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


Anonymous said...

I agree with Freddy's observations. My old place was in Bukit Timah catered to the British Servicemen from Keat Hong Camp and RAF Tengah.

Because I lived in such close proximity to the British, my siblings and I never felt there was any barrier between "white" and locals. My sister attended a house-based kindergarten managed by one of the British wives from Northern Ireland. I went for joy rides on an RAF Shackleton because of my neighbour; of course I vomited because of air sickness in a non a/c cabin.

The time the British kids and us became very close was in December 1962. One of our friend's father went on duty and he was afraid that he would never see his father again. So we went together and waited at the roadside to wave his father good-bye. Then we saw more fathers dressed in combat uniform, full-pack and rifles waiting to board a Bedford truck.

That memorable occasion was none other than the start of the Brunei Rebellion in 1958. British Army troops were air-lifted from Singapore to protect the sultanate and SHELL oil fields at Serai.

Anonymous said...

Brunei Rebellion was Dec 1962. My mistake.

Lam Chun See said...

I think our friend Tom Brown was involved in that operation in Brunei.

When I was I young, I often see the British kids in Serangoon Gardens. But we kept our distance and I never got to know any of them. My impression was that they were very naughty and had a lot of freedom.

When I was very young, I remember seeing some Caucasians on horseback riding through our kampong. Quite an unforgetable sight as we had never seen real horses before. The kampong dogs barked non-stop.

Anonymous said...

There are many many points in Freddy's account that I am sure were very typical of the interaction between British Servicemen, their families and local people. On the sunbathing issue there is an old song which has a line that says 'Mad Dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun' and yes few of us were aware of the dangers then of sunbathing (something that may be OK here in the UK where we get less sun) although I still say to people that it was in Singapore that I learnt to walk slowly in the heat and keep to the shade whereever possible.

Most of our contact with local people was limited to having an Amah (usually a young woman who came each day, although some may have lived in). We were not used to having a servant of any kind and I am sure there was much awkwardness in our dealings with Amahs. The second group we met were the merchants who supplied much of our produce which I think was always delivered to our houses. When our family moved into Toh Drive off Upper Changi Road we were immediately visited by a number of suppliers, one of whom was appointed and who then presented us with some laquer furniture and other small gifts - in the certain knowledge that they would recoup the costs and more through higher prices!

Freddy talks about standards of behaviour - for young and old there was a greater feeling of freedom. The bad side of that was a lack of knowledge and respect for local people and their culture by some British people, the good side was that young people like myself saw a little of a vibrant and cosmopolitan place in Singapore which has left an interest in the wider world that has never left us.

FreddyNeo said...

The British families that lived next door were always young couples either recently married or with very small children. Remember that the husbands were mostly junior NCOs. Hence when I progressed into my teen years, I couldn't possibly play with the children. Like us, they could be quite different from each other. Some wives were homely and seldom went out. Others were hardly home bound.

Anonymous said...

Hi all

Yes, I can remember having seen some Cauasian neighbours in Serangoon Gardens when I lived there during the 60s at Portchester Avenue. The kids tend to run around bare footed and topless a lot.

Regarding Serangoon Gardens in the 60s, it was very British in nature, not only with the street names but the whole feel of the place. I have never seen so many pubs in one small estate. Two that I remembered were Captains' Cabin (now Pow Sing Chicken Rice restaurant) and Lido (where the current 7-11 shop now stands) . There were many more that I can't recall their names. And then there was the fish and chips shop (Allen's Fish & Chips?) along Serangon Garden Way. A very mysterious place to me then as it was behind closed doors without a proper shop front.

Lam Chun See said...

Hi pcwong. Are you new to Good Morning Yesterday? Have you read my earlier articles about Serangoon Gardens and Lorong Chuan. Perhaps you can help me with a question. Opposite the Paramount Theatre at Maju Avenue, there used to be a sports shop where we went to have our badminton rackets stringed. Do you remember the name of the shop. I seem to recall George-something. It had a plaque of 10 commandments.

Anonymous said...

In the early to mid-1970's, my friends and I used to buy Allen's fish and chips and they were really authentic, done in the British thick batter style.

I believe Allen's fish and chips was set up EXACTLY like a chip shop would be, back in 'ol Blighty -- all for a bit of nostalgia for the British army families who lived there.

The owners later closed it up, after the British army left (later in the 1970's), and a bit of history of Gardens was gone. Lots of us who know the place still miss it!

If I'm not mistaken, I think the owners' family also owned/operated a corner coffee-house called Tip Top, which then became Hawaii 5-) (or was it the other way around?). In the 1980's it was famous for its nasi padang.

David V Smith said...

I'm remebering Serangoon Gardens too! Does anyone know what happened to the Canbera Bar? I remcall many Saturdays sitting down to a Nasi Goreng or a steak meal! One of the guys i remember we called George! Does anyone remember the Yum Yum Bar? an American style icecream palour or maybe the Chinese emporium that opened around 1969! I'm coming back to Singapore in 2013 for the first time since i left in 1971! And at least look forward to a walk down memory lane! This is a wonderful site and has given me many hours of enjoyment.

David Smith

Lam Chun See said...

Hi David. There are several articles in this blog related to Serangoon Gardens. You can do a search on the box at the top left corner.

pcwong said...

Hi David

I believe Canberra Bar was along the same set of shophouses where Captain Cabin (now Pow Sing Chicken Rice) used to be. But I could be wrong. The other row of shophouses where there were a few bars was along Kensington Park Road (opposite Chomp Chomp). The emporium that you referred to used to be housed in a building behind the old Paramount Theatre. It was taken over by a supermarket during the early 70s. Both buildings were demolished a few years ago and replaced by a newer building called My Village. I know, some of the newer establishments may seemed foreign to you, but when you re-visit Singapore and Serangoon Gardens in 2013, it would make more sense. Anyway, Serangoon Gardens has changed so much over the last 20 years. Keep us updated on your walk down memory lane in Singapore.

Benedict Peter said...

This is for Freddy Neo - are you related to David Neo? I grew up in Jalan Leban & went to Sembawang Hills Estate Primary School David & I then went to RI.

Freddy - your observations are very accurate.

Benedict Peter