Thursday, December 31, 2009

And they called us car park attendants

If you traveled along Dunearn Road from Eng Neo Avenue to Adam Road, the most prominent landmark that you will pass by is the beautiful, sprawling new campus of the Nanyang Girls’ School. Do you what institution used to occupy this piece of land?

Answer: Singapore’s first junior college, the National Junior College. This year (only a few more hours left of 2009 even as I hammer away at the keyboard) marks the 40th anniversary of the founding of NJC and yours truly was one of the 572 seventeen-year-olds who formed the pioneer batch of students from all over Singapore. To commemorate this occasion, a group of my fellow NJC-69ers decided to put together a book compiling our memories of those two years spent in a place that no longer exists in Singapore’s ever-changing landscape.

Thanks to Good Morning Yesterday, an unknown kid from an unknown kampong called Lorong Kinchir got to pen two stories in this special book titled, And they called us car park attendants. Both stories have been told in this blog (see links below) before and so I shan’t repeat them.

Time does not permit me to share with you my other memories of NJC, except to say that I enjoyed my two years in there, even though at that time a few of us were branded traitors by our former school. Good thing I am one of those you would call a “blur sotong” and so I did not even know about it until recently.

Interestingly whenever I think of NJC, pictures of two other places come to mind. One is the huge field next to our campus. During the initial months, before we had our own canteen, we had to trudge across this huge field and climb a long flight of stairs to have a lunch in the tuck shop of the neighbouring Dunearn Technical School. The other place is the former Ministry of Education complex at Kay Siang Road. I remember nervously going there to collect and submit my application forms. I think I also attended an interview there.

What did I enjoy most about NJC? The two things I blogged about - the badminton and the outdoor activities club. I also treasure the opportunity to meet new friends from diverse backgrounds, such as the group from Bartley Secondary. I even got to know some boys from Malaysia as well as friends from the Chinese stream.

And here’s wishing all friends and readers good health and success in all that you do in 2010.

Happy New Year everyone!

Related posts:

1) Memories of Pulau Tekong
2) Kampong badminton
3) Bukit Timah Heritage Trail

Friday, December 25, 2009

Tribute to a humble profession (2)

In our recent trip to Yong Peng, we also had the opportunity to visit a rubber plantation. Our hosts who were rubber tappers were very enthusiastic to explain to us about their work. Below are some photos of things you will not find in Singapore - including close-ups of the rubber tapper's knife.


Remember the light that I strapped to my forehead. Nowadays the light is powered by batteries. But in the old days they used something called chow tor - literally, ‘smelly earth’ - in Hokkien. Do you know what was that?

We also discussed the problem of snakes. I happened to chat with a Malaysian friend about this the other day. He is now a Singaporean PR (permanent resident). When he was growing up in Pekan Nanas, he too used to help out in the rubber plantations. He told me he had to wake up at 3 in the morning and start work at 4 am. He said that snakes was not a big problem as long as you do not ‘disturb’ them, although he does recall seeing or peng’s. Do you know what snake is that? The biggest problem apparently was the mosquitoes which came in swarms. They had to cover themselves from head to toe leaving just a slit to see through. What a way to make a living!

Younger readers may not know this. Not so long ago, rubber plantations were a common sight in Singapore. For example, if you were to check out this World War II topographical map which my friend Kenneth put up at, you will see many rubber plantations in the Thomson-Braddell area. (you have to zoom in). In fact, in my previous posts, I have mentioned seeing rubber factories in places like Lorong Chuan, Bukit Timah and Upper Thomson Road. So I believe there are actually living in our midst Singaporeans who once made a living from this humble profession. Do you know anyone like that?


Can you name some places in Singapore where you can still find rubber trees? Of course I am not referring to the islands around Singapore. I am sure there are still lots of them on Pulau Tekong and Pulau Ubin. I can think of three such places.

1) The forests of MacRitchie near the Venus Drive area.
2) Chestnut Drive near the water pipes. I think I saw some the last time I went there for my brisk walking exercise (see photo below).
3) Woodland Town Park East. Whilst researching the whereabouts of Marsiling Hill 180, I saw many rubber trees here.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Looking for people who lived around the Singapore River Area

I received this request for assistance in my inbox. If you are able to help out please email me. Thanks.


Dear Mr Lam,

I am Mr Seow Hwye Min from Select Books. I came across your blog and was wondering whether you would be willing to help us contact people who lived around the Singapore River area from before the war to the 1950s.

Select Books is the publisher of the Hike It! series. This is a series of children's walking tour guide books. The series is supported under the National Heritage Board's Heritage Industry Incentive Programme. The first book in the series, Hike It! Bras Basah & Waterloo, was published in August 2009. We are now working on the second book, which will feature the Singapore River area.

In the course of the research, we felt that it would be ideal to identify a few people who lived in that area, so as to weave their stories into the book.

Thank you in advance.

Yours sincerely,

Mr Seow Hwye Min
Select Books

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Trip to Yong Peng Pt 1

Recently I visited Yong Peng with my brother Chun Chew (Zen), my sister Pat and her husband KC, and her friend Hui Choo. It was a very short trip and we stayed only 1 night. You might think that Yong Peng is such a small town and thus there isn’t much to see. But Hui Choo is from Yong Peng and her brother and sister-in-law brought us to see some interesting things that you certainly would not be able to enjoy in Singapore; such as the traditional pasar malam, roadside chendol stalls and this durian farm. It belongs to Hui Choo's brother. It was a small plantation and they have only about twenty trees plus some mangosteen and dragon fruit trees.

