Saturday 25 July 2020

Bugs and other beasties

My father recalls the many bugs and beasties which could be found in Singapore and Malaya at the time:

'Mosquitoes were an absolute menace. They loved the fresh British meat and the whiter you were, the tastier. For the first month or two, I was bitten to bits. Mosquito coils were a blessing - a slow burning chemical compound which killed any mozzies that came close.
There were ants of all shapes and sizes and some of them could give you a nasty nip. The thing that all ants seem to have in common is their sheer industry. Any crumbs or other tit-bits which were dropped were immediately carried off. If the object was too big, they joined forces and carried it together. If there were obstacles in their way, they went around them or over them or, if it was lying on one of their main thoroughfares, they carried it out of their way. One small boy, I recall, delighted in squashing a column of ants climbing up a wall with the heel of his hand. Then, before his mother could stop him, he licked them off.
As soon as it got dark, the crickets would start their chirping making a continuous noise all night. These were accompanied by deep, resounding croaks from the frogs and toads who resided in the monsoon drains. Chit-chats, small lizards, ran up and down the walls eating moths, ants or any other insect that they could get hold of.
Cockroaches thrived in abundance but we seldom saw one indoors - perhaps this was thanks to the Amah who quickly dispatched them with her bare feet. We had a reel to reel tape recorder which we brought back home. When it eventually broke down, I took it to bits to try and fix it. Inside was a huge Bombay runner, quite dead.
The monkeys in the Botanical Gardens will be remembered by all who visited. We loved feeding them and they roamed freely throughout the grounds. I made the mistake of leaving the car window open and one of the cheeky imps repaid me for the bananas I gave him by leaving a deposit on my seat!
Hornets were common. We had a huge nest of them in our workshop in the Naval Base. We didn't bother them and they didn't bother us. However, one day an Australian engineering officer was driving along Woodlands Road. As he passed our dockyard area, a hornet flew straight up the leg of his shorts. He swerved off the road and knocked down a street sign. Fortunately, he was unhurt and not even stung.
There were also other creatures in our Naval Base. A huge monitor lizard lived under the jetty. I never saw this lizard clearly because as soon as he heard a noise, or felt the ground vibrate, he would crash away into the undergrowth. It must have been three feet long at least. They are carnivorous but are no problem to people.
A friend of mine and his workforce were clearing an area of land close to our workshop one day. As they moved a couple of empty oil drums, they came upon a King Cobra and its nest of young. Fortunately, no-one was bitten. There are about forty different types of snake in Singapore. About six of these are dangerous notably the King Cobra and the Black Cobra.
We had a snake indoors one day when I was at work. It was killed by the chap next door after my wife ran for help. I took it into work to try and get it identified with no real success. My colleague Poon said that it wouldn't harm you unless you were ill or had a heart condition. I wasn't much the wiser. Tales abounded about pythons coming ashore from merchant ships and being found after swallowing a dog.
Who could forget the huge, colourful moths at the Amah's markets up Bukit Timah Road? They were attracted by the oil lamps which lit up the stalls. Much bigger than our UK butterflies, they were lovely to see. Unfortunately, the oil lamps attracted other nocturnal visitors, many of which would bite you.'

(These excerpts come from my book 'More Memories of Singapore and Malaya')

Saturday 18 July 2020

Happy days in Singapore and Malaya in the 1960s

When I was putting together my book Memories of Singapore and Malaya in 2007, I asked my mother to write down her memories of our time there in the 1960s. I should mention that both my father and brother are called Alan:

'The weather was very hot and humid most of the time. When the Monsoon season came, it was heaven! We use to stand out in the rain splashing around just to cool down. The Amah thought we were mad as she was so cold.
The first week out there, I had Alan and Derek with me and we saw what looked like a float for a carnival. It was very colourful, covered in flowers and pictures with lots of singing and chanting and dancing around. I picked Derek up to see it and took Alan's hand, and said, 'Let's watch the parade!'.
We were enjoying it until someone said, 'You're not watching a parade - it's a funeral!'
We bought a Triumph Herald car which was white with a red stripe, SP 3040, from Hong Heng's in Singapore. We kept it for the three years we were there. Before that we hired a Toyota to go to Penang, it must have been one of their first models. Alan's knees almost touched the steering wheel and it had no petrol gauge. We never knew when we were going to run out!

