Saturday, July 21, 2007


Here is how we make darts. Get hold of some tack pins, a box of matchsticks, couple of rubber bands, postcard papers and a pair of scissor.

Hold three or four matchsticks together in one hand and insert a pin with the head in between the matchsticks. Secure with a rubber band. With the postcard trim triangle fins or whatever design you fancy. Insert the fins in between the matchsticks and you got yourself a hand made dart.

Rats! They populated the drainage system. There are plenty of rats in the drains. One favourite pastime is to armed ourselves with lots of darts and use the rats for target practice. You could say that we are doing the neighbourhood a service by reducing the rats population.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Jungle Boy

It is not easy to find green grassland these days. Back then; grasslands were all over the neighbourhood. Trees, ‘lalang’, overgrown plants were within walking distance. Merpati Road was aligned with mulberry shrubs along it’s periphery. Whether effective or not, when we were bruised, we plucked a few mulberry leaves and pounded them into a mush and applied it over the wounds. No plaster. No handyplas.

Grasshoppers were in abundance. We captured them, set them free and catch them again. We yanked the hind legs one by one and observed how they jumped. Houseflies suffered the same fate. Some of us breeded praying mantis for their droppings. The folks told us that when infused with hot water, it was good for aliments. Not my cup of tea though.

We organised competition like who can gather the most butterflies and houseflies. I remembered vividly that one-day, Richard decided to play a game and see who can gather the most cockroaches. Everyone was game. Manholes and the neighbourhood dump were breeding ground. Imagine a bunch of boys rummaging through the dump and crawling into manholes, emerging with bags full of cockroaches.

In those days, mosquito’s population isn’t high as we were good at killing them with our hands. Of course, it was a game to see who can kill the most mosquitoes. Find a damp place and sit silently and entice the mosquitoes to feast on you. Once they puncture your skin, tense your muscle to grip the proboscis trapping the insect. Give a good slap and you got it nail down. Who needs mosquito repellent?

Moth, dragonfly, cricket……….. that’s another story.

Water Bombs

Wet and wild. Air conditioning was a luxury in those days. Whenever dry weather came beckoning, we searched for pack of plastic bags and played water bombs. On the tenth floor was a public tap for cleaners to wash the block. Often we broke the lock and helped ourselves to the water.

The plastic bags were filled with water and from the tenth floor we hurled the pack of water at people. It evolved into an interesting game where we organised ourselves into two teams. One would go the tenth floor and bombard the other group at the ground level. The goal of the game is not to get drenched.

The roles were exchanged after a predetermined period. The team on the ground level would use carton boxes salvaged from the nearby garbage shed down at Block 14 and used them as shields. Used furniture, plastics sheet, canvas added to the defence we carted from the garbage dump.

Here was the dark side. If there was someone we don’t like, we mixed spit and occasionally, urine with water.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Blind Faith

Block 13 had narrow corridors, which was the stage for one of our most risky games. We usually played this game on the highest level to add to the danger and exhilaration. This game involved a blindfolded catcher who would, beginning from one end of the corridor, walked backwards towards the other end of the block. Our job was to slip past him and evade him, which was no easy task considering that there were apartments on one side of the corridor and railings on the other, beyond which was a ten-stories fall to the ground.

I cannot remembered who began climbing over railings first, but once he did the rest of us had to follow suit – we were not “chicken” enough to be left behind, nor did we want to lose the game. It was sheer folly – perhaps being young and male had something to do with it – but we did it all the same.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Kite Fighting

Kite fighting was a competitive sport in those days. With the right wind conditions, we would be found along the verandas and staircases flying kites. Unlike today where kites were flown in parks, we flew them from the corridors, usually on the highest floor. A highly competitive sport – where we tried to severe the lines of our competitors.

Having a reinforced and serrated line was the key. We would come up with all sorts of concoctions to reinforce the line. A common practice was to mix finely ground glass with glue to form a sticky paste and coat it on to a light gauge thread. Richard has a younger brother who was crazy over this sport. He took his mum potal to pound fluorescent lights glass to a fine grade and sieved it through a piece of cloth to ensure a uniform calibre. According to the experts, fluorescent light glass gave the best result. Using an empty milk-can, shoe glue was heated to melting point and the ground glass stirred in.

