Saturday, 14 September 2013

Nothing But Memories: Somapah Village, Changi & The Old Singapore

My Dad, now 87, the kind of guy who took the time to learn a bit of the local lingo while in Singapore, and whose penchant for foreign languages I have inherited, was sad and nostalgic and told me he was envious when he learned that I was taking my son to Singapore last week. But I think he would be overwhelmed by the cityscape, and even more saddened by the last forty years or more of changes. Somapah has all but been demolished, in the mid nineteen eighties by all accounts, the local people, for better or for worse, ‘relocated’ to high rise flats in the nearby area of Tampines.
We made it out to Changi last Wednesday on the bus, which passes directly by our condo in Geylang, and thence to the relatively unchanged if somewhat de-populated Pulau Ubin, on a bum boat from Changi Jetty, where we cycled around the island. I could not, however, bring myself to visit what remains of Somapah Village, which by all accounts is a flattened wasteland with dead end streets.

From 1967 to 1970, we lived at number 10 Jalan Pergam, near Somapah, in a bungalow-style house allocated to my Dad, Corporal Cedric Webb of RAF Changi (I've since been told our street was in the area called 10 Mile- for more detailed information and a link to an old map of the area, see Stanley Ng's comments below this blog post).

My brother and I were born in Wales, when my  Dad was stationed there after signing up for the British armed forces, having left South Africa, restless and disillusioned with Apartheid, making his way around the Mediterranean as a steward on the Union Castle shipping line and finding himself in England with nothing better to do. The story goes that his companion, whose contract on the ships was also almost up and whose bright idea it was to sign up, twisted Dad’s arm into applying for the RAF, but flunked the entrance tests himself, whereas my half-hearted Dad was accepted!

 A lifelong lover of planes who had earlier in his life saved up and learned to fly small aircraft as a civilian,  Dad did stints at RAF Locking, RAF Valley (Anglesea Island Wales), Little Risington (Cotswolds, near Weston-Super-Mare) and finally RAF Changi in Singapore, before emigrating to Australia where Mum’s Anglo-Burmese-Indian family had settled some years earlier, 1949, after the second world war and India gained independence.

Mum meanwhile had trained as a nurse at Kalgoorlie Hospital and then headed to London to do some further midwifery training. They met at a dance in Coventry, where she worked for a spell as the infirmary nurse in a school for blind kids. The rest, as they say, is history.
I openly admit that my nostalgia for Singapore is influenced by the subsequent demise of the family, and my parents divorce. Our time in Singapore represents a time of relative privilege- although my working class Dad never flew and never got past the lowly rank of corporal, we were technically British ‘white folk’, who after all could afford an amah (housekeeper), at least by day. But more than that, it represents the halcyon pre-conflict days, when we were an  intact family and my parents were still in love, in a hot climate, in a land of many wonders.

 Anyway, memories of the Old 1960s Singapore, of Changi and Somapah, both the human landscape and the natural  landscape and coast around them, are indelibly etched into my psyche as something precious and never-to-be-repeated. This and my Mum's family background have deeply influenced my Asian-leaning sensibilities and my food preferences!

I will never forget wading out across the squelchy mudflats at low tide, watching small fish writhing asthmatically on  the naked seabed, small hermit crabs  scuttling to safety, molluscs burrowing frantically away from the marauding humans, ancient Rickety-legged Chinese women gathering these fruits of the sea in their pointy woven hats, smiling toothlessly and extending small maritime offerings when they spotted us kids. The underbellies of wooden boats exposed, marooned  on land until the waters returned at high tide.

Chasing small, yellow butterflies in the garden with filmy, gauzy green nets purchased at the bric-a-brac shop in the village; playing with local and other RAF kids in the deep monsoon drains which flanked the road. On one occasion, seeing something which looked like a leach, and my Dad having to be summoned to pluck my terrified four-year-old self out of the drain!
The various mobile vendors that visited: ‘The Barbit Man’, so named because of his spruiking cry as he rode past on the top heavy tricycle laden with buckets and brooms for sale; the bread  van, the back doors of which opened to reveal delicious delicacies;  eating sherbet bought from the mobile greengrocer, who also sold us kites which we flew on the green expanse at the end of our street;

The kampong directly opposite us with its coconut trees,  audible chickens and pig farm, and girls who let us taste their exotic rambutans; buying things in Somapah village and Changi; the loud and scary Chinese funeral processions down the main st (Changi Rd?).

