1948 - 1959
|THIS IS AN ESSAY PREPARED
OFF THE CUFF IN MAY 2007.
It complements the family photo essay of my time in Singapore. [LINK]
Note: This website is on the internet.
Contact Peter Stone. Back to 'Start' page. *
|MEMORIES OF SINGAPORE AS A CHILD
I left Melbourne on the 2 August 1948 for Sydney by train with Mother, then boarded the Burns,Philp ship Marella, for Singapore. I was nearly five years old. Father was already there, having arrived on 16 May 1948 for a position as Assistant Controller of Taxation. Initially he was put up in a large house with several other male civil servants, but soon was allocated our first residence, at 26 College Road near the general hospital. In fact the building had once been a hospital.
I cannot remember anything of the voyage, and it was only because of a caption on the reverse of a photograph of myself and two playmates on board that I was able to identify the name of the ship. This was my first sea voyage. Little would I have appreciated that my life would, eventually, be focused on the sea, both above and below the waves. I would have enjoyed my time on the Marella, being free to roam the ship no doubt, without the restrictions that I would find, as a child, on the luxury liner Willem Ruys in 1954. We would have travelled first class, of course. The trip took just on three weeks, arriving in Singapore on 24 August 1948. (Note 1)
My earliest recollections of Singapore is of the house at College Road. My strongest sensory recollection is its smell. Even today, when I experience the aroma of damp masonry, I remember this huge, virtually empty house. I cannot remember any furniture - probably we didn't have any, except the bare minimum. I cannot remember a bedroom, nor lounge. I can however recall that the building had a flat roof with a low parapet of maybe only twelve inches. A beautiful cast-iron spiral staircase, just enough for one person to ascend at a time, led to the roof. This was my playground. How on earth I was allowed to play up there as a four-year-old amazes me now, considering how I smother Sam with ultra caution. Had I fallen off the roof, I would certainly not have been typing this now. Perhaps I was indeed barred from going on the roof, but then, I was not too good at obeying family regulations, when I could get away with it.
I cannot recall any servants at the time, but it appears that our 'cook boy', (a most politically incorrect term nowadays), who I remember at our next residence, was with the family at College Road. My mother recalls that he was the cook-boy at the house where my father initially stayed on arrival in Singapore. He was not a boy. Ah Jwee was a family man, and from what I can gather, a well respected man. He could not speak English, but like all Straits Chinese, could speak Malay. I understand that our family were to employ an English-speaking servant as neither Mother or Father could speak Malay, but my father refused, and said he wanted a non-English speaking servant so that he, my father, could better learn the language. And they did.
We were not long at College Road, perhaps a month or two, before moving to a more 'permanent' residence in the fashionable 'suburb' of Tanglin, at the northern end of famed Orchard Road. Number five Seton Close was a typical two-story 'black and white house', a colonial-built 'bungalow' of the 1920s era. Seton Close (built in the 1930s) was a government-owned estate of, I would now estimate, ten acres, set off the north end of Tanglin Road, not much more than a hundred yards to the west of the Orchard Road intersection. It contained, and indeed still does, just five houses, in lush grounds of garden and lawn, each accessed by a driveway off a central road. The houses were numbered anticlockwise commencing from number one at say five-o'clock, close to Tanglin Road, to our home at eight o'clock, also bordering Tanglin Road.
Our home looked huge, especially to a youngster of nearly five, and as we lived, predominantly, upstairs, it was a formidable house to get around. Perhaps surprisingly it had only two, very large, bedrooms, upstairs, each with its own balcony. My bedroom was to the left, closest to Tanglin Road, and next to the rear access stairs - very handy as I was soon to learn. Each bedroom had its own white tiled bathroom, with a huge ali-baba jar of some two or three feet tall, filled with very cold water. The main living area was upstairs, central to the house, above the portico. The dining room was downstairs, to the left facing the house. To the downstairs right was a more formal lounge, generally for visitors. The kitchen was downstairs at the rear, and the servants quarters a separate building at the rear.
The downstairs rooms were shuttered with huge heavy floor to ceiling concertina doors that were opened each morning by the servants, and closed when my parents had retired for the evening. The upstairs rooms, actually just the living area as the remaining upstairs perimeter was balcony, were fitted with large rattan blinds that could be rolled down in the event of a storm. Generally, they were left rolled up to let the air circulate. Security was not a problem as perhaps it is today. We had tennis racket upstairs. No one ion the family was interested in playing tennis, but when the bats flew in, it was an advantage to have a good forearm return. Che-chas, small geckos, scurried across the ceiling. I never saw one fall.
And - there was not a pane of glass in the whole building. Now, of course, the buildings are totally enclosed with glass due to the use of air-conditioners. (Note 2)
I went to three schools whilst in Singapore. I remember very little of them, and only one name - Deans School - whatever or wherever that was. Another started with 'saint' - perhaps St. Andrews. Why the switch around I have no idea. One school, perhaps St. Andrews, was huge, an imposing brick building with a large internal courtyard and class rooms on the perimeter, with a long covered inside verandah. My teacher was a young white woman. At the end of the building was a dining area - more a food hall, where my favourite was curry puffs. I gather I did not excel in any way, did not participate in anything memorable, although I vaguely remember being on stage in some minor role. I recall no school friends, and as we were bused in from all over the island, it is understandable that there were no games nor comradery immediately after school. I can only recall caucasian class mates, and have a feeling that the morning school was for us whites, and the afternoon school for the Chinese, Malays and perhaps Tamils.
School was divided into two sessions - morning school and afternoon school. This was the case at 'the school on the hill', and was probably the case with the other schools also. I started at about 7.00 in the morning, and finished at 1.30pm. I was on my way home one day when the bus ran over somebody. (I am fairly certain it was the school bus as I cannot think why I may have been on a public bus on my own). It was in a crowded street lined with shophouses and hawkers. The bus stopped of course, but I don't think the bus driver got out. There was much kerfuffel behind the bus, and I do not know what happened nor the outcome, but after perhaps just seconds, the bus continued on. I presume there was little the driver could do and the unfortunate person was being cared for.
On my sixth birthday, in November 1949, I arrived home from school to find that our lawn area was occupied by swings, slides and merri-go-rounds. My parents had arranged a surprise birthday party, and soon friends arrived with their parents. It was a great afternoon, but for the life of me I cannot recall even one single friend. And I wonder of any of my mates from 'down the street' were there. Probably not.
Because I attended morning school I was home by 1.30pm. This must not have been my first school, as by then my mother was working. Now, this was quite an affair. Although there were many English, Australian, and European women working in Singapore, they were all single, or wives of other workers or businessmen. The wives of government officials were not permitted to work. It was a social status thing. My mother however was not one for the rounds of mah-jong with uppity wives of other government officials and she soon became bored. She is an extremely intelligent woman, still is, and always determined and perhaps headstrong when she wants something to happen, and she was determined to get a job. A position was not a problem, but the right to hold that position was. She had to apply to the Governor of Singapore, who at the time, I think, was Randall Macdonald. In fact, it was not so much an application, but a plea. No government wife had made such an outrageous request before. Her wish was granted, and if I recall correctly, she worked for Sime Darby (shipping agents), and was an agent for BOAC at one time.
