The Oral History
Liaw Ching Sing
Translated into English
Liaw Family Members
Special Project from Oral History Archive Uni
Volunteers’ translation from Hokkien Interview and
Chinese Transcripts into English
Disc 1 Life in Fujian, China in Early 1900
Disc 2 Migrated to Singapore in 1925
Disc 3 I was a Boss for most of the time
Disc 4 My Barber Shop at Lavender Street around 1928
Disc 5 Barber Recruitment and Payment Systems before the War
Disc 6 Singapore Economy was bad from around 1929 to 1934
Disc 7 In 1959 to 60, I was the Vice Chairman of the Singapore Barber Employer Association and Chairman of the Hairdressing Association.
Disc 8 “Military Designated” Barber Shops
Disc 9 My Escape from the Concentration Camp
Disc 10 How the Japanese selected the Chinese men for the “Sook Ching” Massacre
Disc 11 Concentration Camp at Lavender Street/Balestier Road
Disc 12 “Good Citizen Pass” and “Movement Pass”
Disc 13 Anti-Japanese 136 Group and XinHua Relief Fund
Disc 14 I Organised a Fuxing Youth Corps
Disc 15 Raffles Hotel and St. Andrew’s Cathedral
Disc 16 Geylang Road and Paya Lebar Airport
Disc 17 Chinese Swimming Club and NanYang Univer
Disc 18 Some Chinese were tricked and sold as slaves/labourers
Disc 19 Tan Tock Seng Hospital and Sun Yat Sen Villa
Disc 20 Arcade Building and Change Alley
Disc 21 Singapore River and North Bridge Road
Disc 22 Rickshaw Puller and Trishaw Rider
With thanks from the Liaw family to the Oral History Center, National Archives of Singapore for providing the following source materials to James Lau:
i) the hard copies of the Chinese Transcript on 8 May 2017,
ii) the PDF copies of the Chinese Transcript on 15 May 2017.
My father was born in Fujian, China in 1906. He migrated to Singapore at the age of 19 in 1925 and died at the age of 95 on 3rd June 2001.
In 1981, when he was 75 years old he was asked by the Oral History Centre of the National Archives of Singapore for an interview in Hokkien about the experiences of his early days in Singapore.
Those who want to hear the 22 Discs
of Hokkien Interviews and the Chinese Transcripts of Liaw Ching Sing’s Oral
History Interviews can find them in this link: http://www.nas.gov.sg/ar
The Hokkien Interview was converted from
cassette tapes to MP3 by John Low Yoke Hun on 30 April 2017 in the link: https://drive.google.com
and can be opened with “Music Player for Google Drive”
On 30 April 2017, I heard the Hokkien interviews and could only understand about 20% to 25% of the interviews. I could not read the Chinese Transcripts at all. Wong Meng Choong and Christina Low then suggested asking the Liaw family members to translate the Chinese Transcripts into English.
I feel that Liaw Ching Sing has left all of us---sons, daughters and their spouses, grand-children and great-grand-children---a great legacy more precious than money.
He has left us a legacy---a gift. But like all gifts, they have to be accepted by the individuals to be made use of and not left in the drawer to gather dust. If we reject his gift, there is nothing for us to learn from his gift---his legacy!!!
What does this gift, this legacy mean to each one of us? To me, it means that we have to be like a gold miner, sifting through tons of rubbish, sand and rocks to find those few precious nuggets of gold. There is a lot of hard work to get these nuggets of wisdom from his legacy---for each one of us to adapt, modify and apply to our own lives. I am sure if we reflect, listen and read more of his life experience, we have much to learn from him.
I am thankful for his legacy and I decided to upload the English translation into my websitewww.jameslau88.com for the Liaw family members and others as I feel that almost all Chinese immigrants would have more or less the same experience.
All of us would not have been here if our parents, grand-parents or great-grand-parents did not migrate from China.
James Lau Guan Ho
7 July 2017
Liaw Ching Sing Special Project from Oral History Archive Unit
Interviewee Name: Mr Liaw Ching Sing 廖清醒先生－000083/22
Date of Interview: 21 July 1981
Interview Location: Oral archive centre and interviewee’s home
Interviewer Name: Chen Ming Luan
Transcriber Name: Liao-Wang Jin Ai
Date of Transcription: 21 October 1983
Written transcription by: Zuo Mei Li
Date of Writing: 14 January 1994
1 Fort Canning
Brief Introduction to Interviewee
Name: Liaw Ching Sing (廖清醒）
Birth Year: 1906
Place of Birth: Fujian, China
Education: No Formal Education
The passage you are about to read is an oral history record based on an oral interview. This oral interview was unscripted and recorded on the spot. For these reasons the transcript has retained some oral elements of the recorded interview.
The oral history archive centre is not responsible for the opinions, historical accuracy, and all other contents stated in the transcript. The content is at the discretion of the reader.
Those stated in ( ) provide phonetically translation not otherwise distinguishable. Those stated in [ ] provide supplementary information not found within the oral transcript
Liaw Ching Sing Oral History volunteers translation from Hokkien Interview and Chinese Transcripts into English
Wong Meng Choong
All family members
Converted Cassette Tapes to MP3
Scanned Hard copies to PDF Format
Coached in using Google Drive and Google PhotoScan
Wong Meng Choong & Lau Siew Mei
List of volunteer translators from Hokkien Interview and Chinese Transcripts into English by the following family members:
2MP3 Start point
1-10 + i-v
Wong Meng Choong
John, Michelle & Samantha Wong
Paul & Swee Ling Wong
Wong Meng Choong
David & Ashley (daughter) Low
John, Michelle & Samantha Wong
Wong Meng Choong
Wong Meng Choong
1. The pages and Disc number refers to the Chinese Transcripts provided by the Oral History Unit
2. Converted from the Cassette Tapes
of Oral History Hokkien Interview into MP3 recording by John Low on 30 April
2017 at the link: https://drive.google.com
and can be opened with “Music Player for Google Drive”
Disc 1 Life in Fujian, China in Early 1900
Q: Mr Liaw can you tell us your name?
A: My Surname is Liaw. In the village my name was (廖敦醒----Tiong Xing), later after I came to Singapore I changed my name to (廖清醒---- Liaw Ching Sing)
Q: When were you born?
Q: How many siblings did you have?
A: I was the second in the family. In all, I had 5 brothers and a sister, I was ranked second.
Q: Do you still remember your parent’s name?
A: My father's surname was Liao, his name was (廖达钦---Liao Da Qin). My mother surname was Zheng she was called (郑二妹---Zheng Er Mei).
Q: Mr Liaw when you were in China did you attend school?
A: We were not living in a large village. Those whose families had money had private classes, reading old books. Poor people like us often went without education. We helped with the family
Q: You mentioned that when you studied it was not formal…
A: I studied very little, barely a month [laughter]
Q: So where did you go and how did you manage to get an education?
A: Education was informal, a teacher would typically be invited into the village, and the children would all go over when this was available. Education was attendance based. Children of wealthier families continued their studies to a more advanced level.
Q: During that time were there many students who studied?
A: I was living in a very small village, there were very few people. Thinking back there were also few children, about 10 to 20. We only had old books, (人之初 - Ren Zhi Chu), (中庸 - Zhong Yong). We only had old books not new ones.*old books could also mean old Chinese curriculum, not modern subjects
Q: Which part of Fujian did you originate from?
A: I am from (福建府) Fuzhou. The village I lived in was a small one. Its name was (西洪路洪塘过江徐盛村) it was very small. My ancestors were (客人 – Hakkas). A lot of Hakkas settled in places where they arrived. The place where they settled was small. There were many people with different surnames. In my county the people who resided there all came from elsewhere. So they did not own land. The people there had to travel elsewhere to seek a living. Some learnt to be artisans, others came to (南洋) - Nanyang/Singapore. Most people came too Singapore
Q: What was your family business? What occupations did your family engage in?
A: From what I know, my ancestors were involved in industry. In China, industry meant hand worked craft, forging nails ... forging nails for homebuilding use. Times changed, when we could we import nails. From then on locally made nails could not compete, that was when we stopped producing nails.
We switched to weaving cloth, in the past cloth was made by hand. It was mainly a task for women folk who worked indoors, because my house had three adjoining rooms, it meant that we had a large enough space for cloth production.
One of my ancestors was a (补瓦) tiler, a house tile repairer. My ancestor was a government official that is why the house was especially large and can be converted into a cloth making factory. We had a large number of women who came to our house to make cloth. With the advent of imported Western and Japanese made cloth the business became less profitable and we had to change profession. Some went overseas to earn a living; others went into the food business
Q: You mentioned that your family made cloth, at the time who [in your family] was doing this?
A: At that time it was my father and my mother. After my paternal grandfather passed on, my father still had 5 brothers.
Q: At that time was making cloth profitable?
A: Initially of course it was profitable [Laughter]. After the arrival of imported cloth, we could not recover the principal from the venture. We were completely unable to make a profit
Q: At what age did you participate . . . . help your father in this business?
A: I was not involved in the cloth making business. The cloth making business was something that I knew that my father was doing. By the time I was able, the family was not in the cloth making business anymore. By that time the family was going through difficult times. Even when I was young we were already cooking and preparing meals. In the morning we would sell sweets or cakes. When I was older I would use a yoke (carrying pole) to sell fruits. Anything that could earn us something, we would do.
Q: Mr Liaw, what was your family income?
A: Income was never fixed and mainly derived from selling food, it was a daily affair. (There was no fixed salary or income).
As I remember, life was arduous. Being able to get by was good fortune in itself. At that time in China, most families were like ours. Whenever you ran into financial difficulty and had to buy something from the store, you would have to ask for a credit advance. After which, you would save until the year end to pay the store back.
Q: Was your family considered poor by the standard of the day?
A: Yes, very poor [Laughter]
Q: Then, at that time what were the living conditions of the people who were staying around you?
A: The place where I was staying was very small. If you wanted to go into agriculture, where would you find the space? Most people left to look for economic opportunities. Some went overseas and some went to the city to look for work or learn new skills. Even though it was tough, somehow we had to make a living. Nothing was frivolous. Because my village was small, if I had to guess, the people there were all not originally from there. So if we made trouble, they would make life unbearable for us. Therefore everyone was law abiding and we rarely made trouble for others. If we could not stay in the village we would go elsewhere to seek a living
Q: During that time how was Foochow? Was it easy to make a living in Foochow?
A: During that time, from what I remember, the Qing dynasty had fallen and the Kuomintang came into power. During that time, even though the Kuomintang was in power. They did not have absolute rule. Each province was ruled independently. Warlords prevailed and the leader within each controlled his territory/province. Therefore, during that time in Foochow, the government was not working effectively. Therefore, good people looked elsewhere to make a living. Those without good intentions would do unlawful things for example becoming bandits. Unfortunately, at that time in Fujian there were many bandits.
In the South, we had (陈国辉 – Chen Guo Hui) in the north there was unintelligible in (兴化 – Xing Hua) there was (卢伟: Lu wei).
In (闽南: Min Nan) Fujian there was Chen Guo Hui, therefore the bandits there were even more demanding. However banditry was more severe in larger villages and the people there had to respect them. They knew how things worked and had to give in to the bandits. If you did not submit they would give you a hard time. That is why at that time, the commoners in Fujian had a tough life.
As for government control, as I recall, at that time there was a person called (李福基: Li Fu Ji). He was from the North, unfamiliar with the situation in Fujian. The troops he had were large and well built like the Bengalis. But when called upon to drive away the bandits, he would not do it. It was not because he did not know how to fight. Just that he was a coward. He would not go down into the countryside to drive away the bandits. Therefore the countryside was without government control.
That is why everyone had a hard time. The rich had a hard time as the bandits would extort from them and the poor had an even tougher life as they had to make a living under these circumstances.
Q: What were the typical occupations of the people in Foochow at that time?
A: At that time Foochow was the provincial capital of Fujian. The people there tend to be more cultured. Industry and trade all happened in Foochow. Therefore, if Foochow was peaceful it would have been great. Educational institutes and higher educational attainment was available for people living in Foochow. This is why among the other places in China, the educated people in Foochow tended towards officialdom, with few going into business.
As for life in Fuzhou, the people living in Fuzhou tended to be more modern, as it was a larger city. They had a seafront, large shops, hotels, theatres. The people there were not as ambitious and enjoyed leisure. There were saunas in Fuzhou. The water from these spouts was hot. The water was gathered into pools and could be enjoyed by both men and women. Anywhere you went you could find and enjoy one of these.
There were also people giving massages. It was cheap, fares were cheap. There were also places for older people, places like these where people could listen to stories. Someone would open a shop for these storytelling activities and there tea would also be served. You could rest there and fares were cheap too.
There was also something unique to Fuzhou as it was the provincial capital. It produced many things. Almost everything in Fujian province was exported or imported from there. The most famous of which was tea. It was internationally famous. The tea even won awards internationally.
There were also artesian pieces, such as twin screen doors and other lacquer ware. These pieces looked big but are also lightweight. This also was very famous internationally and had won fame in competitions before. Fuzhou artesian pieces---because Foochow people were bright, they could even turn weak timber. . .I forget the name of that wood. . . , it was not strong at all, [the type of wood that was only good to be the cap of hot water flasks] or into decorative pieces. They could turn it into a landscape piece, and they did all sorts of landscapes, for example historical scenes or structural pieces. They could make it very lifelike, beautiful and sell them at a cheap price. Fuzhou also produced pottery. Most of the potteries were figurines for viewing purposes. But unlike the twin screen pieces, these were not famous, but most households would have a piece for showcasing.
In the past in Fuzhou... to come back to it again.. In the past, Fujian had a king and there was a palace in Fuzhou. The palace was called (闽王: Min Wang). The construction is similar to Beijing. It was built well and was very beautiful. However, after that era, the place became dilapidated, and was used as a slaughterhouse for pigs. What a pity. The interior was made beautifully, but was damaged until it only became fit to slaughter pigs. As for the transportation in Fuzhou, in the past, there were no cars, only horse drawn carriages and also rickshaws pulled by hand. However, these rickshaws were unique as they were made to be very fanciful, almost vain, and they were beautifully constructed. Each rickshaw had space for two, one in front and the other at the back.
Foochow people also had something you might not have heard of. Foochow women had three knives. They were hidden in the hair, one in the centre flanked by one each on either side of the head. These knives, [I heard], as Foochow women were very chaste and viewed their dignity very highly, were used as weapons, if attacked.
Later these knives were made of silver and were more ornamental in nature. The women of Fuzhou mostly lived in the village and did not practise foot binding. Their physical strength was on par with the men. Things that men did, they did too. In addition they looked after the household, did agricultural work and household chores. They can be said to be tougher than the guys.
The men also had three knives. However those with large business did not have these, those who were officials did. The Foochow people were navy men. In the past in China most of the navy top brass were Foochow. The Fuzhou port of Mawei was the entrance to the sea and that was the navy's defensive position. From there [Mawei] was where the rest of Chinese navy was originally sent from.
I mentioned that the men had three knives, with which they can easily make a living. The first is the chef’s knife; the second is a pair of scissors, scissors to tailor for both men and women. The third is a shaving knife you can travel the world with. There is also a joke that the shaving knife is also the lightest of the three. The barbers also had access to royalty and higher officials and could step into their inner world. These three knives did not need much capital and with them you can travel the world. The clothes were made by Foochow tailors, even though the signboards had Shanghainese names.
Foochow people also did wood-work but the woodworking business was separate into two, the first type dealt with (柚木 – teak) [Jali : Malay] and was used for finished articles, home furnishing and was very durable. You can use it for a hundred years and it wouldn't wear out. The second type dealt with carvings and sculptures, artesian pieces, much like the people from Ningbo. They began by using coarse wood, it was very easy, and a smart fella would have mastered it in a few days. Someone less bright, with the assistance of a teacher would at least be able to make some household furniture or some daily articles.
Foochow people are not ambitious but rather cultured. Because of the economic situation at that time most had to leave to look for work. Those who stayed in China remained as officials. When they left, most wanted a teaching job. In Singapore, most of the teachers and principals were from Foochow, it was as if the government knew about this.
In Fuzhou after the Opium wars, the English opened a trading port. Many Christians came to Fuzhou then. The first thing they did was to preach Christianity. They also held reading classes, opened a hospital and did other things beneficial to society. Therefore many of those who were educated in Fuzhou were converted. Some of these Chinese Christians who were in China did not find avenues to proselytize and came to Nanyang. In Nanyang, there were many who became teachers for example (郑管丁: Zheng Guan Ting), (杜宝星 – Du Bao Xing), (李谈江 – Li Tan Jiang). I remembered a lot became principals (高鸿铿 – Gao Hong Keng), (陈人浩 – Chen Ren Hao). I can’t remember, I am getting old [laughter]
Q: Mr Liaw…
A: In the government circles, there was a (孙 - Sounds unintelligible) and a (郑惠民 – Zheng Hui Min). . . They were assistants in the government's Chinese Affairs Ministry, which was in charge of the affairs of Chinese migrants. So the people within and outside of Foochow were content with their lot. They were not ambitious in government service and were attentive to the community.
You can say that they were helpful, but they were not a strong force. They were also economically not as powerful, because life was easy in Fuzhou. Most did not expect to stay long, 3 - 5 years and they would go back to enjoy themselves at home. That was the reason.
Q: Mr Liaw, you mentioned that Foochow people enjoyed tea, going to the sauna. Then what makes you say that the life in Foochow was tough?
A: In the past, to go to the bath/sauna and to listen to storytelling you would only use the qian and there were free ones too. You wouldn't even use up one jiao or two jiao. That is why no matter how tough life was, people would still be willing to get on with their lives. People did not have to spend much.
In the past, one (角 - jiao) can be changed for 10 (分 - fen). 1 fen can be changed into 10 (钱 – qian, can mean coin)
In a large village it was less lively, if there was an important occasion there would be a performance or a celebration, nothing else. Some storytelling like older folk telling stories from the past or some old incident
Q: Then, during that time in Fuzhou, how was it governed, who was governing it?
A: From what I know it was the Northern warlord (李福基 - Li Fu Ji), after a while he was deposed by a (许凌庭 - Xu Ling Ting). He was sent by the Kuomintang. When Li Fu Ji was in charge, rice was cheap one dollar could buy 80 kati. When the Kuomintang came to power in Fuzhou, the prices of everything rose---nothing was cheap and everything was expensive [Laughter]
Q: Mr Liaw, before you came to Singapore was there anyone from your family here?
A: In my village. . . As I mentioned it was a small place and there were few people, their lives were tough. Most of the people left the village in search of a living. At that time there were people who went to Burma, Yangon. Some went to Singapore and some went to Malaya. Among those who stayed in China, people who could write became officials and those who could not, joined the navy. Those were the conditions back then.
Q: These people from the same village as you, what occupations did they perform in Singapore?
A: As I mentioned before, people from Fuzhou did not have much economic strength. They were considered unemployed when they came to Singapore to look for work. How could they have brought money here? Among the uneducated, some were unskilled and some had already learnt some artisanal crafts back in China. When they came over, they did whatever they could do. Most of them became barbers, tailors and woodworkers. There were also some who learnt to make coffee. Making coffee was easy to learn.
Due to the different upbringing of Foochow people, they were at a disadvantage. Foochow people had limited contribution to the economic development of society because of language difficulty. In order to do business with others you need to be able to speak well.
If you could make "black" turn into "white" and vice versa, only then could you adapt. But Foochow people were law abiding, they did not dare to do things differently. In hairdressing all you needed was your pair of scissors, in tailoring all you needed was a pair of shears and as a chef all you needed was a cleaver.
Q: Were there many Fuzhou migrants you knew in Singapore at that time?
A: There were not many migrants from Fuzhou. Fuzhou people in China were happy-go-lucky type and were having a good life in China. They avoided hard work and only when they could not survive in Fuzhou then they would leave Fuzhou. They had to migrate to Nanyang (SE Asia), as there was no land to farm and no other means of making a living in Fuzhou.
Q: How did you know about Nanyang?
A: Many fellow village Fuzhounese left for Nanyang and had good life and also were able to send money back to build houses and even bought land in neighbouring villages etc. Everyone considered going to Nanyang as a blessing and envied those who left for Nanyang.
Q: For those who made money in Nanyang, how were they viewed by the fellow Fuzhounese in Fuzhou?
A: Everyone who made money from Nanyang and returned to FZ was considered as HERO---whether they are dumb, illiterate or not capable etc. (Laughter) Human nature to worship money?
Q: After making money from Nanyang, what were the changes in their family lives?
A: Oh, big changes! Houses became bigger and more comfortable and they could buy anything they wanted.
Q: By working as barbers and tailors, how could they earn so much money to build houses etc.?
A: Some of them went to Burma to start the bar to sell beer as the Burmese love to drink beer and it’s a very lucrative business. In Singapore and Malaya, a barber earned $20+ per month and being thrifty after their hard life in China, they would not spend even one cent. In addition, they will use the money to join Dong Ting (Hui---a form of community saving/lending group). The $20+ could become $30+ after adding interests.
For those in the tailoring business, people from other parts of China did not have the skill. Most of the tailoring shops along Bencoolen Street with shop names from Shanghai were actually operated by Fuzhounese.
Fuzhounese were also skilled furniture makers. However, as Fuzhou dialect is quite different from other dialects and also migrant from other provinces operated most of the furniture shops, Fuzhounese ended up as suppliers to the furniture shops. That also could earn a lot of money.
There were teachers as well but with fixed salary. Civil servant was paid very well.
Even pastor was also making good money. In general, Fuzhounese are very law abiding and thrifty people. Only a small proportion was spendthrift.
Q: At what age did you come to Singapore?
A: Age---19+ (year 1925),
Q: Why did you come to Singapore?
A: During the warlord/civil war period in China, I was a hawker. Whenever there was a fight, people would be caught to carry stuffs from Fuzhou to other provinces. Many who were caught seldom returned alive. There were fears on a daily basis.
By then, we had already moved to Fuzhou staying at Fuzhou Xiamen Wai (西门外) near a lake called Da Sai Hu (大赛湖). This place was a city functioning as the fruit distribution hub of Fuzhou. But the daily arrests of men, women and old folks by the warlords were unbearable. It was the darkest age in Fuzhou and also China.
Q: How did your parent feel when you decided to leave for Nanyang?
A: My parents were so happy as if they had won lottery (Laughter). Firstly, I would be safe and avoid the daily run/hide from being arrested. There was no way to operate as hawker and make money and having to “RUN” all the times. Going to Nanyang meant making money to build house etc. It also would bring glory and honour and FACE to the ancestors/family. Wow, thank GOD! (Laughter)
Q: What preparation did you have before leaving for Nanyang?
A: To go to Nanyang was quite convenient in those days as Nanyang was relatively developed and had a labour shortage. Government from Nanyang used agent to recruit young people from China.
Some of us came to Nanyang on our own. I went to a small hotel and the operator arranged accordingly. There was no proper documentation (e.g. Passport/visa) for China or Nanyang. The only thing was a medical check upon arrival for sickness. Those with disease were sent to QiZhang Island for treatment and those without disease were allowed to land.
Q: When you left China, did someone buy the ship ticket for you?
A: Tickets were arranged by the small hotel operator. We departed Fuzhou from Nantai (南台) and sailed along Ningjiang (宁江－longest river in Fuzhou) to reach MaWei (马尾－ a naval base). As transportation was still very backward then, from Xiamen (西门 - where I lived) to Nantai (first boat boarding point), the distance we had to walk was equal to the distance from Singapore to Batu Pahat (Johor). (Laughter)
We took a big sampan from Nantai to MaWei and then boarded a small steamship to travel from MaWei to Xiamen (Amoy--厦门). From Xiamen, we boarded the big steam ship (万福士－Van Hoetz) for Nanyang.
At that time, the Fuzhou Navy governed Xiamen and most people spoke Fuzhou dialect and therefore it was quite easy and we were not bullied. However, when we reached Shantou (汕头). I dared not land as I had only $10 for my sea journey ticket. In addition, Shantou just like most ports was full of thugs, pickpockets and cheats, so I stayed away.
When we reached Hong Kong, I saw Hong Kong tall buildings and beautiful skyline and lights but did not get off the ship, as I had no money. I could only admire from afar from the ship.
Q: Did you buy the ticket in Fuzhou or in Xiamen?
A: The tickets were purchased in Fuzhou from the small hotel operator for the whole journey.
Q: How did you manage to find the money to buy the tickets?
A: It was my own money- only $10! (Laughter). No matter how difficult it was, I still managed to raise the $10. Don’t you think so?
Q: Why did you have to raise the money? Was the money your savings or . . .
A: My family had some and our relatives and friends contributed the balance. They were hoping that I would repay and reward them in the future when I return. It was not so difficult.
Q: Can you remember the name of the ship?
A: Van Hoetz (万福士).
Q: How many passengers were in the ship?
A: Wow, it was like a refugee ship. In those days, Chinese were very thrifty. Only the very rich would stay in the high-class 1st class cabin. Most people are booked in the common cabin with no bed and also no dining facility). There was no fixed place to sit and we took turns to sleep for a few hours only. Conditions were bad like a refugee ship.
Food was prepared in a huge pot and tasted really bad. However, we considered it lucky to have food to eat.
Inadequate toilet facility, no place to walk, and such bad conditions. I could not forget for a long long time. The phobia stays with me even after 56 years!
It took us about 10 days to reach Singapore and I cannot believe it takes only a few hours now to fly to Fuzhou.
Q: Were there more males or females in the ship?
A: Males far exceeded females. On board the ship, you literally had to fight for everything---water, bathroom, food etc. Safety was my main concern for the journey. But due to different dialects, one could easily create misunderstanding with other. I, therefore, tried to give way to others. This resulted in my suffering, of not able to get water to bath, not able to get boiled water to quench thirst, as you have to queue, for food and water etc. Most times, after queuing for a long time, there was nothing left when your turn came.
During sleeping time, you had to wake the person who had slept for some times to sit up to let you sleep. We took turns to sleep. Ventilation in the common cabin was very bad.
The sufferings I experienced during that journey are something I can never forget for life. (Laughter---I am glad it is not like that when I travel now!)
Q: When you reached Singapore, where did the ship berth and where did you land?
A: The ship berthed at Collyer Quay and then we took a sampan to Tanjong Pagar.
Before we disembarked from the ship, the immigration/health officers checked passengers with diseases. Sick passengers were sent to QiZhang Island for treatment. The rest were allowed to enter the country without any documentation or registration.
