Superhero (Part 3) – It’s all about the Birds!

Having dogs as a regular part of our family was due to my dad’s love for animals. Birds however, were his main obsession which you will get to know soon. During our kampung days, my dad included dogs in the family as they were known to be loyal guardians of families and homes. Break-ins and thefts of property were common in our kampung during the 1960s and 1970s. We had other creatures included like a couple of white mice that I brought home but my mom’s squeals when I played with them in the house and their subsequent disappearance from my makeshift cage, made it no longer feasible to keep them. Much to my dismay, cats could not be included as they would frighten the birds or even worse, eat them, so my dad would not risk having them around.

After my family settled in the new high-rise living in 1979, the birds came along as they have been my dad’s lifelong passion. Somehow, dogs were still added on later by us children and my dad just embraced all of them and walked them daily.

Dad bringing Patchy, Rusty and Jamie out for their daily walk at the foot of our block.

Dad bringing (from left) Patchy, Rusty and Jamie out for their daily walk at the foot of our block.

No matter which type of animals that came into our family’s life, it was still all about the birds when you see my dad. He was into it from rearing them the moment they were hatched, trapping them in the jungle to buying or exchanging them with fellow bird lovers. There was one that prominently stood out with him and it was the White-eye Finch, known locally as “Mata Puteh” (a malay description for white-eye) and the following photo will help you see why the small and feisty bird got its name:

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I believe my dad gained a reputation as the “King of Mata Puteh” as he had several wins under his belt such as winning the first prize in a bird singing competition as shown in the following photo dated back in the late 1960s or early 1970s:

Dad won 1st prize in a Mata Puteh bird singing competition

He rose in the ranks of owners of competition standard Mata Puteh such that he was invited to be a judge in such competitions. He had to give up taking part in the competition as it would conflict with his role as a judge but he just loved doing it all as it would promote a hobby that he loved. Here’s a rare photo of my dad judging at one of these competitions:

Dad Judging at a Mata Puteh Singing Competition

You may think that so much time was devoted to one particular species of birds but that was not all. There was another species called “Merbok” and I just learned that it is a Zebra Dove! This bird was like the `luxury model’ of all the species of birds at that time and there were stories about the Sultans (Kings) in Malaysia trading their Mercedes Benz for such top birds in competitions and there is even a town in Malaysia called Merbok, for reasons unknown to me.

My dad had an old friend called Uncle Henry who lived in an old shack up in the old Kampung Eunos and if I remembered correctly, the road leading to his place was Jalan Singa. He was poor and lived alone in a little hut that was at the back of another wooden house and it was the size of a small room. My dad would visit him regularly and brought me along and he and Uncle Henry would sit and chat the whole day about merbok which my dad had one or two. I believe Uncle Henry was his mentor and perhaps they shared one or two potential birds that my dad had invested in (rearing it according to strict diet and care). Here is another rare photo of Uncle Henry and dad with their merbok after winning the first prize at a Merbok singing competition:

Uncle Henry and Dad wining the 1st Prize at a Merbok Singing Competition

I think no one will dispute it if anyone was to say my dad was “Birdman”. After all, his name is Robert and many of his peers, including mom, called him “Bert” which sounds like bird anyway.

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Superwoman No.1

Yes, it is not part 1. This is dedicated to the Number ONE superwoman in my life. She is none other than my grandmother. She was affectionately called Mama by all her children and grandchildren (including all her sons-in-law and daughter-in law). Mama lived with her eldest daughter (my mom) and my dad who never really had the chance to grow up with his biological mother so he regarded Mama like his own mother. Mama doted on my parents and us, her grandchildren even more 🙂

You see Mama in the 1970s wearing her signature `sarong kebaya’ (a batik long skirt and a delicate blouse set) as shown in the photo below:

Mama in the 1970s wearing her signature sarong kebaya

Neighbours, friends and relatives would address Mama respectfully as`Bibik’ when they greeted her. This was the title given to peranakan (straits-born chinese) women of a certain stature, including matriarchs. She was not only a wonderful and loving mother and grandmother, she was a great cook and you can read more about it in a previous post called Chicken Curry. I would like to focus on giving a background about Mama so you would understand better why she is so deeply loved and cherished.

