Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Remembering Bukit Panjang Village in the 1960's And My Childhood (Part 1).

My Wooden Attap House.

As a teenager in 1960, I lived in this wooden attap house that nested beside the obliterated Bukit Panjang Wet Market and now stands the Bukit Panjang Bus Interchange. I am not sure where I was born but it must be either this house or Tekka (K.K.) Hospital. I never asked nor ever told. 

Anyway, this dilapidated dwelling housed a large family of 25 or more people under one roof and had five rooms. My parents, siblings, grandma and uncle's family lived and slept together in three rooms of the house. My astute Grandma (My Wonderfull Grandmother)rented out two spare rooms to earn income. As the eldest grandson, I had the privilege to share a room with my Grandma. But my 8 siblings cramped into a single room with my parents. My Grandpa died before I was born.

The relatively big house had an elongated hall. The floors were compacted clay without cement but it was kept clean and smooth through regular sweeping and years of pounding from footsteps. 

The two families cooked and ate independently in two separate kitchens adjacent to the main house.Water was drawn from a well in the compound for cooking, washing and drinking. For fire, my mother painstakingly collected and carried firewood from a forest ten kilometer away at Pierce Reservoir. Night lighting in the hall was from a pressure kerosene lamp and I studied under candle light in my Grandma's room.

When I was young my parents were very poor. They both worked hard to support the family of 10 children. My mom worked as a factory worker in Nanyang Shoe Factory and while my dad helped in his uncle’s bicycle shop nearby. Their incomes were barely sufficient to place two meals on the table, with no spare for her nine children education.

Paying to study in an English language school was relatively uncommon in the 1960's. Fortunately, with discreet help from my Grandma’s sales of illicit “samsu” ( an alcoholic drink ) and room rental, I enjoyed an English education, unlike all my siblings who went to a free Chinese language village school. Why "discreet"? avoid envy and fearful quarrels with uncle and aunty.

My zine roofed house.

Between my parents and my Grandmother, there was no question as to whom I admired and loved more. Through her sheer resourcefulness and saving from frugal living, my Grandma at almost 80 single-handedly paid for a complete renovation of the attap house into a cemented and zine roofed house 10 years later. Then, we had electricity but no piped water nor proper sanitary system. Bucket latrine was where we deposited our human wastes.  A night soil collector would arrive regularly, usually at night to carry the buckets of nauseating excreta to a specially designed lorry for eventual disposal. A lazy night soil collector would often secretly dispose off his work into nearby drains.

Most villagers were poor but the children were happy and carefree with no class tests, tuition or dance/music classes. After school, the first thought we had was to play in the open. Maybe then I was just a kid without worldly and adult worries.

Main Bukit Panjang Road in the 1960's

Now, please let me share with you also my memories of Bukit Panjang Village in the sixties. And to those who lived in Bukit Panjang Village at that time or is familiar with the place, maybe my recollections, experiences, thoughts and anecdotes would rekindle your fond memories of yester-years. 

A stone throw away infront of my house was a Malay kampong, a cluster of some 40 to 50 attap or zinc-roofed huts. Small in numbers but they had a relative big prayer house built in stilts with elevated wooden floors like all dwellings in the kampong. The raised floor helps to prevent damages from frequent flooding from a monsoon drain that runs along the village. As next door neighbors, their loudspeaker calls for morning and evening prayers were my wake-up and dinner time calls. And the Malays children would secretly steal long beans, green peas and sweet corns from my Grandma's small vegetable garden.

Bordering this small Malay enclave were all the Chinese families. The Chinese and Malay villagers were not close but they lived harmoniously side by side. However, it was only during the bloody racial riots in 1964 that I was terrified of their close proximity to where I stayed. Hundreds were killed during the riots and racial tension was extremely volatile. Malaysian soldiers with machine guns regularly patrolled the grounds separating the Malays kampong and Chinese villages. No violent clashes occurred between our Malays neighbors and Chinese villagers during that sad period of Singapore history.

I remember a Chinese timber merchant operated a flourishing business at the end of the Malay kampong. Every family bought their timber needs from him. My mother supplemented her income by thatching attap leaves into attap roofing panels at his enterprise. Her hands often bleed from long hours of thatching.

Bukit Panjang Police Station in the 1960's

In front of this timber merchant was the conspicuous Bukit Panjang Circle and the Police Station where the present 10 Miles Junction Malls stands. Once a month, the police station would screen a free movie in their compound for the villagers to mingle and enjoy. The station was headed by a Mr. Khosa (Superintendent of Police) who was the husband of my primary school form teacher. I remember he was sacked and jailed for involvement in running a "Chap Li-ki" (Two Number Lottery) in the village. Some short years later, many of my secondary school mates worked as policeman in this station. Jobs were scare and becoming a policeman was the best option available.

My Primary School during a sport festival.

Adjacent to the police station was my Bukit Panjang Primary School. I was academically weak in my primary school days and never passed any school exams. But annually I got automatically promoted to the next level. Many of my classmates could not even recite “A to Z” when they were at Primary 6. Children were more interested in playing home-made games like 'kasing" (tops), marbles, five-stone, flying/fighting kites or catching spiders, swimming in monsoon streams or fighting than studying. 