Q: Upon arrival, did you have to be questioned or have any documents stamped?
A: No no, no need. It was so easy when I came but not sure what was after that.
Q: When you first arrived in Singapore, what was your impression of Singapore?
A: First thing I felt was Singapore was behind Hong Kong in development.
Transportation was backward with not many cars but there were horse carriages, bullock carts, rickshaw (黄包车) for goods and passengers etc. It was very hot and I remember my contact brought me to eat “mui “ (吃糜 - eat porridge) which I did not understand as in Fuzhou we would say eat “Joke” ( 吃粥)。
Q: Who asked you to eat “mui”?
A: My older brother but he was speaking the Singapore style Hockchew dialect. I also found Singapore was extremely hot. To shower, we had to go to the roadside common tap to carry the water back to the shop to shower in the dark without lighting. Most of the shops tried to save on electricity and water then.
Singapore then was much more “busy” than Fuzhou. There were many hawker stalls along the streets and you could see many types of food.
Q: Who first met you in Singapore upon your arrival in Singapore?
A: My older brother.
Q: Was he already in Singapore?
Q: What was he doing then?
A: Also a barber.
Q: Were there street lamps?
A: There were but not very bright. Transportations were limited to central area and less in the remote locations. There were many associations in Singapore then.
Fuzhounese normally stayed at Ophir Road (back road---后马车路) and also Tanjong Pagar. We congregated together as we came from the same area and spoke the same dialect that made communication and making a living relatively easier.
People from different provinces normally stayed with their respective dialect group and associations were formed based on province of origin or surnames or trades. Union was not available then. The various associations were formed to assist new immigrants from China to find jobs and settle down based on the principle of mutual help. Government was not involved.
The worst was the “black society---gangster organisation”.
As long as the organisation is not anti-British Government, the authority will allow the formation freely.
Q: Where were you staying at that time?
A: I was staying at Beach Road. The Chinese called the area “ 20 units - 二十间“ as there were only 20 houses between Stanford Road and Arab Street. (Laughter) Along such a long stretch of Beach Road- only 20 houses!
Q: When you first arrived, were you able to adapt to the food and hot weather?
A: I could not. Weather was so hot that food prepared in the morning could not be consumed in the afternoon.
The “new arrival--SINKE--新客” minimum needed to shower twice if not three times a day. Shower is not just using water. You use a “thick thing?” to bath from hot until cold. One cannot be afraid of cold and not shower, as it will result in sickness. Early morning shower will help to cool one down but soon feel hot during work. Then you shower again to keep cool two to three times a day.
During the day, never close your eyes to take a nap, as it will result in a sickness termed as “new arrival sickness---SINKE sickness” or “rambutan sickness”. This is quite common in Singapore.
For those in Malaya, they had other sickness like village sickness and malaria etc. when they had to go into the forest to develop plantations. Many Chinese suffered and sacrificed their lives along the way.
Q: How about food?
A: There were many things to eat-chicken, pork, fish etc. As to taste, Singapore is not as good as my motherland--China. Vegetables tasted good in China but not here.
You get to eat chicken, fish and meat until you are sick of them. In those days, no one ate pigskin or trotter. Even the good foods were tasteless.
Q: In Singapore then, one the street, what are the types of people you see most?
A: There were many races in Singapore then. I found it strange to see Muslims praying during the prayer times.
Q: Where were they praying?
A: Anywhere and even on board the ship/boat. They will always pray facing Mecca, even on the street. Among the Muslims, there were more Indians and fewer Malays. Government allowed freedom of religion without interference. People from different provinces are allowed to have their respective religion.
Every race was well mannered, especially the Malays. The Malays were honest and they were not bullies. There were no major racial issues or conflicts.
Q: Were you able to accept customs of other races for example the Indian or Malay wedding ceremonies etc.?
A: Though I find them new and interesting but I do not judge them.
It is interesting but we did not comment whether it is good or not good.
There was not much entertainment in Singapore then. All the movies were “soundless”. There were performances by different dialect groups (Shanghainese, Hokkien, HengHua, Hainan, Teochew, Cantonese, Hockchew and others).
There were limited sporting facilities and Padang was the main Government sports venue. There were some sporting facilities in schools and also in some homes.
Q: You mentioned you been to movies theater, which ones?
A: The big ones included Capitol Theatre and Cathay. Guang Hua at Tanjong Pagar.
Older ones include………….
Disc 3 I was a boss for most of the time
Q: You mentioned at that time how many cinemas were there in Singapore?
A: For western movies, there were several cinemas like Capitol and “Guo Tye---Cathay” and another big cinema in Orchard showing English movies, whilst in Tanjong Pagar there was one showing Chinese movies and in Beach road there was one showing English movies and another showing Chinese movies. This movie theater was very small and seats were all wooden chairs and the air and environment was not good. In Bencoolen Street there was another one but it has since been converted into a car shop.
The movies they screened were mostly stories of ghost movies or those about deities and legends of ancient times. They were all silent movies. Those days movies were without sound, only later on talking movies were available. In those days entertainment took the form of street performances because when people started to earn more money they put up street/wayang shows by applying for a permit from the government to hold them. In those days it was easy to obtain a permit. There were all kinds of street performances including Hokkien wayang and you did not have to pay for it.
As for radios, there were very few. Only very rich people could afford to buy them because it cost a few thousand dollars so few could afford it. There was no TV, water and electricity supply. For example, like in my barber shop or at home, when it was hot there was no fan so we would manually use a big piece of cloth to fan ourselves. In the past, we Overseas Chinese life could be said to be very tough. Those who could not take it would immediately think of going back to China (laughter).
Q: Did every house have water supply?
A: Water was available and everybody wanted it but they had to pay for the water to be piped into their homes therefore many were reluctant to pay for it. However there were water pumps/taps with sufficient water at the road side, but it was not easy to pump the water out.
Q: Did they need to pay for the water?
A: No, people could take what they wanted without having to pay for it. Some people would be at the water pumps washing their clothes or taking a shower and some would bring buckets to carry water back to their homes
Q: Did your barber shop have water supply?
A: No I did not have water and neither did I have lights in my shop at first. It was only much later that I had them because of progressive improvement. If you did not improve you would be left behind and the business would be gone.
Q: What was the educational level of those Fuzhou people who came to Singapore like in those days?
A: Fuzhou was the provincial capital of Hokkien province and Fuzhou people were typically highly educated. There were many who had doctorate and like “Liu Chiang---刘强” he also had a doctorate and was from Fuzhou. There were a lot of university graduates and it was common. Those who received university education were mostly taught by the Christian missionaries. When Christianity was first introduced into China they came saying that they could help to improve their education, hospitals and the general welfare of the society. There were some missionaries who came genuinely to spread the gospel to help the people and it was truly a great sacrifice and hardship for them but there were also some who used the name of Christianity but operated as spies. Some were good and some were bad. (Laughter)
Q: What type of business did most of the Fuzhou people in Singapore get involved in?
A: Most Fuzhou people were involved in the food business, coffee shop, barber, male and female tailors and carpentry business
Q: Where were most of their shops located?
A: The shops were located all over Singapore, in particular places crowded with Chinese people. Especially for those in the barber, food and coffee shop business because people would need to eat and have their hair cut. Those in the tailoring business were located in Bencoolen area because there were more affluent people and there were a lot of tourist there. Another business the Fuzhou people were involved in was antiques as they knew the tradition, culture and artistry. In summary the Fuzhou people knew how to earn money.
Q: According to you most of the Fuzhou people who came to Singapore were staying in “Ou beh chia lor---后马车路”?
A: Yes and in Tanjong Pagar too.
Q: How come their shops were all over Spore?
A: Oh when they set up shops they moved out of these areas and stayed in their shop houses.
Q: Were there many Fuzhou people staying in “Ou beh chia lor” area?
A: Most of those who stayed in “Ang beh chia lor” were the “ping ming” or poor people and those who were unemployed or did not have much work to do. They stayed there as they had the help of their Fuzhou community. They would sleep in portable canvas bed. A main reason they initially stayed here was because it was also easier to communicate with fellow Fuzhou people
Those who stayed in Tanjong Pagar were better off working as sailors. Many Fuzhou people used to be in the navy and when they left China they became sailors.
Q: You mentioned that those Fuzhou who stayed in “Ou beh chia lor” were mostly the “Ping min” and what kind of work did they do?
A: Those who stayed there would find whatever work they could. Those who didn’t have work or lost their jobs would stay in this area. It was quite easy to “lonpang (malay word---bunked)” at someone’s house and simply slept in a simple foldable canvas bed.
Q: In whose houses did they (longpang) bunk in with?
A: They stayed either with friends or relatives from the same village to build rapport with the fellow villagers. Actually to find work was not very difficult unless they were very lazy or they picked up vices like opium smoking or visit prostitutes or unless they were sick or asthmatic/infected with TB. They would stay there and when they first arrived but subsequently they would move out of the area. In those days it was relatively easy to move about in SE Asia for example to Indonesia, Burma or Malaysia. It cost only 75 Indonesian Rupiah to obtain a permit to visit Indonesia. There were no restriction to travel to Vietnam, Thailand or Malaysia.
Q: So for the Fuzhou people who first arrived would stayed in “Ou beh chia lor” and would move out when they found a job?
A: It was not the case every Fuzhou people stayed there although there were more Fuzhounese staying there. For those with wives and families and for practical reasons like the women folks who didn’t speak other languages or dialects, it would be easier for them to stay there as it would be easier to communicate with fellow Fuzhou folks. Jobs were quite easily found in those days and staying there was not always necessary.
Q: So what jobs would those who stayed in “Ang beh chia lor” be doing?
A: They would do all sorts of jobs or businesses and for example there were barbers as well but they need not remain there long term. It would be the same for those in Tanjong Pagar. And if they became wealthy, they would move out of the area and move to where they set up shops
Q: In the beginning were those in “Ang beh chia lor” mostly employees working for others?
A: Of course those who first came from China to Spore would be employees working for others. However they were clever and they were not spendthrifts but saved their money for example to start renting a shop. At that time it was relatively cheap and easy to rent a shop as there was no requirement for large down payments. For example they will use their saved money to buy the relevant tools like scissors for the barbers and tailors and relevant utensils (kitchen knives) for those in the food business etc and in that sense it was relatively easy to make a living.
However they were not interested in politics here because they were not bold and preferred a peaceful life. All they cared about was earning money and those who became rich would send their money back to their hometown in China for their namesake because they would be held in high esteem by their relatives and those in their hometown. People in the hometown in China would be saying the son or daughter of so & so is doing so well etc and glorified their ancestors.
Q: Why were those in “Ang beh chia lor” called “ping min ku---poor people quarters” even though they had jobs? Wasn’t the term “ping min ku” meant they were poor?
A: Those who had jobs and who had earned the money would have left to live elsewhere. Those who didn’t have jobs would obviously have to stay there; so one could say that their lives were worse off.
Q: But once they found a job they would leave the place and move elsewhere?
A: The buildings in that area were old and run down and not enough facilities so who would want to live there. Only those people who were still in the rut or jobless would stay there temporarily
Q: What is “Ou beh chia lor” known as today?
A: It is somewhere between Arab street and Rochor road
Q: So you say that those in Tanjong Pagar were mostly sailors. Did they rent a room by themselves or did they have their families living with them?
A: In those days very few Fuzhou people brought along their families so they stayed in the sailors quarters (行船馆). These were set up by the sailors’ supervisors.
If the shipping company needed people they would inform the supervisors that they needed such and such numbers of sailors and asked them to prepare the manpower. So the quarters would pull out these sailors. In the 1st month they would charge a commission. Together with the sailors and they would also have a foreman and depending on the foreman, if he was good the sailors with him would earn money. But if he was a bad person the sailors who went with him would suffer. The 1st thing they will do was to open gambling dens. Others would open opium dens. So under such “blood sucking” foreman, the sailors were made use by him but there was only a small number of such foremen.
Q: Were the operators of the quarters also the supervisors or foremen?
A : Most of the quarters’ operators had been sailors before they came out to set up their own. And they would rent a room that is very ordinary. For those looking for jobs would register their names and also where they lived so that they would be notified if there were jobs available.
Q: Did the sailors stay in these quarters?
A: They could stay but the area was totally not good because there was gambling and opium dens and if one were to stay there then it was just a waste of money and it was very easy to succumb to such temptations.
Q: So if these sailors didn’t stay in these places where then did they live?
A: These people had friends and many of the Fuzhou people who came all have families and friends living in Spore. It is not a problem for them to find a place because everyone would just help one another in good faith unlike after the Japanese invasion when people’s heart changed. Before the invasion, all races lived harmoniously and displayed an eagerness to help one another. If anyone was in difficulty everybody would gladly help. The Chinese people had empathy for each other. In China, they did not receive any education and were cheated by people and if they did not have any money they were looked down upon. After coming to South East Asia (南洋) especially when they prospered, the Chinese people would be very generous and philanthropic. They would donate a lot of money to establish schools and when they earned a lot of money, they were happy to give and freely provide medication to those who were sick. Another thing was that the Chinese people did not have political ambitions. They were extremely helpful towards the government and hope that if the government gave them no problem they would be able to live peacefully. However if the government was different they would be fearful. They did not want trouble.
Q: Those people who live in those quarters, were they more from Hainan or from Fuzhou?
A: They came from all the provinces but the majority of them came from Fuzhou. The reason was because they had navy experience they were used to sea-life. Then also for some sailors they hoped to buy things back from different places to sell back home and it was quite easy to do that. For example if an item cost one dollar in Singapore and if they were to sell it in Indonesia it would be worth ten dollars and he would have made a profit of nine dollars and this was not smuggling. Whereas smuggling involved products such as opium and these were illegal. Some of those things that they sold were items of daily necessity so besides earning the usual wages as a sailor they could earn extra income by buying & selling of those products
Q: So as for the other Fuzhou people where did they learn to do haircuts, make furniture & tailoring of clothes?
A: All these people already learned all the basics back in Fuzhou but because life was relatively good and well-off in Fuzhou, many of them would take to these business. But some of them only learnt it here in Singapore. Like me I only learnt it here in Singapore as I was a hawker back in China. If you really wanted to learn, it all depends on your attitude to learn the skills. When we started learning we started with cutting hair for children and even if you cut it wrongly they won’t know. So over time you learned and got used to it and improved your skills. But if you were to accidentally cut the skin instead of the hair and cause bleeding you would definitely get a scolding. But if you did not cause any bleeding then the Chinese people were generally very big hearted and they won’t give you trouble. And if you were to do it well they would definitely pay you and thank you. In my opinion before the war, the people from China and those from other races in Singapore were all living harmoniously together. However after the war when the Japanese came the hearts of the people changed completely such that they were rude and were disrespectful and very self-centered caring only for themselves. They had little empathy for others
Q: What was your first job in Spore?
A: I was a barber
Q: Where did you carry out your trade?
A: At Balestier Road (乌桥), next to the market and its signage name was “Ju Xing---聚興.“ I started the shop myself
Q: Before opening the shop did you work for someone else?
A: No because my elder brother was a barber as well. When he started it he had another partner and he did it along the five foot way and at the entrance of big houses. The two of them were working in partnership with only two chairs. When I came my elder brother was sick and I told him to go back to China because it was very hot as the sun was shining down directly at the place where he worked. Also next to the market (乌桥巴刹) there were houses being constructed and once it was finished I called one of my close friends who was a Teochew man whose surname was also Liaw and at that time the people who had the same surname would treat you like their relatives and would be very nice to you. I told them this place was very hot and it was also not of potential, hence not a good place. So I asked him to help and whether he could help me to rent the space opposite? Then that friend was very good and immediately helped me to rent the place from the landlord and the cost was only a couple of ten yuan. Once the rent was paid I moved the furniture in and the place became my shop so I became the boss. So that was why I did not work for anyone else before. There was only one time when I was in Indonesia a local (orient---土库?) asked me to work for him. I only worked for him a couple of months before I came back to Singapore. That place was in Padang Sumatra.
Q: Earlier on you mentioned that you learnt to cut hair at Beach Road?
A: No I never learnt to cut hair there. On the first night my elder brother and another person was staying together at the place at Balestier Road. Opposite the WuQiao market, there was an opium shop and the shop was called ErLang (二廊) . The shop was located there and in a bungalow. Last time when buying opium one needed to obtain license to buy it and people would go to that shop to buy opium with the license.
Q: So who did you learn to cut hair from?
A: Thinking about it I learn it myself and I literally jumped into the trade…. I first had to learn to relax my hands by shaking my hands (摇手 ). Only when my hands were relaxed and nimble,then it was quite easy to start to use the different scissors, clippers and combs by cutting along the contours of glass bottles. This is just the basics and the way to do so is to ensure that you don’t make a lot of noise when cutting along the glass bottles because that would mean you are cutting into the scalp or pulling up the hairs. As for the razors, we will use our legs to practise shaving and we will shave so slowly and bit by bit so that the skin will not have small lump after the shave. And when we actually started shaving ,it will not be painful for the customer’s face and that is the real technique but it is actually quite simple. If one was a smart person he could just listen and able to do it within a week. And if one was not a smart person even if he were to try it for life he would not be able to do it properly. Those days there was very little apprenticeship. The big shops would not teach others the trade. For those who wanted to come and learn they could not do it. They would ask them to sit and watch and if they really wanted to learn they have to go to the remote places or the farming areas (山巴). For those who really wanted to learn they had to take up 2 years of apprenticeship and after that they could go anywhere else to offer their services. When they started working as an apprentice they could at most earn a few dollars in a month and it was not more than six dollars
Q: You said you open your own barber at Balestier, so how much money did you have to open this barber shop?
A: it was about a hundred dollars.
Q: Where did you go to find these hundred dollars to open the shop?
A: it was from what I earned previously. I went around several places to work and that was how I got the hundred plus dollars. It was quite easy. At that time opening a coffee shop or a barber shop, three hundred yuan was more than enough. After settling the rental, the furniture and chairs were obtained from the “orient---洋行” and one did not need to come up with a lot of money to open the coffee shop. As for my barber shop I only needed to buy the chairs, mirrors, cloth and that was all about it. I didn’t need a huge sum of money.
Q: So did your barber shop at Balestier have light, electricity and water?
A: At that time when the shop first started there wasn’t any.
Q: Then how?
A: Just went and fetched it
Q: Fetch what?
A: Fetched water. At those times it was easy to obtain water along the streets and you didn’t even need to fetch it yourselves as you could buy it from others who would fetch them, such as the Indians and Malays. I just needed to tell them how much water I needed and they would get it for me and it was very cheap.
Q: They fetched it to sell?
A: For the lights we used kerosene gas filled lamps.
Q: So at this shop how many customers could you serve in one day?
Disc 4 My Barber Shop at Lavender Street around 1928
Q: Mr Liaw, how much business does your shop get in a day?/how many transactions does your shop have in a day?
A: We were in the hair-dressing business. When others were free, only then did we have business. We had business when others/our potential customers were unoccupied. If they (our customers) went to work, we would have nothing to do.
If I calculate based on time, accordingly, we could have one transaction in an hour, easily. [Every day,] we started work at 8, and ended at 9---that would be ten odd hours each day. Having ten plus customers within those ten something hours was very easy. In those days, a haircut cost 40 cents. Ten odd haircuts would be a good five, six dollars. There were two to three of us (brothers) in the shop. If each person made ten plus dollars, three persons could total forty, fifty dollars. In a day! In reality though, it (our earnings) wasn't (weren't) always this much. We played the waiting game: we had to wait for our customers to be free, free enough to get a haircut. Sometimes, when they came, a lot of them came together. As they say, it never rains but pours. We would be shorthanded during those times. To be fair, we could make ten dollar something, twenty dollar something worth of transactions in a day. After deducting the rent, cost of food and daily supplies from the ten, twenty dollars that the shop made, there was still some to go around. When I arrived, my older brother was very strict with me. He gave me two cents pocket money a day. Two cents, not twenty, mind you. With two cents, you had to/could buy those singlets, people in those days didn't dress so nicely, they only wore singlets. Our pants/the pants we wore were those black cotton pants. We washed our own clothes, and didn't go outside to eat. I ate what was in the shop, cooked for myself. Even though I received a total of 60 cents in a month, I still had money left! There was nothing much to spend on. At that time, thinking about it and making the calculations, those who were/everyone who was in the hairdressing business could get by, as there was at least some money to be made in the hairdressing business.
Q: At that time, how many people worked in "Black Bridge"*? (*Translator's Note: "Black Bridge" is a direct translation from the widely used Hokkien term [Orh Kio], which referred to certain parts of Balestier in Old Town Singapore.)
A: Just the three of us brothers. My elder brother used to have a business with a business partner. They opened shop along the corridor outside "Second Corridor". That business partner saw that the place was hot, and life was hard, so he didn't want to do it anymore. He could earn twenty dollars a month, going at it alone, doing something else. Whilst in the shop along "Second Corridor", once it reached noontime, the sun would be blazing, and it would be hot as death. There were no fans, it was tough. He (my brother's business partner) didn't want this life. In the end he passed on his share of the business to the three of us, it wasn't very much, something like twenty, thirty (*) odd dollars. So we took over that shop on "Second Corridor". Not long after, we opened another shop across to this one. It didn't take much to open it either. (*Translator's Note: These numbers are more specific than the estimated ballpark given in the original interview, but we believe them to be representative.)
Q: When and where was the first time you opened a chain store?
A: The second time, because of my (elder) brother's lifestyle . . .He'd been here for longer, and picked up some of the local habits---a love for gambling, no work. In the shop, if there was money, without fail, even if the water and electricity bills, or the rent was due; he would have already spent it. I had my disagreements with him, so me and two other friends, came down to [Mang Kar Kar] Lavender Street and opened a shop, the three of us. At that time for three people to come together to open a shop, rental would come up to twenty, thirty dollars, and usable cash, we maybe had about 400 dollars max amongst us, to pay rent. By this time, we had water and electricity, so we had to pay rent, and pay our water and electricity bills. Water and electricity bills were cheap then. I can't remember how much the deposit was, but it probably amounted to ten dollars or thereabouts, nothing too much. As for buying mirrors, and chairs, we initially went for the cheapest versions. Once we started making money, we changed to better quality ones.
Later on, Singapore had a period where hairdressing became a very competitive business. To begin with, the shops with good facilities charged 40 cents a cut, and the ones with poorer facilities also charged 40 cents a cut. But those with poorer facilities felt that they could afford to charge a cheaper price, let's say 30 cents. 30 cents! Everyone would be jealous of that asking price! But if you can charge 30 cents, I can charge 20 cents, if I can charge 20 cents, you can also charge 20 cents. If you charge 20 cents, I can charge 10 cents, and then you would charge 10 cents. I then charge 5 cents. At the end of the day, everyone in the hairdressing business suffers. Because of this, my two business partners handed over their share of the shop to my younger brother and myself, and they went to Myanmar to open shop.
Q: Who goes to Myanmar?!
A: Those two business partners of mine, one was named Luo, the other. he was from the same village as me, also a relative of mine. But I forget his name. (Laughter)
Q: When you were in [Mang Kar Kar], how many people worked in the shop?
A: When we first opened shop, [Mang Kar Kar] was busier than [Orh Kio]. [Mang Kar Kar] was nearer the city, so business was better. The three of us partners would cut hair, that's three pairs of hands we had. We would later call one or two more. We would have a maximum of eight people working in the shop.
Q: How many seats were there?
A: There were eight seats.
Q: When you hired help, what was their salary like?
A: Last time, people were mostly paid a fixed salary in Singapore, not like today, where your salary can be variable or commission based. At that time, the fixed salary of Singaporeans was 20 dollars a month, not more than 30 dollars a month.
Q: So you gave your workers 20 odd dollars a month, is that correct?
A: Yup, 20 odd dollars a month. Depending on their arrangements, at that time we as bosses were also responsible for their food and lodging, but no rest. In Singapore then, there were no holidays. Only on special days and occasions, like Chinese New Year, was there rest. If you wanted a break on normal days, your boss could deduct your day's worth of pay. This happened in other establishments, but we didn't do that in our shop. There were already three shareholders, and we didn't employ so many people, so it was a tight knit group and everyone was on particularly good terms. If you had something to do, go do it, and come back when it's done - there was no need to take "rest days". And if you really wanted a rest day, we'll still continue paying you - such was the unspoken policy. Our shop had such a practice, other shops less so.
Q: What were your working hours like?
A: We worked from 8am to 9pm. Strictly speaking, if we had a steady stream of business every hour that we were opened, we would be making big money. However, hairdressing business was such that you had to wait for your customers to be free, for you to have customers. So it wasn't easy money; there was money to be earned, but it wasn't earned easily.
Q: How did you hire your workers? Did you hire them in Singapore, or write letters to China . . .?
A: Hiring we did mostly in Singapore. These people, Chinese, were all from Nanyang, coming here to strike it rich, make gold. The people we knew, all had relatives living outside, living abroad. But everyone rushed to Singapore. Sometimes when they came, they wouldn't have work. So they would ask those around them to help them find work, and these people would know us. So it was easy hiring people in those days; it wasn't hard.
Q: The people you hired, were they from Fuzhou, or people from other areas of China?
A: My hairdressing shop had mostly Fuzhou helpers, but in Singapore there were hairdressing shops with Qiongzhou people, Guangdong people, Xinhua people, Fujian people. Fuzhou people were the most numerous, followed by Guangdong people and Xinhua people, then Chaozhou people. Oh no! Not Chaozhou people. There was only one Chaozhou hairdressing shop. Only one in the whole of Singapore, and it was at [Diao Kio Tao] Ellenborough Market, the owner's name was Pan, Pan De Ming. I'm not sure why, Chaozhou people didn't like doing hairdressing. There were also very few Minnan people. So it was mainly Fuzhou people, Xinhua people, Guangdong people and Hainan people doing hairdressing. The Hainanese chiefly had more "atas" [classy] shops, because Hainanese people are quite forward thinking. They would learn English, and have these shops with more class. The higher end shops were mostly run by the Hainanese. When they billed customers, they billed each service separately, rather than in a flat package that cost 40 cents, as we did and which was the more common practice. So the cost of cutting a person's hair, shaving, washing and doing "massage" was billed separately. In comparison, their lives were more comfortable.
Q: So when you said your hairdressing shop charged 40 cents for a haircut, did this also include shaving and the washing of hair?
