Sunday, September 27, 2009

Edward Williams remembers the Grand Prix at Old Upper Thomson Road

With all the hot action going on at the Night F1 in town, I think it is timely to post this story that Edward sent to me a couple of weeks ago.


One exciting annual event for the residents of Sembawang Hills Estate was the Singapore Grand Prix. We had our first grand prix in 1961 and it proved to be an extremely popular event, not just for us, but for the entire country as well. By the late 60s it was estimated that over a hundred thousand spectators attended the grand prix.

I remember one hot afternoon when my aunty and I were in a long queue behind one of the ticket booths, amongst a huge crowd of several hundred impatient fans. When the tickets in our booth had sold out, the long queue of men got very agitated and started surging forward, towards the booth. The police was quick on the scene with batons drawn. As they walked towards the booth they ordered all children to leave the vicinity. I guess this was a precautionary measure, in case a riot broke out. In the end order was restored and everyone got their tickets when spare ones were issued from the other booths.

The grand prix was held in the Thomson Road circuit. This 3 mile circuit covered the stretch of Old Upper Thomson Road from Sembawang Hills Circus to the other end where it met Upper Thomson Road and continued along this road until it reached Sembawang Hills Circus again. This bend was called “The Hairpin” or “Circus Hairpin”. It was here that one driver was killed when his car overturned. A friend of mine claimed that he witnessed this incident. Altogether 7 fatalities were recorded, which also involved road marshals. The race was discontinued from 1974 onwards, in part due to the problems of managing the increased traffic and the recent fatalities. The Thomson Road circuit was reputed to be one of the most dangerous tracks in the world.

During the 4-day event the entire Thomson Road circuit was fenced up. This meant that the roads were closed to the public and bus services did not operate or were diverted to alternative routes.

Grand stand seats cost $5 a day. For this you had the privilege of sitting on wooden benches elevated above the ground and under cover. This meant that you had shelter from the sun and rain. Some of my friends were fortunate to have complimentary grand stand tickets as one of them had an uncle who worked at Rothmans, the major sponsor of the grand prix. The $1 ticket allowed you access to the public enclosure area. You have the freedom to walk along Old Upper Thomson Road, choose your favourite spot and, if you’re early enough, sit on the ground behind the fence. Trees along the fringe of Pierce Reservoir provided some relief from the hot sun. Late comers either stood behind the front row of seated spectators, or left for another less crowded spot where they could have a “front seat” alongside the fence.

Two favourite spots along the Old Upper Thomson Road stretch were the Snakes’ Bend and the sharp V-shape Devil’s Bend. Many accidents happened at these notorious bends which account for their popularity with the spectators! The skills of the drivers who expertly manoeuvred these bends were a joy to watch.

Once I was seated behind the fence close to one of the bends watching a race in progress. Suddenly a car skidded in front and crashed against a barrier. A number of people behind me scrambled to the front, climbed over the fence to get to the crashed car. A few of us “front row spectators” received knocks on our heads from the mad rush as they leapt the fence over us. I was quite shocked at such a display of “blood thirsty” behaviour. Clearly they were impatient to see the gory sight of an accident. Their shouts, excitement and eagerness betrayed their savage instinct. It was also a foolish and dangerous thing to do, running onto the track.

For a young child the experience of the grand prix was awesome. I remember how the deafening roar of the cars and the smell of the racing fumes would send my heart beating rapidly as they approached. The race was called over a loud speaker which reverberated through the air. As the sound got louder and louder, heads were turned in anticipation of the approaching cars and suddenly everyone stood up and in a matter of seconds one or several cars would whizzed past. Occasionally the crowd cheered loudly or clapped, especially if a popular driver went past.

There were several categories of races for motorcycles, saloon cars, vintage cars, sports cars and the main Gran Prix event for motorcycles and racing cars. The highlight of the 4 day event, the Formula 2 Grand Prix race was a 60 lap race but this was changed to a 40 and later 50 lap race from 1969. Overseas participants hailed from the UK, Hong Kong, Japan, Australia, New Zealand etc.