Having both parents working made me a latch-key kid; I came home to an empty house - well, not really - there was always the servants. I was required to go straight to bed for an afternoon nap, and when my folks came home, at around 4.30pm, I would be up bright and breezy and join them for sardine, and cucumber, sandwiches, and tea. Now I ask you - what five or six year old kid is going to quietly go to his bedroom for a nap when the whole exciting world was at his doorstep, literally. I was off to explore, to play, to meet the local kids and the adults, and to experience my world of Tanglin Road. My mates were the local malay and Chinese boys. (There were never any girls around. The only girls were the three children of Ah Jwee and his charming young wife whom I liked. He also had two boys but they were mere toddlers to my boyishness.)
We had a large lawn area between the house and Tanglin Road, but my play area was usually the shops of Tanglin Road. Let me describe one incident after I left Singapore to return to Melbourne in 1950. My mother was in Tanglin Road when she passed the tailor shop which was right opposite the entrance to Seton Close. She was greeted by one of the imposing Indian Sikhs who manned one of the dozen or so Singer sewing machines in the open fronted workarea.
"Salamat datang. Morning Mem," he would have said, with due response
And that is how mother found out, too late I might emphasise, that I had not been having my afternoon nap. She confronted me with it many years later, in good humour. I could never understand why she did not know earlier, from Ah Jwee or perhaps Talib our gardener, but they obviously kept quiet. And to give my parents credit, they apparently did not insist that the servants spied and reported on me.
The tailor's shop was fascinating to a young boy like me. I found the Sikhs to be larger than life, unreal characters, all huge in build with bearded heads wrapped in crisp white turbans. There was often a Coca-Cola or an F. & N. orange drink there for me, and I would indeed sit and talk with the men as they went about their work - again, no women to be seen. I don't recall what language we spoke, but I presume it was English, and Malay. I could, very quickly as young people are apt, speak Malay which is a relatively 'easy' language, certainly compared to the Chinese languages. I became quite fluent, for my age at least, in Malay, and later I could get by with the Cantonese kids. There was never a communication problem - there never is with kids.
But the tailor's shop was only one stop on my journey. I soon knew all the shops and shop owners between Seton Close and Orchard Road. I was probably a novelty to the shopkeepers. White government kids were certainly not a rarity in Singapore but most were cloistered in their homes and none let out to 'roam the streets' on their own. I cannot recall ever meeting up with any white kids, and there were certainly no others on the estate. I can't even recall meeting any white boys my age when visiting other white friends of my parents, but on reflection, most visits were to Asian friends. So my playmates came from the shops and the kids from other servants in the area.
Our games were many, the best 'exploring', which meant going down Tanglin Road. There was a tree-lined lane behind our house which led to God-knows-where, and I can recall that I was not to go up that lane, and I never did. Tanglin Road had more life, and it was always to the east, toward Orchard Road, that we 'explored', as to the right on leaving Seton Close, there were no shops. The first shop on the north-east side of Tanglin Road (from Seton Close) was a barbers shop. I can recall what would have been an electrical shop and a bike repair shop or mechanics workshop. Perhaps there were twenty shops or so. I cannot recall a traditional coffee shop - there must have been - perhaps I was not so welcome there. But I do remember two 'sweet shops', or general merchandise shops, one on either side of the road, with huge jars of sweets lining the shelves. There was one sweet that I crave for to this day, and never found it once I left Singapore, even in Melbourne's Chinatown. It was a hard toffee with a coconut flavour. It was delightful. I never had any money of course, but if I saw a few cents lying around at home (and, I am ashamed to say, in Dad's wallet), it was soon appropriated for good use. Another favourite was a small biscuit, about the size of a dollar coin, which has a twist of hard icing on the top. I usually got one or two of these for free.
Our games were simple, and fun. The most enjoyable were kite flying - generally with the Chinese kids; and top spinning, with the Malay boys. The kites were of the traditional triangular shape, made of brown paper, and thin strips of bamboo as the frame. The paper was formed around the frame and stuck down with a home-made glue, from cooked sticky rice. We always had a tail, with bits of paper or sweet wrapper tied on. There was plenty of room to fly our kites on the side lawn., and on some days we would have three or four kites up in the sky, and a dozen excited kids scampering about.
I found the spinning tops to be even more exciting. Top spinning is a traditional adult Malay sport, with colourful, huge, dinner-plate sized tops where the aim is to keep the top spinning for as long as possible. Our tops were small, handmade, and resembled in size and shape, an upside down pear, with a sharpened nail as the spinning point. String would be carefully wound around the top, starting from the base of the point to perhaps halfway up the body. It was a dexterous task to do it right. With the top cupped upside down in the right hand (in my case), and the end of the string gripped between the thumb and forefinger, I would then fling the top to the concrete ground giving the hand a twist so that the top landed on its point, spinning furiously as the string unwound. I can remember much laughter with the kids, and I'd like to admit I got pretty good at it.
Kids of today are familiar with many passing fads - collecting footy and pokemon cards, for example. We were no different; the fad I remember from the time was - rubber bands. We would find ordinary rubber bands, of all colours, and either link them together in a long chain, or put them on our wrist like bracelets. It had no redeeming purpose - just good fun.
Another pastime was catching fish - in the drains. Because of the tropical climate, and the fact that Singapore is a low island, it had a massive open drain system to clear the tropical rainfall. The drains were at sealevel and were thus tidal, but only slightly. Tiny fish, maybe an inch long at the most, could usually be found in the drains. These were caught and kept in jars, to die rapidly overnight, and to the disgust of all parents no doubt.
Being a street kid, so to speak, may well have had it dangers, particularly with traffic. Tanglin Road was a main artery into town, and was always heavy with traffic, but I crossed it without overly concern, taking great care of course. The danger was more from the bicycles as they could flit in and out of the cars and care needed to taken so as not to be skittled. There appears to have been no personal, or social, danger at the time. Although Singapore was rife with crime, without a day going past without a murder, such crimes were isolated within individual cultures and clans. There appears to have been no concern that I could be kidnapped, or sexually molested. I never saw any street violence, and certainly never anything that resembled a kid's fight or bullying. In fact, I can not recall any bad feeling whatsoever between myself and my playmates, nor between the different cultures of my playmates.
But I did see some interesting things 'on the street'. A few of the
come back to mind when something triggers the memory, and one in particular
memory will remain with me forever, and has in many respects influenced
my life, or social thinking at least. But of the more trivial - I remember
one day, a Sikh straddling a drain cleaning his teeth, when a huge snake
slithered underneath him. I have never seen a man move so fast. Snakes
were no uncommon, even on the estate. I can recall Dad moving just as fast
as my Sikh friend when I opened the car door in the garage to be confronted
with a snake on a ledge at face level, some fifteen inches away. He got
to the snake quicker than I could react, and promptly despatched it, what
with I have no idea. Nor do I know if it is was dangerous. One takes no
chances. Green tree snakes were common, and I must say they looked quite
beautiful. The only fauna attack I experienced was when a huge bumble bee
flew up my wide short pants leg and bit me on the groin. By heaven it hurt,
but I don't know if it was the pain of the bite, or when I hit myself so
hard on the testicles in trying to dislodge it.