A: Hairdressing last time was exactly like that! There was plenty of work to it: you would cut a person's hair, wash it, clean their ears, wash their eyes. You even had to wash their eyes! (Laughter.)
Q: Why is that?
A: The handiwork of before, it's now gone. But in fact, cleaning a person's eyes is quite damaging to the eyes, in a way, it's the foundation for destroying the eyes. But everyone loved to have their eyes washed. And people also loved getting the hair in their nostrils cut. The hair in your nostrils is meant to prevent dirt from getting in. But people wanted them clean cut off. It was very strange. In Fuzhou, people weren't like this. But in Singapore, that's what people wanted. People in Singapore were very strange. Singaporeans at that time ate a lot of this what's it called . . .. There was a kind of cigarette*, you put it in your mouth, chewed it and when you spat it out, it was all red. Another one was [Lao Ye] (the leaves of the sauce). Those who ate [Lao Ye] were mostly women. Men mostly ate the red cigarette. I believe this caused your nostrils to itch, or something, so these guys wanted their nostrils to be completely bare, without hair. All this was against common hygiene: washing your eyes will hurt them; cutting your nostril hair will hurt your lungs. There were even those who wanted to dig the ears, digging them till they bled, till they grew cancers. All this was very very very bad. Previously, when I was in China learning to be a hairdresser, they taught us about skin cancers and such. The Japanese, for example, if you wanted to be a hairdresser in Japan, you had to have at least a high school diploma before learning hairdressing. And there was emphasis on personal hygiene, and the care of personal hygiene. They were very specific and careful, similar to how one might train a doctor. The Japanese respected their hairdressers. (*Translator's Note: Commonly known as [Bing Nan], or areca nut. [Lao Ye] may refer to betel leaf.)
Q: You said you charged 40 cents for a cut, is that right?
Q: This included . . ..
A: This included everything.
Q: What is everything?
A: Cutting the hair on your head, shaving (the face), cleaning the ears, washing the eyes, cutting nostril hair.
Q: Including washing the hair, correct?
A: That's right, washing the hair.
Q: Like this, 40 cents?
A: Yes, 40 cents. 40 cents at that time was a lot of money. A single person could live on 40 cents for several days.
Q: Did every hairdresser do all of the above, and charge 40 cents for it?
A: That was the common practice, to be safe you would do all of the above. In Singapore, only the Hainanese hairdressers, quite a few of them, like those along Orchard Road, or near Capitol, or near the Arcade along the beach, those were the rare higher-class outfits who charged separately for their services. The rest of us followed this standard pricing.
Q: When was your shop in [Mang Kar Kar] opened?
A: The time, I don't recall, let me hazard a calculation.. I was 19 when I arrived. 19, 20, 21, I was in Indonesia. In less than a year, I came back from Indonesia, I was around 21, 22, 23; so it was in 1923 that I came to [Mang Kar Kar]. [probably 1928]
Q: 1923 to [Mang Kar Kar]!
A: Yes, Lavender Street.
Q: You had. . ..
A: No! It was in 1922 that I was like this. . . . 1922, when times were bad, hairdressers were busy undercutting one another, everyone reduced from 40 cents to 5 cents per cut. Even a shop like mine, we cut to 5 cents. If you didn't drop your price, you would have no business.
Q: You speak of this . . .
Q: Mr Liaw, please speak about Fuzhou people in Singapore, the ones doing hairdressing. And besides Fuzhou people, Guangdong people and Hainan people, how did the others learn hairdressing? Did they have to find a "sifu" (teacher), or did they have to pay money for people to teach them?
A: As I understood it, we Chinese hairdressers from China had contracts, a minimum time of three years. Coming to Singapore, at that time, Singapore was not advanced, so hairdressing was also more laissez-faire. For example, when the Indians cut hair, it was like . . .. shaving, and they used a shaving knife for shaving. Amongst those who cut hair, the Indians had training, the Chinese were Hainanese, and the Hainanese did the more high-class shops, as they had the foresight to learn foreign languages. They participated in Japanese hairdressing training. So these were upper-class hairdressing shops. As for the Fuzhou people . . . in Fuzhou being a hairdresser was a good occupation, because Fuzhou was a province, the people were more cultured, they cared about the way their hair looked, so the Fuzhou hairdressers were relatively awesome. Xinhua people were very good at digging ears. Us people who did hairdressing were split into many different departments: you had the cutting, washing, shaving, eye washing, nostril hair cutting, massaging, and digging ears. But the ones who dug ears best were the Xinhua people.
Those who wanted to get their ears dug would sit on a chair, a short stool, the hairdresser would sit on a higher chair, and from there slowly . . . But this business of digging ears, it was hard work. They would have to use a needle, put this steel needle into the ear, and gently remove all of the ear wax from inside. Ear digging required a lot of tools, some of them were made from bamboo, and there was one made from feathers - duck feathers. It was the fine feathers from the duck's backside, held together with human hair to become an accessory. With these tools, if you had good technique . . . If a guy put this duck-feather apparatus into your ear, you would feel your whole body relaxing, so this was an art in ancient China, a profession with teachers.
Sometimes, when dust got into the eyes, and could not be taken out, and the person is tearing profusely, asking a doctor to come, the doctor might have to perform many operations. Instead if you ask a hairdresser, who has good skill . . .. they could easily, with a shaving knife, after it's been wiped clean, put it on the eyelid, press lightly, and with their hands pull up the eyelid, and take out the dust. It would only take a little while. Another point was a person's head. Sometimes after sleeping, heads would feel stiff upon awakening, in our lingo we called it [Ruo Zhen]. The head would be stiff and numb, unable to move. If you went to a doctor, they would tie a piece of cloth, very stiff, and after doing so, not only would you have spent a fortune, the procedure would also have taken a long time. If you went to a hairdresser, they would put their hand on the head, give it a shake, and after a few shakes, your head posture would be alright, you would feel better. Lastly, doing hairdressing, in China . . .. Here we see it rarely, but they would learn about skin diseases, they had a bit of knowledge on that. If you had some skin issue, like ringworm, or maybe you had acne on your face and what not, they had ways to deal with that. There was another kind of problem: ears were often swollen because of infection inside. Were you to go to a doctor, you would spend a good deal of money and it might not even be cured. Those doing hairdressing, they had the knowledge, they had a kind of medication; once used, the infection would go away. Even the dirt inside the ears, we called it ear shit, that ear shit would be gone. So in those days, hairdressing could be considered a veritable profession. Nowadays, people don't have such "kungfu" anymore.
Q: What you mentioned, it applied to the whole of China, is that right?
A: Most of China was like this.
Q: After coming to Singapore, would they still help their family members cure headaches?
A: Yes, there were those who did. But this was commonplace last time. If anyone said they had dust in their eyes, or your neck was swollen and could not move, they would pay a visit to the hairdresser's.
Q: It was also like this in Singapore?
A: Yes, they all did. But now in modern times, most people don't learn this, so they more or less don't know about this.
Q: At that time those who learnt hairdressing, how did they come to learn it? In Singapore, did they have a "sifu", or did they pay money for people to teach them?
A: As far as I know, those (the hairdressers) who came to Singapore already had the knowledge. In China, to be safe you would have a "sifu". Having a "sifu", you would have a minimum contract of three years. When you want to learn, starting out, you would do the odd jobs in the shop. Slowly you would learn, looking at what the teacher did; after doing, he could ask you to shake your hand. Your hand would shake, shake, shake, shake, in your hand would be a cup of water, and the water in the cup could not shake. That was the gold standard. After that, you would learn to use a shaving knife. You would shave some parts of your leg here. Shaving it once was nothing. If you shaved it every day, the skin would break, and there would be little bumps. You had to shave until the skin did not break, did not grow little bumps. Then only would you be considered to have acquired a light touch at shaving, good enough that you could shave people's faces without hurting them.
As for hair cutting: use the cover of a glass vessel, scissors and comb, like this, and cut slowly. Cut until you don't touch the glass vessel; your hands would be considered steady then. Similarly for the scissors, use that glass vessel, you can't use the scissors inside the glass vessel, making noises when it (the scissors) touched the glass vessel, "ke ke", "ke". If your hair was cut by him, it would be pulled out. But in China to cut hair, Fuzhou was a provincial place, everyone was a little more modern, and cared about this, so Fuzhou hairdressers were . . .. you can say had a lot of expertise.
Coming here, in Singapore, starting out, the hairdressing was very rough. When the Indians cut hair, they only used a shaving knife. And they would use the shaving knife to shave the head. At that time people were very smart, they wanted to cut hair ideally only once a year. After cutting their hair, they didn't want to have to cut it again for the entire year. (Laughter) Helping them cut their hair, even shave it, until the head was a bright colour, they (your customers) would be very happy. That sort of hair style, nobody in China would want to have it. You would be shaven like a bright nut. It was ugly. But most of the people here, whether they were born in Singapore or in China . . .. People were very thrifty then. Even if they worked, they were very thrifty. Spending money . . . Nobody dared to spend money. Like wearing clothes, if you could wear a pair of black cotton pants and a white shirt, you could feel proud of yourself already. Being a boss was also like this. If . . .. We had a saying last time, "Black pants and white shirt, either a boss or a civil servant." Even if you were a civil servant, the people then, you could say they wouldn't switch a set of clothing for a few decades. They would still keep it. Unlike these days, today you buy, and then you buy another after a few days. You could buy a few sets of clothing in a month. People last time, one set of clothing could be worn for several decades. If it wasn't torn, it could still be worn. It would be presentable. As for shoes, they didn't wear shoes. They wore wooden clogs. When you went out, you wouldn't take a ride, most people would walk. Because the way Chinese people earned money was through thriftiness; that was the reason.
As for those who cut hair, the Fuzhou people I know mostly came with the knowledge. Some, whose shops did not have enough hands, would ask around to see if anybody wanted to learn. When you first started learning to cut hair, the starting salary was very little. Nobody liked learning, and you were already in Nanyang, to make money! Who wanted to make a livelihood earning so little! So, very few people took up learning hairdressing. Unless this person could not do anything: the non-manual labour---writing words, you couldn't do, the manual labour of heavy lifting, you couldn't do---then you couldn't do anything, you had no other options, then you could casually pick up hairdressing. Because as a hairdresser, you didn't need to know how to read, and there wasn't any language barrier so to speak. All you needed to do was cut a person's hair well. So it wasn't hard.
Q: So you mean that most Fuzhou people who did hairdressing, already knew how to cut hair. And if it became difficult to get people from Fuzhou to cut hair, and there were no workers, would there be people in Singapore learning this trade?
A: There were. In the end, most. . . . This was a long time ago . . ..
Disc 5 Barber Recruitment and Payment Systems before the War
Q: In the past, how did Singaporean learn to be a barber, did they learn from a master?
A: Most of the workers employed by the barber saloon are normally their children or relatives. Some of these workers who went into this trade felt that the job wass easy to learn and the capital to start-up the business was very small. They could makes some money but not a huge fortune, just enough for day-to-day survival. Some of them will introduce their own relatives to join the trade.
It was easy to be a barber in Singapore in the past because, Singaporeans are not fussy customers as long you do not cause them pain or bleed during the haircut. Even on occasion, when the haircut looks terrible and the design looks like a coconut husks, they don’t complain.
On the skills of the barbers in the past, you may say that the Japanese are the best and most talented. Next, are the Hainanese as most of them are trained and worked for the Japanese barbers shop, follow by Cantonese, Fuzhounese, HingHua and a few from Hokkien and only one Teochew.
Q: Do the workers have to be bonded or sign a contract in the early days to be an apprentice barber?
A: No, most are based on verbal agreement and trust. Unlike present days, you don’t have to go to a lawyer office to sign an agreement etc. Chinese peoples in the past, valued most are their words and trust. Should the employee quit their apprenticeship midway, it will be impossible for them to make a living in the future in Singapore. Therefore, once they decided to take up the appointment, they will stay on the job.
Unlike in China (3 years), the apprenticeship duration is usually not more than a year because it is easy to learn and the customer is not fussy. Within a week they will learn to cuts the hair for the customers. I have a younger brother who learns by just observing the other barbers and becomes a barber within a week. He makes a monthly income of about $20, this is how easy [laughter]. The most difficult task of a barber is shaving the beard and children hair. If you don’t have a skilful hand, you will not be able to shave the hairs.
Hairs dressing were differentiated to many form and hair styles. First type is shave off the hairs on the head bald, next it shave until it is very clean and white. When you use your hand to feel, it feels like your skin. Another form is to cuts the hair by scissor to bald style. During that time, those who came from China, each have their own preference.
The most difficult hair style is to cuts the hair flat, square headed. When you look over the head, there is four equal squares. Another hair style is the round head. Hair is cut in circular form.
Another hair style is to cut until four corner leaving the fringe long enough to be sweep behind the ears, this is customer preference. Doing business, we have to follow to the customer request. How he wants you to cut, you have to follow their request accordingly. During that time, those hair styles to my opinion, it is very ugly but then that is what the customer like. Therefore, we as businessman, we will carry out their wishes accordingly.
Another hair style is “Ganster/Yankee (阿飞) style trimming long hair to short at the back. This leaves the hair on the crown for combing and that looks very nice.
Because of more competition, everybody start to improve and innovate by using hair dryer to blow and style the hair to wavy look, it is very nice. After that there is no further progress, some barber saloon begin to employ female hairdresser and most of them are train locally. In the past, there was more male barber than female and the customers welcome the change.
There is a period where the female hairdressing saloon business was good. Until the customer starts to make comparison between the skills of female hairdresser to the male barber, they realise the male barber is better. The female hairdresser is not well train unlike the male barber. Because of that, there is a period, the female hairdressing saloon was badly affected and have no business. It is still the male barber saloon that has better business. Today, the Singaporean men like to keep long hairs and to my opinion, are very ugly. Because of generation change, they feel it is modern and looks nice.
Q: You said that in the past, Singaporean who seek a master only use verbal words, is it valid? And during this one year are they paid a salary?
A: Yes, they are paid a salary but very little, only five to six dollars per month and it is meant for pocket money.
In the past, in this trade, the working hours are very long. They start work at 8.00 am in the morning till 9.00 pm in the night. For some saloon, if their location is good, they might have to work till midnight when there is business.
As a salaried employee, they have no power to object and to rest. They have to work every day, seven days a week except during Chinese New Year, they get to rest for 3 days. And on some main Chinese festival, they get a half-day or a day-off.
Q: For the apprentice who receive five to six dollars salary a month, are they provided with food and lodging.
A: Yes, they are provided with food and lodging. In the past, most of the employee will stay in the employer saloon, unless, the employee does not want.
Staying in the saloon is very simple; there is no bedroom for them, just only a foldable canvas bed. During the day, it is their workplace and in the night, after the saloon is clean up, it becomes their sleeping place.
In the past, to rent a shop unit is very difficult. Not every saloon is big with separate work area, eating and rest area. The places where they work are also their eating and rest area.
Q: Within the one year apprenticeship, meals are provided by the employer and they sleep in the saloon, so what kind of works they do?
A: They do odds and ends menial job, for example; the boss ask them to run errands or whatever is requested by the senior barber, they have to do. From my opinion, peoples in the early days do not treat the junior badly. They are there to learn the job, if the apprentice attitude are easy going and cheerful they will be well like by the boss and senior, they will be given opportunity and they learn fast.
The faster the apprentice master the skill, faster they can makes money and it is beneficial to the boss because to employ a skill worker, they are paid $20 and an apprentice are paid 5 to 6 dollars to do menial jobs.
Q: Will the apprentice receive a raise once they master the skill?
A: If based on verbal contract and there is no agreement on a pay raise, they will not receive it. However, there are some bosses who are more generous, for instance; during Lunar New Year or festive seasons, they compensate a little or provide them with a new suit of clothes.
Q: If the agreement is one year, do they have to wait until the complete year to graduate?
A: If they learn today and master it tomorrow, they still have to complete the year.
Q: In this instance, when they learn so fast, who else would want to be an apprentice?
A: In reality there are very few people who can master it in a short period so fast. In the first two months they start with children haircut trained by the senior. The employer wish the apprentice could master the skill in a short period of time and the apprentice themselves also hope they could learn as fast as they could so that could start making money after they graduate.
Q: Why in Singapore they take only a year for apprenticeship unlike in China 3 years?
A: Apprenticeship in China for 3 years is already considered short to be a barber. To learn a skill and regardless of which skills, you will need 5 years. In China during then, there is a culture whereby the apprentice looks upon their employer like their guardian and a father. Vice versa, the employer will looks upon the apprentice as their family member and treat them as their own. Strictly speaking, in the past in China, the apprentice will be train thoroughly and they will learn sufficiently. As mentioned earlier, to learn the skill as a barber, they will also learn to treat skin problem, for example; eye and ears infection. That is why as a barber in China because of their thousands years of history and experience they are able teach the apprentice. Some people in China who is illiterate they can also become a doctor because they of their experience by knowing which herbs to cure which sickness. Therefore, Chinese people uses their thousand years of experiences and past down their skills to their descendent, for this reason that is why it takes so long to train and that is beneficial to the apprentice.
Q: As an apprentice in Singapore, after they graduate in a year, do they still have to stay in the saloon? Does this mean they can seek employment with another saloon?
A: Yes, they are free to leave after they fulfil the 1 year agreement. They can go to any employer as they wish.
Q: If they leave for another saloon, will their salary be higher?
A: Yes, their salary will definitely be higher if they go to another saloon, comparable to a senior. If your skill is good, many employers will compete to employ them. Barber saloon businesses are the same, the most important factor is that you will have to be willing to work. Will that person be serious in their job; does the person have the skill? If the saloon is very well-equipped, but the person does not have the skill, customers will still not patronise the saloon, however, even if the saloon only has the basic amenities, but the person is skilled, there will be endless business. The most important thing is their skill. In the past, the barbers in China were not as particular, but as customers became vainer, following celebrity trends, barbers have to follow the trend as well.
Q: During the 50s and 60s, were the conditions still the same for those seeking apprenticeship?
A: In my point of view, the number of apprentice in Singapore is very few; most of them come from other places. When the Chinese were not permitted to enter Singapore, most of them came from Malaysia, because comparing Malaysia and Singapore, Singapore has better living conditions. Most Malaysians were farmers and rubber tappers who made decent wages, but due to the poor economy, it was not enough. At that time, being a barber provided a better salary and more free time, so most of them picked up the skill in Malaysia. As long as they learnt the basics, they made their way to Singapore to work.
Q: When did that happen?
A: This was when Singapore became more restrictive on migrants entering the country; migrants from China had very strict requirements and could not enter. Some older barbers passed away, and some returned to China and did not come back. Singaporeans rarely wants to be a barber, that’s why majority of the barbers were from Malaysia. Of all the barbers in Singapore, 70% were comprised of Malaysians and 30% were Singaporeans.
Q: That means during that time, very few Singaporeans picked up the skill, right?
A: Those that came from China definitely wanted to earn money, but realising that this trade will not make them rich and is unsustainable, most of them will not want to learn the skill. Parents who were a barber and short of labour, would ask their children to learn the trade, kids were more obedient in those days. If you ask the children in this generation to pick up the skill, none will want to do it.
Q: In those times, other than the boss, how were apprentices and employees paid?
A: When you are employing a skilful supervisor, age is also a factor.
First point, you must not be too ugly of a person, for example, not just considering as a barber, in short, if a normal person is ugly, other people will not find affinity with him.
Second point, the person must not be too old, customers would assume that the barber has poor eyesight, and might not provide a good haircut. That’s why, if they are skilful and young, a lot of saloon would want to hire them.
Some saloon will ask a third party to try to woo these young and skilful barber over by offering them a dollar or two more than what they are currently making.
At that time, the worth of a dollar or two is different as compared to today’s value. The supervisors then were making more than $20 but less than $30, the average was $20+.
Some employers were more calculative, the working hours were longer, while most saloon closed at 9, and they extend their closing time until 12, as long as a customer walked in.
Some workers would compare with their previous place of employment, that the working hours were not as long. This would result in a lot of them running away and look for employment in other saloons.
There is also a type of boss who is very stingy and will scrimp on the meals and provide foods that are not appealing, this will cause employees to run away.
Another type is where the saloon’s location is very deserted and inconvenient to go anywhere. Another reasons why employees run away is because the shop’s interior is very dirty, this was because in the past, not the entire shop is used for hairdressing, part of it is shared with another tenant, one side is used as a barber saloon and on another side, it is used as a tailor, or a laundry shop, some even do other businesses, put it all together – if you lived there, it would be very inconvenient.
So if you want to hire people, you have to own the space, with proper hygiene, the location has to be convenient enough to reach by public transport, and the food provided to the workers have to be palatable to their likings. This way, workers will be ‘fixed’ and not be fickle minded, and the business will be good, if the workers are not ‘fixed’, the business will definitely not be successful.
Eventually, this is also the reason why the barber saloon will reduce their prices and it is because of these factors, when your saloon is inadequate, the workers you hire do not have good skills, your shop’s location is very deserted, there will definitely not be any business, and when there is no business, the owner sees that other saloon are doing well while their own saloon is not making any money, the saloon will reduce its prices. This is the reason for cutting prices, when it gets to that stage, every saloon owner will be jealous – if the other shop owner can cut prices, I can too, this is why there was a dark period during the hairdressing trade, I am referring to the general price. The special prices are priced at different tiers, ordinary prices were originally 40 cents, eventually, they cuts their price to as low as 5 cents.
Q: Mr. Liaw, regarding the point about the price of hairdressing, can you talk about it later instead?
A: Yes, okay.
Q: Can you tell me, at that time, if the worker’s salary was a monthly wage or how was it calculated?
A: Salary is monthly, some people receive their pay once every ten days, others...usually the ones from China who are very frugal, will wait until month end to ask for their pay, there are others, even at month end, will keep their pay with their bosses, they will only ask for their pay when they want to send it back to China. This is because we were from China, we experienced the hardship, and our intention of coming here is to make money to send back to China.
Q: You mentioned these situations, approximately how much money is there every month?
A: In these cases, a person could make about 20 dollars a month, 20 dollars…for example, if the worker wants to use it today, the worker will say to the boss “please give xx amount of money to me”, and the boss will give it to the worker, it is not such a big deal.
Q: Then has the salary always been this way? Eventually, did it change to say, a commission based salary, or other types of salary payment?
A: In the past, it was always fixed pay, there was no such thing as commission. Commission based pay only started after the Japanese occupation that was when there was a commission system.
Q: Why is it only after the Japanese occupation (after the Second World War), that barber saloon will think of using the commission based system instead of using a fixed wage again?
A: To talk about this, there are a lot of reasons; at that point, the Japanese had not arrived. . .
Disc 6 Singapore Economy was bad from around 1929 to 1934
Q: Why is it that after WW2, the hairdressing employees are not paid on a monthly wage basis but on a profit sharing basis?
A: The reason is because of workers’ unions. There were many workers’ unions then, mostly organized by the Communist Party. The unions claimed they were fighting for the worker’s benefits: that the employers were exploiting the workers and so they all fought for the workers. Initially, the bosses of barber shops did not pay the workers well. If the workers were in cahoots against one worker who was a bad performer, that worker would not get any job assignment. In this line, if you have no work, your livelihood will be greatly affected and life will be hard. At that time, the hairdressing workers were mostly Hainanese. They organized a union called the Xing Hua Hairdressing/Barber Workers Unions. Not all who joined were workers, as long as you were a hairdresser/barber you could join, even if you were the boss. Any race/dialect group could join, not just Hainanese. There were also Cantonese, Hakkas, Fuzhou people, Dongguan people etc. A portion of them could be said to have links with the Communist party.
After the Japanese came, all these unions disappeared. At the beginning in Singapore each dialect group had its own union. The Cantonese had their own union and the Hakkas had their own union. The Hainanese didn’t have. Other dialect groups didn’t have either. Later on when they didn’t have this union any more, that is the beginning, a portion of the bosses and workers who joined, worked inside, until the Japanese Occupation, then those unions ceased to function and disappeared from the scene. Later the Japanese did call one hairdressing employer union up to be active but not the worker union. When the Japanese surrendered, the Resistance Army came to Singapore. Many in the hairdressing trade were key members there. The first who tried to improve the lives here were the hairdressers, not the others. During the Japanese Occupation, the price was 40 cents, when the Japanese surrendered; it had risen to 10 dollars. Just one haircut costs 10 dollars. At that time 10 yuan is not enough for you to eat. Life was hard. Things were expensive.
Q: 10 yuan as in 10 Japanese yen?
A: Yes. Japanese yen. However, at that time things were expensive, life was very hard. After the Japanese surrendered, these people came to Singapore. The first change they requested was for the hairdressing hours to be from 9am to 5pm. Then they requested one day off every week. They also demanded for hairdressing fees to be split 30/70. Owner takes 30% and worker takes 70%. The 30% of the owner takings included the rental for the premises, utilities, materials…… everything. The owner just didn’t pay for the workers’ meals. They could stay wherever they want: by that time, you had to pay for your own meals and live wherever you wanted. Very few stayed with their boss. There were also some bosses at that time who were sympathetic to the workers and felt it was a good arrangement. However, it was hard to make a living for the boss, because the boss had many responsibilities/burdens to handle. They earned only 30 cents for every dollar. If rentals were like today every boss would be making a loss. Being a worker was better than being a boss. I know many at that time, one called Mr. Zhuang Nan Shi and one Hainanese called Xu Dong. Mr Zhuang was the customer. The Hainanese named Xu Dong was of the same flock as Mr. Ru Sheng, the Allied Japanese Resistance Army, important people in the Communist Party, and also Wu Qin Yun and so on. These people were on good terms with this group of people. When he came here, all the worker unions started to be organized.
The first one formed successfully was the hairdressing union. 30/70 split. For those shops with poorer facilities, 20/80 split. For hairdressing shops, this percentage didn’t work for the bosses who did not earn enough.
Q: Then has it always been 30/70 since? Or did it become 40/60 or 50/50 later on?
A: In certain cases people might say, “I couldn’t make ends meet and open shop with only 30/70 split” Then they’ll need to start negotiations. At the negotiations, trouble would come. The workers would collude and not work for you. At that time there weren’t any hairdressers from the China mainland, few foreigners(?) doing hairdressing, so if this is the case, the boss ends up doing the work himself, so how can he manage it himself? Therefore they needed to negotiate but in most cases they didn’t succeed. But if you had your own people (family, friends) in the shop and you didn’t have so many workers/employees, like maybe in a shop with 7 or 8 people, you have only 3 or 4 workers/employees. If you took over their work they would go on strike. When they went on strike, they would ask the workers from other places to come to your shop and go on strike/protest and tried to prevent you from doing business. When you had no business, no matter what you do, the boss had to back down. But there weren’t that many cases like that. When it happened to one or two shops, the other shops also realized it’s no use fighting for it and wouldn’t dare do it, and would continue with the status quo, even till now.
