1972, when the Concorde first flew over Singapore

28 02 2017

Singapore had a brief love affair with the Concorde. Arguably the only supersonic passenger aircraft to be successfully deployed, a London to Singapore was operated by its National airline, Singapore Airlines, in partnership with British Airways for a few years at the end of the 1970s. The aircraft’s first flight over Singapore however, goes back to 1972, a year that was especially memorable for several events.  I came across a wonderful photograph of that first flight some years back, one that in freezing the Concorde over a Singapore that in 1972 was at the cusp of its own reach for the skies, captured the lofty aspirations of the aircraft’s developers and of the city seen below it

An amazing view of Concorde 002 over the old city. The city 45 years ago, was seeing several of its first generation skyscrapers coming up. Some of the iconic buildings seen in this photograph include the former MSA (later SIA) Building, former Robina House, and a partially completed 3rd Ocean Building (now replaced by the Ocean Financial Centre) (photo souce: online at http://www.concordesst.com/).

The photo of Concorde 002 over the old city centre of Singapore during its month-long demonstration tour of the Far East in June 1972 (online at http://www.concordesst.com/).

1972 was the year I was in Primary 2. I was seven, going on eight, ten months older than the newly independent Singapore, and at an age when any machine that sped were about the coolest things on earth. I was also finding out that going to school in the afternoon was quite a chore. Unlike the morning session I was in the previous year, there was little time for distractions and TV. School days were just about tolerable only because of the football time it could provide before classes started each day and unlike the previous school year, great excitement seemed to come only away from school, and the highlight of the year would be one that I would have to skip, “ponteng” in the language used among my classmates, school for.

A friendly game between two great  primary school football rivals - St. John's Island School and St. Michael's School in the 1970s. 

Football was very much part of the culture at St. Michael’s School, the primary school I attended.

The buzz the Concorde created, even before it came to Singapore in June of the year, left a deep impression with the boys I kept company with and the paper planes we made featured folded-down noses that resembling the Concorde’s droop nose – even if it made they seemed less able to fly. I was fortunate to also see the real McCoy making a descent at Paya Lebar Airport, one that was much more graceful than any of the imitations I made. I have to thank an uncle who was keen enough to brave the crowds that had gathered at the airport’s waving gallery for that opportunity. The event was a significant one and took place in a year that was especially significant for civil aviation in Singapore with the split of Malaysia-Singapore Airlines or MSA, jointly operated by the two countries taking place in the background. The split would see the formation of Mercury Singapore Airlines on 24 January to fly Singapore’s flag. The intention had been to ride on the established MSA name, which was not too well received on the Malaysian side, prompting the renaming of the new MSA to Singapore Airlines (SIA) on 30 June 1972, a point from which the airline has never looked back.

What might have been.

What might have been.

The building that housed MSA and later SIA is prominent in the 1972 photograph, the MSA Building. Completed in 1968, the rather iconic MSA and later SIA Building was one built at the dawn of the city’s age of the skyscraper. The building was a pioneer in many other ways and an early adopter of the pre-fab construction technique. A second building in the photograph that also contributed to frenzy was the third Ocean Building, then under construction. The Ocean was to be the home of another company that was very much a part of Singapore’s civil aviation journey: the Straits Steamship Company. It was during the time of the already demolished Ocean Building that preceded the third that the company set up Malayan Airways in 1937. The airlines, which would only take off in 1947, became Malaysian Airways in 1963, and then MSA in 1965. The company, a household name in shipping, is now longer connected with sea or air transport in its current incarnation as Keppel Land. Other buildings marking the dawn of the new age seen in the photograph include the uncompleted Robina House and Shing Kwang House, and also a DBS Building in the early stages of erection.

The fast growing city, seen at ground level in 1972 (Jean-Claude Latombe, online at http://ai.stanford.edu/~latombe/)

The fast growing city, seen at ground level in 1972 (Jean-Claude Latombe, online at http://ai.stanford.edu/~latombe/)

The new Ocean Building in July 1974 (Photo courtesy of Peter Chan).

The completed third Ocean Building (left), seen in July 1974 (photo courtesy of Peter Chan).

It was several months prior to the the Concorde’s flight and just four weeks into school, that I would find myself skipping classes for what was to be the highlight of the year and of my childhood: the visit of the Queen, Elizabeth II of England, Price Phillip, and Princess Anne, to the 3-room Toa Payoh flat I had called home. As its was in the case of several other visiting dignitaries, Her Majesty’s programme included a visit to the rooftop viewing gallery of the Housing and Development Board’s first purpose-built “VIP block”. The gallery was where a view of the incredible success Singapore had in housing the masses could be taken in and a visit to a flat often completed such a visit and living in one strategically placed on the top floor of the VIP block had its advantages. Besides the Royal family, who were also taken to a rental flat on the second floor of Block 54 just behind the VIP block, Singapore’s first Yang di-Pertuan Negara and last colonial Governor, Sir William Goode, also dropped by in 1972. The flat also saw the visits of two other dignitaries. One was John Gorton, Prime Minister of Australia in 1968 and the other, Singapore’s second president, Benjamin Henry Sheares, and Mrs Sheares in 1971.

The kitchen during the Queen's visit.

The Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and Princess Anne, in the kitchen of my flat on 18 February 1972.

The Queen at the Viewing Gallery on the roof of Block 53 Toa Payoh

The Queen at the Viewing Gallery on the roof of Block 53 Toa Payoh on 18 February 1972.

One thing being in the afternoon session developed was the taste I acquired for epok-epok, fried curry puffs that are usually potato filled. Sold by a man who came around on a bicycle at dismissal time, the pastries that he vended – out of a tin carried on the bicycle – were ones to die for. They were made especially tasty the vendor’s special chilli-sauce  “injected” in with a spout tipped bottle and well worth going hungry at recess time, to have the 10 cents the purchase required, for. Being in the afternoon session, also meant that the rides home from school on the minibus SCB 388, were often in the heavy traffic. The slow crawl, often accompanied by the deep vocals of Elvis Presley playing in the bus’ cartridge player, permitted an observation of the progress that was being made in building Toa Payoh up. Much was going on in 1972 with the SEAP games Singapore was to host in 1973 just around the corner. Toa Payoh’s town centre, also the games village, was fast taking shape.

A view over the area in the early 1970s when Toa Payoh New Town was taking shape. The school can be seen in the lower left of the photo with Times Building then occupying the other part of the former quarry site.

A view over Toa Payoh around 1972.

Toa Payoh’s evolving landscape stood in stark contrast to its surroundings. To its south, across the Whampoa River, was Balestier – where suburbia might have ended before Toa Pyaoh’s rise. That still held its mix of old villas, shophouses, and a sprinkling of religious sites. The view north on the other hand was one of the grave scattered landscape of Peck San Teng, today’s Bishan, as would possibly have been the view west, if not for the green wall of sparsely developed elevations. On one of the hills, stood Toa Payoh Hospital, in surroundings quite conducive to rest and recovery. Potong Pasir to Toa Payoh’s east had still a feel of the country. Spread across what were the low lying plains that straddled one of Singapore’s main drainage channels, the Kallang River, the area was notorious for the huge floods that heavy rains would bring. When the area wasn’t submerged, it was one of green vegetable plots and the zinc topped structures of dwellings and livestock pens.

The grave dominated landscape north of Toa Payoh - with a view towards Toa Payoh (online at https://i1.wp.com/news.asiaone.com/sites/default/files/styles/w641/public/original_images/Nov2014/sgtowns_26.jpg)

The grave dominated landscape north of Toa Payoh – with a view towards Toa Payoh (SPH photo, online at http://news.asiaone.com/).

Potong Pasir (and Braddell Road) during the big flood of 1978.

Potong Pasir (and Braddell Road) during the big flood of 1978 (PUB photo).

Another main drainage channel, the Singapore River, was a point of focus for the tourism drive of 1972, during which two white statues came up. Representations perhaps of the past and the future, the first to come up was of a figure from its colonial past. The statue of Raffles, placed at a site near Empress Place at which Singapore’s founder was thought to have first came ashore, was unveiled in February. The second, was the rather peculiar looking Merlion and a symbol perhaps of new Singapore’s confused identity. This was unveiled at the river’s mouth in September. A strangest of would be National symbols and with little connection to Singapore except for its head of a lion, the animal Singapore or Singapura was named after, the creature was made up in a 1964 tourism board initiated effort. Despite its more recent origins, the statue has come to be one that tourists and locals alike celebrate and that perhaps has set the tone for how Singapore as a destination is being sold.

The View from the Esplanade towards the open sea at the mouth of the Singapore River in 1976. The Merlion in the background, is seen at its original location at the mouth of the river.

The Merlion at its original position at the mouth of the Singapore River (seen here in 1976).

An icon of a developing and newly independent Singapore, the Merlion, stares at the icons of the new Singapore across a body of water that played an important role in Singapore's development.

The Merlion at its position today, staring at the icons of the new Singapore.