A roll of thread was thrown into the concoction and we secured the free end to a tree and with one hand holding the can, the other holding the thread; we coated the thread using the two trees as temporary anchors to dry the thread. The result was a reinforced serrated thread that cuts easily, most of the time having our fingers cut.

Kite fighting was serious business, anything that could improve the performance of the thread was considered. We tried all kind of crazy formulations to reinforce the lines, going to the extent of trying out iron fillings, which was a bad idea as iron rust.

‘Snatching’ kites provided endless fun. In a kite fight, kite going astray was a prized trophy and a source of cash as they were worth a few cents. Snatching runway kites was an art as you pit against others. One had to be fit and daring to win the odds against the big boys. With a little wit and knowledge of wind dynamics, you can position yourself favourably. Obviously, most of the time it ended in fights and torn kites as there were usually a number of competitors when the kite floated down gracefully.

Sometimes the concentration was so intense that we forgot to look out for cars and dashed across the road. There were many near misses fortunately nobody got knocked down by a vehicle.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Roller Boys

One day, William’s dad brought home a pair of roller skates. William shared it with us and soon we got obsessed and started yearning for a pair. They don’t come cheap and we soon found out that William Senior got it from Sungei Road – the infamous thief’s market where second hand and stolen goods were put up for sale. Depending on the conditions, it cost about two to three dollars a pair. A bowl of noodle was ten cents back then, so the skates were beyond our reach. We cut back on food to save for a pair and thought of ways to raise the money. Scrap metal sold well in those days and we collected cables and burned away the rubber sleeve to salvage the copper wires. We searched for thrown away pots and pans for the metal and sold them to the ‘garung guni’ or ‘rag and bone’ man and raised the money.

The gang was rather good at skating and started a craze in the neighbourhood. We were the stars in the community centre. To impress girls, we tried stunts like jumping over boxes, graduating to having some of us lying down on the ground and the better ones would hurl down the basketball court and leapt across the bodies. Not for the faint hearted but we were there to impress. William and my brother, Francis were really good.

They ended up coaching folks who are interested but somehow, the males got ignored and every one of us concentrating on the girls. As for me, I’m pretty bad with wheels under my feet and ended up with jersey number thirteen, the water lad for the roller boys.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Fire Power

Fascinated with guns, we made them from timber. Using a template, a gun or rifle outline was imprinted on a piece of half-inch thick plank and cut out. We fixed a rubber band at the tip of the barrel and on the other end ,we nailed in a wooden peg, those used for hanging laundry. The rubber is then stretched and held down by the peg and this acted as the mechanism to propel our ammunition. For bullets, we used unripe green ‘buay cherry’ fruits. These fruits were in abundance where we lived and when ripe, they are red and tender with a grainy sweet taste. These trees populated along the canal behind Block 12.

Green unripe ‘buay cherry’ is sturdy and makes good projectiles. The peg holds down the stem and the rubber band is extended over the fruit. Releasing the peg will propel the fruit forwards.

Used light bulbs tied to a tree, empty cans on a shelf and birds became our targets and for calibrating our weapons. Everyone tried to outdo each other with crazy designs, some work and some don’t.

War games were played between two teams and sometimes, it got out of hand as we ignored the rules. Gunfights usually ended up in fistfights.

These were the cowboy days. The days of John Wayne.

Fishy Tales

The canal beside Block 12 was second home to us. We spent our time scooping colourful guppies and ‘long kao hho’ – a Hokkien phrase for canal fishes. The darkish brown water was a combination of rainwater, affluent and garbage. It was filthy but it provided endless hours of fun as we exposed our selves to the marine life in our haunt.

We spent hours wading in knee-deep water often feeling skirmish under our feet scooping up tadpoles and guppies.

In monsoon season, many people died in the canal. Heavy downpour created flooding as water gushed into the canal. Once, we saw a bloated child been fished out of the canal by the police however, we were not put off by the incident and continued to amuse ourselves in the duct.

Block 13 is situated on Merpati Road which has a bridge over this canal. Under the bridge, we built a haven from washed away timber and garbage from the river. We built chairs, tables and shelves to make us comfortable, somewhat like a tree house but beside a river. Of crude workmanship, but it was a place we called our own.

