Overcoming the Bukit Ho Swee Tragedy: James Seah

Posted by on Feb 27, 2012 in From the Archives | 14 Comments

Before the Bukit Ho Swee Fire on 25 May, 1961, I was staying in a zinc-roofed hut. It had a kitchen near the front door and opened onto a single bedroom.

My mother, two elder sisters in their early twenties and I slept in a big bedroom. My father slept  in a canvas foldable bed in the kitchen. I was about 11 years old.

The community toilet and bathroom, about 200 metres away, were shared by about six tenants. Water was from a shared standpipe and collected in pails to be brought into the house.

In the evening, I would play hide-and-seek with my neighbourhood friends in the landlord’s compounds and near the landlord’s ancestral tomb behind his house. During weekends, my friends and I would play games at the Delta Community Centre at Zion Road.

We had a single incandescent lightbulb of 40 volts. The hut was dim and oil lamps were used in the evening if I needed to do my schoolwork. My family used to go to bed at about 9 o’clock and the kampong was quiet at night.

On the fateful day of 25 May 1961, my family was made homeless. Along with our neighbours, we who had lost our homes to the fire had to sleep in the classroom of Seng Poh Primary School for about a week.

Many youngsters today, including my own children, have only read about the Bukit Ho Swee fire in the history textbooks. But residents of Bukit Ho Swee who are still living may vividly remember the tragic event of the Great Singapore Fire over forty-nine years ago.

On that day, it was Hari Raya Haji and a school holiday.  I was attending Primary 6 at Delta Primary School. My mother and I had gone to my second auntie’s house at Chin Swee Road that morning.

There was pandemonium at the junction of Havelock Road, beside the wet market, as my mother and I were heading home to Beo Lane at about 3:30 pm.

Dark billowing smoke filled the sky, the smell was toxic. People were screaming and shouting “Fire, Fire”. This scenario was the first I seen in my life; I had never seen a big fire that burnt down houses and places before. I had not read about it, or watched it on television (monochrome TV broadcast in Singapore only began in April 1963) or at the movies. The Bukit Ho Swee fire was a real (not reel) fire that I witnessed with my own eyes. To me, it was excitement rather than a fear of danger that I felt.

During the fire, many people were carrying bulky items like cupboards, tables, chairs, and pots and pans instead of saving the lives of people and domestic animals. But there were some compassionate people who carried fowl, goats and pigs they reared, and their loved pets to safety. Though in crisis, the milk of human kindness was still publicly demonstrated.

However, there were a few unscrupulous people who looted the personal belongings of those who fell victim to the fire.

On reaching home, my mother had the presence of mind to start packing important items without wasting time. She was calm and did not panic, having been through the tough experience of the Japanese Occupation when she was young. She slung a sarong bundle over her shoulder and dragged me out of the house quickly. I later found that some jewellery, and most importantly, the birth certificates and other family documents had already been packed in preparation for the event of an emergency.

While my mother had been busy salvaging whatever lightweight personal items in a rush, I had only taken my school bag with all the textbooks and stationery I needed for school with me.

I was dazed and had not realised that it was the last time I would see the home we were escaping from. It was no fire drill exercise but I didn’t fully know the consequences. I had changed into slippers from the pair of shoes which I had earlier worn to my second auntie’s house. I had thought that I would be returning to the house later.

My mother and I ran as fast as we could as we fled from the burning houses. There was a stampede. The older and weaker people were carried by younger and stronger ones.  I noticed my neighbor’s daughter knelt down on the ground to pray, starring at a darkened sky of smoke.

Once we had reached Havelock Road, we walked towards Delta Circus for safety. My mother could run well and I followed her. She asked me which way we should go. For one moment, she was at a loss ….

A car stopped in front of us at Prince Philip Avenue and its driver was the daughter of a relative of my mother’s. She told us that she heard about the fire at Bukit Ho Swee. Just a spectator who wanted to help whoever she happened to know, or even strangers! What a fortunate coincidence that my mother and I ran into this kind lady, a saviour indeed.

We were driven to the Kim Seng School opposite the Great World Amusement Park. The lady had been informed that the centralised fire victim camps were being set up at several schools along Kim Seng Road and River Valley Road.

The school compound was crowded with thousands of survivors, police, military personnel, members of the Red Cross and St. John’s Ambulance Brigade, doctors, nurses, volunteers and helpers.

Tents were erected for the registration of the survivors and victims, cooking utensils were provided to those who wanted to cook on the spot and supplies of biscuits, hot and cold beverages, blankets and clothing were made available through the generosity of sponsors and donors. There was also milk powder for babies.

Every victim was issued with an aluminum mug, tiffin holder, spoon and fork (similar to those provided during my National Service days).

There was a long queue for toilets and bathrooms in the school at all hours of the day and night.

My mother and I were settled to occupy a corner of the classroom with about 30 families or more. Endless announcements were continually made over loudspeakers in the four official languages and in dialects; these were paging for the friends and families of the survivors in an effort to locate those still lost and missing.

