John Harper Remembers


John Harper Remembers Singapore - Part 2: Acclimatisation

Singapore belt

Acclimatisation was the process of getting used to the heat and the humidity. Arriving by ship had given us some time to get ourselves used to it. Nonetheless we were told that it would be two weeks before we were allowed to go to school because we needed to acclimatize. Yippee!!

A friend of my father was on leave at that same time and took us to the beach nearly every day. This of course had to wait until my plaster cast was removed. I am pleased to say that my father had arranged that for the day after we arrived. What a relief to get rid of that awful encumbrance. That first experience of the sea – so warm, the sun burning down, the perfect balance of water temperature and air temperature, we felt that we arrived in paradise. Despite the fact that Cleveleys is next to the sea, we had not learned to swim whilst living in Cleveleys. We were lucky if there were about half a dozen days per summer when it was warm enough to go to the beach. We were taught to wade out in the water up to waist height and launch ourselves forward and to float in on an incoming wave. The water was so warm that you didn’t stand about shivering on the water’s edge wondering if you dare go in.

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Changi Beach in the Sixties (Photo courtesy of Memories of Singapore)

Soon I was going deeper and was going to chest depth. Next thing you know I was having a go at breast stroke and managing to do that fairly well. Our swimming sessions were at the beach that ran alongside the runway at Changi. Moored out in the channel was a raft and before the two weeks acclimatization was up I could swim out to the raft without help. With the land reclamation that has gone on since, I think the beach area where I learned to swim has now become a part of the airport. I have joked with colleagues as we landed at Changi airport that I learned to swim on the perimeter track on the seaward side!

During those two weeks we developed our tans, I think that was the real reason for the two weeks acclimatization as much as anything. Having blond hair also meant that our hair also lightened a few shades as well, the sun had a strong bleaching effect. During this period we met the local shop owner Keng Wah Heng. His shop was just up the road from our house. We called in there and were treated to a cold drink. It seemed very strange to be served by a Chinaman wearing a sleeveless cotton vest. Heng's daughter, Chew was of a similar age to us boys and often came to visit my mother whilst we lived at Lloyd Leas. Although my mother corresponded with Chew for some time when we returned to the UK, we lost touch during one of our moves. Also during this acclimatization period we were introduced to the Changi Bus company with a trip into the city. I think that in those days the drivers only knew two accelerator positions, foot flat to the floor or foot off and onto the brake for a screeching halt. They used to hurtle along at an incredible pace and it was inadvisable to step out in front of one.

First impressions of the city were of a multitude of smells and sights battering your senses. Exotic fruit, monsoon drains full of rotting detritus, Singapore River covered in Junks from bank to bank, crazy taxi drivers, bicycle trishaws, food vendors cooking on clay pots, Chinese and Indian music, all these assaults on your senses came at you from every corner you turned. The gentile western side of life was there as well with the department stores like Robinsons and eating places where you could get morning coffee and cream cakes. I must admit though that it was the exotic that really made an impression on me.

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Hock Lam Street in the 1960's (Photo courtesy of Memories of Singapore)

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The Singapore River covered in junks from bank to bank (Photo courtesy of Memories of Singapore)

As well as the trip into the city there was also a trip into Changi village to be fitted up for school uniform. Much time was spent selecting white cotton shirts, khaki shorts, white ankle socks and sandals. Then came the haggling over the price. "I do special price for Missey because you buy so much". I think my mother managed to get the price down by about another ten percent from his special price, which even by UK standards was fairly cheap. This was a skill that she honed to a much better perfection during our stay.

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Changi Village in 1969 (Photos courtesy of Memories of Singapore)

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Changi Village today (Photos by Lam Chun See July 2006)

By the end of the second week I had realized that it was not a case of the Asians knowing my name was John, and that they all called English boys "Johnny". Up until then I had wondered how they knew my name, although I never did like being called Johnny, it sounded so childish (even to a boy of ten). When I heard my brother Tom being called Johnny, “clang”, it dawned on me "oh they call all English boys Johnny!"

After a few days we also started to explore Lloyd Leas estate on foot and I found that the Younger family who had been quarantined on the boat were living in the same road. So I ended up teaming up with Malcolm to further explore our surroundings. This took us down to Paradise Beach. This was a nice sandy cove with a sandstone cliff that had a house on top. Overlooking the cove was a pillbox that was said to have been built by the Japanese during World War Two; a fertile place for the imagination of young boys.

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Sadly, the place that holds such beautiful memories for John and his brothers is today, part of a prison complex. All you see are walls and barbed wires. One of the sign says “Lloyd Leas Work Release Camp”. It is located at Cosford Road, off Upper Changi Road North …… Lam Chun See, July 2006

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