Postman in the Kampong in the Past

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Postmen are familiar figures in all parts of Singapore since the early days.

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A Malay postman in the 1900s.

A postman is an important person in our lives because they facilitate communication among people from various parts of the world; internationally.

Those were the early days before Internet online email, Facebook, Twitters, Whatsapp, Messenger and the instantaneous communication with text, images, ‘live’ audio-visual videos and photos to change the lives of everyone.

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Did you notice that the postman in 1906 was bare-footed?

They not only deliver letters, they also bring parcels at our doorsteps, instead of travelling long distances to pick it at the nearest post office.

Everyday, people wait patiently for the postman to deliver good news after a job interview, application for a licence from the government or businesses, result after a school examination, etc.

These include confirmation of business deals, college invitation, or a selection to attend an event.  Love letters from boy to girl or girl to boy and they couldn’t sleep the whole night after reading the letters of sweet nothing 🙂

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Being a postman is not an easy job.  One needs to serve many households everyday without mixing up the letters or parcels.

The postman do not work in air-conditioned comfort or sitting down in front of a computer and little to walk about.  In whatever weather, rain or shine, he works outside serving people.

Being a postman requires to be self-disciplined, honest, reliable and part of his duty is to deliver sensitive information he needs to be responsible and arduous despite the volume of work he needs to complete each day.  A postman is a diligent worker and true to his work.  It is an honest job to earn a living and with a good respect for contribution to Singapore.

In summary, a postman is a noble person and has a heavy responsibility job to perform because he ensure everyone receive his package in time.  Someday, an important letter from the employer to attend a job interview could change our lives.

With the courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore, with an excerpt of the oral interview of Mr Cheong Yoke Khee ( 张玉旗先生)  on 4 September, 1995 below:

Postmen expected to be courteous.  Travelled by walking.  Delivery of mail during Christmas and Chinese New Year.  Mail must be delivered by end of the day.  Salary earned was enough for him.  Uniforms issued.  Polished uniform buttons and shoes.  Mailbags used.  Few letters written in the 1950s.  Carried a raincoat or else he would be fined or transferred out.  Postmen in outlying areas had bicycles and motorcycles.  Bicycles looked after by shopkeepers while on duty.  People waited for letters eagerly.  General Post Office (GPO) branches,

The interview in Chinese reproduced:

现在他们没有这么样 ( 认真 ),只有看那个 [信] 送到去就不管了,我们没有,以前没有,认真,很认真做,做工很汄真,送一定要送好好来,不要去到那边就丢下去在那个桌子,我们不敢的。现在他们是那个……就跑掉,我们没有。以前的很好,礼貌的。我们的那个时代,50 年代,叫做 50 年代,我们送信的时候不敢怎么样,要去到那边有礼貌,跟人家说: “早安,你的信到了。” 要淡一谈的,
跟那个店头 (店里) 还是什么。有时碰贝那个人家家庭什么: “你的信,送来,来收信。” 他有信箱我们放信箱,以前是很少有信箱的,那个小的信箱很少有的。说”好了!收信了!” 他们就说谢谢。保家信签名,要比较跟他们很客气,我们对他越客气,他们对我们越好。

那个时候还没有脚车,就走路,你走几多条石 [供应] 来,我做了这样多年是走路,有时走几里路。好像我们去到那边来回要3个半里路,没有太短的,这样去都1个里半了,回来不是 [共] 3个里半 [吗?],多数走路。有时背 [很] 重,在那个 [节日] 人家过节,圣涎节还是我们华人过年,那个信很多,就是在圣诞节那个圣涎卡就很多,困为那个时候 [是在] 英国人的手,很多人是奉教 [教徒|] 的多。这个送完了后就到那个华 [人新] 年了,困为新加坡人很多华人,寄贺年片多,就做那个补水 (超时工作)。有时晚上放工回去,筹等下晚上你来做补水,你准备你的区的信做好了,明天你送些比较没有……送不完。 他英国人这样,一定要你送完的,今天的信不要留在明天的,一定要迒到完。就是放工事,回去了,回去吃饭吃完了,晚上就淮备我们的……。做十多天,做到差不多要过年就停了。那个时候过年都要做工,年初也要做工。那么在50年代。店头 (商店) 很喜欢的,他年初收到年片什么东西,他们很高兴。他重要是年片,因为他说你去做工,送张年片给他,说有人跟他拜年什么,他很喜欢有这种的东西。以前华人的传统是这样,年初一来,他很高兴。但是很多店头没有开的,有来开就是好像八时多,九时开,他就关了,那个时候我们刚刚出来送信,送给他们。有的还没有开我就没有办法,看它可以放进去我们就放进去,多数跟他放在门下面,塞进去那个信。

…… 50年代那个东西很便宜,好像一杯咖啡,没有奶的,才我看1角钱,你放奶就1角5分,所以很便宜,什么都……。 吃一包 nasi lemak 饭 (梛丬浆饭),马来人卖的,很大包,两角钱,有的1角5分,看大小,小一点就1角钱,吃1包你就可以饱。卖的面的也是很便宜,两角钱,三角钱也有,现在就不同了,几元,差很远了。那个时候好像你不要大用 (多花),你用不完的,137 元你可以养一个家。好像我还没有结婚的时候我都用不完那个钱,137 元每个月用就剩下67元,用不完那个钱,就存下来,储蓄下来。

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Mr Cheong Yoke Khee, 59, outside the Singapore Philatelic Museum.  Beside him is Singapore’s only remaining red pillar, old-style post box.

