Sunday, 28 April 2013

Clothes from a childhood wardrobe

This dress with blue satin ribbons at the waist arrived one day in a box. Balloon skirts were quite a rage then, already.
THERE it was, a rectangular box lying on the dining table, looking spectacular. Mum was sitting there, smiling broadly. This came from Auntie, she said. The auntie who lived next door, and my Chinese teacher in school. (She was all praise for me when I could write the word "come" in Chinese on the blackboard. That was in Primary One. But I am afraid her faith in me was misplaced. As my Chinese grades later went all the way down hill, especially for "听写" -- Chinese dictation.)

Till this day, I am not sure why she decided to give me this dress. It wasn't my birthday or anything. But it was the grandest present I had ever received. The dress was made of foamy chiffon material with tiny blue and pink rosebuds dotted all over. It had a long skirt -- elasticised at the hem so that you could fold it up underneath, all the way to the waist, so that it formed a balloon skirt with great flounces. It had tiny puffed sleeves, with narrow organza lace edging the collars.

It lasted a really long time because the balloon skirt could be let down -- and down until it was no longer a balloon. And when I had grown too big to slip into the dress, I cut off the top part and just used the bottom part as a skirt.

Actually, before this dress, there was another present from Auntie -- a pair of knickers with tiny flowers and layers of frills all round. I wanted to wear it as a skirt, but my mum didn't think so.

I didn't have too many occasions to wear such a grand dress. But I remember wearing it for the family portrait at this studio called Snow White in Serangoon Gardens. My parents also told the photographer to take a few shots of me wearing this dress sitting on a round rattan chair that graced every photographer's studio in those days (the round rattan chair I mean, not my portrait). I think they wanted to do justice to the dress.

My usual attire was t-shirt and pyjama bottoms (at home) and t-shirt and shorts (when outside). Two of my favourite t-shirts are shown on the left. In fact, my parents bought me two t-shirts of the giraffe pattern, with one a size bigger. I wore them for the longest time -- probably the reason why I could remember them until today. The other one had tiny balloons all over it, with buttons on one shoulder. It was several sizes too large -- so I wore it for a real long time as well.

My father also bought me a swimming costume from Australia, where he went for a surgery. It was made of cotton, elasticised all over to form little puffy patterns. I think it was meant to be worn as bottoms but I could pull it up all the way to the chest. We seldom went swimming, so it was not used at all. But I kept looking at it and thinking of all sorts of ways to transform it into a skirt or blouse -- or something I could wear everyday.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Brockhampton Drive 1955 or the 8th lane

WHEN its postal district number was still 1955, this was a long lane...

A long lane still today by any standard, except that it looks so alien to me and no longer feels like home. Most of the low terraced houses and the single-storey bungalows with pink roof tiles have vanished. In their place, stood houses and bungalows that seem completely out of synch with the ambience of the neighbourhood. But perhaps I am living in a time warp.

This was the lane where I've been living in since I was born -- known to most taxi drivers then as the 8th lane (because it was the eighth lane along the right side of Chartwell Drive as one was travelling up from Serangoon Garden Circus).  I have walked up the rather steep slope (when leaving home) and down the slope (when returning) for some 30 years. The slope along this road proved to be rather memorable especially if you were in a hurry. It could be quite an agony to run up the slope if you needed to nake an urgent call from the public phone (which was next to the bus stop  near Carisbrooke Grove along Chartwell Drive). Double anguish if you reached the booth breathless only to see a pair of legs peeping out from under the door of the booth.

The phone booth was something after Superman's own heart. Painted a glossy royal blue, with two wooden swinging doors for complete privacy, it was not at all like today's transparent booth. It cost 10 cents to make a 3-minute call. You have to keep inserting coins to talk longer. My friend said he experimented by drilling a hole in a 10 cent coin and putting a thread through it, so that it could be pulled out after a call. He said it worked!

Good to regain a few 10 cts this way. Because we had dropped a few along this lane while taking walks in the evening. My dad liked to take evening walks with my brother and me. We would walk leisurely to the Indian stall at the mouth of the lane (Chartwell Drive end) to buy a few sweets. On many occasions, dad would be the one stepping on the tail of this cat which seemed to be a resident there. There would be a loud protest from the cat and some defensive scratching. Dad would mumble something about the fury of animals. Then, each sucking a sweet, we would walk down the lane to the other end where it met Berwick Drive. Sometimes, we would hear a tinkle, and dad would say "There goes 10 cents to kin loong wong (Cantonese for god of the underworld)!" Those coins were often lost for good as it was too dark for us to find them. It wasn't his habit to carry a wallet, so loose change would flew of his hand sometimes, especially if he swung his hands too hard. Dad always said it was a sign of health to swing your hands when you walk.

We loved to peer into all the houses to see what families were up to. They all glowed with yellow light and the warmth of family togetherness -- dad seated reading the newspaper and the kids playing around in the living room. One of my primary school teachers lived further down the road. But her doors were always closed and though there was light from the windows, all there was to indicate that the family was in was the red Austin Mini parked outside.

We liked to see the kind of furniture they had in their houses, too. Dad would often remark on how such and such a table or shelf would be useful, but how it wouldn't fit into our own furniture scheme and so on. These walks were thoroughly enjoyable and we were never tired of them even if we did it every evening.

We seldom went all the way to the end of the lane towards Berwick Drive -- it was just too exciting for an evening to end that way.  There were very wide drains at Berwick Drive. In the dark, peering into those wide and deep drains was as exciting as being on the edge of Victoria Falls. Mum always warned us not to go near those drains in case we fall in and get washed away. Which apparently happened to a little boy who fell in during a heavy storm. Or this could be a tale my mum told us just so we don't go near those drains. (I think those wide drains have been covered up now.)

