Monday, June 18, 2012

My Memories by Robert O’Brien: The Early years 1953 – 1956

The Voyage to Johor Bahru, Malaysia via Singapore
It was the middle of December 1952 when we (my mother, myself and younger sister) set sail on the SS Chusan from Tilbury Docks in London bound for Singapore to join my father who had left some weeks earlier on a troop ship. He was in the British Army and had been posted to Johor Bahru in Malaysia, across the causeway from Singapore.

I was born on 17th February 1950 in Sunderland, then in Co Durham, now Tyne & Wear, and my sister Lucille was born a little over two years later on 30th April, 1952.

My father had carried out his National Service and, after demob, decided to enlist as a regular soldier in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps believing there would be a better future for himself and the family, opposed to going down the pits or in the shipyards which were the two main forms of employment in the early 1950s. He was first posted to Longtown, near Carlisle in Cumbria where we lived in married quarters, and then in November 1952, he was posted to the RAOC Depot at Majeedii Barracks, Johor Bahru, Malaysia. He departed on a Troop Ship sometime in November 1952 and arrived in Singapore some six weeks later. The Troop Ship took the long route around the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa instead of the shorter route through the Suez Canal.

My mother, myself and sister remained in Longtown until my mother received ‘papers’ to say we would be departing for Singapore on the SS Chusan in the middle of December.

When my mother told the Commanding Officer of the camp the details of our sailing to Singapore he had said to my mother that he was most surprised that a young Private’s wife and family had been given passage on such a ship as the SS Chusan.

The SS Chusan was part of the P&O Line fleet of ships which had made her maiden voyage in 1950 and was considered to have brought new standards of shipboard luxury for journeys to India and the Far East.

My mother had been worried about making the long train journey from Carlisle to London and then on to the Docks with two small children, so the Commanding Officer arranged for a soldier who was going on leave to accompany us to London and then via the underground to the King George V docks where my mother had been told the SS Chusan would sail from. However, on arrival at the King George V docks she was told the ship would, in fact, sail from Tilbury docks. By this time the soldier who had taken us this far had gone on his way and my mother had to make her way with us and the suitcases to Tilbury, which was not too far away, but still of concern to my mother.

The voyage from Tilbury to Singapore was to take three weeks, with Christmas 1952 and the New Year on board,  calling on the way at Gibraltar, Naples, Port Said, through the Suez Canal and on to Aden, Bombay, Colombo, Penang and finally to Singapore. Not yet being three years old I do not recall any of the journey but my mother has told me of some of the memories she has of the voyage. She recalls getting off the ship in Gibraltar, Port Said and Aden, where she ‘bartered’ for some small gifts; but returned quickly to the ship in Bombay as she did not like to see the poverty immediately in the dock area. In Penang she recalls taking my sister and I to one of the restaurants below deck for some food and feeling a large thump against the side of the ship. On looking out of one of the portholes she saw one of the local vessels had got too close and had collided with the SS Chusan.  Apparently there was no serious damage and we continued on our way to Singapore.

However, word had got through to Singapore that the SS Chusan had been involved in some minor skirmish in Penang; and my father who was waiting for us at the dockside, was most relieved and happy to see us safe and sound and just wanted to get our suitcases off the ship and back over the causeway from Singapore to Johor Bahru where he had found a house for us.

This was No 7 Jalan Wadi Hani and was to be our home for the next three years.

As I have already mentioned, my father was just a Private soldier when posted to Malaysia but he was determined to make the most of his life. He had no real education as a boy but studied very hard in Malaysia to get his Army Certificate of Education First Class and was very quickly promoted through the ranks first to Lance Corporal, Corporal and then Sergeant. I can remember the many hours he spent doing arithmetic and English language homework, and at the same time teaching me arithmetic. Becoming a Sergeant made a lot of difference both in his job and for the social life in the Sergeant’s Mess which went with this promotion. He also studied very hard to learn Malay and it was not too long before he became fluent, which was one of the reasons we were fortunate enough to return to Johor Bahru from 1959 to 1963.

Our house was on a minor road close to the main town of Johor Bahru and our neighbours were Malays. We soon became very friendly with the family next door to us. They had a son called Dolla who I used to play with, and a daughter called Dolly who became my sister’s friend. Being so young we both picked up some of the Malay language, and at the time my mother says my sister could speak Malay as well as she could speak English.  I can recall several memories of these early days in Jalan Wadi Hana, but for now just take a look at just a few of the photographs taken at the time.

More will follow in due course.