Albert Poon (from Hong Kong) was one of the well known drivers. He won the Sports and GT Cars event twice in a Lotus, in 1963 and 1965. Singapore’s Yong Nam Kee won in 1962. Japanese riders dominated motorcycle events for many years. In 1968, for example, all three motorcycle events were won by Japanese riders. I still remember the names of riders like Motohashi and Hasegawa. Two of our local drivers won the Grand Prix in 1966 (Lee Han Seng) and 1967 (Rodney Seow). They became household names, much sought after by the media, treated with the awe and respect that champions deserved. Every kid in town seemed to know their names and spoke of them with reverence.

At the end of each day thousands of spectators streamed out of the front entrance at the Upper Thomson Road end of Sembawang Hills Circus, tired but still happy and excited over the day’s events. For most it was either a drive home or travel by public transport. For the locals of Sembawang Hills Estate it was only short walk home. It would not be an exaggeration to say the Grand Prix, which was a major sporting event in Singapore, placed Sembawang Hills Estate on the country’s “map”.

Youtube video of the 1966 Grand Prix

Related post:

Motor racing in Singapore

** Special thanks to John Hake of Memories of Singapore for the two 1966 photos.

Friday, September 25, 2009

AKC Cinema

Karu asked me if I remember the AKC Cinema at Gillman Camp. Actually in 1977 when I spent four-and-a-half months there in the School of Combat Engineers, this cinema was no longer around. But I managed to find a photo from Tom O’brien’s Memories of Singapore website. Below it is a photo that I took of the same building recently. As you can see, there is not much change.

I believe besides this AKC Cinema in Gillman Barracks, as Gillman Camp was called in the pre-SAF days, there must be several others like it in the other British camps. I recall that there was one at Dover Road, near the junction with Clementi Road. It was called Kent Cinema. It was open to SAF personnel and I went there twice. I did not enjoy it very much as I kept feeling that we didn't belong there. Anyway, I asked Tom O’brien if he remembered this place and this is what he wrote.

“I do remember the Cinema on Dover Road. It was situated next door to the Warren Golf Course, on the corner of Dover and Clementi Road. It was quite a small cinema, with a six lane bowling alley and was air conditioned. That's one of the reasons I used to hang out there. Although when it got busy, as kids, we were asked to sit outside at the back, where there was a seating area. It was called the Kent Cinema and belonged to the AKC* (Army Kinema Corporation). It was managed and run by local staff. The two managers were Tamil I think. They didn't really like us being there, but providing we purchased food or drinks, then we were tolerated. I remember we used to get told off quite often for our behaviour.”

I believe these two places that I have blogged about, and others like it, must hold many pleasant memories for our British friends like John Harper, Tom O’brien, Brian Mitchell and Tom Brown. I hope they can tell us more about such places after reading this post.

* The Army Kinema Corporation was a large organisation based in Croydon, responsible for providing the British army everywhere with film entertainment.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Ammo Base @ Depot Road

If I were to ask you what was the most prominent landmark in Depot Road, you would probably say that it was the Mindef Complex comprising the Central Manpower Base and the two huge Defence Technology Towers. During my years at the National Productivity Board in Bukit Merah Central, I could see this complex taking shape from scratch from my office on the 19th floor of what is today called the Spring Building. Unfortunately, I did not have the foresight to take some photos and so I cannot describe to you what the place looked like then. Do you know what used to occupy this area prior to the building of the Mindef complex?

From what I can recall from memory, it was a place we called Ammo Base. During my NS days when I was in the combat engineers, I remember coming to this place to chop bamboo trunks. You see for us field combat engineers, we needed to have two huge bamboo poles in our three tonners at all times. This was for the purpose of camouflaging the vehicle using the standard camouflage net. We used these bamboo poles to prop up the camouflage net to break the shape of the vehicle. In fact, for the section proficiency test, the section commanders were tested on how fast they could complete this task.

The Ammo Base was located at a rather secluded corner of Depot Road. Surrounded by thick vegetation, it was not very visible from the main road. There were several huge bamboo trees outside the camp and so we did not have to actually enter the camp to get our bamboo.