This is one sweet that did
not change. Even its wrapper
 remains the same .If my dad was
here today, he would recognise it
 without trouble -- though he may
nor recognise Brockhampton Drive.
When we reached home, we would happily offer the sweets we bought to mum. Mum and I loved the huge rounded ones (the size of a 50-cent coin) wrapped in cellophane. It came in various colours with different flavours. My mum's favourite was orange. Mine was lemon and the green one, though I was not sure what flavour it was. Dad though, did not like this "fruity" sweet. He always took Hacks instead. I think my brother also preferred Hacks.

Such a perfect ending to the day.

Tribute to purses

THE satiny baby blue purse made of plastic and shaped like a shoe was a prize from the tikum store. When I was in primary school in the 60s, there were small stalls manned by Indians at the entrance of many lanes along Chartwell Drive in Serangoon Gardens. I used to live in Brockhampton Drive, and there was one just at the mouth of the road. There was another further down where Corfe Place linked Brockhampton Drive to Blandford Drive.

They had wooden planks for floors, straddled across the roadside drain, so that they would not obstruct traffic. They had tarred canvas roofs. They sold all sorts of things from toys, hair cream (especially Tancho and Brylcream), chewing gum and sweets. Special mention must be made about the chewing gums -- these were small balls of all colours and kept in a glass jar. They were among the favourite things I used to buy from these stalls -- besides those tubes of goey substance which you stick onto one end of a small tube and then blow from the other end so that they form  bubbles.

And of course they had tikum -- which was a game where you pay the owner of the shop 5 cts (couldn't remember how much exactly) and  tear a number from the cardboard that usually dangled from some beam across the roof. The prizes were displayed enticingly -- each numbered accordingly. If the number matched the number you picked, bingo! I was actually eyeing a pink pearl necklace -- for a 1,000 years. But I was happy enough to get this cute little shoe purse which fitted very well into my school pinafore. And the ending to this happy tale was that, I actually got the pink pearl necklace, one fine day. Couldn't believe my luck!

The greenish, black and purple purse with hound's tooth design (I used to call it dog's tooth, because I couldn't understand why it had to be "hound") was bought at a night market along Lorong Chuan. For some reason, even now, I love purses more than handbags, and was always badgering mum to buy me new ones. The rubbery red bean purse which you could easily open by depressing the sides, was a joy to play with too. The colours were great too -- they came in turquoise, green, blue and red. When you shake it with a few coins inside, they make the best noise in the world. Gluck, gluck, gluck....

And finally, my prized butterfly purse with clasp. How I missed it when it fell out of my pocket while running along Queen Elizabeth Walk with my friend. I think we were in primary 5 then. One of my school mates at Serangoon Garden South, suggested we take a bus ride to the park. We felt so adventurous and the lawns looked just right to race on. So we did. After that, while waiting for the bus home, to my dismay, I found the purse missing. We searched high and low along the lawns of Queen Elizabeth Walk. It was a very sad day for me. I could never find a similar purse. My mum gave me a good scolding of course. It only contained a dollar and a few cents. But it wasn't the money in it. It was the purse my mum had bought for me. The most beautiful purse made of shiny plastic with pictures of butterflies.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

To all the shoes I have loved before

My first pair of "glam" shoes bought at a shop called Sin Sin (if I remember rightly, or it could be Xin Xin) at Maju Avenue. They were made from mustard coloured suede and had diamante buckles at the straps. It was THE shoe shop for residents of Serangoon Gardens in the late 60s till the 70s. You could get Scholls there at a cheaper price than elsewhere. I know my classmate's mum used to come all the way from 6th mile (Upper Serangoon Road) to get her pair of Scholls.

The  black and green pair were bought after I retired the yellow pair. Actually, there weren't many occasions where I could wear the yellow pair and they were retired in reasonably good condition. The black and green pair were worn to work as I managed to get a daily-rated job after my O levels while waiting for results to get to Pre-U. They were supposed to make you look grown up. The green pair didn't have a sling back and the covered heels chaffed quite badly. However my mum liked them and took them over from me. She usually wore stockings, so her heels didn't suffer from the covered heels.
Sometime in the 70s, platform shoes became popular. The beigey pair gave way as I was returning home in the rain from Sunday School. The platform got disengaged and I found I was just wearing the upper part of the shoes. In the end I threw them into the nearest dustbin along Tavistock Avenue, and walked home barefooted -- and in the rain. It was rather fun.

The blue pair made from denim with shiny dark blue straps, was the most comfortable platform shoes I ever owned. But after taking my X-ray at SATA which was then somewhere off Shenton Way, a car reversed as I was standing in the carpark with my friends. Somehow the strap of my shoes got caught in a spoke of one of the rear wheels. It snapped. And it was my favourite pair of shoes! The driver offered to pay me for the shoes. But of course, I refused to accept. I specifically remember this incident because of the X-ray I had to take. I had applied for a job with the civil service after my A levels and if you were asked to go for a medical checkup, it meant you were being considered for the job. So what was a torn shoe strap -- hey, a job offer was in the pipeline.

Friday, 19 April 2013

Great grandmother's tales

Meow Meow, a cat I used to have. He must have  looked something like the two big cats which great gramdma used to own in China. 
MY great grandmother sounds fun and kind. From mum's description, she is definitely my kind of person!

My mum was a little rebellious, and not a favourite child of grandma. Each time she got a chiding from grandma, great grandma would try to console her with wonderful tales -- which mum would in turn narrate to me many years later.

