Samuel was about six years old when his family moved to live in a HDB flat in Bukit Merah. At the time, the flats were among the first high-rises to be built with latest technology. As such, the blocks in his neighbourhood stood tall and prominent in an area largely undeveloped. Read on as he describes growing up in Bukit Merah. 

478In those days, TV was a rare luxury. I recall that only about 1 in every 100 households had one. Photo credit: Samuel Tham

As the legend about how Bukit Merah got its name goes, the soil was truly predominantly red. With many pig farms lining a large stretch of Bukit Merah, free-roaming pigs was a common sight. A stone’s throw from where I lived was a Malay village which was a flashpoint during the racial riots of the 1960s. I remember being scared stiff when my neighbour tricked me into believing that the fighting had reached our doors.

The alternative was pirate taxis which cost about 60 cents a pop to Chinatown. Back then, the buses were so frequently packed with passengers that it was common for me to have to stand (sometimes with room for only one foot) on the lowest step of the bus.

Travelling from one place to another was mostly by public buses run by a private company by the name of Hock Lee, just before SBS made its debut on Singapore roads. The alternative was pirate taxis which cost about 60 cents a pop to Chinatown. Back then, the buses were so frequently packed with passengers that it was common for me to have to stand (sometimes with room for only one foot) on the lowest step of the bus. I would have to hold on to my school bag with one hand, and a handle bar of the bus for dear life with the other until I arrived at school or home.

Looking back, life as a school boy was precariously dangerous indeed. I am still amazed and thankful today that I managed to survive. In those days, TV was a rare luxury. I recall that only about 1 in every 100 households had one. When it was time for my favourite cartoon, I would beg my neighbour – the proud owner of a 21-inch black & white TV – to let me watch it in his home. Despite not having a TV of our own, the memory of sitting in someone else’s living room to watch TV was sweet.

479Modern high rise living and attap houses in Bukit Merah. Photo credit: Samuel Tham

Today, Bukit Merah is a thriving modern estate, complete with a highly-accessible MRT station and state-of-the-art public and private housing. Commuting is a cinch via public (and much safer) transport. The estate is blessed with many modern amenities and is only a 10-minute bus ride to bustling Orchard Road. As a young boy growing up in Bukit Merah in the 1960s and 1970s, shopping as we know it today was at best only a dream.

The Malay village is now occupied by a public swimming pool and a hockey pitch, beside where MRT trains enter into or exit from an underground tunnel. When riding the train today, I will recall the days of the racial riots with quivering trepidation whenever the train passes the spot. The racial harmony that Singapore enjoys today is certainly not to be taken for granted.

Although I had moved out of Bukit Merah some 25 years ago, I cannot help the gush of a special warmth in my heart every time I pass by it again, especially when I gaze upon the block of flat which I used to live in. It is still standing today – a largely forgotten old and not-so-tall block amidst the towering new. Will it still be there for many more years to come? One might never know. I am hopeful, nonetheless, that the icons of my childhood memories will be here to stay.

Thanks for the memories, Bukit Merah!

 

Samuel Tham’s  story first appeared here on the Singapore Memory Project portal.
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