Unfortunately, our timing was not very good as the durians have not ripened yet. But our hosts invited to visit again when the time is ripe.

Question? Why are there so many durians on the ground?

Answer: Monkeys pluck them and chuck them on the ground. They would return in a few days when the durians start to rot and then eat the fruits. Of course the monkeys did not pile the durians into a neat pile like these. Our hosts did that.

Another question. How can you tell if a durian was plucked by the monkeys or if it dropped off naturally. I did not observe until we talked about it later; and so I will leave it to Chun Chew to explain.
To deter the monkeys, they strapped zinc sheets to the tree trunk, but apparently it wasn’t very effective.


Here’s a little quiz before I sign off. What is the lamp on my forehead for; and what is the object that I am holding in my hand used for? Hint: Our hosts used them for their work which starts at 4 am every morning.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Some things never change (5)

Last week I visited a small Malaysian town called Yong Peng with my brother Chun Chew (Zen), my sister Pat and her husband KC, and her friend Hui Chen. I will blog about some of the interesting things that we did and saw there later.

We were in a cake shop when I spotted an interesting traditional snack that I have not seen since my kampong days. I don’t even remember its name. I think we called it Kok Kok Tong (candy) in Cantonese. Neither can I remember what it tasted like. I only can recall that the vendor came around on bicycle with a circular alluminium pan at the back just like in the photo below. I think this kok kok candy was white in colour or it was covered with a white powder. The vendor would use a sort of metallic cutter to slice the candy and he would announce his presence by clacking this cutter against the pan.

Anyway, the printing on the box says Biskut Gula Tarik in Malay and Sparkling Candy in English. I hope readers can add more details of this delightful snack from our childhood days.

Related post: Itinerant food vendors of yesteryears

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

World War Two at Upper East Coast Road – Peter Chan

It all started when I received some exciting bits of military intelligence reports about the role of the Americans in Singapore during WW2. All this time, I was under the impression that only the British fought for the liberation of Singapore from the Japanese. Between October 1944 and July 1945, American B29 bombers conducted intelligence and bombing sorties on selected targets in Singapore. The targets included POW Centers, oil storage installations, airfields, enemy bases and key installations.

Photos 1a & 1b: American intelligence report (circa 1945). The handwritten ‘answers” illustrates my guesswork; a major part of the blame was because we dealt with the British Imperial metrics. Having to deal with “feet & yards” metrics in the age of S.I. was quite a challenge.

From aerial intelligence reports, two items caught my attention. They were a “Tanah Merah Powder Magazine 1,100 yards WSW of Bedok Village” and an “unidentified installation 335 yards west of Bedok Village”. Since Char Lee (aka “Icemoon”) and Chin Siew Min had vested interest in this geographical part of Singapore, they pitched in time and resources to investigate further, without which this article would not have been possible.

Photos 2a & 3b: View of photos from Parbury Avenue. TOP; 11 Kew Drive was the yellow dotted line box; a concrete bunker. 1 Kew Drive was the yellow bold line box, a heavy machine gun nest inside a pill-box. At the top of this photo is Bedok Corner (circa 1960). BOTTOM; Tanah Merah Powder Magazine (circa 1962). Tanah Merah Kechil the dirt track starts at the middle-bottom of this photo and would eventually connect with present-day Tanah Merah Kechil South.

The Tanah Merah Powder Magazine operated as an ammunition depot and was first reported in General Gillman’s 1927 report on the defenses of Singapore. General Gillman (whose name was given to Gillman Barracks) drew up defense plans in view of the perceived Japanese threat. It was not just a normal British ammunition depot but a depot that was co-owned by one Tan Seng Poh (whose name gave rise to Seng Poh Road in the Tiong Bahru Estate area). Tan Seng Poh was an enterprising local Chinese merchant of considerable status and did business with the colonial government.

Insofar as the “unidentified installation” is concern, there was no precedence because it was not built by the British. The local spy networks confirmed that it was built by the Japanese and manned by several infantry soldiers. Originally it was thought to be an Observation Post (OP) monitoring possible enemy naval movements off the east coast of Singapore but an air-recon on 12 July 1945 found it to be a wireless station. The Bedok W/T Station had 3 tall tubular masts set out in the form of a triangle of sides 235’ X 250’ X 130’ and the masts were built in the open space between two houses. It was managed by the Imperial Japanese Navy.

Photos 3a & 3b: TOP: Bedok W/T Site lies abandon. The two houses are circled in yellow. Below is Upper East Coast Road with a car heading towards Bedok Corner (circa 1960). During the Indonesian Confrontation era of 1963 - 1966, the site was occupied by British anti-aircraft guns. BOTTOM: a jetty was built to unload ammunition for the Tanah Merah Powder Magazine (circa 1937).

There were six feet deep trenches dug north of Upper East Coast Road. The beach was fortified with barbed-wire from Tanjung Rhu to Teluk Ayer Mata Ikan (3 meters in thickness, 50 - 150 meters from the shoreline) and only visible during low-tide. If the Japanese had not surrendered on 16 August 1945, could this part of Singapore be another “D-Day”, in similar fashion to the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied France?