Of more importance however was an incident that has remained with me over the years. I was walking alongside Tanglin Road just to the west of Aw Boon Haw's home when I saw a large chauffer-driven car run into a bicycle from behind. It was just a gentle nudge, but the back wheel of the bicycle was twisted into a fat 'L' shape. The Chinese cyclist simply picked up his bike, turned around, and walked back in the direction from whence he came, without so much as giving a glance at the driver, a turbaned Sikh (as most chauffers were). Why didn't the Chinese cyclist at least say something to the driver? Why did he not seek compensation in some way? Why indeed - for he had no rights. The Chinese man no doubt realised his position in the social order of things. The Sikh, as a chauffer, represented power and wealth, possibly of a caucasian, maybe a wealthy Chinese official or businessman, and there was absolutely no point in taking the matter any further. I am sure the chauffeur did not blink an eye. I did not notice if there was a passenger, but in any case, there was no effort to comfort the Chinese man.
This did not have a profound effect on me at the time, but it certainly did later and continues to do so today. At the time, I did not recognise social injustice. Racism was not a word I had heard and if I had, I would not have understood, particularly if I had attempted to apply it to my own experiences. Just as it was many years later when I was playing with Italians, Greeks, and Jews in North Carlton, it mattered not one hoot what nationality you were. My playmates were just that - play mates. It would not have occurred to me to think that I should not play with a dark-coloured Malay boy, or a slit-eyed Chinese kid. And I have the impression, although I may have been wrong, that they gave no consideration whatsoever that I was white. Children are taught racism. If left to their own playful devices, a child will not question his or her heritage, nor question that of others. Perhaps it doesn't take too long to be corrupted, and no doubt, in British governed Singapore, there was great social tension, but we kids didn't experience it. And I must add that I am grateful for the later recollections of the attitudes of my father and mother who demonstrated no racial inhibitions whatsoever. Their family friends were mainly Chinese and Indian, and a few English - Andy Andrews was one, a delightful man, who cared for my mother after my father died in 1959. The relationship between my parents and the servants, and between both father and mother and their respective staff, was always of total respect, completely without consideration to their creed and culture. Perhaps I did not recognise this at the time, but I certainly did as I grew up, and remember it today. From what I have read (not experienced), this totally honest and open attitude of respect was not the norm for the colonial government official, especially the British. No doubt the 'Aussieness' of my father contributed to his care-free attitude toward people, and my mother has said much later that, how could she possibly have any racial concerns considering she is of mixed blood - Swiss and Dutch.
Another concern of social importance to the colonists in Singapore was social status. It was one thing to respect those of other cultures, but there was also the need for the white colonists, be they government or business, to maintain a position of social dignity and position at the top of the ladder. The working classes had there 'place', and they in turn were to understand the 'place' of the official. This was clearly understood by both 'sides', and the consideration of position was paramount in the Malay and Chinese cultures of the day, both within their own cultures and in inter-culture relationships. (Note 3)
I am eternally grateful of my parent's attitude toward race and culture, and whereas they probably never spoke of such matters of respect direct to me, I certainly experienced subliminally their attitude. But, as a five, six and seven year old in Singapore, it was never an issue. It was only a few years later, having lived with my grandparents in Australia and returning to Singapore on holiday, that I realised that I was indeed privileged - as a white boy of comfortably-off parents in a colonised Asian city of predominantly lesser-privileged peoples. It would be thus a lie to suggest that I did not feel a sense of superiority, and it would henceforth require a conscious effort not to translate my feeling of 'superiority' into expressed disdain, ie racism.
However - back to being a kid in Singapore.
I enjoyed being with my playmates, but I also had a great time with my parents, even though 'little boys were to be seen and not heard'. Like most kids of that generation, the affection from my parents was not demonstrated by hugs and kisses. In fact, I cannot remember any physical expression of love. There was no enthusiastic greeting of dad when he returned home, no hug of affection - completely the opposite to the physical relationship I have with my own son today. I used to wait for Dad at the entrance to Seton Close and get a lift home, all of 300 yards, which was a great thrill. One day he failed to see me, perhaps inadvertently, perhaps deliberately, and kept on driving. I burst into tears. I fronted him at home and asked did he not see me. He said he had, but because I had cried, he kept on driving. Perhaps he had been reading the Rudyard Kilping method of building 'character' into children. And yet there was little that my parents experienced that I did not. I was rarely left alone at night (we had servants who could 'babysit' of course), and there were many family activities that we enjoyed together.
My favourite visit was to the 'Worlds'. There were three in Singapore - the New World, the Great World, and the Happy World. I can't recall which was my favourite, if indeed I had any. The 'worlds' were just that, an enclosed world of entertainment, Chinese theatre, bars, cabaret (for the adults), dance halls, picture theatres, magic shows, fun-park rides, restaurants, food stalls, lucky-dips, and shops. We only went at night - perhaps that is the only time they opened - and they were of equal interest - fun - to both adults and children. I loved the ferris wheel, the scary Chinese theatre with its high pitched language, gongs and drums, and of course the lucky dip - one for boys, and other for girls. Being at night added a sense of mystery to the place. (Note 4).
After a visit we would often end the night with satay, and an F. & N. orange drink or coca-cola for me, and a beer for Dad. There were three favourite places for satay. One was a large, circular, formal hawker area with permanent stalls surrounding a central seating area, located on The Esplanade - the Queen Elizabeth Walk. It was right on the edge of the sea, just to the east of the Singapore River, and is still there, but the sea has moved - land reclamation has left the Esplanade well inland. This may have been called The Satay Club. (Such a place exists, but is it the one I remember?). Another place was the then famous People's Park, in Chinatown. This was a normal car park during the day, but at dusk, when the cars left the park, the place came alive with hawker stalls brightly lit with hurricane lamps. And another place was in a street, somewhere, which likewise came to life at night. There were many hawker areas in those days; they were not controlled for health and hygiene as they are today. Each hawker would have a few stools. The satay man sits or squats next to a small charcoal burner and prepares the satay, of beef usually, whilst young boys would tout for drinks brought from nearby stalls. As customers, we would sit on small wooden stools next to the satay man. His charcoal burner is a simple bar-be-que type metal box with a grill cover. Two inverted vee shaped handles were often attached to diagonal corners of the metal box. If so, a similar shaped box would be just a few feet distant, this one containing other required items in smaller boxes, such as charcoal, satay sticks and the meat pieces. It too would have a domed handle, and behind the hawker would be a long wooden pole. At the end of the day, or when ready to move off to another spot, the hawker would slip the pole under the handles of the two boxes, squat down, and lift the load onto a shoulder, and trot off; meals-on-heels (sorry about that).
The smells, the lights of the lamps and the fires, the constant calls and chatter, were all part of the experience. I loved satay, as I do today, and I have never experienced satay anywhere in Australia as it is done in Singapore (and Malaysia). The genuine satay contains just a few strips of meat on a bamboo skewer, enough perhaps for two mouthfuls. It is not prepared as in Malaysian restaurants in Australia where the diner demands virtually a quarter of a skewered chicken breast. Ten satays would, perhaps, just satisfy me. But there is something else, something that seems to evade the Australian version. It is simply the taste, of the satay itself, freshly grilled over coals, and the sauce. Ah, the sauce. It cannot be created by even the most imaginative chef outside of south-east Asia, and can certainly not be bought in a jar. And even if it could be made 'properly' in Australia, there is no way that the atmosphere can be created. Even in Singapore, today, the atmosphere has gone. There are no ad-hoc hawker stalls. They are all permanent stalls now, some in obscure buildings, others in well advertised eating places, such as the tourist dominated Newton Circus. But the food is much the same. I have great recollections of Dad, who was a big man, balancing on a milk-maid's stool clutching his Carlsberg, and devouring a dozen satay. Looking back, this was a wonderful time of my life.