Most memorable was the tale of a family of rats whose home was a hole in the wall of the house where they lived in China. There was King Rat, dressed gloriously in a fur robe. He wore a crown too. He had an army of rats who ran around doing errands. At times, there would be dancing and other performances staged by his underlings for his pleasure. However, those only happen at special times in the night but mum never got tired of sitting by the hole the whole day, hoping to catch a glimpse of the action.

Another tale was how great grandma had a good time watching mum dancing in a school concert. The tiara that mum was wearing for the dance was a little too big and it wobbled precariously each time mum did a leap. This was somehow so funny that great grandma had to wipe her tears from laughing too hard.

During great grandma's time, there were two huge striped cats with heads as round as a tennis ball. They would each sit on a gate post waiting for grandpa to come home from work. Upon hearing his footsteps, they would leap from the posts and accompany him into the house, tails pointing upwards as high and as straight as flag posts. If they somehow missed grandpa's footsteps, grandpa would holler at them. At his "Come on down!" one of them would invariably jumped onto grandpa's shoulder. How they decide tacitly who should sit on grandpa's shoulder is a mystery.

Also memorable, was the tale of great grandma's lotus feet. Each night as she unwrapped the cloth binding her feet, an unbearable stench would fill the house.

Grandpa, if I remember rightly, was her eldest son, and my mum was her first grandchild. Great grandma was mum's dearest person. How great grandma wept when mum left the house to get married and moved to another province.

And I, who had never seen nor known her, became very fond of the memory of great grandma.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

The washerwoman's daughter -- a lesson in gratitude

I CAN see and smell her in my mind's eye still. She's got short straight hair (home cut, like all of us). And of the lightest brown -- too light for a Chinese. She smelled musty, and of unwashed clothes. Her pinafore was washed to a whitish blue. The white shirt had turned a yellowish brown, with tattered edge along the collars and sleeves.

If there was one person who irritated me no ends, it was her. After school, without fail, she would be waiting for me outside the classroom. A struggle would ensue as she tried to grab my school bag. Not that she wanted to steal my bag. She just wanted to carry it for me to my mum waiting at the school porch in her blue Morris Minor.

I hated it. I would glare at her and snatch my bag back from her. But somehow, this skinny girl had the strength of Godzilla. I would walk behind her reluctantly as she carried my bag triumphantly to the car. The crux of my problem was that I had to thank her profusely -- my mum insisted on it.

She did this for some years. She was the daughter of the neighbourhood washerwoman who also went round collecting swills from each household to sell to pig farmers. Sometimes she would follow her mum to help, and to earn a few more cents washing our school canvas shoes. Whenever she saw us, she would grin and walked hurriedly by, following her mum. And I would make monkey faces at her.

My mum used to pack old clothes and toys for the washerwoman to give to her daughter. And sometimes, mum would slip 10 cents or 15 cents into the daughter's grimy hands should she see her during recess. I felt very indignant when my mum told me that. I could have done better things with those money.

When she eventually did not show up outside the classroom, I was extremely glad. Nobody knew what happened to her. But it was also the same time the washerwoman "disappeared". And for the longest time, I had to help mum with the laundry.

I have learnt to appreciate this little girl now. She was paying back mum's kindness through the only way she knew how -- by helping me carry my school bag.


Thursday, 11 April 2013

A childhood shopping experience

Brighton Crescent today is not much changed from the Brighton Crescent of the 60s. The shops have gone and in their stead, sprung cafes (hey, dog-friendly!). But I am glad the shop houses look exactly the same as before. I am not sure whether the automobile repair shop (the first unit in the row) was the one which has been there since 70s, Can anyone confirm that?  Picture taken in April 2013.
My imitation Barbie doll as I remember her.
THERE have been many quests in my childhood. One of them was in search of a cheap but "grown up" glam doll -- preferably one which looked like Barbie but without the price tag. Didn't mind her sister Skipper too, who had long and silky ash blond hair. Mum finally took pity on me and got me Skipper at a stall at Gay World. We went there occasionally especially when they were having "Expo". Gay World was always having "Expo". Tay Koh Yat Bus No, 9 would take us there from Serangoon Gardens.

Skipper was cheaper than Barbie -- so I had Skipper. But I yearned for a Barbie -- the glamour associated with Barbie was irresistible.

In the 60s, there were many street side shops selling cheap toys. They have water floats, rubber balls and stuff hanging in plastic nets in the front. Their interiors were usually dark but seemed to promise a whole new world to one peering from a bus travelling past. My first foray was to hop off the 72 bus on the way back from school to go look at one of those shops along Yio Chu Kang Road. Nothing there... only those big baby dolls with big blue eyes which never seem to go out of fashion for the longest time. I went through a few during primary school and they were still around at the shops when I attended secondary school.

I don't think I did credit to this popular baby
 doll from the 60s era. It had blue blinking eyes and long lashes.
They had removable arms and legs too
and soon you find an arm here, and a leg there, not because
they broke, but because of restless fingers. My eldest
 brother's favourite cartoon which he drew himself
was that of a limb, captioned "Made in Japan". A lot of goods
then were made in Japan, and because they were made
hastily to fulfill market demand, QC was lacking.
But not this doll (I am not sure where it was made, Hong Kong
probably), but it lasted and lasted.

Those were the only dolls I had aside from one which was inflatable and black with woolly locks and with those close-shut buttons for eyes... you know those plastic buttons which give a different picture when you look at them from different angles? The world of Barbie was opened to me at a friend's place when she showed me her family of Barbie dolls. This friend had a sister who subscribed to Women's Weekly and so had a whole stack of them which she lent me... and I was also hooked on magazines since then.

