Retracing footsteps

12 09 2018

I enjoy visiting Kuala Lumpur for a variety of reasons. The Malaysian capital, known by its acronym KL to most, provides me with a sense of having returned home home in a way that home – some 200 miles away in Singapore – is no longer able to do.

An old market in KL.

It would seem strange, if not for the history Malaysia and Singapore shares and perhaps, for the frequent visits I have made to KL since I was a child. In the bits of the past, found in the modern of the bustling metropolis, I especially find joy in. The disorder of their shophouses, the clutter along the five-foot-ways, the colours and smells of old street markets and old coffee shops, are that reminder of the Singapore that I grew to love as a child that I would never otherwise be able to ever see again.

Lunch time at Lai Foong.

An old coffee shop that I remember from my childhood visits to the city, the Kedai Kopi Lai Foong, is one such reminder. An institution in a city in which there is no shortage of such old gems, the 1950s coffee shop seems little changed from the 1970s and is quite reminiscent of the busy urban centre coffee shops of Singapore’s lost past.

Mirror, mirror on the mosaic wall.  Mirrors were commonly given as opening gifts at coffee shops in Malaysia. Mosiac or kitchen tiles were commonly used on the walls of coffee shops both in Singapore and Malaysia as they could be easily cleaned and did not require frequent repainting.

Positioned at the corner of Jalan Tun H. S. Lee and Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock, it sits just across Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock from Petaling Street (or Chinatown). That and its proximity to Central Market – now the touristy Pasar Seni, has meant that the coffee shop has long attracted more than its fair share of the local crowd as well as a steady stream of out-of-town visitors. With Tripadvisor now inflating the number of would be visitors, any attempt to seat oneself in the confusion of tables and chairs in the shop’s confines, presents quite a challenge. Any intent to savour some of the coffee shop’s famous fare must now be accompanied by the patience of a saint, some guile, and most of all, a fair bit of luck; all of which I must have had when visited the coffee shop for a bowl of its much-talked about beef noodles back in June.

A scene reminiscent of the coffee shops of old Singapore, with its stalls lining the outer edge of the shop.

A posting I made on Facebook of the bowl of beef noodles invited a comment from a locally based acquaintance, in which a recommendation was made to have the wanton mee at Kedai Makanan Toong Kwoon Chye, another old kopitiam. With its location along Jalan Bukit Bintang also presenting me with an opportunity to reacquaint myself with an area of KL that I had lost touch with, there was enough of a motivation for me to hop on the MRT to Bukit Bintang, just a few days later.

Kedai Makanan Toong Kwoon Chye.

Despite the familiarity I had with the area, I had no impression at all of Toong Kwoon Chye prior to my June visit. I found it quite easily, tucked away in a quiet corner of the street. It might have been the time of the day but even if it was of a similar vintage to Lai Foong, Toong Kwoon Chye couldn’t have been more different. There was absolutely none of Lai Foong’s rush and time, seemed to slow to a standstill, the moment that I stepped into the coffee shop.

Furnished in what may be described as the classical kopitiam style, with marble topped tables and wooden chairs – sans the spittoons of course – Toong Kwoon Chye’s old coffee shop feel was made complete by its counter, even if it was somewhat more modern in looks than one might have expected. Just like any old coffee shop of the good old days, a row of clear-glass jars with red covers stood at one end, half filled with biscuits and other snacks for sale. With so much of a sleepy old out-of-town kopitiam vibe about it, it seemed fitting for me to while the morning away sipping on a cup of coffee and take the time to savour the plate of shredded chicken noodles that I had ordered.

The ebb and flow at Toong Kwoon Chye.

The lazy breakfast put me in the mood for an unhurried stroll, which first took me inside Sungai Wang Plaza. It was one of two interconnected malls from the 1970s I never failed to visit whenever I find myself in the area. The other, which I liked better, was Bukit Bintang Plaza. That has since made way for redevelopment. With little to distract me in Sungai Wang, I decided to continue my stroll outdoors instead and soon found myself retracing footsteps I must have last made some four decades past.