We were never burgled but this happened to a few people. We had windows, with fancy steel bars, which meant you could leave them open at night but nobody could get in. However, the burglars would get a long bamboo pole, attach a hook to the end and put it through the slats and hook trousers to take money from them! Any small items that could be hooked disappeared!
The house opposite was owned by a Mr Lee and family. He had two wives, an older one and a younger one. He asked me over one night and I met Tunka Abdul Rahman, the first prime minister of Malaysia.
We hired a TV and, when we had it on, the local children would sit on the gate and watch it through the open doors! I think that’s where we first saw Star Trek. The programmes were hilarious. A prize in a quiz show was described as, 'A lawn mower - just the thing for lawn mowing!'.
They also had talent shows but they all came out and sang the same song, 'I went to your wedding', which was popular at the time but we grew to hate it! On another night they would all sing, 'Fly me to the Moon' and we were wishing they would, they were terrible!
Alan would spend his pocket money on Satay sticks from a Malaya man who made them on two biscuit tins filled with hot charcoal. He carried them across his shoulders on a long pole!
We would sometimes get a taxi from JB to Singapore, it only cost a dollar, which was two shillings and four pence, in English money. It was very cheap and we travelled in a Mercedes. We'd go to Orchard Road and visit the cold store at Robinsons, just to cool down. Next, we'd visit The House Of Tang, an oriental Aladdin's Cave. It was full of camphor wood chests, carvings and all sorts of things you'd never see in England at the time. We still have a Bali wooden figure that we bought there.
We often used the Brit Club. We'd all meet up there and enjoy the facilities. It was opposite Raffles Hotel, famous for it's gin-slings and also for the famous people who went there. Not that we ever ate in there, it was too expensive! Only the famous could afford the prices! Instead, we would have a swim at the Brit Club and they served meals as well, what a lazy and enjoyable life it was!
Change Alley in Singapore was a great place for bargains. You could barter all day and still get seen off! It was still cheaper than at home and that was all part of the fun. The Amah’s Markets were great as well. We use to go to one up the Bukit Timah Road, they were very colourful at night and the lights attracted huge moths. I bought two round green chairs there for the equivalent of 5 shillings each at English prices. We brought them home and we had them for years, they lasted well.
Once through the Naval Gate, we came to Sembawang with its small interesting shops. They would make a dress the same day for $2.50, about 6 shillings in English money. They would also make the kids' sandals for school. It was also the cheapest place to have suits made. In the evenings, the outside would change and eating stalls would be set up, Nasi Goreng was our favourite!
One of our favourite trips out was at the weekends. Les Sharp, who was a diver, had the use of a boat and a crowd of us would go on a banyan to a deserted beach, taking barbeque stuff with us. We had an old parachute that we managed to drape around for shade. We had a go at water skiing which was great until you had to let go then you thought of all the 'nasties' lurking beneath and wished the boat would hurry back!
I still remember the awful smell of the Durian fruit, it was supposed to taste great but the smell put us off! All of Jalan Ah Fook didn't smell very sweet. I think it was partly to do with the market there and the heat. We named it 'Sweet Water Canal'! At night, outside the market and all the way along Jalan Ah Fook, the shopkeepers just opened up their canvas beds and slept outside their shops. They
didn't seem to suffer from insect bites like the rest of us. I think they had them trained to just bite the foreigners!
We had three wonderful years there. We could have stayed longer but wanted to get back. As soon as we were hit by bad weather and icy cold wind when we returned, we all just wanted to go back!'

