In the weeks leading up to iremember goes to Punggol, we were tolling behind the scenes in search of stories that brought out the flavours of Punggol, ones that exemplify many wonderful things that have come to represent what the neighborhood means to some Singaporeans. With the help of our Memory Corps volunteers Renee Ho and Peter Chan to tease out the memories from our interviewees and some luck, we struck gold. Here’s a behind the scenes look at how two of these stories were collected for posterity.
One of our earliest interview leads was Mdm Jenny Ho. Learning that she was one of Singapore’s earliest beauty pageant contestants certainly piqued our interest and we wasted no time in pursuing the lead. The interview was initially rather restrained but once she had warmed up, Mdm Ho’s captivating stories brought new light to my own perception of 1950’s and 1960’s Singapore. It certainly shows itself in her charming and feisty demeanor as we bantered on her beauty queen days and her long line of suitors in her heydays. While this was a time of glitzy glamour at the ballrooms with the rich and famous, a starkly different world had also preceded this in Mdm Ho’s accounts as she revisited the scene of the Japanese surrender in Singapore. She recalls
The Japanese soldiers were made to march from Changi all the way to sign the surrender documents. […] And I remember all the money coming down from the skies. Japanese money. Throw and throw. Useless! Even if you had the money, it was useless!
For her the scattered “banana notes” of Syonanto was symbolic of Singapore’s deliverance out of the dark period of the Japanese Occupation. When Singapore transitioned from food ration cards to an era of post-Independence growth, life slowly became better for the country’s founding generation. As a young girl fending for herself in a big big world, Mdm Ho’s charming smile made her the darling at Odeon Cinemas, where she worked as a box-office girl, doubling as a salesgirl for men’s shirts in Geylang in the evenings.
Life was still not easy but she somehow managed. It wasn’t long before the talent scouts spotted her smile and she was invited to join her first pageant.
They said, ‘Jenny, why don’t you join the beauty contest? They are organizing the Rhythm Queen contest’ Then I said ‘ok’. Then they said, ‘alright, then you must let us have your photo. The best photo of you.
A painted replica of the photo now hangs on the wall in Mdm Ho’s home in Punggol; her family had it made as a gift for her during a family vacation some years ago.
I used to meet all these famous stars around here, because these are all part of Cathay. So each time when they come over in a group and I would present all the bouquets.
For her the photograph was never simply an image; it had come to represent to her a way of living in a Singapore that was completely different from the one we’re experiencing today. More importantly, the photos reminded her of her youth, a period of chasing the stars and painting the town red, moments that invigorate her spirit so much so it lights up her eyes as she reminisces. It was a pleasure speaking with Mdm Ho and her family, and in that short instance I felt I had learnt more about a Singapore that had not been captured by our official historical narratives.
Our next interviewee was Mr Lawrence Basapa, grandson of Mr William Lawrence Soma Basapa (1893-1943), better known in some circles as Singapore’s “Animal Man”. His grandfather’s moniker had its dues from his fame as the proprietor of Singapore’s earliest zoo, housed at Upper Serangoon before a move brought it to Punggol in 1928 to accommodate the growing number of animals.
He loved animals, lived in a carefree way and was able to make a living out of what he loved.
We understand that Albert Einstein once visited the zoo in 1922. According to press reports, the famed scientist was in Singapore for a fund-raiser for the Hebrew University and had referred to the zoo in his travelogues as “a wonderful zoological garden”.
We were also intrigued by the pet tiger which Mr W. L. S. Basapa kept around him at all times.
He was my grandfather’s personal pet and mascot and they went together almost everywhere. he was especially useful to my grandfather in correcting errant tenants.
Flipping through the voluminous photo album he brought with him, Mr Lawrence Basapa took us through some of the old documents of his grandfather’s zoo, including a “stock take” of all the animals and birds in the zoo’s holdings.
When the war was about to begin, my grandfather had only 24 hours to vacate the animals. I believed the birds were let out of their cages, but some of animals had to be shot. He was heartbroken.
Fortunately, the post-war era offered a reprieve for the family and Mr Basapa recounted some of his fondest memories of living at Punggol, especially those spent riding on boats during family outings by the sea.
My father had fond memories of weekends at that house by the sea, swimming and watching the crowds. […] These little boatels we used for boating was owned by a Malay family and a lot of their relatives helped me chain the boat. They charged us a princely sum of $20 a month. And all we had to do was phone them a couple of hours before we want to go out on the boat and they would set it up, fuel it up and be ready for us. Very efficient, very happy.
Today, the last vestiges of this amazing zoo lay among old newspaper cut outs and yellowed photographs; much of its physical manifestation is now absorbed by Punggol Promenade and Riverside Walk.
For Mr Basapa, now residing in East Coast, these personal accounts and stories are foundational elements that constitute Singapore’s national culture. While the zoo might be gone, it is important that memories of it live on.
It’s a part of our heritage, for us to remember our roots and what the Asian immigrants contributed to Singapore. […] People of humble backgrounds from China, India and the Middle East came, and in the process we built a nation.
From dance hall beauties to exotic beasts, the expedition to Punggol has been a rewarding experience for the team at the Singapore Memory Project. With every roadshow we run, we are heartened by the immense volume of positive responses from members of the public on the spirit of the initiative. And it is these words of encouragement that keeps us going. Thank you for inviting us to your neighborhood, Punggol 🙂
Singapore Memory Project