Turbaned, bearded Indian wood carvers who paid house calls, spreading out their white sheet and demonstrating their craft on our tiled living room floor (my Dad still has small, carved teak 1960s style bedside lamp and a coffee table bought from them); Indian snake charmers skilfully luring mezmerized cobras out of baskets.

Dinners at the lantern-lit night market at the end of our street, where we would go to eat al fresco satay and nasi goreng and drink sugar cane and coconut drinks in ‘ju bags’- plastic bags fastened with a rubber band, like the sort of transit bag you get in Australia if you buy goldfish to take home.
Passing Changi Gaol (the white façade and guard posts have been transplanted but are still there, just as ominous) on the school bus, with all the kids chanting “Changi Gaol, Changi Gaol” to deal with our attraction-repulsion kind of fear.
Visiting my expectant Mum in Changi hospital with offerings of grapes and bananas, bought in a market, then excitedly coming home from kindergarten to meet my new baby sister.
Learning to swim at the Changi pool, where apparently I could not float, but would wiggle my bottom like a fish under water, and every so often be lifted out by Dad for a breath!
More grimly, I recall one of the kids in my brother’s Chinese classmates being either killed or maimed or blinded  by some sort of landmine planted in the vacant expanse of green at the end of the village where kids used to play. My parents were worried  for our safety after this, and certain places became off-limits.

Since returning home on Friday, I myself have been experiencing a wave of nostalgia and sadness. I’ve been surfing the ‘net hoping to find information about what happened to our house and our street. I've  found people- both ex-RAF and local Singaporeans- with similar sentiments about a Singapore ‘lost’ to modernity, ‘progress’ and development. The most detailed of these is an award-winning  blog by Singaporean Jerome Lim, who didn’t actually live in Somapah, but recounts his fond memories of holidaying there. Go here http:// for an interview with Jerome, and here for the actual blog complete with old photos (a similar one about Changi Village can also be found on his blogsite).

I also like the informative comment posted by Koh (details contested by other commentators) in  response to Jerome's Somapah account:

"Somapah started as a plantation in around 1850 when Mr H. Somapah, originally an India convict (due to some family dispute back in India), became rich in Singapore after his release and purchased many pieces of land in Singapore, one of which is Somapah (Changi). He passed on the land to his son W.L.S Basapah. Basapah was involved in a peculiar murder case in 1919; he killed his brother-in-law Ram Mohan Singh. You may read the story here. By the way, Basapah was later released.

The land (about 1000 acre of coconut plantation) was then purchased by the Quek brothers (郭巨川 Quek Kee Suan, 郭镜川 aka 郭新 Quek Shin). The Queks were originally poor. They helped out their father in tapioca plantation in Malacca. They later became rich. The Queks were prominant Hainese leaders in Singapore and Malaysia. They donated land in Somapah Village for Red Swastika School (, Kwang Boo Martial Arts Association ( and the Sinchew Hainanese Association, which are all located within the vincinity of the “market” in Somapah. Their contribution can be read here: and

I walked by these buildings everyday in the 70s and 80s."

Time for a slideshow I think. Dad used to inflict these on us, but now I want to see them. I want to convert all the old format slides into digital ones, as my unique contribution to documenting and preserving memories of a time that has passed, in a Singapore that no longer exists.

 Somapah village in the late '60s (Courtesy of  Singapore National Library
via Jerome Lim's blog The Long and Winding Road)


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  2. Hi Ginny, thanks for sharing your memories.