I have always been rather curious about this place that I have visited long ago and so I asked Karu if he remembered; and this is what he said:

"The Ammo Depot you are talking about was called Magazine Area. I used to be on duty there. I was with the Army Depot Police from 1969 to 1971. Sometimes when on Night Duty, we needed to patrol in pairs down the roads inside the Magazine Area. Saw many snakes there, and it was very eerie at night, when the bamboo rubs against each other, they create a kind of eerie noise. There is also this 'jambu' like fruits there. As you patrol in the night, suddenly one will drop in front of you and roll down. Quite scary when on Night Duty."

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Karu remembers the old British Army Camps

Recently I received an email from a Singaporean who is exactly the same age as I. Like me, Karu sat for his Senior Cambridge Exams (that’s today’s O levels) in 1968 but his career took a very different path. He joined the British army at the tender age of 17.

So thanks to Karu, you will be able to learn a bit about Singapore’s history that not many of us know about; the British army camps. I certainly don’t. The only two British army camps that I know about are Gillman Barracks and Selarang Barracks. Sadly, most of the places that Karu mentions are no longer around.


Dear Mr. Lam,
Good Morning! My name is Karu. I read some of your articles about Singapore's past. I am especially very interested in the articles about the British Army in the 1960s.
After my Senior Cambridge examinations in the 1968, I joined the Army Depot Police, which was one of the 3 locally enlisted auxiliary police units of the British Army. My unit was based at the 3 Base Ordnance Depot off the Alexandra Road. We were guarding the British Land Installations at BOD, Ayer Rajah, Singapore District Areas, the Phoenix Park and the C IN C (Commander-in-Chief) Residence. This is where my love for the British Army grew.

Army Depot Police passing parade

I am particularly very interested in the other Auxiliary Police Units of the British Army, mainly the Naval Police Force and the RAF Police Auxiliaries. Another unit which I am interested in is the SINGAPORE GUARD REGIMENT, of which the locally enlisted personnel were MORs (Malay Other Ranks) and their Officers were British Army Officers. Although I have seen this unit personnel in my course of duty, I did not try to find out more about them. After many years, quite recently, I came to know that their HQs was at Colombo Camp. I believe it is somewhere in the Ulu Pandan Area. I am trying to locate this Colombo Camp. I still remember members of this Unit wearing the Scarlet Songkok and outstanding "Lion" cap badge.

Before the British pulled out in 1971, I started a hobby. I started collecting their cap badges. I manage to collect some of their cap badges. This interest in still growing and now I have about 300 cap badges of various army units.

I am also very interested in any photos of the British Army. Places like the 3 Base Ordnance Depot, The Gloucester Barracks, The Slim Barracks and any other photos.

I hope that I am not making you bored with my olden day stories. Nice reading your articles, and make the photos BIG, especially the 5 Gurkha Dog Units photos, because I am very interested,

Thanks and regards

Karunakaran N K P.

Next: Karu sheds some light on the Ammo dump in Depot Road

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

But not too much

My blogger friend Thimbuktu’s latest post about the advertising tag lines reminds me of one very cute TV advertisement from several years ago. It was on the Ribena drink.

If my memory serves me right, it was about this cute little girl who was asked to share her packet of Ribena with a boy. Whilst she was generous enough to hand over her packet to the boy, she reminded him not to finish the whole packet by saying … But not too much.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister spoke about the issue of integrating new citizens. Like MM Lee who spoke about the same issue at the Tanjong Pagar National Day dinner on 13 Aug, he wants Singaporeans to welcome them.

I think Singaporeans generally are like the generous Ribena girl. They say; “Sure you are welcome to share some of our goodies …… but not too much”.

Edward Williams remembers Sembawang Hills Estate Part 5 - The Story of Mr Lim and Joseph

Here is a story of two men, although not residents of Sembawang Hills Estate, nevertheless had some connections to the estate.

I used to fish at a number of ponds around Sembawang Hills Estate and Yio Chu Kang Road. One of the ponds was “Cathay Fishing Pond” (hope I got the name right). I walked there from Sembawang Hills Estate, past the junction of Lorong Kinchir and Upper Thomson Road, for short distance more, then turn left into a road that leads to this fishing pond. I never knew the name of this kampong. I can vaguely recall the barber shop at the junction that Freddy mentioned. There were 2 ponds at Cathay.
* The fishing pond that Edward is referring to must have looked like this one which was called Ng Tong Choon's Fishing Pond in Sembawang (Photo from National Archives Collection)

Mr Lim CE and his neighbour were both co-owners of this pond. He was then about 30, had a big family (at least 6 children) and his mother lived with him too. He was a very nice gentleman, always considerate and forever cheerful. What struck me most was his constant hearty laughter. He only spoke Hokkien.

