Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Being Called Up For National Service

It was early 1955 while I was in Sec 2 (known as Standard 7 then) that my school was informed to send all pupils of the age 18 to register for National Service. So one fine morning, Bro Vincent drove about five or six of us of the right age to Beach Road to the Singapore Volunteer Corp (SVC) HQ to get us registered for National Service. The notice would come later.

The Notice
At around May 1955, the letter from HQ was sent to me to report for formal registration and training. At the time, we were still under British Rule though we had our our elected chief minister and assembly men. To train under the SVC - a British oriented regiment - was like joining the British army, and we Chinese hated it so. There were suggestions that I should go back to China to avoid being a British soldier, so a struggle within me started to evolve. I felt lost.

I didn't want to be regarded as a British soldier. All my elder brothers agreed that I should go back to China. My parents, especially my father, was not with them. He did not want me to leave the family and go to China where the future was so uncertain. He wanted me to stay and turn up for National Service training. That made me even more confused.

But someone had to make a decision and my father did. I obeyed him and so turned up for enrolment.

This was a great change in my life and it affected my school performance. My form teacher, Rev Bro Paul Goh Seng Chan noticed the change in me. He saw me personally and after knowing my problems, gave me a lot of advice and encouragement.

My Problem
My NS training was like this: Twice a week - Tuesdays and Thursdays from 5pm to 7pm. Every month, there was a weekend in-camp training from Friday night to Sunday noon.

On top of that, there was an annual camp lasting two weeks at the end of the year. So, at the start, for every Tuesday and Thursday, I would rush home to my house in Lim Chu Kang, change into army uniform and cycle that two kilometres to the bus terminal at Thong Hoe village. I then take a bus to Queen Street terminus, change to a Tay Koh Yat bus to Beach Road and then walk to SVC HQ at Beach Road where we would start our training.

The total journey time to go home and rush to SVC HQ took me three hours.  Training ended at 7pm. By the time we were dismissed, it was half an hour later. My journey home took me another 1 to 1.5 hrs to 2 hrs. By the time I was settled to do my homework, it was about 10pm and I would be usually dead tired.

The following day in school, I was often tired and dozed off at the end of the day. As a result, although I topped my class in Term 1 before all that NS training started, I was 4th in Term 2 and 7th after the final exams. This was what shocked my form teacher Rev Bro Paul.

Suspected Girl Trouble
Rev Bro Paul interviewed me to find out the cause.

He must have thought I was growing up and was developing too much of an interest in the opposite sex. First, he gave me a book on decency. I remember that it was about parts of a female body which were very sensitive topics to growing up boys like me. He advised me to behave decently towards the opposite sex. But that was not my problem actually.

Then during the Term 2 exam, there was a composition title with the words "The Most Unforgettable Event In My Life". Without hesitation, I zeroed in on the question and revealed the terrible experience I went through during the initial stage of my NS to the added problem of my then situation, namely, the extra time I had to spend attending the NS training twice a week. I was surprised that I scored high marks for the essay! It also prompted Rev Bro Paul to give a talk on NS to the class, stressing the importance of us Singaporeans being trained to protect our country.

The Solution
One afternoon, he spoke to me in a kind of interview or couselling way, first stressing on the duty as a citizen. Then he proposed that during my training days - instead of going all the way home to Lim Chu Kang to prepare myself for training that I should proceed to Beach Road from school. I could bring my army stuff along with my school bag. I could stay in school to study and do my homework while waiting from 1.30pm to 4.30pm. By the time I reached home late, I would not need to be doing my homework anymore!

I agreed with Rev Bro Paul that his suggestion was a good idea and decided to follow his advice. It was proper Time Management. Although it was quite troublesome for me to bring my army uniform and boots with my school bag etc., I managed to save a lot of time by doing my homework in school till 4.30pm. When that time came, I would start off for my National Service training in Beach Road.

About Pre-independent Singapore National Service
I was called up for National Service in June 1955. I was in the third batch of Singapore NS. We underwent six months of Basic Training, mastering footdrills and the handling of the 303 rifle which was about 10 lbs in weight. Training was twice a week with two-hour sessions from 5pm to 7pm. After six months, we had a Passing Out Parade, which meant we had passed our BT. We were then posted to different units. There wasn't a Commando unit at the time so I joined the Infantry or 'foot soldiers'. Training was reduced to once a week for three years.

So I passed my BT at the end of 1955 and ended my NS training at the end of 1958. After that, we were put in reserve for seven years. No active Reservist training for us. We just had to report back annually for address and other particulars like job description, etc. We didn't have to report after Singapore joined Malaysia in 1963. By then, my NS was all but over.