Hawkers were an everyday sight in Tanglin Road and throughout any residential area of Singapore. The satay man usually stayed in the one place, and was a nocturnal creature, but during the day all manner of prepared food and food produce could be bought from the nomadic hawker. With their wares expertly balanced on the end of the pole resting on a shoulder, the hawker would have his hands free to 'call' his wares, using a small 'half-pipe' block of split bamboo and a stick, breaking out in a rhythmic beat that was unique to his wares - tack, tack, tock, tock, tock, tack. This would bring out the Asian housewives, and the European-employed amahs who had missed an item during the morning shopping for produce. I frequently had a bowl of rice and ikan bilas, deep fried, very salty, crisp fish, smaller than anchovy; but I do not recall obtaining this from a hawker, where it was available. I can recall sitting with my mates having a bowl of the rice, but it was probably supplied by our servants. Another call to race furiously down to Tanglin Road was the ringing of the icecream man's bell. He brought his ice cream and milk in a tricycle adapted for the purpose, pedalling behind an insulated box, which had the word Magnolia written in style on the side - the brand of milk and icecream.
Another attraction that we visited rather regularly was Haw Par Villa, or Tiger Balm Gardens, built by our nearby neighbour Aw Boon Haw, the founder of Tiger Balm ointment. Perhaps this was the for-runner of today's theme park, although there were no rides, just large, colourful statues, represented themes of Chinese mythology. I was particularly attracted to the horrible torture statuettes, fascinating at what people could do to each other. It was frightening. I never understood the mythology, and no theme was ever explained to me. I could not help notice that many statues of women were naked, no doubt my first instruction that women did not have all the parts that we boys had. After all, I had no opportunity to see a naked girl or woman - certainly not my mother, and my sisters were many years off. I can recall, probably from a much later visit, that one of the mythology themes was 'The Seduction of the Priest ', and another no doubt fascinating theme showed a naked woman masturbating with a feather. The statues are still there, but the bodies are clothed, and the feather has drifted off in the wind. The torture miniatures are still on display. However, you can no longer stand and stare at them in disbelief, unless you want to get wet. They are seen as you pass by in a boat through a tunnel of torture.
We would do something every weekend. It may be a visit to a family friend, sightseeing, or some sporting activity. Dad enjoyed his golf, and the Island Golf Club was a popular place. There was a small swimming pool there, although I can not remember using it. The club had a marvellous practice area, which I enjoyed, as did my father. The tee-off area was a long strip of levelled grass at the top of a moderately steep hill. Below was two or three mock 'greens' where to aim the ball if so inclined. There seemed to be no limit to the amount of balls you could drive, supplied by the bucket full. Below, on the 'fairway', several men appeared to be walking aimlessly carrying large colourful umbrellas, and a pack on their back. As they walked, the would flick up a ball into their pack using a hooked stick. The umbrellas were to ward off any incoming missiles. Of course it was our intention to aim for the umbrellas. I came close, but never scored a hit!
To me however, the golf club meant - poker machines, or as they were called then, fruit machines, or 'one-armed bandits'. These were marvellous. I could have sat there for hours, but never did. A dollar would give you twenty pulls on the lever on the right-hand side of the machine. The wheels would spin furiously - I think there were just three - and each would stop a second or so apart. If you ended up with three strawberries in a row, or whatever, you won a few more coins. Each game took maybe twenty seconds, and pulling on the level became quite tiring after a while. I can recall there was another lever or button that could be pushed to hasten the stopping of the wheels - but why use that when it was so much fun seeing and hearing the wheels whirl around and grind to a halt. They were of course the for-runner to the electronic monstrosities that we have in the clubs today.
My favourite weekend activity, (and often after Dad came home from work), was the Swimming Club. This had a huge Olympic sized pool, and a smaller toddlers pool. I was never taught how to swim, but I could do so and became quite a strong swimmer. I was always in the 'big' pool and always on my own. In fact I cannot recall mother or father having a swim, but they must have had at some time. I could easily swim a lap or two of the pool and my parents didn't seem to be the least bit concerned about my safety. I think now how protective I am with Sam.
Like the golf club, the swimming club was a social centre. It was, of course, for whites only (as, I presume, was the golf club). There was no need to swim, and the pool was never crowded. Swimming carnivals were held there, and they had a large Christmas party for the kids. My most fond memory is being called out by Dad and having a bowl of hot chips with tomato sauce, and a chocolate milk. I still enjoy them as a snack. Remember too that back in Australia, at the time, you could not buy flavoured milk in a bottle. In fact, Coca-cola had not come to Australia - I can recall seeing it for the first time in Melbourne at the milk bar in Sydney Road next to the Brunswick Town Hall, around 1958. At home there was always Coca-cola in the fridge, and Fraser & Neave (F. & N.) soft drinks. As well as plenty of Carlsberg. Dad liked his Carlsberg. And Heineken I think it was. Fosters was nowhere to be seen.
Our sightseeing included the many temples of Singapore. I found them rather frightening, especially the Indian (Hindu) temples with their many-armed gods, and staring eyes grotesque animal/human forms. I had no understanding of the religions, and none was offered. Some of the Chinese temples were dark and foreboding, and others bright and glaring. Despite my minor fear, apprehension may be a better word, I still enjoy the smell of incense.
Although it occurred on a later holiday visit back to Singapore, I have a strong recollection of an incredible time when I witnessed the Hindu celebration of Thaipusam. This was held mid-January each year, so was good timing for my annual Christmas visit. This is a remarkable event. To put it in simplistic terms, it is a time to show appreciation to the gods for something past. As an example, as it was described to me, imagine a father who has a sick child. The father prays to his Hindu gods. The child recovers. The father is grateful and demonstrates his religious fidelity by participation in the celebration of Thaipusam. A devotee may also undertake penance 'to atone for their sins'. To do this, he parades maybe a mile or so, from a preparation temple to one of two of the main Hindu temples in Singapore, the Chettiar Temple on Tank Road, and the Sri Mariamman Temple in South Bridge Road. On his body he will, usually, carry a 'kavadis', an ornamental wooden structure resting on his shoulders, and balanced by steel skewers that penetrate the pinched skin of his body. Some may also have a skewer through a protruding tongue, or right through both cheeks. Some may have small silver phials of incense handing all over their body by sharp hooks through the flesh.
These devotees on parade are witnessed by many Hindus, and of other cultures, particularly by fascinated white tourists. What made my visit so very special is that, through my father, we were invited to enter the preparation temple and see the devotees being prepared for their ordeal. This was a privilege no doubt, as I don't recall seeing any other white person at the preparation temple, nor at the Chettiar Temple where it ended. The experience was remarkable. The devotees were in a trance, made so by the constant chanting of mantas, and the ever present incense from large urns swung by the priests. To see these skewers, some three feet long, being threaded into the flesh was enough to make one squirm - I am not usually good at witnessing such things. But I was fascinated and I swear that the chanting and the incense put me into a minor, very minor, trance, or sense of euphoria. I was quite capable of taking photographs, and there was no hindrance to me in doing so. As would be expected, I did not intrude in any manner. To fit the kavadi, it would be lifted onto the shoulders of the man by, I presume, family members or lesser priests. The skewers were then threaded through the steel frame of the kavadi, toward the body. An area of the body would be smeared with ash - dried, perfumed, cow dung - and the skin firmly pinched together by a helper. The skewer was then passed through the pinched skin; it did not penetrate into the body as such. A devotee could have maybe twenty or thirty such skewers in his body - and one through the tongue. This was all done without a cry of pain, and indeed, without so much as an expression of pain. There was no blood, not a single drop.