Besides this fishing pond he also owned an “open air” cinema. I cannot remember where this cinema was, but I have been there on several occasions. For the benefit of the younger generation, an “open-air” cinema is just what it implies – it is open (no roof top) and you get lots of fresh air! Hence the name “open air”. There were no cushioned seats, just long wooden benches, so you sat anywhere you like. When it rained, most of the patrons would move to the side walls for shelter. I don’t think there was a money-back guarantee for inclement weather.

* For the younger readers who have never seen an open-air theatre before, this is a photo of one such theatre in Somapah (from the National Archives Collection)

I believe the cinema and the fishing pond wasn’t doing well enough. Mr Lim then decided to venture into real estate. He first bought a house in Jalan Lanjut (Sembawang Hills Estate) and rented it to a British family. Sometime later he bought another house in Sembawang Hills Drive (still in the same estate). Years later he bought a third house in Adelphi Park, an estate along Upper Thomson Road, a few miles from Sembawang Hills Estate. These houses were originally bought for investment purposes. He continued to live in his kampong house with his extended family. In the boom years ahead each of these houses would be worth almost a million each. When Mr Lim first bought the houses in Sembawang Hills Estate he’d have paid about $20K to $25K for each of the houses. This is only my rough estimate. Mr Lim will be in his 70s today
The second person in this story is Joseph. He lived in a kampong somewhere off Upper Thomson Road, further away from Mr Lim’s area. Joseph operated a pirate taxi service (pa hong chia), fetching kids to school in the morning and back home after school, in his Mercedes Benz 280D. His customers included some kids from Sembawang Hills Estate, a couple of whom were my friends. Joseph also supplied Marymount Convent School with fresh vegetables, meat and fish every morning. This was actually meant for the boarding house of the school. One morning his car broke down and my friend and his brother had to carry a basin of fish up the hill to the boarding house. Joseph also ran a food stall outside his home. Here fresh meat and fish were sold on makeshift tables in the morning.
Joseph bought his first bus in the 60s and operated it for the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (CHIJ). The bus was painted blue with the name of the school on its sides. My friend told me that he was in this bus when Joseph drove it to the convent on its maiden trip. A couple of nuns came abroad, prayed and blessed the bus. Joseph was obviously a staunch Catholic. He did not stop at one bus. In the years ahead he continued to expand his fleet. He had over 20 buses by the late 60s. These buses would be parked along Old Upper Thomson Road, near the entrance to Pierce Reservoir, in the evenings.
Like Mr Lim, Joseph also had a cheerful disposition. My friend said he was quite a funny man. Why am I telling you the story of these men? Both Mr Lim CE and Joseph hailed from our local kampongs, had no formal education, yet were very successful. Their successes were inspirational for me and many others. What were the ingredients of their achievements? First and foremost let me state the obvious – hard work. Nothing succeeds like hard work. They worked hard, had foresight, business acumen and seized opportunities they saw in their own ways. Mr Lim went into real estate while Joseph chose the transport business. They had ideas and an action plan, and most important of all, they acted on their ideas. They lived exemplary lives and were good role models for those who knew them.

For privacy reasons I have not given Mr Lim’s full name. If any of their children or grandchildren are reading this blog, let me say to them: “I am fortunate to have met Mr Lim and Joseph when I was a kid in Sembawang Hills Estate”.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Edward Williams remembers Sembawang Hills Estate Part 4

Freddy Neo wrote that during the period 1958-1970 about 25% of the houses in Sembawang Hills Estate were rented out to British servicemen and their families. I don’t think his family’s experiences with their British neighbour were typical of the social relationship between the British and the locals. From my observation, most of the British families kept to themselves. I cannot recall any social interaction between them and the locals in the estate. I think Freddy was fortunate to have a neighbour who is keen to socialise with the locals.