Wednesday 15 July 2020

Eating out in Singapore in the 1960s

When I was putting together my book More Memories of Singapore and Malaya several years ago, my father recalled eating out in Singapore in the 1960s:

'One of the pleasant benefits of the upheaval of moving to Singapore was being able to eat out more. There was a huge variety of foods from all corners of the world - Malaysian, Singaporean, Thai, Indian, Chinese, French and even English if you were hard up. Nowadays, all of these different dishes are fairly commonplace but I doubt that any of them have the original flavours and spices that you found in Singapore and Johore Bahru. Our favourite eating place had to be George's Steak House in
Johore Bahru. During our time there, I must have worked my way through the whole menu! There were no steaks that I didn't try including fillet mignon, chateaubriand, fillet steak and carpetbaggers to mention a few. Then there was Lobster Thermidor, sweet and sour prawns and sweet and sour pork. We tried many times to get the sweet and sour recipes without success. I suspect they simply didn't understand us. Their curries were terrific and the curry on a Sunday lunchtime was out of this world. After being up at the Mess to the open-air cinema, we would call in for a barbecue outside the hotel in the garden. It seemed like everything it was possible to barbecue ended up on your plate. The only problem with the barbecue is while you enjoyed your food, the mozzies made a meal of you! Of course, all of these meals had to be washed down with copious amounts of Tiger Beer! The ladies seemed to prefer a Tom or a John Collins. Well, in such a warm climate, you had to make sure that you didn't get dehydrated!
The food everywhere had to be tasted to be believed. As always, Chinese food was always a front runner. Chinese New Year was celebrated in the Senior Rates Mess. Apart from the usual band, dance, raffle and so on, there was a ten-course meal. It sounds far too much to eat but over the evening, with frequent intervals for dancing or simply talking and joking, it was surprising how much you ate. I remember that three of the courses were different soups. One was bird's nest soup. I didn't like the look of it and didn't try it. The second was shark's fin soup. Again, I was a coward. The third was chicken soup. I've never been a fan of chicken soup but this one was really nice. Each soup was served in a tureen with a ladle and we helped ourselves. Everyone was enjoying it until a friend dug deep with the ladle and came up with a chicken foot!
Food stalls cropped up everywhere in the city. The tables and chairs were very basic and placed on the sidewalk or anywhere convenient. After making your choice, the food would be cooked adjacent to your table with flames and smells erupting from the fires and pans. I don't remember having anything I didn't like.
In town for the night, the ladies usually had a Singapore Sling - a mixture of gin, cherry brandy, cointreau and soda. A lethal mix! The main bar was run by Lingha. He was a friendly bloke, Chinese and very well made. He usually wore shorts that were very large and flapped around his legs. I'm sure that he must have been the inspiration for that Eric Morecambe sketch. He always rode a scooter. Not only did he ride his scooter to and from work, he also made 10am deliveries to all of the Malaysian Naval base. He would chug-chug in, wearing his voluminous shorts and flip flops, with many boxes perched precariously on the back. His curry puffs were
legendary. On nights when I was on duty, he would bring in my supper - usually Nasi Goreng and prawns wrapped in a banana leaf.
The prawns were huge, the Nasi Goreng delicious and the Tiger Beer wasn't bad either!'

Sunday 5 July 2020

My Dad's posting to Singapore in 1959

Years before we all went to Singapore and Malaya as a family in 1965, my Dad travelled to the country with the Navy on HMS Centaur in 1959. He wrote about his experiences in my book Memories of Singapore and Malaya:

