Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Singapore, 1961 – First Impressions (by Tim Light)

It is fifty years since the Light family landed on Planet Singapore. I was seven years old, almost eight. I call it Planet Singapore, because it was so different from where we came from, it could almost have been a different planet.

I was growing up in a grimy old mill town on the outskirts of Bradford, Yorkshire. We lived in an old stone terraced house with an outside toilet, coal fire and no bathroom. On bath night my brother and I would splash around in a tin tub in front of the living room fire. Happy days.

One day my father came home with a broad grin on his face, embraced my mother, and then announced that we would be going to Singapore. My imagination ran wild. I had no idea where Singapore was, but I was picturing grass huts, grass skirts, lions, tigers, snakes and crocodiles. My father was working for the Metal Box company, and I imagined the factory in Singapore to be a very large grass hut.

The first big adventure was the flight. I had never been near an aeroplane before, and the QANTAS 707 was enormous. We argued about who was going to have the window seat, and my brother and I had to take it in turns. I will never forget the route; Heathrow – Rome – Cairo – Karachi – Calcutta – Bangkok – Singapore. And the flight would continue to Darwin and Sydney. At each stop we would disembark for an hour, claim our free drink in the transit lounge, and go back on board for the next leg. So many exotic places in less than 24 hours. In those days it was common for Far-East flights to make multiple stops.

Tim and Richard Light – c1960

It was night time when we landed at Paya Lebar. My father was there to meet us (he had gone ahead, a month earlier), and with him were a couple of Chinese friends. One was Tan Chen Chok. I don’t remember the other. We became good friends of the Tans over the next few months, but I lost track of them. They lived on Keng Chin Road. I don’t remember Mrs Tan’s name, but they had two children – Ronnie and Alice, and maybe a baby too. It would be interesting to track them down.

I was only half awake as we drove to our temporary home – a bungalow on Marsiling Road. I woke in time to see the illuminated METAL BOX sign as we went past a very modern factory. And the company bungalow was anything but a grass hut.

The next thing I remember was waking up in the most intense heat I had ever experienced. Everything was different. It was about 8am and the insects were making a constant noise. There was a smell … not unpleasant … that I couldn’t identify. The same smell that was everywhere on the island. Singaporeans who grew up on the island wouldn’t notice it. Just as we didn’t pay attention to the stench of coal smoke back home.

I went outside to our extensive garden, and I almost recoiled from the heat of the sun. It didn’t stop me from exploring. And the garden was alive, with insects, birds, butterflies and lizards. Suddenly I was Tarzan in the jungle. As long as I lived in Singapore, I was always fascinated by the living creatures.

Straits of Johore – c1961

On that first day, my father took us down town to see the sights and to do a bit of shopping. My memories are vague, but I do remember Queen Elizabeth Walk, the Singapore River (with its hundreds of sampans and a powerful smell), Collyer Quay with its skyscrapers (presumably bank of China and Asia Insurance buildings). We walked through Change Alley … a wonderland for little boys like me. I had never seen anything like those tinplate motorised toys, and if I had had any money I would soon have spent it. The shopkeepers were animated and pushy … not in a bad way, but they needed to get your attention.

We emerged into Raffles Place. My final memory of the day was of a street hawker selling plastic tumblers. They were unbreakable, he said. He demonstrated this by bouncing one off the pavement and catching it. My mother thought this was a great idea, and she bought a set.

Singapore Anderson Bridge – c1961

Singapore River – c1961
Well, that was my first 24 hours in Singapore. I was hooked. I did notice, though, that whilst we were living in luxury (there is no other word for it, especially when compared with our conditions in England), most of the local population were living in far worse conditions. I was happy enough with this, and too naïve to imagine that there might be any injustice or resentment.

More observations to follow ….


Sivasothi said...

And the adventure begins! Thanks, Tim, for writing, and Chun See *for hosting)

peter said...

For railway enthusiasts, Tim is an avid follower of trains.....he knows where to spot a good deal about our Malayan Railway.

Welcome Tim.

Brian and Tess said...

Tim, loved reading of your experience, I was older (12 yrs) when I arrived one year earlier than you and also in the night. I will not forget my first 24 hours either, it was Chinese New Year to add to the exotic excitement of arrival on (as you say) what seemed to be another planet!

Lam Chun See said...

For older Sporeans like me and many of our readers, the Spore of the 1960s was another planet.

Icemoon said...

Peter is right ... I'm waiting for Tim to write about trains!

1960s was the only decade one had the chance to sing three national anthems...

Tim said...

OK, I'll probably do an article on trains in Singapore. The old ones, that is. I was sad to hear that the railway had closed. A symptom of poor relations with the neighbours, I think. Definitely not in the interests of travellers or shippers.


Thimbuktu said...

Welcome Tim to Planet Singapore, our friends of SingaporeSG.

Your memories to recollect over 50 years after arriving from UK to our planet we share was as wonderful as our friends born here.