The changing face of Jalan Bukit Bintang – now missing BB Plaza.

The familiarity I had with Bukit Bintang had come out of numerous family holiday stopovers in KL. Holidays abroad in my childhood, with the exception of a visit to Thailand in 1978, invariably meant road trips across the Causeway. KL, a six-hour drive before the North-South Highway made drives a breeze, served as a break-journey point on the road up to more northerly destinations such as Cameron Highlands and Fraser’s Hill (at which the Singapore Government maintained holiday facilities for civil servants). The combination of affordable accommodation, shopping and food in Bukit Bintang, made it a good location to put up in.

Tong Shin Terrace.

One of the things we must have done with sufficient regularity, for me to have remembered them in such vivid detail, were the walks to Chinatown. That took us down Jalan Alor or Tong Shin Terrace, and then west along Jalan Pudu. Both Jalan Alor and Tong Shin Terrace seemed to have retained much of their character, although I am told that Jalan Alor’s well patronised nighttime eateries now cater to quite a different crowd.

I found myself taking a little detour into the area’s back lanes, perhaps in the hope of finding a nasi lemak stall that we had stumbled upon during a June 1979 sojourn in KL. That visit to KL was one to remember for several reasons. It provided me with my first experience as a football spectator outside of Singapore. The match that I caught was also one of huge importance to the Singaporean football fan of the 1970s, the Malaysia Cup final.

The back lanes around Tengkat Tong Shin.

The final, played at KL’s Stadium Merdeka, saw Singapore take on a Selangor team that featured Malaysian footballing legends such as Mokhtar Dahari, R. Arumugam and Santokh Singh. The final that year was significant for the debut of the talented Fandi Ahmad, who was also playing in the competition for the first time. Fandi, then 17, would go on to illuminate the competition in which Malaysian state teams and Singapore featured.

STadium Merdeka today, surrounded by a development that is seeing the rise of Malaysia’s tallest building, a 118-storey tower that will also be the third tallest in the world.

As the match coincided with a trip we were making, we were able to obtain tickets at the stadium when they went on sale. That made it all the more memorable, as it meant that we were seated in a section occupied by the crowd of boisterous home supporters in a match in which controversial 66th minute Selangor goal proved to be a turning point. Mokhtar would add a second to complete a two goal victory for Selangor but all that is another story. What would also make that trip one to be remembered was the joy of discovering nasi lemak at its simplest, served at a makeshift stall.

A courtyard hotel.

There no nasi lemak to be found this time, not at least the manner in which that was served. However, the back lanes yielded several new discoveries. Spruced up and a lot less familiar, they now feature brightly painted wall murals, modern eateries and a very nice looking courtyard hotel.

A back lane eatery.

Back out from the back lanes, it all became familiar once more down Tong Shin Terrace. An old block of flats, which I had always assumed to have been a low-cost housing development, came into view. I therefore was quite surprised to learn with Google’s help that the development, the Blue Boy Mansion, was thought of as a landmark development when it was erected back in 1962.

The Blue Boy Mansion.

Inside the Blue Boy Mansion.

West from from Blue Boy Mansion along Jalan Pudu, just past Tung Shin Hospital was another familiar sight. Now in disguise as the modern looking Pudu Sentral, it was unmistakably Puduraya, for a long while KL’s main bus station. The station now sees just a fraction of the bus services that used to operate out of it. I realised how time has flown by in attempting to recall when I last took a bus out of the station. That was a trip to made in the mid-1990s to Kuala Kubu Bharu to catch another bus up to Fraser’s Hill.

Hitting Pudu Sentral meant that I was closing in on Chinatown. As there was still time to spare, I decided to make my way to Lai Foong  in the hope of satisfying an urge I was having for its char kway teow, only to find the stall closed. The disappointment of that, coupled with the rising heat and humid of the mid-June Klang Valley afternoon, made the lure of modern KL – in the form of an air-conditioned mall – hard to resist. I soon found myself in one to cool off and then have a late lunch, before I headed back to Petaling Jaya where I was putting up.