Editor's Note: The National Service Ordinance issued by the British in 1952 (but taking effect in 1954) caused a lot of unhappiness amongst the local Chinese populace. For one, many of the 18-20 yr olds were still studying (their studies being interrupted by WWII) and two, the Chinese were wondering why they had to serve the British as soldiers since they had abandoned them when the Japanese invaded. This unhappiness exploded into the famous 13th May 1954 National Service Riots, which is notable for a couple of reasons. For one, it marked the beginning of the militancy of the Chinese middle schools; two, the infiltration of the Communists into these schools to cause further outrage and riots (like the Hock Lee Bus Riots and Maria Hertogh one). More can be learnt here:

My Lasting Impression Of Rev Bro Vincent

I have a cousin who is two and a half years my senior. At the time I was struggling with my English in Jurong Primary School in the early 50s, he was attending Holy Innocent English School in the Secondary levels.

HIES was later changed to the Monfort Primary and Secondary schools. During the 1950s, a lot of the teachers there were brothers of the St Gabriel Order (the same order from which Bro Vincent hailed from).

My cousin had told me a lot about the values the Brother teachers in the school displayed: Dedication, Hard Working, Simplicity, Compassion... to name a few. When I met Bro Vincent for the first time (and also the first time I was meeting a priest), he was everything my cousin had described.

The second time I met him was when I had to go back to school to buy some more textbooks. Bro Vincent then was the director of Boys Town, principal of its English school, and also in-charge of selling textbooks. He attended to me even though he was the principal. I could not help but respect him even more.

My good impression of him grew as I became his student and later as a staff of Boys Town. He would give a listening ear to whomever turned to him with a problem.

And throughout the years I'd known him, I've never seen him lose his temper or even be angry with anyone. In my eyes, he was a real holy man, a real-life saint!

On one occasion, just after I joined BTES as a Sec 1 student, we had a problem with our literature teacher.

It was the first time we were having the subject English Literature.

Our textbook was "The Vicar of Wakefield" by Oliver Goldsmith.

Our literature teacher was a fresh Senior Cambridge Exam graduate (same as our present GCE 'O' Levels). Her first lesson was a nightmare. In person, she was an Eurasian, fair and rather pretty, but she put on a very serious and fierce look. She didn't simply look at you but stared. Her firece look was very scary to us students then.

After the class greeting, she would begin the lesson straightaway.

"Take out your Literature book and open to Chapter One. You! Read!" she would command.

During our first lesson, she pointed at one unfortunate boy and asked him to read. He was so frightened that he stammered. "Sit down!" she commanded. She pointed to another boy and said: "You! Tell me what he has read!"

The poor boy looked lost and shocked. He could not answer and had to remain standing. More boys were queried, more remained standing. Some answered, but all throughout, this teacher did not comment if the answers were right or wrong. She just randomly picked anyone and asked them to answer.

Up till then, we never had a teacher quite like that. Often, we were taught first and then asked to answer questions later. We were all shocked (and somewhat traumatised) by this. We approached our form teacher Ms Helen Chan for help. (Ms Chan later became Mrs Helen Seah.)

Ms Chan, together with Mr Seah Cheng Liang were both graduates of the then Teacher's Teaching College. They went to consult with Bro Vincent.

For the next few weeks, Bro Vincent took over the Literature periods from that fierce Ms Stewards. He made sure we could follow the lessons and understand them. Bro Vincent's teaching style created a very pleasant ambience in the class; we learned better and faster. After a few weeks, he covered the whole chapter and gave us a test. I don't remember anyone failing.

The following lesson, he brought Ms Stewards back. She was all smiles and friendly. "You must tell me if you don't understand," she'd said. Her demeanor now reflected that of Bro Vincent. How he had changed her I do not know. But I am sure it was done without any harsh words.

When one has love for Education, one has love for everyone! This is Bro Vincent, the founder of Boys Town. The man I remember most fondly.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Joining Boys' Town

As Beatty Sec Sch was so far away, my family decided to try me out for Boys Town English, which had started a secondary wing in 1953.

One fine December morning, my teacher Mr Lawrence Sia Khoon Siong (who was then living at some quarters near St Joseph Church next to BT) led me and my classmate Lim Thion Quee to BT to meet Bro Vincent in order to seek admission. We arrived with our report cards and sec sch posting slips.

In Boys Town, we met Bro Vincent on the slope leading to BT's Dormitory (the Boys' Home). He was driving a truck with a few boys on it going to perform some manual work. He stopped the truck and got off to meet us. We then told him our purpose and he looked at our documents.

