1942, My Father’s Voyage
My second son, Marcus, always used to ask me, “Papa, you’ve got a real way with words, why don’t you set pen to paper, and write down your life’s story and experiences?”
In 1999, after my illness and brush with death, the journey of life began to seem very short to me, and I came to think that if I didn’t start writing down the path of life I’ve walked, I might never have the chance to do so again.
Like all stories, we have to start at the beginning, with the history of my family. As far as I can recall, my ancestral home is in Longmei, a village in the township of Fuyang, which is in the Chaoan District of Guangdong Province, in the south of China. (Perhaps my ancestors were Shandong people who fled the Song-Jin Wars and settled in the south!)
My father, Lin Zhenhui, married a girl from the neighbouring village of Qingmo Mountain, a young lady named Pang Joo Heng. Life as a farmer was tough, and so at the age of 22 or 23, like many other young men his age, my father boarded a Chinese junk from Swatow, bound for the gleaming new ports of Nanyang (the Southern Oceans).
Barely had he set foot on the island of Singapore did my father decamp to Kuala Lumpur. There, he began to learn the sugar and rice trade, working in a dry goods store owned by a friend, Ang Baohua and his wife, Shuxin. Before long, he was running businesses between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.
War came to Singapore around 1941-42, and for a time, there was to be no communication between Singapore and China. Back in China, my mother had by now adopted a son, Lin Meigan. Throughout the brutal Japanese occupation of Malaya, my father continued his sugar and rice trade. At some point, no doubt through the encouragement of a few ne’er-do-well friends, my father took a second wife. His new bride was the young daughter of a Mr Gang, a notorious womanizer, and they were married in Batu Pahat, Malaysia.
Of course, what my father didn’t count on, was the end of the war in China. The minute peace broke out, my mother sent an emissary from Longmei village to Singapore to track my father down. The deed duly done, the errant husband duly corralled, my father had no choice but to send for my mother. Once in Singapore, he installed his first wife in the second level of a tiny shophouse along River Valley Road, across the street from where the Van Kleef Aquarium used to be.
The following year, all decamped to Kovan Road in Serangoon, where my father had purchased adjourning wooden, zinc roofed cottages, one for the first wife’s family and one for the second. By then, my half sister, Lin Mengzhu had been born. The year after, my eldest sister, Lin Mengfang. The year after that, in 1949, it was my turn, Stephen Lim Moi Hong, and close on my heels, my second half sister Lin Meirong.
Almost all at once, my father found himself supporting a family of seven. No small pressure there. Thankfully, a few business friends passed the hat around, and helped him set up a small provisions shop at 135 Hill Street, behind where the old South-East Asia Records Co. used to have its showroom. The little shop, named “Chop Guan Chiang”, did a brisk trade in goods sent over from my father’s friends in Kuala Lumpur, from whom he’d get two percent in commissions.
Life at home was always dramatic. What with two wives and assorted offspring running amok, there was always bound to be quarrels and friction. My sister and I lived our childhoods thus in Kovan Road, and if memory serves me correctly I had a younger brother, who sadly passed away in childhood. At that time, Kovan Road was a predominantly Teochew speaking area. There were, for unknown reasons, a few Hainanese families, and as a result, inter-dialect fights would always ensue.
The extra income brought in by the shop meant that my father could afford two young maids to look after us. Both of whom presumably nearly died of shock, when I was nearly swept away by the customary floodwaters which used to plague the kampongs of Singapore in those days, while playing in the large drain behind our house.
The happiest memory I’ve had of my childhood was Mother bringing the both of us to watch the street opera. My mother would walk with me, holding my hand, while in the other, she’d carry a small wooden stool. All the way, round to the main road, to where the communal kampong well was, and where the opera troupe had set up their stage.
Another happy day must have been the day of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1952. My father rented a lorry for the special occasion, and all seven of us packed into that rickety old lorry, trundled down to Clifford Pier to see the street lighting, the lion and dragon dances, all bursting in colour, and the gaudy fireworks from the promenade of ships.
Childhood also meant sweet treats. When we had the money to spare, my elder sister and I would buy 5 cent ice-creams, one each. On occasion, I’d get excited and run, invariably trip, drop the ice cream in the mud, and cry bitter tears. Other times, we’d walk to Hindoo Street and share an Ice Ball from the street hawker there (packed ice-shavings coated with sugar syrup). Half for me, and half for my sister. And then, if the Indian uncle was in a good mood, you could beg for a topup of syrup.
