The aphorism “Distance lends enchantment” has a certain ring of truth: when I look back from the distance of almost 60 years, my life in the former British Crown Colony of Singapore seems like a fairy tale. The passage of six decades, of course, obscures past disappointments and discomforts so that only the good memories remain—and they are many, indeed.
I first heard of Singapore when my mother went to the post office in the small Texas town where we lived to mail a parcel to my father. The postal clerk refused to accept the package, telling my mother “There isn’t no such place.” Defeated, she returned home with the parcel; I can only suppose she packed it in the luggage we brought with us on the ship.
It was April 1952 when my mother, my younger sister Mary, and I arrived in Singapore to join my father. I was eight years old, a highly impressionable age; my sister Mary, five. My father was assigned the position of military attaché at what was then the American Consulate--in those days, Singapore was part of Malaya.
Singapore’s history begins with its founding by Sir Stamford Raffles. For almost a century it was an entrepôt port—that is, a port where goods could be imported and exported without customs duty being paid. The name “Singapore” derives from two Sanskrit words, singa pura, meaning “lion city.” (We saw no lions outside of zoos when we there, but once a tiger swam the Straits between the Malay Peninsula and the island of Singapore and terrorized the villagers in the kampongs [native settlements] for a time until it was caught and shot.)
My sister and I soon grew to love our new home, from the blue waters lapping Collyer Quay to the impressive St. Andrew’s Cathedral built of grey stone, standing in its carefully tended square of green common. We were enchanted by the monkeys swinging from tree to tree in the Botanic Gardens, and sometimes traffic slowed as a procession of elephants made its stately way down the street. Sometimes my mother met her friends for morning coffee at the Adelphi Hotel and would take Mary and me along. It was always a treat to partake of the delicious pastries in the hotel dining room with its red plush seats and dark paneling.
In monsoon season the rains were so heavy that The Straits Times published photographs of cyclists riding through waist-high water in the flooded streets. The Times also carried short accounts of shopkeepers who had shot and killed pythons of various lengths—anywhere from 10 to 14 feet—outside their shops. The pythons liked to feast on the rats that are an inescapable part of any wharf environment.
However, the only snakes we saw, as a rule, were those kept by the “gully-gully men,” the snake charmers who frequented Change Alley, a raucous, exciting marketplace full of Chinese, Indian, and Malayan vendors purveying everything under the sun. At the time Singapore’s population was 70 percent Chinese, with the remainder made up of Malays, Indians, and Europeans. Our grocer, Chop Chin Bee, had a tiny store on Orchard Road, a thoroughfare that always intrigued Mary and me. On the way to Chin Bee’s, we passed such establishments as Bata Shoes, Cold Storage, Robinson’s Department Store, and many advertisements for Cow & Gate powdered milk.
Inside the store Chop Chin Bee would smile indulgently as my sister and I helped ourselves to the amazing array of British sweets: Fry’s penny chocolate bars, Rowntree’s Fruit Gums, McIntosh toffee, and tin boxes of Cadbury’s Milk Tray, a chocolate assortment we loved. No doubt Chin Bee busily kept track of our consumption as he took my mother’s order for flour, sugar, and other staples.
My family lived in Braddell Heights, a housing area of stucco bungalows lining streets that all carried English names: we lived at No. 8, Cotswold Close. Our landlord was an Indian gentleman named Chidarambaram, a name so complicated his tenants simply addressed him as “Mr. Chid.” He wore western clothes but his very attractive wife always wore a sari. They had a disconcerting habit of calling on their tenants just as dinner was being served.
Two servants came with the house—a Chinese amah, who did all the housework and some of the cooking, if asked, and a Malay kebun (pronounced “kee-BOON”) who did the gardening. Our house had three bedrooms, one of which was used as my father’s study, a “lounge,” as the British called the living room, a dining room, and a kitchen. The amah’s room and bath was off the kitchen. There was a carport without a car, although my father later acquired a jeep for transportation. One curious fact about the house was that there were no wire screens: they would soon have rotted in Singapore’s hot, humid climate. My sister and I slept under snowy mosquito nets. During the day the nets were piled into a rectangular wooden frame suspended above each bed; at night they were let down and tucked under the mattresses, all the way around. Our parents’ bedroom had a window unit air conditioner, but a ceiling fan cooled our room.