1972 was a year that has also to be remembered for the wrong reasons. Externally, events such as the tragic massacre of Israeli Olympians in Munich, brought much shock and horror as did the happenings closer to home in Indochina. There were also reasons for fear and caution in Singapore. Water, or the shortage of it was very much at the top of the concerns here with the extended dry spell having continued from the previous year. There were also many reasons to fear for one’s safety with the frequent reports of murders, kidnappings and shootouts, beginning with the shooting to death of an armed robber, Yeo Cheng Khoon, just a week into the year.

The darkest of the year’s headlines would however be of a tragedy that seemed unimaginable – especially coming just as the season of hope and joy was to descend. On 21 November, a huge fire swept through Robinson’s Department Store at Raffles Place in which nine lives were lost. The devastating fire also deprived the famous store of its landmark Raffles Place home and prompted its move to Orchard Road.  This perhaps also spelled the beginning of the end for Singapore’s most famous square. In a matter of one and a half decades, the charm and elegance that had long marked it, would completely be lost.

Christmas Decorations from a Simpler Time - Robinson's at Raffles Place, 1966

Robinson’s at Raffles Place, 1966.

The burnt shell of Robinson's(SPH photo online at http://www.tnp.sg/)

The burnt shell of Robinson’s (SPH photo online at http://www.tnp.sg/)

Another tragic incident was the 17 September shooting of the 22-year-old Miss Chan Chee Chan at Queensway. While the shooting took place around midday, it was only late in the day that medical staff attending to  Miss Chan realised that she had been shot. A .22 calibre rifle bullet, lodged in her heart, was only discovered after an x-ray and by that time it was too late to save her.

Just as the year had started, shootouts would be bring 1972 to a close in which four of Singapore’s most wanted men were killed. At the top of the list was Lim Ban Lim. Armed and dangerous and wanted in connection with the killing of a policeman, a series of armed robberies on both sides of the Causeway, Lim was ambushed by the police at Margaret Drive on 24 November and shot dead. Over a nine-year period, Lim and his accomplices got away with a total of S$2.5 million. An accomplice, Chua Ah Kau escaped the ambush. He would however take his own life following a shootout just three weeks later on 17 December. Having taken two police bullets in the confrontation near the National Theatre, Chua turned the gun on himself.

The case that had Singapore on tenterhooks due to the one and a half month trail of violence and terror left by the pair of gunmen involved, would play itself out just the evening before the gunfight involving Chua. It was one that I remember quite well from the manner in which the episode was brought to a close in the dark and seemingly sinister grounds of the old Aljunied al-Islamiah cemetery at Jalan Kubor. The trigger-happy pair, Abdul Wahab Hassan and his brother Mustapha, crime spree included gun running, armed robbery, gunfights with the police, hostage taking and daring escapes from custody (Abdul Wahab’s from Changi Prison and Mustapha’s from Outram Hospital). Cornered at the cemetery on 16 December and with the police closing in, Abdul Wahab shot and killed his already injured brother and then turned the gun on himself.

A view from the Madrasah Aljunied al-Islamiah Cemetery across to the Kampong Glam conservation area.

The Aljunied Al-Islamiah Cemetery off Jalan Kubor and Victoria Street, where two gunmen met their deaths in 1972.

Besides the deaths of the four, quite a few more armed and dangerous men were also shot and injured as a result of confrontations with the police. A 23 December 1972 report in the New Nation put the apparent rise in shootouts to the training the police had received to “shoot from the hip, FBI style”. The spate of crimes involving the use of firearms would prompt the enactment of the Arms Offences Act in 1973, which stipulates a mandatory death penalty for crimes that see the use of or the attempt to use a firearm to cause injury.

The tough measures may possibly have had their impact. The use firearms in crimes is now much less common. This has also brought about an increased the sense of safety in Singapore, as compared to 1972. Many who grew up in that age will remember being warned repeatedly of the dangers on the streets, particularly of being kidnapped. The same warnings are of course just as relevant today, but the threat was one that could be felt. Many stories of children disappearing off the streets were in circulation and that heightened the sense of fear. While many could be put down to rumour, there was at least one case of a child being abducted from a fairground, that I knew to be true. There were also many reports of actual kidnappings in the news, including one very high profile case in 1972 that saw the abduction of a wealthy Indonesian businessman. The businessman was released only after a ransom was paid.


Singapore in 1972:






Barefoot in the park

16 04 2014

There was a time when there seemed to be little need for fancy footwear in playing the beautiful game. As kids, many of us ran around the field, kicking a ball with nothing but our bare feet. It was also common to see competitive games played with little in way of footwear, with each player wearing an ankle guard or two, as it was through my days in primary school in the early 1970s. Protection of our precious canvas school shoes  did then take precedence over protecting to our feet.

A friendly game between two great  primary school football rivals - St. John's Island School and St. Michael's School in the 1970s. 

A friendly game between two great  primary school football rivals – St. John’s Island School and St. Michael’s School in the 1970s (from a scan from the Christian Brothers’ School Annual) – notice the footwear used, or rather the lack of them.

 

 





We did once enjoy getting hit by a ball

28 03 2014

This photograph, which was taken at a school yard during my wanderings to Kathmandu in Nepal in April 2011, takes me back to my own days in primary school some four decades ago, when children looked forward to the opportunities for physical activity and outdoor play that presented itself during recess time as well as before and after school hours. It didn’t matter then that we would be sweaty, our uniforms often bearing the marks left by balls or through falling during play. It was pure fun and a perfect way to interact.

JeromeLim Kathmandu 2011 IMG_9271s

Many of the games we played in the expansive fields involved a good run around. Games such as “catching”, football, rounders were popular, as was the game that the photograph does remind me of, “hentam bola“, or as we did pronounce it, “hantam bola“.

Translated from Malay as “hit with (or by) a ball”, although grammatically not quite correct, the game involved a player, singled out as one who “pasang” – who initially would have drawn the short straw through a selection process that might have involved mini-games of chance (a common one used was “oh-bey-som“, similar to rock, paper, scissors).

Played in an open field, the objective of “hentam bola” for the “pasang” was to chase the other players (who would be trying to give the “pasang” a run around), and attempt to hit another player by throwing a ball with as much strength as one could muster. A successful hit would mean that the player hit would be the next to throw the ball. The ball we used was a small compressed air filled rubber ball, which could sometimes do some damage, not just to the players, but to glass panes in windows and doors.

It is sad that the outdoors feature less in children’s play in Singapore these days, not just due to the gadget age, but also with open space at a premium – many schools have sacrificed parts of their great outdoors for the greater indoors in the form of sports halls and the opportunity for such outdoor play does seem to be greatly reduced.





A search for a lost countryside

27 02 2014

Together with several jalan-jalan kaki, I set off on a Sunday morning from Khatib MRT Station in search of a lost countryside. The area in which we sought to find that lost world, is one, that in more recent times has been known to us as Nee Soon and Ulu Sembawang. It was a part of Singapore that I first became acquainted with it in my childhood back in the early 1970s, when an area of rural settlements and village schools that were interspersed with poultry, pig and vegetable farms that awaited discovery along its many minor roads. It was also an area where the British military did  leave much in terms of evidence of their former presence.

The group at Jalan Ulu Sembawang in search of a lost countryside.

The group at Jalan Ulu Sembawang in search of a lost countryside.

Fed by the waters of several rivers that spilled out into the Straits of Johor or Selat Tebrau, which included Sungei Seletar and its tributaries, Sungei Khatib Bongsu, Sungei Simpang and its tributaries and Sungei Sembawang, the area was to first attract gambier and pepper plantations in the mid 1800 with which came the first settlements. As with other plantation rich riverine areas of Singapore, the area attracted many Teochew immigrants, becoming one of several Teochew heartlands found across rural Singapore. Pineapple and rubber were to replace gambier and pepper in the 1900s – when the association with the likes of Bukit Sembawang and Lim Nee Soon, names which are now synonymous with the area, was to start.

Walking through a reminder of the lost countryside at Bah Soon Pah Road.

Walking through a reminder of the lost countryside at Bah Soon Pah Road.

Much has changed since the days of Chan Ah Lak’s gambier and pepper plantations – for which the area was originally known as Chan Chu Kang, the days of Lim Nee Soon’s pineapple and rubber cultivation and processing exploits, and even from the days when I made my first visits to the area. There are however, parts of it that in which some semblance of the countryside that did once exist can be found, parts where one can quite easily find that much needed escape from the concrete and overly manicured world that now dominates the island.

A map of the area showing the location of villages in the area in 1980s (scanned from A pictorial history of Nee Soon Community, 1987)".

A map of the area showing the location of villages in the area in 1980s (scanned from A pictorial history of Nee Soon Community, 1987)”.

One of two places where those reminders can be found is the area around Bah Soon Pah Road. The road, strange as it may seem, is in fact named after Lim Nee Soon – Bah Soon having been a nickname stemming from him being a Straits Born Chinese or “Baba”. These days, the truncated Bah Soon Pah Road, is still an area that is very much associated with agriculture, being an area that is at the heart of the Agri-food and Veterinary Authority’s (AVA) efforts to promote agrotechnology in Singapore. Playing host to the Nee Soon Agrotechnology Park, there are several farms to be found along the road, including one in which hydroponic vegetables for the local market are cultivated.

A link with the area's heritage.

Over the fence – a link with the area’s heritage.

