Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Singapore, 1960s – Orchard Road by Tim Light

It’s the mid-1960s.  We’re on a shopping trip to Orchard Road.  We take an STC bus from Whitley Road and jump out at the junction of Scott’s Road and Orchard Road.  Across the road is the Lido Cinema, a stunning 1950s creation, showing The Sound of Music, but today our first port of call is C. K Tangs.  The building is a prominent landmark, with its Chinese style roof and awnings.  Inside it’s a department store with an Eastern flavour, and my parents loved to look around. My mother still has a camphor wood chest from Tangs.  My brother and I would head straight for the toy department … probably the best toy department on the island.  They had some wonderful model railways, mostly Marklin, from Germany, including a working layout.  My mouth would water when I looked at those lovely models, and my eyes would water when I saw the prices.  Anyway they were not compatible with our Triang trains, so we were happy to just look.  The other German import that I loved was the Schuco car system.  It went straight to the top of my Christmas wish list, and Santa came up with the goods.  I still have a couple of cars from that system.

Next stop was Fitzpatricks, for some grocery shopping.  This was a short walk along Orchard Road.  At this time Orchard road was a busy dual carriageway, with traffic flowing intensely in both directions.  Most of the road was lined with traditional old shop-houses, interspersed with more modern buildings like the Lido, C.K. Tangs and Fitzpatricks.  This was a time of transition.

In the mid-1960s Fitzpatricks was the model of a modern supermarket, with novelties like check-out belts and push-button tills.  No bar codes back then.  I don’t remember much about the food section, except for a massive sign advertising Foster’s Lager.  Upstairs was a café and a bookshop (where I spent my pocket money on Biggles and Jennings stories).  If I’m not mistaken, there was also a record store where I purchased my first-ever Beatles album.

Next we walked on to Cold Storage.  To get there we had to pass Princes Hotel Garni … a classy looking hotel/restaurant that I never entered.  Then there were more shop-houses, including a rather grand men’s hairdresser (or Barber, if you prefer) where we had our hair cut.  This was like the barber shops you saw in old American films from the 1920s, with panelled walls, and huge, plush leather barber’s chairs that could be raised and lowered with levers.  Part of the joy of waiting your turn was to read some of the American comics (Superman, Batman, etc.) that were provided.  Out on the street there were always a few hawker stalls, cooking food to order on mobile woks.  These hawker stalls contributed to the unique smell of downtown Singapore, which I’m sure was a cocktail of … well, lots of things!

Another place we sometimes frequented was Hiap Chiang and co.. This place seemed to sell a variety of things from swimming costumes to pewter ornaments.  For some reason, my parents took a liking to this shop and patronised it when they could.  But today we walked past Hiap Chiangs to the Cold Storage Creameries for a milk shake or an ice cream soda.  The Creameries was a good example of American cultural influence … a classic Soda Parlour.  The Creamery was a good place to cool down and watch the world go by. 

We gave Cold Storage a miss on this occasion, having got what we needed at Fitzpatricks.  We continued our walk down Orchard Road past the market buildings.  I only once ventured inside the market, and for some reason I found it a bit scary.  Perhaps this was the first time I had seen raw butchery close-up.  Not pretty.

More shop houses followed, and eventually we came to MacDonald house, where my father worked.  We had arranged to meet him after work.

Last time I went down Orchard Road, about 10 years ago, I was astounded at the change.  It was almost impossible to get a sense of where I was, because there was almost nothing left that I recognised.  MacDonald House was still there, and the Presbyterian Church, but everything else was completely alien.  Even the ultra-modern Lido Cinema had given way.  C.K. Tangs was a massive disappointment … just another department store.  I don’t know any other place on the planet that has been transformed as comprehensively as Orchard Road.


Catcat said...

An interesting blog. A memory is never forgotten, history is long gone where our mind n soul remain, still aches for simple life in Singapore where children played in the mud away from the city's landscape.

john newton said...

Just looking at some of my dad's old slides. I remember your walk past the Lido, C.K.Tangs etc etc. We lived just off Paterson hill at 9 Jalan Arnap. Unbelievably the house is still there, almost unchanged yet I can barely recognise anything else. I spent 3 years from 8 to 11 living there 1961 to 64 and half my time walking down Orchard Road. Singapura hotel, Mandarin, botanical gardens. What a transformation! I loved the place then. 10 years old and the whole city was my playground. I used to have an ice cream in Prince's Garni every week. Even remember talking to some of the US personnel who stayed there on R&R from what hadn't quite become the Vietnam war then! Thanks for the blogg. John