A very ordinary and carefree childhood in the 60s but a sweet life……
The good old days of the sixties in Singapore were rekindled when I was looking through my old albums to select, organize, and discard some old photos. My family has a common trait- we all love to take photos. Though we were not rich, we still manage to go to the studios to have a family portrait now and then. I am glad that we had photos to remind us of our past.
I come from a family of seven siblings and my oldest brother is about twenty years older than me so I must be an accidental child. I remembered sleeping between my parents back in the sixties due to the lack of space which accounts for me being the youngest child. My other four siblings slept in two double-deckers in the next room and two more slept on the living room floor close to the kitchen. The flat at Owen road has been demolished by now.
Singapore which was then a backwater had no natural resources other than the people. She was about to go through many social and political changes under our able founding father Mr. Lee Kuan Yew.
He was our role model, the epitome of intelligence and wisdom, and a symbol of what you can achieve with hard work and foresight. Ours was a meritocratic society and there was no free lunch so we became hardworking if we wanted the good life.
I would recall my childhood days and they seemed to appear in black and white unlike the colorful scenarios of modern Singapore. Oh yes, the photos were mostly in black and white then and most of them were developed and fixed in a make-shift box by my brother in a darkened room.
My dad was a teacher in a Mandarin-speaking school and my mother a housewife. Every day was routine as there were no hard and fast rules but certain rules were unspoken. I remembered my childhood as largely serene and sometimes mundane.
We were to study hard to the highest level that is affordable to our parents, look for a job, look for a mate to get married, have children, and then have our own nuclear family.
I have never heard of the word ‘tuition’. Free time after school was spent jumping around in the big drains, visiting the library but not necessarily reading. Sometimes I would loiter in the shops with my best mate looking at the “Barbie dolls”. I had sworn that one day, I would own them. I do not remember doing any homework assiduously as my twin children did, who were born in the 80s when the emphasis on good grades was heightened.
Our hobbies were all homemade. Paper dolls, outdoor games like rounders and hopscotch were popular. The game of five stones involved beans sewn in small pouches. To play this game, throw one stone in the air and swipe the rest off the ground, then in time to catch the first stone. Subsequently, you throw up two stones, grabbing the remaining three on the ground then catching the two in the air, and so on.
My brothers preferred to play with insects, catching spiders, butterflies, and so on. Their most innovative homemade toy was the tricycle made from planks of wood.
Weekends were routine. My dad would bring us, the last three of all the siblings (the rests have their dates) to the usual haunts- Esplanade which was a long walk overlooking Singapore River, Haw Par Villa formerly known as Tiger Balm Garden which had figures and displays showing the Chinese folklore, legends and mythology and the Singapore Botanic Gardens which is currently listed on the UNESCO world heritage.
Often my parents would bring us to the theatre on weekends. My favorite part was riding astride my father’s shoulders all the way home after the movies. Occasionally, my parents would go for their separate mahjong games while we would find some friends to play with. It was a sweet life.
In the sixties, we had Attap houses near my flat. They were made of thatched roofs while the walls were constructed from hardwood planks. The toilet was still the bucket system. Unfortunately, I did not explore much as I was told that there were many ‘bad guys’ living there. It was not true. It was simply a maze-like cluster of wooden houses and my mum did not want me to be lost in it.
In any case, where I lived was a flood-prone area. I remembered the ground floor residents were quite distraught each time the heavy rains poured and the flood rose. In knee-deep water, we all watched helplessly as waterlogged items floated out of their doors of the ground floor flats.
Despite the challenging living conditions, Singaporeans generally had happy and carefree lives as we were simple and hardworking. In the 60s, the government had good urban planning that transformed Singapore. Over the years and even now, they established housing estates for the majority of Singaporeans.
After school, it was playtime. Parents’ roles were very distinct — fathers worked and mothers keep the house and tended to the kids. Weekends were spent at the cinema, or the garden or strolling near the beach.
The most exciting event of the year was Lunar New Year. It was the time of the great feast. In my house, the food was simple but come to New Year, my mother would make sure that we would get to taste roast chicken, seafood, pork, a large homemade steamed egg cake, etc.
The house was filled with the aroma of her cooking. It was not preposterous to say that we eat roast chicken only once a year. After all, KFC only landed in Singapore in 1977, Mcdonalds in 1979.
Every Lunar New Year was ushered in by the sound of deafening firecrackers at the stroke of midnight. The following day, the grass and the road outside our flats were a carpet of red. The air had a smell of gun powder and that was the distinct smell of our festive, joyous season. We would dress in new clothes and shoes and looked forward to the red packets from seniors and relatives.
It was an exciting time. Firecrackers sounded everywhere, sparks would ignite before us. It gave us a sense of fear and also shock when some mischievous children or even adults threw crackers in our direction. Due to several injuries and also fire incidents, they were eventually banned in 1972.
in the 70s, many parts of Singapore had undergone redevelopment to build newer and taller Housing board flats. Eventually, we settled in Toa Payoh estate, once a big swamp which was converted into the first self-sufficient satellite town with the availability of amenities and facilities. Today, its sports centre and beautiful garden still exist.
The road to modernization picked up speed as more old flats and estates were developed to provide large public housing for the masses in Singapore. Singapore was focused on establishing a manufacturing industry and education.
The first color TV debuted in 1974 ( B/W TVs appeared in 1963)and thrilled many families. I will never forget the excitement my parents and siblings exhibited as we surrounded the TV and peered into the magic box.
Fast forward to modern Singapore and it has become a remarkable country of enviable progress and good repute. Singaporeans enjoy a high standard of living along with the high costs but opportunities are always there for those who strived hard in their studies and careers.
Despite these sweeping changes in a matter of 60 years, my carefree and sweet childhood days are forever mine to keep and I am grateful to be a Singaporean.
If you like this article, please let me know so that I can work on my second article which featured life in the 80s when I became a young adult.