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 – Patchy was Mama’s love

[This is part of a series of adventures with Superwoman No.1 featured earlier – click here for the post.) 

In 1979, our family had to leave our kampung (village) due to resettlement to allow our small country to progress through urbanisation and town planning. We moved to a high-rise public housing estate in the eastern coastal part of Singapore and only the birds came along as we no longer had a dog by the time we moved. However, it was not long that we had dogs with us again. Yes not a dog but dogs, as you can see my dad bringing three of them out for their daily walk in the following photo:

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.

Mama was not someone who showed her emotion readily other than when she gets angry and scolds you. She was ours and our dogs great cook and she lovingly and faithfully prepared all our food. Patchy was the first puppy introduced to our family at our new home by me. My classmate bred poodle terriers and I had no idea about breeds or what that meant as I was only familiar with my kampung dog `Tramp’, a mongrel. My classmate somehow convinced me to buy Patchy for a handsome fee of 150 bucks! That was a whopping sum for a school going girl and I still cannot recall how I managed to beg, steal or borrow that amount (poor dad or mom or both). You can see Patchy with my sister in the following photo:

My sister with Patchy our first beloved dog in our HUDC flat.

My sister with Patchy, our first dog in our flat.

My sis and I shared one room and Patchy was our alarm clock every morning and he would run into our bedroom when our dad told him to, so that we could get up for work or school. Patchy would lick our face and if we refuse to budge, he would rub his body on our face as well. It would be impossible not to get up with such `violent’ affection shown. Sometimes we would cover ourselves with the blanket or our pillow but he would trample all over us until we got up. Although we yelled at him, we were never angry because he was just too adorable. Soon, two more dogs were added to his company and they got along well but when Patchy grew older, he became grumpy and would snap at us unpredictably.

When Patchy was `snapping’ (perhaps he thought he was a turtle) at us quite frequently, I realised he never snapped at Mama. One night I observed Patchy walking to Mama who was seated at her usual chair watching TV. He stood up to her knee and reached out his paw to her face and Mama gave him a good rub with both her hands up and down his body. He looked so happy to receive that rub but none of us could even pat him without getting a growl from him. He was about ten years old when an unfortunate incident happened at the groomers. His jaw was broken and the vet who treated him said that it was not possible to fix it due to his age. He has to be tube fed for the rest of his life if we want to keep him. The vet recommended that we put him down as he was in pain and was getting senile. I was devastated to see him in that condition but I brought him home hoping he could eat but he could not even drink and was in great pain. I could not bear to see him like this and brought him back to the vet the next day. I had no choice but to let him go. It was the most difficult and painful decision then and there was much to deliberate on what had happened, why and what could have been done but that is another story altogether.

What was most difficult was actually not the grief for the loss of Patchy but to realise how it had impacted Mama. It was about a month later, Mama was watching TV at her usual chair and she burst in tears and questioned why I must let Patchy go since he was such a good boy and had no medical problems. I was shocked by her reaction and I thought she knew what had happened. I gently explained to her what had happened and why we had to let him go. It was too sudden. It was difficult and painful for Mama as she loved him dearly. Here’s a photo of Mama with Jaime who lived a long 18 years and she was actually Patchy’s sister from the same litter… yes they do not look alike but that is again, another story:

Mama with Jaime

Mama with Jaime

[Check out a previous post about Mama with Dragon, our pet parrot – Click here.]

Superwoman No. 1 – Encounters with Dragon

African Grey

Photo Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/African_grey_parrot

[This is part of a series of adventures with Superwoman No.1 featured earlier – click here for the post.) 

In our kampung (village) life, it was not uncommon to have birds, cats, dogs, chickens and other similar creatures amongst us.  Some roam freely and some in cages. My dad was a bird lover and has kept many birds as pets in beautifully decorated cages of varying shapes and sizes depending on the species. One of the birds he decided to introduce to the family was an African Grey parrot who was named `Dragon’ for reasons unknown to me especially for the fact that he does not look any way like those dragons we see in drawings or pictures. Perhaps the only part that looks similar would be its claws.