You could tell we had been in the canal by the way we smelt.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Boy! Was It Easy

Potong Pasir, an hour’s walk from Block 13 was a laid back kampong. Rumours were that you can get fishes easily at the pond in Potong Pasir. One day, someone decided that we should go fishing. Everyone was excited. Somehow Richard managed to get hold of some fishing lines and tackles. Merrily, we walked to Potong Pasir. A good hour's walk from Block 13, no one was complaining as it is going to be another one of our adventure. We easily located the huge pond and realised that Potong Pasir was kind of like a swamp, water in a low lying area with houses on silt at the edges.

We came prepared with several tackles tied to a line. Someone threw in the line and retrieved it back immediately. To our delight all the tackles were hooked with black slimy fishes. It wasn't a rumour. It is real. Boy, fishing was that easy; we hooked the fishes without baits. That day, we caught bagful of fishes. The catch was distributed equally for our parents to cook.

The next day, boasting our discovery to someone, we were told that they were ‘chiak sai hi” roughly translated as “faeces eating fish”. In those days, faeces were dumped directly into the pond from the houses on silt and night soil was collected in buckets.

No one dared said anything about last night dinner and we never went back there again.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

7 or 10

Besides basketball, we were into football too. Back then, there were two legends in football - George Best and Pele.

George Best wore number 7 and Pele, 10. We fought over the allocation of jersey. Everyone wanted a number 7 or 10. Our first encounter with football was in the IX SEAP Games, now known as SEA Games. Whether it was free entry or otherwise but one thing for sure was our first opportunity to visit National Stadium. Newly built for the games, we clambered over the fences to get into the stadium to watch the Singapore soccer stars in action.

After watching the game we were inspired and started to pick up the game. Watching people practiced and reading Goal magazine from UK. We formed our own team, fighting over the allocation of jersey number 7 and 10. The other point of contention was striker positions. As expected, we were no different from our basketball skill.

And David still holded the number 13 jersey. The dedicated water boy.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Black Warriors

We pursued an intense interest in sports as much as we pursued our fractious crimes. Our estate got a new community centre with a number of sports facilities, one of them, a brand new basketball court. Back then, one could just ask to join a game. Playing basketball on the brand new court was an in thing and the court usually ended up crowded. To alleviate and at the same time ‘reserve’ the turf, we would form different teams and played a game or two to prevent people from coming in.

We called our basketball team “Hei Xing Kang” or the Black Warriors a whim, although there was nothing valiant about us. In fact, we were quite clumsy and lousy at basketball, but we did have great fun nonetheless. One of which was designing and sewing our own black jerseys.

David, the youngest of the pack, was assigned or rather bullied in the honour of being the water boy, he fetched us water and refreshment if we wanted him to. This honour was bestowed on jersey number 13.

Unlike the better teams, we were not serious about the game except to have fun. Training was disorganised and everyone wanted to be a forward. Without a coach, most of our trainings were spent on arguing about play positions.

For competition, scores were best kept to ourselves. Nothing to shout about, but certainly our game debrief was riotously infectious with laughter as we recalled our mischievous silly acts. Before the game, we knew that we would not win and would devise unfair techniques to ensure that we did not lose by a wide margin.

It was wicked like pulling jersey, stripping someone’s shorts or elbowing an opponent.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Going To The Movies

Back in those days, going to the movie was a luxury. Far from the cosy padded chairs in air-conditioned setting with the latest digital projection and THX sound. Theatres in those days were somewhat liked a football field with wooden fences running along the perimeter. Fronting one end is a white projection screen and behind a shed housing the projector. Two doors at the back served as entrances for patrons and in the centre, you find rows of wooden benches.

Along Macpherson Road, there was this run down open-air cinema which offered free seating. When it rained, the audience ran for cover around the veranda but for us, we sat in the rain and enjoyed every minute of it.

Not many of us could afford the movie tickets. We found a sneaky way to save money at the outdoor theatre in the nearby estate. Our big group would buy two tickets. Two of us would enter, and then one of us would bring the ticket stubs out to fetch another person in. This was repeated until the whole group is in. After the movie we would stay in the theatre so we could catch the next show. This way we were able to enjoy countless hours of viewing fun, paying just for two tickets.