An interesting sight along Bah Soon Pah Road is the building that now houses the AVA’s Horticulture Services Centre. The building – a huge bungalow built on stilts, in a style that resembles the “black and white” houses that the British built to house their administrators and senior military men and their families, probably built in the early 1900s with the arrival of the pineapple and rubber plantations, is in fact a physical link to Lim Nee Soon’s association with the area. Sitting atop a small hill – you do get a magnificent view of it from a distance from Yishun Avenue 1, the grand bungalow was I have been advised, a former residence of the assistant manager of Lim Nee Soon’s plantation, thus providing a link to a past that might otherwise have been forgotten.

The AVA's Horticulture Services Centre at Bah Soon Pah Road occupies a bungalow that served as the Assistant Plantation Manager's residence in Lim Nee Soon's estate.

The AVA’s Horticulture Services Centre at Bah Soon Pah Road occupies a bungalow that served as the Assistant Plantation Manager’s residence in Lim Nee Soon’s estate.

From the west end of Bah Soon Pah Road, we turned north at Sembawang Road – once named Seletar Road. While Seletar today is the area where the former Seletar Airbase, now Seletar Aerospace Park is, Seletar did once refer to a large swathe of land in the north in, particularly so in the days before the airbase was built. The name Seletar is associated the Orang Seletar who inhabited the Straits of Johor, Selat Tebrau, a group of the sea dwellers around the coast and river mouths of northern Singapore and southern Johor from the days before Raffles staked the East India Company’s claim to Singapore. Seletar is a word that is thought to have been derived from the Malay word for strait or selat. Seletar Road, which would have brought travellers on the road to the Naval Base, and to Seletar Pier right at its end, was renamed Sembawang Road in 1939 so as to avoid confusion to road users headed to Seletar Airbase (then RAF Seletar) which lay well to its east.

The road to the former residence.

The road to the former residence.

The drive down Sembawang Road, up to perhaps the early 1980s, was one that did take you through some wonderful countryside we no longer see anymore. One of my first and memorable trips down the road was in a bus filled with my schoolmates – which turned out to be annual affair whilst I was in primary school. The destination was Sembawang School off Jalan Mata Ayer. where we would be bused to, to support the school’s football team when they played in the finals of the North Zone Primary Schools competition.

An old postcard of Lim Nee Soon's rubber factory and the surrounding area.

An old postcard of Lim Nee Soon’s rubber factory further south, and the surrounding area.

The school, the site of which is now occupied by a condominium Euphony Gardens, would be remembered for its single storey buildings – commonly seen in Singapore’s rural areas, as it would be for its football field. The field did somehow seem to have been laid on an incline, a suspicion that was to be confirmed by the difficulty the referee had in placing the ball and preventing it from rolling, when for a penalty kick was awarded during one of the matches.

Sembawang Road at its junction with Jalan Mata Ayer.

Sembawang Road at its junction with Jalan Mata Ayer.

The walk from Bah Soon Pah Road to Jalan Mata Ayer, did take us past two military camps. One, Khatib Camp as we know it today, is a more recent addition to the landscape. It would probably be of interest to some, that the original Khatib Camp was one used by the Malaysian military, housing the Tentera Laut Di-Raja Malaysia (TLMD) or Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) training school KD Pelandok from 1971 to 1980 and was known as Kem Khatib. The Malaysian association with it started in 1964 when it was first set up to house a Malaysian infantry battalion. This came at a time when Singapore was a part of Malaysia.

RMN officers in training at KD Pelandok in Singapore in the 1970s (photograph online at http://farm1.staticflickr.com/167/439314471_c932143651_o.jpg).

Apparently KD Pelandok was where the RMN, who in fact maintained their main base at Woodlands in Singapore until 1979, first carried out their own training of naval officers. Prior to this, naval officers had been sent to the UK to be trained. The camp was returned to Singapore on 2 February 1982, after the training school was shifted to the RMN’s main naval base in Lumut. A new Khatib Camp, now the home of the SAF’s Artillery, was built on the site and the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) moved into it in 1983.

Sembawang Road looking north from its junction with Bah Soon Pah Road. Khatib Camp is just up the road with Dieppe Barracks across from it. The landscape will very soon change once the construction of an elevated portion of the North-South Expressway starts.

Sembawang Road looking north from its junction with Bah Soon Pah Road. Khatib Camp is just up the road with Dieppe Barracks across from it. The landscape will very soon change once the construction of an elevated portion of the North-South Expressway starts.

A LTA map of the area showing the North-South Expressway viaduct and an entrance ramp in the vicinity of Khatib Camp. Construction is expected to start next year.

A LTA map of the area showing the North-South Expressway viaduct and an entrance ramp in the vicinity of Khatib Camp. Construction is expected to start next year.

One of the things I remember about the new Khatib Camp in its early days was this helmet shaped roof of its sentry post. Khatib Camp in its early days also housed the SAF Boys School, which later became the SAF Education Centre (SAFEC). The school provided a scheme in which ‘N’-level certificate holders could continue their education fully paid to allow them to complete their ‘O’-levels, after which students would be have to serve a six-year bond out with the SAF. In more recent time, Khatib Camp has been made into one of the centres where NSmen (reservists) would take their annual fitness tests, the IPPT. It is also where the dreaded Remedial Training (RT) programmes are conducted for those who fail to pass the IPPT.

A southward view - there is still perhaps a feel of the countryside there once was in the area.

A southward view – there is still perhaps a feel of the countryside there once was in the area.

Across from Khatib Camp, is Dieppe Barracks. Built originally to house British military units, it is now used by the SAF’s HQ Guards, and is one the last former British army camps to retain the word “barracks” in its name – a reminder of its association with the British forces, and also the New Zealand forces. It housed the 1st Battalion of the Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment from 1971 to 1989 leaving a distinctly New Zealand flavour on the area as well as in the areas of Sembawang up north. This was as part of the protection force first under the ANZUK arrangements that followed the British pullout in 1971. With the Australian forces pulling out in the mid 1970s, the New Zealanders stayed  on as the New Zealand Force South East Asia (NZ Force SEA). One of the things that was hard not to miss on the grounds of the barracks was how different the obstacle course in the open field in the north of the barrack grounds looked from those we did see in the SAF camps then.

Dieppe Barracks when it housed British units in the 1960s (online at http://www.nmbva.co.uk/keith%2012.jpg).

The entrance to Dieppe Barracks seen in the 1980s when it was used by 1 RNZIR with the fence that I so remember (online at http://anzmilitarybratsofsingapore.com/group/gallery/1_20_01_09_5_21_11.jpg).

Just north of Dieppe is where Jalan Mata Ayer can be found (where the school with the inclined football field was). The name “Mata Ayer” is apparently a reference to the source of the now quite well-known Sembawang Hot Springs. The once rural road led to a village called Kampong Mata Ayer, also known as Kampong Ayer Panas, close to the area where the hot spring, now within the boundaries of Chong Pang Camp, is.

Dieppe Barracks in 1975 (image online at http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/media/photo/new-zealand-defence-force-headquarters-singapore, Ministry for Culture and Heritage, updated 31-Jan-2014).

Continuing north along the road, there are several clusters of shophouses across the road from where Yishun New Town has come up. Several shops here do in fact have their origins in the villages of the area. One well known business is a traditional Teochew bakery, Gin Thye Cake Maker. Specialising in Teochew pastries, the bakery goes back to 1964 when Mdm. Ang Siew Geck started it in her village home at Bah Soon Pah Road. Described by The Straits Times as the Last of the Teochew bakeries, its biscuits are a popular choice amongst its customers. You would also be able to spot traditional wedding baskets lined up at the top of one of the shelves. The baskets are used by the bakery to deliver traditional sweets – as might have once been the case, for weddings. 

Traditional biscuits right out of the oven at Gin Thai Cake Maker.

Traditional biscuits right out of the oven at Gin Thai Cake Maker.

Not far up from the shophouses, we come to the area where a relatively new Chong Pang Camp is. The camp sits on what once was a very picturesque part of Singapore, Ulu Sembawang. What was visible of the area from Sembawang Road were the fishing ponds and the lush greenery that lay beyond them. The greenery did obscure an area that did lie beyond it, that was particularly rich in bird life and was up to the 1990s, a popular area for birding activities.

Henry Cordeiro UluSembawang

It was an area that we did once get a wonderful view of from Jalan Ulu Sembawang, a road that rose up from close to the back of the then Seletaris bottling plant at its junction with Sembawang Road towards another rural area of villages and farms. The view, from a stretch of the road that ran along a ridge, was what my father did describe as being the most scenic in Singapore that looked across a rolling landscape of vegetable farms for almost as far as the eye could see. Jalan Ulu Sembawang was also one of the roads that led to Lorong Gambas in the Mandai area – an area many who did National Service would remember it as a training area that was used up to perhaps the 1990s.

The end of the road - Jalan Ulu Sembawang used to continue into the Mandai area toward Lorong Gambas.

The end of the road – Jalan Ulu Sembawang used to continue into the Mandai area toward Lorong Gambas.

The rolling hills landscape at Ulu Sembawang in 1993 (photograph: From the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009).

The rolling hills landscape at Ulu Sembawang in 1993 (photograph: From the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009).