When ready, the devotee would walk to the main temple, where the kavadis was 'dismantled'. This I never saw. We were invited into the temple itself, but I cannot recollect anything of that visit, other than that it was stiflingly crowded. A remarkable day.
My favourite shopping was at Change Alley, of course. This most famous of Singapore's bazaars, between Raffles Place and Collyer Quay, was a crowded alley of colourful stalls selling the most remarkable goods; toys and more toys, clothing and cloth, musical photo albums, flick knives (I had one) - 'from a needle to a pram, from a top to a bale of cloth, from a button to a Persian carpet' - almost any merchandise you could think of. You would be verbally dragged into each shop as you passed. Money-changers would accost you, and touts for each of the bazaar stalls would attempt to entice you into their stores with staccato English and full praise for your wisdom in selecting their shop. Not to bargain was unthinkable, and those who did not were seen as easy prey for the salesmen. Not to haggle over a price was disrespectful. It was more exciting than street theatre, noisier than the busiest hawker centre, more colourful than the washing above a Chinatown street. It was a kid's paradise. In later years, probably in the seventies, Change Alley, or at least the concept of it, was moved into sterilised shops lining the bridge across Collyer Quay. Like so much in Singapore, the ambience of the place was totally destroyed, replaced with an antiseptic atmosphere completely devoid of character.
Other shopping experiences included the famous department stores of Robinsons, and John Little's, in Raffles Place, where bargaining was not the done thing, but that did not stop mother. The Cold Storage on Orchard Road was also popular as it meant ice-cream and flavoured milk, but the memory of visits there are juxtaposed with those in later years of leaving my family, as it was a traditional end-of-holiday treat.
And then there was Chinatown. One may think that Singapore was all Chinatown, but that was far from the case. Chinatown was one of the densest population quarters in the world, a relatively small area, to the west of Raffles Place and the commercial centre, off South Bridge Road. Sago Street, Sago Lane, Temple Street, Pagoda Street were lined with double and triple story 'shophouses' - the open fronted shop below and the residences above. Coffee shops, open at the front, with wooden tables with marble tops, were predominant, where the men met for social contact, and, occasionally, the family would eat. At the front of the terraced shophouses, a 'five foot way' - a covered walkway created by any overlapping upper story, between the shop entrance and the ubiquitous drain, was more of the extension of a shop than a pavement. Frequently, independent business would be conducted on the five foot way - a barber's chair blocking most, but not all of the thoroughfare, a letter writer or fortune teller, a seller of birds in cages, a hawker of peanuts or sticky breakfast buns. Vehicle traffic would compete for road space with rickshaw drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians, hampered not so much by the narrow roadway but also by covered hawker stalls selling fruit and vegetables, furniture, and general merchandise. There was no 'day and night'; for Chinatown. A sunbeam rarely had the opportunity to reach the pavement; overhead, thousands of bamboo poles threaded with colourful washing poked out of every window in an attempt to dry. As the sun set, shop lights, street lights, and hurricane lamps burnt brightly to compete with the glare of car lights. Teaming with every example of Singapore culture, mainly Chinese but also Indians, Sikhs, Malays and Europeans, from kids to the elderly, male and female - it was cosmopolitan chaos. And very exciting.
The shophouses had to go, in Chinatown anyway. Singapore went through
a housing revolution in the 1960s. The crowded shophouses were unhygienic,
with poor ventilation, lighting and sanitation, limited cooking facilities,
and simply no privacy. I once saw inside the first story of a shophouse
- when a wayward truck had taken out the corner support. The upper floors
were tilting precariously at about twenty degrees. The front of the upper
story had been completely demolished. Inside the tiny front, a family remained,
a mother and two small children, sitting no doubt awkwardly, on a mat.
They had not evacuated the premises - they had nowhere to go. The building
was patched up with a day or two, but in the meantime, life, as Chinese
residents knew it, went on. Not so in Sago Lane where the death houses
were located. When the elderly were admitted, they knew they would
not leave unless horizontal in a cheap wooden casket. Perhaps in concept
they are no different to our 'old people's homes', where the residents
know that this is their last home. So it is with the death house, a final
refuge for the poor. They were funded by the so-called 'secret' societies,
in reality more like union organisations who looked after the people of
their trade or clan when they could no longer work. Even Ah Soo, our beloved
amah, was a member of a society, contributing just a few cents a month
- perhaps she saw her last days in such a home. Other 'old peoples homes'
, in lesser populated areas, were funded by the numerous Chinese clans,
extended families not only of relatives but of those from a 'home'
province in China. (Note 5).
Dad had no chauffeur. I am not sure if, initially, this was by way of choice or status, but even at the end of his life when he was about to take over the Taxation office, he preferred to drive himself. Our first car was a small black Vauxhall. After I left Singapore, the family car was the rather unattractive Vanguard, then a sporty Hillman California Hardtop which father bought in Britain in 1955 and brought back to England. His last vehicle was a beautiful Woolsley, hand-built I believe, one of just a few. Unfortunately my mother could not bring it back to Australia after he died due to typical Australian bureaucracy - he had not owned if for more than twelve months.
Of the other servants, I have already mentioned Ah Jwee (pronounced Ah Shh-wee), and his family. I cannot recall when the loyal and lovable amah, Ah Soo, joined us, but I don't think it was before I left Singapore, so perhaps Ah Jwee's wife was our amah - our maid. There was also Talib, our gardener, a Malay. Talib kept the gardens and lawn neat, using a long sharp scythe to slice the tips off the grass of. In his loin-cloth belt was a long sharpening stone which he deftly ran over the blade every so often. He had a couple of boys too I think, as I remember playing with Malays. There are two relevant stories to tell about Talib, as they serve to demonstrate the respect that my mother, in this instance, and my father had from their servants. Both occurred after I had left for Melbourne. We had a dog, apparently obtained after I had left, as I cannot remember it. One day it wandered on to Tanglin Road and the inevitable happened. Talib picked the dead dog up in his arms and carried it back to mother. This may seem like a simple gesture of kindness, but it was far more than that. Talib was a Muslim, and a dead animal such as our pet was very much to be avoided as being 'unclean'. A Muslim would avoided 'unclean' aspects of this culture, and yet he overcame his disdain and brought the animal back to mother, in his bare arms. There could be few more physical demonstrations of respect than that. The other situation was even more significant. During a period of bloody rioting in 1950, after I had left Singapore, known as the Maria Hertogh riots, where Europeans and non-Muslims were dragged from their cars, bashed, murdered and burnt in their vehicles, the word was out not to harm Tuan Stone and his Mem. Such a warning was appreciated no doubt, but in the chaos of a riot, no-one was asking for names. My father and mother did indeed find themselves trapped between two riots where cars were torched, but he managed to escape by driving onto the runaway at Singapore airport. He was not aware of the 'hand-off rule' until much later when Talib was arrested, as one the regional leaders of the local Muslim community, and a prime organiser of the riots.