After going through mine, he said: "Admitted to Std 6". As for Thion Quee's report card, Bro Vincent shook his head. Finally he said:"Ok, we will give you First Term on trial."

Upon hearing that, TQ gave out a deep sigh of relief. We then proceeded to the general office to register.

I had bought my textbooks during the December holidays and so in Jan 1954, I would start my next phase of life in Boys Town English School.

At The Crossroad Of My Education

After graduating from primary school, the next stage was to enter  a Chinese middle school (i.e a secondary school). The nearest one was Chinese High, which was about 30km from my village in Lim Chu Kang. At that time, the Chinese schools were not financially assisted by the government and hence the school fees were very high - something my parents could not afford. Also the long journey (and transport costs there-in) made it a dream not to be realised.

The next option was to join an English school.

There was Bukit Panjang English School where the Ten Mile Junction is now. It's been demolished but has since been relocated to nearby Cashew Heights. But at the time, it only admitted P1 students of age six. Overaged pupils had no chance of being accepted.

At the time during the 50s, the government had just started to build English primary schools in the rural areas. The nearest one to my village was the one in Ama Keng but it was still in construction. The one along Jurong Road was already functioning and they took in Chinese school pupils who were overaged. So, I decided to try my luck.

My first day in Jurong Primary School was like this:

I went alone with my birth cert to the school. Feeling quite lost in the school compound, I was approached by an Indian teacher who nodded his head in my direction as if to ask can I help you?

I thrusted my birth cert at him and presumed that he knew I wanted to join the school.

He then asked me: "Can you speak English?"

I said a little, sir, as I'ved been coached in my Chinese school.

Without another word, he signalled me to follow him. He took me to his class.

As we entered, someone called out new boy! New boy!

The teacher then took out an English Reader and asked me to read. I jerked along, softening or skipping words I did not know. After a few lines, he said: "Ok. Go and sit down."

Next period, another teacher came in. That same boy who had shouted new boy pointed at me and said, "Sir, new boy!"

I found out later that he was called Wong Siew Chye. He was from another English school and could speak English better than me.

This new teacher walked up to me and asked, "What is your name?"

I stood up and answered (quite clearly): "My name is Ang Leng Sze." He went on:

"How old are you?"
"Where do you live?"
"Who is your father?"

I responded clamly and correctly to all these questions. We had been drilled before by our English teacher at Kay Wah.

Finally, he said: "Thank you. You may sit down." Siew Chye leaned over and whispered: "Good, man!"

That day, I bought my first textbooks and exercise books. The textbooks were Everyday Classic Reader Book II and Oxford English Course Book II. There were no books on Geography, History, and Science. But there was a book called Nature Studies.

More than half the pupils in my class had English background or had come from an English school. The others were like me, from another P6 primary school who could hardly understand English.

I remember there was this big sized Indian teacher who came in to teach Nature Studies. I did not know what he was talking about but kept hearing the word "mosquito". I was not alone. Later, all the Chinese-educated pupils in my class would refer him as Mr Mosquito!

At the beginning, I tried my best to pay attention. But I could hardly understand what was being taught. When the rest of the class laughed, we laughed along.

My classmate, Ong Poh Siak, nudged me and asked me in Mandarin: "Ni ting de dong ma?" - meaning if could I understand. I said no.

"Then how come you laughed?" he asked. I replied that when other people laughed, we'd follow.

The days went by, and more lessons were taught.

I loved lessons in Drawing or Art, as well as Handiwork. I also loved the writing lessons - not the essay type but to copy and repeat a line neatly in our best handwriting. I scored highly or topped the class in all these subjects. Fortunately, there weren't any textbooks in History, Geography or Nature Studies or else I would have seen Greek and stars. It helped that after these lessons, the teachers would condense all contents into 10 statements. For example, a statement might read: 'The female lays eggs in water', etc.

It was within my capabilty to learn these statements by heart and fill in the blanks correctly during tests.

At end-of-year exams, it was decided to put the better students formally into a Standard 4 class. It's unfortunate that I did not make it. The weaker lot of about ten of us remained in the Special Class, then known as Special 2; it was a new special class formed. I was just below the borderline of Std 4. Here's a comparison between the Old (Standard) and New education systems.

Old System (Present System)
P1 (Pri 1)
P2 (Pri 1)
Std 1 (Pri 2)
Std 2 (Pri 3)
Std 3 (Pri 4)
Std 4 (Pri 5)
Std 5 (Pri 6)
Std 6 (Sec 1)
Std 7 (Sec 2)
Std 8 (Sec 3)
Std 9 (Sec 4)

In the final exams of 1952, another boy and I scored very high marks, leaving a big gap between us and the rest of the class. So in 1953, we were double-promoted to join the Std 5 class, which was the same year I had to sit for my Std 6 Entrance Exams. It's equivalent to the present PSLE.