We were, perhaps, in some warped way, heeding the government’s present exhortation to be creative and entrepreneur: our methods were resourceful and ingenious. Perhaps the only disadvantage was that we transgressed against the law, and even so the law mattered little to us young boys who did not recognise the importance of having to abide by the rules. The only rules we knew were ours, and our only rule was to have as much fun as possible. Getting into trouble was secondary, a minor irritation. Of course we were afraid of getting scolded by our parents: yet our need to find amusement led inexorably to resorting to illegal techniques.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

The Invincible

Watching the medicine man or ‘koyok man’ selling his wares was pure entertainment. A frequent performance at the night bazaars was the vendor peddling his secret concoctions that would take away all the ills of life. The Hokkiens called it “buay kao yoke”, selling balm in Hokkien dialect.

One of my favourites was the 'koyok man' selling the medicated oil or ‘kun thao yu’ loosely translated as ‘fist oil’. A balm for bruises, knocks and falls. 'Kun thao yu' was a sort of mother of all medicated oils and each family would boasted of a preference for a particular brand.

The 'koyok man' show was predictable. I recalled clearly this medicine man that peddled his special oil for treating burns. He got his act ready by placing a tiny kerosene stove in the centre, and a small table displaying his fiery red oil in tiny little bottles. Behind the table stood an array of photographs parading his satisfied customers and well-known personalities lending credibility to his wares.

Crowd would gathered to sniff out what was happening and he would start to light up the stove and placed a long thick metal chain over the store. Turning up the heat, the metal chain started to glow as it absorbed all the heat. In the meantime, he did nothing except going round the stove creating an air of expectation. When the crowd was just right, he will extol on the merits of his special medicated oil. Boasting of his discipleship of a far away master in far away China and citing the many cures and miracles of his patients. And the who’s and who’s in his list of satisfied customers. This went on and on while he tried to sell his concotion. No one bought as most would had been memerised by his bragging and waiting to see what he was going to do with the fiery red hot chain.

This would drag on until very late. No one bought and no one budged. He was waiting for us and we, for him.

Just before closing time, if there was a period, he lifted up the chain and in full view of the audience; he slided one hand over the red-hot chain and shouted out in agony.

Careful to show his contorted face exaggrated with pain and he went over to the table and grabbed a bottle and apply the ointment over his hand while his face gleamed with gratification that he had found relieve.

Everyone would applaused and suddenly everyone started buying the ointment. It was amazing.

We laughed over it, as we couldn’t believe that people could fall for the trick. There was no miracle for burns, maybe a temporary relieve. We knew it, we saw him applied an ointment on his hands before he set up his store.

And there was this man who sold glass cutters. It was amazing. He slided the cutter along a piece of glass and with a gentle knock, the glass splited cleanly along the cut. Impressed, I bought one but it never worked.

I was convinced at a tender age not to trust street vendors. To me, it was all about showmanship and conditioned presentation.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Night Bazaars

Pasar malam or night bazaar in Malay is the mall of yester years. Two blocks away from Block 13 was a large canal with a wide footpath, the normal quiet walkway came alive during the weekends with the night bazaar. Peddlers with make shift stores displayed a wide range of goods and services lined up the walkway lit with kerosene lamps making it a hive of activities as residents swarmed to enjoy the revelry.

We could not, as usual, afford a lot of things and would resort to pilfering by coming up with a strategy to avoid been caught. Our brilliant idea was inspired by the fact that these stalls were badly lit by kerosene lamps. The vendors would therefore not be able to notice much if we approached him in a big group. We would then haggle for cheaper prices, and while the vendor lapsed into a moment of inattention, one of us would move in and pinched whatever we fancied.

Durian was our favourite as it was expensive back then and considered an indelegnce. The Malays had a saying “pawn the sarong for the durian”. Durians were usually displayed on the ground and we would crowd round the made shift store and Richard with his matured look would pretend to haggle for cheaper prices to distract the seller. Conveniently, one of us would kick the durian backwards where someone was waiting to pick it up and walked away.

Over the durians we would often boast and outbid each other of our daring exploits to the point of cooking up tales in order not to be outdone.

Proven techniques used on the mama store were repeated to our delight. Fitness counted and you got no one to blame if you are caught.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Light Up

We could not afford moon cakes and I can’t remember eating moon cakes during mid autumn festival or moon cake festival except for the little cute piglet pastry – a pastry that resembled a piglet lying inside a basket. For us, Mid autumn festival was a sort of ‘evil’ as we played pranks on those excited children swinging their lanterns.