It was true that the British families were quite intolerant of us during our Chinese New Year celebrations. At the stroke of midnight we used to let off firecrackers to herald the advent of the New Year. One family in our street would set off between 20 to 30 rows of fire crackers, so the noise would go on for about 45 minutes. This was obviously a very expensive extravaganza. We were told that the man of the house was a very superstitious person (and, of course, rich as well). So what were the typical reactions from the British families? They always rang the police to complain. The patrol car would come and go. There was nothing the police could do – after all it was Chinese New Year and firing crackers were one of the many ways we celebrated the event.

I remember a few noisy parties hosted by the British families. They carried on way past midnight, singing and yelling loudly in an intoxicated state, in the garden (outside the house). Yet none of the locals in our street would complain to the authorities. I don’t think this was because we were more tolerant. This could be partly explained by the hangover from the colonial days when the British were our masters.

The English seemed to like our hot weather. I have seen the women lying on the front lawn in their bikinis, reading a book, under the hot sun. Sometimes they had their tops off, but lying on their front and facing towards the front of the house, so the locals could only see their bare backs. At least they were sensitive to our feelings about nudity (or partial nudity) in public.

One English man who lived alone in Jalan Lanjut would create a scene every evening when he returned home drunk. You could hear him from a distance as he walked down Jalan Chengam, calling out loudly. The commotion caused all the dogs in the nearby homes to bark. As he approached his house, his dog would dash out to greet him. It was an amusing scene, to watch him sitting on the pavement with his dog licking all over his face. That’d always give us a good laugh.

We had the same experience at the provision shop as Freddy’s maternal grandmother. This shop, located at or near the corner of Jalan Leban and Jalan Kuras, catered mostly to the British families and treated the locals with some disdain. I think both of us remember the name of this shop, but we’re discreet enough not to publish it.

It’s true that many of the British families had servants to do the domestic work in the house. Even some of the locals also had live-in servants. I realise we used the term “servant” in the old days, but I still find it somewhat derogatory. I’d have preferred “domestic hand”. Many o f the local homes had their laundry done by a woman from the village. An old lady called “Ah Sim” used to come in every morning (except on weekends) to wash our clothes. I remember the brown jagged plank that Ah Sim would scrub our clothes on. She used 2 large basins, one of which had a continuous flow of water. Once the clothes were washed, they were hung on bamboo poles (tek koh) to dry.

The practise of collecting leftover food, vegetable peelings etc was not confined to the British families. My mother used to have a tin of leftovers hanging outside our gate. Someone from the village would collect it every evening. I am sure other locals did likewise. The collected stuff was fed to the pigs and poultry. Once or twice a year we received gifts of eggs from the villager as a thank-you response, which I thought was very nice and generous. Ah Sim also brought us Chinese cakes during festivities. As a Christian my mother would only accept the cakes that have not been offered to the gods in prayers. Ah Sim always made sure that the cakes she brought conformed to my mother’s wishes.

I must relate one almost-tragic incident that happened in the 60s. One afternoon, during a heavy downpour, an English woman was running down Jalan Chengam, screaming frantically. When it rained heavily, the monsoon drain was filled with a torrent of gushing water. Apparently her child was missing, or had fallen into the monsoon drain. I think she was following the flow of the water down the drain, towards the end of the street. At the point where Jalan Chengam meets Jalan Lanjut, both monsoon drains connect to a short tunnel which runs across the road and opens up at the other side of Jalan Lanjut, continuing towards Jalan Mengkudu. A Chinese woman came out of her house and looked at the drain where the tunnel began. I was there with one or two others, witnessing the whole spectacle under the pouring rain. The distraught English woman could only stand there helplessly, crying her heart out. At the entrance of the tunnel was a mesh of branches that must’ve been dumped in the drain by some locals. These had collected at the entrance of the tunnel. Tangled in this mesh of branches was a tiny English child, probably about 1 year old. The Chinese woman carefully waded in the drain towards the front of the tunnel and grabbed the child. The flow of the water in the drain was still quite strong. The child was handed over to the English woman, who was still sobbing uncontrollably. She was clearly engrossed by the shock of almost losing her child. She hugged the child and left immediately. The child had only suffered minor cuts and bruises.