I struggled very hard to study for it.

It was also the time I began to understand the story books I was reading, titles like: Children of the New Forest, Heidi Grows Up, etc. But my English composition was still very weak. The same with my grammar.

After the First Term exam, I was positioned at 12th in a class of 15. In Term 2, I progressed to 8th, then 6th in the prelims of the entrance exam.

After the Std 6 entrance exams, 12 of us qualified to go to Std 6 (Sec 1). I was posted to Beatty Secondary School, somewhere along Jalan Besar and some 18.5 miles away from my home in Lim Chu Kang! Hence, the good news of having passed my entrance exam posed another big headache. Which secondary school to go to?

Fainting In School

Though the British had returned and took control of Singapore, life was not any better for us than during the Japanese occupation. The rationing of rice and sugar was no more but we needed money to buy things. And money was hard to earn.

By this time, my dad had built a bigger and better attap house in our new estate at Neo Tiew Road, relegating our place at Cashin Estate to lesser importance. Nevertheless, my brother and I were still posted there to look after it.

Every morning, I would have every many chores to do before I could go to school.

One Monday, I left home without a proper breakfast after helping my brother to pick vegetables and feed the pigs. I just swallowed a few small bananas and cycled to school.

At school, it was Monday Assembly - Chinese-school style. It began with a flag-raising ceremony. The national flag of the Republic of China was raised, a colourful flag with a quarter at the top left in blue. On this patch was a 12-point white sun. The remainder of the flag was red in colour (see picture below).

In Chinese, we would say "Qing tian bai re man di hung."

At the time, we were Chinese settlers in a British colony and so remained Chinese and honored our motherland, which was China.

As the flag was raised, we sang the national anthem of China, which was the san ming zhu yi. After that song, our principal recited the will of Dr Sun Yat Sen. The ceremony ended with the paying of respect to the portrait of Dr Sun with three deep bows.

After this, the principal would start his long lecture, followed by the Senior Teacher and then the Discipline Master, and any teacher with something to say. At times, there would be a moral lecture on some theme of the week. The theme could be about Honesty, Helpfulness, Friendliness, etc. A Moral Student would then be picked at the end of the week as an exemplary student.

One week, I was picked as the model student for Loving Kindness as the teachers found I loved everyone and they in turn were friendly to me.

On this day, I am standing right at the front of my class in a straight line in the basketball court that is used as an Assembly Area. I feel very tired and my legs have become lighter and seem to float. All of a sudden, a thick black curtain cast itself right in front of me and I couldn't see anything any more....

The next thing I knew, everybody was calling my name, but I found it hard to reply. Slowly, I began to feel people pinching me; it was painful. I could hear them call me some more. When I answered them, they were so relieved. "He's alright now," they said.

I felt as if I had been asleep and when I opened my eyes, I saw Mr Yeh - a teacher with a weather-beaten face and one who cycled to school everyday. Around me were all my friends grateful that I had come around. My teacher asked me two questions: "Did you have enough sleep last night?" and "Did you have your breakfast?" He then gave me a cup of warm water to drink.

Later, two schoolmates from upper primary sent me home. One used his bicycle to pillion me, the other rode my bike. They then returned to school on one bike.

As my fainting case was the only major incident to happen in my school so far, I became suddenly very famous. I was known as The Boy Who Fainted, The Boy Who Nearly Died, and The Boy Who Died And Was Resurrected!

The teachers also became very concerned and would ask me if I had taken a good breakfast, how I was that day or simply to take care.

This was around 1949 when I was in Primary 5. By 1950 year end, I was ready to graduate from Kay Wah Public School. At the graduating ceremony, I was chosen to deliver a message to thank the school and my teachers for a successful education.

My form teacher, who was also my principal, was praying hard that I would not faint. The speech was written by him and I learnt it by heart.

I was a bit nervous at first but after a few sentences, I calmed down. I could tell that the principal was very pleased with my performance that day.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Singapore Under Japanese Occupation

Life for farmers in Lim Chu Kang was as usual. We just needed to work a little harder to supplement our rations with sweet potato and tapioca.

During the first year or so, food was not a problem.  At least we had those tubers to eat. And sweet potato leaves made a very good stir-fry veggie dish with dried ikan bilis (anchovy) and chilli belacan. For protein, we had frequent seafood from the marshlands and river of Sungei Buloh.

While staying and earning a living on rented land that was owned by a Jewish fella named Cashin, my father and uncle had also bought a piece of land near Neo Tiew Road, about 1km off the main Lim Chu Kang Road. My uncle occupied half of this land leaving the other half uncultivated. It was overgrown with shrubs, lallang and undergrowth.