There were two types of lanterns in those days. The cheap ones were made of paper somewhat like a can with bellows. Those who could afford go for the dazzling design – make of colourful cellophane draped over bamboo frames with a holder for the candle in the centre. The evenings leading to the fifteen day of the eight-month of the lunar year became alive with bright colourful lanterns climaxing on the night of the full moon.

We couldn’t afford lanterns and beside paper lanterns aren’t much fun for us as they burnt easily. For us, a lantern had got to be durable and we came up with a brilliant design.

Made from empty milk powder can, we pierced two holes opposite of each other at the top and strung a wire across. The can was sliced with as many grooves as possible lengthwise with a can opener and pressed down, looking somewhat like a bird cage. All kinds of flammable materials are stuffed inside the can to fuel this lantern and using a bamboo stick to hold the wire, and we got yourselves a metal lantern.

Our metal lanterns came in all sizes and shapes. They looked mean and won't get burnt like the traditional lanterns.

As we mingled with other children in the lantern procession, we would intentionally bump their lanterns and watched the children screamed in horror as their lantern went up in flames.

Been competitive, our minds were stretched when we tried to outdo each other.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The Friendly Mama Store

Aside from gleaning earnings from the unsuspecting housewives, we would also turn to the Indian provision stores, more commonly called mama stores (Indian for uncle) for free snacks.

One of us would walk up to the mama pretending to ask for direction or for a change. While he was distracted the others would move into position, grabbing all that we could before the mama noticed us. This was our modus operandi, at which we became quite adept as time passed. We made off with all sorts of things: toys, chewing gums, and candy leaving the man to run after us. The mamas were no match for us as we were much younger and fitter and even so, there is no way they can get us running in their lungi.

Another strategy was to get Richard, a good athlete to snatch something off the store to lure the mama into giving chase. And while the mama ran off in pursuit, we took our time to scoop up the things we fancied.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Hungry Ghosts

My most vivid memories were those of the Hungry Ghosts’ Festival, the seventh lunar month during which the Chinese believed that spirits were allowed free from hell to roam earth for a month.

To keep these ‘hungry ghosts’ away from their homes, people burnt ‘hell money’ outside their houses as offerings for the ghosts to use in the underworld. They also left food such as oranges and bananas.

Chinese operas (wayangs) were performed in marquees and empty seats were left at the front for the invisible ghosts. The performers wore elaborate silk costumes and bright make-up. The ghosts were served food such as fish, meat and vegetable dishes.

The seventh lunar month is believed to be an inauspicious season and one avoids getting married. Similarly, they do not make long journeys. Outdoors activities such as picnics and swimming are prohibited. Drownings and traffic accidents were attributed to the spirits. In short, all auspicious events like weddings, travel plans, birthday celebrations and renovations were avoided at all costs during this month.

To appease the ghosts, wayangs were staged along the streets. Mainly consisting of two stages, one for the operas, the other for the altar and prayers.

The wayang stage was constructed with wooden scaffolding and the stage lined with planks with gaps in between. We used to go under the makeshift stage to prick at the feet of the opera singers with long wooden skewers. It was hilarious to hear the crowd jeered when the actors reacted in pain. At other times, we would sneak up to the wings, silently sitting there until the climax came, and then joined in by singing gibberish. Sometimes they got so annoyed with us they splashed hot water at us, or chased us away with rods.

Hungry Ghosts’ Festival was memorable not only because of the splashes and dashes of gaudy colours, not only because of the delicious bordering on putrid smell of rich fatty meat which the rich splurged on to save their souls, not only because of the piercingly haunting voices of the opera singers. There was another thing, which made it so alluring: the prospect of gaining money. Prayers were offered by mostly superstitious housewives to appease the spirits. They would also tossed coins into the air as offerings. We would then go search for the coins after they had finished their rituals, and were always delighted in finding extra allowances to spare. It was a taboo to pick up these coins, which were meant for the spirits, but the fear of being cursed was not of concern. The cash was good, that was all that mattered.

Every year we raided the offerings placed at the back of the altar and consumed them at our favourite hangout – tenth floor of Block 13.

