It may have been the best of times, it may have been the worst of times … the fun and carefree times of one’s school days mixed with the fear that accompanied bringing the report card home once a month … whichever way you look at it, the time in school provides us with many of the experiences that shape who we are as well as maybe providing us with many fond memories. Going to an all boys’ school situated on Bras Basah Road perhaps provided me with a very unique set of experiences.
The journey to school from my home in Ang Mo Kio sometimes took the better part of an hour by public transport. The journey on service number 166, would go through Ang Mo Kio Avenue 1, Upper Thomson Road, Thomson Road, Kampong Java Road, Sungei Road, Bencoolen Street, and finally Bras Basah Road. Bus fare at that time was 10 cents for students, and for $4, one could get a monthly pass. Passing by Sungei Road, by which the then not so pleasant smelling Rochor Canal ran along, we often caught a glimpse of people perched on the stepped embankment of the canal, doing their laundry.
The journey back in the evenings was perhaps more interesting. We were able to catch the semi-express service number 138 home at the last stop before it commenced the express part of the journey to Ang Mo Kio, at Waterloo Street, just by where the row of “Sarabat” stalls used to be. The journey back would take maybe 40 minutes in the newly introduced air-conditioned buses – well worth the 10 cents more in fare as the alternative was spending more than an hour on service number 166 through peak hour traffic. Being boys, the group of us who made our way home on the 138 bus, were usually up for some fun … some of which I really shouldn’t mention …
Standing in the bus (getting on at the last stop often meant we have to stand), one of the games we played would involve trying to keep our balance not holding on to anything. Every time the bus driver braked – a scramble for the grab loops (PVC loops that hung from the handrails mounted on the ceiling of the bus for the shorter commuters) would ensue. On one instance, the bus driver braked especially hard and while most of us managed to grab a loop except for Spider (his nickname), who stood at the forward end close to the exit door in the middle of the bus who found out too late that he had nothing to grab on to. Before we knew it, poor Spider had fallen head over heels into the stairwell of the exit door, over the lap of a lady seated on the seat just behind the exit!
School itself had its many unique experiences, including some from the canteen. At one end of the canteen was the snack vendor, Ah Kow, who referred to everyone as “my father’s son” (i.e. brother), whom I bought my daily dose of Chickadees – supposedly Chicken Flavoured crisps. My favourite stalls were the Mee Siam stall, and the Char Kway Teow stall. The Mee Siam seller had a push cart, which he parked on the footpath, against the outside wall of the canteen which ran along Queen Street, on which he would transfer his pot of hot gravy and basket of noodles into after recess to continue his trade down Waterloo Street.
Our sports related activities were carried out on the school field across Bras Basah Road, which stretched to the Stamford Canal which ran along Stamford Road, near the old National Library. This brings to mind an occasion when we used the field to assemble following an evacuation of the school following a phone call to the school that warned of a bomb. This turned out to be a hoax when the bomb disposal squad that was called in found a parcel filled with dusters – probably a prank by one of the schoolboys. There were also occasions when we used Fort Canning park behind the library for our preparations for cross country. Swimming lessons which were far and few between, were held at the former SAF NCO club on Beach Road or at River Valley Swimming pool.
School itself wouldn’t have been very interesting if not for the antics of my classmates as well as the reactions of some of the teachers. To many it seemed like harmless fun, but some of our teachers didn’t seem to take too well to paper missiles being launched in class. Of course there were a lot that happened that made that look pale in comparison, but I don’t think I should mention it here … A lot of us would end up in detention class after school … and there was of course the cane wielded by the hand of Mr Tan, the discipline teacher, reserved for the worst offenders. The teachers had their nicknames, particularly those we were especially fond of as well as those that were less liked. Amongst the nicknames were those of characters of Jim Henson’s Muppet Show, which was popular those days.
Being in the afternoon session in the lower secondary, a few of us would arrive early, spending time at the MPH bookstore along Stamford Road and a few other places around, including what was then the National Museum and the National Library. The National Museum a good place to escape to for some of us as in those days, admission was free and we could find a very quiet place to literally chill out – in the very rarely visited art gallery in one of the wings of the museum. I remember this huge portrait of what I remember as Sir Stamford Raffles that stared at us at the end of one hall … that almost spooked us the first time we saw it. A few other places nearby were also popular hangouts, including Bras Basah Road itself with the many bookshops and some music cassette vendors, as well as the Red House cafe that was popular for the very reasonable set lunches, the sarabat stalls along Waterloo Street and the Shanghai Bookstore along Victoria Street, and sometimes the A&W restaurant situated at the corner of Dhoby Ghaut, near the Cathay cinema building. While for some of us they were just places to hang around, for many it also provided the opportunity for meeting the convent girls who attended school at Saint Anthony’s Convent and the Infant Jesus Convent nearby.
A&W was a popular hangout for a few of my friends, not just because Tuesdays were Coney days, or because of the frothy Root Beers in mugs that were chilled in a freezer, but more so because the straws could be used for something else other than drinking Root Beers out of the frozen mugs. With a handful of straws from A&W we managed to terrorise many pedestrians along the roads that the buses we took passed, with “drive by” hits from our mouthful of green beans … the diameter of the straws made them excellent “pea shooters”!
Besides the straws, one of my friends introduced the staple shooter … he discovered that by putting a staple balanced between the top and bottom teeth and lightly putting pressure on the staple, the staple could be launched accurately over a distance … I’ll spare the details of the irritation we caused with the staples, but the “victims” never knew what hit them!
Once a week woodwork and metalwork classes were held off campus at McNair Road and for some of us, that meant we had time to spare in between the woodwork or metalwork classes and afternoon classes. A popular hang out was Plaza Singapura, which then wasn’t really accessible from Handy Road, and taking a short cut meant navigating the 100 steps up Mount Sophia from somewhere behind the Cathay building and finding our way from Mount Sophia to one of the upper floors of the Plaza Singapura car park. Whether it was really 100 steps or more (so it seemed), I really do not know, but it was quite a climb.