A stop along the way that we did spend some time at was the hot springs, around which there seems now to be much superstition. The spring, which was discovered by a municipal ranger on the property of a Seah Eng Keong in 1908. Seah Eng Keong was the son of gambier and pepper plantation owner Mr Seah Eu Chin who I understand from Claire Leow, one half of the female duo who maintains All Things Bukit Brown and who joined us on the walk, also owned gambier and pepper plantations in the area. Seah Eu Chin would also be well known as being the founder of the Ngee Ann Kongsi.

The surviving well of the spring.

The surviving well of the spring.

The spring water was over the years, bottled in various ways and under various names, first by Mr Seah, and then by Fraser and Neave (F&N) from 1921. One of the names its was bottled as was Zombun which was, on the evidence of a newspaper article, a source of a joke – with waiters referring to “Air Zombun” as a similar sounding “Air Jamban” or water from the toilet in Malay.

Collecting water at the hot springs.

Collecting water at the hot springs.

The caretaker splashing himself with water right out of the tap.

The caretaker splashing himself with water right out of the tap.

Bottling was to be disrupted by the war – the Japanese, known for their fondness for thermal baths, were said to have built such baths at the hot springs – the water, which flows out at around 66 degrees Celcius, with its strong sulphur content (which is evident from the unmistakable smell you would be able to get of it), is thought to have curative properties – especially for skin and rheumatic conditions.  It’s flow was disrupted by allied bombing in November 1944 and it was only in 1967 that F&N started re-bottling the water under a subsidiary Semangat Ayer Limited using the brand name Seletaris (now the name of a condominium that sits on the site of the plant).

Now flowing out of pipes and taps, the water comes out at about 66 degrees Celcius.

Now flowing out of pipes and taps, the water comes out at about 66 degrees Celcius.

The hot spring attracts many to it in search of cures for skin ailments and rheumatic conditions.

The hot spring attracts many to it in search of cures for skin ailments and rheumatic conditions.

While it did remain the property of F&N, many were known to have bathed at the spring before 1967 and also again after the plant was closed in the mid 1980s, when its land was acquired by the government. The spring – with water now running out of pipes and taps, in now within the boundaries of Chong Pang Camp – which initially meant that it was closed to the public. Since May 2002 however, after petitions were submitted to the authorities, the spring has been opened to the public. Access to the spring is now through a fenced pathway that cuts into the camp’s grounds. A warning is scribbled on the red brick structure that surrounds a surviving well that speaks of a curse – that anyone who vandalises the hot spring will be the subject of a curse.

The writing on the wall - a curse for any would be vandals.

The writing on the wall – a curse for any would be vandals.

From the spring and Jalan Ulu Sembawang, now a stub that leads to a wooded area where development doesn’t seem very far away – an international school is already being built there, we can to the end of the adventure. While it is sad to see how another place in Singapore which holds the memories of the gentle world I once enjoyed as a child has been transformed into another place I struggle to connect with; I did at least manage to find a few things that does, in some way remind of that old world that I miss. Developments in the area are however taking off at a furious pace and with the construction of elevated portion of the North-South Expressway that is due to start next year and will have a significant impact on the area’s landscape; it may not be long before it does become another place of beauty that we have abandoned in favour of a cold and overly manicured landscape in which there will be little left, except for “heritage” markers, to remind us of what it did once mean to us.

It now is a wooded area awaiting future development.

Jalan Ulu Sembawang is now is an area reclaimed by nature awaiting future development.

Where a school is now being built - the condominium in the background is the Seletaris.

Where a school is now being built – the condominium in the background is the Seletaris.





The journey home to Essex Road

4 06 2013

One of the experiences I am very grateful for, in a childhood blessed with many wonderful moments, is the six years that I spent in school at St. Michael’s School. The six years were some of the best years of my life. The years were ones which took me on the first part of a very fulfilling journey from being the wide-eyed child to who I am today. They were also when many of my friendships, which have survived to this day, some four decades later, were forged.

The six years spent in SMS were one which provided me with many fond memories. Oneis how we used to squat by the drains to brush our teeth after recess (photograph posted by Edward Lam on the SMSAA Facebook Group).

The six years spent in SMS were one which provided me with many fond memories. One is how we used to squat by the drains to brush our teeth after recess (photograph posted by Edward Lam on the SMSAA Facebook Group).

I often look back at those days with great fondness, reminiscing with schoolmates, now good friends, about what certainly were our days in the sun. There is much to walk back in time to, both in the classroom and out of it. It was probably the out of classroom ones that are best remembered.

P.E. time - it was probably the adventures outside the classrooms that are best remembered.

P.E. time – it was probably the adventures outside the classrooms that are best remembered (photograph posted by Kelvin Monteiro on the SMSAA Facebook Group).

It was a long time ago, but it does seem like it was only yesterday when we were combing the morning glory growing on the fence for spiders and ladybirds, splashing around in the frequent floods and rushing from class to the playing fields for a quick game of football or “hantam bola” at recess. One of the more endearing memories we do collectively have is of the epok-epok vendor armed with a bottle of chilli sauce which was used to inject a load of “shiok-ness” that made his potato filled curry puffs ones we looked forward to the end of the day for.

The school as I remember it.

The school as I remember it (photograph posted by Kelvin Monteiro on the SMSAA Facebook Group).

While the school doesn’t quite exist in name anymore – a rebranding exercise in 2007 saw it return to its roots as an extension to St. Joseph’s Institution (SJI), SJI Junior, the spirit of St. Michael’s School does live on. A St. Michael’s School (SMS) Alumni Fund Committee, spearheaded by ten members of the class of 1966 (all born in the year the school was founded in 1954) was formed back in January 2007, just as the change of name took effect, in part to help preserve the name but more as a means for ex-students to provide support to the school and its students.

The school today - the campus is currently closed due to the construction of a new sports hall.

The school today – the campus is currently closed due to the construction of a new sports hall.

The brainchild of Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, who served as the SMS Alumni Fund Committee’s Patron, the committee was set up as a vehicle for fundraising efforts to help students in need with the aim that the less fortunate students are not deprived of participation in class or in school activities.

A new fence - where the old, overgrown with creepers and morning glory, was a source of spiders and ladybirds.

A new fence – where the old, overgrown with creepers and morning glory, was a source of spiders and ladybirds.

The funds, all raised within the committee and the alumni of the 1966 cohort, provides support for some 35 to 40 students every year, each receiving between $800 and $1000. Amounting to some $40,000 annually, this does provide assistance where the well-meaning SPH School Pocket Money Programme falls short, with some 200 families being assisted since 2007. The committee also funds an afterschool educare programme for the same students.

The spirit of SMS seen in the vociferous support we often provided to our sportsmen (photograph posted by Michael Gasper on the SMSAA Facebook Group).

The spirit of SMS seen in the vociferous support we often provided to our sportsmen (photograph posted by Michael Gasper on the SMSAA Facebook Group).

The committee was a private initiative driven by the ten committee members concerned. This year sees the efforts being taken one step further with the formation of the St. Michael’s School Alumni Association – A Heritage of SJI Junior, (SMSAA), which was registered in April. The formation sees the intention of the alumni of 1966 who are approaching their 60s, to be succeeded by a new Alumni Fund committee. The Pro Tem committee of SMSAA, formed formed to facilitate the registration of SMSAA under the Registrar of Societies, will serve until the first AGM next year when the first Executive Council will be elected and is made up of younger alumini with two members from the Alumni Fund committee, Mike Ang and Joseph Bong. Michael Ang is the President of the ProTem committee and Joseph Bong is the Chairman of the Alumni Fund committee.

Many will remember the little roundabout with statue of St. Michael slaying the serpent (photograph posted by Joseph Ow Yong on the SMSAA Facebook Group).

Many will remember the little roundabout with statue of St. Michael slaying the serpent (photograph posted by Joseph Ow Yong on the SMSAA Facebook Group).

The first initiative of the SMSAA Pro Tem committee was to launch a membership recruitment drive using Facebook and email. Part of this effort involves organising what is the SMSAA’s inaugural event “Journey Home to Essex”. This will be held on Saturday 29 June 2013 and is timed to coincide with the re-opening of the campus which SMS / SJI Junior has occupied since its founding. This follows a move out to temporary premises to allow a new sports hall to be built, which the SMS Alumni Fund Committee contributed the first $200,000 to.

A view of the school's campus in the late 1970s.

A view of the school’s campus in the late 1970s.

Badge

As of today membership of SMSAA (which is free with no joining fee, monthly or annual subscriptions), stands close to 400. The committee aims to increase this through the Journey Home to Essex event which will be held together with a symbolic journey home – a 4 kilometre walk undertaken by its current students from the temporary premises to the Essex Road campus in the morning. The lunchtime reunion or “Assembly” event will provide an opportunity for many old boys – many of whom have not been back, to reconnect with the school and more importantly, to extend the friendship and brotherhood that was forged in the spirit, culture and tradition of SMS, by joining the SMSAA. So if you are a member of the St. Michael’s School (or St. Joseph’s Institution Junior) alumni, you may like to hop on board.

