A brief stopover provides an eye-popping view of an Asian nation - Singapore in 1977
Updated: Dec 27, 2021
I had left Melbourne for London at the end of November, 1977, although I should dig out my old passport and check the exact dates. My first stop was Singapore, where I disembarked and spent almost three days - almost alone. I was a shy eighteen-year-old then, believe it or not. Despite spending five years in a Brisbane boarding school from 1972, and the past year at a hostel with 15 other girls and four nuns on what is now the Chadstone shopping centre carpark, I lacked confidence in myself and the prospect of travelling alone was daunting.
But I coped.
Travelling in the 1970s was nothing like it is today. Melbourne airport hasn’t changed much since it was built in the 1960s, and it was state-of-the-art compared to most airports in the world, but especially the old airport in Singapore, which was like a vast factory floor. There were no aerobridges then and I had to follow the other passengers across the tarmac to a hot, stinky tin shed. Of course, I had too much luggage, and of course, customs went through every inch of my suitcase as I stood waiting for them to inspect the winter clothes I would need in London, whilst at the same time, perspiration trickled down between my shoulder blades. The air was thick with humidity, cigarette smoke, and the culminated stench of unwashed bodies that had just emerged from various aircraft sitting on the tarmac. Lazy fans above my head did nothing to relieve the discomfort of that first introduction to international travel. Despite my feelings of trepidation, there were stirrings of excitement as I contemplated the next few days in this city. There were no Lonely Planet books in those days and I was totally unprepared for Singapore, as most of my research, derived from travel brochures and the travel section of the Christ College library, had been concentrated on Britain and Europe.
Singapore in those days had strict rules, especially in regard to clothing, hair, weapons, and drugs. Nothing much has changed, but some of the men in their early 20s were led away under guard, returning a short time later with their hair cut to a more ‘desirable’ length. It seems that the rules included strict restrictions on men's hair length. I wouldn't imagine most of the men living in coastal parts of Australia would include Singapore in their itineraries if it meant cutting their hair!
As I left security, I saw a man in hotel livery holding a placard with my name on it and as he lifted my hastily repacked suitcase and turned, I followed him to a bus where other passengers were patiently waiting. Once everyone was aboard, we were taken to the Holiday Inn and checked in.
A lady travelling with her pre-teenage daughter probably noticed I was travelling alone and invited me to accompany them to the Carpark Restaurant. In those days, a regular carpark in Singapore's Orchard Road was magically transformed each evening when food vendors arrived with their carts.
A carpark by day.
A restaurant by night.
It was probably one of the best-known restaurants in the world then. As we arrived, the thick humid air was pierced with the most exquisite smells. Spices that I’d never smelt before were mixed with sizzling oils, releasing an aroma that was not only exotic, but made my mouth water in anticipation. The scrape of slotted-spoon against wok and the shouting of each of then hawkers made this experience one that I will never forget. The distinctive smell of cumin still evokes memories of this busy beehive of a place. With my two new companions, we wandered past vendors selling all sorts of exotic meats and seafood. We watched skilled cooks flipping fresh vegetables until they were just-cooked before being tipping them onto a bed of rice; a ladle-full of fragrant soupy liquid was poured over the top before the steamy bowls were handed to diners. This was entertainment within itself and I could have watched this action all night. Despite the temptation of wanting to try nearly everything, I settled on beef satay sticks, liberally drowned in peanut sauce washed down with fragrant jasmine tea served in delicate tiny cups without handles.
No worries about peanut allergies in those days!
And, it seems no worries about general hygiene either, because there was no running water and no toilet facilities. Apparently, no food poisoning either!
The next morning, I met my companions in the lobby and embarked on a city tour, which had been pre-booked from Australia. I was enthralled as we drove through busy narrow streets filled with shop-houses. Orchard Road, in those days, was completely different to what it is today. You would not recognise it. What I saw outside the window of the bus was like a scene out of an old sepia-coloured movie. Rickshaws and trishaws powered by skinny humans filled the streets. They were used as people and product carriers and travelled at a cracking pace despite the size of their loads. We drove into Little India, where it seemed that we had entered a whole new country. We stopped at the weird and wonderful, but serene Tiger Balm Gardens, Raffles Hotel, and the zoo before taking a cable car to Sentosa Island. The day was a complete overload of the senses, the unfamiliar smells that I will always associate with Singapore, the noise, the crowds, and the fast pace that I had to move to keep up with my tour.
My companions said goodbye when we arrived at the hotel at the end of the tour, as they were travelling onto London that evening. Alone for the first time, I had to search for the shop of Mrs Lim on Orchard Road. Here, in an Aladdin's cave, or so it seemed, she sold a variety of goods; clothing, electronics, cassettes, and other household goods. I spent a wonderful hour selecting a few items, but not too much, as my suitcase was already full. That evening I ate at her house, located above the shop, where I was squeezed around a table with her friends, colleagues, and relatives and this is where I met the Yeo family for the first time. I cannot remember Mr Yeo, but Mrs Yeo, sitting at the head of the table, was beautifully dressed in heavily-embroidered silk clothes. She was descended from Chinese royalty and her clothes displayed symbols of her wealth and station in life. I might add that the Yeo family owned part of Orchard Road, including Mrs. Lim’s shophouse, and a home on a large block of land within walking distance from where we were sitting. They also drove an Austin car they had bought in Britain whilst on holiday in Europe in the 1960s. Mrs Yeo spoke perfect English and was a wonderful host. I didn’t know it then, but the this family would become firm friends for life.
As I walked through the streets of one of the world’s safest cities during my last day, I began to gain confidence in myself and I give credit to the mother and daughter who had shown much kindness on that first day for much of that. I became curious about the history of the city; purchasing not only Noel Barber’s novel, Tanamera, but his non-fiction book, A Sinister Twilight: The Fall of Singapore, 1942. The well-written descriptions of life during the Second World War sparked a deep interest in this near neighbour of Australia. I had, after all, grown up with stories about the Second World War and our involvement here in Singapore during the war with Japan. Later in life, much later, I met an Indonesian woman, whose family were removed from their rubber plantations in Java. Born in Indonesia of Dutch parents, she told me first hand of how white women and children were captured and marched across the island of Java under Japanese guard. After the war, her entire family were reunited in Singapore; her father and brothers had been incarcerated in Changi prison since their removal from Indonesia. Her family was unique in that, despite their terrible experiences, no one had lost their lives during the war and they were reunited as a complete family unit. The story of women and children being marched across Java, I believe, was the inspiration of Nevil Shute’s novel, A Town Like Alice.
After two full days in Singapore and late on the third evening, I returned to the airport and boarded a flight that would stop in Bahrain before arriving in London about a day later. As the plane took off away from the tiny island nation of Singapore, I felt invigorated and certainly much more prepared for solo travel as I open my new novel and was instantly immersed in a story based in the city I had just left.