During our pursuit of the subject, we discovered a more somber past. Many are familiar with the massacre sites at Siglap, Amber Road, Upper Changi Road and Changi Creek but Bedok Hill Massacre is seldom mentioned. Why is this so? Unlike the Sook Ching victims, Bedok Hill Massacre involved captured Malay and Chinese military personnel who stood in defense of Singapore. Just after 6.30pm on February 28, 1942, 100 captured men from 1st Bn. Malay Regiment, 4th Bn. Straits Settlement Volunteer Force from Malacca, and the Negeri Sembilan F.M.S. Volunteer Force were machine-gunned down and their bodies dumped into the trenches.

Photos 4a & 4b: TOP: British mobile light anti-aircraft gun on top of a hill. A partial view of Upper East Coast Road bend can be seen to the left of the group of soldiers (circa 1941). The sea is on the left. BOTTOM: the sea is off Upper East Coast Road. In the distance are the hills of Pulau Karimun, Indonesia (circa 1941).

Where was this Bedok Hill? From one survivor account: “We stopped on the seafront near Bedok close to a low hill. Here an anti-aircraft gun had been sited by the British. The whole detachment marched up a lane round the side of a low hill. A level patch on the hill slope was the site of the trenches. Dwellers in a nearby kampong still remember the stench of rotting corpses which hung over their houses when the wind blew in from the sea a week later”.

From my personal recollections, I knew there was a British-built WW2 pill-box at Kew Drive. There were similar constructs along Bedok Road next to the Bedok Methodist Church, one on the grounds of Temasek Secondary School and the other at Bedok Corner facing Bedok Junction.

So where was the location of the Bedok Hill Massacre site? What has become of Tanah Merah Powder Magazine and the Bedok W/T Station? Watch this space again!

Related posts:

1) Balek kampong to Bedok Corner 1

2) Balek kampong to Bedok Corner 2

Friday, December 04, 2009

The pastimes of the older generation and stereotyping kampong lads - Edward Williams

What did the old folks in my neighbourhood (Sembawang Hills Estate, Phase 2) do to pass away their time while their children are at work? A group of them in the estate went for morning walks at Pierce Reservoir. One old man had a morning ritual in his front garden which I observed for many years before setting off to school. He stood near the fence, pressed one of his nostrils closed with his finger, and sneezed out hard, expelling mucus from the open nostril. Then he repeated the process with the other nostril. I assumed the mucus from both nostrils landed on or near the same spot. After this he cleared his throat by letting off a loud rolling sound and spat out some phlegm. I never knew if this landed on the same spot as the mucus. Once he was finished with this morning ritual, his wife would join him on a walk to Pierce Reservoir. On the way there they were joined by their friends, usually of the same dialect group. I noticed there were many Hainanese in this group.

Of all the Chinese dialect groups, the Hainanese is the loudest. Their conversations seemed lively and often sounded like an argument. That’s just the way they talked. But the Hainanese is the closest knit group amongst the Chinese. They consider each other as brothers and sisters. If a Hainanese has a problem, all the other Hainanese in the neighbourhood helped out. For example, if someone passed away in a Hainanese household, all their own kind will be there helping with the funeral arrangements, cooking, serving the guests and washing up after. There is an unmistakably strong familial bond amongst the Hainanese who considers each other as “kar ki nun” (own people).

In the afternoons some of the old folks played mah-jong. The games were played for money and I heard that you could lose up to $30 per day (or night) if you had a bad run. That was a lot of money in those days. Sometimes they played at night, even into the early hours of the morning. It was usually the women who played mah-jong. It was almost like a “Mothers’ Club”. My mother sometimes joined them, but only during the afternoon. Usually she played in her own mah-jong group.

In the evening it was not uncommon to see a family enjoying a stroll around the estate in their pyjamas accompanied by their dog (no pyjama for this one). If the weather was warm, the men and boys donned pyjama trousers and a singlet.

The old folks also enjoyed listening to Rediffusion, especially the storytelling programmes in Chinese dialects. A series (covering one complete story) could last several weeks. Households who could not afford a radio set in the old days subscribed to Rediffusion for only a few dollars each month.

When television was introduced into Singapore in the early 60s not many families could afford one. By the late 60s almost every home had a television set. It was, of course, black and white television. Colour television was only introduced in 1974. Anyway, the ethnic Chinese programmes, such as the Wong Fei Hong movies (that Chun See mentioned in his article on open-air cinemas), were very popular with the entire family. Chinese comedians like Wong Sar and Yah Fong were the oldies’ favourites. Although the comedians spoke Hokkien, I noticed that every dialect group enjoyed their shows.

The grandparents have an important role in looking after their grandchildren. For the little ones who stayed at home, Ah Kong and Ah Por would be their constant source of companion. Primary school children in their early years were often escorted to school by grandparents. This approach allowed the parents to be gainfully employed.

One day an old man passed away in the next street. As is common with Chinese custom the coffin was brought home. The family had a temporary canvas shelter built at the side of the house (it was a corner house) and the coffin and an altar were placed at the front end. Anyone was welcome to come in and pay their respect to the deceased. This was done by lighting an incense and saying a prayer at the altar. After that they could sit on one of the many tables and food and drinks will be served. I cannot remember how many days the coffin was kept there but the “open house” funeral preparations went on throughout the night. One night a group of men from the kampong at the back of our estate came into this house, paid their respects and sat down on the table. When the host asked if they’d like some refreshments, they requested a set of mah-jong. She obliged and brought them the mah-jong set. They played mah-jong till quite late. She came to my home and spoke to my mother about the guys from the kampong, afraid that they were gangsters who could cause trouble. My mother then went to her house and saw the kampong lads who called out to her “Ah Sor” (“aunty” in Hokkien) as they knew her. My mother then reassured the lady that they were not trouble makers from the kampong, just young men enjoying a game of mah-jong. She was relieved to hear that. Of course, the night ended with no incident.