Q: Has it always been 30/70? Were there others with 40/60 split or even 50/50 split?
A: There were some with 50/50. There were 2 types. If the employer provided the meals, then they could do 50/50. But the worker would complain about the meals provided, and so it wouldn’t succeed either.
Q: There was a period in Singapore, from around 1929 till 1933 or 1934, when the economy was bad. How did this impact the hairdressing industry?
A: Not just the hairdressing industry, but every one in Singapore, regardless of race, whether business owners or employees, found it hard to make a living. Everyone was affected, no choice. Some people, when they really had no choice, went back to China.
The government gave people boat tickets to let them go back to China.
At that time, places like Number One Road (current day North Bridge Road) was the best/ most prosperous place for business. Yet, the shops there had to put up red notices for rent because they couldn’t survive. Prior to that, it was so difficult to rent a shop in that area. You had to pay a lot of “tea money” to get a shop there but during those hard times, it was easy because there were so many shops up for rent. You didn’t even have to pay “tea money”. It wasn’t just hard in Singapore but globally too.
Q: Apart from the shop situation at Number One Road (North Bridge Road), where else did you see the signs of economic hardship in Singapore? What about the workers?
A: Like I said earlier, it wasn’t just hard in Singapore. It was hard globally. Life was hard in Singapore but it was even harder in Malaya. Rubber that was tapped could not find buyer. One acre of rubber plantation land used to fetch at least a few hundred dollars, and good ones could fetch even a few thousand dollars per acre. In those times, you could get it for just 5 dollars.
Q: What was the situation like with the workers in Singapore then?
A: Those times were hard. Everyone on the streets was like a beggar or refugee.
Many people from Malaya came to Singapore because they had lost their jobs and couldn’t make a living. But they also couldn’t make a living in Singapore. Seeing this situation, the Singapore government gave money for people to return to places like China. But these difficult times did not last very long; it also passed after a while.
Q: When the economy was bad, what were the prices charged for hairdressing services?
A: It dropped from 40 cents to 5 cents. Those difficult times can hardly be described with words. You were considered lucky if you could even survive.
Q: Why did the price drop from 40 cents to 5 cents?
A: People didn’t have money. On the one hand the economy was bad, for certain shops with good facilities charged 40 cents but my shop didn’t have such good facilities and so we didn’t have much business, and so we couldn’t charge much. When we charged 35 cents, other shops would follow suit and charged 35 cents too, then we needed to charge 30 cents and so on and so forth, until the prices dropped to 5 cents. It was still ok if we only charged 5 cents, but we also needed to give freebies. In those days we would make pieces of soap cake by boiling soap (‘Sabun’ in Malay and Hokkien) and put them in cigarette boxes to give out to customers when they came for a hair-cut. You couldn’t even make a profit on the 5 cents per hair-cut charges. When everyone did this, it’s like end of the road for all, it was just like “committing suicide.” Later, a group of people came forward to stop this downward spiral and suggested we organize ourselves in order to be able to make a living. That was when prices recovered. Hairdressing was divided into 3 classes, A for those with good facilities, B for those with less facilities and C for those with poorer facilities, and prices were different for all 3.
Q: What did Class A charge?
A: Class A charged the original price of 40 cents for the best grade. The next class below charged 35 cents and the one below charged 30 cents. Those set up along corridors charged 20 cents. Like this, the livelihoods of hairdressers were stabilized. If it was like the initial situation, all the shops would be closed, and if the shops closed, the workers would also be unemployed and suffer too.
Q: Did the prices stabilize because of the unions?
A: There used, to be unions, but the unions later disappeared because if you did union work, you needed to spend a lot of time on it. You must go and walk around, talk to people and so on and your personal expenses would increase. If you joined the union, even before it became successful, your business would go bankrupt. Therefore everyone shunned it. Later on, people started to learn from that experience and realized they couldn’t do it that way. They conducted meetings to discuss. We were just tradesmen, not doing big business. If we were doing big business, we could fork out money for the union work as we could easily make the money back even if we suffered a loss. But in this trade, we only got money if we worked; no work, no money, hence we couldn’t operate that way, or we would not be able to survive. The union then reorganized and after that, with everybody’s previous bad experience with it, they dared not operate the same way again and it became better. Till now, if you compare the hairdressing association now and then, the association helps the hairdressers out a lot. For owners, there isn’t much benefit, because of the profit sharing model. You only make 30 cents out of a dollar, some only 20 cents, which needs to cover a whole lot of expenses, which was hardly enough. The ones who benefited were only the workers. The workers only needed to use their skills and did not need to do anything else.
Hence, the prices now compared with the past are still quite okay. Today’s rates, 5 or 6 dollars is considered normal. At better barber shops, a barber can earn about a thousand dollars a month.
Q: Do you remember when was the earliest union established in Singapore?
A: I can’t quite remember, around 1920s, maybe 1926 or 1927. At that time for us Hokkiens, it was the Hokkien Hairdressing Association. They didn’t cater for bosses, only said it was a union/association. The people who joined could be bosses or workers, as long as you were in the hairdressing trade. Its address was at Bukit Pasoh Road where Hu Wen Hu’s factory was located. Later it moved to Rochor Road (Rumah Panjang). There were four storeys. Upstairs was used by the association too. When the Japanese came, they asked the association to regroup/reorganize. The Japanese valued hairdressing services, and tried to gain favours by giving cloths, cloths that can be used for hairdressing services or for making clothes.
Q: You said the Hokkien Hairdressing Association existed before the Japanese Occupation. Which dialect group/race formed the bulk of the Hokkien Hairdressing Association?
A: If you are talking about the dialect groups, then there were restrictions. Hokkiens were hokkiens. The Cantonese had their own association. I forgot the name, but they had their own associations….
Q: The Hokkien Hairdressing Association was one where owners and workers could join, right?
A: Yes, no distinction.
Q: Was it like this before the war?
Q: How much must you pay to join the association?
A: You must make a monthly donation, contribute to the funds and if there are any special expenses, you needed to be voluntary donors. But it’s not a lot. At most, for monthly donations, it’s about one dollar or fifty cents. If there were any special expenses of course they hoped you could donate, but there wasn’t much need.
Q: Was this Hokkien Hairdressing Association active during the period of economic hardship in Singapore?
A: Like I mentioned just now, whoever was involved in association activities then ended up closing their shop, going bankrupt. It took time and money. If you were the owner, you needed to work too, and if you were the worker, you had less time to work, and hence earned less. From what I knew, whoever was involved in the association then, including the Chairman, all went bankrupt and had to close their shops.
Q: When then did the association reorganize and regroup itself and become active again?
A: At that time, because of the union,, there was a big “sale or price war” on hairdressing services. That’s when people decided that the association had to reorganize itself or everyone would not survive the extreme low prices. Hence the association started to get active again.
Q: When exactly was that?
A: That was in 1920’s. That was the worst economic situation. The best economic times were after the Japanese surrendered, when the British government came back to Singapore. The government told the association to change its name; and that only business owners needed to have their own association, and workers had their own separate union/association. Both could not be in the same union/association.
Q: So in the association before the Japanese War, when it was the Hokkien Hairdressing Association, did you hold any official position in it?
A: Yes, but it wasn’t anything important, just a regular office bearer.
Q: So what was the main activity of the Hokkien Hairdressing Association then?
Disc 7 From 1959 to 60, I was the Vice Chairman of the Singapore Barber Employer Association and Chairman of the Hairdressing Association.
Q: Mr Liao, in the past, during the wartime, what was the main activities of the Barber Association. There was a time there were disputes in the barber business community because people were setting low prices to undercut each others for business. For instance, there’s a person called 秋斩 [Qiu Zhan], he priced very low. After that the association came in to mediate in the dispute. Do you know what were the association’s activities and opinions about the pricing?
A: The mission of the Barber Association was to promote interaction among the members in the trade and to protect their interest. When a portion of the association members undercut others, the other members would meet up with them to negotiate. The Association would also tell them to refrain from taking such an action as it other members of the same trade. Explained to them their price cutting action might result in their having food to eat, but others would not. Some wouldn’t listen. At that time, Singapore had gangs and the Association also used such gangs to confront these people.
Q: Why was there a need to resort to use of gangsters to confront them?
A: The undercutting of prices was unfair and affected everyone’s livelihood. Each time they were given warning they just wouldn’t heed it. These people were so difficult and obstinate that the Association had to resort to gangs to deal with them. But from what I knew, this was a common practice in the past. When the gangs were used to confront them, the gangs would merely pressurise them to stop being willful.
Q: How did they make trouble for them?
A: Like just creating problems that give them a headache. But doing that also did help, because others who saw this would think: “aiyo, earning all these money yet it won’t make you rich, plus others will dislike you, attack you, and it would give you a very bad reputation. Also there was the risk of being bitten. It would leave them in bad shape with an uncertain future. So after all these happened, many people didn’t dare to do bad things anymore, and everything became better.
Q: So besides thinking of ways to control the barber’s prices, in terms of their working hours, did the association have any other opinions made?
A: As for the Association internally… everything done was all for the benefit of the trade. If they followed the guidelines of the Association, the working hours would be appropriate, in particular not to work extended hours. As far as we were concerned, getting a haircut is something everyone has to do. If one didn’t do it today, one would have to go for it another day. If the barbers continued to work extended hours, their body would not be able to take the strain. Regarding the working hours, there were also guidelines for work and rest. But there were many who were selfish and even though it was clearly stated to close by 8pm, they would close their doors but still continue running their business after 8pm.
Q: So what did the association do? Did the Association confront these people?
A: Well over time, the association couldn’t do much because these people would not listen even if being told many times. There was no choice. So all that one could do was to improve their own shop by having higher hygiene standard and better equipment and facilities. In addition, it is beneficial to recruit capable barber to ensure a good business. But there was also talk among the workers. They would tell each other not to work for those kinds of bosses, saying, “Your boss is affecting the industry by over crossing the work time limit, you work there is not good.” They would try to convince them not to work in that kind of barber shops anymore. And these people, when they started to understand that they did not earn much working till 11 or 12pm, but they were better off working till the 8pm limit and having rest after, they eventually stopped working for those bosses who opened their shops till late. After a while, when the workers leave, the boss was the only one left, and trying to do business all by himself could be tiring, as he was not a robot. Eventually, the whole matter was slowly resolved.
Q: So regarding rest days, what were the rules and regulations for it?
A: At first there were no regulations, but after a while there was a stipulation that there must be one rest day per week.
Q: When was this?
A: It was about the time after the Japanese surrendered. Everyone’s thinking was also uplifted. The barber trade workers started to catch up with the times and also with other trades. In the past, the shops at the North Bridge Road (大马路) opened till 10pm, but after the Japanese surrendered, it only opened till 5pm or 6pm. So at that time, the barber shops opened from 9am to 5pm. If it was still open after 5pm, they would send a group of enforcers to warn you. If you did not listen, they would take away your personal possessions.
Q: Who sent these “Enforcers”?
A: These enforcers were from the Association; they were the younger barbers. Once, there was a big incident with a barber shop involving the enforcers. This shop was near the Naval Base and they did not adhere to the working hours. When the enforcer went down, the boss of the barber shop reported against him and said that the enforcer caused a disturbance. So the government caught the enforcer and put him together with other suspected criminals in the identification parade. They would let the reporters of crimes or witnesses to identify the criminal. This was conducted in the police station. Coincidentally, in Tiong Bahru, there was a married woman whose house had been robbed; she went there to identify the robber. The barber cum enforcer was also included in the line for identification. The woman identified him and said that he was the robber. After that he was taken to the court, the case went up all the way to the high court.
If it was serious enough, the verdict could be a death sentence. Then, there were seven judges. In the end, four of the judges decided that this barber/enforcer was innocent after the Barber Association testified to the court that he was a good law abiding owner of barber shop.. Furthermore, he was a boss and would never rob others. If four of the seven judges ruled that he was guilty, he would have to face a death sentence. After that incident, no one dared to engage in the enforcer role. The Association also had incurred a lot of money and time to resolve the case.
Q: So, Singapore Hokkien Barber Association… after the war, you mentioned that the Japanese asked them to organize a new association. What kind of association was that?
A: At that time, being a barber, according to what I knew, the Japanese treated the barbers with special attention and respect. Like when they saw that my shop looked well equipped, they would patronise my shop. My business was already good and lucrative as I was offering premium service. The Japanese was happy with our shop and service and they certified me to be the “Military Appointed” barber. However, being their barber was both good and bad. The good point was that when the Japanese came to Singapore,, there were many soldiers and Japanese people. When they saw that your shop is certified, they would feel safe going to you and your business would be very good. The Japanese treated these barbers well. The not so good factor is that the business originally had stable Chinese customers but they were afraid of the Japanese and therefore stopped coming to the barber shop. Initially there were many Japanese soldiers and people who came to patronize the shop, but later on when they were sent on assignments overseas to India or Australia to fight, then there were lesser Japanese people left in Singapore. It affected our business.
For those local customers who left us because of the Japanese, they would not come back as they were used to their existing barber. Our business was therefore much affected.
Q: At that time, the Japanese formed an association, what was it like? Who did they ask to organize it?
A: When the Japanese people came, they first asked us to organize an Overseas Chinese Association. Reputable Chinese people were asked to form the association. At that time, Mr. Lim Boon Keng (林文庆) first became president. It wasn’t out of his own desire initially. It was just that when the Japanese came, they commanded the Chinese what to do and we had to obey. Those who resisted would lose their lives. During the Japanese Military Administration, capturing people, beatings, killings were all common. So when the Japanese came, they first put together an Overseas Chinese Association, and started to have many various association (Barber Association included) activities. I’m not sure about the benefits of activities organised by other associations. As for the Barber Association, there were benefits. They would instruct the barbers to use cloth for hairdressing, and handkerchiefs as well. For all these items, the Japanese provided us, at an official rate. During that time it was difficult to just get what you want, but the Japanese would get a lot of cloth for us and the workers to use.
Q: Must you pay?
A: At an official price. It was very cheap.
Q: So at that time who were the people who participated in associations? Was it only Hokkien people?
A: At that time… Well, our organisation was under the Hokkien name, and so the members were all from Hokkien. But when the name changed, during the time when the Japanese surrendered and the British soldiers came back, the British government told us to establish an association for the employers only. Associations having both employers and employees as members in one organisation were disallowed.
Q: During the Japanese Occupation period, what were the associations called?
A: It was called the Hokkien (Fujian) Barber Association.
Q: Did people from other races join the association? For example the Malays and Indians?
A: No there wasn’t… Only later when the British military came back, then it became the Singapore Barber Employer Association where people of any races could join.
Q: So during the Japanese Occupation, no other races could join?
A: The Hokkien people only joined the Hokkien organizations. Likewise, the Guangdong people will join the Guangdong associations. At that time, all the associations, the Japanese will tell them to organize activities. The reason for that was that they had an ulterior motive to use the people to help the Japanese.
Q: So after the war, you were saying that the Hokkien Barber Association’s name was changed to the Singapore Barber Employer Association. In this association, did you have any responsibility?
A: At that time, I didn’t have any responsibility. However, they kept asking me. But I was very busy at my shop. I had a big family of multiples of 10 people and I was responsible of taking care of them, I wasn’t free. Well… it had always been that the people from the Barber Association liked me to be their leader, because I had previously lived in Indonesia, and I had a strong interest in the social communities. Moreover I was also very loyal to China. Everyone respected me too. Everyone would often come to my shop and asked me to be their leader. I said, “I really have no time, but whatever I can do, I will help. If you have any problem, or things to say, you can come to me to discuss. I will help you.” But that was all I could do, till finally in 1959 – 60, I took up the position of the Vice Chairman of the Singapore Barber Employer Association. In the Hairdressing Association I was the Chairman. I was involved in both associations.
My children already grew up by then, and I handed the business over to my son to manage, so I had much more time.
Q: Who were the people who participated in the Singapore’s Barber Employer Association then?
A: After the Barber Employer Association’s name changed, people from any race could all join the association. Indians also joined. Of course the Chinese people from China still joined. In the association, there were people from all different native places. Most of the people working in the association office were the people from the previous association. They were chosen as they were experienced and there were not many newcomers.
Q: So, in this new Employers Association, which were the native places with the most members in the association?
A: Speaking of which, most were from Fuzhou. In the Singapore Barber Trade Association, all were Fuzhou Singaporeans. At that point, we considered Singapore as a country. We didn’t segregate into Fuzhounese, Cantonese, or Malay, Indians. Now we were known as the Singapore Barber Trade Association.
Q: So where was this Singapore Barber Trade Association’s clubhouse located?
A: It was located at Arab Street. It was one floor below the Socialist Party headquarters.
Q: After the war, did the Barber’s Employer’s Association and the Worker’s Association have any area of conflict?
A: Speaking of the Worker’s association… There were a big portion who did community work. For the work related to the barber trade, the first thing they did was to set up the service charges distribution guidelines. Nothing much was done after the guidelines were established. Subsequently, some were mainly involved in politics.
Q: So other than the wages issue between the workers and their employers, were there other conflicts?
A: Ever since then there wasn’t really any conflict by then, being workers were considered good enough. If they were to strike, the workers would end up as losers. The bosses would not have lost much. As the workers had more to gain than the boss, they also didn’t go on strike. There wasn’t any other disturbance either. You can say that they already had ample benefits given to them and there wasn’t anything to argue about. Later on, most of the association staff were working on matters related to politics.
Q: Before the Japanese came, was there such Employee Association/Union?
A: Before the Japanese came, there wasn’t such a division between workers and employers. They were all in one Association, for instance the Association organised by the Hainanese, I can’t remember the exact name.
Q: You were saying this was before the Japanese came…
A: Before they came.
Q: Hainan people had their own Employee’s Association?
A: Not exactly an association solely for Employees. Instead, it was by the trade and both employers and employees could join in. When they had their first opening, I also went. But actually there wasn’t much activity, what they were doing was mostly political work.
Q: Who organized the Hainanese Association?
A: Most of the leaders were Hainanese---their own people.
Q: Who were they? Do you still remember their names?
A: What I can remember are … 许东 (Xu Dong) and 庄南士 (Zhuang Nan Si).
Q: 庄南士 was a Hainanese?
A: He was a Hakka. Heard that till today he still loves Malaysia. Initially, he was doing underground work, but later he surrendered to the government. Now he is working in a government job.
Q: So regarding this association established by the Hainanese, after the war ended and the British return, did the association have any activities?
A: When the Japanese came, they totally didn’t have any activity. . . They didn’t dare to have any activity. Moreover, the Japanese hated these people. So once the Japanese ended, the association then had a name – the Barber Workers Union, which is Xing Zhou Barber Workers Union .
Q: Where were their headquarters?
A: It was also located at the road behind 鲁班让 (RoBanjiang---Orphi
Disc 8 “Military Designated” Barber Shops
Q: You mentioned earlier former Member of Parliament Lim Peng (to verify). What position did he hold in the Barber Trade Union?
A: He was the Chairman of the Sin Chew Barber Worker Union
Q: This worker union, what was the dialect group of the majority of members?
A: At that time, there were all sorts of people. The Chinese people, when we saw a person with authority, of some standing, everyone wanted to join, to network and participate . . . the unions flourished then. To my knowledge, at that time, there were different worker unions there, using the place like the headquarter, because it was very spacious there, the entire second floor was used by trade unions, there were other trade unions . . .some trade unions were formed, but didn’t have premises . . .while others had premises but were without talent. That place became a gathering point for talents. From what I know, there were quite a few elected Members of Parliament who, after eating, did not have work, they stayed (“long pung”) there . . . .relating this is rather humorous (laughter).
Q: Did the Barber Worker Union wield much power in its early years?
A: If you want to talk about power, absolutely no power, what power! This is to say they needed the backing of the political party. If the worker union did not have the political party as its patron, what power would they have? Not that they were different from others, were literate or capable . . .they were just ordinary people with some skills.
Q: However, to obtain this equal share of earnings arrangement, weren’t they very resourceful? They were resourceful enough to obtain the barber shop owners to accept this proposal? What method did they use?
A: That method . . .I earlier mentioned it to you . . .you, a barber shop, just only the boss working, how much can you do? You need to depend on workers. Not many workers came from China. Singapore also had very few people in the barber trade. If the union members didn’t want to work for you, your shop would have to shut down. During those times you accepted because there was no other alternatives . . ..during those times, Gong Chang Dang (communist party?) was very powerful.
Q: What do you mean? You said . . .
A: At that time, when Japan surrendered, anti-Japanese civilian troops came from Malaya to Singapore on 5 September. At that time I also went to Bukit Timah to welcome them. Upon their arrival, the Headquarter took Japanese Primary School, the other was at Tek-Ka (Selegie Road) . . .the Japanese Club, later, that Japanese Club then become the Chinese Youth Association, but its headquarter was located there. To say, when the anti-Japanese civilian troop arrived, the majority were former office holders of the trade unions in Singapore. When Japan came, everyone was frightened, escaped to hide in Malaya. By the time Japan surrendered, they then claimed to be anti-Japanese troops, had made significant contributions. When they came out, they had that power. Actually what is their power . . .I also don’t know . . .what I know is that they took people’s property here and there for their office space, called themselves this trade union organization, that trade union organization, all the trade unions organized together, that was how it was.
Q: During that time, amongst the barber workers, who belonged to the anti-Japanese troops?
A: When the anti-Japanese troops arrived in Singapore, they did not wear army uniform, hardly any wore army uniform, anybody could claim that, “I am an anti-Japan soldier”.
Q: So, at that time, the barber workers in the barber trade union, how many do you think were anti-Japan soldiers, and after that they proposed this shared earnings matter?
A: Can say this Xu Dong and this surnamed Lau . . .Lau Ji You, and Zhuang Nan Shi, these three were relatively more well-known, more active/positive, acted on things more . . .they often fought for workers’ welfare. In reality, whether they were anti-Japan soldier in Malaya, we don’t know. After they arrived in Singapore, they organized worker unions, all sorts of worker unions, all organized together, at that time Lu Xin, and several others, I cannot remember their names.
Q: What trade unions did they organized?
A: All the trades, they organized all the workers.
Q: Who then organized the Barber Worker Union?
A: It was this group . . Xu Dong, Zhuang Nan Shi and Lau Ji You . . .
Q: So, how did they inform the shop owners about the shared earning proposal, that they wanted to implement it? What method was used? Was it to go on strike from the start, or was it to first inform the shop owners?
A: No, there was no strike. They invited us to the meeting to discuss the matter, it was like that.
Q: Where was the meeting held?
A: I have forgotten. I am not sure if it was held at the shop owners’ association or the workers’ union, because I wasn’t a committee member at that time. But, the proposed shared earnings system was successful/accepted when it first came up, it didn’t drag on for too long. When the Japanese surrendered, and the anti-Japanese civilian troop arrived in Singapore, on this barber matter, it quickly succeeded, the shared earnings system . . .don’t want to be the same as last time on monthly salary, or let it drag on for a long time, work from early in the morning till late in the night.
Q: The barber shop owners so quickly accepted the shared earnings system. Apart from the fear of not being able to hire workers, were there other reasons? For example, could political threat be one of the reasons?
A: In my view political threat had not been that much of a factor. The biggest fear was that the shop was not staffed, this was the biggest reason.
Q: In that case, do you know approximately the number of members in this workers union?
A: At that time in Singapore, there were a only few hundred, less than a thousand Chinese barbers. If all joined, it’s only a portion, not all joined. In the barber worker union, active members who were truly barbers were fewer, compared to other trade unions, active members were relatively fewer, because within this barber worker union . . .it was the like Singapore worker union’s headquarter, the majority of activities were held there, because elsewhere, there were unions who didn’t have any premises, and also no committee members, so they used the place there.
Q: So, this worker union, in terms of politics, what activities did it have?
A: Politics, they carry out the communist system, to fight for workers’ welfare.
Q: But, with the shared earnings system, what other worker welfare could they fight for?
A: It was for the collective welfare of workers in the same trade, the others . . ..whatever politics we did not understand. But, their entire policy was to adopt the communist system.
Q: After fighting for the shared earnings system, were there other issues in conflict with owners?
A: To my knowledge, workers and owners didn’t have many hard feelings, they were from the same trade and everyone worked in the same place. Therefore other divisive incidents seldom occurred. Foremost, they gained what they wanted; they need not turn hostile against the owners, or think of ways to make things difficult for them.
Q: For example, in terms of meals on the boss (towkay), was it possible that because a barber worker did not like this or that about his boss, and therefore got into a conflict with the boss. Would workers in other shops join this worker to strike, to support this worker’s cause? Had such incidents happened?
A: For example, if the boss in this shop refused to split the earning 3:7, in order to maintain the practice of meals on the boss and therefore maintain to split equally. There would be a situation, workers from other shops would support this worker, initially to “rest” from work, and if that was not successful, they would go on strike . . .hanging a lot of banners outside the shop with writings on how bad the boss was, and with their supporters sitting outside the shop, who would dare to go to the shop for a haircut?
Q: Who sat outside the shop?
A: Mostly these worker union members.
Q: Barber worker union members?
A: Yes…some barber worker union members, also those from other trades, as well as the jobless.
Q: Therefore, if these barber worker union members sat-out at the shop, would it impact the shop they worked at?
A: Wow! Great impact, if they did this, that shop definitely . . .who would dare go to the shop to cut hair! Seeing a huge crowd gathered there . . .no one would go there. However, most people after receiving such treatment from them, after a few days this incident would be completely resolved, each and everyone would surrender, “Alright, meals on your own, 3:7 split then.” It was like that.
Q: However, if their worker . . .for example the worker from other shop came to sit outside this shop to support the worker in this shop, would it affect the other shop?
A: If it’s the other shop . . .when the barber union worker sat outside the shop where the comrade he empathized with worked, to join the crowd, if it was not for the entire day, but for a short while just to add-on the heat at the sit-out site, batch by batch, one after another, it was like that. Usually members from other trade unions would also show up to support, such as to empathise with them, it was like that.