Now,  for my second foray... Brighten Crescent looked very promising indeed. I could see a whole row of shops (from my 72 bus) lining one side of the street before the residential houses further in. I believe the row of shophouses is still there today -- and worth a revisit.

Brighton Crescent revisited. Shops no longer there, but it felt very much like the old Brighton Crescent I knew. Note the gate of the house to the right? It looks so much like those low gates of houses (with an old fashioned letter box attached) I used to know in Serangoon Gardens! I used to swing on one side of such a gate as a child till I got a scolding from mum. Picture: April 2013.
The thrill of exploring those shops! Though they didn't sell any dolls, they did sell a range of stationery that a student could die for. Not sure whether kids still use erasers (more commonly known as rubbers for us in those days). But we sure used it a lot in our time. They came in an exciting range of designs and colours. There were those which were even perfumed and were translucent like jellies. And I distinctly remember they had a drawing of a cute deer on one side. Trouble with those rubbers was that they tend to stick onto rulers and pencil boxes and leave ugly marks when you peel them off. As rubbers, they were not very effective actually, and left black smears on the paper.

No lack of childhood flowers, shrubs and trees in Brighton Crescent. You find hibiscus, bougainvilleas, palm trees, casuarina trees. They all lend such a homely feel to the whole place. I think residents in this area have a better deal than those staying in Serangoon Gardens where renovation knows no bounds and all sorts of design exist now, compared to the low terraced and bungalow houses of the 60s and 70s, even up to the 80s. Pictures: April 2013.

I finally got my cheap girlie doll at Mubaruk at Serangoon Gardens. It had blond hair done up in a beehive. It had eyes which could close (not like Barbie's, which were painted on). But it would do for the time being. My mum and I would sew tiny clothes -- blouses and skirts. She eventually had a shoe box full of clothes. My only complaint was that I couldn't restyle her hair.When I saved enough, I got myself an imitation Barbie doll. I couldn't remember how much it cost, must be like $20 which was a lot of money in those days. Although it wasn't a genuine Barbie, its legs could be bent into various poses. It had real shoes which could be taken out and changed.  I didn't tell mum I spent my savings on  the doll. I hid it in the darkest corner of my cupboard and only took it out now and then to admire.

When I left The New Paper in 2001, guess what my colleagues gave me! A Barbie doll! Yay!
One of the dresses my mum and I sewed for Barbie. The scraps of material were from my mum's friend who did patchwork blankets. As some were already cut neatly into rectangles, they came in rather useful for tight skirts or shift dresses. One  can spend hours looking at the scraps, the designs and the colours were just too enthralling.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Pleated skirts, please

A much coveted pleated skirt.
WHY oh why was it so difficult to own a pleated skirt? When I was a kid in primary school, nearly all my classmates owned one. They went round saying "Eh, I got a petered skirt..." Took me ages to find out that a "petered" skirt is really a "pleated" skirt.

And they were so cool... and cheap. Which was why I did not understand why mum refused to buy me one. I saw them on sale every where, from pasar malam to the stalls in the market selling cheap clothes and towels. Surely, surely, mum could afford to buy one for me?
'Goldfish yellow' knitted sweater which my brother
 gave me to compensate for not getting a pleated skirt.
It had an olive coloured band near the top, with white cross stitches.

I even prayed very hard for one... and hoped that God would lay it beside me on the bed so that I get a surprise when I wake up. I also begged my eldest brother to buy one for me, but he got me a yellow knitted jumper instead. Goldfish colour, he said, knowing that I had been badgering mum to knit a sweater for me using wool this colour. I liked it very much. And it was more expensive than a pleated skirt.

But I just wanted a pleated skirt. THE pleated skirt of the 60s was made from a plasticky kind of rayon material. They were usually floral  -- I don't remember seeing any at the stores that were plain. I think it may even be waterproofed -- it felt very much to me like thin raincoat material. The pleats were not real pleats but more like folds that were permanently ironed on.

Kids wore them everywhere, even to school excursions and outings. I would show up in my shorts with an embroidered cockerel on the pocket. Not that I didn't like that pair of shorts. My mum bought them from the market. She bought most of my clothes from the market and it was always a big thrill for me when she came home from the market. There was also a pair of pants -- red with black checks. They felt rough against my legs, but I liked them because my mum said I looked like a cowgirl wearing them. Yeeha!

And the T-shirts -- there was one with a cartoon of a giraffe having its neck measured, another with tiny coloured balloons all over. This was a very long T-shirt that reached my knees. I wore it for several years before it finally became the right length. They were not bought at the Serangoon Gardens Market but at this brightly-lit Indian store along a row of shops at Serangoon Garden Way. I think it was near where Dr Fernandez had his clinic. It later became the Mubaruk Book Store, I think. (Although this was called a book store, it sold a whole lot of other things, from imitation Barbie dolls to other toys like match box cars. I remembered I bought my first Barbie doll from there, not the real thing of course, but cost me half a year's pocket money at least.) Anyway, the Indian boss stacked clothes by the loads on the glass shelves. He would take them out one by one out and shook them out to show my parents. How I loved those exciting times!

One day, they bought me a gorgeous frock from another shop along the row at Maju Avenue. It was white cotton with little embroidered flowers all over. It had the sweetest puff sleeves,  and a bow that needed to be tied at the back. But what was more coveted was a huge doll of the same height as me, that the store had on display. It had blond hair, blue eyes... and her hands were stretched out to be hugged. I was sure she could walk. (Walking and talking dolls were the rage then). It must cost a bomb. Anyway, it was not for sale.