Let me digress here for a moment and speak again of safety. Singapore was described as a wild frontier town up to the end of the 19th century, with only token law and order maintained by the British colonists, and only where it suited for European safety. Lawlessness was rife in the growing colony, but it was generally between rival clans and secret societies. Even secular violence doesn't seem to be recorded. (That came, predominantly, in the prelude to independence when each religious faction became concerned about control and their status in the new government). Post-war Singapore was safe for the European, and we regularly went out in the evening. But the remaining majority population lived with violence, to the extent that murder only made the front pages of the Singapore Times when the headline read, 'No Murders Past 24 Hours'. A dear friend of the family, Daphne, whom I was in love with despite the fact that I was not even a teenager, was a theatre nurse at the General Hospital. She told a few interesting tales to my parents, to which I was not a party, but I did overhear snippets. One aspect of the violence was the code of silence. An injured man, perhaps near fatally stabbed, would not disclose any details of his assailants. An interesting situation arose one evening when my mother and father returned to their vehicle after the theatre. Lying in nearby park was a badly injured young man, probably bleeding to death. My father raced off to get help, whilst my mother sat in the car. Several men emerged from the darkness and carried off the hapless victim before my father returned. Much has been written over the years of the 'secret societies', the Triads, and the clans. Most societies were, and still are, secret, because the authorities know so little about them. They became synonymous with crime, always linked with the criminal triads. Whereas the triads have infiltrated into many huge family and regional clans, and unions, they are a distinct group with their own, criminal, agendas. The 'secret' societies, be they clans or unions, or simply an association of like-mined individuals, have their own agenda to do with the welfare of its member, and are not necessarily with criminal intent. As mentioned, our dear amah Ah Soo was a member of her own 'secret society', which took care of her in her old age. Of course, the authorities knew where the criminal elements lived, but were generally too powerless to do anything about them. In fact, it was common knowledge that a house over the road from us when the family lived in Nassim Road was a triad headquarters. (Next door to the Jade House, in turn next door to AW Boon Haw's villa).
To more pleasant matters. A favourite outing was to one of the offshore islands, for a picnic and swimming. Although we went swimming at Changi, at the eastern end of the island, and enjoyed the use of a government holiday house there, Singapore is certainly not known for its beaches, and you can forget about blue tropical waters. The offshore island were pleasant and there was always a small cove lined with coconut palms along a small beach. We would get there by a long wooden outboard powered boat, with several in the flotilla containing friends. The island may well have been blakan mati, now known as Sentosa, and connected to Singapore by a bridge; but on the other hand, I do recall it was quite a long boat trip.
Another wonderful group gathering was the annual work picnics, where a hundred people would gather, including plenty of children to play with. I will never forget the wonderful mid-day dinner, the curry tiffin. Huge 'Willow pails' bubbled with boiling chicken and beef curries, with hole floating hard-boiled eggs, and huge cubes of potato. This was ladled over steaming white rice, out of another Willow pail. I loved my curry and rice. ('Willow' was the brand - they were oval shaped, and popular in Australia also.)
A curry tiffin at home was something else! The Willow pails were replaced by huge tureens of the same wonderful curries, and white rice. Surrounding these were dishes of peanuts, slivers of coconut, cucumber, tomato, crispy ikan bilas, banana, a half dozen other condiments. We would eat so much that it was usual fore the adults to go off and have an afternoon nap. Then it would be a game of badminton, more food and plenty of drink.
One time we had a gulli-gulli man come visit and put on a performance. His accomplice was a huge python - and several chickens. The gulli-guilli man was a turbaned Indian who put on a one-man show that was enthralling. They say strange mysteries happen in the east, and I certainly have no explanation for what I saw. One of the more straightforward 'tricks' was the three-tumbler trick, or three-bean trick. You know - you put a bean under one of three opaque tumblers, and move then around. You had to pick which tumbler was covering the bean. Our gulli-gulli man probably forgot his beans, so he used - a baby chicken. He did the usually thing - switched the tumblers about - nobody picked the right one, of course, Finally, someone did - low and behold, a chicken. Yeh!, everyone cries. Then the gull-gulli lifted the other two tumblers - to reveal a chicken under each one. He then asked my mother for her hand - and removed her wedding ring. Holding it in his clench hand, he asked one of the servants to go to the kitchen and return with an orange. Still holding his clenched fist high, he asked the servant to peel the orange. Inside was the ring. He opened his hand - it was empty. After suggesting that a banana is always a pleasant ingredient in a fruit salad, but tedious to cut up into slices, he asked a servant to return to the kitchen to fetch a banana. I swear the gulli-gulli man did not touch the banana. He asked the servant to peel the banana, and as he did so, the banana fell to the floor in slices. Magic!
The fruit!. Bananas were plentiful - we grew them in the garden. There
was some ritual and superstition about the cutting of the banana off the
plant, but I cannot recall its meaning. A favourite fruit, and most common,
was the pomelo. It is a delicious succulent citrus fruit, something like
a large grapefruit, but much sweeter, and with very large sacs of juice.
The skin was green or pinkish-green and very thick, but easily peeled off.
It amazes me why this wonderful fruit has not been cultivated in Australia.
Other popular fruits included the rambutan, now available in Australia,
which always reminded me of an old man's testicles. Freud would have something
to say about that! And a slightly tart fibrous fruit called a Five-star
because of its shape (or was that Four-star). My favourite however remains
the mangosteen. It had an exotic delicate flavour that is unique and defies
description. They look like miniature purple pumpkins about the size of
an orange. You carefully slice around the equator of the fruit to a depth
of a centimetre, no more, and lift off and discard the top. Within the
fruit, you will find a dozen or so slightly grey and slippery segments,
looking something like a clove of garlic, which are best removed with a
spoon, and eaten by sucking off the outer flesh from a small pip. The experience
And the Singapore River offered the most pungent. This was not a river to fall into. In fact, it was so polluted you would probably have bounced back. Bumboats - lighters - each with their gaily painted 'sharks' eyes on the bow to ward off evil spirits - choked the river, particular on Boat Quay near the Queen Victoria Bridge next to the Fullerton Building where Dad has his office. I don't recall ever walking down Boat Quay - it was just too crowded with humanity going about their hectic lives of lightering in merchandise for storage in the godowns, warehouses, along the river. It was wet, and slippery, crowded with porters carrying goods to and from the lighters on their shoulders or on trolleys, hawkers offering a snack on the run, families and kids to-and-fro from the boats where they lived. I used to stand on Anderson Bridge near the river entrance, and just watch, fascinated by the colour, the smell, the excitement of daily life. But don't expect to see this now. In keeping with the objective of cleaning up Singapore, the sampans and bumboats were all removed to the Pasir Panjang wharf area at the west of the island. So went the godowns, and the residents who lived and worked in this important aspect of maritime commerce. Fortunately, the run down warehouses and shophouses at Boat Quay on the south and south-west side of the river have not been demolished, and are now expensive homes, shops and restaurants. If I could live in Singapore, this would be the place - like Melbourne's Dockland precinct, in terms of location to the river and the city, anyway. And the river - crystal clear, you can see the fishes.