Q: Earlier we talked about the barber trade pre- and post-war. During the Japanese occupation, was there any difference in the barber trade? When the Japanese first arrived in Singapore, what was the barber business like?
A: When the Japanese first arrived in Singapore, the barber business was very good because there were many soldiers. Furthermore, the Japanese were not so fierce towards barbers. Barbers became less fearful of being beaten. How was life then? There was shortage of goods when the Japanese were here, goods became increasingly expensive, the price for barber service also increased. The Japanese didn’t have xxx (Malayan dollar?), however much you wanted to collect, they also didn’t have xxx (Malayan dollar?). When the Japanese first arrived, it was 40 cents. The takings were insufficient to meet expenses . . .so the price kept increasing. By the time the Japanese surrendered, it was $10 for a haircut . . .
Q: Japanese currency?
A: Yes, Japanese currency. At that time, the Japanese currency could be used widely.
Q: After the Japanese came, they designated some barber shops as “Military Designated”. What criteria did they use to decide whether this shop was “Military Designated” or not?
A: If it is marked “Military Designated”, this shop definitely had very good facilities, well located and good transport network . . .all these being helpful to the Japanese soldiers.
Q: What is meant by good facilities?
A: Barber shops with good facilities, they were particular about everything. For example, the cloth they used was washed everyday. Some shops didn’t pay such careful attention; they used the same cloth for a few days. The cloth when used for several days, and when draped on customers, it would smell of pungent sweat. Also, face towels were very important. Cutting hair must be very hygienic. Those who were particular would use several face towels for a haircut, while others used one towel for tens of customers through the day. Those who were particular would use several face towels for a haircut, like myself, just for a haircut, I used approximately up to 6-7 face towels, clean ones . . .after using would be laundry very clean, will use hot steam, if dirty . . ..to kill the germs. The scissors after use must soak in chemical solution to sanitise . . .the same for shavers. So some things were different from other people. So that was how you were differentiated from others.
Q: At that time, how many “Military Designated” barber shops were there?
A: There were not many. There were some barber shops along Orchard Road which were opened by the Japanese. During the war, the Japanese returned to Japan and let out the barber shops to the Chinese, mainly the Hainanese. That type of shops, many were “Military Designated”, like my shop. There won’t many. Shops with higher standards became “Military Designated”, those without high standards were not.
Q: So those “Military Designated” barber shops, what benefits were given to them?
A: Hardly any benefits. We worked to earn their money. The locals were fearful when they saw the Japanese in the shop; they didn’t dare to enter the shop. The Japanese were very polite when they come to the shop, and we in turn were polite too . . .actually we were frightened of the Japanese. When the Japanese saw that a shop was “Military Designated”, they felt going to this shop was safer, more hygienic, a sense of security.
Q: What was the price for their haircut? Was it the same price as what the other people paid?
A: It was the same. We Chinese were afraid to get into trouble by charging the Chinese lesser and charging them more, it would invite trouble, we were scared. So we collected the same price. But it was easier to work on the haircut for the Japanese . . ..they cut botak, botak, the haircut was bald head, very common to cut like that, it was easy to do.
Q: The price was the same as others? They didn’t pay lesser?
A: The same. But the Japanese treated barbers rather well, they didn’t make things difficult for us,
Q: When the Japanese called a barber shop “Military Designated”, what did they do to proof that this shop was indeed “Military Designated”?
A: Not much. They didn’t do anything special, such as a piece of paper to certify. They simply said you can use “Military Designated”. It was like that for my shop. I do not know if it was like that for the other shops.
Q: How was it done? Did your shop paste a piece of paper?
A: No, no, we wrote the 3 Chinese characters to say “Military Designated” on a small piece of wood, just like that. The Japanese . . .those yellow flag . . .yellow flag were very high ranking military officers . . .the red flag, the yellow flag were very highly ranked . . .if they didn’t tell you that and you on your own put up the wooden sign to say “Military Designated”, trouble will come from that. They won’t be nice to you . . . .during that military governed period, if they wanted to arrest, beat or kill, it was very common.
Q: So during that time, who came to tell you that your shop was given “Military Designated” status?
A: Because, at that time, my shop happened to be very suitable for them. Those high ranking army officers saw it, and that was how my shop became “Military Designated” . . .”Your shop, I say can become “Military Designated”, you can write”. We didn’t know what position he held within the military.
Q: So you wrote on the piece of wood and hung it outside your shop?
A: Just placed it outside my shop, that was the case for my shop. How it was for the other shops, I don’t know.
Q: You had to change your shop’s signboard?
A: No, didn’t need to.
Q: And the signboard?
A: The same just add the 3 Chinese characters for “Military Designated”.
Q: Where was your shop at that time?
A: At Lavender Street, over at “Mang Kar Kar” down there.
Q: At that time, was your staff’s (to verify) salary the same as before the war?
A: At that time, staff salary was different, at that time it was because of the standard of living . . . .for example, if this item was very expensive, your salary had to be high too, it had always been like that . . .like the split earnings, at that time it was not in place . . .also the salary system seemed like it was not in place at that time . . . .at that time, the way it was split . . .but, it was unlike what the worker union had requested, that was equal share, make $1 in the business, you 50 cents, I 50 cents, it was how it was done.
Q: Who thought of the 50:50 split of the earnings?
A: It was forced by circumstances, to make a living. If you didn’t agree to do it, the workers would go to the other shops . . .if you didn’t want to do it like that, other shops would do it.
Q: Were the working hours the same?
A: It was a little shorter. Other people because of the war saw life as very precious; so people become a bit lazy when it came to work (laughter). Unlike the last time, people worked from very early till late at night.
Q: At that time, how much business could you do in a month?
A: The business was very good during that time. If need to say how much business, I can’t remember . . . . how much business I made then, but we could get by with the business at that time . . . during the Japanese occupation, prices of goods were high, but we could still get by. I couldn’t remember how much. During that period, it was not easy for a family to have a stable, peaceful life. But that time for barbers, we could make a living.
Q: So for “Military Designated” barber shops, when you bought things, what benefits did the Japanese give you?
A: If we needed something and made our request to them, they would help. For example, most importantly for barbers, the cloth we used . . .for the Japanese, they didn’t use hair cream, they cut “botak”, they didn’t use hair cream. Only cloth, they would give you.
Disc 9 My Escape from the Concentration Camp
Q: Mr Liaw, these so called "military appointed" barber shops, did the Japanese offer you any preferential terms during operations?
A: If we had any supply issues we could request for it the under military's name. The Japanese would accept these requests. However, there were not many items that a barber shop would need. The most required items were cloth and face towels and even these requests were infrequent. We did not request for these items. However we knew that there was an occasion when the Japanese gave the Barbers Association some cloth for use in the barber shops. This was a special treatment.
Q: Were other barber shops treated in the same way? Did they receive such treatment?
A: For the other barber shops, our association would act as their representative, if the other barbers had any request, we would assist them. But our association did not ask from the Japanese. We automatically gave out some cloth and other items to the barbers within the association.
Q: Other than cloth did the "military appointed" barber shops ask for anything else, for example food, if you had ask for food, would you have received preferential treatment?
A: No there was no preferential treatment. But as "military appointed" barber shops they did not have to serve as diligent service corps. The "diligent service corps" was organised by the Japanese to mobilize the people living in Singapore to fulfill military related tasks or anything else the military required of them.
Q: How could you verify/show that you worked at a “military appointed" barber shop? So if you can prove that you work in a "military appointed" barber shop, you did not have to work as part of the "diligent service corps"?
A: After the Japanese arrived they organized a people's vigilante unit. The purpose of the unit was to classify the people living in Singapore by their background
Q: Who organised this unit?
A: The Japanese tasked the formation of the unit to the people living in Singapore
Q: So they were Chinese?
A: They came from all over; the unit was similar to a local authority and was made up of the people living there. If there were anti-Japanese elements or criminals one had to report them. If the Japanese had any request or wanted anything, the unit had to do it for them. Basically they were tools of the Japanese.
Q: Other than the "military appointed" barbers, how was the business of the other barbers?
A: During the occupation, times were very tough. The barber shops were not spared as well. But one thing about being a barber was that when one’s hair is long, one definitely needs to trim it, unless one does not have any money at all. Otherwise, due to our warm weather, long hair would become unbearable, as one would perspire. That is why the barbers could still earn enough as even the rich towkays were not spared from the difficulties of the time. But as a barber you could still get by.
Q: So I can deduce that the business for both the "military appointed" and non-military authorized barbers were about the same right?
A: "Military appointed" meant that you specialized in doing business for the Japanese. The Japanese felt more comfortable going to "military appointed" barber shops, they felt safer there. For the non-military authorized barber shops anyone in Singapore can go, everyone needed a barber of some sort anyway every month.
Q: Can I say that the life for "military appointed" barbers were slightly better than their non-military appointed peers?
A: When the Japanese military was stationed in Singapore business was very good as there were plenty of soldiers around. As the war drew on, soldiers were sent to Indonesia, India and Australia and there were fewer soldiers stationed in Singapore. When under civil rule, those previously "military appointed" barbers had already lost their previously regular patrons, as they feared going to the shops meant mingling with the Japanese. As these patrons had found new barber services elsewhere, they did not return for their regular haircuts. So in the beginning business was good but towards the end business was poor.
Q: So these "military appointed" barbers, were meant specifically to service the Japanese?
A: No, they were not restricted to purely Japanese customers. Anyone could come, Japanese or Chinese. But the Chinese were afraid of trouble; they were fearful for their lives whenever they encountered the Japanese. That is why they did not come. Therefore the shop was still open for anyone to come and patronize
Q: Can we say that you had more Japanese clients?
Q: What are your thoughts regarding the Japanese people?
A: The Japanese were ethnically very united, they were foremost a very patriotic group of people, very steadfast towards Japan. So whenever they went abroad and found others who were patriotic to their own homelands, they would forgive them.
They understood what it meant to be patriotic and if one was be a patriot, they would not attempt to cause them any trouble. If they did, it meant that they thought these were insincere. They especially disliked those who were afraid of Japanese and yet pretended to like them and those who were apathetic towards their home countries.
The Japanese respected those who were patriotic. They said that a citizen should be patriotic. Another point was how the Japanese were very loyal, like Muslims, the Japanese were also a very devoted group of people and would bow towards the direction of the Emperor in Tokyo every morning. Another point was that the Japanese did not tolerate those who opposed them. To them those who were patriotic should also have moral integrity and to these people they did not cause trouble. What they hated were people who were without moral integrity or who were not patriotic.
Q: Some people have said that during the war the Japanese committed atrocities, So what were their attitudes towards barbers and how did they treat the barbers that were providing services for them?
A: During the time of the military administration, you can say that the Japanese were rough. First if there was a cross junction and there were guards stationed there, you had to bow to them. If you did not, they had the authority to arrest you and give you a beating on the spot or they could put you away or even kill you. They had the authority to do so. They killed people across the different racial groups, some acts were lawful, others were not. I know because when I went to the detention camp.
When the Japanese came they changed the island's name from Singapore to Syonan-To. They then directed the overseas Chinese association to organise themselves. They wanted to make use of the overseas Chinese association to round up the Chinese, "The Overseas Chinese once supported the anti-Japanese movement, now you should understand that you have to atone for the damages caused to the Japanese army". They now had to compensate and show their appreciation for the labours of the Japanese forces. "The overseas Chinese association was to contribute 50,000,000 straits dollars". So the Overseas Chinese Association leaders had to persuade the general public to contribute towards this fund. Whatever the Japanese required of the association they had to do, the Japanese knew how to make use of people and organisations.
There were also some Japanese people that shared some common culture with us Chinese. They respected people with moral integrity. To those who were fearless and who were not afraid of death, they were willing to listen and were reasonable with them.
Just like when the Japanese first arrived, some of the Malay people thought that the Japanese were not against them and committed several acts of mischief. The Japanese were alerted, rounded six of them up and killed them. They had their heads displayed at prominent locations
Q: Where were these heads displayed?
A: Geylang Bridge, Orchard Road, Red light pier (Collyer Quay)… Anywhere that was prominent. After the six of them, everyone got very afraid. The Japanese did not like disorder. If you were law abiding, contributed to your community and did not cause trouble they would respect you, they would not apprehend you. This was especially true for the civil administration. However the military administration was not like this, they did not separate the victim from the trouble maker, so long as you were involved you were taken away. There you were subjected to waterboarding, beating or mass execution.
Q: During the time of the military occupation, were there also Javanese people who came to Singapore to work?
A: During that time there were not only Javanese, when the Japanese first came, there were a large number of Chinese, Taiwanese and South Koreans. During that time Taiwan, Korea and Manchuria were occupied and controlled by Japan. The Chinese labourers were brought here to work, initially there was work, when there was work there were fewer issues. Towards the end of the war, as the Japanese began losing, there was less work to do and the Japanese left them to fend for themselves. They were “tidak peduli” unconcerned about them.
Those from China were treated especially badly. Once I saw some people from Shantou (part of Teochew). . . the people in charge, even the Japanese Government officials were afraid of them. From this I meant Japanese officials used them as the detectives. They used all sorts of tactics: they could hit you, hang you, they were not afraid.
After some time, when the Japanese invaded Indonesia that was when the Javanese labourers started coming. But by that time there was little work left. When there was no work and if you fell sick it was bad. Also the Javanese were not as resourceful as the Chinese labourers who would take on any job to survive. When the Javanese ran out of work and were unable to look for work some were reduced to searching among the rubbish to look for food. Some even ate dead rats, they were so pitiful and many died on the streets.
Q: Where did these happen?
A: There were many at RoBanjiang (Rochor Road), those who were dead were left there, those who were not already dead were also left there. Some of the bodies were rotting, some had maggots and covered with flies. When people walked past, they would hold their breaths, it was very smelly.
Q: Who placed the sick there?
A: In those times the governing authority did not take care of you.
Q: The Japanese government?
A: The Japanese Government did not take care of you. Everyone at home also had a hard time, if you did not have family at that time it was even tougher. People who were brought there were left to die, the Javanese too. The Javanese were even more pitiful. My friend had a saying "I've seen many types of people before, but I have not seen anyone as unfortunate as the Javanese", what he meant by fortunate meant being able to find food. He said "If the Javanese were fortunate enough to find food, who would contemplate eating a dead rat?" He said that they did not have any societal standing "those with some standing, how could they eat dead rats?” Whenever he spoke about the Javanese, he always felt that they were very unfortunate.
Q: At RoBanjiang(Rochor Road) only? ....
A: Not only at RoBanjiang, there were also other places.
Q: These dead people were more Javanese or were there people of other ethnic groups?
A: They were from different races, mostly were Chinese. When the Japanese came diarrhea was widespread, because of the malnourishment. Once you had diarrhea within one or two days it would kill, the disease was also contagious
Q: So the people just left them at that place, correct?
Q: Who placed them there?
A: I don't know who left them there. The ones I knew were all neighbours, why would a stranger do this to someone else?
For instance if I were sent to the concentration camp -- if I was captured, and others were set free and I was not allowed out, if others were already released 2 to 3 days and I was still inside; I would be afraid and wonder why I was not yet free.
Q: Where was your concentration camp?
A: It was at Jalan Besar, at the Song Lim (Pine) Sawmill. At Jalan Besar there were two sides. All were congregated at the Song Lim Pine Sawmill.
Q: Was it near the Jalan Besar pig abattoir ?
A: That's right, the abattoir was over there, it was on the other side, further inside. After that I saw that it was restricted.
Sometime after, I was with a teenager from my neighbourhood (Lavender Street), who years later became a doctor and professor and was very senior in the medical profession. His name was Lee Yong Kiat (李阳吉). His father went out of the concentration camp earlier and was captured subsequently again by the Japanese but he (Yong Kiat) did not know. Both Yong Kiat and I were still being detained in the concentration camp. So I told him "Yong Kiat, we are both detained here. I know that there is a patient with diarrhea. The Japanese are very hygienic and pay particular attention to cleanliness and if they see someone covered in flies they would avoid them in order not to get the disease." He listened to me and agreed to carry the patient out with me. When the Japanese saw us carrying the sick man at the gate, he asked us to get out of the way quickly and that was how we escaped.
Q: How many days were you in the concentration camp?
A: Normally they would release us in 3 days. You had to bring your own food. Actually, we were there for almost a week. Those who were released in 3 days were typically women, children, the sick and the elderly. But going to the concentration camp was kind of strange, when we called upon by the Japanese to report to the concentration, we thought it was compulsory.
Actually one did not need to and could stay at home it would also be ok. Because I was staying in Lavender Street and for those who went to the concentration camp from Balestier Road, Hougang and Paya Lebar, they had to pass by my house. At the concentration camp, they told me that my house doors were opened by people. At that time I still had items at home and was especially uneasy. So I wrote in Chinese that my house door was opened and I wanted to return to close my door and then come back. I gave this piece of paper to the Japanese guard on duty and he agreed to let me go. When I returned home I found that there were many Indians, Malays and Chinese who did not report. The Indians and Malays did not need to turn up at all, but all Chinese had to turn themselves in. However some did not and nothing happened to them.
Q: When you returned home did you report back to the concentration camp?
A: I did, after I closed my doors I returned to the concentration camp.
Q: When the Japanese came, did you know that they were coming?
A: The onset of the Japanese forces took us by surprise. According to the news at that time we knew that the Japanese southern invasion was a certainty. On December 8, there was a bombing incident that was when we knew that the southern invasion had begun. When the Japanese forces began their southern invasion there were several Japanese people in Singapore, they were all rounded up and sent to a concentration camp.
The British had two battleships which were very big---almost like aircraft carriers. I don't remember what they were called. Initially we were told that they were very good, they told us that the ships were unsinkable, and that they were able to protect Malaya from invasion. But two days after being sent to the Kelantan coast the ships were sunk by the Japanese. It was then that we started to be afraid. In reality when the British and Japanese fought the forces were unequal in numbers, the British constantly retreated, as the Japanese advanced.
Q: During the invasion of Singapore, did the Japanese invasion force include Koreans and Taiwanese?
A: Those from China seldom interacted with the invasion forces. The invasion force consisted of Chinese, Koreans, Taiwanese and Japanese, but we rarely interacted with them. But the Chinese and Taiwanese soldiers in the Japanese army also spoke Japanese. They also did not admit that they were Taiwanese
When the Taiwanese went to Fuzhou, they were obviously Taiwanese, but said they were Japanese and they would identify themselves as Japanese. When they were in Fuzhou they did all sorts of bad things, really really bad things
Q: During the time of the Japanese Occupation what did the people of Singapore eat?
A: Times were really tough then. Actually, those who were prepared had some rice, some cooked the rice and made into rice cake. Some went to Kedah to buy red colour grains to eat. Some ate Tapioca. That is why everyone's legs were swollen and suffered from weak knees and also had diarrhea which could result in death.
Q: At that time, what kind of jobs were available?
A: During that time if you were Chinese and would be drafted into their - diligent service corps, some were asked to do farming. Some were sent to the army to help the Japanese army with military matters. Actually there was nothing much to do.
The Japanese sent them to raid homes for metal. Metal frames like those used in windows, the metals were all taken by the Japanese to be melted down and sent back to Japan.
Disc 10 How the Japanese selected the Chinese men for the “Sook Ching” Massacre
Q: Mr. Liaw, can you share with us about the time during the Japanese Occupation, how did the Japanese enter Singapore?
A: I knew that the Japanese had a very wild ambition, they wanted to capture China, then South East Asia. After they captured South East Asia, they wanted to capture Australia. On 12th August/8th December 1941 evening (to be verified), when they started bombing Singapore, they started to publicise that they were organising a “South East Asia Common Honour Region”. The Japanese army announced, “We are the liberators of South East Asia, do not let the white skinned people govern you. This place belongs to you, we are here to let you self govern and give you back your independence.” Therefore, some of the “dumb” locals were being influenced by the propaganda, believed the Japanese, and secretly sympathised with the Japanese and helped them.
So when the Japanese started the invasion of South East Asia, they first started at Siam. The people of Siam initially pitied the Japanese, thus allowing them easy access through the country. Siam, therefore was not invaded nor controlled by the Japanese. Once they passed through Siam and arrived in Malaya, the British constantly retreated as they weren’t actively fighting the Japanese. They would retreat even before seeing the Japanese army. Those troops that were actively fighting the Japanese were mainly the Indian troops and Gurkhas troops. The Allied troops were mainly used by the British. The British soldiers were, could be said to be cowardly as they were the first to run away. At the end, those that were fighting the Japanese were the Indian, Australian and the Gurkhas troops. You can say that the main troops from Britain had lost their spirit to fight and therefore the rest of the allied forces were not motivated to fight the war, even if they were to fight, they wouldn’t win. From Siam, all the way to Malaya, the British troops showed little resistance - a little here and there. Therefore, after 8th December the Japanese raided Singapore. At that time in Singapore, the British had two aircraft carriers [The Prince of Wales and The Repulse], the two battleships were supposedly very big and formidable and were located within Malaya. Thus, Malaya was considered very safe and well protected. Both warships went into sea near Kuantan, I think, and both were sunk [on December 10, 1941] and thus everyone lost hope and lost the will to fight.
At that time the people living in Singapore, were mostly immigrants. The Malays were mostly from Indonesia or Malaya, the Indians were from India and the Chinese were from China. They did not treat Singapore as their home. They were not patriotic to Singapore at that time. Everyone came to Singapore with the purpose of making a living, to work and earn money to send back home. No one felt a sense of belonging and attachment to Singapore.
Everyone saw that the foot-soldiers, military fighting tanks and pilots were afraid. As no one has experienced this before, when they saw or heard the aircraft coming, everyone was so afraid that no one dared to move. Even the sound of the planes flying overhead could cause fear.
However, there were not many planes that flew past that dropped bombs. There weren’t many big bombs. Big bombs I would say roughly about 500 pound. The bombs that were made during those days, compared to those that are being made now were less powerful. The bombs that landed in Singapore did not hit important landmarks. The army camps, military bases and sites of military importance were bombed. Civilian homes were not so much bombed. When the Japanese invaded Singapore, they mainly targeted Bukit Timah, which was the place where the British stored their petrol, oil and supplies. After that the Japanese bombed the Bukom Oil refinery. Many government officials and rich people were afraid after the bombing of Bukom and ran away. I had seen the Japanese during that time. The only and limited resistances to the Japanese were provided by a group of patriotic young men from China in the form of vigilante corp.
The Japanese army was not familiar with the ground. At the same time the British was preparing for the attack to come from the South with canons and pillboxes. However they were caught by surprise that the Japanese were attacking from the north. The locals who were guiding the Japanese army were mainly Malays. They were influenced by the Japanese propaganda that they were here to liberate the people from the British superiority, and oppressiveness, giving the people self rule and independence. Therefore some of the people believed in them and helped them to move around Singapore and also avoided the British defended locations.
My observations then were, at the time, the British army was already losing confidence, and vigour to resist the Japanese. The place where I stayed, there was a large group of British soldiers and people in the field. They were afraid of the sound of the Japanese bombing. The people were more afraid of the mortars (过山炮) than the air-crafts. We were able to hear the aircraft and flee to hide in the bomb shelter. But with the mortar bombs, we could not know where and when they fired them. The mortar bomb made the “Yi Yi Yi” sound. The place where I stay was also destroyed by this type of mortar.
Some got injured, some died by the mortar bombs. Houses were being destroyed, the area near where I stayed was also bombed. So, the scariest was the mortar. At that time citizens were lamenting that the British army was stupid, that they should have fought them in the suburb and outlying areas. Failing to fight and win in those areas, what was the point of fighting in the densely populated city of Singapore. It was futile to do so.
If you said that they were defending beyond Singapore's borders, example like in Malaya, then with the mountainous terrain they could fight them better than in Singapore. But the Japanese was confident to conquer Singapore and therefore did not damage the water facilities in Singapore. As for oil, they destroyed the facilities. Without oil, how could your planes fly? Without oil, how could your ship move? At that time when the people wanted to escape, they could only use small boats to enter Indonesia. Some escaped to nearby countries, especially those who had money, and very important people and British troops’ families left very early on. The British chose to leave only the commander in chief- General Percival. Once the Japanese conquered Singapore, the British army chose to surrender.
At that time the Japanese troop were very arrogant/rough. They said “If you want to surrender, you must surrender without any conditions. If you want to have conditions then we do not accept.” At that time the British had no option but to bring a white flag to Ford Factory at Bukit Timah to surrender without any conditions.
First to enter was the Japanese soldiers, then the cannons and other military equipments. The Japanese army’s equipments were mostly equipments that the British army left behind. The Japanese took those items to attack and they wore dirty and torn clothes. In a war, the most important thing was metal helmet. The Japanese soldiers rarely used helmet. The Japanese mainly used cap made with cloth. They used cap with a few pieces of cloth sewed at the back. I guess they used the cloth to chase away mosquitoes and houseflies when operating in the jungle.
The Japanese soldiers were dirty and dressed like beggars. Previously in China, I had seen bandits. Bandits in China dressed better and were not that cruel as compared to the Japanese. The Japanese firstly captured those famous Chinese men; businessmen, also leaders of associations. Some escaped; examples like Tan Kah Kee. Some did not manage to escape and were caught. First to get caught was Chairman of the Associations or those that were in-charge.
Once captured, they used different ways to frighten them. The Japanese forced Lim Boon Keng to form the Overseas Chinese Association to demand the Chinese citizens to raise funds for the Japanese as a thank you gift for being liberated, requesting for 50 million $ in cash. At that point in time, the rich in Singapore and those from other state government in comparison was small in numbers. $50 million in Singapore was considered a hefty burden. To share the burden, every community and community organisations, every rich person contributed to the $50 million that was going to be given to the Japanese.
The Japanese instilled fear by saying “You Chinese kept resisting/fighting us, we liberated you. You did not even thank us and still want to rebel! Even a single strain of your hair is also ours. Your life is in our hands. What else could you ask from us?” This is the true; I am not tarnishing the Japanese reputations. The first thing the Japanese did was to change Singapore name to Syonan-to Island (昭南岛). The local newspaper was stopped and changed to Japanese Daily newspaper (昭南日报). In the Japanese newspaper office, they took over everything, including all the items previously brought in from China. The Japanese was very upfront and declared “Your lives are in my hands, whatever that belongs to you also belongs to me.” So, do not think of not helping or resisting the Japanese. They would first capture, then beat up or kill. It was a common thing; everyone was afraid and feared the Japanese. Everyone had no choice but obey. They wanted the people to form The Overseas Chinese Association to raise funds of $50 million. All associations had to make sure their member did not oppose the Japanese. When the Japanese called for them, they had to obey.