Dragon was quite a character and he was kept in a large metal cage due to his strong beak that would tear apart wooden or plastic materials. He was often hung up high at the back of our house, between the kitchen and bathroom and toilet areas. It was quite a strategic location as he had the vantage point of the whole back section of the house and could see everyone in this area and anyone who comes in from the back entrance of the house. Come to think of it, he was able to see anyone clearly and in full monty in the bathroom or toilet as his cage was perch just above it. Yes, our bathroom and toilet were built in such a way that there were no roof so it was like a cubicle and our kampung house had a high ceiling.

Dragon would come down to the bottom of the cage to look at us going in to the bathroom or toilet and he would wolf whistle and talk to us with words like “Hello”, “Good boy” and whistle some kind of tune as if to poke fun at us. Sometimes he would mimic the sound of `peeing’ and the person in the toilet would at times burst out laughing at Dragon’s cheekiness and he would even chuckle and laugh back at us. These encounters with Dragon were not all there was as he was multi-talented and able to mimic other species of birds we had at home as well as call our pet dog `Tramp’ who always looked puzzled and wondered who was calling his name when Dragon called out his name loudly.

Mama had a distinct voice and being peranakan, she was not short of some famous swear words used by peranakans such as “cheelakah” and “yiow siew” which both closely mean “damn you”. As Mama remained mostly at the back of the house where the kitchen and back entrance were, she often had to yell out the grandchildrens’ names to get us to the kitchen to have our meals. We would be in our rooms or the living area which were at the front part of the house. So we would hear her scream out our names and we will head to the kitchen. I was often out at our neighbors so Mama would shout for me from the back door and I would be able to hear or otherwise my neighbours would join in her yelling to get me to go home.

So here Dragon had a lot of training hearing Mama yelling our names and so he had tricked us a couple of times when we went to Mama and asked her what she wanted and she said she did not call for us. After awhile, we realised it was Dragon who had mimicked her voice to call us. We were more tolerant of Dragon and found him amusing. He was also able to mimic the whistle of how my dad would call for Tramp to come back after he let him out from the backyard for his “toilet run”. There were several times when I saw Tramp standing at the open backyard door afraid to leave as it happened that he would hear dad’s whistle every time he sets off. Once again, it was Dragon and poor Tramp was clueless.

We had our house telephone positioned not too far from the kitchen, sort of in between our living room and the back of the house. Mama used the phone daily to get the results of her `chap ji kee’ (2 digit lottery) and 4D (4-digit lottery) and to arrange her mahjong sessions. So when the phone rang at routine times, Mama would briskly walk over to answer it. Of all the persons in the house, Dragon chose the wrong one to pull his pranks. He decided to mimic the sound of the phone ringing when Mama was busy writing out her betting slip so she got up and went to pick up the phone. Dragon was also smart enough to stop mimicking the ringing as soon as Mama picked up the phone and this was pure timing as where he was positioned, he could not see the phone.

When Mama picked up the phone, she said “Hello… hello… HELLO!” and realised that it was a dial tone and thought the person must have hung up when she picked it up. So she put down the phone and said, “Cheelakah!” and walked back to her betting slip preparation. You may wonder how I am able to write this in such detail… well, it was one of the rare occasions when I happened to witness what was going on from the backyard and I somehow knew what Dragon was up to. I thought it was just a one time prank and ignored what had just happened but Dragon did it again! He made the phone ringing sound and Mama grunted and got up and walked to the phone again. He did the same thing by stopping just when Mama picked up the phone and she said “HELLO” loudly and then slammed the phone down and said, “Yiow Siew!”. She then turned around and saw me laughing loudly from the back entrance and I could not help but told her what Dragon had done.

