"Dear Mum" Chapter 9
After a hesitant start I soon got into a routine. A .40 cent pickup taxi to the Union Jack Club. 3 or 4 pints of duty free Tiger, which was only about 45 cents a pint and then, off to any one of four regular bars, where my girlfriends were waiting for me to come in. I would buy them a little glass of coloured water that cost a lot, but which would allow them to sit and talk to me as long as I wanted to stay. When the bars shut about midnight I would take a Trishaw ride to Bugis St. If I was with anyone else we used to chose two different Trishaws and get the riders to race each other. The winner was promised a bonus, of course.
Bugis St. (pronounced Boogie) was well known to the whole world at the time. It was the haunt of drunken servicemen, seamen, prostitutes, and transvestites. It was a big risk going there to pick up a girl, because at the end of the night you may not have actually picked up a girl. There were many tales of this terrible fact coming to light in the back of a taxi. It never happened to me, but I did not pick up girls in Bugis St. anyway. I was partly there for the food. I loved the Mee Hoon Soup, Nasi Goreng and of course the Tiger and Anchor beer. It was, and actually still is, (as it has been resurrected - a shadow of it’s former self, of course, with none of the fascinating characters who once inhabited the place) a very nice place to drink the litre bottles of beer that sit, covered with condensation, screaming out to be drunk, on the small tables. It is so humid and one perspires at just the right rate to render the constant visits to the loo - common in a cold climate, - un-necessary.
I was chatted up soon after I went there for the first time by a Chinese hooker called Mary. She soon discovered that I was not a potential customer, but that I was prepared to buy her the odd meal and drink in exchange for the benefit of her company. She was a fascinating person. Her life was really a tragedy, however she was always cheerful and her personal philosophy was unlike that of anyone else I had come across. On a quiet night we used to sit and talk for hours. She used to tell me about her clients and the things that happened to her. She knew everyone and everything about the nightlife of Singapore. Her English was excellent and she had a lovely accent. She disappeared one day. No one knew where she had gone, but I like to think that one of her clients thought that she was too nice to lose. I wished her well.
When there was a Navy boat in, any nationality, but the worst were the Americans, we hardly bothered to go out. It was terrible. The prices of everything went up and there were drunken sailors everywhere, picking fights and horning in on our territory and chatting up our girls. Bugis St. was impossible, you could hardly get into the street and the service went to pieces.
At the end of the night, - a Pickup Taxi, back to Changi. At this time of the morning, I often had to pay more as there was not much chance to get another passenger, (this was the basis of the “pick up” fare.) Sometimes I had to walk miles along the Changi road to get a taxi at all. They were nearly all Mercedes Diesels, in various states of repair. I never paid more than a dollar, which at that time was about half a crown in real money. (Two and fourpence, - actually) In Changi Village I was either dropped off along the side of the camp or I went all the way to into Changi Village proper, where Fred’s Alley Cafeteria was always open. It was a tiny Makan (food) stall with bicycle wheels, which never went anywhere. It was always open. Always. He had a huge urn, which had coffee in it, on the simmer all the time. He used to add more water, coffee grounds, condensed milk, or sugar to it whenever it needed it and every week or so used to dredge around in the bottom, with a big ladle and scoop out the sediment. He used to do “sandwiches” too and it was advisable to select two stools when you sat down so that you could put your feet up on one to get them clear of the cockroaches. It was a murky place at 3.00. am. in the morning. However it all tasted terrific.
On certain nights, or perhaps before going down to Singapore, a few of us used to go to “Pop’s” Curry Shop. He did Chicken Curry, with Paratha bread. You could buy a bowl of Chicken Curry with a lot of gravy for $1.10. The making of Paratha was an interesting spectacle. He used to roll the pastry flat, then whirl it around to make it expand to a diameter of about 3 feet on a marble slab and then fold it, - sides to middle, all into a compact lump and fry the resulting puff pastry. It was delicious and as you could buy additional bowls of gravy and Paratha for only 25 cents, we often used to sit for hours stuffing our faces and shouting for Ayer Battu (cold water) at very frequent intervals. There were two types of Chicken Curry. The green mixture was for pansies, newcomers and women, while the red mixture could be used for de-coking cylinder heads, (in fact there were rumours that the Engine Fitters were buying it in bulk) and was not for those of a delicate palate. After doing an apprenticeship on the green stuff, sooner or later the enthusiast was talked into progressing to the real thing. Once he had survived this inaugural initiation then he could go anywhere and eat anything.
Pop did a nice performance at making the Paratha. He had a very polished performance and he was quite skilled at spinning the disk of pastry to make it stretch into a paper-thin layer that was folded up and fried on his hot skillet. It was all a bit theatrical, but we loved it and it developed into a sort of religious ceremony.
