My grandma’s stories: Early years, Colonial Singapore

(This is the first part of a new series recounting my grandma’s stories about her life and the old days in Singapore.)

“There was a big fire at a market around si kar teng (today’s Lower Delta Road) late 1948,” my grandma recalled vividly. “We quickly fled our house, taking some of our belongings with us and during the chaos, someone stole my birth certificate.”

It was only 13 years later my grandma, or Ah Ma as how my family members would call her in the Fujian dialect, would reapply for another citizenship certificate based on a date her mother assumed was her birth date.

Ah Ma is hence ‘officially’ born in 1927, which makes her 84 year old this year, four years younger than Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew.

Back in 1927, Singapore was growing rapidly as a trading port under the British crown colony and immigrants poured in from all over Asia to seek for better living prospects in this foreign land.

Like majority of Singaporean Chinese, my ancestors came down from the Fujian province but Ah Ma has never regarded herself as an immigrant.

Born and bred as a second-generation Singaporean, she has no clue about her parents’ hometown.

“In those days, we would never dare to ask our parents too many questions,” Ah Ma said. “They (my parents) said their hometown is in jio po and we would just take it as it is even though I don’t really know where that is.”

Because Fujian is a huge province, my online search for any possible prefecture, district or village named jio po was a futile effort, made more difficult by a lack of Chinese translation for its name.

Yet it is this sense of rootlessness to their home country that fostered a unique local identity during the colonial era.

Flag of the Crown Colony of Singapore
Ah Ma remembered Singapore under the British rule as a ‘very free’ period with little rules and regulations but a relatively safe living environment.

“People rarely stole things and there was very low crime rates as compared to during the Japanese occupation,” Ah Ma recalled. “People could leave their belongings anywhere and honestly, nobody would take it away.”

For the first 20 years of her life, she lived at Kam Kong Ka La Bu, an older reference to the area around modern day Tekka market in Little India.

I was curious to take a closer look at Ah Ma’s Kam Kong Ka La Bu and decided to head there under her vague and scant description.

“Outside my house, there is a very straight road and on both sides of the road are rows of houses,” Ah Ma said. “Hawkers used to stand by the road side to do their businesses.”

Fast forward 70 years, yesterday’s hawkers who ply the streets are now comfortably sitting in shops. The street performance Ah Ma used to watch is no longer there. Names of streets have also changed.

As such, it took me a couple of detours and phone calls before grandma made an intellectual guess that she lived on either Campbell Lane or Dunlop Street.

Street view of Campbell Lane, Little India
In this ever-changing city, I think if Ah Ma were to go back to her Kam Kong Ka La Bu, she would probably be unable to recognize the building that used to be childhood home.

More to come in the next part of this series – Introduction to Ah Ma’s family members and everyday life back in the 1930s.

Do leave your comments below about your thoughts and recommendations about this new “My grandma’s stories” series!

Click here to read introduction to “My grandma’s stories” series

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10 thoughts on “My grandma’s stories: Early years, Colonial Singapore

  1. This is amazing. im doing a research so do u think i u could post abt ur grandma’s hobbies? Hope to get a reply frm u soon.

    -Rifa’ie

  2. Hi, can i ask how the Japanese Occupation changed the lives of the teenagers then in terms of financial and economy? Thankyouuu 😀 Your Grandma’s stories series is very enjoyable and nice to read. Thankyou for your posts! 🙂

  3. hi, i am just a student doing a research on the Japanese occupation, so i was hoping to get help from you, but do you mind helping me by asking your ah ma how the health condition was like before and during the Japanese occupation…thanks a lot

  4. Ah, I remember my grandmama also.. she passed away six years ago. She also used to tell us (me and my cousins) stories about her life and the war. It mostly consists of hiding from the invaders though.
    I like this mini-series, it reminds me of my grandparents.

    1. hi but i need your help with my research..but do you rmb your ahma telling you about health conditions before and during japanese occupation??? hope to get a reply from you thank you

  5. This is great! I love to hear the stories of my elders. I took a job in high school just so I could be near my great-grandmother and come by after school nearly every day to listen to her stories. I think this is a great idea and I’m looking forward to hearing more of your grandmother’s stories.

    1. Hi Edgar,

      I’m glad to hear that you enjoy reading this series and it’s a great encouragement for me too (: Will certainly be posting more next time, so do keep coming back for more!

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