We regularly visited the famed Botanic Garden which was not too far from our home. Founded in 1874, it developed into a beautiful park of winding paths, exotic trees and plants, scorpions - and monkeys. The small moneys were not timid and would swing down from the trees and approach anyone walking past. If a peanut was offered, they would take it from an outstretched hand. Mum just had to test them to their limit, and would put a peanut into her skirt pocket. The monkey would not hesitate to climb up her dress and retrieve it. In later years they became more of a nuisance than a tourist attraction, and were eliminated - exterminated would probably be more accurate. It's interesting how relatively unimportant events stay in your mind. I remember a huge scorpion crawling across the path. A huge Sikh - the were all huge to me - saw our concern, calming walked over, gave a slight barely perceptible bow to mother, and stomped on the bugger. End one very dangerous creature. A favourite pastime at the gardens was a dozen satays and a coke on the verandah of the kiosk.
I must mention the airport. The first international airport was at Kalang, not far east of the city. I can remember attending a marvellous air show at the airport, made all the more exciting, and perhaps tragic, but witnessing two aircraft crashes that day. One aircraft was a Tiger Moth that went 'straight in' nose into the ground when coming in to land, and the other a single fixed-wing plane which flipped over and went upside down into the sea - I was with my father when they dragged it out at the seaplane base. Not sure if there were any deaths. I have it noted that the airport was at Paya Lebar, not far from town. Because of the crowded use of land, Singapore airport had a unique runway. It crossed a busy road. When a plane was scheduled for take-off or landing, railway-type boom gates closed the road. We would hop out of the car and wait excitedly as the aircraft roared past. Imagine the security nightmare of such an arrangement today. But it was this very runway-crossing that could well have saved the life of mother and father in 1950. Trapped between two riots where cars were being burnt and non-Muslim occupants bashed and killed, my father saw no normal escape route, so he veered onto the runway and made his 'getaway' through the airport back to Seton Close.
It was from Kalang that I left Singapore on a Boeing Constellation on 30 October 1950. It made the front page of the Singapore Times on October 31 1950, with headlines, 'P-E-T-E-R just wouldn't be kissed in public'. There I was, leaving my family, travelling alone back to live with Nan and Pop in Melbourne, for my education I was told. This was the very last time that I lived with my parents, save for the Christmas visits. I can't recall it being a really sad occasion - probably just another exciting adventure in my life. I certainly don't look sad in the two photographs, shaking hands with mother and father. I wonder how my parents felt. Mum certainly looks concerned, and Dad has a proud smile on his face. I could never leave Sam. I have a greater sense of sadness now as I write this over fifty years later, than I did at the time.
I sat at the back of the aircraft with a pile of boxes next to me, cargo no doubt. The hostesses were kind and attentive - not too many kids of seven at that time travelled by air on their own. Breakfast in Darwin at the terminal and then on to Melbourne. I am not sure if the headline was true, but I wouldn't be surprised. We simply did not show outward signs of affection. Why it should make front page news I have no idea, but there was probably a reporter handy at the time, and it sure beats headlines of gang wars. And so here I am for the first and probably only time on the front page of a national newspaper and they can't even get my name right - they spelt it Stoner. So, thats where the reporters of the Yarram Standard News were trained.
After leaving Singapore in 1950, I returned several times at Christmas to visit my parents. I never returned to Seton Close. Dad was soon appointed to Malacca, where I visited. On this occasion, in 1952, Dad picked me up in Singapore after I had arrived on the Charon from Fremantle. We stayed overnight at the glorious Goodwood Park Hotel, where Dad made a failed attempt at burning it down. He made the most foolish mistake of all - fell asleep whilst smoking. The room filled with smoke as his bedding caught alight, but we managed to get out quite easily. Dad burnt himself rather badly on the shoulder and upper arm. I cannot recall the immediate reaction, and don't remember any firefighters, but do recall that our departure from Singapore the following day was delayed whilst Dad had a rather long consultation with hotel management.
At the end of 1953, I returned again to Malacca, this time with Nan, my beloved grandmother with whom I was living in Melbourne, in preparation for our trip to England and Europe. This would take all of eight months in 1954, during which time I spent just two months at school in England. - but that is another story. On returning to Australia, I was enrolled at Geelong Grammar, and at the end of 1955, again went to Singapore, via Fremantle, this time on the Gorgon. Dad had been transferred back to Singapore and we were now living in a huge 'black and white' bungalow on Watten Estate, off Bukit Timah Road. (I believe it later became an orphanage).
I was now twelve and perhaps better experienced to appreciate the unique life that I had led to date. My recollections of these visits varies, from total abstinence of memory to foggy vagueness to clear recollection. Singapore had not visibly changed over the years. As these visits were during my holidays, I had free time to again enjoy the experience of Singapore, with the usual visits of Golf Club, Swimming Club, the Worlds, the satay and hawker places, interspersed with visits to family friends, and going to the theatre. My fathers best friend was TY Cheong, who, I believe, managed the Singapore office of Voigtlander cameras. Mr Cheong gave me my first 35mm single-lens reflex camera, a Voigtlander Vito B. My father was somewhat surprised when Mr Cheong said I could keep the camera. Unfortunately, I had not used a 35mm camera before, and my father was not amused when I open up the back of the camera to remove the film at the end of the roll. No-one had bothered to instruct me in any way, so I was not aware that the film had to be rewound back into its cassette, unlike the old roll film cameras. Nevertheless, I soon mastered it and I was on my way to being a photographer.
The Cheong family, with daughter Carol and son Ronnie, lived in Belmont Road, not far from Tanglin, in a modern single-story western house. Our families socialised frequently, and I stayed over at their house on at least one occasion, for whatever reason I have no idea. Carol was two years older than I, and looking back, I do believe she may have been trying to seduce me. I of course had no idea what was going, an affliction which lasted another five years I might add, but nothing became of it. We enjoyed each others company and went to the Worlds, and to the theatre. There is nothing more superior than to have your girlfriend pick you up in her chauffeur-driven car and be dropped off at the theatre. We went to the Cathay, and I think also the Capitol. I have no idea what we saw. Singapore was not short of movie theatres, with huge billboards all over town advertising the latest films in all languages by all cultures.
In December 1958 I had my last visit to the family in Singapore. I was joined on this trip by my school mate Peter Hocking. By this time my parents had moved into a new house, at 6 Nassim Road. It too was on an estate, its entrance hidden by trees right at the busy end of Orchard Road, where Tanglin, Nassim and Orange Grove Roads met. It was a single story home raised several feet above the ground like a traditional bungalow. A highlight of the trip was a week on an Army boat on the Johore River, visiting villages along the river. This was arranged through a family friend Colonel Pay Kelly. We were taken to the British Army barracks in Johore and fitted out in full kit with jungle greens. The river patrol was genuine military operation. The 'communist problem' in southern Malaya had abated, and the Army was visiting the river villages to collect rifles issued to the villages for 'protection' against the communist insurgents. It was a remarkable trip, a unique opportunity to visit otherwise remote villages that would rarely have seen a white man before. I must admit that after seeing three or four villages they all looked alike, with wooden huts and shops perched precariously on stilts over the river edge. A few villages were slightly inland which meant a short hike, during which time Peter and I were allowed to handle the short barrelled jungle Carbine rifle. Shots were fired, but only at fruit high up in the trees. At one village we were fortunate to arrive when a traditional Malay dance was in progress. I was intrigued because the dancers moved so gracefully - and didn't touch other. It was like watching two Spanish dancers without any body contact. A few years later, thats just how we used to dance to the Beatles. I can recall that after a few days of nothing but rice for every meal, we were craving for a good Aussie tucker, but the closest we came was a bar of Cadbury's chocolate bought at a village store.