Char Kway Teow at Lai Foong.


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A postcard from the past: Shaw House and Lido

29 06 2017

Another landmark of the Orchard Road that I loved was the old Shaw House. That, stood at the corner of Orchard and Scotts Road through the 1960s to the 1980s. What made the building special was the branch of The Chartered Bank that was housed on its ground floor, a branch that my mother frequented and one at which I obtained my favourite piggy bank that was modelled after the Disney cartoon character Donald Duck. Completed in 1958, the modern 10-storey block was lit the path for the eventual transformation of Orchard Road. It was one of two that the Shaw Brothers built, the other being Lido Theatre next to it – a cinema at which I caught many Pink Panther movies. In its latter years, Shaw House was also where a popular restaurant Copper Kettle opened.





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://i0.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:






Well Well Well – A Natural Resource Lost

24 06 2016

Well Well Well  – A Natural Resource Lost
A guest post by Edmund Arozoo, once of Jalan Hock Chye, who now takes a look back to his kampong days from Adelaide.

Bore Water Warning Sign


I have recently returned from a tour of the northern remote arears of South Australia. It is usual for the motels in these arears to have warning signs over the sinks cautioning guests not to drink water from the taps as the supply is usually from bore water.

As described on the SA Health website:

Bore water is groundwater that has been accessed by drilling a bore into underground aquifers (water storages) and pumping to the surface. Aquifers may contain chemicals and micro-organisms that are potentially harmful. Some of these chemicals are naturally occurring (such as those present in soils and rocks) while others are a result of contamination.

Confined or deep aquifers are usually deep underground which helps protect the water source. These types of aquifers are usually covered by more than 20 meters of rock or clay which act as a natural filter preventing microbial contamination. Unconfined or shallow aquifers are not protected by thick layers, because they are closer to the surface above and are susceptible to both chemical and microbiological contamination.

Thus while bore water can be used for cleaning and showering it cannot be used for cooking and drinking. Water from rainwater tanks is used for this.

This brought back memories of my kampong days in “Owkang” where at one stage in the past the whole area depended on underground springs to provide water for all purposes. Virtually every house had a well or a large well was shared by a group or cluster of nearby houses.

A recent photograph of one of the two wells in the township of Two Wells, north of Adelaide E. Arozoo 2016

A recent photograph of one of the two wells in the township of Two Wells, north of Adelaide (E. Arozoo 2016).

From memory the whole area around my kampong seemed to be “springy”. You did not have to dig deep to strike an underground spring. I clearly remember the little pits we used to have for burning garden waste and rubbish. The pit was essential to ensure that the fire was confined and did not pose a threat to the attap roofs of the surrounding houses. Gradually these pits used to become shallow and required a “re-dig” to maintain this confinement of fire and ashes. Often, when the dig was in progress we would strike water seepage. Also occasionally as kids when we roamed the area during our carefree time we would come across a natural spring by the side of a lane.

The wells somehow seemed to be connected by underground streams. I remember how we used to be puzzled by the appearances of fish in our well.  We knew our neighbours kept fishes in their well to prevent mosquitoes from breeding. We did not need fishes because our well was in constant use.

A photograph taken by Edmund Arozoo's late father from his album. A well at one of the two houses he stayed at in Jalan Hock Chye.

A photograph taken by Edmund Arozoo’s late father from his album. A well at one of the two houses he stayed at in Jalan Hock Chye.

Our well also underwent regular cleaning after a few years. A couple of odd job men would be employed to do this. After draining as much of the water in the well using the buckets one of the men would descend the well using a wooden ladder and scrape away at the silt that had built up through the years. The slit too was brought to the surface via the use of buckets. It was during this process that when we peered down the well we could see the supply source of our water. I clearly remember seeing water spouting out from one side of the well wall very similar to that from an underground pipe. In my mind then I could imagine an underground stream with water flowing thorough to all wells around that area. And that seem to explain the presence of fishes in our own well.