The funeral incident illustrates a fairly common attitude of the estate residents towards the village lads. Village or kampong people were sometimes stereotyped as either gangsters or potential trouble makers, uncouth and prone to anti-social behaviour. Admittedly, many kampong men often punctuated their sentences with excessive expletives that sounded more threatening than is the actual case.

I have made many trips to the kampong at the back of our estate for fishing trips (to Asia and Cathay fishing ponds, for example) and to buy groceries from the local shop. It was just behind Jalan Lanjut and Jalan Mengkudu, not far from Lorong Kinchir. My neighbours and I have fished in their muddy streams for cat fish and once a group of us joined some of the kampong boys to smoke out a bee hive on a tree. I have worked in a provision shop run by the villagers, ate communal lunch with them and got to know some of them quite well. Thankfully I never had any trouble with the village lads. The most terrifying experience I had was being nearly attacked by a flock of aggressive red nose geese (“hor ark”). The pigs usually ignored me, preferring to lie in their muddy haven while the chickens and ducks were too timid to be a threat. Stories of gangsters and secret societies in the villages have in part contributed to the negative stereotyping of villagers. The snobbishness of some of the estate residents was another contributing factor. How often have I heard derogatory references made to villagers (e.g. “sum par loh”), such attitudes born of deeply ingrained prejudices.

Singaporeans are now better educated and have more comfortable lifestyles. I do not know if the society is more egalitarian or whether such prejudices still prevail given that the kampong environment is vanishing.

Related posts:

1) Days of black and white TV
2) Rediffusion and Big Fool Lee
3) Chun Chew’s article about gangsters in his school days

Friday, November 27, 2009

How the British withdrawal affected our family – Lam Chun Chew

I was approached by historian, Dr Loh Kah Seng, through my brother Chun See, to recall our experience of how our family was affected by the British military withdrawal from Singapore. My father worked at the British Naval Base in Sembawang most of his working life. I would like to share with readers what I wrote to Dr Loh via email. But I am afraid you are going to be disappointed if you expect tales of severe hardship and struggles arising from this ‘tragic’ turn of events in our family’s history.

A page from: SINGAPORE, An Illustrated History 1941-1984, Ministry of Culture

The irony was this. There were many retrenched base workers having a hard time, but not for my father - the opposite was true. All these years, right from prewar days to his 'golden handshake', he led a tough life - Japanese occupation, staying in a kampong, looking after a family of 7, while sustaining on a small income. This was especially so when two of my younger brothers were going to the university.

But things changed after being retrenched. He received a decent five-figure retrenchment cash benefit which included salaries accrued during the war years. The timing was perfect with all his children coming out to work, the family was in fact very much better off after his retrenchment (or retirement).

During those hardship years (before his retirement) in the sixties, I worked in the PSA as an operations staff and my sister was a primary school teacher. In short, we helped to supplement my father’s meagre salary during the lean years. To be fair to my father, I was not good in my studies like my younger brothers, hence had to start working after my 'O' level and this was a natural course of action taken by me (and many of my contemporaries in those days).

As for my father’s reaction to the ‘bad news’, he did worry a bit for Singapore when the British decided to leave Singapore, but had a great confidence in the Mr Lee Kuan Yew government to solve Singapore problems. However, he did criticize the government for acting tough to the British at first, and later on pleading with them to delay leaving Singapore.

The retrenchment benefits were given quite fast to him - a matter of months. He was not asked for retraining to other jobs. Upon retirement (or after being retrenched), he worked a year or two in his friend’s accounting firm and later on left to work in a timber firm for a couple of years and fully retired at the age of 60. Since he worked in private companies he was unaware of matters pertaining to other retrenchment workers.

As far as I know, he was not offered to migrate to UK. Anyway he was deeply rooted to Singapore.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Travel to Kuala Lumpur (KL) – Peter Chan

My impressions of KL landmarks were developed over a period of time and came about as a result of a) Planned holidays, b) University of Singapore versus University of Malaya at sports, and c) Business. When I became knowledgeable about KL, I found many “Lampor Yan” can be from different dialectical groups but the preference is to communicate in Cantonese.

For me there were two memorable events that came as a result of a planned holiday; one took place in the mid-60s and the other in the early 70s. I start off with the early 70s event.

Just before my NS enlistment, my best friend “Fei Lo” Weng (buddies since Secondary Two) had to go to sea. Fei Lo completed his radio marine diploma course at the Singapore Polytechnic and like many others who took up flying or went sailing it was one way to financially support a family whilst conveniently to avoid NS. You see after Secondary Four, those who joined Singapore Airlines (SIA) – as commercial pilots and flight engineers, and Neptune Orient Line (NOL) – as marine officers – need not serve NS. This was highly unusual as most of us think of NS deferment for tertiary studies or part-time NS - in the Vigilante Corp or Special Constabulary.

Fei Lo knew that by working for NOL he was going to be away from home for 6 months to a year; in fact on the very first trip he went away for almost 5 years until we met again when I was in the university. During this period we kept in touch through snail-mail. Often when he returned to Singapore, he was on “stand-by”; ready to board another vessel in Singapore waters or fly to Nigeria to board a new vessel. He finally called it “quits” when he turned 33. Thus this trip to KL together was one way to spend our remaining days together.

