece on what it was like living next to them.

I remember the Thomson end of Lorong Kinchir well because my brothers and I used to visit a barber near to junction of Lorong Kinchir and Upper Thomson Road. It was near to the present AMK Ave 1 and Upper Thomson Road junction. The shop was at the left bank of Kallang River in the village the Hokkiens called Oh Kio. I am quite familiar with Oh Kio village which is at the source of Kallang River. We used to catch fishes at the streams in the forest reserve around Pierce Reservoir. I am not familiar with the Asia Fishing Pond. We fished at the Pierce Reservoir not at fishing ponds where you have to pay money.

You asked about a rubber factory in Upper Thomson Road. I know a rubber factory which was at the site of the present Thomson Plaza, next to Jasmine Road. It was dismantled in 1974 or 1975. I remember because at that time, I was in Singapore U and staying at my elder brother's house at 2D Jasmine Road. Very noisy when they were demolishing the factory. Is this the factory you were referring to?

I remember Kow Tau Kio as some of my classmates in Sembawang Hills Estate School lived there though I have never went inside Lorong Kinchir because I was warned that it was a hotbed of gangsters and any "alien" would quickly be identified by the villagers and walloped. (emphasis Chun See’s)

Thursday, August 07, 2008

SAF Display, June 1978

In June 1978, shortly before my ROD (run out date) from full-time National Service, I took part in the SAF Display (I think it was part of SAF Day celebrations). At that time, I was a platoon commander in 30 SCE, Mandai Camp. My platoon was given the task to provide the pyrotechnics and build some of the structures for the tanks to run over and show off their destructive power.

On the big day itself, from the place where we were ‘hiding’ whilst all the action was taking place, we actually got a much better and more exciting view than even that of VIPs in the spectator stands. The tanks and assault troops were actually charging towards us and the paratroopers were air-dropping all around us. But we had to endure the hot afternoon sun without proper shelter.

Below are some photos I took for your enjoyment

And now I have a question for you. Do you know where is this place? Take a good look first before your scroll down to the bottom of the page for the answer.

Answer: Changi Air Base. At least those were the words I wrote at the back of my photos. I think it was at the part of Upper Changi Road where I used to see the dark green RAF planes from the main road as a kid. The huge piece of open land you see in my photos is the reclaimed land where they would build the world famous Changi International Airport.

Read about Changi Airport available at Singapore Infopedia

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Changi Coastal Defense – Answers to questions raised (by Peter Chan)

In which part of Changi Airport do you think does the end of Tanah Merah Road meet Nicoll Drive?

Which part of the Changi Airport vicinity looks exactly like the RAF Changi era?

Monday, August 04, 2008

Then and Now – Changi Creek

I am afraid I do not have Icemoon's skill or patience to engage in 'precision heritage photography'. This is the best I can do.

Photo 1 is a 1960’s photo of Changi Creek courtesy of Allan MacKinnon @ Memories of Singapore.

Photo 2 is a photo I took while exploring the Changi Board Walk last year.

To help you make sense of some of the discussion in Peter's earlier post, here is a scan from a very tiny electoral divisions map of Singapore from a 1963 street directory. Can you see the Tanah Merah Besar Road and Nicoll Drive junction? Notice the coastline and how long Nicoll Drive was.

Below is something from the internet. The producers have been so kind as to indicate the position of what used to Kampong Ayer Gemuruh. To help you picture the coastline in relation to the present Changi Airport, I have added a scan from the 1963 street directory below.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Changi Coastal Defense in 1964 (by Peter Chan)

When one speaks about “Pantai Chantek” or Changi Beach, it conjures up images of people swimming in the sea, people paddling koleks or families spending their lazy Sunday afternoons consuming French loaves with curry chicken. Changi Beach was the strip of coastal beach from the junction of Telok Paku Road/Nicoll Drive to the junction of Tanah Merah Besar Road/Nicoll Drive. The one best spot most people preferred was the area next to the present SAF Ferry Terminal. But next time when you head to the SAF Ferry Terminal to send your boyfriends, brothers or sons to Pulau Tekong, think back to 1964 and ask yourself what was on that spot.

Fig 1: Aerial view of Changi Beach at Nicoll Drive

This SAF military installation was the former China Sea Beach Club but before 1959 it was called the RAF Signals Transit Center. It was easy to recognize this building because it was painted pink in colour and had a concrete tower. It was here that some of our Singapore’s top Rock & Roll bands made a living playing to the British RAF military personnel on week-ends.

Fig 2: Someone I befriended in 1965. He faces the camera for the last time at China Sea Beach Club before leaving Singapore after his tour of duty was completed (circa 1965). In the background are the hills in Johore which can be seen from the waving gallery of T1 Changi Airport

Coming from Tanah Merah Besar Road, the China Sea Beach Club was after old Telok Paku Road. If you are wondering where is old Teluk Paku Road, it is now renamed as North Perimeter Road. Some people confuse old Telok Paku Road with the road that leads into the cargo complex area. Next time, I will share with you what I saw on old Telok Paku Road because usually after a swim, my cousins and I rode our bicycles to this place. Now back to the story.

Sharing the beach with the civilians was the British Military forces. In 1964, the stretch of Changi Beach was a coastal defense zone with low–level anti-aircraft guns. The guns were meant to defend RAF Changi from potential Indonesian aerial infiltration from Batam. Roughly in terms of today’s context, the defense-line would be between the present SAF Ferry Terminal to Changi Airport Terminal 3 facing the Control Tower. I saw barbed wires and sandbags. It looked as if it was a protected area but the British Military forces were friendly to the locals, especially the children. The gun batteries were disbanded in 1966 after the Indonesian Confrontation ended. Many decades later I found the anti-aircraft units came from Nee Soon Camp and Telok Paku Road Camp.

Fig 3: One of the Bofors 40/70 guns at Changi Beach. Changi Creek is very far behind the bushes. In the background are the hills of Johore

Fig 4: Fire Control Unit at old Telok Paku Road provides assistance to gun battery on Changi Beach. This site is at the present Singapore Aviation Academy

Changi Beach is so different from yesterday. Maybe someone can help me identify the following places:

In which part of Changi Airport do you think does the end of Tanah Merah Road meet Nicoll Drive?

Which part of the Changi Airport vicinity looks exactly like the RAF Changi era?

Fig 5: Map of Changi Beach (Pantai Chantek) in 1963

Fig 6: Map of Changi Beach in 2007