Your blog has helped us to visualise the many places iremember some of the old photos which we have also seen on other blogs and courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore (PICAS).

However, what you share Singapore memories are yours specially and different from other contributors on irememberSG.

Thank you Tim. I wait patiently for your next blog post.


Elaine said...

I knew an Alice Tan who lived in Keng Chin Road but her brother's name is Rodney, Not Ronnie. This Alice is on Facebook under her married name, Alice Fu.

peter said...


Was this Alice Tan once a student of Marymount School?

Tim said...

Thanks Elaine ... that's almost certainly the right person. I'll see if I can get in touch.

Tim said...

Elaine - There are a million Alice Fu's on FaceBook (slight exageration maybe).

I tried this one:

Not sure if she's the right one, or if she will respond.

Do you have a faceBook ID that I can search?

Thanks ...

Tim said...

Peter - I don't know where Alice went to school. She would be about the same age as me, I think. I am 1953 vintage.

peter said...

Tim, that could be the one but on Facebook not so sure. The features looked the same. As I recall she had a husky voice and a center parting hairdo.

alex said...

Tim, I worked with Metal Box in Mid 70's and I know the houses you could have stayed in. There are few bungalows and a few rolls of terrace houses at the back of the factory, up the hill slope along Marsiling Road, with "back gate" opening to Marsiling Road.

To reach the "Quarters" as we call them, you had to walk up a flight of stairs from the back where the "warehouses" are.

That was the impression I had when I was there. Are we talking about the same buildings?

The factory main gates were along Woodlands Road.



Lam Chun See said...

Tim. Do check out these 2 articles that I have posted about a hill near the Metal Box Factory @ Woodlands Road called Hill 100. Even if you find it difficult to relate to the discussions - my first article generated some debate about the exact location of this hill - I hope that the maps and aerial photos of the area would bring back some memories for you.

Article #1: Where is Hill 100?

Article #2: Where (exactly) is Hill 100?.

Tim said...

Alex - There were two bungalows up the slope behind the factory. There are a couple of photos in my next blog. They were fairly isolated. Nothing else around.

Our neighbours were Mr and Mrs Robinson. Down on the main road was another house occupied by Sid Sharkey and his family. All Metal Box people. I don't remember any terraced houses. They might have been built after 1961.

Tim said...

Chun See - yes, very interesting articles and related links. I can't help in identifying which hill is which, but I do recognise a lot of the landmarks that were discussed.

When I was researching what had happened to Marsiling Road, I was thrown into confusion by my 1983 street map. This shows an industrial park with a series of parallel roads, covering the area where Marsiling road wound around the back of the MB factory. I don't believe this road layout ever existed. I suspect it was projected then abandoned. These roads don't appear on later maps, and there is no evidence from satellite pictures that they ever existed.

Bits of the old Marsiling road are still discernable, on Google earth, although I doubt if they are accessible now.

alex said...

Yes, I can recall the big bungalows now. One was used as storage for old machines, and the others were used as accommodations. I remembered a foreign management trainee we recruited was allowed to stay in the bungalow, but he decided to move out soon because his wife said it was too inconvenient. A printer who took up a 3-month assignment from Metal Box India was also accommodated in the bungalow. The back gate opening to Marsiling Road was the nearest gate for residents of the “quarters” to leave and return.
I guess in the 60's Metal Box must be producing the metal cans for cooking oil (Knife Brand?), condensed milk, motor oil (Castrol?), etc.
Did you remember any of the local managers when you were there? The then Personnel Officer (I believe he was the Personnel Officer since late 50’s) later successfully climbed up the corporate ladder as was the Managing Director when I was working with MB in mid 70’s, he is Mr. H.K. Lim.
From my recollection, there was a Mr. C.D. Yarrow when the factory opened and Mr. N.D. Holt succeeded him in 1956. As you arrived Singapore in 1961, Mr Holt must be the General Manager then. A search on The Straits Times (6 June 1961) revealed that “Mr. N. D. Holt of the Metal Box Co. has been elected president of the Supervisory and Management Training Association of Singapore.”

Was your father in the metal printing or can fabrication trade? If I may ask.


Tim said...

Hi Alex

Yes, I remember Mr. Holt and his wife. I don't know exactly who was who, but I know he was one of the bosses.

Other people I remember - Jimmy Sang, Jim Wilde, George Baker. I met George a few years ago in Singapore. Jim died many years ago. I don't know about Jimmy Sang.

Unfortunately my father died many years ago, so I can't ask him about any of these people.

So far as I know, my father's work was in the Can fabrication trade. I occasionally visited the factory, and I remember the noise. The cans that I remember were of the old-fashioned soldered steel variety, and might have been used for canning fruit, such as pineapples.

Erwin said...

Anyone written about Singapore street cars (Trams)? When and from where did it start and end?

Would be nice to know.

Tim said...

Malcolm Wilton-Jones has written some great web pages about trains and trams in Singapore and Malaya.