We soon became accustomed to the fact that the radio, or “wireless,” as our British friends referred to it, broadcast only a few hours a day in English. The rest of the broadcasts were in Malay or Chinese. One thing we never got used to, however, was electricity rationing. Although The Straits Times supposedly published the days and hours when each area of Singapore would forego electricity, the power plant sometimes ignored the schedule. At any time of the day shrieks might resound up and down Cotswold Close as people were interrupted in the middle of some chore or other that required power. In the meantime my mother, a country-bred Texas girl who was nothing if not resourceful, cooked our meals on a charcoal brazier in the carport.
Our kebun spent his mornings working for another family and his afternoons working for us. I still remember the archway he constructed in front of the terrace that led to the entryway of our house. He planted a moonflower vine that crawled over the arch, its silky white flowers opening only in the tropical moonlight.
But for me the most evocative scent of a Singapore evening is that of frangipani. It came in two colors, a mottled pale purple with deeper color toward the center, or white, with a golden center. To this day when I smell frangipani it brings back memories of my childhood.
The kebun also planted a bush or two of chili peppers. For some reason my sister and Mary and I simply could not restrain ourselves from sampling the powerful red chilis, and would run howling, with tears streaming down our faces, to our mother so she could take away the pain.
Once he planted a papaya tree right outside our dining room window. It was a salutary experience to be able to open the dining room shutters, lean out unimpeded by wire screens, and cut off a ripe papaya. And such a fruit! I’ve never tasted better papaya before or since. It looked like a long, oval honeydew melon, but when cut open, the tender flesh was pale coral and the flavor sweet and delicate.
There were other strange fruits: I don’t remember eating mango or pineapple in Singapore, but there was a lot of yellow, citrusy-tart flavored starfruit; funny-looking rambutans, shaped like small red eggs with sharp spines sticking out, but revealing sweet, white, jelly-like flesh when opened; pomelo, which looked like a huge, pear-shaped grapefruit but was dark green outside and had pale green citrus sections inside; and small, sweet bananas, only as long as a grown-up’s fingers. One fruit we never ate was durian, a fruit much beloved by the Malay population, but which my mother described as tasting like “creamed, rotten onions.”
One might think that our neighborhood was like any suburban neighborhood: nice, but rather dull. Not in Singapore! All day the Chinese vendors, balancing a pole across their shoulders with a pot hanging from each end, would trot down the road, crying their wares. The gully-gully men would appear, begging for the privilege of putting on a show for the children, and we would watch from a safe distance as they squatted to play their pipes, swaying from side to side as the cobras, with hoods spread, swayed with them.
Nor was the neighborhood particularly silent during the day, when from time to time the noise of a Chinese funeral would rend the air as the vehicles proceeded down the road. “Why do they make so much noise?” I asked my mother. “The gongs and drums keep the evil spirits away,” she told me.
We played with the Pakistani children across the street, our English friend from Dunsfold Drive, and with a Chinese slave girl. She was owned by two families, working for one in the morning and one in the evening. Sometimes, on her way from one house to the other, she would stop and join our games. She was about 11, a little older than I.
Social life for my parents was based on “clubs.” There were the Swiss Club, Dutch Club, German club, and so on. My parents’ closest friends were ex-RAF pilots that now flew for Malayan Airways. My mother made many friends in the international community and for a while served as president of the International Women’s Club.
Politics did not affect our daily lives very much, except when we traveled with friends from Singapore to see the Sultan’s zoo at Johore Bahru. This was a time of guerrilla warfare, when the Communists were fighting hard in Malaya. They were known to ambush the cars of Europeans occasionally and take people hostage, so a trip to Johore was always a time of nail-biting anxiety.
Fighting was going on in French Indochina as well. Years later my father recounted how he and my mother sat tensely by the radio one day to hear the announcer say slowly: “Dien Bien Phu has fallen.” No one had expected the Communists to come through the jungles of what is now Viet Nam.
My sister and I, however, were too young to know about such things, or what the Japanese troops had done in Malaya in general and Singapore in particular. To us, “Changi” meant “Changi Beach,” not a dreaded prison. We went swimming at Changi Beach or Tanamerah Beach, or at the Tanglin Club.
During the day we attended Dean’s School, a semiprivate school for the children of the international community. (This was years before the American School was built in Singapore.) I was considered “backward” because at age eight I didn’t know the times tables. I was therefore put into the “babies’ class” until I learned them. To this day I can close my eyes and remember the chanting:
“Seven nines are sixty-three,
Seven tens are seventy.
Seven elevens are seventy-seven,
Seven twelves are eighty-four.”
As soon as I mastered all twelve times tables, I was promoted to my proper age group. Back home in the USA, my aunt Dorothy proudly wrote my mother that her daughter, the same age as I, had just learned her three times table.