But still, I wish mum had bought me a petered skirt.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Serangoon Garden South School with Kassim and Aminah

THE bits and pieces I can remember about Serangoon Garden South School which I attended in the 1960s are rather vivid. The first "bit" that comes to mind is the green "septic tank" next to the school. If you sit near the left hand side of the classroom facing the blackboard, this would be your view from the window. I am not quite sure whether "septic tank" is the right word to describe this structure that was painted pale green and looked like a house with no windows and doors. Probably "sewage plant" may be more appropriate. But those days, we just called them septic tanks. (Such plants were painted a pale green in Serangoon Gardens -- there was another one near the market, at the exit to Chartwell Drive which is now the Police Post.)

The jaga (watchman) probably stayed in a little room near this plant. I remember the charpoy that he slept on, which was under a shady jambu tree near the tank. There was a narrow grass verge and a wire fence separating the school from the septic tank. We didn't usually go there except to look for our pencil stubs that were thrown out by the teacher (because they got too short for a good grip to produce legible handwriting). Sometimes, we also found coloured chalks. These were the "missiles" aimed at students for staring out of the window or talking or nodding off -- but missed their targets and went flying out of the windows instead. There were a few frangipani and banana trees growing near the septic tank too -- we heard tales of these trees being haunted, which was the reason why we didn't venture there too often.

Text books

The English text books we were using then were a series on Kassim and Aminah (the local version of Janet and John). They were about the adventures of a group of friends who picnic by the beach, or have fun on swings at the park etc.  Each year, a booklist was given and we had to shop for the books at a book store along Upper Serangoon Road. Then we would wrap the book covers up to protect them. We had nice translucent coloured papers for this purpose. But I remember using an old tattered and torn First Aid in English that was passed down from my two brothers. I would use old calendar paper to wrap the cover so that it didn't look so old.


Here is the plan which I have sketched from memory. My lunch invariably was a bowl of "ta mee" -- fat yellow noodles with tomato ketchup and a bit of chilli sauce and a small bowl of soup with fishballs. It wouldn't have cost more than 20 cts, as my entire pocket money for the day was 30 cents. Five cents could get you some sweets and kacang putih.

There was a white box fridge behind the noodle stall. Mostly, it stored Magnolia milk (the traditional cone-shaped packet) and ice-creams. I don't remember any soft drinks. My mum usually made diluted Ribena and put it in a flask for me to bring to school. I didn't like milk then. Mum always quoted one Angelina Lee (my classmate and the niece of a teacher) as a good example who drank a packet of milk after school each day. She had a milky complexion to die for. She had a thick, straight fringe and her hair was tied up partly behind, always decorated with a big blue bow. (Blue was the official colour and we were not supposed to have ribbons of any other colour.) I love seeing that bow on her hair, but how I wished that sometimes she would break the rule and wear a bright yellow ribbon... or a purple one. But I guess being the niece of a school teacher, she had to set good examples.
Angelina Lee as I remember her.

Along the left side of the tuckshop (as one entered the canteen) was the mee-siam man. Till this day, I think he still sold the best mee siam. He was really skinny and someone said he had actually seen him lifted a few inches from the ground by a strong wind.

The "sweet woman" (the lady who sold sweets, keropoks and stuff) was not sweet at all. She was a grouchy woman who would sweep the coins into a tin box and then said you haven't paid her!

The kacang putih man was near the entrance to the tuckshop. My favourite was the sugar coated peanuts. But my mum said I should get the boiled chickpeas (the bright yellow ones) as they were healthier.
This was a hair clip my mum bought for me. My hair wasn't
long enough to tie up like Angelina's. But at least I could clip it in front as I
had a long fringe. Purple is my favourite colour so although it wasn't
 the school colour,  I begged mum to buy it for me.  My hair being
very fine, it kept slipping off but it remained my favourite
hair clip throughout primary school.

Next to the kacang putih man was a middle-aged lady who sold Chinese cakes -- like the sweet multi-layered otak kueh and savoury soon kueh. I loved the multi-layered cake which was made of glutinous rice and coconut milk. The purple layer was my favourite.

Once I was giddy after playing police and thief and had to sit on one of the benches at the tuckshop. I was rescued by the "kueh lady" who rubbed Tiger oil on my forehead and pinching my cheeks furiously. I ended up smelling of kueh and Tiger oil. My teacher would call my mum to come and take me home. This was a rather complicated affair as we had no telephone then and they had to call my neighbour who happened to be a Chinese teacher at the school (so they had the number). Nobody would be in at my neighbour's place of course, except their maid, who would then have to shout for my mum from across the fence. I am not sure why, but I had quite a bit of giddy spells if I ran too hard. So this would take place rather often -- with me taken into the common room and given a hot Milo while waiting for mum to come.

The Common Room

We students held the Common Room with awe. You were either summoned there to "see teacher" (remember the words "See Me" at the bottom of the page of your exercise book) -- or to carry books that have been marked back to the classroom -- or to buy lunch for a teacher. I think the serious cases were those when one got whacked by the discipline master in the Common Room. There was no public canning but I believe some really mischievous boys got caned in the room (for stealing or fighting for example). The less serious cases received one or two strokes on the palm.

Talking about exercise books, teachers made quite an occasion of giving out marked books. One teacher would call the name of the students one by one, from the books neatly piled on her table. Those who did not do well would have their books flung onto the floor. Once or twice, I had mine flung onto the floor (usually for Maths exercises). After a while, there was quite a big heap on the floor and one had to look for a while before finding one's book.