In 1955, when I was 6, we moved from Kovan Road to a kampong in Potong Pasir, colloquially known as Sand Pit Village. There, in house No.299A (afterwards renumbered as 107 when the government began regularizing addresses) my younger brother, Moi Pong, and younger sister Yan Fang, were born.
Sand Pit Village was bordered by two large ponds, with a raised mud embankment for people to walk on. One of those ponds were for water buffalo, and so the water there was muddier and dirtier. Nearby, dairy cows were kept by Indian villagers, who used to deliver fresh milk in glass bottles by bicycle to customers in the city.
The pond on the right was where the children of the village often played. Occasionally, there would be the odd child that drowned. I must say that more often than not, the children who drowned weren’t from our village. Before entering the water, we would always throw a large rock in. The adults said that this would scare away the water spirits who lurked beneath the surface, who were always looking for unfortunate souls to take their place, so that these spirits could be reincarnated.
The pond was teeming with fish. Bonito, carp, grassfish, catfish, as well as a vast number of koi and tilapia. The village fisherman was called Lee He, and every weekend, the children would crowd around when he cast his nets. Invariably, the thrashing of the multitude of fish would excite the children, and I recall furiously picking up the smaller fish that escaped from his nets. More often than not, Lee He would throw away the Koi that came through his nets, because Koi were famous for feeding on the excrement that the village outhouses deposited in the pond.
Often, usually the morning after torrential monsoon rains, the village would wake up to the sight of thousands of freshwater prawns, gasping for air on the banks of the pond. Each family would end up with a large bag of prawns, which would often be mixed with breadflour and fried up into heaping mounds of prawncakes.
Ever the entrepreneur, my father opened a provisions shop in the village called Chop Chin Hong. By then, my father was the Head of the Potong Pasir Villagers Association, and had a measure of renown and respect in the community.
(Ed. Note: That our grandfather was a well-respected man was collaborated by a chance encounter a few weeks after Stephen Lim’s passing. My Life In Words was being serialized in the local Chinese papers, and we were visited by a taxi driver who had grown up in the same kampong as our father.
This man told us that our grandfather was a pillar of the community, very strict, and never would have allowed my father to play in the streets with the neighbourhood children. The ghosts of the past strike yet again!)
A Boy’s Education
The running of the village shop was left to my mother, who hired a nephew (about ten years older than me) to assist her. Every day, my father would take the trolley bus into the city to tend to the shop there, as well as arrange for goods to be sent to the village shop. By then both my sisters were attending St Joseph’s Convent at Hougang Fifth Milestone. My father arranged for me to take morning classes at the English-language Kwong Avenue Primary School, and afternoon classes at Zhi Cheng Primary School in the village, which taught in Chinese.
My first day at Kwong Avenue, I remember Father walking with me to school, taking a path through Sennett Estate. At the gates, he pointed out the crescent moon on the minaret of the mosque along Siak Kew Avenue. After school, all I had to do was walk in the direction of the crescent moon to find my way home.
Parenting was a hands-off affair in those days, and what my father didn’t realize was that I was far too short to see the crescent moon above the houses. After school, I searched in vain for the moon, and ended up crying my eyes out by the gates, until a kindly trishaw driver, who lived in our village, encountered me and brought me home.
My father was one with foresight. He saw early on the need for me to be bilingual. I didn’t mind, because the only inconvenience required of me was to change school shorts between classes, from the blue of Kwong Avenue to the auburn uniform of Zhi Cheng. I always preferred studying in Chinese, probably due to the influence of the aforementioned cousin, who was a student at Cheung Cheng High School, and a noted leftist.
The year I entered Primary 3, a directive came down from the government prohibiting dual primary schooling. In truth, my English grades had always been pretty dire, so I naturally chose to carry on with the Chinese school.
I still keep in touch with my Primary 6 classmates from Zhi Cheng. Every year, we meet for dinner and to catch up. Occasionally our form teacher makes an appearance, which is when we start ribbing him about how he used to punish us with rattan canes and wooden rulers.