What audacity!

The Big Bang

Firecrackers provided so much fun. To mark the end of Chinese New Year’s fifteen days of celebration, the Chinese (not us though) would have a sumptuous dinner followed by the performance of fireworks and firecrackers. Children would play with firecrackers in all sizes and shapes. Each year, on the fifteen day of the Lunar New Year, one of the wealthiest neighbours, Tuck’s family would provide the grand finale. A long cluster of huge powerful firecrackers was dropped from the highest level, the tenth floor to the ground level. The long stretch was a spectacle and a pride for the Block 13. Such acts were a display of one’s status. Sometimes there would be a number of columns of fireworks as each family brought out theirs hoping to provide the longest and powerful performance.

With everyone anticipating for the detonation, every level was filled with spectators waiting for someone to start theirs. It could be a long wait as everyone wants to be the last. However, they had be lit before the clock struck midnight. The minute one got lit, everyone would applause and the residents living beside the porch would rush to close their windows. The explosions were thunderous. As the fire ignited the crackers on its way up, the porch filled with smoke and red paper fragments flying all over. It was incredible. At the end of the line, was a huge assembly of large power packed firecrackers, which were designed to detonate simultaneously. The finale was thunderous bang sending all the paper fragments flying in all directions.

At the end of this awesome display, the ground level was a sea of red paper fragments. Wading and swimming in a six inches thick sea of fire cracker garbage was pure delight. The Chinese called it “man ti hong”, roughly translated meaning a sea of red.

Each year, we would come up with ideas like removing the explosives from the firecrackers and wrapped them up with cigarette foil together with a small marble. This innovation is a self-detonated explosive. Smash it on the ground and on impact, the marble and concrete ground created a spark igniting the homemade explosive. We would try to outdo each other by creating the largest explosion which was limited by the size of the cigarette foil.

Another favourite was to light a fire cracker and to cover it with an empty can and sees it propelled sky-high. As expected, we competed for the highest jolt.

There were some really crazy pranks by other older boys who aimed fireworks directly into people’s houses. Thankfully, we were responsible enough not to imitate them. Firecrackers were banned later as they caused a lot of accidents and fires.

There were other innovations, which were best not described here, as they were probably the reasons the government banned firecrackers in 1971.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Hide And Seek

A favourite when we were young. The game was pretty straightforward, one started off being the tag. The tag leaned his arm against the wall and closed his eyes and placed his head on his arms. While in this position, the rest ran off to hide. After a predetermined period, he went in search for us. The game ended when everyone was accounted for and the first to be discovered ends up as the tag. The standard rules were that the tag must not open his eyes when the rest were seeking cover and the cover area was specified so that the game could be played within a reasonable time.

Lawrence came from a rather affluent family. When he first moved in we took advantage of him because of his trusting nature. We often went to his apartment to play hide-and-seek. If he was the tag, we would seize the opportunity to raid his fridge, while he remained none the wiser.

Once in our excitement, we specified a rather large area where one could take cover. The game did not finish, as we couldn’t locate a few of them. The next day we realised that some had went so far away that it was not possible to track them. Rules must be practical and observed.

As time progressed, we modified the game to include two tags or played them in the most unlikely places – the neighbourhood dump was one of them.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Punching Bags

A sport we often practised. Back then, lightings in lift consisted of a fluorescent tube confined within a cage, presumably to prevent theft. And the lift stopped at the eighth, fifth and ground level. We would enter the lift and with a twist of the fluorescent tube, the lights went off and all of us go for a free for all punching session.

When the door opened and light streamed in, we beheld ourselves in various states of injury and undress. David was the first to fall victim to these punching sessions. When he first moved into Block 13, we decided to let him have a foretaste of our fun, a sort of orientation before one qualifies to join the band of brothers.

As time passed our sessions became more and more frequent, and more and more violent. David himself would learn the techniques of how not to get injured, and how to cause the most injury – we even developed a strategy of offensive defence, which meant that we would enter into an aggressive frenzy hurling punches and profanities to prevent others from harming us first. ‘Tua sceah buay chun’ meaning vociferous but ineffective.
Once a session got so violent that the lift was knocked out of alignment and we got trapped in the elevator. We were later rescued by the maintenance people.

Offence is sometimes the best defence.