Photo 1: Fei Lo, Aunty Ingrid and I in the Lake Garden (circa 1972). I took this hair-cut hoping that I could clear through NS Enlistment day but unfortunately failed to pass the actual test and ended up “4 X 2”. We took more photos at the National War Monument and an oval-shaped building in the Lake Garden.

We arrived in KL by train and our accommodation was at his maternal grandmother’s house in Salak South Gardens, a fairly new residential estate in the early 1970s. Nearby was the Salak South railway bridge. Salak South Garden had rows of terraced houses on a hill-slope.

I tasted the best sui kow and char siew fan from a kopitiam in that estate; “Lampor Yan” friends tell me it’s still the best in the KL area even now. Sui kow was for breakfast, the other being yow chay kwai with “Pai Kuak Tong”. I was very impressed with the size of the sui kow because in Singapore I could only find small wantons. Malaysian kopitiams were unusual from those in Singapore; the suburban kopitiams had at the most two stalls and a drinks operator. Most times one stall stayed open. I learnt something about Malaysian morning breakfast habits; Nasi Champur for Malays, Roti Prata for Indians and noodles for Chinese. Singaporeans will definitely have a hard time adjusting to Malaysian breakfast habits because bread is not often served at kopitiams.

Aunty Ingrid and her boyfriend drove us to many places, Port Dickson (nearest place to swim in the sea), Port Swettenham, Lake Gardens, Kajang (for satay) and Genting Highlands. That was the first time we stepped into a casino but it really was not a pleasant sight. I saw squatting women in tears, women who went to this little small window to pawn their jewellery for cash, and men who aimlessly paced up and down the corridor outside the casino.

Fei Lo and I went out on our own on some days. We visited the Merdeka Stadium and Fitzpatrick Supermarket at Weld Road. We even had time to pop into Bukit Nanas Convent to see my friend. Little did we know that among my friend’s friends, one pretty Malay student was later destined to be an UMNO politician/Minister. On one visit to Petaling Street, Chinatown we shopped for “Kat Chye”.

Photo 2: Left; Father’s letter to us (circa 1964). Right; PAP election headquarters at Batu Road. Batu Road reminded me so much of South Bridge Road in Singapore with all the typical advertising signboards and Chinese inscriptions on pillars (circa 1964). By September 1965, when the party was de-registered, there were 1,700 party cadres in Malaysia.

In 1964, I received my father’s telephone call from KL. As the trunk telephone link between KL and Singapore suffered “noise disturbance”, I heard him telling me he welcomed me to join him for a short holiday. My father was in KL because the PAP contested the Malaysian General Elections. So my mother sent me off at the Tanjung Pagar Railway Station for the train ride into KL and I had with me Malayan Dollar $20. It was a very enjoyable trip for this little young boy because his primary school textbook, “Malayan Geography Series” came “alive” about rubber trees, people at work, and valleys and hills. Interestingly I found many train employees were Indians and Sikhs, holding positions like train drivers, ticket inspectors and maintenance crew.

Photo 3: Left; Royal Selangor Club on the left of the Padang which in turn faced the Sultan Abdul Samad buildings (circa 1970), Right; The former Odeon Cinema@ Batu Road was also known as Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman in the mid-60s (circa 2007)

I arrived at the KL Railway Station and walked along a road leading to the Padang and the Royal Selangor Club. After taking road directions from some adults, I came to a mosque at the confluence of two rivers; Sungei Gombak and Sungei Klang. This part of town was highly unusual; many buildings look like they came out of the story book, “Aladdin and His Magic Lamp”. I never had seen so many buildings with Middle East architecture. Even in Singapore the slight exception was “The Arcade” in Collyer Quay.

Photo 4: Left; Klang River and Gombak River meet here and history tells us that this was the original spot where Kapitan China Yap Ah Loy founded KL (circa 1974). Right; Mountbatten Road (circa 1970). Some KL street names could also be found in Singapore such as High Street, Cecil Street and Cross Street.

When I met up with my father at Batu Road, I was not sure how to judge his facial expressions. I learnt a few things about politics; the bull symbol was for the Socialist Front, the boat stood for the Alliance Party, and “Sip Sip Ling” was PAP. As everybody was busy with the elections, there was a “Lee Suk Suk” who took care of me for the rest of my stay including making sure I boarded the Malayan Airways flight from the old KL Airport in Sungei Besi to Singapore. We went to see a Malay “silat” movie at the Odeon Cinema. Then off to Bukit Bintang for street-makan and playing the swings, merry-go-round and slides in BB Park (now Sungei Wang Plaza). Many years later I realised “Lee Suk Suk” was the DAP MP for Bukit Bintang. No wonder he knew Bukit Bintang so well at his finger-tip. Maybe “Lee Suk Suk” knew besides baby kissing, there was also baby-sitting.

Photo 5: Left; View of KL from Menara KL. Right; Tengku Abdul Rahman rode on this convertible on his way to the Merdeka Stadium to proclaim Malaya’s independence in 1957.

KL has changed so much that I can hardly “connect” with her. It’s too urban. Even up on Menara KL, I cannot make out the landmarks because the “old” is gone. However I did have a bit of luck. I spotted the first Malayan Prime Minister’s car which was used during the 1957 Independence Day ceremony.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Phone cards

Like the humble coin phone, phone cards are fast becoming extinct in Singapore.