There was a time when the Japanese detained a group of community leaders and made them afraid for a few days before releasing them. Not long after the Japanese came in to Singapore, a people checking exercise was organised (天检证) for a few districts like South Bridge Road (大坡) and North Bridge Road (小坡). The Japanese called out male, female, children to report, but did not require the Indians and Malays to come. They told them to prepare 3 days worth of food, so I went to prepare 3 days worth of food and some items that I would need to use.
Actually, where I reported to was the concentration camp at Jalan Besar near the Song Lim Timber Factory. At that time there were a lot of people of different religions like Catholic and Christians who were not asked to report initially. After 1 - 2 days, they were also asked to report. Those that went into concentration camp did not have place to rest. They would use the empty room/house to stay/rest. Water was available but nothing else. All we had was what we packed and it was miserable and inconvenient. Those that entered early had their own area, those that entered late only had corridor space to rest. Those that were even later did not even have corridors to stay, only empty spots on the floor. If it was raining, they would be drenched; if it was sunny they would be “burned”. Still had to eat, but there was no place to buy food, if one did not prepare enough you would not have food.
Like when I went, I brought a lot of biscuits, rice and personal items. That point in time, I used cassava to make some paste and made into blocks. I had a substantial amount of food, so when I went in and saw people that I recognised that did not have food to eat, I shared my food with them. There were the three sisters (梁赛珠) that I previously worked with in the China Funds Raising Organisation. They were famous and also worked as hostesses. They could perform Peking Opera and also Shanghainese drama. They had a bubbly and vivacious personality.
When they saw me, I helped to find a place for them to stay and also gave them biscuits to eat. No water, I went to take for them. They said “Wa! Thank you very much Mr Liew. If I am able to get out I will repay you.” The 3 sisters, at that time in Singapore were the most famous dancers/hostesses. The 3 sisters were actually very warm hearted and were very patriotic in raising funds.
So when the Japanese had not entered Singapore, I worked with them closely in funds raising activities as comrades and knew them well. When Japanese invaded Singapore, under the Japanese Military Administration, I could say that people were terrified to see the Japanese. At every junction there would be Japanese soldiers to keep watch and people would have to bow to the Japanese soldiers. When you bow, you have to be straight. Your head needs to be looking down like 70 degrees. If you did not do that, they would beat you up on the spot. Beat on the spot was still okay, those unlucky ones would be killed with the guns.
When we were asked to report to the concentration camp, at the beginning we did not know that the Japanese would kill us. They would first ask the ladies and children to go back. When the ladies and children went back, they would release the Chinese men. Chinese men who wore spectacles, looking gentlemanly were asked to board the military trucks. When they see young and fit young man, they would regard them as potential rebels wanting to test their strength; they would also tell them to board the trucks. Also those with tattoos on their hands, the Japanese would consider them as bad guys and would also ask them to board the trucks.
Those that boarded the trucks, many did not know what they did to be called. In the end, those people were destined to be killed. The place that they were brought to for killing, most of it was at Bedok beach. At that point in time, I was at concentration camp, I saw many people being released. I was not released. But my neighbour, whose father was an English school principal, had gone back already. Actually he was targeted, but the children did not know yet. I did not feel right because we had stayed for more than 3 days. They only told us 3 days but we had been there for almost a week and we were still not released.
I then saw a sick man. There was this person named Lee Yong Kiat (李阳吉) who stayed at the back of my place also. At that time, he was still a young boy and had not finished studying secondary school. I spoke to Lee “Lee, there is a sick man over there, let’s go and carry him outside. As the Japanese are very hygienic and health conscious and when the Japanese soldiers see the sick man are covered with a lot of flies, they will surely release us.” Lee heard what I said, and replied “Okay, we carry him out” and at the door the Japanese soldiers saw us and chased us out. That’s how we escaped. Lee Yong Kiat (李阳吉) has graduated to become a doctor in Singapore. He was once a hospital Superintendent and he was Singapore’s first and second Presidents’ medical consultant. Now he is the Superintendent of Thomson Road Hospital. He is very polite; if he saw me he would be very happy. He would ask me how is situation and is everything alright. He and his brothers all received higher education.
From the start when the Japanese made their way to Singapore, they collected bicycles for use and when they entered Singapore, they did not use any military van, they were all on bicycle. Those bicycles were taken from the people along the way. They regarded everything as belonging to them including watches. Japanese soldiers wanted everything because they had no money, very poor; worse than bandits. When they saw cars, those high class official cars — those with Yellow Flag, Red Flag, Blue Flag---they were confiscated cars. Where did all the cars come from? All they took from those rich civilians. Those times, cars were not driven out because the owners were scared plus there was no petrol.
The Japanese actually were well connected. There were spies or special agents everywhere. Who were the rich people in Singapore? Who were anti-Japanese? Who were the most active? Who were involved in the China fund raising activities? They knew the local situation very well. The Japanese loved their country very much. But before the Japanese came, at the Naval Base, there was a Japanese spy that was captured by the British. After being caught, before he was charged in the court, he swallowed medication to commit suicide and died in the courtroom. For what reason? Just because they love their country and is loyal to her. So before the judge could do anything, he was afraid that we would know the secrets and his mission. They loved their country so much and were loyal to their Emperor. They treated their Emperor as their god, they say that the emperor is a descendants of gods, so when they met Chinese who loved their county, they would respect them. If you were an opportunist, they would not treat you kindly. They consider if a citizen does not love his country, having citizenship is useless. When being able to use, use the citizens. When one is considered useless, even if they use you, to them there is no benefit as you are just a opportunist. Japanese hates opportunists — those that pretend to love the country. When the Japanese reached Singapore, along the way....
Disc 11 Concentration Camp at Lavender Street/Balestier Road
A: Initially, Singapore was managed by the Japanese military administration. The people suffered hardship under the military administration as the military was very powerful. Subsequently, when the battle progressed, Japanese army was required to be sent to Indonesia, India and Australia etc. Then Singapore was changed to civil administration.
In comparison to the military administration, the civil administration was much better as they tried to win the hearts of the people. They tried to meet the people’s needs. From the Japanese point of view, as long as you are not anti-Japanese, and willing to be used and benefit them, they will have no issue.
During the military administration period, there was a group of Malays who were not well educated and ignorantly thought that they could depend on the Japanese and started to create trouble. The Japanese, in order to preserve the stability of the society, took swift action and beheaded a few of these trouble makers. The beheaded skulls were hung at prominent places which really frightened those ignorant trouble-making Malays and stopped them from creating more troubles. They really did not know how ambitious the Japanese were.
Under the civil administration, the situation was better. The civil administration distributed provisions like oil, meal, fruits and vegetables to the people. A group of Chinese unscrupulous traders sold the better quality products in the black market for their own benefits and distributed only the bad things to the people.
The people had to queue for a long time just to be able to buy a small amount of low/bad quality products. It was the Japanese’s original plan to provide and without the unscrupulous traders’ interference, the people could have been well taken care of by the Japanese civil administration.
The Japanese issued currencies like: “banana paper, Japanese currencies and military notes.” Symbol printed on the currencies was not the image of the Japanese emperor but BANANA.
The British currencies we used previously had the image of “le kai jia??” Both the British and Japanese currencies were denominated as one dollar.
When the Japanese used the “Banana currencies” to pay for their purchase and if the seller refused to accept, then the seller would be in big trouble. The seller would be arrested, tortured using “Water cure---force feed of water,” and beaten up. For the ordinary people, we had no choice but to accept such currencies. Upon Japanese surrender, those currencies were worthless. Those “Banana currencies” provided no value protection.
As it was the Japanese intention to conquer the world jointly with Germany and Italy, they were very ambitious. They wanted to own and control the world’s treasure. Their attack of Australia was impeded and followed by the death of Admiral Yamamoto due to the sinking of their aircraft carrier by the allied forces, only then was the Japanese seriously impacted.
Chinese staying in the areas under the Japanese administration were only allowed to report news controlled and distributed by the military. What we could read in the Japanese Zhao Nan Daily were only news aboutthe Japanese army successes and progresses etc. They also reported the good things they did in liberalising India from the “WHITE etc. “ Therefore India was also reporting the same thing.
The first thing the Japanese did was to adjust the Singapore clock to be the same as Japan by advancing Singapore time by 1.5 hour (e.g Singapore time 6 pm changed to 7.30pm) to follow Japanese time.
The other change the Japanese made was to the road system. Major junctions with traffic lights were now changed to traffic circles. Traffic circles were constructed using oil drums.
As the bulk of the British army was made up of Indians, the Japanese were trying to make the Indians defect from the British by spreading the propaganda that they were “liberating the Indians and giving them independence and freedom.” Upon conquering Singapore, the Japanese built an “Indian Liberty Memorial” near Supreme Court/Padang next to the Peace Memorial.
That memorial was demolished by the British government upon the return of the Allied Forces in Singapore after the war.
The Japanese also took down the Sir Stamford Raffles statue in front of the Victoria Memorial Concert Hall and wanted to replace it with the statue of the Japanese ruler Xia Feng Wen (下奉文). In addition, they had also constructed two concrete pagodas next to the Supreme Court Building.
The first things the Japanese did to control Singapore included: renaming Singapore as Zhao Nan Island, publishing Zhao Nan Daily, adjusting the time to be same as Japan, issuing of “Banana currency” and issuing of the movement pass. The movement pass must be obtained from the Japanese administration to facilitate traveling to Malaya (Jiu Hu). Without the pass, one would not be able the pass through the immigration. The “Movement Pass” is like today’s passport.
One can say that under the Japanese administration, there was not much business. The big business operators were afraid to conduct business as usual. For those with guts, they would rent sampans or bumboats etc to go to islands nearby to purchase local produce and bring back to Singapore for sale.
Some people became rich; some people established a relationship with the Japanese to obtain “Special Movement Passes”. With that they could go to Thailand and Indonesia to buy things for sale in Singapore. As most of the people were jobless, food was in shortage. The situation was made worse by some unscrupulous traders who diverted better quality food from the Japanese’s allocation for their own benefit. The people, after queuing for a long time, were only allocated a small quantity of food. They had no choice but to eat tapioca (木薯) which resulted in many of them suffering from swollen leg or weak knees and found difficulty in walking.
At that time, diarrhea was a common illness as most people were ignorant. Medicines were selfishly kept by the Japanese for their own use and the people were left to die. It was common to find, in just a few days, people suffering from diarrhea have died. The first thing the Japanese did, when they captured Singapore, was to build a war memorial at Bukit Timah in remembrance of their Japanese soldiers who sacrificed their lives during the war. When the British army returned to Singapore, this was demolished. This is what I can recall about those times under the Japanese occupation.
Q: You spoke earlier about the Japanese bombing an oil/petroleum depot in the Bukit Timah area. Do you know the exact location of the bombed depot?
A: It was located near the Causeway and on top of a hill. I believe it is still there and the location leads to the military port nearby. One can actually see it from the main road.
Q: Near where?
A: It is very near the Causeway to Johor.
Q: You mentioned about an anti-Japanese garrison formed by a group of Chinese in Bukit Timah. Do you know how they conducted the anti-Japanese operations?
A: As we were Overseas Chinese then, we were loyal to China. But now we treat Singapore as our home- land and country. Being Overseas Chinese, we came here to work and make money. We were fully aware of the Japanese invasion of China. We also heard about the barbaric behaviour of the Japanese when they took our land, killed our fellow citizens. When they reached Nanjing, many people in Nanjing were brutally killed by the Japanese (＊in history it was recorded as The Massacre and Rape of Nanjing---南京大屠杀). We hated the Japanese due to their inhumane behaviour in China.
There was a group of young Overseas patriotic Chinese who wanted to organise a volunteer group to fight against the Japanese. As the British army could not contend with the Japanese, the British was pleased to get the support of this group of patriotic Chinese. The British army supplied the weapons to these Chinese volunteers anti-Japanese corp.
Q: How did they fight against the Japanese? How many casualties or dead? Do you know?
A: I was not sure about where they operate and also the numbers of dead/casualties. The resistance was not very long. I must say they only managed to delay the advance of the Japanese army by a few hours. The volunteer corp was not military trained and fought purely for love of their people. However, they did capitalise on their familiarity with the local terrain and made use of high ground and remote areas to ambush and fight against the Japanese. There was no way to fight the Japanese head on.
Even with proper military training and well equipped weapons, the British army could not stop the Japanese. The so called trained soldiers of the British Army ran away when they encountered the Japanese soldiers. The volunteer corps fought with passion based on their love for the country. I respect their spirit and patriotism. Honestly speaking, it was a futile effort resulting in sacrifices of many young Overseas Chinese.
Q: You said the Japanese was assisted by some Malay as local guides when they entered Singapore. How did you know that?
A: That was public knowledge. The Japanese treated the Malays well and the Japanese propaganda was very good.
The Malays had a very good impression of the Japanese and were happy to welcome the Japanese into Singapore.
Q: Did you actually see the Malays bringing the Japanese to some places?
A: I did not see it myself. Majority of the people know about this, especially from my peer group. It was public knowledge.
Q: Regarding Overseas Chinese Association, how did all of you know that the Japanese wanted to establish such an association?
A: When the association was established, it was reported in the newspaper. We did not get the news from a special source.
Q: You also mentioned about the Jalan Besar concentration camp. Can you remember how were you and your neighbours informed about the need to report to the concentration camp?
A: The Japanese spoke only the Japanese language. There were interpreters. They did not inform family by family. They informed the people on the street and they in turn informed the rest of the people.
Q: Did they inform everyone the reason and why the need for reporting to the concentration camp?
A: They did not tell us. At that point in time, the instructions from the Japanese were treated like the orders from the emperor in China. Any disobedience would result in trouble. Therefore, we all obeyed them.
People were very frightened and were anxious to keep out of trouble. If we did not obey the instructions, there could be unexpected trouble. Therefore, we obeyed immediately, though reluctantly. If we had known the Japanese were asking us to report to the concentration camp to arrest us, we would have hidden at home. Hiding at home with the doors closed would have been alright. I reported to the concentration camp early and also had closed and locked the doors of my house properly.
Some people who reported later told me that they saw my house doors were open and we’re not sure if my house was looted. After hearing that, I was worried and wrote a note in Chinese for a Japanese lady to pass to the Japanese soldier guarding outside. In my note I said my house doors were forced open and I would like to go home to close and lock the doors. After reading my note, the guard was happy to let me out. On my way home, I saw many Indians and Malays and some Chinese who had stayed at home and did not report to the concentration camp. They experienced no trouble. In the streets, the Malays and the Indians were walking freely.
At the same time, I also heard lots of dogs barking in a very strange manner. Later I realised that, as the people were not at home the dogs were not fed which resulted in the dogs barking like hungry wolves which also sounded like crying babies.
Q: Do you remember the date you reported to the concentration camp?
A: The Japanese came on the 15th day of the first lunar calendar month. I think I reported not long after, maybe after 20th? I have forgotten the exact date. I reported to the xiao bo (小坡) district concentration camp at Lavender Street/Balestier Road, in the Song Lin woodwork factory, (松林枋廊) also called by the Chinese, as “The abattoir”.
Q: You said initially, the Malays were very bad? In what ways were they bad?
A: At that time, not all the Malays were bad. Only some of them who were illiterate were like that. Not long before the arrival of the Japanese, the British army was already preparing to withdraw. Warehouses and shops at Collyer Quay along Shang Ku Lane (上库巷)---a name given to Change Alley, were completely looted. This was done during the period of uncertainty and chaos.
After the arrival of the Japanese, some of the illiterate Malays felt that the Japanese treated them better as they did not have to go to the concentration camp when all the Chinese had to do so. The Malays were free to move about. Therefore they might have done more “bad things?” As to the extent, I was not sure. As far as I knew, six Malays were beheaded by the Japanese with their skulls hung at various locations. However, the Japanese did not openly execute or behead the Chinese. The Chinese were normally arrested after identification checking and many were killed secretly.
Q: Regarding the distribution of food to the people during the Japanese occupation, you mentioned about the unscrupulous merchant diverting better quality food stuff for their own benefit. Do you know how they did it and how did they make money by doing that?
A: My understanding was most businessmen will do anything to make a profit and become rich. Most of those who made it rich, at that time, were using unethical or unscrupulous methods to make money. They diverted the better quality food for sale in the black-market. This was a common discovery.
During the Japanese occupation, from the food items allocated by the Japanese, one could make more money by selling them in the black-market with a higher percentage of profit. Many workers were employed to facilitate this purpose. Many of the people responsible for food distribution would engage in such black-market activities. Food items that were received at the front door of their shops would immediately have been taken out by the back door to the black market for sale.
Q: You mentioned about food items that were unloaded at the front of the shop, were they authorised by the Japanese to handle the distribution?
A: The merchants collected the food items from the Japanese warehouses.
Only those with the special pass were allowed to collect the food items. The Japanese allocation was made based on the numbers of people at each location. Everyone is allocated with his daily ration of oil, food items on a monthly basis. If the people were given properly according to the specified ration amount, life would not have been so tough or difficult.
Disc 12 “Good Citizen Pass” and “Movement Pass”
Q: You indicated the Japanese allowed the trader to take items from the warehouse to sell is it true that the items were then stored in their shops for distribution to others?
Q: After registration with the traders, they will give the items to them?
A: This applied to every district in Singapore and not just my district.
Q: You meant not all the items were distributed. Some items were kept to be sold in the black market?
A: Yes. Most items, especially those not so good ones, were distributed. The better ones were kept to be sold in the black market.
Q: Regarding the “Good citizen pass---民证,” how did you manage to get it?
A: The pass was required when one wanted to move around. The pass could be applied at the Central Police Station-- Number 1 Police Station (Matachu--Police Station in Hokkien).
Q: Where was the number 1 Matachu?
A: It was located at the present Hock Ann/Guang Ann shop's location along South Bridge Road. It is now dismantled.
I did not have a “Good Citizen Pass.” I only had a “Movement Pass.”
“Good Citizen Passes” were controlled and issued by a man named Yuki who was Head of Japanese Spy. He arrived after the change from military administration to civil administration. He was a powerful man.
However, I obtained my “Good Citizen Pass---GCP” from the Christian Organisation and this is more useful than the “Movement Pass”.
I used the GCP to go to Kedah to buy rice and it was only then I realised the usefulness of the GCP. I did not know how precious the GCP, issued by Yuki was. As far as I knew, not many GCP were issued. Most of the GCPs were given to pastors as the Japanese Government’s way to provide peace of mind to the people. Christian organisations were allowed to hold services as usual.
The Pastors will give passes to those who have the need to use the GCP. My GCP was obtained from the pastor.
Q: At that time, most people only had the “Movement Pass?”
A: Yes, if one wanted to go away, one would need the “Movement Pass”.
Q: Why didn’t you obtain a “Movement Pass?”
A: I did not as there was no need for me to go away. I went to Kedah specifically to buy food. As I had a family of 40 people, I was worried that we had not enough of rice---carbo.
At that time, we were eating a type of red yeast rice called “TAI--Hockchew name” which is commonly used for brewing wine. It is very nutritious and just like oats.
Q: Why did you go all the way to Kedah to buy?
A: I had a friend in Yong Peng who was a barber initially. We were good friends. There were many Fuzhounese in Yong Peng and I had been there previously.
At that time, my friend’s family knew that if my good friend returned to Yong Peng, he would be in danger. They asked me to go to Kedah to inform him. If we informed him by writing a letter or making a phone call, we were worried the Japanese would find out.
Japanese were sensitive and concerned about information flow between cities and countries. They controlled the use of radio etc. The people can only receive the local news. Some of the people were quite daring to use the radio at home to listen to international news. If the Japanese found that, it would be considered a major offence. Those caught were normally tortured (force feed with water) beaten up or executed.
As some of the news from overseas was detrimental to Japan, e.g. the death of General Shanben 56 in Australia, it was not reported in the newspaper. Japanese lost in any battle were never reported as loss, but as in-progress.
During the war, domestic Japan was very short of resources. They confiscated iron and steel items in Singapore and shipped them back to Japan to manufacture weapons.
Q: Other than food, did you hear about Japanese asking for gold to be given to them?
A: I was not aware of that. I am not sure about other cities or places, in Singapore; the Japanese soldiers took away bicycles and watches. Their commander wanted diamonds, gold and currency notes.
Q: What type of currency notes?
A: The British currency notes. They took them to use it somewhere else.
I heard in Singapore, lots of gold, diamonds and other jewellery were taken by the Japanese. It is said, these precious items were not shipped out of Singapore but hidden somewhere in Singapore. There were others saying that items were shipped out but the ships were destroyed by the allied forces submarines and did not reach Japan.
The Japanese was worst than the robbers in China. Though the robbers in China Fujian also wore military uniforms, they did not rob the villagers by force. They normally demand the village head provide food, water and daily use items. The robbers, however, did rob the rich and cunning merchants. They were different from the Japanese.
Q: During the Japanese civil administration period, did you hear about Japanese encouragement for Chinese Singaporean to go the Malaya to engage in farming activities? To Senai?
A: I did. During the civil administration period, the Japanese realised that Singapore was not secured. They expected the Allied forces’ counter attack. Also if the people did not have enough food to eat, there would be revolt as well.
Therefore, they encouraged the Catholic as well as the Presbyterian to help move the people to Malaya. The Presbyterian went to Senai, Johore and Makou. It was not limited to Christian, all religions were included. As I was also attending a church then, therefore I knew many pastors. Some of them suggested in view of the size of my family and for security reason, we should move to Makao. At that time, I had complete faith in my God and I believed I was already in God’s refuge and there was no need for me to run to another safe place. Some of the Pastors after hearing what I said commented my faith was so strong and I was filled with confidence.
My pastor initially was planning to run to Makao--Senai. After hearing from me about my faith and confidence in our God, he was so moved that he decided to stay back in Singapore. The pastor also said, “Whatever happens in the future, I will follow the wishes of our God. Even if the bomb lands on me and I die, I will go to heaven and I will be happy.”
Frankly, I was able to go through those hard times as I depended completely on my faith and confidence and also did my best in my job to earn money to upkeep my family.
As a barber, it was not too tough even during the Japanese occupation period. As it is a trade, a skilled job, as long as there were customers there were earnings. Therefore, we were not the only barbershop. Others in the same trade did not suffer much too.
Q: Regarding religion, what was the Japanese attitude towards religion? I heard Japanese did not like Christian and had sent spy to church services to find out what were said etc. How were the church services you attended then?
A: As far as I knew, after the Japanese occupation, church services continue as usual. Having spies attending the church services was expected. They wanted to know whether there were anti-Japanese elements and dissent etc.
In general, everyone was careful and refrained from talking about Japanese politics to protect themselves.
I was different and spoke my mind. Some fellow church members were unhappy with me, as they were worried that I might get them into trouble. As far as I was concerned, I was speaking facts.
Q: Did the Japanese set up Japanese school?
A: Not only having Japanese school, the students had to learn from Japanese books.
Q: Do you know in the city, how was schooling like?
A: Local schools were open as usual. Japanese books were added into the curriculum. All races (Malay, Indian and Chinese) must learn Japanese in school.
Initially, the Japanese thought that they would occupy Singapore for a very long time.
Due to losses at the different battlefronts, the Japanese started to loose confidence. The most damaging event was the death of Japanese Marshal Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto - 山本五十六 (Commander-in-chief of the combined fleet of Japan) in Australia, which also weakened the Japanese navy substantially. That was followed by a weaker air force, and also subsequent German/Italian losses and also the strengthening of the Allied forces.
Regarding the early success of the Japanese army, I heard they were very courageous and extremely patriotic to the country and also the Emperor. They obeyed completely the emperor’s order, including the order to surrender.
Japanese army was the strongest while their navy lost their aircraft carriers one after another and became powerless.
Q: Regarding Japan losses at the battlefronts, as the news were not reported in the newspaper, how did you all learn about the progress?
A: We only knew part of it. We did read about the Japanese surrender from the newspaper. Prior to that, it was normal for the Japanese to report the progress of the battles advancing from one location to the next. Up to a certain stage when they did not report on their advances etc., we already started to deduce that the Japanese was in a losing situation.
Though outwardly we appeared to be afraid of the Japanese and were nice to them, deep in our heart we were hoping they would fail. We were very interested in the progress of the war/battle.
When we read in the Zhaonan Daily that the Japanese army was not advancing and was consolidating, we knew they were losing. The surrender was reported and announced in the Zhaonan Daily. At that point in time, the Japanese was still not aware of the destructive power of the nuclear bomb---Devil bomb. Subsequently, Zhaonan Daily reported the immense destructive power of the nuclear bomb.
Not long after, the Japanese emperor announced the surrender but by then, most all the people already knew it was going to be sometimes in August. The actual day of surrender was 15 August for the east. Strictly speaking, it was 14 August.
Q: As the people already knew about the impending surrender, what was the situation like in the city before the official surrender announcement?
A: We were all very happy. When the Japanese was winning the war, we were living in fear as we knew that if Japan conquered Asia, China would be one of the conquered countries and we being Chinese would be treated badly as migrant Chinese/overseas Chinese (华侨).
It is different now as my roots are in Singapore. Previously, I was only a migrant Chinese; I was hoping China to be rich and powerful so that we will not be looked down by others. My heart and loyalty was with China.
Even for people who were born in Singapore, we were all very happy. When we see others, we could openly say that we were not a country that lost a war.
For my own shop, I even put up a banner to celebrate the victory of China. At that time, the Japanese soldiers were still walking around with guns and swords. As my shop was on the main road, they walked pass my shop but did nothing.
When I organised a service to commemorate the peace event, my pastor did not turn up even with my invitation as the Japanese surrender was not formalised and the sovereign right was still in the hands of Japan. At that point in time, the Japanese dared not do much anyway. I knew my celebration, including the banner etc. was very elaborate and the Allied forces had also not officially accepted the Japanese surrender. Anyhow, many reporters came and took pictures of my shop and banner as my shop was the only one that did so. Reporters also commented I was very brave/bold.
From my own perspective, I was purely expressing my patriotism and loyalty to my motherland---China and celebrated for China still being intact as a country.
Q: How were the Japanese at that time?
A: I must say that during the military administration, the Japanese were barbaric and ruthless. They behaved just like the Chinese or oriental during the civil administration period.
