A sight that greeted me on a walk around Maxwell Road on a Sunday, was one I had not seen in Singapore for quite a while – that of wooden scaffolding being erected at the Airview Building just across from the URA Centre. Once a common sight and used extensively in the 1960s and 1970s for construction of many of our early high-rises as well as in building maintenance, the wooden scaffold has all but disappeared from sight here in Singapore.
My first impressions of the wooden scaffolds were made during a repainting exercise at the end of 1971 on the exterior of the block of flats I had lived in, in anticipation of the visit of HM Queen Elizabeth II to the block that was to take place in February 1972. What was an amazing sight of fearless men, moving poles and planks up, as the scaffold poles were seemingly effortlessly tied up, floor-by-floor up all nineteen storeys of the block, has remained with me to this day.
The wooden scaffolds, made up of a framework of heavy bakau wood poles (a material which harvested from the numerous bakau mangrove forests in Singapore and Malaysia was readily available – the same wood was also used in the production of charcoal) arranged both horizontally and vertically with diagonals added for support, were then seen at construction sites everywhere. The poles would be manually hosited-up, and tied together using a natural fibre rope or strip, such as bamboo strips, with planks laid across the horizontal poles as a deck and ladders tied to provide vertical access. What was also amazing was the sight of the painters as they went about their business, starting from the top, they moved down floor by floor without so much as a safety line or belt attached to them.
There were over the years many incidents not just involving falls from scaffolding, but also wooden scaffolds collapsing. This prompted the Authorities to regulate their use, restricting the maximum heights of wooden scaffolds used in construction in the early 1970s, and disallowing their use completely from high-rise construction in the early 1980s. This along with the introduction of modular metal scaffolding (which not only is much quicker to erect, but also has a better safety record) as well as gondolas which made their appearance in the early 1970s saw that they became a less of a common sight over the years.
Another once common sight at the construction site which has disappeared, is that of the women with their signature red cloth headdresses, bearing loads their frail frames had seemed too tiny to support. A tribute to these women who came from Sanshui (Samsui) District of Guangdong Province in China to make a living here as menial workers at construction sites, is found across the road from the Airview Building at the side of the URA Centre.
The stories of these women who built Singapore – most came over in the 1920s to the 1940s and were sworn to single-hood, and the resilience they demonstrated (many who by the time I saw them in the 1960s and 1970s were in already well advanced in age), are well worth hearing. The story of one, Madam Ng Moey Chye, can be found at an exhibition currently being held at the National Museum’s Stamford Gallery. The exhibition runs until the 23rd of June 2013 and features the stories of six pioneering tradesmen. More information on the exhibition, Trading Stories: Conversations with Six Tradesmen, is available at a previous post on it, “Trading stories with six tradesmen“.