Another interesting visit was several days on a rubber plantation in Malaya; manager Bob Ellis was a friend of the family. We had the opportunity top see the full workings of the plantation, from the collection of latex through to the raw rubber bailed for export. It was also on that trip that we visited a tin dredging operation, and also a palm oil factory.
I was introduced to ten-pin bowling in Singapore, at the American Club, near the Goodwood Park Hotel. They had several rinks. Nothing was automated of course. The pins were set up at the end of the highly polished rink in a low alcove, much as they are now. Behind the pins you could just make out two bare legs. As the ball skittled down toward the pins, the legs would disappear for a split second and land again as the pins were flung down. A bare arm would remove the downed pins, and roll the ball back to the bowler. Having been shown how to bowl properly, I became reasonably good at it. In Melbourne a few years later, in 1961, ten-pin bowling was introduced into Melbourne, in Bell Street, Heidelberg. The promoters were allowing free sessions, so I had a go. A few strikes later and they wanted to employ me as an instructor. They must have been desperate. I declined, as I had my engineering studies in front of me.
I remember a wonderful concert that I went to in the Victoria Memorial
Hall during the last visit to the family in Singapore, at the end of 1958.
My father announced quite excitedly that we were to see Jack Teagarden
in concert. I looked vaguely at my father, who responded with disappointment
that I had no idea who he was. I can see why, in retrospect. The jazz age
was being eclipsed by modern 'pop' music and rock-and-roll, and Elvis Presley
was the teenagers idol. I enjoyed most forms of music but had not yet become
a 'jazz buff'. Teagarden was the Messiah of the trombone, and with a small
group which included Max Kaminsky on trumpet and Ronnie Greb on drums (I
remember these after so many years without resorting to my diary), he was
paying Singapore a visit. We had first-class balcony seats; and what a
great concert it was. It added to my appreciation of jazz, but I was not
yet a convert. That started just a few weeks later. As I was about
to leave Singapore to return to Melbourne, Dad gave me a Benny Goodman
record. That changed my musical appreciation of big-band jazz, and I have
been a Goodman fan since. I still have a vivid memory of the last glimpse
of my father; having passed through a grilled-gate onto the tarmac at Kalang
airport, I looked back and waved. Standing there in his white open-necked
shirt and cream trousers, he returned my wave. I was never to see him again.
The term bungalow comes from the Bengal word bungala or bungla, which represented a single-story solid walled (brick, masonry) structure with a floor raised slightly off the ground, and, most important, a verandah that ran around the entire house - or at least three sides. It is not to be confused with our general Australian use of the word which conjures up an image of a small granny-flat in the backyard: Singapore bungalows could be huge - one that we stayed in several years later, at Watten Estate, became an orphanage. The Singapore bungalow was a, no doubt, more environmentally efficient house to that of India, in that it was raised not just slightly off the ground, but by several feet, on timber of brick piers, sometimes ornamented with arches, but always open sufficiently to allow the air to circulate under the floor, a style probably adopted from the traditional Malay house. Most bungalows were symmetrical, which satisfied Chinese aesthetics. The rooms had high ceilings, and the broad verandahs, up to perhaps ten feet wide, were used as living areas. Bungalows were built in Singapore from the mid-19th century, and although many have been demolished to make way for housing estates, some do still exist. I can clearly remember visiting 'Uncle Aratoon', an Indian businessman whom I think my mother worked for at a time, and who was a dear friend of the family, living in such a single-story bungalow, with its wide cement steps leading onto a balcony and then to the main lounge.
The definition of a bungalow seems to have been modified in its later use for a two-story house, but in essence, our home, a typical 'black and white bungalow', was simply a design version of a higher single-story bungalow, where the 'downstairs', was open space, and all the living upstairs - complete with necessary all-round verandah. And of course, solidly built. Later, the open downstairs area was put to good use, such as our dining area. Our home at Seton Close was built sometime in the 1930s. They were built for and occupied by British government officials (and later Australians), and white businessmen, the latter renting off the government. Because of their imposing size they were a symbol of (British government) power and wealth, and left no doubt as to who was in charge of the country. This was not however to suggest that the wealthy Straits Chinese did not also have large imposing homes. Our neighbour down the road was Aw Boon Haw, the founder of Tiger Balm ointment; his home was large art-deco mansion.
Although the definitions offered above for the 'black and white bungalow' are from academic sources, I see the transition of the single story bungalow into a two story black and white 'bungalow' as somewhat vague. Many early two-story Singapore houses built in the last three decades of the 19th century are similar in design to that of the black-and-white house, influenced by the British palladian style of large portico columns, stucco rendering, upstairs open lounge areas over the drive through portico entrance, and symetrical in design. All they lack, in many respects, is the Tudor influence of the black and white finish. Why the confusing term 'bungalow' should then be applied to such a radically changed house design I cannot see.
The Tanglin (Road) area was one of several rather exclusive European
residential areas, although that did not preclude wealthy Chinese from
taking up residence in rather large mansion-like houses of individual design.
The concept of a residential estate allowed for a flexibility of landscape
design, allowing private access through lawns and garden. Seton Close,
built in the 1930s, was a 'civil service estate', in that it housed government
officials from its concept, right through to my families occupancy and
no doubt many years beyond. They were designed by the Singapore Public
Works Department and offered, initially at least, an 'original interpretation
of the 19th century plantation house in Tudoresque black-painted half timbering
on walls of white stucco over timber lathing', offering residential accomodation
to 'senior colonial officers in a style appropriate to their rank'.
The black and white homes of the 1920s and 1930 were of solid masonry.
Singapore is now well known for its sterilisation of society, perhaps the price to pay for improved health, education, and economic development. The demolition of many of the shophouses, and the evacuation of those that were structurally viable and thus physically remained, meant the mass relocation of the people - into high rise housing estates. Many of the government's objectives were achieved in doing this - running water, flushed toilets (it is illegal in Singapore to use a toilet and not flush it), electric light, adequate kitchens, separate bedrooms providing space and privacy, and, later, television. But the seeds of social discontent were sown, for what was seemingly obvious to the onlooker actually happened. The people became isolated. The men no longer gathered in the coffee shops below their homes - there were none on the estates. The women no longer gather at the street markets, or socially congregated at the communal washing troughs, the children no longer played on the five-foot ways. The complete structure of traditional Chinese shophouse life, of retail and service commerce so entwined with their home, was destroyed by masonry and glass. The government recognised that they should not destroy all the shophouses in Chinatown, but that decision was made for all the wrong reasons. The immediate social disruption to the people was less of concern to that of tourism, and making 'better' commercial use of the restored buildings. See Sago Street now, with its neatly painted totally renovated shophouses housing not the life of the city, but accountants, dentists, lawyers, and all manner of professionals. Was there an alternative? I am not sure.
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