Mama was so mad she went to get her broom and then lift it up as if she wanted to sweep the roof but no… she headed straight towards Dragon who began to look nervous seeing her coming towards him. When she reached the cage, she hit it with the broom at least three times and each time she shouted “Cheelakah lu!” and Dragon fluttered his wings in fear as the cage swung with each blow of the broom. Then Mama stared at him and walked away to keep the broom and went about her work. I think that day could be one of the quietest day of Dragon after facing the wrath of Mama.

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Can you hear the scream… it’s quite close to Mama’s 🙂

Now who’s the real dragon after all ?

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.

Sweet Little Lies – Bitter Truth

As kids, we’re told, time and again, that lying is wrong. Do you believe that’s always true? In your book, are there any exceptions?

Born and raised in Singapore, the smallest country in size in South East Asia, I cannot recall being told that lying is wrong. I think the older people around me then had more pressing concerns than dealing with my truthfulness.

Growing up in a rustic village was more action packed than wordiness. We did not spend time talking much and ran around playing games screaming our heads off more than anything else.

If I were to come home dirty, bruised or with bloodied knee or elbow, it will be an earful of scolding and dagger stares from my grandma. No room to lie. The common reaction of adults who see me at the end of an adventurous day was the shaking of heads or eyes rolling.

I do feel that they had given up on trying to communicate with me. On calmer days when I was not let out to play due to family dinners or festive occasions, they would say very few words to me like, “How are you girl?” or “Study hard ah?”

So until I was able to hold decent conversations perhaps teenage years onwards, that’s when the issue of lying became a matter of right or wrong. I know it clearly from the Ten Commandments that Thou shalt not lie. I know that lying makes me dishonest and made me fool another person.

Till today, I cannot comprehend the term white lies, half truths and gray as a description of lying being right or ok. The truth hurts, it is hard and may make things worse. That I can understand. It is the choices we make that determine where we stand.

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Sweet Little Lies – DP

Reader’s Block

What’s the longest you’ve ever gone without reading a book (since learning how to read, of course)? Which book was it that helped break the dry spell?

My childhood was filled with games and activities that had everything from hide and seek, police and thief, hantam-bola (a malay phrase for throwing a ball at someone), zero point or yeye (a rubberband rope that you use to twirl around your legs or jump over), and so on. In trying to recall any written words or anything that looks like a book or magazine… no, none of them. The only things that were written would be the numbers on a hop-scotch marking on the sand or picture cards resembling poker cards on one side but with pictures of some super heroes or martial arts stars on the other side. Come to think of it, the only time any of us had books would be to carry them to and from school and reading them in class when the teacher required us to do so.

That was not a dry spell. It was what the life in a kampung (malay word for village) was like. Lots of play, interaction, sports and even songs. Nothing dry about it. In fact, it can be said as “The best years of our lives.” Ok, I know it would not be possible for me to be writing about it now if I had not actually learned how to read and write. Yes, there were some books in my childhood years, so few that I can remember them. It was not Cinderella, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or Mother Goose as these were shown on TV so we would not want to read them. So when I was asked to choose a book at a bookshop, I liked the looks of one of the series from Enid Blyton called “Mr Pink Whistle”. My cousins would tell me they liked “The Naughtiest Girl” series but I preferred this one. There it began my journey of children’s fiction and it was about Mr Pink Whistle. An odd man who had some magical ability like being invisible, to help people but he tends to get into trouble when doing so.

Oh my goodness, I just checked and discovered that he’s half a brownie and half a person, whatever that means. Oh dear, I wonder how it would have confused me if I had known that as a child. Anyway, the book made me quite imaginative and sometimes, I would imagine having supernatural abilities to help others or save the world from impending danger or evil monsters… erm.. I think that came from watching too much superheroes cartoons on TV. Did I mention that I read lots and lots of comics? Well, yes I did… boxes of Beano, Superman, Spiderman, Batman and most of all, Peanuts!

I’m all grown up now and I still love to read Peanuts comics. There are so many good books to read that it’s not possible to do so in one lifetime. So I choose my books carefully now.

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Reader’s Block – DP