My father rushed from his shop at Chinatown to the school camp, and later my three elder sisters found our personal particulars registration record. We breathed a sigh of relief, happy to be reunited that evening at the school camp. Dinner and supper (both halal and non-halal food) were supplied to the survivors of the fire that night.

I remembered that I sat on the floor of the classroom doing my homework after dinner, and slept on the floor that night.

Some innocent young children ran around the school compound, floodlit with lamps throughout the night, playing games.

As a young boy of eleven, I neither knew nor understood the extent of the fire disaster that left over 12,000 people homeless. The worries about where to find another home after the fire, or as to our future were left to the adults in the family.

It was surreal.

My family visited the fire site the following day. We only saw the shocking scene of the aftermath of the fire then. My sister then told me that the students who were homeless did not have to attend school. My father and sisters returned to work after a few days though.

Within the week, my family was allocated a 2-room HDB flat at Margaret Drive.

The HDB flats were built a few months later at the fire site and my family and I were allocated a 2-room flat at Margaret Drive for temporary rental. Staying in a HDB flat was self-contained with PUB supplying water and electricity directly to the home. We had privacy and there was more space there than in our kampong hut where we had once lived.

I enjoyed the comfortable bedroom, the hygienic environment and a playground in the nearby housing estate. About 9 months later, my family moved to the HDB 1-room emergency flat at Blk 9, Jalan Bukit Ho Swee.

Though we had adjusted to the flat at Margaret Drive, we still prefered the flat at Jalan Bukit Ho Swee compared to the zinc-roof hut at Beo Lane before the Bukit Ho Swee fire.

14 Comments

  1. irememberSG » Welcome to the new irememberSG
    February 29, 2012

    [...] during the National Day Rally speech on 14 Aug 2011, and PM Lee Hsien Loong shared memories from James Seah and Muhammad Raydza. Six months on, we have taken some of our users’ feedback for a more [...]

    Reply
  2. Tan Beng har
    July 23, 2012

    Reading this article brought back very vivid memories of that fateful day. I was 11 yrs old and lived in havelock rd. We heard about the fire and the adults were saying it wont reach us as would have to cross the road and there was a block of shop house to burn down first. Incidentally the shop house block still stands to this day!

    Reply
    • Kimberly
      February 4, 2014

      Hi.

      I”m helping my dad to search for his biological mum who might live in the area of Bukit Ho Swee and very likely lived through the fire.

      His actual surname is Tan and his birth name should be Tan Kok Peng. His mum has 8 children with the 1st husband and soon after her 1st husband died… she set up a store at the road side to sell vegetables. She then met another guy and gave birth to my dad. Sadly, this 2nd husband did not honour the marriage and given the fact she was a widow and no one to support her financially, she gave away the son (my dad). Later she met a 3rd husband and gave birth to a daughter.

      Hope you know anyone who lived in that area which this background story.

      Pls help. Thanks
      Kimberly 96171014
      kimberlygino@gmail.com

      Reply
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    September 22, 2012

    [...] billowing smoke filled the sky, the smell was toxic,” Seah recalled in his Singapore Memory Project blog post. “People were screaming and shouting “Fire, Fire” … I had never seen a big [...]

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    September 23, 2012

    [...] billowing smoke filled the sky, the smell was toxic,” Seah recalled in his Singapore Memory Project blog post. “People were screaming and shouting ‘Fire, Fire’ … I had never seen a big [...]

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    [...] billowing smoke filled the sky, the smell was toxic,” Seah recalled in his Singapore Memory Project blog post. “People were screaming and shouting ‘Fire, Fire’ … I had never seen a big [...]

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    September 24, 2012

    [...] billowing smoke filled the sky, the smell was toxic,” Seah recalled in his Singapore Memory Project blog post. “People were screaming and shouting ‘Fire, Fire’ … I had never seen a big fire that burnt [...]

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    September 24, 2012

    [...] billowing smoke filled the sky, the smell was toxic,” Seah recalled in his Singapore Memory Project blog post. “People were screaming and shouting ‘Fire, Fire’ … I had never seen a big fire that burnt [...]

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    September 24, 2012

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    [...] billowing smoke filled the sky, the smell was toxic,” Seah recalled in his Singapore Memory Project blog post. “People were screaming and shouting ‘Fire, Fire’ … I had never seen a big [...]

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  12. irememberSG » Beneath the Surface: Debra Thang
    February 7, 2013

    [...] part in preserving and educating others in Singapore’s past and historical moments (like the Bukit Ho Swee fire that he survived) through maintaining his blog and giving talks is really impressive and has definitely rubbed off [...]

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  13. David Chiam
    March 24, 2014

    Great and valuable story. I was also 11 years old and knew about the big fire disaster at Bukit Ho Swee in the year 1961.
    Thank you for sharing with us the most memorable experience that I did not hear from you since we lost contact 11 years ago.

    Reply

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