One day, in less than a year under the Japanese, our neighbour the Toh family's plot of land caught fire. This spread to ours and burnt off all the wild shrubs unintentionally. It actually left the place ripe for tilling!

My father did not blame the Toh family for the fire but thanked them sarcastically for a job well done. He then decided to develop the place into a farming unit. He roped in one of his cousins from China, who had no family, and my mother's brother who had just arrived from China before the Japanese invaded.

Together, they built a small house with wooden planks and thatched the roof with lallang. A pigsty and a chicken coop were also erected. My two uncles were then 'posted' to work there.

My eldest brother was sent to keep an eye on things. During the day, my dad would arrive to work with my uncles and go home to Cashin Estate at night.

My eldest brother must have felt lonely looking after two adults aged forty and above because one day, he asked my father if I could accompany him. My dad agreed. I was only six years old then and my brother, thirteen.

With all  my cousins staying just next to our plot of land, I was not lonely at all. Every evening after dinner, we would play on a track road that ran by. It was seldom used so it was still covered with turfs of grass. It was like a playground to us.

One of my uncles was an martial arts expert. He taught us a thing or two about self-defence. He also trained us how to stand on our hands and 'walk' about. The training began with us learning how to stand on our heads first!

In those days, dinner was had before dark as the Japanese liked to practice emergency drills. Then all lights must be off.

At night my brother would teach me singing. In his school days, he had learnt quite a bit of anti-Japanese songs and so he taught me all he knew. Fortunately, none of the Japs ever visited us in the kampongs. I took it as a singing lesson without fully understanding what it was that I sang. Now I do.

One of the lyrics ran as follows:

(See picture below)

It translates to:

"Brothers and sisters. Listen to me carefully. Nearby our East, there is a small region (meaning Japan).
For decades, they have been building up a strong army well-known for their superiority and aim to destroy China."

I also picked up many other anti-Japanese songs which my brother had learned from school. Luckily, we were never visited by the Japanese soldiers or our heads would have been chopped off and hung at the marketplace as a grave warning to others.

Although I was of school-going age, there were no schools in the village. The Japs were also not keen to make the villagers learn their language. The premises of the old village school were being used by the sex-hungry Japanese soldiers as a comfort station.

But my three-and-a-half years were not purely wasted. My brother who taught me songs was teaching me the English alphabet as well. Both upper and lower case. He taught me numbers as well.

I also learned the Times Table by heart, and read some Chinese Readers meant for the Primary 1 standard.

All these gave me an edge over the others when I eventually went back to school for Primary 1 in 1946. I topped the class of 60-over pupils - some of them older than me.

Although I was already 10 years old, I was double promoted for two semesters and managed to finish my Primary 6 Chinese-medium school education in about 5 years.

However, I was forced to quit school for half a year because of poverty. My family couldn't afford the school fees. But my parents fough hard to get me reinstated later. Half a year on, I was back as if my schooling was never interrupted.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

The First Filmshow I Saw

It was known as dian ying (literally "electric shadows" in Mandarin) to us or the "pictures".

The ruling Japanese regiment was trying their best to win over the villagers. They announced that they were going to show us a filmshow on how their conquered Singapore.

All the villagers were suspicious of their motives. Some speculated that they were trying to lure out the young men and girls whom they would capture to fight or do hard work for them. The girls would be captured for the comfort and pleasure of the Japanese soldiers.

As it turned out, the audience were solely children and elderly men and women who accompanied them. My parents were middle-aged at the time, so they did not accompany us. My brothers and I turned up for the show with much excitement and curiosity as it was our first time going to experience something new.

The movie was shown at the wayang stage of the temple for the protection of the city, or Kuan Gong Temple.

It was a great experience for us as we were seeing a filmshow for the first time. At one scene, when an aeroplace was flying towards the audience, all the people there ducked to avoid it! The rest of the movie was about fighting. It ended with the surrender of the British Army at the Ford Factory.

Of course, at the time, I did not know what that meant. I only knew that the Japanese won and the British lost, like in a football match.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Living Under Japanese Rule

When the Japanese took over, Singapore was renamed Synonan-to. They were very fast to settle down. We in Lim Chu Kang were attended to very soon. Our area was put under the command of Regiment 10356 to control the farm products of Lim Chu Kang and Ama Keng. I still remember the Chinese wording of the unit's responsibility: Yi ling san wu liu bu tiu ya ma guan long chang (see pix below). The officer in charge was a Taiwanese officer who was quite high ranking. The villagers all addresed him as Tai Jin or da ren.