Once the well was cleaned and the water level reached the normal level my grandmother who lived with us used to do the cleansing ritual of dropping in a palm sized piece of alum (Aluminium sulphate) into the well. Alum I learnt later in my Chemistry classes is used as a flocculating agent in the purification of drinking water by creating sedimentation of the particles and rendered the water crystal clear. These days the side effect of exposure to alum is debatable.

The level of water in the well fluctuated with the seasons and the rainfall. After days of heavy rain the level would reach almost ground level and we had the task of keeping the level down by scooping up buckets of water and emptying the contents into the drain. In the hot dry months the level would drop quite a bit. But during all of my years of living there thank goodness our well never ran dry.

Another photograph taken by Edmund Arozoo's late father from his album. A well at one of the two houses he stayed at in Jalan Hock Chye.

Another photograph taken by Edmund Arozoo’s late father from his album. A well at one of the two houses he stayed at in Jalan Hock Chye.

The method of drawing water at our place was with a metal (galvanised iron) bucket attached to a fibre rope with a big knot at the free end to prevent the rope from slipping though our hands.  Some wells had a pulley system  hung across the well but that meant having to reach out to the middle of the well when the bucket was raised to drag the bucket in while still holding on to the end of the rope. This task was very difficult for kids with our shorter arms. In contrast at our place when we kids reached the height that enabled us to look over the concrete ring perimeter of the well we could draw water on our own. Often the rope would slip through our hands and we would see the bucket sinking to the bottom.  But at hand there would always be the bamboo pole with a hook attached to one end.  Retrieving the bucket was a simple method of using this pole and  hooking on to the bucket handle and then slowly raising the pole with the bucket dangling from the hook.

One of the chores assigned to us as we got older was to fill up the big earthen jar in the nearby bathroom.  Folks of my generation would remember having to use a ladle to scoop up water from these jars to take a bath. Water from the well and the jar was usually cool and thus baths were quick and very “refreshing”.

With communal wells it was common to witness neighbours bathing in the open dressed in sarongs and often having conversations with whoever else  was around the well!

Water used for drinking was boiled in pots using the charcoal stoves which always stayed alight with glowing embers to enable quick rekindling of the fire.  But waiting for the water to boil took a while. Then with the introduction of thermos flasks the hot water was stored so that there could be instant access when needed. This was great if you needed a hot drink late at night (Holicks or Ovaltine …)

On reflection well water was truly Nature’s gift to everyone in the kampong. We did not have to pay a cent for the usage and there was abundance for everyone.

JeromeLim-1850 Well

An abandoned well in an area reclaimed by nature in Singapore.

I sometimes wonder what has happened to this underground water course in the current area around Houggang with the area now well built up. We had an incident a few years back around my current house where a neighbour in the next street below ours had flooding in his garage. This never happened before and there was an investigation by the local council into the cause. Modifications were made to all our houses on the street to ensure storm water drainage adhered to the Council regulations. But this still did not stop flooding until it was finally discovered that one of the newly built houses on our row required deep excavation to remove huge rocks before the concrete house footing could be laid. This resulted in change in course of the subsoil drainage. And following a few days of wintry rains the water took the new course of draining into the garage. Provision had to be made to address the problem and thus stop the flooding.

So where have all the undergrown streams in Owkang gone? Maybe like the kampongs they are lost forever!





Lessons from the tuck shop

12 04 2016

A guest post by Edmund Arozoo, now of Adelaide, but once of Jalan Hock Chye and Montfort School:


Greetings from Adelaide!

I started to write my memoirs of life in a kampong more than fifteen years ago but did put it on the back burner numerous times. However through Facebook I was fortunate to become friends with persons with similar interest in Singapore’s nostalgic past. On my visits back to Singapore I was privileged to meet and chat with two bloggers who have inspired me not only to contribute with posts and comments on fb but also rekindled my interest to finish what I had started. I like to extend a big THANK YOU to Jerome Lim and Lam Chun See. I also found Chun See’s book “Good Morning Yesterday” an inspiration. Here is a snippet that I penned recently that I like to share on their blogs. 


