An Amah Says Farewell

amah-and-washing_smAn Amah in Singapore in the 1960s multi-tasking to dry the clothings after the laundry while a sarong tied to her back to look after her charge.

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Many of my Britbrat friends who were brought up by Amahs in Singapore in the 1950s and 1960s.

Tim Light shares his memories of  “1960s Singapore Amahs blog”  here

Shona Trench with her Amah2_sm

At the “Good Morning Yesterday” blog ,  a Britbrat Shona Trench would like to contact her amah Chew Joo Keng (Margaret). Shona writes:

“Hello, I am a British expat, living in Singapore now for four years, with my husband and two teenage children. I was born here in 1961, as my father was a photographer in the RAF and was based at RAF Seletar. I just wondered if you would be able to help me?

An Amah Says Farewell

While digging through old memories and newspaper articles at NewspaperSG,  I chanced this report in The Singapore Free Press dated 5 May, 1951.

Bee Wickerson writes from England:

Standing on the deck of the trooper that was to take me away from Singapore and home to England, I stared across the waters of the Singapore roads to where the lights of the city winked rather solemnly at me.  I wondered when next I should see it all.

A steward appeared in front of me and presented a slip of paper.  Curiously I looked at it, reading with growing astonishment, my own name and that of the ship.  I looked up with the obvious question hovering, and I saw Ah Seon.

It had been Chinese New Year and my own embarkation hurriedly put forward a day; and therefore my farewells to my amahs had not taken place.

Off they had gone to their feasting and merry-making, expecting to find me still in the house on their return.  But, when they had returned, I had already gone.

Yet Ah Seon had a tenacious nature.  She had made enquiries and ascertained that the ship was not actually sailing until the following day and that we were lying out overnight.

Whatever the cost, she had made up her mind that she would find us.

I shall never forget her as I saw her standing there on the deck before me.  A sad, white-faced woman, clutching her woven basket and her neatly rolled, black umbrella, she swayed slightly against a sudden lurch of the ship.

“I come, Mem.” she said.  “I no say bye-bye to John and Jane.”

“Come and see the children.” I cried.  “They are little sakit.  And first a taxi, Changi, Singapore.”

I gave her a seat and she sat down to gaze longingly at Jane as the baby stirred gently in her bunk.  I had no heart for discipline and routine.

“Pick her up, Ah Seon,” I said.  Before I had ceased speaking, Jane was being rocked in Amah’s arms, being crooned to in a soft Chinese harmony; and she was laughing, delighted to see Ah Seon.

Trying to waken John was another sort of task.  He was too tired after a long day and turned over sleepily.  Sadly Ah Seon murmured,  “Never mind … Night, night, John.  Tomorrow I no see you.”

Then it was time for Ah Seon to leave as she make her way home.  There was quite a swell when she made a shaky descent from the ship into the launch that was tossing and pitching in the churning water below us.

She turned at the bottom of the gangway and waved slowly.  I admit to a hot pricking behind my eyes as I replied to her farewell salute.

She threw her basket on to the launch and her umbrella.  Her spot clean samfu was spattered with spray as the launch bumped brutally against the ship’s side and then she jumped, landing fair and square, and hurried beneath the shelter of the small craft.

She had gone.  Across the waters came the faint chug chug of the petrol engine, and I believe I heard, “Bye Bye Mem.”

“Goodbye, Ah Seon,” I said, “and thank you.”

I was amazed, and wondered anew at the determination and the enterprise that had been my Amah’s farewell.

(Source:  NewspaperSG)

Returning from the ship to Collyer Quay in a sampan.

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Photo Credit:  Stone Family collection with thanks.

To Singapore, With Love

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To Singapore, With Love”  is not about the title of  a book on this blog.

This is the blog topic of an article “To Singapore, With Love” published in TODAY daily newspaper for free distribution in Singapore.

I tried to unearth this article dated 16 September 2006 for some blog research but the link requested URL “http://www.todayonline.com/pdflive/1609FCW036.pdf” but it cannot be found or is not available at “Good Morning Yesterday” .

With the courtesy of  NewspaperSG, the 8-year-old article written by Juliana June Rasul was extracted and reproduced on this blog for the convenience of our heritage friends to remember not to forget.

 social studies text book

Your average Social Studies textbook may characterize 50s and 60s Singapore as a time of strife and political tension, but Tom O’Brien remembers no such thing.

“Swimming every day – that was our life,” said the 53-year-old, who lived in Singapore for two years when his father, a staff sergeant with the British army, was posted here in 1967.

 “That and fishing at Changi, and exchanging comic books bought at Beauty World.”

Retiree John Harper echoes the same idyllic sentiment when he remembers the two years he spent here from 1957 to 1959 when he was 10.

2 With John HarperMrs Harper, Mrs Lam, John Harper and Lam Chun See in the photo taken in United Kingdom.

He remembers so much, in fact, that he was invited to write about it on a local blog.  At the invitation of  “Good Morning Yesterday”  owner Lam Chun See, Harper has written a seven-part personal history of his time in Singapore, which chronicles everything from his first taste of nasi bryani to an honest account of the racial tension that existed between ang mohs and locals.

