This book brought tears of sweet nostalgia to my eyes

July 28th, 2015   •   1 comment   

Singapore in the 60s

Do you know that Dhoby Ghaut, which means “washing place”, got its name from dhobis or laundry men who plied their trade there?

Or that dead pigs could sometimes be seen floating along the river near Queenstown back in the 60s?

Take a leisurely stroll down memory lane with the illustrated book Singapore in the 60s. Suitable for everybody in the family – from grandpa and to little ah boy or ah girl – the book is the brainchild of author James Suresh (or Mr Kiasu fame) and illustrator Syed Ismail.

Centred on the childhood memories of James Suresh, who grew up in a rented flat in Queenstown, Singapore in the 60s is a painstaking labour of love. Each page comes with a beautifully comic-style drawings and child-friendly prose which captures the zeitgeist of a bygone age.

Designed like a comic book, it brought back many heart warming slices of the past. Snippets of how life was like in the 60s are vividly told through a combination of words and soulful illustrations.


Do you remember this place in Bugis?

Reading the stories in the book made my eyes grow moist. Although I was born in 1970, I closely identifed with many of the scenes, events and places in the book.

One of my favourite nuggets was the one on the old Van Kleef Aquarium. From the book, I discovered that it had over 6,500 fishes of more than 180 varieties, and that entry fees were only 30 cents for adults and 20 cents for kids!

I still recall the awestruck wonder I felt when I sighted an Arapaima – the world’s largest freshwater fish – back in the Aquarium during those yonder years. Sadly, Van Kleef Aquarium has been torn down in the 1990s.

James Suresh

James Suresh, author of Singapore in the 60s

Supported by the SG50 Celebration Fund, the book is a personal recollection of sights, sounds, scenes and even smells of everyday life in Singapore 50 years ago. Written and illustrated in a whimsical light-hearted manner, Singapore in the 60s is a mini treasure trove of nostalgia.

James Suresh himself remarked, “When I tell my children that there were cows grazing on the grass outside my flat in Margaret Drive, they looked at me with disbelief. I realised then that there are many Singaporeans who may not know what life was like in the 60s. In the absence of electronic gadgets, the Internet and endless TV programming, we spent many hours outdoors creating our own toys, climbing trees, exploring the forests, catching fish from the drains and generally pursuing a more adventurous and creative pastime.”

Let us take a closer peek at the key chapters in the book.

My Neighbourhood

The first chapter depicts how life in a typical housing estate in the 60s was like. Back then, neighbours practiced a kampong style of life despite living in a high rise apartment.

Centred on Suresh’s home estate in Queenstown, it revealed how kids used to run in and out of each other’s homes in “open-door” neighbourhoods (compare this to how we behave today). Back then, cattle and pig farms were plentiful, and so were rivers teeming with fishes.

Significant milestones like the setting up of Chinese emporiums (do you remember the one at Margaret Drive?) and the first neighbourhood cinemas help to jolt one’s memory circuits. Ditto for gang fights which were violent, horrific and scary during those tumultuous years.


Hawkers and Tradesmen

I loved this chapter, especially the nuggets on the itinerant hawkers who pedalled anything from laksa to satay. Carrying their load on their bare shoulders, these roving food sellers offered their wares to hungry customers.


Reading about the barber who made house calls also brought back my own childhood memories. Back then, in my own hometown of Serangoon Gardens, I recalled a pork porridge seller who doubled up as wandering barber. My brother and I usually squirmed at the dread of having our hair cut as it was a hot, sticky and prickly affair!


Beyond these personalities, other tradesmen include the “night soil” carrier who collected human waste, the ice ball man who sold drinks and ice ball – the predecessor to modern day ice kachang, and the swill collector who collected waste food from each household to feed pigs.

Recreation – What We Did before “Candy Crush Soda” and “Minecraft”

My 11 year old son’s favourite part of the book, this chapter chronicled the various games we used to play. They include anything from catching fighting spiders, reading fighting fish, marbles, climbing trees, skipping ropes, throwing “five stones”, to flying kites.

Fighting Spiders

Were you caught fighting spiders as a kid?

Beyond these recreational options, there were three “theme parks” with cheery names like Happy World, Gay World, and Great World. Unfortunately, I did not have the chance to go on a roller coaster on these, but I bet they must have been pretty fun for kids then.

Does anybody recall the old drive-in theatre at Jurong? I bet that was lots of fun. While Chinese operas and “Getai” performances are still with us during the 7th month, I feel that they have somehow gone more commercial and lack that rustic and original appeal of the old “wayangs” from the past.


Significant Events and Experiences

The swinging 60s were also memorable for both good and bad events. Chief among these was the great Bukit Ho Swee fire in 1961 which left 16,000 people homeless and killed four persons. It changed the landscape of the village known as Kampong Bukit Ho Swee and provided a tipping point in Singapore’s public housing programme.

Beyond this catastrophe, floods and bomb confrontations occurred during this decade, as were national campaigns like the quirky “Eat More Wheat” campaign to reduce Singapore’s reliance on rice as a staple. Interestingly, I also found out that the Singapore Zoo, Jurong Bird-Park and Sentosa were established during this period of nation building.


Do you recall storing up buckets of water during water rationing exercises?

Public Services and Amenities

Who can forget the rickety old bus with the conductor (not the SSO kind) stamping your tickets? Or the tears and trauma that accompanied National Service – a rite of passage for all teenage boys?

Beyond these occurrences, the book also covered the phenomenon of public housing, and regaled how public utilities like electricity and water were provided back then.


Water was – and still is – a precious and scarce resource

Iconic Places in Singapore – Past and Present

Last, but not least, the final chapter chronicled some of the popular attractions in Singapore. From the recently awarded UNESCO World Heritage site Singapore Botanic Gardens to Changi Beach, Labrador Park, and Haw Par Villa.

One of the things I didn’t know was that River Valley Swimming Complex was opened way back in 1959. Interestingly, the entry fees of 50 cents didn’t change that much for public pools these days.

The other place which brought back a flood of memories was the old Fullerton Building. Apart from being the HQ of the Singapore Post Office, it was also the previous office location for the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore (IRAS) and I recalled many interesting times working there as a temporary clerk while waiting for National Service.


Anybody remembers the hawker stalls outside the old National Library?


My old workplace at the Fullerton Building

How to Get a Copy of Singapore in the 60s

Working with the Ministry of Education, 4500 of the 5000 SG50 sponsored books will find their way into school libraries. 10 copies of the book will be made available to each school library in Singapore, so do get your kids to borrow a copy of this from school.

Some of illustrations and stories from the book are also being used by MOE’s student Development Curriculum division as teaching resources for teachers as they engage students in lessons leading up to National Day.

Unfortunately, the books will not be available for sale at your usual book shops. Hopefully, that would change in future.

Stand a Chance to Win one of 50 Limited Edition Books!

Keen to get your own copy? Simply participate in this social media contest organised by The Influencer Media!

Just do the following:

1) LIKE The Influencer Media Fanpage

2) Share this Poster (see below)

50 Limited Edition Singapore in the 60s Books Up For Grabs

3) Comment with one thing that you love about Singapore.

Contest ends on 9th August 2015 so hurry!

For more details, check out The Influencer Media Facebook page.

Disclosure: A review copy of the book was provided to me for the purposes of this post.

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One comment

  1. Stanley E Nicholas
    posted on Jul 29, 2015 at 9:59 AM

    Reading the above make me think of my younger days where life was simple & not what it is today. It is very good book & nice one. Thank You.


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