Mental Sums

 I was terrible at Maths and still is. Those days we had "mental sums" tests. They were horrible -- you need  to quickly work out answers to questions like:

1) What's the area of the box measuring 4 inches by 2.5 inches (complications came in when there were decimals...)
2) If one car is travelling at the speed of 40 miles per hour, how long will it take to reach destination which is 5 miles from home?
3) How many legs would five dogs have....

No papers were given for your calculations as they were supposed to be done mentally. I used to quickly scribble the numbers on my ruler before I forget and then worked out the answers... Still I could get marks like zero upon 10 for mental sums. It had to do with my state of anxiety and jitters which made my memory go completely blank... did the teacher asked for the number of legs for five or nine dogs? Before I could work out anything, the teacher had gone on to the next question. How did anyone manage to get 10 upon 10?

Teddy bear, teddy bear, turn around

Skipping -- there were a few chants to accompany the fun. One of them went like this (with two swinging the ropes and one skipping):

Teddy bear, teddy bear, turn around
Teddy bear, teddy bear, touch the ground
Teddy bear, teddy bear, off you go...

Another one (good for cross-hand skipping):

Mother, father, I am sick,
Call for the doctor, quick, quick, quick

PE (Physical Exercise)

The field that separated our school from Serangoon Garden North School became a muddy wading pool when it rained too hard -- with waters from the nearby canal overflowing rapidly into the field. There were stories of an unfortunate old woman slipping into the canal during floods and carried by the swirling waters along the length of Kensington Park Road to goodness knows where. We were warned not to go near the canals when it rained.

It took some time for the waters to subside and when it did, we continued our PE lessons in the field. But it was terrible as our white canvas shoes became muddy and soaked. If you slipped and fell on the grass, it could be a really yucky experience.

We wore blue PE shorts or bloomers -- roomy shorts which were gathered at the legs like what Shakespearean characters wore on the stage with tights.

Besides jumping over hurdles which I hated, there were all sorts of race invented by the PE teachers -- for example, forming into teams and racing by skipping on a rattan hula hoop. Or, having two or three rubber hoops balanced on your head.

We were formed into various teams. Those days, teams were named simply according to colours. I have belonged to the Green team since primary two (I think). When I was in Primary 3, the team won at a sports competition and we each received a pencil box. I could still remember this unique pencil box. It had a translucent white lid and a pale blue bottom. The lid had alphabets cut out on it so that you could use it to trace alphabets onto your drawings. The box was filled with a dozen of pencils with nibs sharpened so perfectly that no sharpeners could ever match the standard.


I had my first uniform made by a tailor who owned a shop along Kensington Park Road. She swore to my mum that she knew how a Serangoon Garden South School uniform should look. But it turned out terribly wrong. First, the pinafore colour was a cobalt blue. Wrong! It had a gored skirt instead of box pleats. Wrong!

And, it was way too big and long. I was a pint size Primary 1 kid and was totally lost inside the uniform. The collars of the white shirt was wrong too. It had rounded corners when they should be sharp. And for Serangoon Garden South School, the collar was unique because it didn't have a "back" at the neck. There were just two triangular flaps in front. I also had to sew the emblem of the school onto the pinafore myself. There were some colour coding in the emblem to signify either "afternoon" or "morning" school and I think my mum got the wrong cloth emblem for me to sew on. Later on, the cloth emblem became a metal badge which we could pin onto our pinafore.

I had to live in the wrong uniform till I outgrew it some time in Primary Two. And still, the tailor hadn't got it fully right. I think I finally had the right colour, size, pleats and all in Primary 5. I was so happy with it as I got the box pleats that I liked so much. I got to wear the uniform for a little longer when I got into secondary school waiting for my new uniform to be completed.

My sad experience with uniforms started all over again when I hopped into my new secondary school uniform which was a green skirt with inverted pleats and a white shirt (and a compulsory necktie even for those who were not prefects) -- but that's another story.

Goodbye Cannas... and school bags

The good old school bag that is good for sitting
and rocking on while waiting.
Yellow cannas filled the garden at the gateway to the school. There were other plants there too such as fruit trees and lilies. But cannas were what we remember most because of their brilliant colours of yellow, red, and hybrid ones with bright splashes of orange on the yellow petals.

We only entered the garden sometimes during Nature Study. Other times, I would be staring at the flowers at a little distance, from the school porch, waiting for my mum to take me home in the afternoon. While waiting, I would see the deputy principal of Serangoon Garden North School whizzing by on her bicycle (she taught in the afternoon session while I attended the morning session). She always had a bright scarf tied on her head to keep her hair tidy. She happened to be the mother of one of my classmates too -- a very studious tall girl with very short jet black hair. Her lunch was just a box of plain biscuits (those long ones shaped like cigars) packed by her principal mother -- and a vacuum flask of plain water. Apparently, frugality was actively practised in her family.

I would also see one of my teachers' dad coming in his little pale blue Fiat to pick up his son, our Primary 5 teacher. This was a favourite teacher of mine because he always had compliments for my compositions -- except for once when I wrote about caves at Changi and he commented on my exercise book that there were no caves at Changi Point. My brother was very vexed over this comment and questioned his imagination.

I loved sitting on my school bag and rocking on it while waiting. Many of my friends also did that. Mum said she would not buy me another bag if I kept sitting on it and breaking it before its time was due. Buying a new bag at the Thursday Pasar Malam (Malay for night market, usually held along Lorong Chuan for residents of Serangoon Gardens) was one of my biggest childhood pleasures. In the 60s, school kids used a bag that was like a mini trunk that could be open by clicking two buckles.