OH, HAPPY DAYS

Helped along by both locals and former expatriates, the Internet has become a hotbed of historical blogging.  Locally, blogging portal yesterday.sg collects posts from local bloggers on their memories of Singapore and has been visited over 150,000 times since its launch in early March, 2006. Its contributors include net-savvy seniors – such as Lam Chun See and Victor Koo – who fill their days reminiscing about simpler times on their own blogs.

6854325583_398f92c96dLam Chun See and Walter Lim, Friends of Yesterday, at the launch of the “Good Morning Yesterday” bestseller book.

On the Western side, though, there is also a growing community of children of former British military and civil servants who used to live here during Singapore’s colonial days.  These individuals are going online to share photos and memories, and to seek long long chums.

One website in particular, Memories of Singapore , owned by O’Brien, has become a database of pictorial memories of 50s and 60s Singapore.  What started five years ago as a personal website of about 30 photos has now grown into an archive of over 1,000 photos, depicting the Singapore of yesteryear as seen through the lens of so many expatriate-own cameras.

It was a search for “postcard-like photos” of Singapore that helped local blogger Lam chance upon Memories of Singapore.

“I was amazed by the number of photos they had, some in colour too!” said Lam, 54.  “We were all simple kampung boys, so we couldn’t afford to have as many photos as them.”

From there, Lam discovered that there was an active community of self-nicknamed Britbrats – children of former British military personnel and civil servants posted to Singapore – with an extraordinary interest in collecting and sharing photos and mementos of the childhood spent in Singapore.

As a blogger, Lam was naturally more interested in the stories that he knew must be attached to the photos.  So he engaged the help of O’Brien, and sent out a request for accounts of Singapore in the 50s and 60s, as seen through the eyes of such ‘Britbrats’.

After emailing back and forth with a few of them, two former Britbrats, Lynne Copping and John Harper, agreed to share their experiences.  Copping runs a former Alexandra Grammar School site,  so named for the primary school on Pulau Brani she attended during her three years here from 1963 to 1966.

According to her, “items on Pulau Brani on the Internet do not mention the army school, nor the fact that the British lived there for about 50 years, as if we never existed.”

“From their stories, they’ve had a very happy childhood here,” said Lam.  “All the things they eat, everything is so new to them, whereas for us, every day we’re here, so there’s nothing special.”

Case in point:  Harper waxing nostalgic over rambutans and nasi goreng (Malay for “fried rice”).  “I think about it every day!  Even now when we have Chinese takeaway, we almost always have a bit of fried rice.”

EXCLUSIVELY IN A BLOG

Considering that most Britbrats spent, on average, only two to three years here, the outpouring of emotions over this “paradise” island is quite surprising.

“I don’t know what it is, it’s hard to explain,” said O’Brien.   “I suppose it’s because we were all children at the time, in our formative years and all very excited about going abroad from the UK.”

In his first email to TODAY, Harper, who spent only two years here in the 50s, confessed that he “sheds a small inward tear each time I check in at Changi Airport to return to Europe.”

“I do, I do!” said Harper, laughing when this reporter asked if it was true.  “You’re making me blub now actually.”

Harper, who used to work in Malaysia made regular stops in Singapore before returning home to England.   Having retired, he said “the budget’s a little tighter now”, but plans to travel here again soon.

For now, he concentrates on writing a little bit every day about his past.  That includes remembering the tiniest details about the two years he spent here.  “I’m getting older, I just want to get it down before I forget,” he said.

While he enjoys writing, Harper make no pretensions about getting a book out of the Britbrat experience.  “I thought about it, but I came to the conclusion that there probably isn’t enough (in my experience) to make a complete book,” he said.

 As for O’Brien, he said he was “too poor at descriptive writing to do anything about it.”

“But it’s history, and it would be nice to have someone put it on record,” he added.

Writer Derek Tait is trying to do exactly that.   Another Britbrat, he is in the midst of putting together a pictorial book as Singapore,  titled Sampans, Banyans and Rambutans:  A Childhood in Singapore and Malaya.

 Sampans, Banyans and Rambutans

“I’ve written other books and thought it would be a good idea to write down my memories of our time in Singapore because so many children at the time had the same experiences and I thought it would prove interesting to them”, he said over email.  “Also, the photos would bring back lots of happy memories too.”

BITE-SIZE HISTORY

Lam sees the Britbrat online community as a treasure not only for the likes of historical bloggers like himself who appreciate access to their collections of photos for use on their own blogs, but also for the average Singaporean.  Youths especially, he feels, would be able to respond more to local history being documented online.

“Indeed, if I were a teacher,” wrote Lam in one post, “I certainly would ask my students to read these articles to gain some knowledge of our past.”

The photos and memories, he said, are a side of Singapore that is not widely known to the average Singaporean.  “Being expatriates, their perspective is completely unique”.

In a fitting end to a post about Britbrats, Lam wrote: “Thanks to the marvel of the Internet, today we have a chance to bridge a cultural divide between Singaporeans and Britons of my generation; something which close physical proximity could not do all those long years ago.”

It’s old Singapore revisited as more Britbrats – children of British expatriates stationed here – upload their memories of idyllic island days onto the Internet.

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