I think the first time I used a phone card was in 1985 when I was in Japan. Along with a group of colleagues from the National Productivity Board, I had been sent to Japan for three-and-a-half months of training. It was called the PDP (Productivity Development Project) Fellowship Programme and we were housed at the newly completed Tokyo International Centre.

We bought phone cards with which to call home. I remember the difficult time we had using the two public phones in the centre. To save on the cost of our trunk calls, we used to make our calls after 11 pm at night which would be midnight Singapore time. And there would usually be a long queue of other residents who wanted to use the public phones. Sometimes I just gave up and paid the extra cost of calling from my room. Most times I just write. No emails or Skype in those days. It was an interesting stay in Japan, but I think I shall blog about it to another time.

This is a photo my room at the Tokyo International Centre in Nishihara. Notice the phone on my table? I wonder if my ever sharp-eyed friend Victor noticed something else interesting thing in this photo?

My …. how much the world has changed since then. Earlier this year my daughter was in Sweden for 6 months on an exchange programme. Most nights we would chat online for free. One Sunday night, we even had family worship ‘together’; singing hymns and taking turns to read verses from the bible. She even created a blog to share her stories and photos.

The other times when I used the phone card a lot was when I was traveling in Malaysia. In the early 90’s, I used to travel to Kuching and Bintulu quite frequently for my training and consultancy assignments. I also had clients in Peninsula Malaysia and that brought me to various towns like Malacca, Kirteh, Kuantan, Port Dickson and even Ipoh. But the one I hated most was Kuala Lumpur because of their notorious traffic.

Using the public phones in Malaysia was quite a hassle because they had two telephone companies - Uniphone and Telekom Malaysia. Uniphone was popular in Sarawak and you can recognize them by the yellow colour booths. However, over in Peninsula, it was very difficult to find these yellow booths. Instead, you see the blue colour Telekom Malaysia booths everywhere.

Hence I had to keep two different phone cards. And I still have one of them with me today.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The humble coin phone

The other day, I was at a mamak shop located at the void deck of an HDB flat in Toa Payoh when I caught sight of this pathetic looking coin phone. It was dirty and looked like it had not been used for ages.

I took the opportunity to try out my new Sony-Ericcson Cybershot C903. By the way, would believe I paid only $1 for this 5 mega-pixel beauty? Of course I had to renew my mobile plan with Starhub for another two years, but then my plan was the cheapest they had, costing only $20 per month. Although it may not be as ‘cool’ as some of the latest touch-screen models or the famous iPhone (I just cannot understand why anyone would queue overnight just to be the first in Singapore to own one), it has everything I need; namely a decent camera that I can used to take pictures of Singapore’s fast-vanishing landscapes for my blog.

I cannot recall the last time I used a coin phone; but I can remember when I first used one. It was the first (and only) public phone that was installed in our kampong just across the road from our house. Like the one in this photo below (picture from the collection of the National Archives), it was housed in a wooden cabinet which had two doors which opened outwards. The cabinet rested on a single concrete stump and base. Chained to the cabinet was a phone book.

The year must have been around 1961. This public telephone was just in front of our neighbour, Chiew Soh’s house. Hence their family became the village telephone operators. I remember one time when we received a call from my dad. Both my younger brother James and I wanted to speak into the phone and were fighting over the receiver when suddenly we heard a stern voice from behind us. It was the technician from the telephone company. He thought we were playing the fool with it, and snatched the receiver from us and hung it back on the hook.

Can you remember how much it cost in those days to make a call? I think it was 10 cents for three minutes. Anyway, we had a cousin from Johor Bahru who knew of an ingenious way to avoid putting money into the phone. Instead of dialing the number on the circular dial, you tap the phone’s receiver hook a certain number of times in quick succession. For example if the number was 4, you did that 4 times, pause briefly and then repeat the process for the next number. I remember he demonstrated that to us when we were in JB one time. I wonder if any engineers out there can confirm if this was possible.

Over the years the public phone has evolved considerably. Below are some photos that I have taken recently, including one from Malaysia.

This one is from my friend Peh’s house. Although it looked pretty cute, he hated it because it was so troublesome to dial the numbers.

Next time, I will blog about my experience with phone cards.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Seeking stories of the British bases and military withdrawal

Yesterday I received an email from a historian, Dr Loh Kah Seng who is looking for participants for his book project on the British bases and military withdrawal from Singapore. Below is his open letter published at his blog. If you would like to offer your assistance in this worthwhile project, please visit his blog. Thank you.

Dear fellow Singaporeans,

I am a Singaporean historian looking to speak to people who remember the British bases and their withdrawal in the early 1970s. The withdrawal was the first major crisis independent Singapore faced. The 56 bases, contributing a fifth of the country’s GDP, were its largest industry, and the pullout threatened the livelihood of one-sixth of the labour force, including an estimated 8,000 amahs.

The pullout also transformed the economy, society and landscape of Singapore in the 1970s. Most of the bases were converted to commercial use, while many base workers underwent a 3-month retraining crash course. Technical and vocational education also expanded, as new laws sought to increase labour productivity and attract foreign capital investment.

These developments resonate with us today: the retraining programmes, the mobilisation of the young, the philosophy that ‘no one owes Singapore a living’. There is also a forgotten social history to unearth: how retrenched base employees coped with the crisis and how workers adjusted to new work routines.I

f you remember the British bases and rundown, or have a family member, relative or friend who does, kindly contact me to lend your voice to an important episode of our national story.

Please pass this message along to those who might be interested.

Thank you.

