My grandma’s stories: Work after war. Ship ahoy!

(This is the fourth part of an ongoing series recounting my grandma’s stories about her life and the old days in Singapore. In the last post, grandma talked about life during World War Two. Click here for the first, second, third and fourth part)

As British troops returned to Singapore after the Second World War only to be warmly welcomed by the locals, grandma found a new job at the Port of Singapore Authority (PSA) Terminal in Tanjong Pagar.She was 17 years old when she started work there and never stopped until she turned 60.

“I worked at the PSA all my life until we moved house because being illiterate, I didn’t know how to take a bus there,” Ah Ma said while laughing.

During her long stint at the PSA, she met new people who shared with her interesting experiences.

One of them is a Taiwanese named Chew Kiat, captain of a commercial ship that transported cement and construction materials from Taiwan to Singapore.

“Chew Kiat brought us around to tour around his ship and I remembered climbing up to the third floor,” grandma described. “There I saw the captain’s quarters for the first time and there was this huge steering wheel in the middle.”

Grandma and her colleagues met Chew Kiat when he approached them for help to sew his ship’s flag, which became battered and torn from prolonged use.

“He was a very nice and soft-spoken man who would look for us whenever he docked in Singapore,” Ah Ma said. “It was a pity I never had the chance to visit him and his family in Taiwan before he died very young, perhaps in his 40s, from an unknown illness.”

The PSA terminal was one of the few locations set up by the British colonizers to capitalize on Singapore’s strategic maritime location in Southeast Asia.As early as the mid 17th century, Singapore was already a major port of call for ships plying between Europe and East Asia. Moreover, she also played the role of a hinterland for transporting primary materials such as rubber and crude oil out of the Malayan Peninsular to international markets.

Ah Ma’s job at the port involved mainly menial work that encompassed a wide range of activities from sweeping floors to cementing holes in the hull of the ship. A typical day would start from 7am to 5pm and at times, they would be grouped together for some ‘very dusty’ job.

“We would transfer trash such as saw dust and saw chains from train carriages (from the former Keppel Road Railway Station) into crates or boxes,” grandma said. “The crates of rubbish would then be transported by another group of workers elsewhere to be incinerated.”

For her efforts, she would earn about $1.80 (US$ 1.40) each day, which significantly contributed to her family’s income.

But even then, she was not employed on a daily basis.

“If there are not enough ships, we would have to take turns to work,” Ah Ma said. “Every night, we have to head to the shipyard to find out if we have work.

Life was not easy.”

If you like this post and have yet to read the rest from the series, do check them out:

The fourth part is about daily life during the Japanese occupation.
The third part is about the early years of the Japanese occupation.
The second part is about Ah Ma’s family.
The first part is about Ah Ma’s early childhood.
The introduction gives some background information about “My grandma’s stories”


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