Back in those days, laundry was draped over bamboo poles and placed outside the kitchen to dry. George lived above us and our parents often quarrelled over wet laundry. Somehow, the Lim family had a habit of hanging out wet laundry to drip dry.

When we were at home, we got agitated with this inconsiderate behaviour and participated in the shouting matches. But when we were out playing with George, everything seems normal. We never tried to reconcile.

Somehow, both families never fought except for the regular shouting bouts. It was strange that we fought regularly over the wet laundry but never worked out a solution.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Rabbit House

Block 13 faced no degrading superstition that number thirteen does. On the contrary, its residents felt most blessed to be staying this block, for in Cantonese thirteen sounds like “guaranteed to live”, a doubtless guarantee in these days, but in those days there was no such guarantee.

On the shoulders of Jalan Merpati lined Block 12 to Block 14 and on the opposite, Block 11 and Block 15. Each block rose ten floors and each unit consisted of a hall, room, kitchen with an adjoining toilet, altogether a paltry fifty square meters.

It was not uncommon to find a family of ten spanning three generations living in the tiny apartment. The hall served as temporary sleeping quarters in the night. Every night, there was a man from a large family on the ground level sleeping outside his house as there was insufficient space for the family to squeeze inside the apartment.

Most homes were so crammed that tuberculosis and bed bugs were common plagues. We spent a lot of time getting rid of the bed bugs, an impossible task as they multiplied rapidly in the congested environment. Being annoyed with sleepless nights and constant itch, I came up with the most brilliant idea. I sewed the sides of the bed sheet leaving one end open for me to slip in. I wrapped the opening around my neck and stopped the bugs from entering.

Most families used foldable canvas beds looking somewhat like magazine holders; they were folded and put away in the day. Fridges were unheard of and meals were prepared in the morning after marketing. One would cook lunch and dinner at the same time and left them in a cabinet. In those days, most food storage cabinets had doors with framed wire mesh allowing air to circulate to avoid food spoilage and yet preventing houseflies from contaminating the food. The cabinet legs sat on top of inverted small cups sitting on flat dishes filled with water acting as a moat against the food seeking ants.

There were no phones, no television and no electronics gadgets. No convenience yet so much time to spare.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Moving In

I cannot remember when we moved into Block 13. When we first moved in, we did not know anyone. My brother and I spent our days in solitary seclusion, playing with each other. Before long, we began to notice other boys of our age living around us. The first was Will, the same age as me. He was not very tall, but not very short either, and was of extremely dark complexion. His parents were seamstresses, which meant that they earned enough to live a relatively comfortable lifestyle.

Will, though a little proud of his moderate wealth, was by no means conceited. On the other hand, George, quite easily the richest of us all, was the show-off, even when it did not come to money, and in spite of the fact that there was really nothing spectacularly amazing about him. I remember once we went to swim, and George tried to impress the girls with his infantile macho tricks: he executed a dive from the springboard – or should I say attempted to execute a dive from the springboard – and failed. Instead, he smacked the water ungracefully face flat, inciting riotous laughter from us all. Yet he persisted in informing us that it was a spectacular dive, despite our disbelief. Another time, barely after we had learnt to ride our bicycles, George decided that he would demonstrate to us his superior cycling skills. While going down an especially treacherous slope, he overtook us all by pedalling furiously, only to lose control of his bicycle. He was thrown off, his back and ego bruised, and his bike bent beyond recognition, his expensive clothes slightly shredded. And yet George was one of us. We were inextricably bound together by our yearning for adventure.

Not as rich as George perhaps, but nonetheless still rather affluent, was Lawrence. He was the best mannered and well dressed of us all, and he was the most innocent, a fact accentuated by slightly round and childish features. We used to take advantage of him because of his trusting nature. For example, we often went to his apartment to play hide-and-seek. If he was the seeker, we would seize the opportunity to raid his fridge, while he remained none the wiser.

David was the most well fed even though he was not the wealthiest. This was attributable to the fact that his mother was Cantonese and therefore cooked very well. He was the last of us to move in; as a result he was often sidelined by us. Soon David became one of us, his integration made even more seamless by the fact that he was terribly good at impersonations – he could imitate Charlie Chaplin and The Three Stooges, all of who we watched at the television (much to our novelty and delight, for indeed televisions were extremely expensive in those days) at William’s place, of course.