(Photo by Ali Yusoff.  Source: The Straits Times, 2 February, 1996).

Letters from the past: A postman comes calling.

Like the stamps on display at the Singapore Philatelic Museum where he works as a guide, Mr Cheong Yoke Khee is a relic of the past.

At 59, he is probably the “oldest” postman around, having witnessed the transition of Singapore from British colonial rule in the ’50s to an independent Republic in 1965.

It all started in 1955 for the Malaysian-born Mr Cheong, when he gave up his studies in Malacca and came to Singapore.  “I was 18 and I wanted to earn my own living,” he says.

After a stint at a Chinese tea shop as a delivery boy, he became a postman with the British colonial government.

The pay was good for the time, he says.  “It was $137 a month, which is like $1,000 today.  At that time, coffee only cost five cents.”

The work, however, was strenuous.

“Have to walk to deliver letters, hundred of letters.  Bicycles very few, for long journeys only.”

This was no mean feat, considering that he had to carry his mail in a canvas bag, which weighed “at least 16 kg”.

“Sometimes, also had to climb stairs.  At that time, stairs were very dark and dangerous.  When it rained, it was worse, flooding very common.”

His uniform did not make things any easier.

“Khaki trousers and shirt, very thick and heavy.  Also had to wear topi, very hot.”

On top of that, the British were very sticky about discipline.

“Every morning when you came to work, the inspector would check on you.  Shoes, shirt buttons, even belt buckle and the GPO (General Post Office) letters on the topi, all had to polish.  If uniform not smart, they sent you home to clean and gave you warning.”

They were also very strict about people stealing stamps.

“If we saw stamps on the floor, we could not keep, had to report to inspector.”

This may explain why to this day, Mr Cheong has never had a stamp collection of his own.

Things took a turn for the better when Singapore became a republic in 1965.  A green uniform made of lighter material and cap replaced the khaki uniform and topi.

As the amount of mail increased in the ’70s, delivery by bicycles, which were given a coat of bright yellow paint (“to show that we are a young country”) became more common.

“The stamps also became more colourful.  In the past, they showed mostly the crowns of the British king and queen.  But now, they showed places in Singapore, the national flower and also tigers, which were common at Bukit Timah Hill.”

The Postman in Modern Times

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Over the decades, the postman and postal system offer courier services for sorting, delivery to destinations all over the world.  Speedpost is one of the best system and courier service, fast, reliable and efficient in Singapore.

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With the advent of Internet online communications, the methods of postal services have to change with the times. Please find out more here .

Personal memories of the postman in Bukit Ho Swee kampong.

Before the Bukit Ho Swee fire in 1961 when I was 13 years old, I received only 2 letters which the postman put into the letter-box of our landlord’s house.

One was a Chinese New Year card which my Primay 5 teacher Mr Soo Mok Sung from Delta Primary School in 1960.  I was very happy and when I showed it to my mother, she told me to thank Mr Soo.

Another was a colorful postcard which my English language teacher, Mrs Jessie Wee in 1960.  She was in Maxwell Hill in Malaysia when she was on honeymoon with her husband.  It is a pity that the greeting card and the postcard were burnt in the BHS fire.

More about Mrs Jessie Wee here .

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A new postman who have to deliver mails to an address in Bukit Ho Swee kampong, he would be confused and go crazy.

The house numbers were not in sequence or in any order.  It was a maze.  For example, house No. 15 would be house No. 55 on its left and house No. 88 on its right.  House No.  16 could be located further down the muddy road.   A seasoned and experienced postman after many months or years in Bukit Ho Swee may be able to deliver mails easily.

Fortunately, there are no longer kampongs in Singapore, else it would take hours to find the house numbers.  It was unplanned houses built anywhere anyhow as long as there is a vacant land to build the kampong house with wooden plank walls and attap or zinc roofs.  Really, nobody can imagine what a kampong in Bukit Ho Swee could locate.  Those were the days and place where I was born.

My fellow pioneer generation kampong dwellers have survived the fuzzy and messy ways of life in the kampong in the past.  We have adapted to the changes in our work, in the environment and the progress and developments in Singapore.

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