How lucky it was that the entrance of the tunnel was blocked by a few branches. The branches could have been easily pushed into the tunnel and out towards the other end. Who knows what the fate of the child would be if this was the case.

I was told that the English woman returned in the evening to thank the Chinese woman who had braved the gushing water in the drain to retrieve her child. If my memory is correct, the drain would be at least 4 feet deep. The English woman would be about 70 today. That lucky boy would be in his late 40’s. We were all relieved that the outcome was a happy ending.

Lam Chun See continues …

If I may, I would like to make a comment regarding our relationships to our “servants”. I think generally the British families seem to treat their ‘amahs’ as they called them with more love and respect. I have come across many cases where British kids, now all grown up, tried so hard to reconnect with their amahs. A very good example is of how Lynn Copping she flew all the way to Singapore just to meet her long lost Amah.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Edward Williams remembers Sembawang Hills Estate Part 3

When we first moved into Sembawang Hills Estate in 1958, the newly built homes had the old style “squatting” toilet. It wasn’t until about 10 years later that we installed the modern toilet, which allowed users to be comfortably seated while “doing their business”.

The houses had no hot water system. I was told that today most homes in Singapore have a hot water system installed. To shower with warm water, we had to boil a kettle of hot water and pour it into a plastic pail of cold tap water. This mixture of warm water is then poured over your head with a cup or bowl. As kids, whenever we come home drenched by the rain, my mother always insisted that we immediately shower with warm water. If you are recovering from an illness, you’d probably prefer a warm shower too.

The middle of the house was not covered by the roof. It was an exposed, open top which allowed sunlight and ventilation through. In the event of rain, the top is covered by pulling a rope which dragged a sliding corrugated zinc panel into the “closed position”. In its “open position” the panel is allowed to slide backwards to the end, where it is now seated above the toilet and shower. We call this part of the house the “air well”.

A small drain ran through the “air well”. This drain is connected to a bigger drain outside the house. The exterior drain leads to a large monsoon drain along the boundary of the property. In the event of heavy rainfall, water could be seen gushing along the small drain in the “air well”. Occasionally, the drain overflowed and the floor of the “air well” is filled with rain water. However the surrounding areas (the hall, kitchen and rooms) were never flooded as they were elevated about 4 inches above the “air well” floor.

All the windows had grills on them as a safety feature. The front door of most houses had a door and a collapsible gate as well. Most of the terraced homes in the estate do not have space within their property for parking. The local residents parked their cars along the streets, outside their homes. The homes have either terrazzo or mosaic tiled floors. It is not uncommon for the hall and perhaps the kitchen to be tiled, while the rest of the house has plain cement floors.

Most homes had ceiling fans in the hall and in one or two rooms. I cannot remember any homes with air conditioning. I do recall a house that was "converted" into a barber salon which had air conditioning. This was in the early 60s. I think this salon was situated in Jalan Leban. I liked this place because it was so cool inside. As a kid this was probably the only place where I experienced air conditioning. There were 3 or 4 barber seats in the hall of this house which fronted as the parlour. I also liked the smell of the shaving cream. At the end of your haircut the barber would give you “cracks” or “slaps” on your back of your shoulder with clapsed palms. This was supposed to relax your shoulder muscles.

Related posts:

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Edward Williams remembers Sembawang Hills Estate Part 2

Today many families buy their fresh food from supermarkets. In the 60’s we got our meat, fish and vegetables from Hum Min who lived in the village at the back of our estate. Each morning he’d push his 3-wheel cart along the estate selling not only fresh meat but also some preserved foodstuffs like tan chye or chye poh. Everything you purchased was wrapped in old newspaper. My mother loved to haggle with Hum Min over his prices. It was a friendly “battle” between vendor and customer each day. Hum Min also operated on a credit system – all transactions were noted in a small notebook and payments were made at the end of the month.

Early one morning Hum Min was robbed by 2 knife-wielding men on his way to the market to buy fresh supplies. He suffered some cuts on his hand – I can’t remember how serious his injury was. After this incident Hum Min “retired”. It was a sad end to many years of service to our estate. However Hum Min still had his shop in the village. Occasionally my mother would send me on errands to buy sugar, msg (bee cheng) or salt from his village store.