This is his Singapore page:

You will find a link to dedicated tramway pages. The electric trams ran from 1905 to 1927. Prior to that there were steam trams. The trams were replaced by trolleybuses.

I remember seeing trolleybuses in the city, e.g. around the Padang, but they soon disappeared - about 1962 I think.

Erwin said...

Thanks Tim!

alex said...

Hi Tim,

Thank you for the response.

Yes, can fabrication is a noisy process, and in the 60's tin cans were welded and likely using the method of dipping to be welded part into what we called a "tin bath". Melted tin is kept in liquid form by having gas fire burning below the “tin bath” while the flanged seams of the can passes through the “tin bath” to get it sealed. Cans for pineapple are heavily tin plated and the seams have to be sealed with tin to ensure rust do not appear. The production line was commonly known as “General Line Department” because of the variety of cans the line can handle with flexible set up to cater to the different cans and tins.

Thanks for shedding light on the past, and I look forward to you next post.


Pat said...

From Tim's article: "There was a smell … not unpleasant … that I couldn’t identify. The same smell that was everywhere on the island. Singaporeans who grew up on the island wouldn’t notice it."

I had fun reading Tim's vivid recollections of his trip to S'pore & first impressions of the island of yesteryear. What is the said islandwide "smell" though ?

Residing in western S'pore, I recall the burnt cocoa scent that used to frequently permeate the night air ... the smell apparently originated from 2 chocolate factories in Boon Lay. Then there was this almost overpowering bread/vanilla scent ... I guess from the Gardenia Bread factory at Pandan Loop. Plus a strong crayon-like smell emanating from somewhere in Jurong Industrial Estate. Incidentally, the cocoa & possibly the bread smells were described in ST's report "What's that smell ?" (Sunday Times - 05 Dec 10).

And when the season is right, the acrid burning smell from burning Indonesian forests ... or the nocturnal sickly-sweet scent of mass-blooming Tembusu trees. Or when the location is right (eg. in parks), the noxious smell of Malathion.

Running out of long-range Uniquely S'pore Smells, I resorted to Google. The 1st & most interesting result was an extract from an old TIME magazine article MALAYA: Boom & Terror (12 Mar 1951).

Quote: "SINGAPORE'S English-speaking inhabitants know it best as 'The City of Smells'. If there is one predominant smell in Singapore today, it is not the withering blast of the garlic the natives put in their food, or the sickly sweet smell of the Zam-Zam hair oil they put on their heads; the strongest and biggest smell in Singapore is the sulphurous stench of unprocessed rubber."

Hmm, can those of the "correct vintage" verify the above claim about the rubber smell ? Or even about the Zam-Zam hair oil ?

Lam Chun See said...

Thanks Pat for your interesting comments about the Spore smells of yesteryears. Unfortunately I was not born yet in 1951, and thus cannot throw any light on your question.

For me, growing up in a kampong off Lorong Chuan, the 2 smells that retain the strongest memories for me are; first, the stenching of rotting animals in the tributary of Kallang River which flowed through our kampong. The second is the smell from the crocodile farm at Lor Chuan; somwhere after the present Ang Mo Kio Ave 1. This farm processed crocodile skins and the stench could be smelt from far away.

Pat said...

Chun See, did Tim happen to say elsewhere what island-wide smell he is referring to ?

"the 2 smells that retain the strongest memories for me are; first, the stenching of rotting animals in the tributary of Kallang River which flowed through our kampong. The second is the smell from the crocodile farm at Lor Chuan"

I recall reading in your blog about the rotting animal (& human corpse) smells from the old Kallang River. That was a very informative read ... thanks for sharing ! Apparently, there is now a pond beside the upstream of Kallang River (in Bishan Park 1) that is emitting a stench because of the algae-bloom in it. Perhaps this might remind old-timers of the old river.

And based on ST's article about S'pore's smells, property agents used to inform friends not to buy Choa Chu Kang flats, because of the chicken dung smell drifting from Sungei Tengah.

Come to think of it, the scents of my childhood are industrial-processing smells, & I've no idea how rotting corpses smell like. I suppose one can date a generation by the kind of environmental "aromas" they experienced. And I'm Generation Factory ...

Curious qn ... did S'pore experience bad smoke-haze from forest fires back during the 1960s-1970s ?

Tim said...

It's difficult to analyse my smell-memories from so long ago. It was probably a cocktail, and varied from place to place. At Woodlands, probably mostly vegetation. Places like Orchard Road smelled of open-air cooking. Rubber factories and Soy Sauce factories had their own special hum. And the Singapore River probably had every possible ingredient!

Charles said...

I don't suppose anyone has any further information about Mr N D Holt (my uncle Don)who worked at Metal Box Co? I last saw him in the early 1970's when he visited England when I was a young lad.

Cindy Koo said...

Hi, my company is doing a video for Pioneer Generation Office and we would like to use some of the photos from Tim which appeared on guest post Singapore, 1960s - Orcahrd Road by Tim Light. Is there anyway we could contact him directly? or could you pass the message to him?