The Japanese during the civil administration period also exhibited certain cultural qualities of Confucius etc.
Q: Before the surrender?
A: Even before the British garrison’s return to Singapore for the formal surrender ceremony, all the Japanese soldiers knew about their loss of the war and were just waiting for the surrender ceremony.
Q: Did any of the Japanese soldiers cry or commit suicide? Did you hear of any such incidences?
Disc 13 Anti-Japanese 136 Group and XinHua Relief Fund
Q: Mr Liaw, after the Japanese knew that Japan had surrendered, how did they feel about it? It was heard that some committed suicide, some cried or were there other reactions?
A: The patriotic Japanese felt ashamed when their commander instructed them to make the preparation for transfer to the British. They were very sad, yet obedient and did as they were told. Some committed suicide.
The Japanese in Singapore always celebrated their festive occasions, such as their King’s birthday. Also, every morning, the soldiers would bow facing Tokyo to pray. When any Japanese Minister visited Singapore, they would treat him with very great respect, as due to a representative of the King.
The local people, however, felt very anxious whenever a very important Japanese official arrived in Singapore. The house doors and windows would be tightly closed. Security was very strict at that time. The local people knew that there would be severe punishment for any infringement of order and peace. If there was any trouble in that district, the entire people in that district would suffer severe punishment. So everyone was very docile.
Q: You say that some Japanese committed suicide. Did you see it personally or heard it from others?
A: No, I did not see but that was what people said. The newspaper reported that with the Japanese, when an important person committed suicide by cutting himself across his stomach for his country, it was considered as a part of a religious ritual that garnered respect for his spirit.
Q: After Japan surrendered, who was in-charge of the public security? Was it under Japanese control?
A: The public security was still under Japanese control.
Q: Were any Chinese people involved in the public security?
A: The Chinese did not possess any weapons. They would have been glad to take part. The public security was lax then.
In the town area, there were some incidents. For example, some local people took revenge on those businessmen who took advantage of people during the Japanese occupation. These were the businessmen that kept the rationed commodities for themselves.
In general, local Singaporeans lived in harmony with each other. There was no problem among the different racial groups.
The Malays and Indians were kind-hearted and good.
Only after the Japanese conquered Singapore, the Japanese tried to pit one group against the other. They did not want the races to be united against them.
When the Japanese surrendered, there were some minor incidents. Not major. Some traitors were caught and publicly beaten.
Q: Were there any Chinese, Indian and Malay fighting each other?
A: Fighting was just a small part. No big Incident. The people didn’t fight each other. Some took revenge on the traitors. They normally did not fight each other.
Q: Did the Chinese organize any group or soldiers to help in the security?
A: Security was still maintained by the Japanese until the official surrender. Then the British maintained the security.
The new Chinese organization was for the country. They were for the country’s good. The Chinese organization was not engaged in fighting the other races. They didn’t make trouble.
Q: Mr Liaw, when did the Chinese war group, that was against the Japanese, come to Singapore? What was the situation like?
A: They came from Malaya and were welcome.
Q: Where was the place they were welcome?
A: Bukit Timah. The people who came took over the Japanese school in Middle Road. There was a Japanese Club at Kandang Kerbau and this Chinese anti-Japanese group set up their headquarters there.
Q: Where was their headquarters?
A: The Japanese when they came to Singapore formed a colony in Middle Road and their headquarters was there.
There was not many Japanese but their Club and school were very large. Most Japanese did their businesses there. Their ambition was to settle there permanently. They planned for long term.
Q: The anti-Japanese group that took over the headquarters, what were they doing there?
A: The group, when they came, was under the British.
What was the group name, I could not remember. But China had one of these names.
Q: Was it 136 Group?
A: Yes. Inside the 136 Group, there were many Chinese army officials from China. Most of them were Communists. Their main purpose was to infiltrate the Trade Unions. They were to negotiate with the employers and to change the employee’s benefits. Some were involved in politics.
There were two well known leaders---Chin Peng and Goh Chen Yun, Chin Peng was the leader like the Party Secretary and Goh was in a position similar to Zhou En Lai – diplomat type . . .
Mr Goh represented the Group and came out when there were big events to attend to. What he said people would listen to his command and got things done.
At that time, the Communist was powerful. The employers had to listen otherwise they would get the workers to go on strike.
Q: The anti-Japanese Group, after they came to Singapore, was there any rumour that they would kill the Malays?
A: I did not hear the rumour. Their most important objective was about the Union activities, to change the worker's benefits. If you say that they wanted to take revenge on any race,
I did not hear it. Nothing happened.
Q: The anti-Japanese Group that took over the Japanese headquarters, how long were they there and when did the Group ceases to function?
A: When the British officially accepted the Japanese surrender, the British Government started to reorganize to govern Singapore. The British Government took over the security. They back-pay the Civil Service employees their salary for the entire three and a half years of Japanese occupation. When the Civil Service employees were called back, they were given their former positions.
After the Japanese surrendered, life was very hard. The Japanese “Banana” money could not be used. No one had the British money. But the British were very kind and they helped to alleviate the situation.
Q: Mr Liaw, let’s go back to the Singapore before Japanese war time---Singapore in the 30s. The Japanese war started in China in 1931, with the September 18th invasion of China (918 Incident---九一八事件). After the Japanese invasion of China, some people in Singapore started to be against the Japanese. When the 1937 July 7th LuGou Bridge incident (七七卢沟桥事件)happened [also known as Marco Polo Bridge Incident], Singapore began to organize XinHua Relief Fund (星华籌赈会). Did you join this Fund?
A: Before I answer about the fund, could I go back into the background? Prior to the formation of the XinHua Relief Fund by Singapore, I was involved in the fund raising activities in Indonesia when I was there. The work was mainly done at night. At that point in time, Indonesia was still a colony of Holland. Japanese started to invade China more than 100 years ago and had been issuing their demands to China with treaties one after another.
The Japanese number 21 Treaty basically demanded China to be controlled by Japan, in other words treated as part of Japan. The Manchurian Government then was considering seriously accepting the demand. Fortunately, the students in China knew about the matter and objected violently which resulted in the non-acceptance of the number 21 treaty.
After that, the Japanese tried to create many incidences. The Japanese tried to use the excuse of “disappearance” of Japanese personnel as reasons to create troubles for the Chinese in China. In fact the so called “disappearance of Japanese” incidents were plotted by them with Japanese intentionally hiding away.
Prior to the 1918 incident in the North-East, there were the 53 incidents (五三惨案); the 3rd of May incidence. Even before the 1918 incident, Japanese continuously bullied China and the Overseas Chinese felt the pain and very much wanted to help China. We hoped China would be rich and powerful. Therefore we started to raise funds and contributed to the Chinese Government to provide them with money to fight against Japan. In name, we could not say we were helping the Chinese Government, we could only say to help the people in China. I did join such activities in Indonesia as the Overseas Chinese in Indonesia was more enthusiastic than the Chinese in Singapore.
As far as I knew, Chinese in Malaya then were equally patriotic. Whenever there were incidents in China, they would raise funds to contribute to China to help the people in China.
I did not join the fund when I returned to Singapore. However, I did contribute on a personal basis after I became my own boss as I was at liberty to do so. As a boss, I can choose to open or not to open for business and also do whatever I like. I donated to the Chinese Government my business day takings of any special day or festival day celebrated in China. This was because I was a citizen of China---my root and my country then. I was only an Overseas Chinese in Singapore and my wish was for China to be rich and powerful. When that happened, we would not have to be bullied and suffer working overseas. Then we could have a good life. When the XinHua Relief Fund was established, I did not join the main branch.
I joined the fund’s sub-branch. In Singapore, there were two sub-branches. The Cantonese sub-branch (Number 1 special district－第一特区) was led by Li Jun Cheng (李俊承) with a name Hai Tian You Yi Hui (海天游艺会) and operated at Xiao Bo (小坡)---North Bridge Road/Victoria Street area. Number 2 special district sub-branch was headed by Chen Hui Yun (陈惠云). The sub-branches had more work in raising funds while the XinHua Fund main HQ was only an office to group moneys collected by the sub-branches and remit to China. Everyone was a volunteer except Lin Ji Min (林吉民) who was the Secretary of the XinHua Relief Fund. I belonged to the Number 2 sub-branch and was the leader of a team---Number 1 team. My main duty was to raise funds and donations.
Selling flowers were our major source of income. We carried out such activities on various important days like 53, 918, 77 which were connected to the fighting against the Japanese invasion of China. Our main aim was to raise the awareness and patriotism to China among the Overseas Chinese and fund raising was secondary.
Q: Were both Numbers 1 and 2 sub-branch part of the Cantonese Group (广东帮)?
A: Majority of the members in Number 1 sub-branch (Hai Tian You Yi Hui) were Cantonese. Singapore in those days, people were organised by dialect group was very distinct. Shanghainese belonged to the San Jiang Group/Bang (三江帮). This group included the people from Shanghai to Beijing and to the North East of China.
Cantonese Group/Bang belongs to the people from Canton/Guang Dong province. Similarly, Hokkien Group/Bang was formed by the people from the Fujian (福建) province. Then all these Group/Bang were subdivided into sub-group or sub-division based on the county, village and surname etc. People in those days were very serious about such groupings. That was so as we came from different part of China and due to the different dialects we spoke which made communication difficult.
For example, within the Cantonese as well as the Hokkien Overseas Chinese, there were so many dialects spoken which made communication and doing things very difficult with each other. Therefore people from Fujian. . . . .
Q: Most of the people from Fujian stayed in the MaZu Gong (Telok Ayer) area and ZuJian Kou (China Street) area. Cantonese stayed in. . . where Cantonese group stayed together. The Hainanese stayed at HaiNan Hill (Thomson Road area) from Kampong Java Road to Whitley Road. Hainanese who stayed in the city would be staying in HaiNan Street (海南街).
Disc 14 I Organised a Fuxing Youth Corps
Q: Mr Liaw, the XinHua Relief Fund was split into many branches, so which branch did the first and second special district that you mentioned earlier belong to?
A: You can say that it was split within the XinHua Relief Fund. The work in these 2 areas was very important, as at that time, the ( ) theatre helped the Guangdong government by hosting many different events and raising money in that way. The second special district was also like that, with most of the people there selling flowers, while the rich people or those that were more enthusiastic paid more … without being forced, and they were very willing to talk about their patriotism. How much you take is how much you would get. Some places had big festivals, like on 15 July (during the 7th month) where an auction would be held and people would bid for things and the money would contribute towards normal things. Last time, the XinHua Relief Fund would also use the same method; if any place were to have a big event, they would put a basket of flowers there for auctioning, but it doesn’t mean that if you bid for it, you would definitely get it. For example, if someone bid 100 dollars for it, he did not automatically get the basket of flowers, and thus the flowers would still be up for auction. Then, someone else would bid 200 dollars for it, and this would continue to happen, but ultimately, the basket of flowers would remain at the auction hall. The amount of money earned from this, when counted, is a big sum. However, when it came to donating money to the XinHua Relief Fund, people were very happy and excited. Most of the people who went out to sell flowers were students, some were youths, and they didn’t do it every week, it was just that they were all very eager to do it.
Q: Can you tell us, being part of the second special district, what kind of people participated more in this area?
A: This second special district, this flower garden used to also be inside Tan Kah Kee’s (陈嘉庚) place…
Q: Sorry I was asking what kind of people participated in the activities in this area?
A: Oh, what kind of people participated? People like Liang Saizhu (梁赛珠), who was a pub dancer and a Shanghainese. She was from Sanjiang that area, but we called them Shanghainese. The owner of the flower garden used to work in Tan Kah Kee’s factory, but when his factory closed down he used that shipyard and converted it to an Asian factory.
Q: Can you say that this first and second special district belonged to the city district branch?
A: I can’t say that … last time, it was like everyone in the district would raise money that would be used emergencies. How much I donated mattered, and this was intended to let us Chinese know that China was being attacked by the Japanese, and we should love our country. However, the Chinese in Malaysia were able to raise much more money as they were richer.
Q: Then, apart from raising money, was there any organisation of the Xinhua Relief Fund that dealt with Chinese selling Japanese products?
A: These organisations were mostly secret, like me, and we worked as individuals. No one knew … what power you relied on, because you could do it by yourself. For example if you sold Japanese products, you didn’t love China, and if I spread tar on your building and made you feel guilty, it was better than letting everybody know that you were a traitor to China.
These organisations had many people, just that each person was his own organisation, and most people didn’t know about it. However, people didn’t know that I was doing this; they only knew I was a barber. And these things had to be done personally, because if you told someone to do it for you, then everyone would know. For example, you would have to carry it out in the dead of the night. You can say that many of us would take this secret to our graves.
I was not afraid, because any money I got went to China. Apart from taking what was needed for survival, the rest went to China. We were told that as Chinese, we should love China, and that the work we were doing was to be kept secret and not aired out. In truth I did a lot, just that no one knew.
Q: At that time what was your organisation called?
A: I organised a Fuxing Youth Corps. To think of it now however, everyone had a patriotic spirit. My organisation wanted to raise money and to work hard, and I only told them to be patriotic, not to spread tar on the buildings. Once you ask them to do it, then the news will spread and it’ll be harder to handle affairs.
Q: How many people were in this Youth Corp?
A: If we were to talk about number at that time, I was looking for people who could speak and who were enthusiastic and who could spread this message. Then, the biggest goal was to sell flowers and to ask them to be patriotic. Because they knew a lot of people, I would ask them … if they were able to, to call out their friends. If we had any big event to sell flowers, they would ask people to help to sell flowers. We did not do other things, just things to show we were patriotic. Our money should be going to help China, but the biggest goal was to spread this message.
Q: But you said that there were youth in the Youth Corp that went to spread tar on the buildings of people that sold Japanese products. How many people did this?
A: In my Youth Corp, there were only around 20+ people doing it. If you asked them to spread tar on buildings, everyone would want to do it. We only asked these young people to help sell flowers and spread messages about China. Calling out traitors must be done in private, and we were not proud to let people know that we were doing this. If people knew, they would also be scared and they would not feel safe.
Q: Roughly what time were these kinds of methods used against those that sold Japanese products? Was it after the XinHua Relief Fund was founded?
A: This happened before the XinHua Relief Fund was even founded. A lot of places had it, and it wasn’t a one-off thing. I wasn't the only one doing it; you can say that in my community, a lot of people were doing it. What organisations they were part of, we did not know, but all I knew is that I did it myself.
Q: Were you the ones that came up with using these methods to punish these people? Or did someone recommend it to you? For example Hau Say Huan (侯西反), how did he spread propaganda here?
A: Hau Say Huan was an important member in the XinHua Relief Fund. There was also Huang Yixuan (黄奕欢); they were Tan Kah Kee’s left and right hand man. There was also (name), but out of the other two, Hau Say Huan did things better. He was able to lead others, while Huan Yixuan was the brains behind how to spread the propaganda. It was good, because if there was any performance, Hau Say Huan was able to give a good performance. Later on, Hau Say Huan himself led an organisation in the XinHua Relief Fund to train cab drivers. This was part of the second special district, and it was a class of youths that wanted to learn to drive. In China, there were very few of these kinds of people, so after they taught the youths, they moved to the Yunnan area in Yangon. Most of them were trained by the XinHua Relief Fund, and provided services in that area. Later on, Hau Say Huan was in China and he died in China, while Huang Yixuan is still in Singapore now and is the general manager of the Asian Insurance Company.
Q: All the work that Hau Say Huan and your Youth Corp have done, are they related? Why would you think of spreading tar? Who taught you? Or is it that you guys thought of it yourself?
A: In the XinHua Relief Fund, there weren’t people that asked us to do this. This was entirely done by yourself if you were patriotic. The Fuxing Youth Corps was a name, but all we did was to instruct them to take part in things. Most sold flowers, and the organisers of the events didn't know they also did other stuff.
Q: It’s been said that it was Hau Say Huan that instructed people to spread tar on the buildings of people who sold Japanese products. Is this true or false?
A: He didn’t say that, though he may have hinted at it. If he were to have said it out loud, he may have made people angry. A lot of people would have wanted to spread tar on the buildings, because everyone was patriotic. There were even some people that beheaded other people, but the government then didn’t care how bad you were, as long as you didn’t do it in Singapore. So they were sent back to China.
Q: So, can you say that Hau Say Huan indirectly hinted to people to spread tar on the buildings?
A: Not really … if you wanted to say hinting to. Back then, there would always be mass gatherings. When there was any commemoration days in China, anywhere could host a festival, and at these places, people were allowed to say whatever they wanted to. The most eloquent speakers would go on stage, and they could say whatever they want. The main goal was to ask people to love China and fight against Japan. We should not use Japanese products; this could be said freely, and wasn't hinted at. When talking about how to deal with these people . . . he wasn't very secretive either. For example at an event, a person’s ear was cut off, but you couldn't say who did it, because if you did, it would stir up a lot of controversy.
Q: Mr Liaw, you mentioned earlier that a pub dancer participated in the work. Why did these people want to participate?
A: I think it was because … we all came from China, so we still believed that our homeland lay in China. So anyone who could think would think of China’s good points. So it didn’t matter what kind of person they were, anyone could participate. They participated to raise money, and those that were more capable would step up to lead. If we were to say about the XinHua Relief Fund raising money, Singaporeans actually raised the least money. Later on, the XinHua Relief Fund became the Nanqiao Relief Fund. Then, all the Chinese in the Southeast Asia donated money to the Nanqiao Relief Fund, which was based in Singapore. And everything was done very fairly. If you gave money to us, it would definitely go to China.
Q: What did those pub dancers who joined the Relief Fund do?
A: Not all the pub dancers participated. The main reason why they joined was because our headquarters were near the chairman of a girls gathering, and she was also from San Jiang, so they joined the Relief Fund.
Q: So then what did these girls do?
A: As I’ve said before, not all the girls participated, but (a lady)’s sisters … (long life story). So if people heard that someone who was a chairperson was in the Relief Fund, then she had the ability to ask pub dancers from her club to help out too and do work.
Q: Mr Liaw, can you now tell us what was Singapore’s appearance like in the past?
A: Sure I can. However, because I don’t read a lot of books, and I don't read a lot of research books, I will have to rely on my head knowledge. If I don’t say enough, please forgive me. I would say … that Singapore was split into two parts - big city and small city. Why it was split this way I don't remember. All I know is that the split started at the head of the suspension bridge. Now, it’s called South Bridge Road and North Bridge Road.
South Bridge Road was small city, while North Bridge Road was big city.
I’ll start by talking about small city. From memory, most of the governmental offices were located there. Beside the bridge, there was a nameless monument, which is still there today. Continuing on, there was the Victoria Concert Hall, and in front was the statue of Raffles. Next is the garden at Queen Elizabeth Walk, which used to be sea. Afterwards, they reclaimed it, and built this park to let families enjoy. Continuing on there was another monument, to the victims of World War 1. In front of the memorial was a big field, and at both sides of the field (Padang) there was a club. Then they were very advanced … and there were many different people attending the club. They had the power to use the big field to do exercises, and later on if the government had any big festival, it would be held there. In front of the big field was City Hall, and beside it was the Supreme Court.
Continuing across is St Andrews Cathedral … It was a big church with an English bishop.
Continuing across the bridge, there was 美芝 road. The bridge wasn't a long one, and was quite small. There is also another monument, to commemorate Singapore’s past. This one has a name, but I can't remember (Merlion). This monument was good, because water came from it and it looked very good. In the past, if anyone didn't have water, they would go there to take water. Now, they added another monument there called Lim Bo Seng memorial. There was a bridge there, and when you crossed it you would come to 美芝road, and not far from there was a Raffles Institution, which has now been demolished. Next, . . .
Disc 15 Raffles Hotel and St. Andrew’s Cathedral
Raffles Institution now demolished. In its place a large and very tall building is to be built. Previously Cathay cinema and hotel was the highest building - 5 storeys at that time.
Raffles Hotel – there is not much change since I first came to Singapore 50 years ago. Could see Caucasians couples (foreigners) dancing inside from the roadside (Beach Road). Opposite the hotel was an open space. Now it is Britannia club.
Further down the road was an open space now an army camp where Baba volunteers in the army. They help the government in the defense.
In front of the camp were rubber factories – a lot of agents. Lee Kong Chian office was there.
Further down two cinemas – One showing Chinese films and the other showing English films. Now both gone and were replaced by Shaw building.
Further down there were business shops. Next Iron Market (Clyde Terrace Market) not much houses around it – now gone. Beside it were a police station and a small custom house further down.
All houses low lying about 100 years old.
Hainan lived in Hainan Street. Javanese lived in Java Street. The business here deals mainly with Malaya business.
Shops were small with many side lanes but doing big business. They all deal in the same type of trades. All had business to do. Further down they were selling mainly all types of clothing business.
Also around the Iron market (Junction of Beach Road and Rochor Road) selling mainly crockery. Nearby opposite, there were masonry trades of all sorts. Further down was a school – now gone. It was a busy place at that time with these types of shops and businesses.
As a “Sinkek” I stayed in this area where there were only 20 shop houses with my elder brother who had a shop there. Behind there was a school by Hokkien clan association – can’t recall the name.
A shop Ho Hup dealing in goods from Malaya now shifted to Rochor Road. Goods from and to Malaya go through here.
Around Crawford Road there were mainly water houses and attap houses. Opposite is Tanjong Rhu and the middle of river was too deep for water houses.
Kallang Road mainly deals with timber business due to Geylang river. Timber logs float there. Fishing business also carried out here. Kallang Gaswork area was mainly occupied by collies (labourers). Some shops business of Tan Kah Kee was located here. A public lavatory was built in the middle road and was now gone.
At Ji Beh Lor (Victoria Street) end, Tram bus need to turn around here. The Tram attendant need to guide the Tram poles back to the overhead electric cable. This area was mainly occupied by Malay. Here was Malay business selling mainly songkok and eating places. The Mosque here was the biggest in the area. There were big restaurants where they held their functions here.
Further down the road there were a lot of Chinese goldsmith’s shops with lot of gold plated jewellery and were mainly patronised by Malay.
Further down the road were Indian business shops but I didn’t patronize them. They were quite well known too.
Further down there were dwellings for prostitutes. The houses were the highest there - three storey. Front of shops were eatery day and night. There is one shop still existing. Now that area became a shopping centre.
Further down the goldsmith shops were shops selling watches and bookshops. Chinese business goes mainly according to their dialect groups.
Further downtown, businesses here deal mainly with tourists who were well dressed and had money to spend.
There was a rumour that a prison was situated at St. Andrew’s Cathedral ground before it was moved to Tiong Bahru area. Hotels here were very low – 2 storey high – now all gone. Shops here - 2 storey high – residents used ladders which can go up or down.
Chinese Chamber of Commerce – a few shops 2 storey houses situated here.
Nearby was Telecom office along Victoria Street. A lot of furniture shops were there and the furniture makers were Foochow people. They were not good as businessmen as they were limited by their language proficiency.
At Fort Canning Hill, local people were not allowed to go up there as it was a restricted area.
At Pek Sua Pu (Bugis Street), during the Japanese occupation, there were many prostitutes living there.
Disc 16 Geylang Road and Paya Lebar Airport
A: Now about Bugis Street（白沙浮 ). This street was called “Rubbish Street”. A lot of bad things thrived here like Black society, pick-pockets and gangsters.
European tourists visited this place to see the transvestites and homosexuals.
Further down Bugis Street was a very popular Cantonese restaurant for dim-sum in a low building. That was comparable to the modern day restaurant.
There was also a very popular Chinese temple (老爷宮, 顺天宮) where temple items (joss sticks and offer papers) were purchased for praying. It was believed that whoever was successful in bidding the temple special item would make lots of money. Many people went to pray in this temple as most people were staying around the area.
At the Number 2 Road (Victoria Street), there were many fruit stalls. It was the center for the distribution of durians by truck loads from Malaya. It was very crowded during the durian season. There were coffin selling shops as well. For the people then (laughter), coffins shops were also important.
Next street was called the “ Back Road” (后马路) where many Fuzhounese stayed. It was an area for fruits distribution for fruits from Malaya.
The current Sim Lim Square was in the area called the “Back Road/Street.
Q: Mr Liaw, why was the street called “Back Road/ Street?”
A: I don't really know. For example, there was a street named 20 Units (二十间) because there were 20 shop-houses there!
“Back Road/ Street” had mainly low rise buildings of double storey.
After Java Street was Sungei Road (结霜桥－Ice Making Bridge). Here second-hand goods and old stocks were being sold. Old items including antiques, furnitures, clothing etc could be found here. I will tell you later about the Ice Making factory at Sungei Road.
Coming back to Number 2 Road, the shops there sold copper ware. At that time home lightings were carbine lamps. Copper containers were used to contain the calcium carbide (battery) and by regulating amount of water into it would provide gas for the lamp. The batteries had to be stored properly, otherwise it would catch fire. There were aluminum containers maker shops as well in that area. . . .
There was also a restaurant which sold tea and Dim Sum in the morning. It was mainly patronized by rickshaw/trishaw-pullers and coolies (manual laborers).
Behind, there was a Malay cemetery. Nearby the cemetery were shop-houses housing prostitutes. When it ceased to be a prostitute area, then people would rent the place to do business.
The tram car No 1 terminal was there and many prostitutes stayed there. There was also a small mosque and a best equipped Malay School. After the school, there was vacant land.
Further down, there was a street doing iron works and mechanical repair shops.
Further down, a Tan Kah Kee factory---a branch warehouse, was there. After crossing the bridge was the Kallang Gas Works. It was not at Geylang Road but Kallang Road, where unwanted scrap iron items were sold. The shops are still there.
Further up was Rochor Road. There was an Indian Temple. In a lane, there were many wooden huts/attap huts (roof made of dry coconut palm leaves) where coolies stayed.
Before Kallang Bridge was built, people had to use a sampan (a wooden canoe-like boat) to cross the river. The Bridge was built some 50 years ago and cars could be driven across to Happy World Amusement Park and to Geylang. Happy World Amusement Park was solely owned and built by George Lee (Lee Jun Rong), younger brother of Lee Kong Qian. Opposite Happy World was Lorong 3 of Geylang.
In Geylang was a small Chinese Temple near the bridge (芽笼吊桥头) which was visited especially by sailors, who felt that their prayers were answered. This temple had many celebrations for various festivals and also for the believers to show their thankfulness. Wayang shows were frequently seen here as well.