He was a very nice man very polite and soft-spoken. No one ever heard him shout nor lose his temper.

One day, the Japanese military came to see one of Lim Chu Kang's village head, a man who was a distant relative of Neo Tiew, the supreme head of Lim Chu Kang and whose immediate relatives were slaughtered cold-bloodedly by the Japanese earlier on. He had the surname Neo too, and was called Neo Hian.

When the Japs asked to see him, he was trembling with extreme fright. He thought the Japanese were going to do the same to him what they had done to the Neo Tiew family. His fear turned to relief when he realised that they were appointing him district head of Lim Chu Kang instead to take care of the villagers on behalf of the Japanese military. The Japs handed him a certificate of appointment. In his charge were 10 family-cluster heads each taking care of 10 families. Anyone who could write a bit would be appointed.

My eldest brother, who was then about 14 years old with a Chinese Primary 6 education was appointed to head a cluster of families (10). So was my uncle who had received only three years of primary education in China.

These heads were not paid. Their duty was to ensure that the members of each family were at home during the night. If someone had good reason to be away, he or she had to report to the cluster head first to obtain a permit and have details recorded down. Cluster heads reported to a district head.

After the admin network was established, the Jap military controlled all farm produce. Everything produced had to be sold to the Jap military personnel. The greatest incentive to sell to them were the additional rations of rice and sugar the farmers would get, depending on the value of the sale.

When pigs were sold to them, they were slaughtered at the village centre. The sellers were allowed to collect the blood and keep the pig inner organs. The farmers were also allowed to keep one pig for celebrating religious festivals.

In our village, except for the shortage of rice, sugar and cooking oil, life was not too bad for the farmers. We grew more sweet potatoes and tapioca to supplement the shortage of rice. Cooked rice was always mixed with 50% of sweet potatoes or tapioca. Sweet potatoes, when mixed with rice, were scrapped into small strands using a scraper so that they mixed evenly with the grains. This prevented people from scooping just the sweet potatoes off with the rice.

Due to the shortage of meat and protein type of food, we villagers became fishermen during our spare time or even at night. The Sungei Buloh area in Lim Chu Kang is still a big stretch of swampland surrounding the Sungei Buloh River that flows into the Straits of Johor. We were never alone whenever we turned up to catch prawns along the river using a sort of scoop net afixed to two criss-crossed poles (see diagram below).

The area was particularly crowded with people during low tide trying to catch prawns, fish and crabs. There was always enough to catch as the supply from the sea could not be exhausted! And thus seafood became a part of our meals almost everyday.

Moving Back To Lim Chu Kang

Meanwhile, my father and few other neighbours were planning to move back to Lim Chu Kang. By road, it was some 10 miles via Choa Chu Kang Road  and then Lim Chu Kang. But there were no means of transport available so we had to hike all the way on foot. We not only walked but had to carry all our belongings as well.

We first trekked to the junction of Woodlands Road and Choa Chu Kang Road. There was no Bukit Panjang Road then. We crossed the railway and made our way to Sungei Peng Siang. Here my father borrowed a row boat and rowed all of us in batches to Kranji River, across it and then walk across a pineapple plantation near Neo Tiew Road. A distant relative lived there. We stayed there for the night as ferrying the whole big contingent of us took my father the whole day.

My two elder brothers went back to our old home and managed to restore two of our bicycles left behind. They then used these two bicycles to help my father transport the whole lot of other stuff home, making many trips. We were glad to find that some of our chickens and hens still survived after being left alone for two months.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

The British Surrenders

Without any settler's knowledge - no newspaper, no TV or radio broadcast, we soon found out that the British, led by one General Percival walked to the nearby Ford factory with a white flag and surrendered to the Tiger of Malaya, General Yamashita.

The next day, five Japanese soldiers with a Chinese interpreter came to our community. He explained that the British had surrendered to the Japanese and that we now belonged to a new set of masters.

The Japanese soldiers all looked pleased and smiled pleasantly. The interpreter taught us how to respect the Japanese by bowing to them. He also assured us that the Japanese were nice people if we were nice to them. "It's peace time now," he said.

"War is over and you can all go home and lead a peaceful life."

A Lean Chinese New Year

It was at this Bukit Panjang place that we spent our very first lean Chinese New Year. But a butcher did manage to slaughter a pig and sell its parts to the refugees like us there. My father was fortunate enough to buy a slice. We also slaughtered a chicken. We offered these dishes to our ancestors as was our custom before having them for our reunion dinner. Though few, it was still considered a luxury at a time of war, and so we kept the dinner only to family members.