More information on the event and the SMSAA can be found at the SMSAA’s Facebook Group page and on the Facebook event page. Alumni can sign-up as a member by filling up the Old Michaelians and Junior Joes Survey & Application to JOIN the St Michael’s School Alumni Association (A Heritage of SJI Junior) at this link.





A 40 year journey from Essex Road

28 04 2011

I made a journey recently with a group of friends. It could be said that it was a journey that had started some forty years ago, one that had started with the forging of bonds in the classrooms and on the schoolyards at Essex Road in Singapore. Yes, we were schoolmates, seven of us, making a journey in mid-life that was as much motivated by a common passion, as it was by the camaraderie we developed in the course of our Christian Brothers’ education that kept us in touch with each other well into our teenage years.

Flying the flag of our Alma Mater: Seven schoolmates and one we adopted ...

Some of us in Primary 6, St. Michael's School.

The journey we took was one that brought us to the shadow of the roof of the world. An excursion, as one put it, an extension of those we used to look forward to at the end of the year during our primary school days. Having a common interest in photography, we sought to capture, through seven pairs of eyes, how we saw the wonderful world in which we found ourselves immersed in for a few days, coming back not just with a multitude of images, but touched by the beauty and warmth in the simplicity of the people, fond memories of the colourful sights that unfolded before our eyes, and most importantly with the spirit that the ten (some twelve) years in St. Michael’s School (now St. Joseph’s Institution Junior) and St. Joseph’s Institution had imparted on us.

Life on the streets in Kathmandu makes it a wonderful place to see and discover.

Along the three hundred steps to enlightenment: A statue of Buddha on the ascent up the pilgrim path to Swayambunath, a stupa which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the outskirts of Kathmandu.

The ancient capital of the Kathmandu Valley, Bhaktapur, seen during the Bisket Jatra festival held during the Nepali New Year in April.

The trip involved not just a visit to Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal, but also to some of the areas that surround the city, places that have a magical or mythical charm, as well as one that would, on a clear day, have given us a magnificent view of the roof of the world. Kathmandu and the Kathmandu Valley, is certainly blessed with some magnificent cultural treasures, a few which have been listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including two stupa sites, Swayambunath and Boudhanath, and a former capital, Bhaktapur, and it was these that we focused our cameras on. Along the way, we also visited a Roman Catholic church, the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption, in Lalitpur on the outskirts of Kathmandu, and along with it the Parish School, the Regina Amoris School, set up and run by the Sisters of Cluny for the children of the needy. All in all, it was a huge and meaningful adventure for us, and one, that I would be touching on in detail in separate posts to come on each part of our visit.

The long, narrow and winding road up to Nagarkot, a hill station near Kathmandu.

Boudhanath, a UNSECO World Heritage Site and the largest stupa in Nepal, is also a centre of Tibetan life.

Durbar Square in Kathmandu, a concentration of monuments which is another UNSECO World Heritage Site.

The Church of Our Lady of the Assumption in Lalitpur.





The horrors that awaited on excursions to Pegu Road

9 02 2011

One of the few things I really hated when I was attending primary school was the regular visits I made to Pegu Road. It was for me, something that seemed to be too regular for my liking, and the appearance of the dreaded sight of the white bus that was used to ferry us there parked in the school car park wasn’t something that I looked forward to. It was to Pegu Road that as school children, we would be brought over to by the class, spending part of the morning or afternoon as it may be, in an excursion that usually resulted in some pain and discomfort.

An trip out of school to this group of buildings at Pegu Road wasn't one of our favourite excursions in school.

Pegu Road then had been home to one of the schools’ dental clinics set up specifically to provide dental care to primary school children, which was supplemented by mobile dental clinics on buses which I guess were used to reach out to schools beyond the vicinity of the few schools’ dental clinics that existed then. It was actually the very first of the schools’ dental clinics that was set up, being opened by Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, just a week or so before the merger of Singapore with Malaya in September 1963. By the time I had started my primary schooling in the early 1970s, there were two such clinics in operation, the other being set up at the Institute of Health in Outram Road. More soon came along in the mid 1970s and there were apparently ten such clinics that were added in 1973 – I remember that there was one at the corner of Aljunied Road and MacPherson Road as well – a classmate’s father was a dentist at that particular clinic.

How the inside of Pegu Road Dental Clinic had looked like (source: http://www.picas.nhb.gov.sg).

Speaking of dental care, many would also remember being issued with a plastic tumbler and a small toothbrush as school children, part of a scheme to introduce good dental care habits to school children that was introduced in 1969. A tooth brushing drill would take place every day after recess and we would line up against a small drain with the tumbler filled with water and brush our teeth over the drain.

Pegu Road today doesn't hold the horrors that awaited us anymore ... but somehow, I am still filled with a sense of trepidation whenever I find myself in the area.

Visits to the dental clinic would have taken place every half a year or so, and for those with cavities to be filled, follow up visits were sometimes required. For many of us, that meant having to sit in the chair and have the dreaded drill shake the daylights out of you. Worse was when extractions were required and the sight of the long needle at the end of the syringe filled with anesthetic was enough to bring the look of horror on the face of many. Many times, dentists would attempt to placate the terrified child in his/her chair with a little plastic boxes or cases that would have been used to hold items such as drill bits – and that worked for some … but never for me … and to this day, a sense of trepidation still fills me whenever I am in and around Pegu Road.





Adventures with numbers

19 05 2010

No, I don’t mean math! But I did have a lot of adventures associated with numbers back in the days of my childhood. It was back when we had the likes of Stanley Kramer’s madcap It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and the lovable Volkswagen Beetle named Herbie that Disney gave us in the Love Bug (numbered 53), which perhaps laid the ground for my own adventures on wheels, or so I imagined. It was cretainly with the numbers on wheels that seemed to be the source of many an adventure then, from the ones I got with the long drives my father took us for in his Austin 1100 numbered 793 (that being the number on the car registration plate, SM 793) to the far flung corners of Singapore and to the hills and beaches that lay across the Causeway, to the adventures of my own on the minibus that carried me to school, numbered 388 (being CB 388). While sitting on the backseat (and roof) of the 793 did provide a fair bit of adventure, it was on the 388 that perhaps made life for a boy of school-going age a lot more fun, and looking back, school days at St. Michael’s School would certainly not have been complete and made all the more exciting if it wasn’t for the 388. It was on the 388 where we, the closet mischievous school boys that many of us were, could express this inclination, free from the watchful and critical eyes of our parents and teachers. There was a big adventure each day for us to look forward to; adventures through which bonds were built that have survived to this day.

On the roof of my father's SM 793, Changi Beach, early 1970s ... adventures weren't just confined to sitting on the backseat, but also on the roof. However, it was on the school bus CB 388 that I had most fun on.

For five out of the six years I spent in primary school, with the exception of Primary 4 during which my parents allowed me to venture on the public bus for the journey to school, the 388 was what carried me to and from school. There were a few occasions when I did skip taking the 388, as I did when my parents did decide to drop me off or pick me up, and that one occasion in Primary 3 when I made my way home on foot, having missed the bus (for reasons that have escaped me).

The staircase at the foot of Block 53 where the 388 would pick me up from.

The route that took me from the foot of Block 53 Toa Payoh where I lived, to St. Michael’s School each school day, brought me and my fellow passengers around much of Toa Payoh, with the last stop being the curved block (Block 157) at the corner of Lorong 1 and 2. Following this, the journey that would take us over the flyover to Jalan Toa Payoh, and out to the slip road that connected with Thomson Road non-stop to school. We would usually have to spend some time at the corner, having to wait in the traffic that often crawled into Thomson Road, during which I remember being fascinated by the comings and goings of the compound on which a zinc building stood (I can’t remember if it was built completely in zinc sheets, but it at least has a zinc roof), which gave me an impression of being used as a sawmill (or at least where wooden planks were stored), which I got from the numerous wooden planks that lay in stacks in the yard. This building occupied the little strip of land wedged between the slip road and the canalised Sungei Whampoa, on which perhaps the apartment block that occupies the space at the same corner has been built. It was from this point where our adventures would usually end, our mischievousness returning to the closets they came out from.

The area by the slip road from Jalan Toa Payoh to Thomson Road by Sungei Whampoa where the zince building stood.

Through the stops and starts of most of the journey through Toa Payoh, with the driver usually distracted by having to focus on negotiating through the busy road, and the slower speeds that the bus could travel at, we had the perfect opportunity to get away with almost anything. And got away we very often did with our weapons of mass irritation: water pistols, rubber bands and paper bullets, self-fashioned “pea-shooters” from straws with which a mouthful of green beans could be discharged through, with which we could take aim, and rain a barrage of beans, paper bullets and streams of water at unsuspecting motorists and pedestrians, from the relative security offered by the narrow windows of the minibus. There were a few occasions when, out of ammunition, some of the boys would aim a short shout of “chicken shit” or the like at a pedestrian, catching them off-guard and drawing nothing more serious than a bewildered stare. When the exercise of mischievousness did catch the eye of the driver, he did usually try to discipline us with his thin whip of rattan when traffic conditions permitted. This sometimes ended up going through the window or being broken in two. He would sometimes have to deal in the same way with the fights that often broke out between some of the boys, cheered on by the rest of the juvenile occupants of the minibus, with the cane often losing out in the same way.