Loh Kah Seng (Dr)
Visiting Research FellowInstitute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore
Mobile: +65 81981172

Monday, November 09, 2009

Old Beauties Quiz (7)

Can you identify the old beauty in this photo? Eh …… I am not referring to the two-legged one, though I must say that my old friend Peh Seng Ket looked rather dashing.

I am also very curious about this place. It looks terribly familiar but unfortunately my friend Peh cannot remember where this photo was taken.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Travel To Johore Bahru (JB) – Peter Chan

My very first trip outside Singapore was to JB to watch a Mandarin movie, “Sun, Moon & Star”. That was in 1961. “Sun, Moon & Star” as far as I know was never screen in Singapore and we had to drive to the Cathay-JB Cinema. There was a very prominent Cathay logo neon signboard on top of the building visible from Woodlands in Singapore.

Photo 1: “Sun, Moon & Star” (part 2). Who is the one with the crutch?

My parents must have been very loyal fans of Grace Chang; like many others who knew her from the days of the “Mambo Girl”. Apart from the inconvenience of crossing over the causeway and the stringent official custom checks, there was no need for international passports. You produced your Singapore ID to the Malayan immigration officials. For me, I didn’t even need to produce my birth certificate.

I was never a fan of Chinese black & white movies unless they were Cantonese action movies like “Wong Fei Hung” or slapstick comedies starring “Nga Chat Soh”. To give you an idea on the length of “Sun, Moon & Star”, it was screened over two sessions; Part 1 this week and Part 2 two weeks later. Cinema-goers had to retain one portion of the ticket as proof for viewing the other part. Within each part, there was even an intermission. I remembered Part 1 was all about “a boy falling in love with girl(s)” but it had too much dialogue. Poor me I was looking for the English subtitles at the bottom of the screen but they were colored yellow and being seated somewhere at the Back Stall, this was a real eye strain. I was very restless throughout the movie and my father had to raise his voice to shut me up. Finally he asked me to wait outside the cinema. This was a great opportunity for me to explore the streets outside Cathay-JB. I think there was a Hotel Malaya at one end of the street and itinerant pushcart hawkers selling drinks, kachang-puteh and kueh-kueh outside the cinema.

Part 2 was action drama because it showed the fighting between Chinese and Japanese soldiers but the war drama was hardly the sort I was looking forward to like in “The Guns of Navarone”. The action began with the blowing of the bugle, the waving of flags (sounds Communist alright), artillery shells flying and the charge of the human wave towards the enemy position. For some strange reasons, the camera never focused on the Japanese soldiers but most of the time on the beautiful Grace Chang and Julie Yeh. After many decades, the only question I would have loved to ask; who was the person walking with a crutch in that movie?

For many people, JB might be a quiet place. Not for me.

Photo 2: Left; On the causeway and in the distance is Lumba Kuda flats in JB with its prominent water-tank on the roof top (circa 1967). Right; Cathay-JB Cinema next to the Lumba Kuda flats (circa 1964).

For example after that Mandarin movie, my family headed to the second-best place for satay; after the Beach Road Satay Club in Singapore. The satay stalls were located next to a public toilet facing the JB bus terminus for Green Bus, Alec Bus Company and South Johore Bus. Sampling JB satay and mee rebus was a common occurrence for me because my father loved country-side driving and sometimes drove to view the newly-built residential estates, one of which was Marine Vista in the Jalan Straits View vicinity.

The old customs house just after the Malaysian immigration checkpoint was a prominent landmark for me. It was here we thumb-up for free lorry rides to Kuala Lumpur and Penang after we completed our Secondary 4 exams. We knew that the Malaysian-registered lorries had to clear the Johore customs after their delivery trips to Singapore. Getting that ride was never easy and on most occasions we had to wait for hours. It was not because the drivers turned us down. Rather we had to check with each lorry driver on his ultimate destination. We were not looking for lorries stopping at Yong Peng or Segamat; we were on the look-out for lorries going to towns nearer to Kuala Lumpur such as Seremban or Cameron Highlands. Coming back to Singapore from up-country, we hitch hiked the Straits Times early morning delivery truck from Jalan Tiong, Kuala Lumpur to JB. Even up to the late 1980s, I found that the New Straits Times daily newspaper was only printed in Kuala Lumpur and distributed to the other Malaysian towns. Thus, a JB New Straits Times reader could only get his newsstand copy by mid-day.

Photo 3: Left; JB Bus Terminus (now City Square). In the background is Jalan Wong Ah Fook. The row of two-storey buildings still stand – it’s called Central Building. (Photo courtesy of Fred York. circa 1956) Right; The old customs house on Persiaran Tun Sri Lanang. This part has been cleared to make way for the second Malaysian Immigration and Customs building. Bukit Chagar CIQ is the third development. You can see Woodlands in the background.

Before Taman Sentosa became popular with Singaporeans, we patronized the cinemas such as REX along Jalan Wong Ah Fook and the Capitol Cinema at Jalan Stesen. The JB cinemas screened X-rated movies like the “Carry On” Series which were terribly censored in Singapore. You could never understand the story how come an about-to-be naked woman screamed one moment and then a smiling Sidney James chuckled. At other times when we saved enough pocket-money, we went to the Seaview Hotel to watch those forbidden floor shows. No they didn’t have those wrestling with python shows. It was more like “Bend it like Beckham”.