    I don't think Jalan Pergam was in Somapah. Jalan Pergam is the road stretching from Changi 10 milestone to 10.5 milestone , opposite Changi C.C. and beside the village of Jalan Tiga Ratus. The folks of Somapah villages would probably refer to that Ang Moh Chu (red hair houses) area as Chupkhor Puah (10 and a half milestone). The road and the private housing estate are still there though some of the private houses might have renovated several times since. The old Somapah road was at the other side of Upper Changi Road starting from the old market leading to Mata Ikan. Check out this old street map:

    Looking forward for your photos of the old Somapah. It'd be nice if you can share some of them at this FB page:

  3. Hi Stanley,

    Thanks for that information and the map link. My account is based on my ageing Dad's memories, as being our postal address. I think maybe Somapah was the nearest village we went to often for various things?

    I remember the Chinese funerals being in the next road which was a major road, which I thought was Changi Rd, because if I stood on tiptoes on a piece of furniture I could catch glimpses of the parade on the street.

    That's funny, the red hair houses, presumably becasue of RAF personnel living there? Indeed my Dad was a red head because of his Scottish and Afrikaans ancestors, whereas my Mum being Anglo-Burmese-Indian had dark hair! I remember the local women who were friendly with my Mum were facinated by our fairer hair which was pracitally blonde after a few year in the Singapore sun!

    Anyway, thanks for taking the time to respond.I'm sure we each have very different memories of that time,I appreciate other people's accounts of the area. But the old landscape and my time in Singapore is still very vivid for me.

  4. Hi Ginny, yes, people living in that area and all villages around 10th milestone went to the market at Somapah.

    There's also a casket parlour at a stone's throw from the market toward the direction of Gulega village.

    Ang Moh Chu is a generic Hokkien term referring to concrete houses with tiled roof which usually owned by foreigners (mostly Ang Moh :)) in those days.

    In fact, most kids growing up in 10th milestone probably have similar experiences as those mentioned in the article. I did most of the fun things you did...flying kite at the open area at 10.5 milestone...buying roti from the Roti (bread) van (probably the same one )...eating sherbet (some sort of agar agar?) bought from mobile vender...playing in the monsoon drain and creeks...attracted by the loud and scary (even to a Chinese kid) Chinese funeral procession...and yes, I also recall being warned by mum not to touch any red flag after the booby-trap bomb incident at 10.5 milestone. BTW, you didn't mentioned catching fighting spiders and fighting fish :), probably could not find them at 10ms

    Miss the place and the time so much. Once again, thanks for sharing the memories.

  5. Hi again Stanley,

    No I don't remember the fighting spiders or fish. I'll ask my older brother, that sounds like the sort of thing boys would get up to!

    I've since spoken to my father who is asking to come around and see photos form our recent Singapore holiday! He told me that the greengrocer's name was Chong, the grocer was called Jong Fat, our landlord's name was Hup Choon Kim Kee. We had a lovely day amah called Mee Guan Yew, who used to let me help her sweep and hose down the porch etc.

    He thinks our house was was 16 Jalan Pergam, but I think he is confusing it with the number of our family home in Perth, I'm sure it was either 10 or 5.

    Dad remembers we also had dog called Pippin, rescued by him from the monsoon drain,a corgi crossed with an Alsatian judging by her size and the colour of her fur. He also remembers a cinema near the padang in Changi, and confirms the Somapah was the place we went to most for the markets, shops etc. He also told me there were two kids injured by the grenade, one was blinded and on had her face severely burnt.

    Sounds like we overlapped in terms of years. So what era are you and where did you live exactly? I was born in 1966.

    A pleasure to take a walk down memory lane! No idea when I will be able to make my photos available. They are mostly still with my Dad, who only ever took slides, now very faded, so will need to be converted somehow.

  6. Hi Ginny, not to be bothered by fighting spider and fish :) not all boys caught them anyway. Fighting fish could only be found in water hyacinth pond and the best spider worriors were in the hedgerows along Wing Loong Road. Both were quite far from Jalan Pergam.