Rubber Bands and Paper Bullets

Once out of Toa Payoh and onto Thomson Road, things usually settled down. For one, there was less pedestrian traffic along the short stretch of Thomson Road to school. This would also mean a relatively short journey which remained, putting us greater risk of incurring the wrath of the driver once we got to our destination. Back to our best behaviour, all we could do then was stare silently out the window, as we impatiently looked forward to getting to school where a different set of adventures would await us.

The rest of the journey down Thomson Road, which looked very different then, would be accompanied by a calm after the storm.





Macaroni under the flyover

18 05 2010

On the subject of some of our lost makan (food or eating) places, there would be many that we can collectively remember, which could be the many stalls that lined much of the old streets of Singapore, or the ones that appeared in car parks in the evenings as they emptied of their day time occupants. In an effort to clean up the streets of Singapore and to improve hygiene of street food vendors, many of the hawkers were taken off the streets in the 1970s, moved to purpose the built food or hawker centres we are familiar with these days. With the food centres, proper rubbish disposal facilities and running water could be provided, as well as well maintained food preparation areas – a huge improvement on the pushcarts that were used, where leftovers could have been tossed into the drains, and the lack of running water often meant that water for washing was often reused. One such food centre that my parents were fond of going to, being close to where we lived in Toa Payoh, was the one that my parents referred to as “Under the Flyover” along Whitley Road. This was built to house hawkers at the end of Balestier Road near its junction with Thomson Road, and came into being sometime in the 1970s.

Under the flyover which once was a bustle of food stalls and diners. The original flyover is the one on the right of the picture.

The food Centre was referred to by my parents as “Under the Flyover” as it was literally located under the flyover that connected Jalan Toa Payoh to Whitley Road (now all part of the Pan Island Expressway or PIE – the original flyover is the one that now carries the west bound traffic on the expressway). Popular particularly with taxi drivers, it was well known for the stall which sold Prawn Noodles with large prawns, and another which served Pork Porridge and Macaroni Soup, Singapore style (usually Macaroni boiled in clear chicken broth, served with shredded pieces of chicken or with minced pork). My favourite stalls there were however the one that served cut fruits, for the triangular colourful pieces of jelly that was sold, the Won Ton noodle stall and the Char Siew Rice stall.

The location of the food centre under the flyover ...

Once a haunt of diners looking to fill their stomachs with their favourite hawker fare is now a forgotten plot of emptiness under the Thomson flyover.

During the year that I was in Primary Six, and equipped with a monthly bus pass, I had the freedom of hopping on and off the public buses as and when I wanted, and as the food centre was located conveniently along the public bus route home, I could often stop over at the food centre with my schoolmates on my way home from school. We would always head straight for the cut fruit stall – for its refreshing iced pineapple juice, displayed in a clear plastic container in which cut pieces of boiled cubed pineapple could be seen at the bottom of. Another favourite of ours was the Indian convenience store that operated out of one of the units close to the entrance from the bus stop where we could pick up Shoot! and our favourite snacks.

Part of the area where the food centre was is now a heavy vehicle parking area.

The food centre remained a popular choice of my parents for dinner or a late night supper even after we had moved further away from Toa Payoh. Sadly, the food centre has gone the way of many other things I loved about Singapore, disappearing sometime in the early 1990s, and what is left in its place is an empty plot of land which is used as a heavy vehicle park, and now, not one, but two flyovers (a newer flyover was constructed to carry eastbound traffic on the PIE) cross over the what had once been the food centre that had a hand in feeding the growing appetite of my youth.





My Days in the Sun. Part 2: Epok-Epok, sports days and the marvels of MILO

4 05 2010

My second year at primary school provided me with a very different experience from the one I had in my first year. This was possibly because of two things, the first being having to attend school in the afternoon session (I had hitherto only attended school and kindergarten in the mornings); and the other was that I was able to relate much better to my fellow classmates and surroundings, having spent a year with them. While going to school in the morning session had provided me with the rest of the afternoon to finish up my homework and still have the time to have a game of football and watch Vic Morrow in Combat! after dinner, the afternoon session seemed to rob me of the day, having to spend a greater part of the morning finishing up homework and getting ready for school, with barely enough time to have an early lunch. I could on many days also squeeze a visit to my neighbour, Mr. Singh’s flat on the seventeenth storey, where for tea time promptly at four each afternoon, I would be greeted by wonderfully rich smell of strong tea being brewed and of heated ghee on chapati, as Mrs. Singh rolled the balls of dough out into flat circular shapes that was to become chapati as it heated on the flat iron pan manned by one of her daughters.

St. Michael's School has an especially large field for us to play football on.

The afternoon session, despite robbing me of much of my play time, did provide other opportunities for fun. Arriving earlier before school started than would have been possible with the morning session, did allow us to have that game of football that many of us itched to have. Playing under the gaze of the midday sun didn’t seem to cause us any discomfort as it would probably have today, and many of us would arrive for class drenched in perspiration brought about by the midday exertions, and a little too disheveled for the liking of our disapproving form teacher. This was possibly a contributing factor to it being more difficult to keep one’s concentration in the afternoons. The afternoon heat also played its part – I would sometimes feel inclined to indulge in a siesta, even though I did not have the habit of taking an afternoon nap. The afternoons seemed to drag on forever, broken only by too short a recess time during which the field rather than the tuckshop appealed to most of us. In any case, by the logic of a seven year old, the 30 cents that I got for my daily allowance would better spent on the Jolly Lolly from the ice cream vendor at the end of the day.

The end of the school day was always looked to in anticipation for most of us, not just for the release it provided from the shackles of the classroom, but for the chance to grab that tied up plastic bag of sweet coloured and flavoured cold drinks, or what is till this day, the best epok-epok (fried puffs of pastry with potato or sardine curry fillings) that I had ever sunk my teeth into. This could be when requested, filled with a generous amount of chilli sauce that made the epok-epok taste just so good! I always watched with keen interest as the epok-epok man dispensed the chilli sauce from a bottle topped with a spout, which he violently poked into the potato curry filled cavity of the epok-epok. The vendors lined the fence which ran along the edge of the car park where the school buses waited for their passengers, along the big drain, and the place always seemed to be bustling with activity, almost like a market place. There we would have had to tread carefully to avoid stepping on the foul smelling noni fruit that seemed to litter the ground. Besides ice cream, cold drinks and epok-epok, there was this man who sometimes came on a bicycle with a glass fronted tin mounted at the back of his bicycle. The tin had three compartments, each filled with keropok (crackers) of a different flavour: fish, prawn and tapioca. That I would rather spend my allowance on epok-epok rather than the keropok that everyone seemed to associate me with, is probably a testament to how good the epok-epok really was!

I was, somewhere through the year in Primary 2, conferred with the nick name of Keropok by the driver of the mini bus I took to school. He explained later that it was because I was always seen clasping a packet of keropok – my favourite being the rounded fish flavoured keropok that I still enjoy these days. My bus mates caught on to it, and would later take to chanting “Keropok, Keropok, Keropok” as the bus passed on the other side of the road before making a U-turn to pick me up.

The Sack Race was a favourite event during lower primary school sports days.

The year spent in Primary 2 was also memorable for the introduction it provided me to sports. Our Physical Education (P.E.) lessons had, in Primary 1, been something less than enjoyable. In Primary 2,  Mr. George Kheng our P.E. teacher, a keen football fan, organised the four houses into teams named after popular English clubs. There was Everton, Tottenham Hotspurs, another team which I can’t quite remember (could have been Coventry City) and Liverpool (Thomas or Blue house which I belonged to). I suppose that this contributed greatly to me supporting Liverpool Football Club. P. E. lessons besides becoming a lot more football centered, also became a lot more fun.

Relay race with a ball.

Primary 2 was a year for which Sports Day was something to look forward to. Where in Primary 1, I was caught up in the awe and excitement of the occasion, I was probably able to take it all in a little better in Primary 2. We had all kinds of events that allowed mass participation, such as the sack race and another which had us balancing an egg on a teaspoon as we raced across the field. Sports day was for many of us, best remembered for the MILO van, which seemed to be a feature of every sports day then. Somehow, sports days just wouldn’t be sports days without it being around. I can’t quite remember if it actually a van or a small truck which was opened up at the sides, but what was certain was that it always meant the little green paper cups of chilled chocolate flavoured fluid that we would gratefully quench our thirsty throats with. It certainly felt marvellous what MILO could do for us!

Ice Cold Milo served in little green paper cups was a great thirst quencher during our school sports days.





1974, a year of football madness

12 02 2010

1974 was a year which I remember most for the feast of football that it provided. That was of course the year in which the World Cup was to be staged. That year it was to be hosted by West Germany, the half of western leaning half of a Germany split by the Cold War into East and West. The World Cup was something that I had looked forward to in anticipation being a little too young to appreciate the spectacle that the World Cup had provided four years earlier in Mexico City. It was also the year in which football fever reached a fever pitch in Singapore riding on the good run of the Singapore team in the Malaysia Cup competition, and with the year closing with the visit to Singapore of the world’s greatest footballer: Edson Arantes Do Nascimento, known to us all as Pelé.