Hum Min’s business was taken over by another villager. The new vendor drove a van around the estate with his fresh supplies, stopping at street corners for his morning trade. You could say that this was progress in the high tech direction – from pushing a 3-wheel cart to driving a van. I still miss Hum Min and his push cart. As a kid I particularly enjoyed it when he bent over to push the door of the cart open, to bring out more food stuffs. The inside of his cart always held some mysterious connotations for me. I’d strain my eyes to peer into the dark interior, to see what treasures were in store.

We had other street vendors touring the estate too. The knife and scissors sharpener who’d call out loudly “Chin char koh ah boh kar tay” as he pushed his bicycle along. The cockle shell (chee hum) man with a big basket on his bicycle, who walked bare footed in spite of the hot bitumen road. The ice cream and lollies van, the otak man with his nonya cakes. Otak is grilled fish in coconut leaf. There was also an Indian who carried his cakes (e.g. pakoras) and spicy nuts on a circular tray balanced on his head. At night the mee goreng, satay and chestnut (kow luck) vendors paid us regular visits. The satay man lived in Old Upper Thomson Road. The mee goreng seller parked his cart on the street and knocked his wok with the frying spade to signal his presence. I always enjoyed watching them cook. In the early 60’s we even had a “fish and chips” van that toured the estate. This business was run by a family in Jalan Rukam. It didn’t last long though. It was probably geared towards the British servicemen and their families in the estate.

Related post: Itinerant food vendors of yesteryears

Friday, September 04, 2009

Gordon Sargent remembers Mowbray Camp

Recently I received a letter all the way from Bulwick, in the UK, from an ex-British serviceman by the name of Gordon Sargent. Gordon took the trouble to write out his letter the old-fashioned way in beautiful cursive handwriting. He shared with me about his time in Mowbray Camp in Ulu Pandan Road from way back in the 50’s. He even included photo copies of two photos.

So thanks to Gordon, you will be able to learn a bit about the history of one of the few remaining British army camps in Singapore. Thanks to contribution from Gordon and other readers, I shall be able to start a new series about old British Army camps in Singapore.


Dear Lam Chun See,

I discovered your photograph from your kampong days when I was doing a little research on Singapore. I spent 19 months at Mowbray Camp a little before your kampong days. I was stationed there from July 1957 to February 1959, so I left Singapore fifty years ago. Amazing where the time goes.

In 1957 the camp was called No. 3 AWDU (Army War Dog Unit). The name was changed some time in 1958 to No. 3 AGDU (Army Guard Dog Unit).
At that time the unit was the base of the Royal Army Veterinary Corps comprising around 150 officers and men with 80 to 100 dogs. Our job was to guard all the army supply bases on the island, including the base ammunition depot which was at Kranji area.

Please find enclosed photo copies of photographs of barrack block.

In 1957 when I arrived at the unit, there were 4 tents in front of the barrack block. We spent the first month in tents. The mosquitoes were hell! The 1957 photo shows 3 tents, so the one I was in had been removed and I had graduated to the barrack building.

I had not been able to establish who in in the camp at present but it is still recognizable on the Google Map.

I hope the enclosed is of interest and would like to hear from you. I am hoping to make a trip to Singapore before I get much older to see several sites I did not see whilst in service.

Yours sincerely,

Gordon Sargent

** Today this Mowbray Camp is known as the Police KINS (Key Installation Protection) Training Camp.

Akan Datang (Coming Soon): Reader Karunakaran shares about his time in the Army Depot Police.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Edward Williams remembers Sembawang Hills Estate and Upper Thomson Road

Edward is a new reader of Good Morning Yesterday. He recently posted some very detail descriptions of his memories of the Sembawang Hills Estate in the comments section of Freddy Neo’s article about this area. Since they are quite lengthy, I thought it would be more appropriate to post them here as a separate article.