Festivities in the Kampung
My childhood truly was unforgettable. In those days, there was no stress from homework. Everyday, after school, I could go gallivanting around the neighborhood, cycling from Potong Pasir to Kolam Ayer, and even on occasion riding all the way along the Kallang River to Geyland to see the occasional factory fire accident. Mother too was very relaxed about her parenting. As long as you remembered to find your way back home at dinner time.
I used to spend countless childhood hours wandering around the old Alkaff Lake Gardens, next to Cedar Girls School. Owned by the wealthy Alkaff family, I remember a beautiful, wild, unkempt lake right in the middle of the park, where camera crews from the old Malaya Tiger Films Company used to shoot many of their films.
Near to the gardens, on the grass patch in front of the old Macpherson Market along Tai Thong Crescent, there would be an annual performance by the Celestial Circus, which would, of course, be an occasion of great excitement amongst the village children.
Kampung living always got far more festive, however, when the Hungry Ghost/Seventh Month Festival rolled around. We had less in those days, and so the Hungry Ghost Festival was a time to feast on roast chickens, ducks, crabs, foods which were never on the kitchen table. It was a time to feast on fruits, longans, sugarcane, rambutans… But most of all, it was one of the few times in a year where we children could get our hands on soft drinks and sodas!
The Hungry Ghost Festival was a big affair. My father would set off early in the morning for the wetmarket along the 6th Milestone in Hougang, to get a few live chickens and ducks to slaughter back home. Mother would cook them up, and then set them out in the afternoon for our “July Brothers” aka the Hungry Ghosts. Once the dead had had their fill, it was time to feed the living, and my mother would then distribute the meat to relatives.
Because every family celebrated on a different day, the festival was an amazing month of feasting in which every day saw one family or another, sending roast chickens, pork or duck our way.
The Hungry Ghost Festival also meant that Chinese opera troupes soon took over almost every street corner and grass patch. In the weeks before, the troupes would have already sent men down to block off the best grounds with wooden slats and platforms. As the opera stages popped up, so too the small pushcarts selling hot snacks and drinks. Ah, watching the opera with a snack in hand, that was the life!
The children of the kampong would often climb up to the rafters on both sides of the stage for a better view, usually accompanied by the yells of the stage manager. The adults would enjoy the opera, some travelling from other parts of the island to “chase the play”. Most of the troupes performed over two nights, with the Teochew Opera troupes usually the most well known, like the Old Peach Troupe, The New Lucky Troupe, The Old Honest Troupe and the Weaving Cloud Troupe. Then you had the occasional Hokkien Opera Troupe like the New Phoenix Troupe.
I remember the plays that stuck most in my memory. Plays like “The Four Maidens of Lu” or “Seven Swords Descend From Mount Heaven” which were martial arts plays. Most of the Teochew plays used to have special effects, with coloured lighting flashing around a darkened stage illuminating the flying arrows and darts that were thrown from the wings. The Hokkien Troupes were a little more civilized, bookending their performances with popular Hokkien songs.
Another major event was the Mid-Autumn Festival. In those days, it was an important festival of manners, particularly for subordinates who were expected to gift mooncakes to their superiors, or to people they were indebted to. If you didn’t have the money to buy mooncakes, you could even put mooncakes on layaway, setting some money aside every month until Mid-Autumn! Back then, the most famous mooncake shops were Empress at Middle Road and Victoria Street, as well as the Great East and Great China brands. If you had no money, but really needed to impress, you could buy a box from these shops, and then fill them with cheap mooncakes from the roadside stalls. Of course, once the shops got wind of this, they started molding mooncakes with their brand names on it, but I digress….
On Mid-Autumn night, the womenfolk of the kampong would set out tables in front of the house, laden with sons and daughter biscuits, pomelo and mooncakes as offerings to Chang’e, the goddess of the moon, in the hope of eternal youth, beauty, happy marriages and good matches for their children. In the streets, under the full moon, young lovers would take the opportunity for a leisurely stroll, children would run around with lanterns and the elders of the village would sit, tea and mooncakes accompanying their conversation late into the night.
When people got married in the kampong, accepted practice was for the bride and groom to go around each household giving out invitations accompanied with a carton of Triple 5 cigarettes. Conversely, when there was a death in the family, a pair of red candles would be placed on either side of the front doors to the house, and neighbors would come to offer condolence money.