For the past month or so I have been watching an interesting TV series – “The Brain”. This series from China showcases the unbelievable potential of the mental abilities of the contestants.  Witnessing their mental recall capabilities was jaw dropping for me!  Fast approaching seventy my memory recall does pale in comparison – only a slight fraction of theirs indeed.

Often I do question my memories of the “old days”.  I deliberately left out the adjective “good”. I acknowledge that life was simple but challenging then, especially for those of us from humble beginnings. Reading the many posts and comments on the various Facebook group pages, I realised that there are many out there who remember their own “rustic” years. However nostalgic emotions sometimes do tend to colour our memories. Maybe we were young and saw things through childhood innocence.

The Montfort School tuck shop (1985 Montfort School Annual / Montfort Alumni-Singapore Facebook Page).

The Montfort School tuck shop (1985 Montfort School Annual / Montfort Alumni-Singapore Facebook Page).

Perhaps too as kids we were protected by our parents, who in their little ways tried their best, as we were growing up, not to make us feel that we were poor.  I may be wrong but I also feel that the society then was different. I don’t recall being snubbed by “the rich”. Maybe we knew our places and accepted each other.  A leveller at that time if I recall correctly was the beach.  The rich would drive their cars right up to the beaches like Tanah Merah, Changi etc . The other families would arrive by bus with their home cook meals and simple unchilled drinks etc.  But all the kids would have the time of their lives till it was time to return home either by car or bus, all sunburnt.

Changi Beach in the 1960s, when you could drive your car right up to the beach.

Having spent twelve years in the same school I should have more vivid memories of my school days. But all I have are snippets here and there and a few photographs as reminders. But what I clearly remember is that the majority of my schoolmates came from similar “rustic” backgrounds. Personally I was taught not to feel sorry for the limited “pocket money” I took to school each day being often reminded that some of my classmates had to contend with so much less. Looking back I often chuckle when I recall that if you dropped your coins through the holes in your pocket that were caused by the marbles you carried – the response would be “tough”. You learnt the hard way to cherish the few coins you were given. When the time came for school fees to be paid, the notes were carefully wrapped in a knot tied at the corner of a handkerchief. This was to ensure we did not lose the money easily.

For sure there would have been more memorable moments of those carefree schooldays but I cannot recall as much as I would like to. However there is one incident that has always been dominant in my mind and I am reminded of it whenever I witness poverty either first hand or on TV.

This occurred while I was in primary school. It was a normal “recess” break and the “monitors” or prefects were diligently performing their duties to ensure order and that we were safe in getting our hot meals to the tables in the tuck shop / canteen.  We were all having our meals when suddenly there was a shout followed by a commotion.  Looking out we saw the prefects running out and chasing a student. They soon caught him and brought him back to the canteen. Then we realised what had happened.

A school tuck shop typical of the old days (National Archives photograph).

The student was a classmate and his family if I remember correctly had a farm in Ponggol. On that day he did not have any money for a meal and probably did not even have breakfast at home. Unknown to us, this perhaps could have been the norm for him for most of his school days. But on that day the pangs of hunger overcame him and drove him to snatch a large triangular “curry puff” from the Indian stall that also sold bread, Indian cookies and of course our favourite “kachang puteh”.

Another of the Montfort School tuck shop (1985 Montfort School Annual / Montfort Alumni-Singapore Facebook Page).

Another of the Montfort School tuck shop (1985 Montfort School Annual / Montfort Alumni-Singapore Facebook Page).

As he was brought back to the canteen I witnessed the humiliation on his face and that expression I will never never forget! He was made to face the Indian stallholder probably to apologise and perhaps make arrangements for reimbursement for the curry puff. This was witness by everyone in the canteen.

A triangular curry puff.

A triangular curry puff.

What ensued always stands out from this unfortunate incident. I witness compassion. The Indian kachang puteh man, who possibly was by no means rich, looked at the poor unfortunate boy and saw the anguish on his face. Then in a typical Indian manner with a slanted twist of his head and a wave of his flat palm rolling at the wrist he signalled that it was okay – he did not want any payment and allowed the boy to keep the curry puff. The boy was then marched to the principal’s office and what happen after I cannot recall.