At Geylang Road, the odd number houses were on one side and even number houses on the other side of the road. Happy World was located on the even number side of the road.
At Lorong 3 of Geylang, there were many gangsters. We called them "Samseng." (Hooligans) It was a gangster area. There were many attap huts in Lorong 3 and as the area was low lying, there were prawn ponds. Next to the bridge there was a hut built on “water” and locally it was called “the new kampong.”
Lots of criminals were staying at Lorong 3, which was near the river. The houses built on water were not in a straight line but zigzagging here and there, which made it difficult to catch them. Criminals would hide here. That place was considered the HQ of the gangsters. For the residence in this area, one could easily be influenced by the gangster and became part of them. (Laughter)
This place had lots of fishermen and boats, which facilitated the criminals' escape. There was also a man-made fish pond for people to fish.
From Happy World Amusement Park one could go to the old Geylang (Kallang?) Airport. This Airport was very inconvenient because the roads on both sides had to be closed whenever the airplanes landed or took off. It was subsequently demolished and the place converted to Kallang Park running track, People Association Headquarters and Public Works Mechanical Department. At first the Government wanted to build a hospital. They did not build a hospital but a clinic there instead.
The Airport was eventually moved to Paya Lebar Airport at Paya Lebar Road.
On one side of the Kallang Bridge was Geylang Road and on the other side was Kallang Road.
Houses at Geylang Road were two storeys high with many families living in each of them. There were no high-rise buildings then.
Many people stayed together in a house with only one toilet and it was very unhygienic. The residents had to wait for their turns to shower or use the toilet. Such two story houses were only built after the bridge was constructed. These houses were taller, broader and longer.
The Chinese immigrants' main purpose was to make money. No matter how difficult the environmental condition was, they bore with it.
Much of Geylang district including the Happy World Amusement Park was low-lying and got flooded whenever there was heavy rain. Only after many years of filling with soil the flooding was reduced.
At Lorong 21 or 23, there was an English School. Adjacent to the English School was Aljunied Road and the houses there were made of attap. It was hard living in attap houses as they were likely to be burnt down. Since people used wood and charcoal to cook and burn joss sticks for daily prayers, the attap houses could easily catch fire. Some Chinese were very superstitious and prayed to “Lao Ye God” for protection from fire. During Chinese New Year, the Chinese use firecrackers to celebrate their new year and this could inflame the attap houses.
Now, with people staying in the high-rise buildings of Housing Development Board (HDB), there is less likelihood of fire. Also there would be fewer gangsters staying in HDB.
Aljunied Road has many HDB buildings and living conditions have improved. At Lorong 25, there was a market with a zinc roof which is still around.
The market at Lorong 25 had many stalls and sold literally everything, except coffins. This was mostly a residential area. You didn't see many shops. In the past you could use your residence to do business as there was no legal restriction from the Government. But now this is not allowed.
At Lorong 40, there was a Siong Lim Village which was built by the Siong Lim Wood Sawmill and consisted of private houses. There was a saw-mill there. Once, a criminal held a hostage in the Siong Lim Village bungalow and the criminal was killed by the police subsequently.
At Paya Lebar Road, there was a big Malay village. The land was owned by Arab people. The rent was very cheap, only one or two dollars per month. Money had great value then.
There was a Police Station beside the Geylang River. There was Hotel Singapura near there and it was burnt down. The developer then built a multi-storey-complex, called City Plaza. Nearby was Kampong Ampat, a Malay settlement with a big refugee compound. The Dutch people who were chased out of Indonesia also settled there. The higher class Javanese stayed in hotel or detached houses. The ordinary Dutch people stayed in the bigger attap houses in that area.
At Tanjong Katong Road, there was a Chinese School called Yoke Eng School. Further up was Changi with relatively basic housing.
At Lorong 42, there was a theatre called Queens Theatre, which showed mainly Indian and Malay films.
Approaching Changi Road, the houses were poor, made of attap and zinc. There were also two markets---Changi Market and Joo Chiat Market. The stall keepers had to be approved and were given licenses to operate. The two markets were very busy markets with goods mainly catered to the Malays. Further up Joo Chiat Road there were many shop houses.
Now coming to Upper Changi Road, on one side was sited poor Malay villages, while on the opposite side were rich terrace houses, semi-detached and bungalows.
Some of these areas were low lying and subjected to flooding.
Further up Upper Changi Road were the farm lands---planting of vegetables, flowers, coconuts, etc. A wholesaler was established here to distribute the vegetables from the farms to the city. Kampong Chai Chee (甘榜菜市) was also there with many attap houses.
There was also a small temple here.
Further up the road was Anglican High School, which was quite big and also had produced students with good results. The original school was also an attap house. It was subsequently rebuilt with compensation money. Proceeding further was Bedok and Changi with a few shops and attap houses and markets.
Disc 17 Chinese Swimming Club and NanYang University
A: Further up, there is a Chinese Primary School made of attap and zinc sheets. This school was built with donations from the kampong people. These Chinese people when they came to Singapore from China were uneducated. As they were uneducated, they were cheated and bullied. So when they made their money, they would be happy to be involved in education by donating monies to build school and even became board member of the school management committee.( laughter). The principal of the kampong school was a good guy. He was from San Jiang (三江) and he also helped with the donation drive to raise fund for China.
Further up, there is another Chinese School. This school Principal was a good person and he came from Shanghai.
Q: What was the School’s name?
A: I can’t remember as I am getting old with bad memory. Though the Principal was old, he was as patriotic and energetic as the young people. From Changi to New Bridge Road is a long distance away but this Principal would come to town to attend every meeting.
Further up there is a big cemetery about 800 acres. Do you know what is a cemetery? It is a place where the dead/coffins are buried.
People in this area did mostly farming. But there were shops selling Bee Hoon (rice vermicelli) and Mee Sua. As the area was low-lying and subjected to flooding due to heavy rain and high-tide from the sea, the people who moved there (Bedok and Changi) suffered quite a bit.. The people came from the Paya Lebar area. They were relocated here because of the building of Paya Lebar Airport.
The Paya Lebar people who were shifted here were not happy as they lost a lot of money due to the shift and results of the frequent flooding. They would not have suffered if they stayed put at Paya Lebar. They were mainly farmers.
Further up there is the Changi prison. A little distance away was a British Army Airport. This Airport was extended and now it has become our Singapore Changi Airport. It is now the most beautiful airport in South-east Asia. Today, it is huge and luxurious.
I have been to Japan and Taiwan but those airports cannot compete with Singapore Changi Airport.
Further up there were shops serving the daily needs of the British army personnel and they had very good business and were easy to make money from the British. The British soldiers and their families during peacetime had nothing much to do and were living like on a vacation.
On Sundays and public holidays many people came to Changi Beach to swim and relax and also staying the Government built holiday chalets.
There is a small hospital for Polio children here and many British people volunteered their services to help the children who suffered from Polio.
Beside the Bedok Road sea-side, there was a fresh fish market, which catered to the fishermen who caught the fish from the sea. There was an open air hawker center too. It was set up by the stallholders with canvas canopy. It was not as good as the current Government built wet market. Many people from town liked to go there to eat seafood, especially the fried oysters. The oysters were freshly caught from the “ Kelong”, big and tender. It was delicious and I went there to eat too.
There was also a Chinese restaurant in the village. Among the Chinese families who stayed here, some were rich and stayed in landed big houses. There were Malay families who lived in attap huts as well.
The fishermen were mainly Malay. In the Kampong there were lots of attap huts. There were semi-detached houses also. The houses there were very cheap and they were sited next to the sea. Most of the big bungalows owned by the Chinese were located at the low area by the seaside. This area (East Coast Road) is not the same as the current Marine Parade area which is a piece of reclaimed land.
Further in land and all the way up is Siglap Road. Mostly attap huts there except for some big houses (洋房) owned by rich Chinese. Opposite Siglap was a hotel (Hollywood Hotel?) owned by the westerner. It was as famous as the Raffles Hotel and many VIPs stayed there when they came to visit Singapore.
Coming down is Joo Chiat Road. Here many shops obtained their business from customers that came from the Chinese village nearby. Prices were not expensive and the shop-owners could barely manage to survive. There were shops selling furniture too.
At Katong Park there were many large private houses, owned by the Chinese.
There was a fish market catering mostly to the day’s catch. There was a seafood restaurant as well.
Beside the Police Station was Roxy Theatre. The houses near the seaside were mainly bungalows and those further in land were terrace houses.
Further down, there were mostly private houses. The shop houses here were high-end (taller, longer and better looking) and better than the shop houses which were built more than 100 years ago in XiaoPo (小坡).
The terrace shop houses were two storeys, with a shop at the ground level and the residence on the second level.
Houses at the seaside were bungalows for the rich and well-known Chinese who stayed in Katong.
After Roxy Theatre was Palace Theatre and Odeon Theatre. The lane behind Palace Theatre was reclaimed land from the sea. The area was very crowded.
During the reclamation, due to the wind- blown sand, many people shifted to Orchard Road and Holland Road. However some still remained.
Later all the three theatres became Shopping Centers. Odeon Katong Theatre was replaced by a commercial building constructed by WoHup.
Next to Odeon Theatre, there was a primary school built on stilts. But it is no longer there.
Opposite there was a Malay village with people staying in attap huts.
Further up, at Tanjong Rhu, was the Singapore Swimming Club catering only to European members.
Since the Chinese could not enter the Singapore Swimming Club, they built a Chinese Swimming Club. This Club was opened to the public and the entrance fee was not expensive. Even then, the Chinese was thrifty and counted every cent. Not like now where people spend hundreds and thousands of dollars readily. When the Chinese immigrants got money, they would send it back to China to help their relatives.
The Chinese came to Singapore to earn a living and started with nothing. From poverty, they worked hard and saved to build houses and shops. All were hard- earned money. Of course, some might have cheated to become rich.
Coming down from Singapore Swimming Club was Katong Park. Here there were lots of hawkers selling cheap food. People came here to swim and relax and were very happy with the facilities as it was free. The park was relatively small.
Nowadays, the Housing Development Board builds multi-storeyed apartments with landscaped gardens for relaxation.
Further up there was a Club owned by Tan Lark Sye for the rich businessmen. They went there for recreation but mostly they gambled. Some of the businessmen who made their money went there to gamble and lose all their monies. It was all due to greed and also cheating in the gambling joint.
At Tanjong Rhu, the businesses were mostly boat repair with Indian laborers.
Q: Katong Park?
A: Yes. Katong Park. There were lots of warehouses which are now demolished.
Last time there were smugglers landing in this place (Katong Park). There were not enough Marine Police then, and so smugglers frequented here.
At Tanjong Rhu, there were boat repair shops and shipyards plus a Brickyard there. Houses here were built over water on stilt, same as those near Beach Road- “Iron Market.”
From Tanjong Rhu you can go by boat to Beach Road. There was an iron market there.
At Tanjong Rhu, the houses on stilts were demolished subsequently to give way to a highway.
At Tanjong Katong there were many schools. There was an well-known English Girl School and the students had won many prizes at different events organised by the Government. There was a co-ed technical school next to the English Girl School.
Opposite side along Goodman Road is the Chong Zheng High School (中正中学) with school field for sports. In the vicinity were bungalows owned by the rich Chinese.
Previously, this area was never flooded. During one big flood in Singapore, possibly due to the drain at Tanjong Katong could not cope. So there was a lot of damage as the people were not prepared and some rich people shifted to Holland Road.
Next to the technical school, there was another primary school for the girls.
Opposite the schools there were many family type two storey shop houses, with shop at ground floor and residence upstairs. Business was not good as it is not a busy area.
There were quite a few plots of empty land and an Indian (孟加厘) Gist Singh, bought the land with the intention to develop the area into a good residential estate. Unfortunately, he failed in his business. He then built the four storey block. Otherwise, the area would have been filled with two storey shop houses.
I then rented the newly-built shop house in the four storey block at Tanjong Katong Road. It was not a rent controlled property. I paid $6,000/ in tea money and the rental initially was $120/ per month. It steadily increased from $140 to $175, then $300/ until $800 plus currently I feel the Government was not correct in not protecting the interests of the tenants. The rental was so high and I could not make enough money, so I had to move out. I had put so much money into the business yet have no control over the rent. In addition, we were living in fear of the unplanned increase in rental. The Government could have done better.
At Dunman Road there were three schools---Dunman Chinese High School, Dunman English Secondary School and Dunman Technical School. Therefore, one could say Tanjong Katong was a school district.
Further down was Yoke Eng School, built by the Hainanese people. Chinese groups with different dialects, such as Cantonese, Hokkien etc also built their own schools. The different dialect groups were competing with each other.
The Chinese Schools were built by the immigrant Chinese. There was no Government School or Government subsidized School then.
Nanyang University was built from contributions even by trishaw pullers, barbers, port workers and taxi drivers etc. All the Chinese people contributed money and some of the money came from Indonesia, Malaya etc. as well.
Nanyang University, in particular, the name must be preserved as it contributed to the preservation and advancement of Chinese culture.
After Yoke Eng School, there was a Hollywood Theatre, which was later converted into Lion City Hotel. Opposite it was a shopping center.
From there onwards, was Geylang Road.
Q: Last time when you opened shops at Balestier Road and Jalan Besar Road, what was the condition like in those areas?
A: I did not open shop at Jalan Besar. In Jalan Besar, I was involved in a primary school - FuQiao Primary School (福桥小学)???. My shop was at Balestier Road, near the market there. After a few years there, I shifted to Lavender Street. There was a Police Station opposite my shop.
Now I’ll talk about a triangle lane (三角埔) consisting of Dhoby Ghaut, Serangoon Road and Sophia Road, which leads td o the Istana [President’s House]
At Bras Basah Road there was a famous Roman Catholic School (St. Joseph’s School) and also Chinese Catholic High School. In the past, to get into these schools…….
Disc 18 Some Chinese were tricked and sold as slaves/labourers
A: Catholic High School was from primary to secondary level. To get in, one had to be very smart. If they weren't smart, they must have enlisted the help of professional tuition teachers. Even if you were smart, without the help of tuition teachers, you might not be able to keep up. Because the school was very famous, graduates could easily obtain jobs upon entry into the working world.
There was a continuous streaming and selection process in the school. If you didn't do well in the primary school level, you could not continue to the secondary school.
Even in secondary school, you had to be smart. The students were fluent in both Mandarin and English. When they graduated from school, many wanted to hire them.
You could say students of Catholic High School had the best grades. Since the bad ones were eliminated from primary school, only the ones who could study were left to continue their training in the school.
Beside Catholic High School there was a Guan Yin Temple. Many womenfolk liked to visit this temple to burn incense. It is still in existence.
Now I shall talk about Bencoolen Street. [Could Not Fully Translate] There were folks selling used books on the street. People used to be very thrifty, and they liked to buy second hand books. Second hand books were cheaper, and less financially taxing on their families.
Fuzhou people opened a number of women's clothing shops. These shops used to carry the label "Shanghai Women's Fashion", but in fact, all the workers were from Fuzhou.
Moving on, we have "San Jiao Pu" (三角埔---triangle area in front of Cathay Cinema). There was a coffee shop there. It used to be a coffee shop but now, they sell Padang curry rice (Nasi Padang---Rendezvous). It's very famous, and they made a lot of money.
I will now talk about the inside of Jalan Basar.
Just next to the road, there is a row of old pre-war shophouses. They are a hundred over years old. The condition of the houses was not very good. The houses were small, and there weren't enough facilities. Because of this, many owners extended their houses at the back with zinc sheets so that more people could stay in the houses this way.
From Jalan Besar, one could to RoBanjiang (localised name for Rochor Road). There was a "BaiGong---White Palace" Hotel along near the bridge. Across the hotel was Albert Street (亚巴街). From there, you can go to Tekka. There were a lot of roadside hawkers outside KK Hospital before the hawker center was built. Near RoBanjiang (Rochor Road), there was a cinema which was demolished to make way for car repair shops. These are no longer there. There was also an area for boarding buses to Johor Bahru. People could also board private cars ["Ba Wong Qia"] and taxis in the same area.
Q: Did that happen a long time ago?
A: Yes, it [the JB bus depot] was already there when I arrived. The bus/big taxi could sit seven to eight people. People paid the conductor and boarded the taxis from the back, and there were no tickets. Now I will talk about the area near "BaiGong Hotel" at Jalan Besar. These were pre-war houses, from a long time ago, very small, not high-rise, and very dirty. They were situated on low ground. When there was high tide during the third and 18th day of the Lunar Calendar, the place would be flooded. The common name for this place was ["Kui Gui Na"] (now called Sungei Road).
There were attap houses and wooden houses in the area. There was an ice factory too. Most of the goods being sold were second-hand. "Karang Gunis" would collect the old, unused items, and sell it to the second hand shop businessmen in this area. These goods would then be sold by the second hand shop businessmen to the consumer. Amongst these second hand goods, were some very valuable items, even antiques.
The majority of these pre-war shophouses have been demolished, and in their place, apartment blocks were built.
Q: How long has the marketplace been situated at Sungei Road?
A: It has been there for a long time. It was already there when I came. The majority of people there were Heng Hua (興化) people.
Most of these people were labourers. At the crossroads of Sungei Road, there was a Heng Hua managed coffee shop. Heng Hua people rarely open coffee shops. Most coffee shops were managed by Hainanese or Fuzhou people.
Cantonese people liked to open bun shops (dim sum/tea places), mostly restaurants.
Moving down Jalan Besar, there was a pig abattoir. The name of the place was "Zai Zhu Lang". The abattoir later moved to "Song Ling". After that, there were no more pig abattoirs in the area; only cow and sheep abattoirs. There was also a red light district. A lot of prostitudes lived there. There were a lot of food stall there. If you went in the morning when the wet market (Pasar) was in operation, cars could not pass through. It was so crowded.
"Song Ling Fang Lang" used to be organized by Fuzhou people. The money earned there was used to build a "Song Ling Chun" (Song Ling Village) along Lorong 40. Song Ling Village (松林村) was built in the Western style, these were detached and semi-detached houses. The lumberyard that I mentioned previously, is no longer there. In its place, are housing estates.
There is a Xin (Heng) Hua Church there and also a foreign (European/American) school. It was a big school. Moving on, is a football field. It is the earliest built stadium, and was opened for competitions. Other football fields, like those found in schools, are usually not for public use, unlike this one.
Q: How long has the stadium been around?
A: It was there for a long time. It was there when I arrived, and I've been around for 56 years. Beside the stadium, there was a Fuzhou Church (Trinity Church---圣三一堂) and a Fujian Church. The Fuzhou Church held mass in the Fuzhou dialect, as well as the Mingan dialect. That Fuzhou Church later opened a secondary school in Changi, it was called Anglican High Chinese School (圣公会中学). At that time, I would help to talk with the landlords on the compensation payments for the location. Most of the buildings there were in the old-style. Most of the people who lived there were labourers. Few rich people lived there. Going down from the stadium was New World (an amusement park). New World was opened by the Huang Ping Fu (王平福兄弟) Brothers.
Later on, it was taken over by the Shaw Brothers. At first they rented the place, but they bought it eventually. The Huang Ping Fu Brothers had a villa; it was three stories high and very big. After losing New World, they sold the villa to Fuzhou people. Fuzhou Association and the Fuzhou Coffee Clan joined hands to buy the villa - and it is now used as a Fuzhou Centre ("Fuzhou Da Xia---福州大厦").
Q: How long has this New World Amusement Park been around?
A: When I arrived, there was already New World. But they expanded it whilst I was here, to include Happy (Gay) World and Great World. There was lots of trading done in the "Worlds", as they opened till late whilst other areas had already closed. Some people worked in the day and could only shop at night.
They had everything. They had "Getai" and other shows (wayang), Fuzhou shows, Guangdong shows, they had it all.
Those who did the shows received a stipend. If you were more famous, your pay would be higher. Organizers of the shows had to sell the show tickets themselves. If there were no show, you could watch movies on screen. The films shows on screen could be in English or in Mandarin.
At that time, it was the most popular amusement park, and also a bustling centre for shopping and recreational activity. People had to buy a ticket to get in. Now, it is outrun by the times. Can you imagine buying a ticket to buy stuff? People can just walk into an air-conditioned shopping centre to buy the things they need. So the "Worlds" are just ghost cities now, they have no future.
Q: At that time, were the people who had shops in the "New World Amusement Park" renting directly from the owners?
A: They had wooden shops with zinc roofs. There was even a nightclub. Hu Wen Hu and Hu Wen Bao used to visit these places every night. I used to have a shop there, so I know this. The three Liang sisters (Liang Sai Zhen--梁赛珍, Liang Sai Zhu--梁赛珠, Liang Sai Shan--梁赛珊) would also perform there. They flew in from Shanghai. Outside of the "Worlds", there were very few Chinese nightclubs. And even if there were, those would be small. The nightclubs in the "Worlds" were organised to entertain the rich Chinese or Western tourists.
Q: At that time, were the people who had shops in New World renting directly from the owners?
A: They rented directly from the owners. Many of the rented stalls became gambling places inside the "Worlds". Going into the "Worlds" was a lot of fun and it was the best place for a family outing.
Further on from the "Worlds", there was a rubber factory ("Rubber Zhang"). But this Zhang fellow joined the Communists. When Sun Yat Sen came to Singapore, he was hosted by Zhang. Zhang helped the Communists a great deal. Eventually his factory closed down. He owned a bungalow in Balestier Road/Jalan Rajah, "Wan Qing Yuan---晚晴园" where his mother lived originally. When Sun Yat Sen came, Zhang's mother gave up the villa to Sun Yat Sen for his revolutionary activities.
I talked about Jalan Besar, now I will talk about Lavender Street. "Fire City" ("Huo Chen--火城- name for Gas Work") was the localised name of Kallang Road. The first house you see is the Chao house ("Chao Jia Guan---曹家馆"). It belonged to the descendants of Chao Ya Zhi, who worked on board Stamford Raffles’ ship. When Raffles arrived in Singapore, he was too afraid to disembark first. Chao Ya Zhi was asked to disembark first at “Fire City”, and the place was given to him as a memorial. But now, the "Chao Jia Guan" is no more; and I don't know where or if it has moved.
Further down, there were a lot of lumberyards. There was also a place called "Lao Ye Gong---老爷宮". There were a lot of wooden tablets for the dead detailing reasons of death being placed in that small and low house. These tablets had the person's name carved on them. The deceased who had no family relations in Singapore would use these houses. We used to call those houses "Place for the Wandering soul".
Their souvenirs/belongings would be left in the houses as well. There was also a lot of perfume.
In another district, there was a place for human trafficking ["Mai Zhu Zai---卖猪仔"]. "Mai Zhu Zai" means that Chinese people had been tricked and sold to S.E Asia as slave/labourer. Some came willingly; they came on contracts that would end in a few years. Others had been tricked into coming to Nanyang/Singapore, told that prospects here were very good. There was similar place in Da Bo (South Bridge Road). Last time, such places were everywhere. Those who were tricked into coming and those who came willingly, they would all live in these places. After a while, they might be sent to do farming in Malaysia. Farming in Malaysia used to be a very tough job. Out of ten who went, not many would come back.
Many were bitten to death by the mosquitoes. Chinese people were one of the pioneers in making Singapore modern. But coming here was actually destined for death. Even if you didn't die from farming in Malaysia, when you got back, you had many bad habits, such as smoking opium. Smoking opium could prevent the mosquito bites. You would get lung cancer after smoking opium. Another scenario was that the handlers of these Chinese immigrants would coerce, or encourage them to smoke opium the moment they arrived. They also taught them to gamble. This made the Chinese workers indebted to their handlers; they could never repay their transportation, opium and gambling debts, no matter how much they worked. Even if your contract was up, but they would still owe handlers money, they would have to continue working until death.
Q: You mentioned that the "Zhu Zai Jian" near/opposite the "Chao Jia Guan"? How did you know this?
A: Everyone knew this. When I came, it was there already. But it was less serious. In Indonesia, governed by the Dutch, had a lot of such houses. There would be houses responsible for plucking the tobacco leaves, even in Medan and such. In Malaysia, these houses would be in the rubber and tin plantations, where the labourers were routed to these areas.
Singapore used to be a fishing village, with a couple of hundred people. To become a world-class country, ranked third, is also because of our location. Singapore was the first choice for these Chinese immigrants, followed by Penang and Malacca. The port in Malacca was so small. I had been there before. There were a lot of rich people in Penang, and they used to get many of their labourers and servants from Singapore. The Chinese labourers would stay in "guest houses" at “Huo Cheng” and other districts, and their movements were quite restricted. Once, they (the labourers) were passed on to their future bosses/employers (from Penang etc); their handlers would not care about them anymore.
Q: Do you remember which part of "Huo Chen" were these "Zhu Zai Jian"?
A: They were near the lumberyards. There was a guy from Hokkien named Chen Gui Jing (陈贵进), he opened a lumberyard. His son was called Chen Ming Hua (陈明华), a good friend of mine. He liked to socialize. When he saw that you were doing well in society, he would like to have friendly relations with you.
Later on, that lumberyard was no more. Next to the lumberyard, there was a steel factory. The huge gas tanks were built by the steel factory, I don't remember the name/signboard of the iron factory. Onwards would be Mang Kar Kar (Lavender Street). Further on from Mang Kar Kar, was a teak wood import/export operator. If anyone in Singapore wanted teak wood, they would get it from there. There was one in "Huo Chen" as well. It was big - I think the company name was "Wang Tai Xing---黄泰兴". The reason for so many teak wood factories in that area was because there was an ocean (Kallang River) near "Huo Chen", which made transporting the teak wood easy; there was no need for lorries to transport the teak wood. The teak wood logs floated along the river, and once at the bank, men could pull it themselves onto shore.
Next to "Chao Jia Guan" was “wandering souls’ "Lao Ye Gong". Together with the "Zhu Zai Jian", behind "Fang Lang"---the lumber yards, there were lots of thatched houses. Further along was "San Xiang---Lorong 3". The houses were built on stilt and that was where all the poor people lived.
Q: Why is Mang Kar Kar called "Mang Kar Kar"?
A: Mang Kar Kar . . .not yet. I'm still talking about "Huo Chen". Going down toward Mang Kar Kar, was a steel factory. After that, an automobile repair shop. We haven't reached Mang Kar Kar yet.
There were lots of automobile repair shops in this area. Mostly you would find "Chaozhou" people. The