Pelé in action: Pelé was considered by many to be the greatest footballer of all time. He held a coaching session at the humble Toa Payoh Stadium in December 1974 (Photo source: BBC).

For me, what started with kicking a ball around the wide corridor that was the circular lift landing of the block of flats I lived in with a few neighbours (and having to scramble down 19 floors every time the ball flew over the parapet), developed into a passion for the game by the time 1974 had arrived. The neighbourhood boys had formed a team in which I somehow ended up playing as a goalkeeper for. In school, my classmates and I were kicking a ball every little scrap of time we found: before school, during recess and during P.E. lessons. I had also become an avid follower of the English game – of which we would get a glimpse of through highlights shown every Sunday of the previous weekend’s action. I became a big fan of the mopped haired Kevin Keegan and the team he played for, Liverpool, and remember 1974 well for their triumph in the F.A. Cup – beating Newcastle United 3-0 in the finals in May of that year. Unfortunately, the team didn’t win the Division 1 championship that year, losing out to Leeds United.

My football mad classmates and me in the Class football team.

The visit of Pelé would perhaps have been the highlight of the year of football to many Singaporeans. For my friends and me, the football crazed schoolboys that we were, the opportunity to see the world’s greatest player up close on the pitch of the Toa Payoh Stadium on 2 December of that year was certainly one not to be missed, even if that meant watching him demonstrating his sublime skills from a distance. He had been scheduled to conduct a coaching clinic for a select few, and my older neighbours had got wind of it and brought me along as a most willing accomplice.

The National Stadium provided the setting for a football match in 1974 that left a lasting impression on me.

What would, however, leave a greater impression on me that year was not seeing Pelé in person, or the World Cup, but, watching the first leg of the semi-final of the Malaysia Cup between Singapore and Penang at the National Stadium. That match played on 26 May, was the first that I ever watched live in a stadium and would be one that got me hooked on the Malaysia Cup. As a match, the semi-final was filled with much drama as the tide ebbed and flowed. Penang took the lead early on before Singapore equalised. At the interval Singapore was trailing 1-2 and the game looked beyond Singapore. However, a second half revival which saw wave after wave of Singapore attacks, and Singapore’s Jaafar Yacob hitting the bar from the penalty spot, saw Singapore first equalising through Quah Kim Lye, and scoring a winning goal through its captain Seak Poh Leong.

The National Stadium under construction in 1973.

What I remember most about the match was the raucous atmosphere in the stadium and how the stadium literally shook as the match went on. The stadium had been packed to the rafters, probably seeing the largest crowd ever seen in the stadium. 70,000 fans had crammed in spilling into the aisles. My parents and me had been seated right at the top of the East Stand of the stadium, as the stadium had already been packed when we arrived some two hours before the match. While not being the best place to observe the action on the field, it provided an ideal vantage point from which to observe and soak up the atmosphere  on the terraces. The thunderous noise that accompanied each wave of Singapore’s attacks was deafening! This was amplified by the stamping of feet by the boisterous crowd causing the whole stadium to tremble. This was definitely the Kallang Roar, which was in its infancy, at its loudest! The atmosphere was electric, as fans rose in excitement at each attack, corner, free-kick and unpopular refereeing decisions, which had me shaking in excitement even after the game had ended.  The team then featured the likes of Dollah Kassim, Mohammad Noh, Quah Kim Lye and Quah Kim Song, all household names in Singapore football in the 1970s. Unfortunately, the efforts of the team on the night came to nought as Singapore lost 1-4 to Penang in the return leg.

The newly constructed stadium was the most modern in South East Asia and provided an ideal setting for the birth of the Kallang Roar (Photo source: Singapore Sports Council).

I had watched the 1st leg of the semi-final seated near the cauldron as the stadium was packed with 70,000 spectators.

After following the exploits of the Singapore team and rejoicing at Liverpool’s triumph in the F.A. Cup, next on the menu was that summer’s World Cup, one in which we were very much mesmerised by the magic woven by the feet of the new Dutch masters led by the two Johans: Neeskens and Cruyff. We were treated to a show of “total football” by the Dutch, who met West Germany in the final. There was some controversy surrounding the German route to the finals in which it was suggested that they deliberately lost 0-1 to their eastern counterparts during the group stages to avoid meeting the defending champions Brazil in the next stage. Whatever it was, Germany eventually triumphed 2-1 in a pulsating final which saw two penalties awarded, the first to the Dutch in the very first minute before any German player had touched the ball, through a Gerd Muller goal.

Johan Cruyff in action during the final of the 1974 World Cup (Photo source: Wikipedia).

1974 saw the introduction of a new trophy after Brazil's third triumph in 1970 allowed Brazil to keep the original Jules Rimet trophy (Photo source: Wikipedia).

1974 was certainly for me, a year to be remembered for the football feast that it served up to me.





Psst … guess who dropped in today?

28 01 2010

When I was growing up in Toa Payoh, my family had the privilege of receiving some rather important visitors to our humble 3-room flat. We were living on the top floor of a block of flats that the Housing and Development Board (HDB) built intentionally with a viewing gallery on the roof to provide visiting dignitaries with a vantage point from which the latest public housing project, Toa Payoh New Town, the pride of the HDB’s resoundingly successful public housing programme, could be better appreciated. This, together with the advantage that both my parents had, that given the general view that being teachers, they would have a better command of English than our neighbours on the same floor would have, and living in the flat that closest to the lift landing, had its benefits: the HDB would usually have our flat in mind when there was a need to provide the dignitaries with a view of how the typical dwelling looked like.

So it was with that, that we received out first VIP visitors not long after moving in, in June 1968 – John Gorton, the then Prime Minister of Australia and his family. I guess I was too young to really understand what the fuss was all about and all I can really remember is that towering hulk of a man from Australia who had come by and had given me with a gold-coloured tie-pin which had a figure of a kangaroo on it. I also remember that following the visit, I had somehow developed the fascination that I had with kangaroos as a child.

Photograph and newspaper cutting of John Gorton's Visit, June 1968

The most notable visitor we had was none other than HM Queen Elizabeth II, who dropped in on the afternoon of 18 February 1972. It was an occasion that deserved quite a fair bit of preparation, and there were several interviews and briefings before on areas such as security and protocol. It was for us an occasion that called for a makeover to be given to the flat. My parents had the flat renovated and terrazzo tiles tinged with green, white and black replaced our original black and white mosaic flooring. Outside, the area below the block of flats had been spruced up by the HDB for the occasion – pots of flowering plants lined the area where the Queen’s car would be driven up to, as well as the corridor leading up to the lift and the lift landing on the top floor. The block of flats had also had in the meantime, been given a fresh coat of paint. The lift cabin was done up very nicely as well, which was a welcome change from the rather tired and dirty looking interior it wore after five years of service.

It was an occasion that I had kept from my classmates in school – not that I would be missed. The schoolboys in the afternoon session, which I was in, were to be distracted, having been tasked to line the sides of Thomson Road to wave flags, where the motorcade that was to carry the Queen was to pass that afternoon. I was certainly happy for the opportunity to skip school, but maybe a little disappointed that I would not get my hands on the miniature Union Jacks my classmate were to be given – a favourite flag of mine back then.

When the Queen finally arrived at our flat that afternoon, I was caught somewhat unawares. I had decided to sit down before she arrived and while daydreaming – which I was fond of doing, Her Majesty had appeared at the doorway, and I was seen on the evening’s news scrambling to my feet!

Scrambling to my feet at the arrival of the Queen.

Shaking hands with the Queen.

HRH Princess Anne during the visit.

The Queen at the Viewing Gallery on the roof of Block 53 Toa Payoh

One thing I avoided doing immediately after the visit was to wash my hands. A neighbour had told me that I shouldn’t wash my hands that day, as I would wash my luck away, having shaken hands with the Queen. The Queen also made her way to the block of flats behind, where she had visited the flat of another family. A neighbour from the 17th floor, Ranu, related how there were crowds of people who gathered in the car park separating the two blocks of flats, hoping for a glance at the Queen, Prince Phillip, the Duke of Edinburgh, and Princess Anne. Ranu also related how she had shouted “Long Live the Queen” at the top of her voice, along with the crowds.

Prince Phillip and Princess Anne among the crowds

Going to school the following day, the driver of the minibus I took to school, was quick to shake my hand having witnessed the events on TV the previous evening – he had wanted to shake the hand of someone who had shaken hands with the Queen. I remember him saying to me: “no wonder you ponteng school lah”, ponteng being a colloquial word used to describe playing truant, from the Malay word meaning the same.

Somehow, from the evidence of the photographs I have, the kitchen seemed to be the focal point of the visitors, perhaps because it was probably the most spacious part of the flat – unlike the kitchens of HDB flats that were built later, or perhaps it was because of the excellent view we had looking south towards the Kallang area, being on what was the tallest block of flats around.

The kitchen during the Queen's visit.

The kitchen during Sir William Goode's visit - the man on the extreme left is the late Teh Cheang Wan, the then Chairman of the HDB, who later served as the Minister of National Development.