    I was born in 1960 in Jalan Somapah Timor, somewhere between Wing Loong Road and Somapah Road. You know what, my mum was a day maid for several years in the 1960s. She last worked for an Australian family living in the housing estate at 10.5 ms. The family visited us in our kampung when my mum ceased to work after my youngest brother was born. For many of my childhood friends, that's their first sightings of "white folks" in flesh :). What a pity, my mum's name doesn't sound anything near Mee Guan Yew ( don't you think it rhymes with the name of the great helmsman of Sing-a-paw :)).

    As for the red-flag bomb incident, I did some research years ago just to find out what actually happened then. These reports may interest you:

    Looking forward for more articles about your childhood nostalgia.

  7. That's an interesting story about your Mum. And ah yes, the Sing-a-paw joke. My son is still telling it to everyone who will listen and giggling loudly- he thinks it's hilarious!
    I have only my Dad' spelling of Chinese names to go on, so who knows how accurate they are. I speak Malay/Indonesian, but not any of the Chinese languages! :)

    By the way, I thought it really interesting that, by co-incidence, there is an Australian series , Serangoon Rd, starting on ABC TV here this Sunday. I noticed the advert for it as soon as we got home. All about the changes happening in Singapore, post-war and into the 60s by the sounds of it. I don't think you can access the ABC iView from overseas, but you may be able to see it somehow. Here is the link with a summary and the trailer.|SerangoonRoadAdWords_AdWords_:serangoon%20road%20abc_b_g_34584902839_&gclid=CJXYleeY1LkCFWRepgod8WYAgA

  8. Thanks for the info. The tv series will premiere on local cable tv channel hbo on 22 sept. Not sure if i'm able to catch the show though.

    It has been nice talking to you. Do pardon my grammar. I can never get it right.

  9. That's great that it's airing in Singapore at the same time. Apparently it's an Australian/Singaporean collaboration.

    Since reading the newspaper articles you found, about the flag bombs (thaks for those linkes- amazing really that someone has scanned all the original printed newspapaer articles and converted them to electronic copies!) I've been feeling sad for those kids' families. I was never sure that one of them had died, so i was abit shocked to see that the girl Katty did. I think maybe my parents protected us form the full details at the time.

    I mentioned it to my Dad. He told me he remembers vividly the day the policeman came to the airbase where he worked in air traffic control. The officer told them that a bomb had gone off near Jalan Pergam and injured two British kids. Dad went as white as a sheet with worry, in case it was my brother and myself and was distressed, but relieved it wasn't us.

    I'm kind of interested in the sense of being interested in the history of what was happening in Singapore politically and socially at the time, that led to such bombs. I'm not sure if Serangoon Rd will touch on all this, but perhaps it may- it opens in 1964.

    I think imperfect grammar is forgivable on blogs, so long as we understand eahc other. I type too fast and end up mis-spelling things!

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  11. I felt the same when I learned that the girl died in hospital subsequently. In those tumultuous years, you felt the impact of the turbulent era even though you were a kid living in a peaceful rural area.

    BTW, there are quite a number of nostalgia videos about Sing-a-paw on Youtube. You may find them interesting.

  12. I would love to continue the blog posts Stanely, and I intend to when I get a chance. Sadly, I'm a bit busy now that I'm home. Meanwhile, you might enjoy a post from another of my blogs- a video of one of my piano students, of whose accomplishments I am very proud!

  13. Your old address at Jalan Pergam is still around.My cousin stay few houses away from there.Fighting fish is common in those days but usually found in those ponds.At that time ,there is a big river behind your house across the Changi road ,with many coconut trees ,not far from the community center and many use to go into the river to catch those small worms to feed fighting fishes.

    1. Thanks agonkia, it sounds like Stanley you have very vivid memories of the fighting fish.

      I rememer all the coconut trees in the area. I remember I used to roam around a bit on my own, but being quit elittlewas not allowed to stray too far without an adult or older person.

      Interesting that our street and house are still there, thanks for letting me know that- maybe next time I'm in Singapore I will catch the bus out Changi way again and take a look!