The smell of a new bag when you open it... the feel of the cloth lining inside... and the new elasticity of the pocket on the inner side of the lid (where you can keep your time table)... The bright silver buckles as compared to the rusted ones of your old bag... The excitement of choosing a new design can be too much -- they are invariably in checked design, but the combination of colours could drive you to seventh heaven.

The excitement of buying a new school bag can only be seconded by buying a new Oxford box of set squares, wooden 6-inch ruler, compass, dividers etc. Ranking 3rd for me, a new box of Staedtler Luna colour pencils -- with that inimitable half moon and a sailing boat on a dark blue box. Nothing like using a new box of colour pencils with killer tips.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Gemmill Lane's carvers

Gemmill Lane today. Picture: 2013.
Figurine of Le- Cha, carved at Say Tian Hng
which used to be at Gemmill Lane.
THE "god makers" worked very hard into the night -- a little glow of activity in the darkness along Gemmill Lane as the wood carvers chiseled at their blocks from which images of Chinese deities would emerge. An entire pantheon of deities from Chinese folklore and mythology filled the shop -- their beady eyes looking from the glass windows into the busy traffic outside.

There used to be two of such shops run by brothers. One at Gemmill Lane and the other at Club Street. The one at Club Street, "Say Tian Kok" was started by the father since the pre-war days, continuing the trade started by their grandfather in Quemoy. When the father died, the sons took over the business. The younger brother continued to man the original shop while the elder brother, Ng Tian Sang, having picked up the art of carving since he was 12, opened his own shop with the signboard "Say Tian Hng" at Gemmlll Lane.

Redevelopment at Gemmill Lane must have started around the late 1990s. Both Club Street and Gemmill Lane are now lined with clubs and eateries -- much blogged about and highly rated -- food good enough for the gods you may say.

A Google search yielded a Say Tian Hng Buddha shop at 35, Neil Road. I am not sure whether it is run by members of the Ng family. Will check it out soon.

Tales from the carver's wood

Business for the Ng brothers was good, often receiving wholesale orders from kampongs and temples when they required idols of their clans' god. The god overseeing the welfare of various clans take on the surname of the clans. For example, for Goh clans, it would be "Goh Yuan Suay" (yuan sua meaning emperor).

An image, about 10 inches tall, can fetch up to $300.  The idols were made from camphor or sandal wood imported from Malaysia and Thailand. Ng preferred  to work with sandal wood as it is harder and more durable. The remaining bits and pieces were made into joss sticks. The sap from camphor wood made his fingers itch, he said.

The wooden sculpture is coated with "mian ji" a thin, porous soft paper. One of two layers of very diluted plaster are then painted over the carving, to ensure that minute cracks are filled and rough surfaces smoothed. Intricate patterns such as folds of robes and clothes are then added. A viscous mixture of black powder with adhesive quality is  beaten thin and pliable with a wooden board and then rolled into thin strands which are stuck onto the carvings in the design required. Thin foils of gold may also be pasted over to make a dazzling robe for the deity. You hear of idols being stolen from temples? The gold melted down from their robes were probably the target.

Wealth bringer? 

The "Lung Huan Tee Ju" or the Land God is depicted holding a white stick, a symbol of mourning for his father. Ng did not like to carve this idol as he thought it was bad luck -- but there seemed to be some demand for this deity as it was believed that he brings wealth to those who have his idol at home. When this deity was a mortal, he was a spoilt and pampered lad, indulging in vice and frequenting the brothels. One day, he was summoned home from the brothel as his father was dying. When his father died, he had to be forced into mourning clothes and dragged to the wake.  After the wake, he hared back to the brothel, still in his mourning clothes. (This doesn't sound at all like a moral tale to me, unlike the many I have heard and read about in Chinese mythology... Perhaps I didn't get the complete story. The son could have repented and when he became a deity, held the white stick as a mark of repentance. But this is my own conjecture.)

Monkey God holding a peach.
According to the story, he created
 havoc in the heavenly garden,
 stealing the peach of longevity.

Ancestral tablets

Ng also made ancestral tablets, and he has this tale to tell:

In ancient China, there lived a very wayward son by the name of Ting Lang. He left home after a furious quarrel with his mother. However he had a change of heart and returned home. The mother, thinking that he had come to kill her, was so grieved that she jumped into a well. Ting Lang was brokenhearted. A piece of wood surfaced from the well, but he could not find the body of his mother. Taking the piece of wood, he engraved his mother's name on it and placed it on the altar in his house for remembrance.

Mountain God

This deity "San Tei Kung" is carved sitting on a boulder, one leg resting on a turtle and the other on a snake. He has a fierce red mien, jet black hair and beard. When he decided to become a saint, he disembowelled himself (to indicate his sincerity). The snake and turtle represent his entrails.

Monkey God

Known in dialet as "Ji Tian Da Seng", he is usually carved with a big peach in his hand, or with the right hand shielding his eyes (the better to look out for demons and spirits). In the legend, Journey to the West, he protected and escorted the Monk to look for the holy scripture -- their journey fraught with dangers as they encountered all sorts of spirits. 