From a bus-stop on Jalan Wong Ah Fook opposite the JB Bus Terminus, we took the local Alec Bus Company to far-away places like Jason Bay and the Kota Tinggi Waterfalls. No part of Johore was too far for us. Each time we came up to JB, we learnt more of the street names and the buildings. We didn’t come up for window-shopping. Very soon S$1 no longer had the same value or interchangeably as M$1; perhaps telling us that we were no longer school-boys.

Photo 4: Approximate location of the old Cathay-JB Cinema on Bukit Chagar. Jalan Lumba Kuda was the road in front of the cinema but it is now outside the CIQ security fence.

Photo 5: Broadway Cinema

Today JB is no longer a sleepy town but like Singapore; many of the historical landmarks have made way for economic development. So it has become a bit of challenge for me now to try to find the former Cathay-JB Cinema, REX Cinema, the old customs house, Chung Kiaw Bank building, Seaview Hotel, the unique-looking star-fish flats next to Cathay-JB and even the former JB Bus Terminus.
I found that Cathay-JB is now a part of the Buki Chagar CIQ facility. To find its exact location look out for the three blocks of flats in Photo 2. The buildings are still standing. Rex Cinema is a private carpark opposite KOMTAR. Chung Kiaw Bank building is now UOB building, next to the first flyover after your cross the causeway in the direction of Buki Chagar CIQ.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Flying from Singapore to the UK – in three days! (Brian Mitchell)

Good Morning Yesterday has brought together people across great distances and also across many years. Some time ago GMY published my blog about plane spotting in the 1960s and recently an old friend from 47 years ago, David Taylor, saw himself in one of the blog photos and added a comment. David (who I misnamed Malcolm on the blog) and I have not been in touch for nearly five decades but I am now looking forward to chatting to him and perhaps meeting sometime soon.

David immediately sent me a rather poignant photograph which I had no idea existed and which my brother, sister and I are absolutely delighted to see. It is from August 1962 and shows the Mitchell family, my younger brother Ian, my father John, myself, my mother Emily and my sister Carol. We are boarding a Comet 2 at RAF Changi to return to the UK – this is our final moment in Singapore after living there for two and a half years.

David, who lived nearby in what is now the Changi West SAF airbase, was on hand to record the moment, he emailed me; “I recall that not many families were flown by Transport Command. Most of us came and went by BUA Britannias from Paya Lebar...I was very envious that you flew in a Comet!”

So GMY has enabled my family to see this photograph and I have the opportunity to renew a friendship from long ago. David has other photographs and I may be able to share some of these with you in the future. Perhaps David can be persuaded to blog as well?

But I want to tell you about that flight home from Singapore because it was rather extraordinary – the Comet flew only by day and it took us three days to reach the UK. This was also the last passenger flight on this route by a Comet 2 – we were told that as we boarded that ramp our footsteps were being recorded for a film record of the flight (which I have never seen).

We left Changi in the afternoon, flew over Sumatra and as evening fell reached a tiny atoll called Gan in the middle of the Indian Ocean. I can still see the intense blue green sea and white beaches of Gan and my brother remembers walking on the beach with my father. I recall very little of Gan except that we spent the night in wooden huts and that there was raucous singing and shouting outside the women’s accommodation by airmen as a very attractive young lady was on board our flight!

The next morning we set off across the Indian Ocean and reached Aden in the Middle East for a refuelling stop. There was civil unrest in Aden and (perhaps I am imagining this) but I recall hearing gunfire as we left the plane. In the afternoon we set off across the African continent. This was a journey I saw little of – for some reason there was a shortage of seats and I was volunteered to travel this leg with the baggage! No - not in the hold underneath the passenger compartment – most of the baggage in the Comet was held in rope cages immediately behind the flight deck. I made myself as comfortable as I could on the bags just behind the navigator’s seat! For a while it was interesting to watch the flight crew but I eventually settled down with my book – a bank heist thriller called ‘The League of Gentlemen’. I recall leaving the baggage area just once – to look down from a cabin window as we crossed the River Nile.

By late afternoon we reached Libya, this was in the pre Gaddafi days and the RAF had an airbase in the desert about 20 miles south of Tripoli. It was a desolate spot. Both my brother and I recall swimming in a pool, surrounded by a high wall to stop it filling with sand. I also walked to the main entrance looking down an endless straight road leading eventually to the sea and at the enormous dunes piled up around the base. So a second nights rest on our journey from Singapore – this time in the North African desert.

On the third day we flew north across Europe, as we did so we lost the sunshine we had become so used to as a thick bank of cloud covered Northern France and England. We landed at RAF Lyneham in south west England on a damp, dull and cold day – it was the English summer! None of our family had any warm clothing and I remember that we gathered in the only warm place we could find, a clothes drying area with hot water pipes! So we were finally home after our three day journey – was I glad? Not at all, I wanted only to return immediately to Singapore!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Elephants @ Seraya Crescent

Yesterday, I received a pleasant surprise in my email. Mr Robin Brewster sent me some 1965/66 photos of Singapore. Among them were two that my guest bloggers Freddy Neo and Edward Williams, and other old timers familiar with Sembawang Hills Estate would love – photos of an elephant strolling along Seraya Crescent.

According to Robin, the animals (yes, more than one) were being exercised, and it was a fairly regular affair. Unfortunately I don’t have any other details to share. Hopefully Edward and Freddy can shed more light on this interesting sight that we are unlikely to ever witness again in 21st century Singapore.

Hehee ….. maybe that bare-chested kid in the photos is our friend Freddy? Naa …. in 1966 he would be around 14 already.

PS - If you do not know where is Seraya Crescent, please refer to our previous post.