Saturday, 24 January 2015

Old school values (Singapore)

When I was ten years old, I’d read about British teenagers having a summer job or even a yearlong one, e.g., as a newspaper delivery boy/girl, earning some pocket money.  Being keen to be financially independent, I used to envy them, as this was not available to someone my age in Singapore.  

A couple of years later, about two weeks before the start of the new school year, my uncle, who ran a bookshop supplying schools with textbooks, asked me if I’d like to assist him for the fortnight at one of the schools.  I was really excited about it, and felt very grown-up, working and earning some money, even if it was only two weeks’ worth and really just pocket money.

When my uncle came to pick me up, he found me clad in flip flops, the standard tropical weather footwear.  “They are too casual for work!  Go and put on some proper shoes.”

Thirty-two years later, I was on a visit home.  My uncle said he’d like to take my mother and me out to dinner.  I was staying at my brother’s, so his son, Kaikai (aged 17), was included.  

While we were waiting for my uncle to arrive in his car, I noticed Kaikai was in flip flops.  As my uncle was treating us to a meal, I didn’t think it would be the more common casual Singapore style — at a roadside stall, or in a food court — but at a restaurant: air-conditioning, tablecloths, napkins, with waiters and waitresses standing to attention not far away.  I said to Kaikai, “Ooh, you’re going to get ticked off wearing flip flops,” and told him about my own experience more than three decades earlier, when I was a few years younger than he.

Sure enough, when my uncle arrived, the first thing he noticed were the objectionable footwear.  Kaikai was told to “go and put on some proper shoes”.

(Singapore 1965 / 1997)

Friday, 2 January 2015

Colour-blindness (Singapore, London)

During my BA days at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London), I noticed one day a boy in my classical Chinese class wearing one pale green sock and one pale blue sock.  It turned out he was colour-blind.  On subsequent occasions, I discovered he couldn’t differentiate between dark green and dark red (maroon) when I pointed out the beds of tulips in a park and he couldn’t find them.  Ditto when I remarked on a lawn dotted profusely with tiny daisies.

This reminded me of my eldest sister’s friend back in the 60s in Singapore.  For some reason, he managed to pass his driving test — maybe it wasn’t a widely-known condition then?  If the traffic lights were aligned vertically, he’d know the top light was red and the bottom green.  If they were horizontal, however, he’d wait until the cars around him started driving off before he would.  If the roads were deserted and his was the only car, the poor chap would sit there for a while, not knowing if he should drive off, or he’d wait until another car appeared on the scene to give him an indication.  (Singaporeans are so law-abiding that they wouldn’t dare violate the law even if there were no other cars around for him to pose any danger to them.)

(Singapore mid-1960s, London late 1970s)