In those waning days of the British Empire, Dean’s School followed a traditional pattern. Children attended classes there until the age of 10, when they might be dispatched to boarding school in Penang, on the Malay Peninsula, or they might stay until age 12, at which time they were sent home to boarding school in England. It is a curious difference between British and American culture that whereas in the USA, sending one’s children to boarding school is considered to be one degree worse than murder, in England it is considered proof of the deepest parental devotion: parents will forego new clothes, vacations (“holidays”), and even cars in order to send their children to the right school, to acquire the right accent. This can make all the difference to a child’s future life and earnings.
This may not be true nowadays, but it certainly was in the 1950s. Nor was our curriculum anything like that of an American school. English, for example, was divided into many different segments: reading, composition, dictation, spelling, English grammar, fundamental English, and parsing. We learned French, mathematics, art, and two different kinds of English history—the kind with dates and the kind I liked better, which consisted of stories about famous people like Professor Owen, Elizabeth Fry, and Florence Nightingale.
Naturally, as this was a British school, we all wore uniforms. Boys wore short-sleeved white shirts and navy blue shorts. Girls wore blue gingham-checked dresses. On my first day at Dean’s, my teacher, assisted by two student aides who were writing notes, asked me how many frocks I had.
“Flocks?” I repeated, bewildered. “I don’t have any flocks. I’m not a farmer!”
The girls went into gales of giggles and even the teacher chuckled. “Not flocks, frocks,” she said. “Dresses. How many dresses do you have?”
She meant school uniform dresses. She needed to know because all the students were divided into “houses.” Red was “Chancery,” yellow was “Newton,” and green was “Balmoral.” I was assigned to Balmoral, which meant that on the left side of my chest I wore a strip of colored tape sewn to the fabric of my school frock.
A perfect grade in any subject was rewarded with a star. The teacher would scribble an asterisk-shaped symbol on one’s paper and duly note the achievement in her account book. The student awarded the most stars in any one week was permitted to wear the “Top Badge” all the following week. Earning the top badge was considered an honor for one’s house. The most stars any child had ever won was 12; I won regularly until the week I won 14. Shortly after that, I won 18 stars in one week. The fact that I, a master sergeant’s daughter, outshone the performance of the colonel’s daughter all during my three years at Dean's, gave my father deep satisfaction.
Because the weather was so hot, we children only attended school from 9 until 1 most days. On Tuesdays we stayed until 3 o’clock, doing crafts and playing netball. But every other day our parents came to pick us up and take us home to tea.
Ah, tea. The foundation of my lifelong love affair with tea began in Singapore. Every afternoon at 4 the amah would come into the lounge bearing a tray with a teapot, cups, milk and sugar, and Crawford’s 4 o’clock Tea Biscuits. There were Jammy Dodgers, custard creams, and my own favorite, Bourbon Creams. This last was a pair of rectangular chocolate cookies with a layer of chocolate filling between them.
We left Singapore to go back to the States in December 1954. On our way home, during what was supposed to be an overnight stop in New Delhi, I suffered a ruptured appendix, which caused all sorts of complications for my poor father. When we eventually arrived in the USA, the Army did not accept the fact of his child’s illness as an excuse for reporting late for duty.
From the sophistication of a British Crown Colony to the insularity of a very small town in Texas was a profound adjustment, one that was very difficult for me. My Texas schoolmates and teachers disliked my pronounced British accent and felt that I was comparing Texas unfavorably with Singapore. It was difficult to make friends, and just as I was beginning to adjust to an altogether different world, my family moved again, this time to Little Rock, Arkansas.
For many years after we left Singapore I was occasionally assailed by sharp pangs of homesickness for the way of life I had grown to love, and for the place itself—the Chinese faces, the scents—yes, I even missed the acrid odor of a lorry loaded with sheets of latex—and the sights. When we visited Cairns in the late 1990s, I was swept by a wave of nostalgia, it was so similar in some ways to the Singapore I had known: the fields of green sugar cane swaying in the breeze; the palm trees towering over the stucco bungalows ranged in tidy rows in the little beach towns we passed traveling from Cairns to Fort Douglas; the tropical vegetation, and the heat.
I wish I could go back to Singapore one day, even though I know Change Alley will have changed beyond all recognition and the Ten Courts of Hell exhibit at Haw Par Villa will have lost its power to terrify. The shops I knew and loved will have disappeared, but the faint fragrance of frangipani will still scent the night air, and monkeys will still chatter in the trees of the Botanic Gardens.