While David was talented at acting, Peter, another of us, was talented at his studies. He was most definitely the cleverest of us all. His intellectual capabilities were only matched by his passion for swimming. In fact, he was the one who sparked off our interest in the sport. Because he swam so often, he grew tall and muscular in a short time. His younger brother, Richard, was the comedian. He was always ready to participate in pranks and practical jokes, and he was an interesting person to be with. He was typically attired in a sleeveless shirt, probably because the weather was hot and humid and he wanted to feel cool.

We knew almost everyone and we could walk into each other’s home like we were part of the family. There was no barrier, young or old, rich or poor.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Humble Beginnings

In the beginning I knew only of my brother and myself. We did not use the English names we use now; instead he was called Ah Teck and I, Ah Heo, both of which betrayed our Hokkien ancestry. For my brother his name was of special significance – it means bamboo in Hokkien, and indeed Ah Teck was as thin as his namesake, and I was not much better. Unfortunately we were not of the merchant class; our father was a bus-driver and our family was big, which meant only one thing – poverty. And yet we were not as poor as others were poor, at the least we had a roof over our heads, thanks to the widespread provision of inexpensive housing. Still, in the face of household expenditure, school fees, textbook expenses and spending on clothes, there was rarely enough to go around every month.

Our father did all he could to procure food for us. Rarely did we have anything much more than rice. Our meals were supplemented now and then with ‘phor’, that is to strengthen the constitution, we would buy the cheapest slab of pork liver, layer it with ginger strips and a pinch of salt and blanch the mixture in boiling water to make a soup – the poor man’s tonic.

Our diet was exceedingly meagre, at most thin gruel with soya sauce and occasionally achar, a pickled vegetable or perhaps ikan bilis, tiny silver fishes dried in the heat of the sun and fried with a little chilli.

At times, we slept with empty stomach or water filled stomach to ease the hunger. It was hard for Dad to see us suffer and on the flip side, we knew that Dad borrowed and pawned in order to keep the family.

Chicken is served on the table once a year on Chinese New Year. The prized cut being the chicken thighs were reserved for my third sister and my youngest brother. Both of them, Dad’s favourites - the brightest and the youngest.

Meal consists mainly of a meagre portion of meat and the occasional braised duck and pig. We had coffee shop near Block 13 with a stall selling braised duck and pig. Dad would send us to queue up before the stall opens for business. The standard instruction is to get three duck heads and a dollar of pig head and ear meat. The reason was obvious, they are cheap.

There was the infrequent wedding dinner, where it is customary to bring along pots so that leftovers would be muddled up. The concoction is a superior stew of sorts would last us for days. This was the only luxury, we knew of at that time.

My brother and I will labouriously search through the stew and shout out in ecstasy if we would find a piece of meat or fish.

Those were the days of insufficiency and we learnt quickly to appreciate whatever was placed on the table.

Friday, June 16, 2006


Dad often spoke of the time when we were living in Neil Road located in Tai Seng vicinity, a place known for notorious gangsters. I can't seem to recall no matter how hard I try.

For my beginning, I knew of only a gang of boys, a band of brothers, who managed to find amusement in the unlikeliest of places in an unlit elevator, along quiet corridors, muddy, murky drains, on mischievous pranks of the highest order.

Block Thirteen was a playground for the sons of its residents. Situated in a now quiet and run-down estate of Singapore rises lankily and lazily a tall building, once the crowning glory of a newly industrialized country.

This was life then, our lives, my life, for I was one of those boys, crazy and lanky as the building we lived in, our arms and legs too short for our bodies, our spectacles ridiculously large, our pants equally appalling. Yet we knew not that our silly affections would go out of fashion one day, ridiculed by our children, we lived in that moment, for that moment.

One may wonder why I wish to tell my story. It is not, as may be assumed, because of nostalgia, which is a weak sentiment only possible at reunions, or in the dead secret of the night. I ache for the past. I miss it from time to time. I am telling this to share a history, my story.

This is my story, our story peculiar to our little group only. I think.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Block 13

Welcome to Block 13. This is a journey of my childhood days back in Jalan Merpati. A newly developed town in the 1960s. Come take a walk with me.

Story by Gilbert.