'My first visit to Singapore was in September 1959. How long ago it seems! I was 23 years old and wide open to new experiences. I arrived there on board HMS Centaur which was an aircraft carrier. The ship was commissioned on the 3rd December 1958. She was 737 feet long with a beam of 128 feet. She carried 1,637 men which included the air squadrons. Between September 1958 and April 1960, she steamed 80,916 nautical miles and used 62,000 tons of fuel oil. Aircraft landed on her deck 7805 times. I promise no more statistics! The ship sailed through the Med. After the Suez Canal, our route took in Aden, Karachi, Cochin, Trincomalee and then Singapore. The ship had got hotter and more uncomfortable as we travelled further and further eastwards. When there was no flying taking place, everyone took the slightest opportunity to get on the flight deck. The ship's movement caused a welcome breeze. Hours could be spent in the relative coolness watching all shapes and sizes of sea snakes and jellyfish drifting by. The many dolphins swimming effortlessly alongside and the flying fish skimming the surface were enthralling. Nevertheless, the heat on board was relentless, so when we were told we would be victualled in HMS Terror, during the docking period, it was a blessed relief! The ship was taken into King George V dry dock. She was an impressive spectacle high and dry in the glorious sunshine.
The accommodation at HMS Terror was on several levels with each level having lovely cool balconies. We spent hours there writing letters home, chatting and playing cards etc. A short walk away was a swimming pool. Tiger Beer flowed like water. After life on board, this was just about paradise. Sembawang Village was close by with its duty free shops and bars. Cameras, watches, binoculars and all the usual was on offer at good prices. However, we were more fascinated with the toy shops. There were toys for sale that you couldn't find in the UK. We would have a good look at them all and soon the floor of the shop would be covered in toys, all battery operated including aeroplanes, robots, telephones and all sorts of gadgets. While we made our selections, we would be given a glass of Tiger Beer. The shopkeepers knew how to keep a customer happy. As with all of the local people, they were very polite, courteous and friendly. After a bit of bartering, our presents were wrapped up and ready for the kids back home. Our visits to Singapore City itself were limited. We did have to work sometimes and our pay in those days was pretty poor. Nevertheless, Tiger Balm Gardens was a must to visit. The other attraction in town was the Britannia Club which was solely for service personnel. It had a magnificent swimming pool and restaurants and was situated across the road from the famous Raffles Hotel. We spent many a happy hour looking around the town and then relaxing in the club. I recall taking a ride in a trishaw. A car clipped the side of it and we were dumped unceremoniously into the road as it tipped over. All the locals seemed to find it hilarious and it was just as well that nobody was hurt. The trishaw was a bit bent and, to rub salt into the wounds, the driver expected a tip! The aircraft squadrons had flown ashore before we docked and spent time at RAF Seletar and RAF Butterworth. Any rest and relaxation they got was well earned as their working days were filled with danger. We lost several helicopters and planes during the commission and sadly, some of the pilots. A ship of this size was like a small village and any tragedy touched us all.
On the 3rd October, we spent a weekend at Pulau Tioman which is situated off the east coast of Malaysia. It was my idea of a perfect tropical island with golden sands bleached by the sun and crystal clear blue water. It was completely uninhabited or so it seemed. We were landed by one of the ships' boats. The palm trees bent out towards the sea at such an angle that you could almost walk up the trunks. One of the sailors climbed up and started trying to knock down the coconuts. At this point, a native came out of the jungle and shouted,' Hey Jack! Leave my bloody coconuts alone!' He came from a tin hut which was just behind the tree line. All around the hut were the rotting husks of coconuts. He had an ample supply of coca-cola which he sold to anyone interested. I cannot imagine who he would sell to normally as we never saw another soul all of the time we were there. We had a wonderful day. I had flippers, mask and a spear gun. The waters were alive with fish of every colour and shape and the coral was spectacular. I caught several crayfish.
Back on board, at night, we bribed the chief chef with a tot of rum to cook them for us. They were
delicious with a can or two of ice cold beer. The ship sailed on from there to Hong Kong, Japan and all of the major ports of Australia. We returned to Singapore in 1960 but not without mishap. We came alongside too quickly and crunched the dockyard wall and smashed a lamppost. The port anchor was huge and the shock of the impact shook it free. It landed on the jetty with a terrific thump. I needed a haircut while we were in the harbour and there was a barber's shop in HMS Terror. I found out when I arrived that the barber was in fact a young Chinese girl. In those days, there were not any female barbers, so it was a bit of a shock. Nevertheless, I was soon in the chair with her clipping away in a competent manner. The next thing I knew, she was clipping away inside my ears and before I could stop her, the scissors were up my nose! I've had trims before but never one in so many places. We left Singapore for the last time on the 4th February 1960 and finally arrived home in Plymouth on the 26th April 1960. We had been away for 3 days short of a year. I never dreamt that five years later I would return with my family and live there for three wonderful years.'