At 16 years old, Mama was match-made to a grandfather I never knew and the little that I know of him was that he died at the age of 36 and did not really provide for the family.

Wed Mama 1e

Mama’s only wedding photo believed to be taken in 1931.

I grew up very much under Mama’s watchful eye (and hands) especially during my kampung days where I often run around and had to be yelled at to come home for meals (not very different from my dog ‘Tramp’ except that he did not get to go out as much or as long as I did). She would cook for the whole family almost everyday except when we had dinners out over the weekends. She would do almost all the household chores as my parents were working and the grandchildren would be at school or playing elsewhere.

She had the habit of having a lit cigarette hanging on her lips like an incense stick most of the time. I never recalled her puffing her cigarette and I learnt that she had this habit from the time she was married. I was often tasked to run errands for her in the kampung to buy groceries from nearby provision shops and the items would mostly be her cooking needs and cigarettes. Another errand that I ran regularly in the evenings would be to the bookies for her lottery habit known as `chap ji kee’ which means twelve numbers. It was essentially a 2-digit game of chance where you would choose 2 numbers from 1 to 12. The results would be announced via telephone from the bookies every day. This was the most popular form of lottery then and it was illegal and there were 4-digit ones that had both legal and illegal versions. Ok, by now you would know that Mama had a gambling habit and `mahjong’ was her favourite game which she would regularly go for when she had done all her cooking and chores for the day.

Mama would come home at night and would sleep late and wake up early. She said she did not need to sleep much so I had the privilege of being around Mama alone late at night quite often. Those were the times when I was able to ask her about things and matters of the past as I was curious about them. Even my parents did not relate matters of the past to me so Mama provided much of the historical information of both herself and my parents.

On one of these times, Mama reflected about the years soon after her marriage when she was pregnant and had very little provisions from her husband who hardly held down any jobs. She had to bear 8 children where only 3 survived; her first and last two children (girl, boy and girl), all in that harsh era of the1930s.  Five children in between either died at birth or at a very young age. In most of her pregnancies, she wondered whether the baby would survive as food was scarce and she was illiterate and had no money to buy milk or baby food. This is just too overwhelming for me to relate further so I shall  focus more on better times Mama had, especially when she had grandchildren like me 🙂

Things became better for Mama when her children were able to get stable jobs, a proper home to stay and proper food to eat. Life did become a bed of roses but not without all the thorns that came with it like world war, racial riots and political instabilities of those times… in Singapore. Yes, it did happen in Singapore like it did all over the world then. When times changed, Mama was able to dance and laugh and those were the times when I came into her world too as you can see her dancing and enjoying herself in the following photo:

Mama dancing

Mama dancing with Uncle Swee in 1987 at dad’s 60th birthday party.

 All the years I was with Mama, never did I hear her complain or moan about her past or the sufferings she went through. She only focused on doing her chores and cooking for us faithfully. She hardly fell ill or complained of any ailments. She would simply look after herself and was independent until her bones became too frail. I will share more about Mama especially the interesting observations and experiences I had with her. For now, it is undisputed that she is the No. 1 Superwoman.

Superhero (Part 2)

As mentioned in Part 1,  my dad worked at Bank of America (BOA) in Singapore in 1970s. He started as a storekeeper for their 2 large godowns (warehouses) which were huge structures overlooking the Kallang River. The BOA was already advertising their presence as they painted huge words in front of each godown with “Bank of America Godown 1” and the other Godown 2, of course. You could see it clearly from afar when going along the stretch of road or if you were at the river area. Perhaps BOA did not intend to advertise but make it obvious for the delivery trucks to have no excuse of locating them.

As a storekeeper, my dad had to ensure the goods were placed systematically in the godown (which I will refer to as the warehouse from now on). It was just a large empty space like several basketball courts with a very high ceiling. I believe he would decide where the gunny sacks of spices would go and where the bales of cloth should be positioned and there were other goods as well. He would also need to know when the trucks would deliver or collect the goods so that the organisation would make it efficient for storage and removal of these goods.

You may wonder how I would be able to perceive this when my dad never really shared with me about his work. I was also too young for him to tell me such stuff. Well, my dad had to look after me during the school holidays and to keep me out of trouble (i guess) he brought me along to his work place which was the warehouse.

