Singapore at 50: From swamp to skyscrapers


Hugh Paxton’s Blog spent a year in Singapore (1970). My sister was born there. It was an interesting time. American warriors on R&R from Vietnam were rowdy and I remember watching some of them sticking newspapers in their butts and setting fire to them. My mother tried to steer me away from that sort of sight.

Wouldn’t happen now, of course.

The first house we checked looked really nice. My mother managed three minutes, nearly vomited and fled. Never went back. She said it was full of ghosts. Later we learned that the Japanese Kempeitai (their vile military police) had used it as an interrogation centre and among other horrors Chinese nurses had been strung up from the trees and left to dangle like decorations.

Our next house was a happier spot. It had a banana tree! That was seriously exciting. The bananas were small, green, tasted sharp and the only thing to do with them was leave them well alone. My brother, Charles, and I organized ant farms and drove my mother barmy by laying trails of sugar to see if they’d follow. The kitchen was never short of ants! We had a charmed life and next door there was a kampong. You’ll see what that looks like in the attached story. I liked it. Smelly. Busy. They ate our dog, Perky, which was a bit of a shame. And they shouldn’t have.

My brother and I were briefly kidnapped. There was some peculiar stuff going on in 1970. Poison poured into soft drink bottles left for random children to pick up. And kidnappings. Our kidnapper lost his nerve – he was a twitchy looking chap, took us to a camera shop, drove around and then brought us back. Not to the house. That would have been dumb. But to the street.

A lot of memories from my Singapore childhood days. All still vivid. I didn’t know that the country was shrugging off the Brits, in the process of complete reinvention. I was only six going on seven years old.

I’ve been back to Singapore many times since then. It has changed, keeps changing. But it has strange patches here and there that haven’t changed at all. It’s haunted by both good and bad. Mummy saw ghosts in that house or felt them. I was in the Raffles Hotel Long Bar. I thought I saw a tiger. There was one once, it snuck in from Malaya and took up temporary residence under the billiards table. My tiger was a trick of the light. But Singapore’s light can sometimes play tricks like that.

Lee, the founding father of Singapore, is currently on his death bed. Tomorrow might be his last. I If not tomorrow, the day after.

The story, that I hope you will read and enjoy, isn’t like mine own. It’s more interesting! An Indian adventure, new lives, a history of Singapore from an immigrant’s perspective. I found it entrancing, evocative, and clever. Apart from the title. Swamp! Give me a break! Singapore wasn’t a swamp. That will be an editor messing with perfection. Editors have mauled many of my stories with their headlines. One of the worst was “From Sea Turtles to Encaustic Tourists.” My friends asked me if I was feeling OK and what encaustic meant. I really couldn’t tell them. Still not sure actually. I’ll check my dictionary tomorrow!

I digress!

Click on the link and enjoy a very good story. Photos aren’t that shabby either!

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