Over the few years until 1973, when a new and taller “VIP block” was built in Toa Payoh Central, part of housing built to initially house athletes participating in the 7th South-East Asian Peninsula (SEAP) Games (which Singapore hosted for the first time that year) before being sold to the public, we saw a few other notable visitors. The visitors included President Benjamin Henry Sheares, Singapore’s second President, as well as Sir Willaim Goode, a former Governor General of the colony of Singapore who served as the first Yang di-Pertuan Negara of Singapore when Singapore was granted self-government in 1959.

President Sheares saying hello to my sister, June 1971





I’ve got a ticket to ride: Bus Passes and Endless Bus Journeys

11 01 2010

The earliest memory I have of the public bus is the Singapore Traction Company’s (STC) service number 1A, in the distinctive Isuzu buses painted silver and green, that my mother used to make her journey to and from Rangoon Road from our home in Toa Payoh in, on her regular trips to the hairdresser, to which I was an unwilling accomplice. Buses used to be painted with colours to identify the bus companies they belonged to: red (Associated Bus Services), blue (Amalgamated Bus Company), yellow (United Bus Limited) or green (STC). That is, until they became the red striped Singapore Bus Service (SBS) buses that by the time I was old enough to venture into taking the bus on my own,  the various bus companies had merged into. I was in Primary 4 then, and having finally persuaded my parents to allow me what I had craved for – the freedom of going to school by the public bus, I was on my own against the world, that was, only for the journey to school – as my parents were concerned about me having to cross the busy Thomson Road in the evening to catch the bus back.

I had a choice of two bus services then, 149 and 150, which would bring me from the bus stop along Lorong 4 Toa Payoh to my school in Thomson Road. Service number 150 would take a longer route that went past Bradell Road and Marymount Convent. On one of my first trips by bus, I recall that my ticket was blown out of my hand by a gust of wind that came through the opened windows of the bus as I held it in my hand having just collected it from the bus conductor – I looked at the conductor who just shrugged his shoulders as if to tell me I was on my own … it left me terrified for the rest of my journey, fearful that a ticket inspector would board the bus.

Full freedom came with what we referred to as the “bus pass”, that with a monthly concession stamp which we purchased for $4 affixed to the designated spot on the pass, allowed us the freedom of the buses – unlimited travel! Then, we could do what we wanted. Hop on and off at will, and discover where we could go with the buses.

This was particularly useful, as it was then possible for me to join my friends with whom I used to play football with for games against other teams outside of Toa Payoh, as well on a particular trip I remember making to a sports shop along Bras Basah Road to pick a team jersey.

The freedom of the buses offered by a monthly concession stamp affixed to a bus pass

It was when I was in Secondary school that we got our first double decker buses, but it wasn’t until maybe I was in Secondary 3 when they were introduced to the route that served the area where my school was, from my new home in Ang Mo Kio. I would catch the service number 166 bus from the makeshift terminal located at a large carpark down the slope from Block 215. In the evenings, after a few weeks of taking the 166 service back from the bus stop along Stamford Road close to what used to be the National Library, near a corner shop which sold crocodile skin products which fascinated me, I discovered I could half the journey by taking the semi-express Blue Arrow service 308 which ran from its last stop in the Central Business District at Waterloo Street just by what used to be the CYMA, all the way to Ang Mo Kio – and the best part was that it was air-conditioned! By the time we got to catch the double decker buses, the bus terminal in Ang Mo Kio had moved to another temporary location – along Avenue 6 by block 304.

Somehow as time progressed, the journeys became longer and longer, and where journeys took not more than an hour when I was in Secondary school, by the time I started my tertiary education, journeys meant queuing up for ages at yet another temporary terminal location along Avenue 3, just across from where Ang Mo Kio central is, and being squeezed into a bus filled with school children, factory workers and the many tertiary students from the institutions along Ayer Rajah Road and Dover Road, for over an hour. Pretty unbearable … and I used to arrive drenched in perspiration. The longest journey by bus I made would seem to be the journey I would tke home I when doing my national service at SAFTI in Pasir Laba and at Jurong Camp nearby, off Upper Jurong Road. Then, we could only catch service number 175, which would meander through what was then a winding Upper Jurong Road, through the winding Jurong Road to Bukit Batok or Upper Bukit Timah, where I could get a bus home. I was always in a hurry then, trying to make use of the precious few hours we were given at the end of each week, and the journey on the 175 seemed to be endless – it could take me an hour just to get to Upper Bukit Timah, making the entire bus journey home a two hour journey. Sometimes instead of the bus, I would try to hitch a ride on the back of a pick up or lorry on its way back to civilisation from the factories in the Tuas area which passed by Upper Jurong Road – we could save as much as half an hour by doing this. By the time I had finished my national service, the MRT had been introduced, and trips on buses did not seem to be so much fun anymore.





The Little White Boat, 小白船

4 12 2009

The Little White Boat and its White Rabbit

The full moon that accompanied me on the drive home last night brought back memories of a song we were taught to sing in primary school.  小白船, or little white boat describes the moon as a little white boat drifting in the Milky Way, on which a white rabbit is playing by an sweet osmanthus tree.

蓝蓝的天空银河里
有只小白船
船上有棵桂花树
白兔在游玩
浆儿浆儿看不见
船上也没帆
飘呀飘呀,飘向西天

渡过那条银河水
走向云彩国
走过那个云彩国
再向哪儿去?
在那遥远的地方
闪着金光
晨星是灯塔
照呀照得亮

The moon has long been a subject of folklore. Chinese folklore has it that there is a rabbit that lives on the moon – the markings on the moon’s surface as seen by the naked eye does look like a rabbit with a little bit of imagination. The moon is also associated with much superstition. In the West, lunacy and Werewolves have long been associated with the full moon, the word “lunacy” itself derived from the Latin word for the moon.

A Moment of Madness in the Eerie Glow of the Full Moon - wandering around the ruins of Urquhart Castle and the banks of Loch Ness on a cold November's evening in 1989

In some parts of East Asia, children are warned by their parents not to point at the moon, lest they wake up with a painful cut behind their ears the following morning. Strangely, the first I heard of this was from a Sikh neighbour … it was only much later that my maternal grandmother did care to mention this to me … and for a while I believed it, not daring to direct my fingers towards the moon!





My Days in the Sun. Part 1: The First Days of School

3 12 2009

School life for me began on a cool early morning in January 1971. After a light breakfast of bread lightly toasted over the stove by my grandmother, spread with the SCS butter that my mother was fond of then, I dressed in the crisp white starched shirt and khaki shorts of my school uniform, sat on the sofa by the doorway to put the white socks and white shoes that seem to glow in the half light of dawn, and waited for my grandmother, who was to take me to the school bus pick up point. As I sat, a sense of anticipation, as well as a growing sense of trepidation came over me … it was for me, a journey into the unknown…

As I waited for the school bus at the foot of the block of flats, a light blue cardigan draped over me by my protective grandmother, I silently observed the many school children, dressed in different coloured uniforms, as they waited and then made their way down the staircase as  their buses pulled up one by one. I was constantly on the look-out  for a light blue minibus with the number 388 on the license plate. I suppose my grandmother would have brought me to the pick up point with a lot of time to spare, as I remember waiting for what seemed like an eternity before the minibus finally arrived.

The minibus delivered the small load of noisy schoolboys, four wide-eyed first years amongst them, to the drop-off point at school, greeted by the statue of the Archangel Michael killing the Serpent over a circular pond that served as a roundabout. I don’t seem to remember how we got to our classes, but when we did get to our classrooms, I do remember our teacher trying to introduce herself and organise our seating arrangements over the dissonance of cries and voices that punctured the air. In the midst of all that, one of my classmates proceeded to throw up right in the middle of the classroom, adding to the discord that prevailed over the chaotic start to my school life.

Class Photograph, Primary 1B, St. Michael's School, 1971

In the few weeks that followed, as the number of parents and grandparents that stood outside the classrooms which were on the ground floor started to thin, we got about our daily routine of assemblies, classes, recess time, and more classes before the morning session which I was attending, ended. The morning session would start with assembly, during which we would stand in our class groups lined up in twos, at the designated assembly points facing the school building in front of which a flag pole stood beyond a row of trees. The Pledge would be recited and the National Anthem sung as the Flag was raised, as we stood at attention. The row of trees, as I recall, had lots of green caterpillars dangling down from the low branches and very often, as we walked below them, we would find green caterpillars on the back of our shirts and sometimes in our hair. The last period of the day was what some of us look forward to as our class teacher, Mrs May Chua, would hold a mental maths quiz with pencils as prizes to those who were the first with the answers.

Early in the school year, I had to have my schoolbag replaced several times – something my parents remind me of from time to time. Schoolbags then were these boxy shaped cases constructed of cardboard, measuring about 35 cm wide, 25 cm high and 12 cm deep, with a tartan like patterned exterior. They were fitted with plastic handles, which some school children had sponges tied on (to make it less painful to carry the full heavy load of books), plastic corner protectors, and had a catch in the middle where the handle was.  I had to have my bag replaced as there was this particularly mischievous boy, on the same school bus, who besides using my schoolbag as a seat, had on one occasion put the bag on the road right within sight of St. Michael, for a school bus to run over!