The one drawback to living in a kampong, was the constant flooding. There used to be massive sand quarries in the area, hence the Malay term “Potong Pasir” which means literally “to cut sand”. The sand quarries created two big ponds, and whenever the monsoon season came, so too did the floods. It was especially severe when the Northeast Monsoon came to town.
The lower-lying parts of the kampong, of which my house was one, would be waist deep in floodwaters. Sometimes, the floodwaters would reach our shoulders. If the monsoon rains continued over a few days, that meant sleepless nights for all of us, with everyone on flood watch. The minute the waters came in, all the family, adults and children alike, would be busy moving furniture and household items up to a higher level. With no room in the house, we’d have to decamp to the house of a relative to wait out the floods. I remember in 1978, two weeks before my wedding, Potong Pasir experienced one of the biggest floods in history, and my younger brother and I had to seek refuge at my Mother-In-Law’s home.
I used to love going to the movies. From the ages of 10 or 11, I used to take a bus to either the Starlight Cinema or the China National along Hougang Fifth Milestone. Other times, I’d drag my younger brother along to the open-air Beijing Cinema along Macpherson Road. Of course, if it started raining in the middle of the film, the screening would be shut down.
I remember one particular hit movie which had crowds lining the cinema was Little White Dragon Goes A Thousand Miles For Revenge starring the Japanese actor Akira Kobayashi [Ed. Possibly referring to the 1964 yakuza film, Our Blood Will Not Forgive].
Those families who were plugged in to Rediffusion at the time had their choice of evening entertainment. They could listen to Hokkien wuxia stories narrated by Wang Dao, or Cantonese dramas spoken by Lee Dai Soh. Or they could listen to Teochew entertainment hosted by Huang Zhenjing or other Hokkien programming with Liu Qiang.
Rediffusion gave me my first brush with fame, when I went down to their studio in Clemenceau Avenue to participate in their children’s show, The Red Lion Club, with their host Chen Bangwei.
Eating and Fighting in Sand Pit Village
Thinking back to Sand Pit Village, running right down the middle of the village, I remember, were three large copper pipes which constituted the village’s water supply. One of the pipes led to the ponds, and this water was used for washing clothes or bathing. We had a private well in our house that we used solely for washing. Whenever mother needed water for cooking, my sister and I would have to make a water run to the copper pipes, carrying back the water in a large pail with a long wooden pole through the handles. The journey alone took ten minutes, and it was a relief when, a few years later, the government finally installed pipes to the water mains in every house.
Beyond these mundane inconveniences, life was great in the kampongs. I remember the street snacks and foods available. There was Putu Mayam, made by the Indian shopkeepers, the Malay coconut rice dish with salted fish and peanuts called Nasi Lemak, and Tauhu Goreng, fried tofu slabs slathered with peanut sauce. In the afternoons, the Ko-Ko noodle seller would walk around the village, bamboo slab and stick in hand, making a “koki-kiko” sound, the call of his trade. There was also the braised duck hawker, who would take “big-small” bets with you. If the dice came up your way, you ate for free. If not, well, tomorrow was another day. Even now, I look back and think that there was truly something special about Kampong cooking, the taste of a time and place, one that can never be regained.
Sand Pit Village was bordered by Upper Serangoon Road and the junction of Potong Pasir Road, which led onward toward Braddell Road. In those days, our village was often the site of clashes between rival secret societies, especially during the time of the month when protection money was extorted from stall owners and hawkers. Different secret societies held different territory. The lower half of Sand Pit Road was the territory of the 18 Gang and the 32 Gang, which were Teochew and Hokkien respectively. The upper half of the road, consisting mainly of vegetable and pig farmers, was property of the Cantonese 24 Gang.
When fights broke out, as they often would, it was as if martial law had been declared in the village. It was always a turf war, and in the day, these were mere skirmishes. The real drama began after dark. My father and I would close up early, bar all the doors and windows, and hunker down for the long night. Both sides would arm themselves with parangs, knives, wooden poles, bicycle chains and glass bottles and have at it with each other. In the cold light of morning, we’d wake up to see a street full of broken bottles, glass shards and blood.