Earlier Montfort School tuck shop (Montfort School Alumini Facebook Page)

A tuck shop at Montfort School from earlier times but not the one Edmund has his lesson in (Montfort Alumini Singapore Facebook Page).

These are two striking lessons I learnt from this unfortunate incident that I will always remember.  Firstly how hunger can drive good persons to do things in desperation. I can understand when I read about people doing things they normally would not do, when they become desperate especially on seeing their children crying in hunger.

On the other side I also learnt that day that you do not have to be rich to be compassionate, understanding and benevolent. Perhaps this is in fact the essence of the “kampong spirit” that in our memories was prevalent in those days. I must confess that I often chuckle when I read of attempts to recreate this spirit which I feel was lost with the eradication of kampongs. It was the environment of the rustic surrounds and first hand observation of the everyday struggles of most families that were the basis of this spontaneous compassion. Observing the elders of the household – our parents, grandparents etc. and their empathy for the neighbours perhaps also does flow down and shape our own behaviour towards others. In addition experiencing the kindness our neighbours extended to our own family completes the cycle of goodwill.

The whole world has changed and with the current abundance of affluence and affordability the plight of those in need are often not obvious. The average person cannot relate to this and thus perhaps the spontaneous responses that were around in the past are not forthcoming. These are my perceptions. I may be right or completely wrong so I will leave you, the reader to make your own judgement. In my heart I will always cherish the lessons I learnt in the tuckshop.

Edmund Arozoo

April 2016


 





Moulmein Road journeys

6 02 2016

Moulmein Road, a road that has come to be associated with Tan Tock Seng Hospital, has for me, been a road of many journeys. It was in the area where my journey in education began, as well as one which served as a focal point for bus journeys with my mother in my early childhood.

The entrance gate to Tan Tock Seng that once stood along Moulmein Road.

The entrance gate to Tan Tock Seng that once stood along Moulmein Road at Jalan Tan Tock Seng.

My earliest memories of Moulmein Road are of these bus journeys; journeys taken at the end of the 1960s in days when Moulmein Green was still where bus rides for many started and terminated. It was at Moulmein Road that a journey on the notoriously unreliable STC bus service number 1 to the city would begin and where the journey taken to accompany my mother to the hairdresser would have ended.

Corner of Moulmein Green and Rangoon Road (From the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009).

Corner of Moulmein Green and Rangoon Road (From the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009).

Sadly for me, little is left of the area to connect me with days now almost forgotten. The green has long since disappeared, as has the end of Rangoon Road that brought traffic out to the green. It was at the same stretch of Rangoon Road that the hairdresser’s shop would have been found, in a row of shophouses set in from the road. All that I now remember of the hairdresser is of the hours spent keeping myself entertained with only the multi-coloured strings of the string chairs, typical of the hair salons of the era, for company.

Moulmein Green was once a starting point or destination for many a bus journey (National Archives photograph).

Another structure that has since gone missing, one that I developed a fascination for, was the rather quaint looking gatehouse (if I may call it that) of Middleton Hospital. Standing prominently across the green from Rangoon Road, it had long been a landmark in the area. It was the hospital’s crest, a black lion displayed over the entrance archway, that lent the area its name in the Hokkien vernacular, “or-sai”, Hokkien for “black lion”.

The entrance to Middleton Hospital at Moulmein Green.

The entrance gatehouse to Middleton Hospital at Moulmein Green (source: https://www.ttsh.com.sg).

The hospital, sans the gatehouse, has since 1985, become Tan Tock Seng Hospital’s Communicable Disease Centre (CDC). For the time being, the cluster of buildings of the facility still serves its intended purpose having been set up as a hospital to isolate patients suffering from highly infectious diseases. The hospital, as the Infectious Disease Hospital, was established at Balestier Plain and was moved to the site in 1913. It acquired the name Middleton in September 1920 when the Municipal Council  thought it fit to recognise the contributions of Dr W.R.C. Middleton. Dr Middleton’s long years of service as the Municipality’s Health Officer from 1893 to 1920, 27 to be precise, was marked by the huge improvements made in living conditions within the Municipality in the effort to contain the spread of diseases such as cholera.