A Short-Lived Conflict Between Chinese and Indians

Not far from our enclave of 'refugees' was an Indian settlement at the nearby PWD quarters.

One day, in broad daylight, three Indian men came to our vegetable garden to steal. They had thought that nobody was around. Unfortunately for them, an old Chinese lady was just done doing her "export business" nearby in a makeshift toilet. She shouted when she saw what was happening. Some young men from our encampment heard her and came to her aid.

The Indians denied what they were doing and even said not to show off. One of them added that the Japanese would finish us Chinese off. That remark caused one of our young Chinese men to fly into rage. He was very strongly built and began raining punches on that Indian fella who was clearly not his match. He only stopped when that man fell flat to the ground. The other two Indians immediately turned on their their heels and fled, leaving their fallen comrade on the ground. I could still vividly remember them trying to leap over a two-metre wide drain in their bid to escape.

When the Indian man on the ground came to, he would have received more punishment if not for the rest who stopped that angry Chinese young man. Humiliated, he got up and limped back to his quarters which was some 1km away.

An hour later, a commotion arose as someone shouted that the Indians had returned to take revenge. They were on their way some 500m away. This galvanised everybody to grab some weapon to confront them. That same angry young Chinese took an axe. Raising it above his head, he ran fearlessly to meet the approaching Indian 'army'. His outburst must have frightened them for they looked unsure for a moment. They then turned back and ran back to where they had come from.

The other village young men ran up to that brave young Chinese to stop him from pursuing the Indians any further. This stopped the battle before it even got started. Later, to play safe, they guarded the village against outside intruders for the next few days. Fortunately, no further altercation between the races happened.

Moving Out Of The War Zone

It was one fine morning early in 1942 that we moved out of Lim Chu Kang to a distant relative's place near the forest reserve in Bukit Panjang. We managed to hire a lorry from the Soh family to do that. But the place soon turned into a colony of refugees - each family vacating their homes to seek a safe place of refuge. My father, with the help of my elder brothers, were able to build a house from timber sourced from the reserve. Within a couple of days, we were sitting in our new house.

My father and brothers also built an air-raid shelter that we Chinese called a "fang gong hao" in Mandarin.

Our new place was near the two giant water pipelines from Johor. They were exposed to the surface and we kids enjoyed running and playing along them. But soon the war was getting more and more intense. The Japanese were firing cannon shots from Johore more frequently. We kids could hear the shells swish over our heads as we played on the pipelines, and hear them explode in the distance. As a matter of fact, we would play a game guessing how soon the shells would land and explode. We would shout "bomb" each time. It never occurred to any of us that a shell might land on us. But we got a picture how that might be when a shell landed in a vegetable patch some 200m away. It made a 2m wide hole that shocked even the adults. They did not realise that all that swishing sound could result in such powerful destruction.

Afterwards, we kids stopped playing the dangerous Swishing Bomb game. Instead, each time the shelling began again, we would see who could run fastest to the nearest air-raid shelter!

Note: Did you know that the invasion of Singapore began with the landing of the Japs at Lim Chu Kang?

Photo Credit: Australian War Musuem

Being Useful To The Family

My parents, being busy farmers and pigs and poutry keepers, were very busy people. So we children were made useful in a few ways. We were given simple but tedious jobs like weeding or looking after the young chickens and chicks to protect them from preying eagles. Another task for us kids was the collection of dry twigs and branches to keep as firewood.  

At times, our father would reward us with biscuits that he had bought from the only shop in Lim Chu Kang some five kilometres away. Our greatest joy was seeing him return carrying a pyramid shaped bundle wrapped in old newspapers and tied skilfully with reed straw that served as a carrying handle. It was our happiest moment with such 'luxuries'.

One day, my dad came home with four biscuit tins! Imagine our utter surprise and joy! We, of course, wondered why and what made my father do something like that. The year was 1941, sometime in the month of Oct. It was during this time that we the residents of Lim Chu Kang were issued with a notice that war was soon upon us. Besides that, we were told that Lim Chu Kang would most likely be a war zone given that the Japanese would attack from Johor just across the Straits.

At the time, we Chinese used to say the British gave "roti" (i.e. notice) - the very same word in Malay that meant bread or biscuit. So when my dad came home with the tins of biscuits, I thought the British had given them to us. It was much later, when my dad started to stow more foodstuff away (like beehoon, rice and sugar) that I began to realise that we were actually preparing ourselves for the war.

The next thing that excited me was when my dad built an underground air raid shelter. It was fun playing and hiding underground!