In those days, the economy was bad, and in general, people were poor. Many could only afford a catty of rice a day, and two cents worth of coconut or peanut oil that they would make stretch for a long time. In those days when none had much, our little shop never insisted on cash upfront. My father allowed many to pay on credit terms.
We had a number of Indian neighbours, and as a result, our provisions shop did a roaring trade in beer and stout. At that time, most of the Indians in the village owned cattle, as well as oxcarts with large wooden wheels. I guess that’s where the sarcastic comment about misers came about, “his five cent coin is larger than an oxcart wheel!” It’s also interesting to note that though his daily interactions with his Indian neighbours, my father picked up some phrases in Tamil as well!
As the boss of the village provisions shop, every Lunar New Year, my father would send soft drinks to thank people for their custom. Those who were great customers could expect a dozen crates, the rest could only expect a crate or two of Red Lion soda or Emerald Juice. My family could also expect to receive some of the last unsold pigs and ducks from the farmers to ring in the New Year. It was truly the kampong spirit everyone talks about now.
By the early 1980s, however, it was clear that Potong Pasir was to be redeveloped by the government. Most of the kampong residents were relocated to Ang Mo Kio. Our family, however, was assigned housing in what was then the new town of Bedok.
Breakfasts with my Father
Along Hill Street (Number 135 to be exact) was where my father opened his first trading brokerage and consignments shop, Chop Guan Chiang. It was right next to the old South-East Asia Records Shop. There, my father dealt in the 80-90 trade, so named because traders from Malaysia would deliver goods on consignment, and he would take 10- 20% of any sales made.
School was out for the holidays, and my father said to me,
“Come. Follow me and learn the business.”
Thus, bright and early in the morning, I would trot obediently next to my father as we boarded the Singapore Trolley Company Number 4 Trolley Bus to Hill Street. Once at our destination, we wouldn’t go straight to the office. Instead, we’d head for a coffeeshop next to the Indian barber shop for breakfast.
One cup of coffee we’d share. I’d drink mine out of the cup, my father would have his out of the saucer. On occasion, he’d mix three thin slices of Cold Storage butter in his coffee, with a piece of toasted bun and two half-boiled eggs completing his breakfast.
After, while my father worked, instead of learning from him, I’d usually start gallivanting around the town. The entire stretch, from Hill Street to High Street, up to the foot of Empress Hill, was my stomping ground.
An interesting aside. In those days, the most expensive brand of imported milk was Carnation, followed by Blue Cross, Nestle and then the local brands. When they came out with the Carnation brand, because the vast majority of people couldn’t speak English at the time, when they wanted to order coffee with milk, they would just yell for Kopi-C … as in Carnation.
There was lots of great food in the area. My favourite was Tai Hwa Kway Teow Soup, which operated out of the same coffee shop. There was also a braised duck stall run by a man who had lost the tip of a finger, possibly through some industrial accident involving poultry. My father used to hire someone to come in and cook lunch in our shop. Any customers or suppliers who happened to stop by during lunch time was always welcomed to stay for lunch. Much like the rice merchants of Thailand.
For me, the most boring time of the day would be when Father’s suppliers from Malaysia came down to talk business. After dinner, all the adults would gather in the front parlour in loud and lively conversation. As for me, I’d sit sullenly by the glass doorways, looking across to the Old Hill Street Police Station, silently counting its numerous windows.
Looking across from the Police Station, I could see the little bumboats chugging up the Singapore River, ferrying cargo into the numerous warehouses that flanked Clarke Quay and Robertson Quay. The big ships were far too big to enter the canal, so it was up to these tiny workhouses. Once at the quay, armies of coolies would hoist hundred pound bags of corn, rice and rubber into the warehouses. Now, all those rundown warehouses have turned into upscale wine bars and restaurants.
To save money, Father would wait until evening to make long distance collect calls, which the then Singapore Telephone Board charged at half price after 6pm. He’d have the operator connect him to Kuala Lumpur, and then proceed to deliver the days takings to his partners up North, and take orders for the coming day.
As for me, I’d slip away down to the docks, where the stench of the river wafted around (even stronger when the tide was out), watching the pigeons peck after stray grains of rice, and listen to the strains of music wafting equally from the South East Asia Records Store. I remember the voices of Nat King Cole, Patti Page… Doris Day and her rendition of Que Sera Sera.
