Chapter 2 – Primary School Years

My formal schooling did not start
until I was six years old, because Mother could not get me a place in the
school of her choice (Haig Girls’ School) any sooner. She was a good mother in
her own funny way – I remember my first few days at school, she was the only
mum who hovered around the school for the whole afternoon! Every so often I
would see her go past my classroom window and when recess time came, I found
that she had “chope” (local lingo meaning “reserved”) a place for me at the tuckshop bench. In her
opinion, the school kids would not bully me, knowing that I had such a
concerned and caring mother! I used to get a trifle annoyed as I would rather
play Rounders (bat and ball game) or hula-hoops with my new friends at recess
than to sit around with Mother and listen to her endless advice. It was a great
relief when she found another live-in position soon after and it was then up to
Brother to take care of me.

Being 12 years my senior, he had finished school by then (he quit school after
Form 2) and he took on his new role quite seriously while looking for a job so
he could help support us and Mother could then stay home and look after me. I
personally preferred my brother’s care as it was much more fun. He would go to
the market about 9 a.m., to buy some “ikan selar kuning” (small
yellow-finned trevally) and “sayur bayam” (Chinese spinach), (same
menu just about everyday) and had everything cooked by 11a.m. Then he would get me
to sit cross-legged on the floor and spoon feed me – I was a poor eater and would spend ages
just lazily chewing my food around and not swallow much. When the nearby church
bell rang at noon, he would immediately stop feeding me and give me a shower
(buckets of cold water tipped over my head in between applications of Sunlight
soap) and have me dressed in my school uniform in 15 mins flat! Then he
would grab my school bag, plonk me on his bicycle and pedal me off to school.
When school finished, he would be faithfully waiting at the gate for the return
journey, sometimes having friendly races with the “becha” man
(trishaw-man) carrying the richer kids home. In the evenings, he would sharpen
my pencils, check my books and homework and have my bag packed ready for the
next day.

At one stage, he and a mate of his decided to go into a little business –
setting up a little stall outside his mate’s place not far from where we live,
selling sugar cane juice, sweets, knick-knacks that kids liked and also “tikam-tikam”
(lucky number) games. Cheap trinkets like plastic rings, stick-on tattoos, etc.
could be won by matching the corresponding numbers on the displayed cardboard.
After dinner, he would put me to bed warning me to stay still, as a hump on the
concrete floor housed a bogeyman waiting to pounce on naughty little kids who
didn’t do as they were told. I believed him so much that some nights I would
stay under my thick blanket with a full bladder, not daring to move until my
brother came home. However, temptation sometimes set in and when I heard him
come in to store the “goodies”, I would leap out of bed fast as I could and
helped myself to pencils, sweets and prizes off the lucky number game to
distribute them to my friends at school the next day. If I was lucky enough to
be allowed to go to the stall some weekends, I would help myself to some
concentrated freshly squeezed sugar cane juice while they were busy getting the
ice. I would then substitute what I drank with water… I was such a brat back

Poor Brother didn’t have it easy. Mother was very strict and his movements were
closely monitored when she was home. One weekend he got permission to go out
with his mate but had to be home by 11.30p.m. He didn’t show up till midnight
and found Mother in a rage. She didn’t ask for any explanation, she didn’t say
a word. She merely threw his clothes outside and got an axe to chop up his
bicycle. Upon seeing the axe, he jumped on his bike and took off. After fuming
for a few hours, she woke me up, threw a jacket over me, grabbed my hand and
began a long walk to his mate’s place to get him to come home. It was about
4am. and I was practically walking in my sleep, so while in this zombie-like
state, I slipped and fell in a roadside “longkang” (ditch). We got to
his mate’s house with me soaking wet and smelling absolutely rotten and Brother
wasn’t even there. He had sought refuge in a mosque instead and came home later
that morning to cop a lengthy lecture from Mother.  
Later in life, I realized that he came back because of me.

My primary school days were a lot of fun. Being tall and very skinny earned me
the nickname of “Banana”, quite appropriate I suppose, in my orange uniform. I
loved school and participated keenly in Nature Study, spending hours catching
tadpoles in their various stages of growth, labelling the jars, (with my
brother’s help), tagging along with him to the market to get samples of
different vegetables to bring to school for the display table and did
everything I could to earn many merit stars. I also excelled in reading aloud
and was therefore chosen for the part of the Wicked Queen in my very first
school play, ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’. Mother was very proud of me as
I strutted on stage and did my stuff. 

Naturally I was no angel and did have my wicked moments  like
the time a friend and I stole a classmate’s stamps from her album and stuffed
them in our socks because she was a filthy rich little Miss Stuck-up. The
horrified look and tears of tantrum were well-worth the march to the
principal’s office when we got “found out” soon after! From reading my old
school report cards I got the distinct impression that all my teachers regarded
me as a rather talkative child. Hard to believe, eh? My short-sightedness went
unnoticed and most teachers thought I was losing interest in my study, until
one teacher moved me up front so I could read the blackboard better. Spectacles
were then recommended but we were too poor to afford a pair. I finally got my
first pair from the School Health Department when I was 10. I think it cost my
mother $12. I was not allowed to wear them out of the classroom as my mother
thought it would not encourage my eyes to “get better”.  
I hated them anyway, the frame was horrible – made me look like a dork!  

