Flea Powder

I’m recalling memories of my father by occasionally visiting places significant in his life. Every time I do, these places give up a little bit more about what made my father who he was.

I’m recalling memories of my father by occasionally visiting places significant in his life. Every time I do, these places give up a little bit more about what made my father who he was.

It was when I was maybe twenty two that my father and I started talking a little bit more.

We took a road trip up Malaysia, opting to drive up the old ‘trunk roads’ rather than the North-South Highway. We stopped at Muar, Port Dickson, Mantin, and finally Seremban, where the bulk of both my parents’ extended families lived.

En route, he told me in stops and starts, how he came to be in Singapore and Malaysia. Port Dickson was where his father had settled after escaping persecution in Hainan and Canton because he was a Communist agitator; Muar was where he accidentally stopped overnight because the bullock cart driver didn’t or couldn’t convey to him that his final destination was supposed to have been Port Dickson; Mantin was where he lived with his mother and uncle because they were estranged from his father.

But Singapore was where he first landed some time in 1936 or ’37, but his father, who was in Port Dickson at that time, didn’t make the journey south to receive him, and my father was instead put in the care of a Hainanese clan and put to work, at age 7, in a coffee shop on Seah Street for a year.

I didn’t get much more detail of his vocation on Seah Street, but I remember him telling me his first impression of Singapore, or rather, that of the quarantine station on St. John’s Island. This tiny, hilly island, a 20 minute ferry ride from Marina South, also happens to be where Raffles dropped anchor as he prepared to negotiate control over a sleepy fishing village with a view to turning it into the bustling metropolis it is today.

This sandfly-infested, and more recently, asbestos-riddled island wasn’t named for some Ang Moh called “St. John” either. The name is simply an anglicised corruption of the original Orang Laut name for the place, “Pulau Sekijang”.

But what matters more to me is what my father remembered of Pulau Sekijang or St John’s Island or whatever foreign destination it was to him at the time. I remember his voice going up in pitch as he said, “They throw the flea powder on me – just throw like that, all over”. This was the little snippet of his early life that he kept repeating to me over subsequent years.

It was only many years later, and only after I became a father myself that I realised how very terrified and traumatised the seven year old him must have been.

St John’s Island Quarantine Station: My father might have been in or around this building, some time in 1937
The view from the causeway connecting Pulau Sekijang Bendera (St. John’s) and Pulau Sekijang Pelepah (Lazarus)

Limestone Cowboy

Adios, Mr Campbell

When I was in kindergarten, I spoke little English, and communicated mostly in the Hokkien that my nanny and my family used with each other.

Aunty Jackie from Seremban lived with us while she attended secondary school here, and one of the little liberties she had living away from my grandparents was a transistor radio that seemed to be always on.

On it, Radio Singapore played the latest records, including this which became one of my favourites: Glen Campbell’s Rhinestone Cowboy, the words to which I mangled as I sang my six year old lungs out and annoyed everyone at home.

Adios, Mr Campbell.

SG Buzz: Boston, Chicago, And Pittsburgh

I was honoured to be invited to speak last week to Singaporeans working and studying in three American cities. Organized by the US Liaison of the Overseas Singaporean Unit – the same people who bring Singapore Day to known Singaporean hubs around the world – the talks were held at cozy venues which also featured some Singaporean-ish food…

I was honoured to be invited to speak last week to Singaporeans working and studying in three American cities. Organized by the US Liaison of the Overseas Singaporean Unit – the same people who bring Singapore Day to known Singaporean hubs around the world – the talks were held at cozy venues which also featured some Singaporean-ish food.

Contrary to what some thought, there was no “official messaging” that I had been instructed to deliver, things along the lines of, “don’t forget Singapore, it’s your home, please come back”. Instead, I was asked very broadly to talk about the media landscape in Singapore. That was an easy brief because I could spend hours making fun of Mediacorp. But people were hungry, and the buffet spreads were waiting, so I let everyone off with a presentation that lasted maybe half an hour.

But there are some points I made that I’d like to reiterate:

1. Stop calling ourselves a “little red dot” (HT Calvin Soh). Be confident, be brash;

2. Don’t be in a hurry to come home. It’ll always be here. You’re already abroad, so take on the world while you’re there if it’s more convenient;

3. The OSU is a great networking facilitator. Register yourselves, keep in touch, and don’t be silly – the Gahmen is not trying to track and limit your movement. It’s merely trying to see how it can help you succeed. Honest!

But thank you for hosting me in the limited time I was there. To my old friends in Boston who contacted me, it was great getting in touch again IRL. Didn’t occur to me we hadn’t seen each other in two decades. Thank you Facebook.

To the Singaporeans in Chicago who stayed on and chatted over a couple of rounds of drinks – thank you, that was fun!

And to Pittsburgh. Goodness, what a pretty town. I’m sorry I had preconceived notions of it being a bleak steel town because that’s how ignorant I am. For the kids and the not so young studying at Carnegie Mellon – you guys rock, and thanks to you, we now know that the last Batman movie had an over-representation of Singaporeans.

I hear this series saw a record turnout in each city, so thank you for coming out (including the fella who flew in from Florida) on the most tumultuous weekend in recent US history. And thank you Overseas Singaporean Unit for organising this whirlwind tour.

My Father And The Melbourne Olympics

One of the many little things in my father's remarkable life
One of the many little things in my father’s remarkable life

I’ve told this story many times before, but as the Olympic Games get under way in Rio, I remember again my father’s stint sixty years ago at the Melbourne Olympics:

In another age altogether, my father scored a temp job at the Melbourne Olympics as a general clerk/intern assisting the accounts department. The Games then were a small affair, unlike the massive logistical behemoth it is now. It would’ve been remarkable enough to be able to tell your kids and grandkids that you once worked at the XVIth Olympiad, but Pa being Pa, had to inadvertently go one further.

There was this boxer from the Japanese team. There was no translator. So they picked the nearest Japanese-looking person to help. No matter that Pa’s knowledge of Japanese was confined to mostly pidgin from the Occupation a little over a decade earlier.

The boxer mentioned something about ‘cutting’ something, and kept gesticulating with his hands, pointing at his waist. He sounded desperate too. Pa put the bits of Japanese words he understood and two and two together and informed Games officials that the boxer had an abdominal problem that needed to be fixed.

They sent the boxer, this time screaming and yelling, to the hospital for immediate medical attention, fearing appendicitis.

A few hours later, the angry Japanese boxer came back to the arena, with real translators, and it seems, all he wanted to tell officials was that he needed to get a skipping rope to cut his excess weight down to that stipulated by his weight division in his event. Pa was sent to the back rooms to be buried under accounting sheets.

(Originally told on this blog in June 2004)

The Public Service Paperweight Award

Some time in the early 90’s my father was given a public service award for his contributions to education. It came as a surprise to all of us, since he never mentioned anything about it, and the only times we saw him getting close to education was when he signed our school report cards.

He explained that over the years, he had been donating money to a Chinese school affiliated with one of the Hainanese clans in Singapore. He also said it wasn’t a big deal, but I’m sure it was – because no ordinary donor would have been shortlisted for a public service award.

When he received the invitation to the ceremony, he showed it to me and asked me if he should attend. I said, “Why not? You deserve it”.

He went, came home, and I asked him how it was. He said, “Nothing lah. So long the whole thing”.

I asked him to show me the award or certificate he must have received, and he said, “Don’t have lah. They only give me this block of wood”.

He showed me the “block of wood”, and said, “Useless. Can put on your desk”, probably thinking it was a paperweight.

I took the block of wood, removed the ribbon around it, and opened it to show him a medal. We spent the next hour laughing at his silliness.