In the 1960s when travelling is only affordable by buses, James Seah brought his cousin from Brunei on a tour in Singapore and their first stop was the National Library at Stamford Road.  Read on to find out why James Seah also called it his home.

Picture1James Seah with his cousin outside the old National Library. Picture Credit: James Seah

As a picture is worth a thousand words, the picture below, taken about 40 years ago when I was in my early 20s,  will help me to save as many words in this article. However, a picture without words or oral narration is incomplete and vice versa. One could never get the whole picture because without words , the thoughts, the feelings, the smell and the atmosphere are simply not there.

Looking at the picture, the viewer may be wondering who is the girl standing beside me. No, she’s not my girlfriend ; )

She is my cousin from Brunei who visited Singapore with her husband for their honeymoon, and I was the “official” tour guide and host sometime in the 1960s. Couldn’t remember the exact date, unfortunately. For a person with poor memories like me, dates fade with age. This is not the norm though. Some of my older buddies with “elephant memories” could remember dates on their finger tips as they have a better mental faculty than me.

The itinerary I planned for my cousin and her husband was somewhat different from those offered by tourist agencies in their commercialised “Places of Interest” lists. I brought them to other tourist attractions such as Haw Par Villa, Van Kleef Aquarium, National Theatre, the Esplanade, Great World, Happy World and New World (the amusement parks of the ‘Three Worlds’ in Singapore) too. We walked a lot, as the places we visited were mostly in downtown Singapore, including Chinatown. For the faraway places we visited, we took bus. There was no MRT then, and taxi fare was beyond my budget. That was Singapore in the 1960s.

“The itinerary I planned for my cousin and her husband was somewhat different from those offered by tourist agencies in their commercialised “Places of Interest” lists. I brought them to other tourist attractions such as Haw Par Villa, Van Kleef Aquarium, National Theatre, the Esplanade, Great World, Happy World and New World (the amusement parks of the ‘Three Worlds’ in Singapore) too.”

Our itinerary included the most unlikely places for tourists to visit – the National Library at Stamford Road.

How can I not bring them to my “second home” where I spent my teenage years and knows every nooks and corners of the red-brick building?

I remembered that one day when I was at the National Library at Stamford Road many years ago, there was a fire-drill and everyone in the library were required to evacuate through a back-door staircase, guided by a library staff. This is a secret exit used only for emergencies and it was like going down a dark dungeon which leads to a door that opens out to the library carpark. This is something that many library visitors do not have the chance to experience. The National Library doesn’t conduct fire drill everyday, I am sure.

“…I was at the National Library at Stamford Road many years ago, there was a fire-drill and everyone in the library were required to evacuate through a back-door staircase, guided by a library staff. This is a secret exit used only for emergencies and it was like going down a dark dungeon which leads to a door that opens out to the library carpark.”

Both my cousin and her husband were impressed that Singapore has such a big library with a huge collection of books in various languages, catering to readers of various ages with different interests. Furthermore, the books were on loan free-of-charge, except for those in the reference section which cannot be borrowed home.

They did not have such public amenities in the fishing village in Brunei where they lived.

That was 40 years ago. I don’t know about now because Brunei is a rich country with rapid development and progress and things must have changed.

After a tour of the library where I proudly presented to them the ‘haven of books’ where every Singaporean could supplement their text-book learning with the world of knowledge through books in the National Library, we were hungry.

I brought them to the canteen beside the library to savour the delicious “One Ton Mee” (Wanton Mee) of the kind-hearted auntie who has become a Singapore icon. Please check out some of the local blogs about her. Just google “national library wanton mee” and you will get a whole list of the links.

There is something which has not been blogged about the auntie, I believe.

It is my personal experience; and unless someone who also witnessed the incident at that time is also a blogger relating it somewhere on his or her blog, let me share it here:

In the 60s when the library is the only place I will spend my school holidays, usually from the time the library opens until it closed.

My meals during those time was either the breads I brought along or home-cooked food prepared by my mother. Once in a while whenever I have enough pocket money, I would give myself a treat and eat at the National Library canteen. My favorite stall was the auntie’s wanton mee.

On one occasion, I witnessed a heart-rending incidence at the auntie’s stall.

There was this young student in uniform who discovered that he did not have enough money to pay for the food after ordering a plate of wanton mee. He panicked and pleaded with the auntie to cancel his order. He was embarrassed, frightened and tears was welling in his eyes. He probably thought that the auntie would scold or humiliate him in the presence of so many people at the stall.

The kind auntie whispered to him as she did not want other customers to eavesdrop on their conversation, “Don’t worry, boy. You don’t have to pay me now. Just go eat the wanton mee. Pay me some other time when you have enough money”.

I could hear because I was standing beside them; else this story could never have been told except by the auntie or the boy.

This long forgotten story, until now, is told here because there is a moral to the story worth sharing, I believe.

Such kindness and compassion touches the heart!

James Seah’s  story first appeared here on the Singapore Memory Project portal.
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