Music drifting across the street, dusk heralding the end of yet another working day. The blue-gold of the setting sun… I can see it even now, half a century later…
Cheung Cheng: Or How I Became a Leftist
By the time I got to secondary school, I had transferred to Cheung Cheng High School (Main). In the mornings, I would cycle along Macpherson Road to Aljunied Road, cutting through Geylang Lorong 21 to the junction where the church was, and stop off for a five cent glass of Chin Chow (Grass Jelly drink). Then, down Tanjung Katong Road and through Crescent Road would see me arrive at school. Cheung Cheng is a beautiful, picturesque campus. A lake is situated most prominently in the center of the school. What that meant, in those days, was flooding when the heavy rains came. When the lake burst its banks, shoes got wet, classes got abandoned, and a festive holiday air would pervade the school.
In those days, the leftist spirit was strong in Cheung Cheng. After class, the older students would stay behind to help tutor the younger boys and girls, which was also an excuse to instill in them leftist ideologies. We also participated in 513 meetings *(in reference to the May 13th Anti-National Service Riots, spearheaded by Chinese Middle School students), infiltrating the school in the cover of darkness to post protest signs all over the classrooms. I recall, when the government decided to move from a 6/3/3 educational route to a 6/4/2 one*, the entire Secondary 4 class rebelled, boycotting exams and even throwing bicycles into the lake.
I used to spend a fortune at the Student’s Union buying books by Bo Yang and Li Ao (both Taiwanese anti-establishment writers), as well as pulp fiction mystery novels. In History class, my most hated subject, I would read these books on the sly with my History text providing cover. I was exceedingly active in student life. Apart from being president of the Calligraphy Club and the Art Club, I was also a school librarian and prefect. In all honestly, most of my teachers expected me to fail my senior examinations, but I had to disappoint them by passing!
Looking back on it, I spent six beautiful years of campus life at Cheung Cheng. Six years of a correct Chinese education, which taught not only academics, but also the right and proper path a gentleman should take.
Eating My Way Through University
As the 60s gave way to the 70s, changes were afoot. My eldest sister had gotten married to a young man by the name of Zheng Tian Liang and had moved for a time to Saitama in Japan, where her husband had business dealings.
As for me, after my graduation from Cheung Cheng in 1968, I elected to enter the Nanyang University (Nantah), again probably because of my Leftist inclinations. My results only allowed me a choice of a major in Chinese language, or History (again, my most hated subject!) and not Business, which was my preferred major. Thankfully, some kind soul had gotten his first choice entry into the National University of Singapore, and had relinquished his place in Nantah. I had gotten my foot into the door at Nantah’s Faculty of Business!
Because of the delay, there were no more vacancies in the school hostels, so for the first year, I had to rent a room in a farmhouse nearby. The nights were darker than ink, and you had to walk home with a torchlight in one hand, the other beating away the legions of mosquitos hell bent on their drop of blood. Thankfully, as the year went on, a vacancy finally opened up in Hall 2.
Just past the great entrance of Nantah and to the left, there used to be a line of small, shabby shophouses. Chief amongst them was a small restaurant called Yunnan Garden. The surroundings were decrepit and cramped, but the food was good. Bitter gourd fried with eggs, fried sliced pork and vegetables, tiny fried fish we nicknamed Slutty Little Aunties （奸小姨）。 In those days, most of us had barely two cents to rub together, so meals were necessarily communal affairs, with a motley band of students pooling their money together so that they could afford a better selection of food. Supper was also taken here, usually a simple bowl of Kway Tiao soup.
There were usually no classes after dinner. My friends and I, we would take long, leisurely strolls under the acacia trees that lined the university lake, talking about everything and nothing in particular.
Near the lake was a basketball court, and not more than a dozen stone steps beyond that, another small chophouse called Yong Qi Kitchen, more spacious and with a greater choice of meals than at Yunnan Garden. I remember hordes of students craning their necks to read the giant white meal board, and my favourite meal, stir fried vegetables on rice with a runny fried egg to top it off. Cheap and satisfying. In the mornings they served breakfast; butter and toast with coffee or tea. It was a convenient location, right opposite the bus station where I would take either Service 174, or a rickety private bus into the city, and then the connecting bus back home from Middle Road or Queen Street .
