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Fond memories of childhood haunts

Recalls of childhood memories in Singapore
The Straits Times - April 5, 2014
By: David McMahon
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Fond memories of childhood haunts -- ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

THE taxi driver had me all figured out. It was a hot Singapore afternoon, when the low growl of thunder and the gathering armada of grey clouds across the horizon prompted that familiar tropical equation: Will I get on a bus or a train or find some form of shelter before the downpour begins?

A camera and spare lenses were slung over my shoulder. Moisture is a death rattle for that sort of gear. So I hailed a cab. And the driver said: "You're not a tourist." A statement, not a question.

"You look like a tourist, you dress like a tourist, you talk like a tourist, you carry a camera like a tourist, but I knew as soon as I saw you that you live here.

"Because you don't walk like a tourist," he explained. "You knew exactly where you were going."

At that stage, I had only lived here for about six weeks, but he was right. More, much more than just having a postal address in a new city, I had immediately felt like I belonged here. So it was heartening to get such comprehensive validation from a stranger.

Sometimes we must pay heed to other perspectives, other viewpoints, to fully understand who we are, where we fit in and where we have memories that matter progressively more as we get older.

By that, I mean the place or places - real and notional alike - where each of us finds empathy, comfort and meaning. Away from the colonial-era brick structures and the post-Independence steel and glass towers by which this city is defined, where are our own places of special meaning?

Often, these matter more than landmarks like the gentle arcs of Gardens By The Bay, the distinctive shape of the Marina Bay complex, the imposing Singapore Flyer, the Esplanade theatres, or the graceful ArtScience Museum.

So I went seeking answers. And all those I asked echoed words like "comfort", "solace", "happiness" and "laughter". In a sense, they reinforced my belief that while towering man-made symbols of a contemporary city are wonderful to have, our own cherished zones are among our lives' strongest anchors.

One woman tells me how growing up as a tomboy in a kampung fostered true community spirit. When her mother wanted to discipline her or, sometimes, to cane her, she would simply hide in her friends' homes until her mother surrendered to exasperation.

The sea, she says, was a big part of those carefree times when there was little delineation bet ween community and family.

At high tide, they would dive into the sea. At low tide, she would collect seaweed, to feed her grandmother's ducks and chickens.

The going rate for seaweed back then was five cents a bucket. She points out that five cents might not get anything today but back then it was enough for sweets or - and here, her eyes roll with delight - lollipops.

A mother of two tells me about growing up as the daughter of a policeman and how she now drives past her childhood home which she points out to her children. I ask if she has ever taken them there and she laughs. "They won't ever get to see it unless they're naughty," she says. Her home and those that once surrounded it now comprise an Internal Security Department facility.

A gentle poet reveals that her late grandfather, a pillar of strength, still inspires her in many ways. She also tells me that a McDonald's on the East Coast holds special memories for her. She remembers going there as a child and walking hand-in-hand with her father, eating peach sundaes that the franchise no longer sells.

One dashing young man tells me of a grassy slope with a steep gradient - it still exists - where he put his reputation on the line. He and a friend had barely graduated from tricycles to two-wheelers when they yearned to emulate secondary school boys who rode their bikes at speed all the way down the hillock.

So he waited until the bigger boys had gone home one evening before hurtling down the incline at high speed. He was halfway down when he lost his nerve and hit his brakes so hard that he cartwheeled the rest of the way down. In that humbling experience, he learnt that bruises fade, but raw courage is best tempered with discretion.

A simple swing near her home was a source of joy for one colleague who tells me that it no longer exists. She points out, wistfully, that that the old-fashioned playground has been replaced by more high-tech equipment.

One woman holds close to her heart the memories from late last year of places around Singapore that she visited with her father, as well as conversations they had shortly before he died. She also recalls how, at several places they visited during his last days, he would tell her about how each area had changed over the years, giving her a different perspective on sights she once took for granted.

The old National Library was the favourite destination of a colleague who pursued peace and erudition there. The loss of the red-brick building to make way for the Fort Canning Tunnel has not dampened her thirst for knowledge. Now, she visits the new library instead.

Another young woman talks about how Changi Airport is important to her, not just because it is where she leaves on holiday, but more importantly because it is where she always gets the first glimpse of friends or family who are returning home.

She also talks of the importance of childhood comfort food, in the company of loved ones. Her family still commute to eat their favourite noodles, at a stall where the word "rush" has no meaning and where the man preparing the noodles always produces them after she and her family have eaten all the other accompaniments.

A young man tells me that his time spent doing National Service was particularly memorable. Proximity to the beach brought a rare sense of peace and calm that he found particularly refreshing.

A proud father tells me of the many houses where he has spent his life. He says he doesn't dream much now, but before that, he would always dream about the house where he grew up.

Someone who explains financial matters for a living still relishes the early years she spent living with her grandparents. Her eyes sparkle when she tells me of the magical days growing up as the oldest of "a number of cousins". A number? I stop her. How many cousins, exactly? But the financial whiz scratches her head. She can't tell me how many.

See, there, right there, is the real value of her early life, because fun under her grandparents' roof, I realise, was probably far more important than the numbers that govern her life now.

A colleague who has a soft spot for golf tells me that she, like most people in the Republic, often takes personal safety for granted. Late one night, she returned to her hotel in Washington DC, only to be chided by a concierge for not being attuned to danger.

Danger? What danger?

Taking in her puzzled look, he finally saw the light. "Ah, you must be from Singapore," he declared.

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