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John Harper Remembers Singapore - Part 5: Shopping

Singapore Belt

Singapore is and always has been a shop till you drop place. You can probably find goods from all over the world in Singapore. I can remember spending hours in Changi village just looking at the wares that were on offer. I found the plastic ornaments that mimicked ivory really absorbing. There were fishermen, rickshaws, fish, shells and animals. I have to admit to spending some of my pocket money on some of these items. They were used as gifts for my parents. To this day I do not really know whether they liked them or not. When we moved to Yorkshire they ended up stored in boxes because building work was going on. They never did resurface and to this day they are still boxed up as there is building work going on in my own house. I wonder if they might have accumulated some antique value yet as they were purchased in the late nineteen fifties. I do sometimes open the boxes and look at and I do still like them.

Carved wooden items from Bali were another favourite. I think that the wood was teak and we bought several pieces. My favourite piece was the head of a Balinese dancer complete with amazing head-dress. After my parents died, my youngest brother took the piece along with a carved camphor chest. Since his death, the pieces have returned to me and unfortunately because of the building work I have nowhere to display the items. Now that the front room has been finished and decorated we now have the camphor chest in the front room. It really is a magnificent piece of furniture

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Behind the Wayang in Changi Village, there was a produce market with a whole host of vegetables, fruit, meat and fish. We often used to go down there to get squid or prawns to use as fishing bait. We would buy a half Katy of squid and it would last for several days fishing. At the end of each day we would wrap the squid up in newspaper and stash it behind the cricket screens and collect it the following day. As each day wore on the smell got stronger but the bait seemed to work better.

When we lived at Lloyd Leas, the general shop owned by Keng Wah Heng was just up the road and so my brothers and I would often be sent to get a few things from the shop. It was usually something like packets of Weet Bix and cans of dried milk that would have to be reconstituted for use with the breakfast cereal. The shop was an amazing place with tables outside if you wanted to have a cold drink. Then inside there was all manner of goods for sale from battery operated toys plus the batteries that you would need to operate them, ice cream, soft drinks, canned and dried goods. There was also a craze for knotted items done with coloured nylon fishing line. An amazing range of items was available from small birds, fish, dogs, cats and I recall seeing a model of a rickshaw with a man pulling it made of this nylon line. Keng Wah Heng was always dressed in navy blue shorts and a white aertex style sleeveless vest. His feet were always bare except if he went out from the shop when he would put on a pair of flip flops. Naturally enough, my very first pair of flip flops came from his shop. It took me about two weeks to get used to them and to harden up the skin between my toes so they didn’t hurt when they rubbed. It wasn’t too long before wearing flip flops was second nature to me and I would dash in from School throw off the sandals and white socks and on would go the flip flops.

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A 1960’s photo of Changi Village; courtesy of (Memories of Singapore)


Changi Village was a mass of interesting shops. I remember furniture, from inexpensive rattan to more expensive teak and I think next door to them was a shop that sold model aeroplane kits, both plastic and the Keil Kraft balsa jobs. You could also buy lengths of balsa wood, tissue glue and doping resin to build something to your own design or from printed plans that they also sold. If memory serves me correctly, the grocery store in the village was called Jong Fat. One day a week, one of the restaurants made curry puffs and I would be despatched to go and buy some each week after we had moved to Wittering Road just round the corner from Changi Village. Opposite the Police Station was the Newsagent and Bookshop called Abdul Gaffer. Like all shops in the village it was loaded to the rafters with magazines, comics, newspapers and books. On a recent visit, as far as I could tell, Abdul Gaffers was no longer there and in its place, there is an eating place called “The Airfield”. There was a place with this name just round the corner opposite the transit hotel. There was a photographer in this building and I remember my brothers and I having to sit for a formal photograph that could be sent to relatives living in Canada.

For me the most amazing shopping expedition was when we caught a Changi Bus into the city. We got on at the top of the road from Lloyd Leas on the corner near the entrance to Changi Prison. The bus got more and more crowded the closer we got to the city, until there was standing room only. There were passengers hanging out of the doors and I was amazed as we went round a bend on a hill as these passengers swung with the momentum out over the drop down the hill. When we arrived in the city, we went first to the Union Jack Club for a cup of tea for my mother and Coca Cola for us boys. We then got into a taxi and drove around the city. It was an amazing experience with the driver shooting in out of different lanes at breakneck speeds and the horn blaring all the time. Traffic in Singapore nowadays seems better regulated and a lot less pushy. Eventually we ended up at Robinsons department store where we were glad to leave the taxi. This seemed to be the biggest department store I had ever seen in my life with department after department bulging with stock to be sold. It was time for another treat, more Coca Cola and this time some really posh cake with soft gooey icing that had to be eaten with a fork. This was new to me as we always ate cake at home by picking slices up with our fingers!

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Raffles Place in 1959. Collection of National Archives of Singapore


As we walked around the city I was amazed at the variety of shops. The aroma of the city was quite different as well with a mix of spices, rotting rubbish in the monsoon drains, dried fish, sisal rope and the acrid smell of lubricating oils. Passing over the Singapore River in those days you would see Junks stretching from one side to the other. The water would also be full of rubbish and have a strong unpleasant smell. I’m sure Terry Pratchett must have used it as the inspiration for the River Ankh in Ankh Morpork in his Discworld series.

When we moved to Tengah, shopping was mostly done at the NAAFI on the base apart from the grocery deliveries that came from the city. The village at Tengah was very small with only about six shops. One where we used to buy firecrackers, a tailor shop and I think there was also a barbershop. In some ways it was a bit of a disappointment after the bustle of Changi Village. Some years later I visited a tailor in Batu Ferringhi on Penang and the tailor there, Vishnu, was the son of the tailor in Tengah village. He had come to Batu Ferringhi via the Australian Air Force base at Butterworth.

Shopping in those days was a lot of fun and a lot less antiseptic than today’s experiences in the shopping Malls.




Footnote: I wonder if John and his friends know that Robinson’s at Raffles Place was destroyed by a huge fire in 1972. I also read in Wikipedia that Robinson’s was the first departmental store in Singapore to be fully air-conditioned. – Lam Chun See

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Collection of National Archives of Singapore

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