Some of you may squeal hearing this as why would anyone bring a little girl to a huge warehouse filled with heavy stuff and there would be trucks moving heavy stuff in and out as well. I never thought there was any danger at all and in fact, I considered the warehouse as one of my favourite playgrounds at par with my kampung (village). I recalled jumping from one stack of gunny sack to another and when I found any that had a tear causing the contents to come out, I would quickly scoop up spices such as cloves of garlic, dried chilli, star anise, cinnamon, etc, put them in a bag to bring it back to the kampung to share. My dad allowed me to do that as it would help clear up the mess from these `leaking’ sacks. I would load it in his favourite car (volkswagon beetle seen with him in the photo below) which he had for many good years.

Dad with Beetle (2)

My Dad with his trusty Volkwagon Beetle

As I mentioned earlier, there were bales of cloth too and my dad would bring back some that were left behind. Most of these cloths were for furniture upholstery or curtains and if there were any that was actually good for human attire, it did not make it to my wardrobe. My mom was not one who would waste these cloths so she would get a seamstress to make cushion covers, curtains and of course the good cloths would be for dresses for her or my sister. I refused to wear one so my mom decided to let the leftover tougher cloths meant for curtains to be my pants or blouse! You can see a specimen of this in the following photo where I was wearing one of such pants and it seemed that I was not too happy too 🙂

Parents and 2 girls

It is pretty obvious who is the Peanut fan.

So my dad allowed me to do whatever with the spices which brought delight to my grandma and my neighbours who all loved to cook and he would please my mom with the bales of cloth for her to go to the seamstress to come up with the latest trends for that season but little did she know that she had set a trend for me to have quite a weird taste for colors and clothes in my later years too… but maybe not. My dad chose lime green as the color of the volkswagon and it made quite a stir at the kampung and on the roads at that time. It attracted lots of attention whenever he drives it around and I think there were no other car like his in Singapore then 🙂

I was and still am proud of my dad for giving me such an interesting and amazing childhood that was filled with so much fun and adventure. When you read any posts on my childhood adventures or my growing up years, you need to remember who my superhero was and always will be.

Dad's 60th BD2 (2)

Dad’s 60th Birthday (1987)

Superhero (Part 1)

In 1970s,  my dad was working for Bank of America which had its foothold in Singapore at that time. No he was not a big time banker or officer. He was given a job at the warehouse which they called a godown and he was a storekeeper. It sounded like a humble position for a man who had served in the British Army based in Singapore post World War 2 (WWII). In the army he was a Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM) and had a colorful career which included being a champion batam weight boxer in the region’s army.

Dad as boxer

My dad as a boxer

Dad in Army

My dad was also a mechanic in the British army

Let’s take a step further back and you will see my dad as an errand boy for the Japanese soldiers occupying Singapore during WWII. Those were really cruel and hard times in Singapore where people of my parents era (born in the 1920s and 1930s) were dealt a cruel blow in life. In order to survive, my dad was made to do errands like cooking, cleaning and playing the piano for the Japanese officers at their residence.

Yes, you heard it, play the piano and my dad had no formal training on piano or any musical instrument as he was around 12 to 14 years old and was not able to continue school due to the war. The Japanese seemed desperate to hear their local music or songs and there were pianos around, so they had a Japanese music teacher summoned to teach my dad to play their songs on the piano. I cannot fully imagine what my dad went through then but the little he shared with me, I was stumped. He was asked to look at how the teacher played and then follow his fingering over the piano and the tune that he played.  It was not a single handed kind of piano playing but what I heard and saw my dad’s playing the piano while I was growing up, it was no different from the professionals. He mentioned that the teacher would turn off the lights and asked him to play the tune. If he faltered, he would be hit on the hands with what I believe was their kendo stick (a kind of wooden sword).

During my childhood days, my dad would play these tunes which were absolutely foreign to all of us but my family and our kampung (village) had the privilege of hearing him play the piano in the evenings when he comes home from work. I believe the tunes were famous Japanese love or classic songs of that time and they were lovely and soothing to our ears. I can imagine how frequent he had to play for that two to three years as the errand boy due to the comfort his piano playing brought to the soldiers. He must have been good to survive that period.

Although he could not read music notes, my dad was able to improvise playing other songs purely by hearing. I think I must have inherited his hearing skills which I will share in future posts 🙂 but more about my superhero to be continued.