From the Blue Windows: Recollections of Life in Queenstown, Singapore, in the 1960s and 1970s

Still, I sometimes wonder if there will be any landscapes familiar to my generation that future generations will be able to come into actual contact with. The Queenstown of my childhood is gone and a new dwelling enclave has emerged in its place. It is now up to the next generation to treasure their living space. As for me and those who once stayed at Queenstown, the Blue Windows lives on, if not in our hearts, then at least between the covers of this book ~ Tan Kok Yang

Tan Kok Yang has a Masters degree in Building Science (Acoustic Major) from National University of Singapore, and a Doctoral degree from the University of New England. N.S.W. Australia. His interest in environmental issues, especially those that affect people prompted him to write his first book. He spent 10 years collating his photographs and memories.

He stayed in Princess Estate, an area that was colloquially known as “the Blue Windows” because of its blue Georgian-wired glass-louvred windows. The flat he lived in when he was around seven to when he was a teenager was in Margaret Drive.

The book is neither political nor academic, but it gives the reader a better understanding of the socio-economic conditions of Singapore then. There are seven chapters, with a map of Queenstown in the 1960s and 1970s.

Chapter one describes the everyday life. The main shopping centre, the Queenstown Shopping Centre was the first neighbourhood air-conditioned shopping centre. Tah Chung Emporium, one of the nation’s earliest departmental stores was there. Business at the local provision shops suffered, but the author was excited to see so many products under one roof.

One of the smaller businesses was a farm. The farmer collected leftovers to feed his livestock. Just before every Chinese New Year, he gifted each family that gave him leftovers a chicken.

Chapter two takes us inside the flat. The government-built flats at the Blue Windows were mainly rental units. Very few tenants spent much money renovating or decorating their flats. The only home decoration the author’s family had were some homemade decorative shrimps, made with plastic string wrapped around marbles.

There were few electrical appliances. Instead of a fridge, the family had a “salt refrigerator” which was a wooden cabinet with four legs. The legs stood on four porcelain bowls filled with salt water. This helped prevent insects from climbing up the cupboard. To ensure ventilation, the cupboard had panels of wire mesh instead of solid wood.

Chapter three describes family, friends and neighbours. Most of the people were Teochew, Hokkien, Cantonese and Hakka. Since it was a small township, people knew one another well and even addressed one another with nicknames. The man who sold wristwatches became known as the “The Watch Uncle”.

However, there were conflicts over issues like leaking toilets and items disappearing from laundry lines.

We learn about the author’s school life in chapter four. His first school, Strathmore Primary School was just next to his flat. During recess, his mother or grandmother passed him food through the gate of the chain-link fence that separated his flat and the school’s driveway. At times, his mother took the food to the canteen.

It was normal for school staff members like the cleaners and attendants to live within the school compound. One of the duties of school attendants was to manually ring the bell.

The author failed his Primary School Leaving Examination and was transferred to Jervois West Primary School which was further away. The author, and a few of his classmates went to school by hitching a ride on the back of a lorry that belonged to the father of one of his classmates.

The next school he attended was Kim Seng Technical School. Being one of the earliest technical schools, it was an integrated school with both Chinese and English streams. Unfortunately the students from the two streams hardly mixed.

In 1971 the author took his General Certificate of Education (GCE) ‘O’ Level examinations. It was the first time the GCE ‘O’ Level examinations replaced the University of Cambridge Secondary Four Leaving Examination.

Chapter five describes customs and festivals. The Chinese considered happy events like religious celebrations and weddings as “Red Events or Occasions”. Deaths were “White Events or Occasions”. Drinks associated with “Red” events were Red Lion soft drinks, which was sold in glass bottles and packed Fraser and Neave (F&N) drinks. Oddly, the norm was that orange and Sarsi flavoured drinks were served during happy occasions while the Green Spot soft drink was served during funerals.

The author describes the little known Double Seven Festival that falls on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month. Legend has it that Niu Lang, the cowherd married a fairy called Zhi Ni (weaver girl). Marriages between mortals and fairies were forbidden but the Jade Emperor allowed the couple to meet once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month.

Memorable events are the focus of Chapter six. Historical events described include the Bukit Ho Swee Fire, the Chinese School Students’ demonstrations and racial riots. Schoolchildren were affected by such events. At one stage, the headmaster of the author’s school told students to bring canned food to school just in case the government imposed a curfew and students had to stay in school for a few days.

Chapter seven tells us that the government selected the area for development and residents had to move out. It was inevitable as some of the buildings were unstable. A four-storey block leaned slightly to one side. In one of the flats, water that was spilt on the dining table flowed towards one side of the table.

In 1973, the author moved from Margaret Drive to a flat facing Tiong Bahru Road. The downside was the flat was on the third storey and was right in front of a bus stop. Consequently, he developed an aversion to noise which motivated him to be an acoustic consultant who specialises in noise control.

From the Blue Windows is a collection of Tan Kok Yang’s memories of growing up in Queenstown back when the tallest residential building there was fourteen storeys, the Alexandra Canal flooded regularly, and wayang shows were a regular feature on Mei Ling Street.

With nostalgia and a sense of loss, this memoir is a personal tribute to and celebration of Queenstown and a simple but fulfilling way of life that has all but vanished from modern Singapore.

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