Next to Yong Qi was a co-operative where most Nantah students used to go for their daily sundries and near that, the University-run commissary where you could have package meals paid monthly. It was usually ten to a table, with six dishes and a soup. When the food was horrible, you’d start hearing tables of rowdy students throwing the dishes on the floor in protest!
In the evenings, we would decamp to the library building, an imposing four storey structure on the top of a hill. A teahouse called Mei Lun occupied the first floor, and it was there that we often planted ourselves, leaning over the railings overlooking the woods, the farms, and in the distance the newly developing Jurong Industrial Estate, breathing in the fresh air and awaiting the gathering dusk.
A glass of lemon tea or coffee, a piping hot butter and redbean bun from Old Huang, watching television broadcasts of programs like “Flowers On The Night”, “Evening Music Treasures” with stars belting out the hits of the day like You Ya’s “Memories of the Past”, “I’m By Your Side”, Chen Fenlan’s “Moonlight Serenade”, “Green Island Serenade” and songs by Zhang Xiaoying, Lin Zhu Jun and Huang Qing Yuan.
By nine, it would be time for supper, either at Yunnan Garden or Yong Qi. If we were too lazy to leave the campus, we would wait by the hostel entrance for the villagers who would shortly be by with baskets of fried beehoon for sale, your choice of a fried egg on top. And then, sleep, with the prospect of a new day ahead.
Secret Agent Man
There were some students at University who had begun their search for love, making contact with their fellow female students. I never had the chance to; thinking back it probably had something to do with my lack of finances! All I could do was have constant unrequited crushes on one or two of the girls in the Chinese or Business Faculty.
All that frustration probably boiled over in my writing. I had a column in the university paper at that time, writing under the pen name of “Sardine”, and once, I wrote an article called “Gold, Copper & Iron”. In it, I wrote about how the girls in the first year were like gold, with everyone chasing after them, how their lustre faded to copper in the second year, and how finally, dulled to iron in the third year, they began frantically looking for lovers and partners.
When the paper was published, it caused an uproar on campus. A demonstration of female students rushed the administrative building, protesting and burning copies of the newspaper. Together with my old friend Tan Ah Chai, who was also the paper’s editor, we narrowly escaped the newspaper’s offices, and found ourselves hiding out on the rooftop until night fell.
I hung out a great deal with the Chinese intelligentsia of the time, counting the writer Yeng Pway Ngon and the painter Tan Swie Hian as close friends. In fact, I was in charge of designing the covers of the Nantah Buddhist Society’s newsletter, which was run by Zhang Yun Guo, a Penangnite who was studying at the University.
In 1972, Queen Elizabeth II made a royal visit to Singapore. Together with a fellow student, Dawn Cao, I was tasked to be Her Majesty’s guide as she toured the university’s grounds. I still have an old photograph of that day, one that has become somewhat of a family heirloom. It shows me leading Queen Elizabeth into the university hall, with former Minister for Education Jek Yuen Thong and Nantah Principal Huang Li Song following closely behind. In 2006, when the Queen returned to Singapore, it was the duty of my eldest son, Benjamin, to lead them around, as a protocol officer for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Funny how life comes full circle this way…
As I come to the end of the recollections of my university life, here’s a little tale about how I was once an undercover agent. In my second year, the Internal Security Department had begun to contact me for information about the activities and going ons of various Nantah student groups. After all, I was very active in student life as secretary of the Business Society. I remember some compatriots like Chen Yuan Sheng who was the Head of the History Society, with Yang Zhi Guo in charge of discipline, while Zhang Ri Kun and some others were members.
In those days, there were a great many “professional students” in Nantah. These were undercover government agents enrolling as “students” to infiltrate what was then still a very leftist university. I wasn’t willing to become one of these “professional students” but that didn’t stop the occasional ISD handler from inviting me out for coffee.
I remember one handler’s name being Mr X. Every now and then, he’d invite me out to the Hong Kong Milk Bar at Market Street for a coffee, and to pump me for information on anything that was going on in Nantah, slipping me a little coffee money when he left. How was I to know that my future mother-in-law was the proprietress of the Hong Kong Milk Bar, and that we might have been served coffee by my future wife?