This issue of the Citizen with the cover story on the idol makers at Gemmill Lane, was published in May 1978. The fortnightly magazine by the People's Association sold for 30 cents then. My days as a reporter started when I joined the publication in 1978.  The god makers at Gemmill Lane was one of my first major assignments, after following my seniors around for a couple of weeks. The consultant editor was Jackie Sam. I am grateful to Jackie for assigning me stories that took me to forests, islands, kampungs and temples. Am happiest interviewing ordinary people learning about their lives and places they had worked and lived in -- many of these places are no longer around or not what they used to be.  I am also extremely grateful to Jackie for allowing us to try our hands at layout. My first job in this area was to "Letraset" my by-line which took me about an hour.  Even going to the typesetters was fun. We did our own paste-up and urgent trips to the typesetters as well as the printers were often necessary as we discovered typos and slip-outs in our proofreading. We would arrive at their offices like whirlwind, with cutters, cow gum and white-outs ready to do on-the-spot changes.  Missing full-stops could be added with a dot from the technical pen, nib size 0.1? There was a printer who would say "ho lai lor!" whenever he saw us. The Hokkien translated means "here comes the rain!. Guess we have been raining on his parade a little too often. But he became our good friend, and even let us use his light box for last minute changes. I think his name is Philip, the son of the boss of the printing company. I wonder if he still runs a printing company....

Monday, 1 April 2013

Sultan Gate of the 80s

Young mason at work at Sultan Gate. Picture: November 1982. Unfortunately, I seem to have only this picture for the story on Sultan Gate. The contact print for this story has gone missing -- so much for reproducing the pictures from it with my Fujifilm like what I did for the other stories on disappearing places in Singapore.

Story written in 1982 for a series on disappearing places, for The Singapore Monitor (1982 to 1985):

A HOT afternoon. At a hole-in-the-wall shop, a barber is holding up the nose of a customer to give the area above his upper lip, a clean shave. The customer has dozed off.

The Istana of the Sultan of Johore at the end of Sultan Gate is a sleepy hollow in the afternoon. The palace (built between 1836 and 1843), is believed to have been commissioned by Sultan Allie. It houses a "kampung" of some 200 families -- descendants of the royal family and households. (Today, it has been carefully restored as the Malay Heritage Centre, picture below.)
The istana at Kampong Glam that was restored and became the Malay Heritage Centre of today, serene and beautiful. Picture taken in April, 2013.

Accompanying strains of "Waltzing Maltida" from on an organ coming from one of the old shophouses at Aliwal Street, the neighbouring lane, is the "boing, boing, boing" of the blacksmiths. They keep hammering on their iron, a fiery charcoal furnace roaring beside them.
Aliwal Street. Picture: April, 2013.

On a weekday, Sultan Gate is still a little bit of a sleepy hollow in the afternoon. Picture: April, 2013.

For 100 years or so, hammers have sounded at Sultan Gate. Their toil gave the street its native name "Da Tieh Jel" or "Street of Blacksmiths. There are now about 10 of them lining the lane. Most of them are third-generation blacksmiths.

"My grandfather was a blacksmith in Victoria Street. Then my father took over and moved to Sultan Gate. He acquired the shop from another blacksmith who went back to China," Mr Lai Nam Chen, 53, said.

Mr Lai has been running the workshop singled-handedly for the past 30 years, since his father died. None of his children had wanted to continue with the work. But they made up for it by studying very hard -- two are completing their university education, two have graduated and one is going in soon.
Part of Sultan Gate today. Picture: 2013.

"In my time, we all helped with the work. There were six of us. I am number three in the family. We used to live upstairs then, above the workshop. You do not need much skill in this work. All you need is strength," Mr Lai recalled.

Now, he caters mostly for construction contractors. But business is not half as good as before because of the modern metal industry. Already one of two blacksmiths along the street has packed up.

"We will have to move soon. But we don't know exactly when. The landowner has told us that he wants to develop the place," he said.

He only had to pay $40 per month for rent of the working place. He lives with his family at Kim Keat.

There is also a mason in Sultan Gate. There used to be two before but one has closed down, leaving old tombstones, stone mills (for grinding soya bean to make tofu) and boulders lying in a heap at the site, next to a store house.

The surviving mason, Mr Ng Meng Soon, 28, and his dad run the business left behind by their grandfather. "If not for the making of marble tablets for columbariums and a few Malay tombstones, we would have to close shop too," he said.

To keep costs down, they get their granite from demolition sites. They buy them at $200 per lorry-load. An alternative is getting old tombstones from exhumed cemeteries.

At the front of the Ngs' house, a wood and zinc affair, are two granite structures (called stone drums in Chinese -- carved in the shape of a drum supported by an intricately carved pedestal. They were retrieved from an old clan association at Cecil Street, said to be over 100 years old. Father and son are waiting to sell them as antiques. There is also a splendid marble tombstone from an old graveyard at Bedok.

"Before we were not allowed to use any nail to reinforce our house because it was considered a temporary shelter. Since we could not nail the zinc roof down, we had to rest boulders over it, so that it would not go askew or fall off. Our house was lucky to have survived the Japanese bombing. It was quite bad. A 50-lb bomb landed not far from us. A public water-stand outside our front door was destroyed.  A girl washing clothes there had her arm blown off.  If you look carefully, you can find that some of the houses along this lane have dents on them. They were caused by the bombing," said Bee Ba, 55, Meng Soon's father.

The Ngs have not been told to leave yet and have not started worrying. They continue to knock at their stones below a shady tree. They are very proud of this tree -- it is the only one of its kind around the place. They planted it 15 years ago as a pointer to their house.

"It fruits without flowering, that's why it is called the "wu hua guo" (no flower fruit) in Chinese. It bears fruits the whole year round. Only trouble is that the soil here is too dry and the fruits do not ripen. They are supposed to be very sweet," Meng Soon said.
After note: Redevelopment of the area came in the 1990s. 
The Sultan Mosque (above) and the Malabar Mosque (below),  both are in the nearby vicinity. Pictures: 2013.