I lived in Sembawang Hills Estate for 2 decades. Like you (referring to Freddy Neo), my family shifted there in 1958. I remember Jalan Batai well – it is situated on the top of a hill, so you could go down a slope to get to Upper Thomson Road. Jalan Batai connects with Jalan Leban where a row of shops operated. One of them is Radiant Store, which sold shoes, comics and magazines. There was a bar at the corner called Sembawang CafĂ©, which was a popular hangout for the Maoris, British and Australian servicemen (members of the ANZUK forces). Besides Radiant Store (which was owned by the Chia family), there was also a store selling fishing rods, reels, hooks, etc. I used to buy my fishing gear from this store. A coffee shop (kopi tiam) is yet another shop in this strip. I remember a cobbler who had his little space outside this coffee shop. He sat on the ground and mended shoes on that spot. He was a very religious man and I have seen him at the Sembawang Baptist Church at night when I happened to go past. Once I saw him having his lunch – which was just one piece of tau pok (a square of fried tofu) with soya sauce. He was obviously very poor and had a large family to feed. A taxi stand** operated outside this row of shops.

There were some hawker stores opposite this strip. Ah Seng was the noodle vendor and Ah Tiam the coffee seller. I loved Ah Seng’s chilli noodles. Another store sold char kuay teow. In the early 70’s this area was converted into a hawker centre.

There were stores selling rojak, gnow hiam, char hor fan etc. You had to pay 5 cents to use the public toilet in this hawker centre. Further up, towards Jalan Kuras there was yet another row of shops. At the corner is the provision store called “Soon Huat”. A few stores away stood a bar called “Kasbah” and yet another bar is situated at the corner end (can’t remember its name). Kasbah was owned by a Sikh family. Mrs Singh ran the bar in the early 70’s, assisted by her daughter Muni. This bar served Indian cuisines. The corner end bar was more western oriented where fish and chips and steaks were mainly served. I also recall a Bak Kut Teh restaurant here. I am not sure if this was the same store where Kasbah used to be.

This part of Sembawang Hills Estate would have many fond memories for the local residents. In the early years the noodle seller would send a kid walking around the estate knocking 2 small bamboo sticks to call out for orders. Tik tok tik tik tok …

I also remember an old lady from the village who wore a sharp pointed straw hat and carried 2 huge pots at the opposite end of a long bamboo pole. One of the pots had soon kwei (steamed bamboo shoots) and the other had char bee hoon. Everyone liked her soon kwei. It costs 10 cents each. This old woman would walk along the estate and call out “tan kwei kwei!” All the kids would rush to their parents for money, to buy her soon kwei. It was so yummy, especially with chilli sauce. I don’t know if she ever ventured far out to Jalan Leban or Jalan Batai.

One of the highlights of the week for us was our Sunday night market or pasar malam. On Sunday night temporary stores stretched for over a mile along Upper Thomson Road. The market offered toys, textile, clothing, footwear, jewellery, records, cooked food etc. Most of the stores were simply wooden tables and makeshift stands where goods were displayed. It was a magical experience, to walk the entire stretch lit by hurricane lamps and immersed yourself in the spirit of the environment. I can still remember “Silver Thread & Golden Needles” sung by Susan Lim as I strolled along the stores. This was one of the popular hits of the time and the record was played repeatedly throughout the night. Of course there were other well-known groups as well, such as Naomi and the Boys, Rita Chao, Sakura Teng, the Crescendos, Thunderbirds and the Quests. This trip down memory lane is making me so nostalgic. Those were the days (no I’m not doing a Mary Hopkins) when only the record existed (EP and LP). The tape recorder was not yet invented.

Our favourite snacks were han chee pang and tutu. Tutu is a small circular steamed cake filled with either peanuts or coconut stuffing. You could also get hot “soup” like chin tung, ang tao tung (red bean soup) and tao swan (usually served with yew char kwey).

A number of gurkhas sold jewellery, seated on the ground with their precious stones placed on a piece of cloth. You could always see a kris-like dagger on the cloth. People knew that the gurkhas were not to be trifled with. There were rumours that the vendors paid protection money to the local gangsters but the gurkhas were left alone.

Most of the vendors traveled there by van. So they were like a “caravan of traders” who moved in on a Sunday evening, set up their stores, traded and broke camp around midnight.

In later years the pasar malam shifted to Old Upper Thomson Road (correct me if I am wrong). I cannot remember how long the Sunday night market lasted. I think it was still operating in the early 70s.

** YG sent me this photo of the of the Sembawang Hill Estate Taxi Stand and wonders if it's the same one that Edward talked about. Edward, are you reading this?