Then, teachers would throw books or dusters at us when we were not attentive in class and pitched our thighs at their leisure. Canning was common and so was voluntary superannuation i.e. leaving school without completing the 6 years primary course. 

We sung “God Save The Queen” in our morning assembly as Singapore was a British colony. During recess time, we drunk free powered milk from charity and our dental health was examined yearly through a mobile dental clinic.

Schooling was not mandatory and the social environment was not conducive for academic pursuit. Getting a job, trade or skill was paramount. Somehow I managed to creep into secondary level after two tries at "PSLE".

Directly across the Woodland Road of my primary school was the Bukit Paniang Child Welfare Clinic. Every child in our village passed through the maternity care of the nurses in this clinic. Our illiterate parents called the nurses...."Mi-si".... as they had difficulty pronouncing "Miss" in English. They were respected and feared as they would furiously reprimand our parents if they suspect a child had been neglected, abused or a medical instruction or appointment had been ignored. With high child mortality rate and as "insurance" at old age or extra hands at business and no TV, having 8 - 10 children in a family was the norm in those days.

With regard to the fearsome nurses, I remember the day when my mum came home with redden eyes after the nurses discovered cane marks on my younger brother arms and body. But she never learned nor reformed from that incident. Dad never bother us as he was always occupied with his opium addiction. Mum was our sole discipline master and corporal punishment was common in those days.

Part II coming soon.  


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the memories! I lived in one of the shop houses across the wet market from late 60s to 80s. Living conditions slightly better..with piped water.
There was a cinema where I used to sneaked in to catch a 'free' movie! LOL.
Also there was a heavily maked up woman who stood around the overhead bridge...we used to call her 天桥下的林凤娇!

Anonymous said...

Yes. Thanks for the memories. I was born in one of the shops along the road going towards the city. This is where The Linear is today. Remember the police station and the cinema. The lady too. Quite pitiful. Looking forward to Part ll!

Jin Shun Chia said...

thanks for giving us young generation a peek into the past!

Boh Tong said...

James, thanks for sharing. Take care buddy.

ksraj said...

Thanks james. Enjoyed your posting. I was also staying in jalan teck Whye from 1958-68. You bring back memories of Bukit panjang.

Kalapremraj said...

I really appreciate your effort behind this article.
Hoping if you could know what happened to Lucky Bar & Restaurant resided in Sembawang road?
I am wondering what happened to that bar, MY FATHER WAS THE OWNER OF IT. Can anyone help me?

Lim James said...

Hi, Kalapremraj

Thanks for your comments.

Sorry, I've no idea whatsoever about your Licky Bar & Restaurant in Sembawang Road.

I only recollection of a bar at the time was the Sim Po Po bar in Frankel Ave.


Anonymous said...

Hi, my mum was selling chickens below the overhead bridge during the 70s, 80s.
Thanks for the story. Relaying the story to her, was fun reminiscing the past.

Anjali Sinha said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Marlin Margaret Ng said...

HI James, Now I have some vague memories of the lady below the bridge asking for money.

Don punish the dog. Wong said...

I live in jalan tech why as well, I study in jalan tech why
Primary school.maybe I know you.

Don punish the dog. Wong said...

I live in jalan tech why as well, I study in jalan tech why
Primary school.maybe I know you.

Don punish the dog. Wong said...

She is a icon figure those day.

Josefine said...

We lived right behind Sin Wah theatre. Thanks for sharing, James. Yr blog brought so many sweet memories of our childhood.

LiPeng L said...

Thank you for sharing the memories and photos, i studied at Bt. Panjang Pri Sch too, almost forgot there was a police station next to it.

RK said...

Yes, the old 10 mile stone.I remember the prata shops that led to the wet market and the only BATA store next yo the bakery. Hoe Huat and Ming Chong Book stores. Those were the days, my friends.

RK said...

Yes, the old 10 mile stone.I remember the prata shops that led to the wet market and the only BATA store next yo the bakery. Hoe Huat and Ming Chong Book stores. Those were the days, my friends.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for all these fond memories. Me too, staying at the present linear apartment. Also remember the lady with heavy makeup under the overhead bridge. The sin wah cinema tickets were sold at 50 cents for kids initially.
Ming zhong bookshop was where I frequent to peek at some HK comics. The boss was a fat uncle

RK said...

Anyone remembers the name of the road between the Caltex Station and the Chinese Eating House near the old SILO- PIEU supermarket (the predecessor to our modern- day Fair Price)???

Ramanan said...

wow..nice memories..i stayed with my grandparents in bukit panjang over the weekends..i fondly remember the dilapidated theater and a barber and tailor shop jus in front of their house..i do not know of any other indian kampung..ours was the very last to be torn down..i remember my grandfather and i on his vespa..i would stand in front and will jus ride to the old a temple and a plant nursery is where the house used to stand..

Ramanan said...

uncle, u may contact me at

Anonymous said...

I lived in Bukit Panjang in the 70s at one of the wooden houses just after the Malay village. It was a big house split into small units. We could hear the neighbours next door and even peep at them through the openings of the wooden walls. We shared a common well although our kitchens were also split into small ones for us tenants and a huge one for the landlord. I was studying at the convent in bukit timah which was nearby. Somehow because I was supposedly good in English the villagers would bring their letters from the government for me to read and interpret to them. I believe my address then was 7F Jalan Cheng Hwa.