It was not long after, that I received an invitation to tea at the Pyramid Club, an old government bungalow building situated on the grounds of the Goodwood Park Hotel. It was well known, in those days, that the Pyramid Club boasted a membership of the upper echelons of Singapore’s society, and an invitation to tea was the first step in assessing one’s suitability for public service. Alas, a life as a member of parliament was deemed not in my cards, and I was never asked back for a second round. Perhaps they felt I was still too much of a leftist to ever toe the party line.
By 1972/1973, I had finally graduated from university, and begun searching for work in earnest. I decided to join Tian Hua Printers in Bukit Timah, working as a clerk in their personnel department, mainly because the salary of $800 a month was comparable to what University of Singapore graduates were getting in the civil service. I found it outrageous that the government of the time so undervalued a Chinese-university education, that they only offered $600 a month if you were a Nantah graduate. In any case, I immediately accepted the offer from Tian Hua Printers, and was so eager to start work that I didn’t even bother going for the Accounting make-up examination. Come to think of it, perhaps I haven’t actually graduated from University.
I didn’t last long at the printers, hopping over to a Japanese commodities futures brokerage firm, mainly because they offered commissions on sales and trades made. It was at this new job that I met my future wife, Ramona Lai. After my marriage in 1978, I moved over to Continental Grain, one of the five largest commodities brokers in the world, as a trader for their Singapore office.
As a trader at Conti, I had the opportunity, in those early years, to visit China on business, namely to the Guangzhou Trade Fairs. At the time, Singapore’s diplomatic ties were still with Taiwan, and thus it was difficult for a Singaporean to get approval to visit China. Luckily, as an agent for an American company, I had special dispensation to move freely in and out of China to discuss business. Of course, when I got home, I’d always be “invited” for coffee with Singapore government agents, who invariably had millions of questions to ask me about the internal state of affairs in China.
Life in the commodities business was never dull. Once in 1987, I went to Lampung, on the southern tip of Sumatra to look at a shipment of fish feed with a colleague. We were due to catch an early flight back to Singapore, but decided to stop off at a roadside hawkers for lunch, ordering what we figured was the quickest thing on the menu, fried rice. After waiting for almost an hour, I went into the kitchen only to find the cook desperately steaming some rice to fry.
That was it! We had missed our flight back, and so, annoyed and irritated, went to board the next available flight home. As fate would have it, the flight we were supposed to take had crashed on the mountainside in Lampung, with all souls on board lost. In fact, we could see the wreckage from the plane as we flew by. My colleague’s wife was inconsolable when he touched down, thinking him dead. And that is the story of how my life was saved by fried rice.
Being effectively bilingual in English and Mandarin was invaluable in my line of work. I was able to trade with the Chinese at a time when the economy was effectively closed to the rest of the world. In those days, the government dominated the economy, and most companies were state run enterprises. As government employees, the trade reps I used to talk with, weren’t even allowed to visit me in my hotel room. We would have to meet in the lobbies to conduct business meetings.
I remember one such meeting in the winter. I had a contact ask if he could come up, which was highly irregular. Once in the hotel room, he asked if he could use the bathroom to take a bath. It transpired that the hot water supply to his house had been disrupted for almost a month, and he was desperate to take a shower. Of course I acquiesced, and when he was done, the bath tub was black and filthy from the accumulated dirt.
Another time, a business friend asked if I could bring him a set of books on actuarial science and insurance matters from America. I did, and he must have memorized every word, because he went on to start one of China’s first private insurers, and is now a billionaire. He doesn’t remember me, of course!
The privations that the everyday Mainland Chinese faced in the 70s are unimaginable to today’s generation. Doing business in China meant that gifts were often de rigeur. Apart from the usual liquor and cigarettes, I had the bright idea of bringing little gifts of perfume for the scores of secretaries and female assistants in the offices, which of course endeared me to them, and ensured that no memo or letter I sent ever got misplaced. Later, I kicked it up a notch, by bringing them stockings that I had bought in Ladies Market in Hong Kong. This practically caused a riot. Of course, once the full weight of Deng’s market liberalisations started in the 80s, all of this was brought to an end.
By 1973, I was working at ICT, a Japanese brokerage, one of many traders dealing in grain and commodities. Amongst my colleagues was a young lady by the name of Ramona Lai, who was working as an office secretary. Being one of the prettiest girls in the office, she had no shortage of suitors. Of course, I too was interested, but as they say…………………..
… to be continued