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 then.
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 Hantu” (Haunted House) tour after which I would be only too glad to go home…
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 team.
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 visit.
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 raya” (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.