My mother must have a touch of gypsy in her as she was very much into packing
up and moving house! The slightest thing that offended her would result in a
hurried packing session – so I would leave one home to go to school at midday
and go home that evening to a new address! Maybe she didn’t like the tone of Dr
Chong’s dogs’ barks but whatever the reason, our next move was to a rented
place at the back of the land-lord’s house, somewhere in the Tanjong Katong
area. I made friends with the landlord’s daughter and we used to play in the
backyard with our skipping ropes, made by double-looping rubber bands together
to form a “rope”. We also played “five stones” with little hand-sewn bags
filled with sand, or drew and coloured in clothes for our paper dolls, or spun
childish yarns to while the time of day during school holidays. By this time I
was considered old enough to walk to school by myself and would leave home
about 11.30a.m. for the leisurely walk with a couple of friends who lived close
by. We would give in to temptation sometimes and nicked local fruit like guavas
and wild cherries from overhanging branches on our way. We would take different
routes to check out the “possibilities” and could even determine the ripening
period of the fruit we were interested in. On the return trip, if I was lucky
enough to score 5 cents from Wak Ali or my brother, I would eagerly joined the
queue to buy a serve of chopped up sugar cane from the hawker peddling outside
the school gate. I would make them last until the last corner before home. On
really hot days, I would buy an “ice-ball” instead.

My mother was quite keen on gardening and raising chicks to pullet stage
(before selling them to a stall-owner in the market). I used to have to help
snip what little grass we had in the backyard with a pair of scissors to mix in
with the chicken feed. Every Sunday Mother would join the queue for some free
powdered milk and a generous block of cheese from the local church. I did not
like cheese back then, so I would spit it out when she wasn’t looking. Once a
year there would be a Trade Fair at the Happy World Amusement Park. Mother
would take me along and made me join the queue again and again to get free
sample bags of long-grain rice, lollies and other foodstuff. When recognized
going through the gate once too often, she would take me to the other entrance
and I’d go to work all over again! As a “treat” she would take me through the “Rumah
(Haunted House) tour after which I would be only too glad to go

Mother was also quite stingy when it came to paying bus-fares. It used to cost
25c for her and 10c for student fare. She would instruct me to sit down and
make myself as small as possible, which was difficult considering my lankiness,
and insisted to the bus conductor till she was blue in the face that I was not
yet of school age! She usually managed to get away with it, otherwise she would
drag me off the bus or tram in a most indignant manner and try the next one.
Brother and I were also useful as mosquitoes catchers. We couldn’t afford
mosquitoes coils or insecticides so Brother and I devised a method where we
would oil our hands liberally with cooking oil (coconut oil) and wave our hands
about all over the room. The mosquitoes that were in our path would get stuck
to our oily hands and be removed and squashed. We made a rather successful

Something must have happened to offend Mother as we were one day told to help
her pack up our belongings. A lorry and driver were hired for the day for our
move to a brick apartment above a shop in Tanjong Katong Road. It was a
one-room apartment and we had to share the use of the kitchen, bathroom and
toilet with another tenant. I must have inherited Mother’s love for gardening
because I remember growing a mung bean plant from a bean in damp cotton wool in
a bottle to a fully grown productive plant in a coffee tin with holes punched
in the bottom and earth I scraped up by the road side.I would religiously
fertilize it with fish water, i.e. water in which I had cleaned fish. I also
succeeded in growing some chillies the same way. My little garden was near the
back stairs to get full sun and also easily noticeable each time I went into
the kitchen at the back.

Being born and raised as a member of an aristocratic Peranakan (Straits-born
Chinese) family, Mother never had to learn how to cook. Her cooking technique
was the “trial and error” method. Her annual chicken curry was sometimes too
hot even for her to eat so she would solve the problem by rinsing off the curry
and deep-frying the chicken! “Waste not, want not” was her motto. She tried
baking a butter cake once and it turned out like a brick so we had to soak what
we were made to eat in tea… I think her real reason for wanting a daughter
was so she could “retire” from the kitchen. As soon as I was old enough to boil
water, I was taught to cook rice and by the time I was twelve, I had progressed
to cooking the family meals and for our relatives whenever they dropped by for a

Brother managed to get a job as a lab assistant near the mortuary at the
General Hospital and would bring home stamps from work from a couple of foreign
doctors (one was Japanese and the other Israeli) and thus the interest in
stamps grew to a point where every spare cent was spent on stamps from the
Indian newsagent, a few shops down from where we lived. Brother would save
every cent he could, to buy me First Day Covers for my humble collection. I
couldn’t have been blessed with a better brother although he had his own unique
way of stopping me from “tagging along” all the time. He would often take me to
the movies being screened at the community centre once a week (10c admission
fee). There was this one time when he wanted to see a Dracula movie and I
pestered him to take me along. It was screening at the Roxy Theatre and the
cheapest ticket was 50c. Anyway, he finally relented and managed to scrape up
the money for my ticket and after warning me that it was a horror movie, we set
off. The movie ended at midnight so we had a long walk to get home. All the way
he walked behind me and made strange scary noises, terrifying me almost to
peeing point. After that I refused further offers to view horror movies.

When I was in Primary Five (I was 11 years old), we moved again, this time to
another rented house in Mandalay Road, the other side of town. I continued
attending Haig Girls’ School even though it meant having to catch two different
buses to get to and from school. I would get off at Elizabeth Walk near the
Town Hall to switch buses and to kill time, I would sometimes pick some “bunga
(hibiscus flowers) to give my favourite teacher, who must have
thought I had a lovely garden at home!  
Mother had a very determined nature, which I think I had somehow inherited. She
wanted me to get into one of the better known schools in Singapore and somehow
managed to get her own way. I spent my final primary school year at Raffles
Girls’ Primary School and finished with results good enough to get promoted to
Raffles Girls’ Secondary School, at the time, one of the best schools in the
island state.

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