With my Mother and sister (on Dad’s motorbike) with house in Background – No 7 Jalan Wadi Hana

Me all dressed up with my sister and her friend Dolly from next door

Me in my cowboy suit Christmas 1954 A story to be told about this

Me and my sister all dressed up 


Lam Chun See said...

Rob's account of his long, long trip to our shores reminds me of a similar story by John Harper posted here a few years ago; and so I have added a link.

Lam Chun See said...

Would you believe that I have been on the Chusan before? The year was probably around 1959 or 1960. I have a photo of me and my brother and my parents taken on the deck of the Chusan. We were seeing our 7th Aunt and family off as they were going on a trip to Japan. I shall post the photo with one of Rob's later posts.

FL said...

I have actually seen the ocean liner "Chusan" in my kampong days (around 1960 to 1963) as our village was close to Gate 1 Singapore Harbour Board (SHB). We could see those ocean liners & cargo shops anchored at the wharves from the seashore. When I was very young, I was fascinated watching the ships, I also remember seeing P & O liners, e.g Kuala Lumpur, Chitral, Cathay,Iberia,etc.

JollyGreenP said...

Yes very similar experience to our family trip in 1957. It was not uncommon for fathers to be posted ahead of the family and for mothers to cope with packing up, "marching out" of married quarters or hiring, settling up the inventory and handing over to the next tenant, seeing to vaccinations, shepherding children onto various forms of transport. Coming back to the UK was usually much easier as the whole family usually travelled back together at the same time.

Brian and Tess said...

Whilst flying out to Singapore in 1960 was a considerable thrill - it was my first flight and a long distance one at that with stops in Istanbul and Bombay - I recall being a little jealous of the kids who had come out by boat. They had a much longer journey and had already formed friendships on board with a common experience of the fun (and the schooling!) on board. They also had the chance to get a bit acclimatised as well so that the Spore humidity came as less of a shock. I got off the plane in the 'cool' of the Spore night wondering how I was going to breathe let alone move!

Clement said...

The vessel SS Chusan is immortalised in the $100 Singapore ship series banknote.

Kevin said...

Thank you Robert for posting this We also did roughly the same tours dates and like yourself sailed on the SS Chusan. (“THE HAPPY SHIP”)
Here is a link to her. ;

Clement thank you for the information also, I was unaware of that.

Trish Bailey said...

Good evening Robert!

I have just been trawling through images of old Malaya and spotted your memory. What inspired me to comment is the mention of Majidee Barracks - clearly my spelling is incorrect although this is how I recall it.
We lived at number 28a Long Row, arriving from India in 1950 and sadly leaving two years later on the Empire Windrush bound for Britain.
It wasn't until some years later I realized what a captivating country Malaya was with it's flow of people and traffic of every description bound within a babble and blare of sound: the ringing of rickshaw bells, the motorised military vehicles, also plenty of civilian ones, both often sounding their horn to shoo off the odd goat or chicken in their path,music wafting from open windows,a cockrel lending his voice from behind someone's yard,the gentle, almost hypnotic, clicking sound of tiles from a game of mah-jong being played on the roadside - each separate sound blending together in a symphony that was the Far East!

Night-time was special. I loved feeling the protection of my mosquito net while waiting for sleep and listening to the sounds of the night from just beyond my bedroom window:cicadas drowned out the silence with the odd bullfrog trying to compete. From above came the gentle whisper from the ceiling fan and across the monsoon drain could be heard sounds from the NAAFI block! I recall listening to Kaye Starr singing 'The wheel of Fortune' on many a night and Nat King Cole's Mona Lisa as I drifted away. They were such magical nights and days and I feel so privileged to have been part of them and sorry for all who missed out.

There is much more I could write but I am not sure if this will be received as I am pretty new at this, although I email all the time. I shall continue to read other memories wasn't it J M Barrie who wrote, god gave us memories so that we can have roses in December? Well I have a sweetly scented garden of such blooms that have few thorns.

Goodnight all. Sweet dreams.

Unknown said...

M y family went out to Malaysia in Oct 1959 on the troopship SS Nevasa from Southampton stopping in Port Said, Aden, Colombo and Singapore , when my father was posted to Malaysia,Sgt REME electrician, and we were in a bungalow initially in Jalan Wadi Hanna our neighbour was a police inspector, I was 14 and went to Alexandra Secondary in Singapore with my brother of 12 and sister 11, younger sister schooled in majeedi. My father was stationed in 221BVD RAOC. We eventually moved to a house at 17 Jalan Storey. I actually enlisted for the Apprentice School at 221 BVD at the beginning of 61 and flew home to
pass through the gates in April. As luck would have it, I returned to Malaysia at the of my training in 1964 to 2 Inf Wksp Terendak.