I was by now pretty experienced at most things that a Junior Technician had to know to stay afloat in the RAF of the 60's. I could drink very well, as long as I chose what it was that I had in my glass. I could eat anything and I was reasonably competent at my job, by now. The only problem was that I was still a virgin.
They never told me before I got to Singapore that 205 Squadron was flying Mk. 1 Shackletons at the time. The main Radar installed in them was the ASV 13. (Air to Surface Vessel Mk 13. It was hard to imagine that there had ever been 12 earlier Marks.) It always amazed me that it could be persuaded to work at all, let alone for up to 18 hours in a vibrating, noisy, hot and cold, (depending on altitude) Mk. 1.
In spite of all their drawbacks, I loved these old Mk. 1 Shackletons. A high percentage of the faults on our Radar did not respond to the normal fault diagnostic procedure of replacing "boxes" till it worked. As an aside, this is not entirely true. I am putting down the guys who kept these planes flying. We were pretty good. When all else failed, it was usually a case of undoing the ends of the cables connecting the units together and if a treacly, black, sticky, half-fluid started to run out, it was a good bet that it was a cable fault. Sitting for long hours on the pan in the tropical sun was not the best method of preserving the rubber insulation. On the Mk 1 the ASV 13 primary radar had its scanner in a plastiglass dome painted white and mounted under the nose just beneath the two 20 mm. machine guns. There was a little transducer right at the front of this scanner, which used to fail with monotonous regularity. To get at it, the poor unfortunate Fitter had to remove a plate, lower himself down gently into the well behind the scanner and then, gradually turn himself and the scanner dish, which only just fitted into the dome, round 180 degrees, until he was right at the front, - trapped by the scanner dish, but now able to remove the transducer. It was claustrophobic. You could tell that someone was in there by the steady dripping of sweat from the drain hole in the bottom of the dome. There was only one thing worse in my opinion, that was changing a Gee aerial inside a Beverly wing, because that was only a foot high and pitch dark.
Soon after arriving, I was bitten by the camera bug. Everyone I knew had a wonderful Japanese Camera, so I decided that I was not one to be left behind in any trendy thing and went out looking. I read all the literature and consulted with all my friends and decided on an Asahi Pentax S1. It was a single lens reflex 35 mm. With a 55 mm. F 2.2 lens, with a clip-on light meter and a host of other lenses available at a price. I ended up buying a wide-angle 35 mm. and a telescopic 200 mm. but they came later.
Knowing exactly what I wanted, I went round the camera shops in Changi village and started to haggle. By now I was pretty experienced at this. I went to one shop and got the price of that camera down to the lowest that they would go. Then I would go to the next and using the same spec. exactly, I would say that the first shop had offered it to me for 10 dollars less than they actually had. When the negotiations had finished and I had reached an even lower plateau, I moved to the next shop and repeated the process.
In the end I got to a shop and quoted my “best price” from a previous one and the owner looked at me, then went to his till and took out the mentioned amount. He gave it to me and said that if I could buy it for that, then he would buy one himself. I was very pleased with the outcome of this and bought one straight away. It served me incredibly well for the next 15 years. I made a waterproof case for it while I was in the Maldives and it went with me to 100 feet under water. It went up Malaya on a Jungle Survival course, out in the desert, in Iran and the Emirates. It went everywhere I went. Although there was nothing wrong with it, I decided in Abu Dhabi, that it deserved to be serviced, after all these years. When it came back it was cleaner, but it never worked properly again. Shortly after this it was stolen from our house during a break in. Some poor sod probably bought a load of trouble. Serves him right.
Some more photos I took of Singapore in the 60's:
Singapore, bridge over the creek. I am sure someone will tell me what this bridge is called and what is the name of the buildings behind it. If I remember correctly the Merlion is now not far to the left, am I right? Note no buildings in the sky.
Update. 20-1-04. Name of the bridge is Anderson bridge.
The building in the center was the Fullerton Building, it was the General Post Office (GPO) in the 60's, then became the IRS (Internal Revenue
Service) in the 80's, now it is a grand 5 star hotel called The Fullerton. (http://www.fullertonhotel.com/
They have an interesting website with some historical information. Thanks, Brenlee)
The building on the right was and is, the Bank of China building.
Many Thanks Alex. (from Singapore)
Again I would accept expert advice, but I feel this was the other side of the bridge and I think it is still an area where Makan Stalls are to be found.
The next bridge. This and the previous one were both taken from the bridge, whatever it is called. Let me know and I will label them accordingly!
Further up the creek, almost to the next bridge. Most of the barges were loaded with raw bales of rubber.
I also have high-resolution versions, so contact me if you are interested.