The black lion - still seen at the entrance of the CDC.

The black lion – still seen at the entrance of the CDC.

The hospital, laid out as hospitals in the days when natural ventilation and separation mattered most in preventing of the spread of infectious diseases, features widely spaced and generously airy wards set in calm and green surroundings. Very much a thing of the past in land scarce Singapore, the CDC is now the last such hospital facility still functioning in Singapore. This may not be for very much longer though. It does seem that the facility will soon fall victim to the modern world that Singapore finds hard to escape from. The site has been earmarked for future residential development and the CDC will have to move out by 2018, by which time its new site adjacent to Tan Tock Seng Hospital should be up. With that, the CDC will become the National Centre for Infectious Diseases and the little that is still left to remind us of the legacy of Dr. Middleton is at threat of being further diluted.

The view down Moulemin Road towards the area of the former Moulmein Green .

Two notable buildings that have thankfully escaped the wreckers’ ball, both of which are associated with the control of tuberculosis, are to be found up Moulmein Road from the CDC. The two rather gorgeous buildings are now used by the Tan Tock Seng Hospital’s Tuberculosis Control Unit. One is the grand looking turreted structure that recently found fame through a Straits Times article at 144 Moulmein Road.

144 Moulmein Road.

144 Moulmein Road.

The house had once been the home of a Chinese towkay, Mr Lim Soo Ban. Mr Lim was the proprietor of a goldsmith’s shop in Hill Street, maintained interests in a pawnshop and was on the board of Chung Khiaw Bank. He was also a prominent member of the Hakka community and contributed to the upkeep of the since exhumed Fong Yun Thai Hakka cemetery at Holland Plain. Mr Lim passed away in December 1952 as a bankrupt. Already ill with diabetes and tuberculosis, Mr Lim’s death came just two days after the bankruptcy adjudication order was delivered. Despite an order from the Official Assignee’s office to have funeral expenses capped at $5,000, Mr Lim was given a rather grand sendoff. The “grand funeral” is one which my mother, who then lived next door, well remembers. The funeral was reported to have cost $12,000 with a procession that was said to have stretched a mile long.

Lim Soo Ban, second from the right, photographed with Tan Kah Kee in May 1949 (National Archives of Singapore photograph).

The house, I am told, was to remain empty for several years. Attempts were made by the Official Assignee to dispose of it before it came into the possession of Tan Tock Seng Hospital. It apparently saw use as a chapel for hospital staff before housing the Department for Tuberculosis Control, later the Tuberculosis Control Unit.

144 and 142 Moulmein Road.

144 and 142 Moulmein Road, both gazetted for conservation in 2014.

The house next door, 142 Moulmein Road, used more recently by the Department of Clinical Epidemiology, has also a rather interesting past. A residence for the Government Pathologist prior to the war and later a convent, it does in fact have a longer connection with the control of TB as compared to no. 144. As the Mount Alvernia convent, it was where the journey in Singapore for the nuns of the Franciscan Missionaries of the Divine Motherhood was to begin. The order answering a call to serve at the TB wards at Tan Tock Seng, which was later run by the nuns as the Mandalay Road Hospital, arrived in 1949 and established their first dedicated residence and convent at No. 142.

142 Moulmein Road as Mount Alvernia in 1949.

Buildings of the former Mandalay Hospital.

Buildings of the former Mandalay Road Hospital at Mandalay Road.

The order of English nuns were also to be involved in the care of leprosy sufferers in Singapore. With the help of donations, the order would go on to establish Mount Alvernia Hospital in 1961.  My maternal grandmother had worked for the nuns at no. 142 and had accommodation for the family provided in the servants’ rooms behind the house and it was during this time that my mother witnessed the grand funeral next door.