Then one evening the siren signal from the RAF Tengah airbase was heard blaring out. It was to warn us that an enemy air attack was iminent. We had earlier been instructed and practised what to do in the event of something like that. All the lights had to be switched off and everybody had to take cover. My dad quickly ushered our family (all nine of us) into the air raid shelter that I was so fascinated with all that time. Not long after, we could hear airplanes approaching and the return of anti-aricraft fire. None seemed to have hit their target. Then bombs started to drop and the earth beneath us trembled. But this so-called 'war' was soon over after two hours, and the siren sounded once more. It was a long continuous blast to indicate that all is safe and that we could come out of our shelters.

Fighting Over A Blunt knife

It was in the shade that we prepared food to feed the pigs. There water hyacinth, banana stems as well as sweet potato stems with leaves that were chopped into small pieces and cooked with other ingredients like rice bran and a kind of copra cake whose oil had been extracted. We threw in the dried skin of prawns as well.

One time, my sister who was 1.5yrs older than me, was using a somewhat blunt chopper to hack at some banana stems. I was fascinated and wanted to do the same, but she refused.  She took the knife and ran away. I was angry and ran after her. After a short distance, she gave in and dropped the chopper. I don't know why I did what I did but I picked up the chopper and slashed at her. She got hurt on the head and started to bleed.

I was very scared and ran away before my farther could get at me. I ran into the rubber estate and hid myself under some bushes. Thank goodness my father did not chase after me.

I was already sorry and frightened about what I had done. I hid in the bushes for what seemed like a long time until I heard my older brother (some five years older than me) come calling. Amongst my three older brothers, I liked him best, so I responded and came out of my hiding place.

He was not only looking for me but had brought steamed sweet potatoes as well. While I was eating the sweet potatoes, he advised me to go home. I was very concerned about my sister's condition and very afraid that I had killed her!

But my brother consoled me that she was alright. It was a shallow cut as her thick hair had cushioned the impact. And thank goodness the chopper was blunt! This reduced my guilt and so I followed my second brother back.

To my surprise, I was not punished by my dad, but only got a good scolding. Years later I would learn that this was because I was my parent's favourite child.

Falling Into A Well

It was morning and my mother was busy preparing to cook food for feeding the pigs. It was a big job. She had to cook food in a specially buit container with the capacity to hold one cubic metre. She had to draw water from a nearby well to pour into the cooking container. I don't know why I was crying out for attention at the time. I kept yelling and crying. My mother just carried on with her work filling up the container and fetching more water from the well.

At one point, I remember rushing at her, missed, and fell headlong into the well. The next thing I realised was that I was wet, shocked, and frightened. But someone was holding me up. That person turned out to be my mother. She had fallen into the well with me!

Somehow my wonderful mother managed to keep the both of us afloat. She shouted at my second brother - who was eight years old then - to fetch my father who was working some 200m away in a vegetable plot. They came quickly to get the both of us out of the well. Fortunately, both of us were not hurt. I could never forget how great my mother was that day saving me like that.

My Birth

I was told that I was born in the Yio Chu Kang area at the end of Jalan Kayu Road. I checked my unnamed birth certificate and it has the address stated as Air Base Road.

My birthday is stated as '8th Jan 1936', and this has become my official birthday. However, we Chinese have another birthday that is according to our Lunar Calendar. In my case, the 8th of January 1936 corresponds with the 10th day of the 12th month in the Year of the Pig. According to traditional custom, I was already two years old after 20 days. When I checked the 100-year old Chinese Almanac Calendar against the Georgian one, the 10th day of the 12th month in the year of the Pig was the 4th of January 1936, not the 8th.

I think I know how this hiccup happened. My uncle, who was tasked to go to the police post to report my birth a few days later (probably on the 9th of January), was afraid of being reprimanded by the registration officer for being late. So he simply said I was born the day before, which was the 8th of Jan.

I didn't stay in Yio Chu Kang long. Forty days after my birth, our family moved to start a new life in Lim Chu Kang. We had to move as the British were expanding their air base in Seletar.

My earliest memory of Lim Chu Kang is that of us living in a rubber estate that belonged to a Jewish owner named Cashin. There were very few families staying in the rubber estate then. The nearest neighbour was about one kilometre away. I was three years old when I became aware of all these.

A memorable incident happened one day around that time. I was outside and bumped into a midwife who had come to deliver the birth of my younger brother who is three years younger than me. I was wearing a ragged shirt and without any shorts or pants. When I met the midwife whom we all addressed as "bee see" (my dialect for nurse), I was embarassed. To make the situation worse, this Indian bee see said in our dialect "kua lan chiao" and demonstrated with hand signs how she would go about it. When I saw that, I cried and ran for my life, or rather for my all-important 'instrument'. Kua lan chiao means cutting away your little bird (penis)!