Another view of 142 Moulmein Road today.

Another view of 142 Moulmein Road today.

Both 142 and 144 Moulmein Road have since been gazetted for conservation as part of the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s 2014 Master Plan. The 2014 Master Plan, a crystal ball into the future, does also predict a journey of transformation for Moulmein Road that may only have just begun.





Fast fading memories of a world we want only to forget …

16 12 2013

Besides the lost coastline running along the Changi and Tanah Merah areas, another place by the sea that I was acquainted with as a young child was the seaside parks around the Pasir Panjang area. One was Pasir Panjang Park, a rather small park west of Pasir Panjang Power Station and a cluster of schools (the buildings of some are still around) fanned by the breeze of the sea, one of which was Batu Berlayer School at which my mother taught at for a short while in the later half of the 1960s.

The sea fronted Pasir Panjang Park in 1967.

The sea fronted Pasir Panjang Park in 1967.

The area today, is one no longer fanned by the sea breeze, having for long been abandoned by the sea. The shoreline in the area, initially altered by the reclamation in the early 1970s, has since been moved well away by land on which a new container terminal is being built on as an expansion of the capacity of the Port of Singapore (this before all port facilities are eventually consolidated in the far west of the island in some 20 years time).

The container port being developed on land reclaimed more recently.

The container port being developed on land reclaimed more recently beyond the reclamation of the 1970s.

Visiting what remains of the park, which took on the face of how I had known it around 1956/57, I realise that that is little evidence of what I had known that remains. In place of the metal railing by the seawall is a concrete balustrade that looks now well worn with age and also neglect and one for which the future is probably rather bleak. Sitting on what would have been the edge of a seawall beyond which a rather unattractive stretch of beach was exposed when the tide receded, it would have been put up in the late 1960s or very early 1970s .   

The crumbling concrete balustrade.

The crumbling concrete balustrade.

Stairs which once would have led to the beach and the sea are also clearly in evidence off the seawall. The stairs now lead not to the wide expense of water which once played host to many sea sports events, but to an even more unattractive body of water, the reach of which is limited by a concrete canal wall that runs parallel to the seawall. 

The former seawall and the canal where the sea once was.

The former seawall and the canal where the sea once was.

One item which belonged to the park that I was hoping to see, is a cannon that featured prominently in photographs I had taken of me in the park in later part of the 1960s. That, sadly, along with the playground where I did spend many moments on the swings and see-saws on, is now, like the long forgotten sea shore, only a very distant memory – although the cannon, on the evidence of this November 2010 post on Victor Koo’s “Taking Up the Challenge” blog, seemed to have been there until not so long ago.

The metal railings before the concrete balustrade came up.

The metal railings before the concrete balustrade came up.

The post does identify how the cannon came to be placed at the park, being a gift from a Mr. H J C Kulasingha, an immigrant from Sri Lanka, who came to Singapore in 1941 by way of Kuala Lumpur. A long time resident of Pasir Panjang, Mr. Kulasingha, who passed away in 1982, had quite an illustrious life in serving the community.

Developments which has erased much of what we remember of the area include an elevated highway over Pasir Panjang Road ...

Developments which has erased much of what we remember of the area include an elevated highway over Pasir Panjang Road …

And the construction of the MRT.

And the construction of the MRT.

Besides being a prominent politician (he represented the Progressive Party, the Liberal Socialist Party and in 1959 stood as an independent candidate) and a member of the Legislative Council from 1951 to 1955, Mr Kulasingha also held many other public appointments including serving on the Rural Board and as a Director of the Jurong Bird Park in the early 1970s. Thinking about all this, what would really be nice is if the old cannon that Mr Kulasingha donated, is restored to the area to commemorate Mr Kulasingha’s life and to celebrate the many important contributions an otherwise forgotten pioneer has made to our society.

A view of a world and memories attached to it which is fading with the rising of the new Singapore sun.

A view of a world and memories attached to it which is fading with the rising of the new Singapore sun.