After leaving Nuddea I was asked to attend an interview in London.
I was a little apprehensive because I thought it was because of the near closing of Liverpool docks, when I asked a crane driver not to rip the bottom out of the cargo.
It wasn’t, it was to tell me that I was being hired out to the British Ministry of Defence, during the Indonesian ‘confrontation’ – it was never called a war, because this would have caused Lloyds insurance rates to sky rocket, and the Government had enough trouble on their hands. I was to join an LST as third mate.
Bright as a button I asked what was an LST, and was told that LST meant Landing Ship Tank. It was then that I found out that the Company had the contract, from the British Government, to supply officers for the LSTs in the Far East, Mediterranean (Malta), and Aden. Obviously I’d upset someone after my littler Liverpool ‘problem’.
It was early April when I left home once again for London, but this time to catch a long haul flight to Singapore.
Merchant Navy Hotel, Lancaster Gate, London.
When I arrived in London I made my way to the Merchant Navy Hotel at Lancaster Gate. I’d stayed there a few times when transiting London for a ship or a plane. When I look back, for a sailor I did a lot of flying. It is a shame that the airlines hadn’t introduced frequent flyer points earlier.
The above hotel was sold for redevelopment in 2002, it was the last Merchant Navy hotel in the UK. There used to be a hotel for merchant seamen waiting to join a ship in most of the ports of Britain, but they have all been closed, which sadly says something about the British merchant navy.
I departed London at 4.15 pm on a Monday flew to Zurich, followed by Rome, New Delhi, Rangoon, Kuala Lumpur, and finally Singapore arriving late Tuesday. It was a long trip and the B 747 had yet to come in to service, so it was cramped economy on a Comet, and a VC 10.
The Comet was the first passenger jet.
BOAC VC 10 from a post card
Compared to today’s aircraft, both of the above were quite small for passengers on long haul flights.
I arrived in Singapore and was met by the agent, and taken to the Raffles Hotel.
The Raffles Hotel in 1966.
As soon as I entered I knew that I didn’t ‘fit’, and that this hotel wasn’t for me. I then made a decision that I regretted for many years – I didn’t check in and told the agent that I did not wish to stay at the Raffles, now I can’t afford to stay at the Raffles!
The agent told me to make my own arrangements, but that the cost could not be any more than the Raffles . . . I found the Mui Fong Hotel in Chinatown.
It was far more relaxing for me – the room was not as ‘flash’, but it was OK, even though I had to complain that when I switched on the shower, I receive an electric shock through the water. They’d earthed something to the shower head!
I was there for a few days and met some interesting people – it took me a couple of days to realise that it was used as a ‘short time’ hotel – it was only after I began to recognising some of the ladies that it clicked – I could be slow at times.
I didn’t have to get up early so it was very pleasant to arrive in the bar / restaurant around 11.00 am and order nasi goreng and coffee for breakfast –
and take my time so that at about 11.30 am I could order a large Tiger beer and just sign for breakfast . . .
Yours truly outside the Mui Fong Hotel in Chinatown, after breakfast.
Life was so simple.
I loved Singapore – it was easy to get around and most people spoke English, but it still had that far east ‘foreign’ feel. I had a good idea of the layout, having passed through a few times when I was a cadet. Plus I loved the food.
Bugis Street in daylight
Having read Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad, (and seen the film staring Peter O’Toole), it didn’t take much of an imagination to feel that I was part of yesteryear when I visited certain areas of the city.
Poster from the film
The Singapore River was still used as a commercial river in 1966, not for deep sea ships, but by the lighters and barges in to which we used to discharge our cargo when we were at anchor off shore. Small junks/sampans used to come out to the ship, and for a fee, take us ashore.
Today the river is a ‘tourist’ river for sightseers, and the godowns (warehouses in to which cargo would be unloaded from the lighters & barges), are now bars, restaurants and souvenir shops. The clean up work began in 1977, and is still on going today.
In 1966 it was the smell of the river, the chatter of the people and the aroma of food cooked in the street that helped to fill ones head with images of the ‘Far East’, and feats of daring do characters, who are no longer with us.
Singapore River, our last visit was in 2017, where’s the romance of Asia?
Singapore River 2017 night scene – clean as a new pin.
I stood on the bank of the river, in front of a converted godown, when I took the above. The godown was a fancy restaurant.
I realise that time moves on, and places change, hopefully for the better, but certain cities have the ring of romance and adventure, Singapore & Hong Kong to name just two, but the modernisation and redevelopment have sterlised the old cities in to ‘modern cities’ to such an extent that you have look in your passport to check where you are.
The plus side of today is for the people of Singapore and their standard of living, and the huge economic growth since the early 60’s, mainly due to Lee Kwan Yew who was the PM.
Educated in the UK, the LSE (London School of Economics) and Cambridge. He gained a double starred first class honours in law.
He guided Singapore into joining with the the federation of Malay States to create the new country of Malaysia in 1963. I was a cadet at the time and was fortunate to be in Singapore when that happened – great party.
Due to racial strife between the Malays and the Chinese and ideological differences, Singapore separated from Malaysia two years later, and became an independent city-state. Once again I was in Singapore when this happened – another great party!
Lee Kwan Yew supported multi-racialism, and a government and civil service based on ability, not on wealth, or who one knew. He also made the common language of Singapore to be English, so as to integrate all the races, and to help trade with the west.
He insisted on bilingualism in schools, to preserve students’ family language and their ethnic identity. One could say he was the ‘father’ of Singapore today, he died in 2015.
Back to Singapore of the early 1960’s –
The place to be in the early evening was Bugis Street – not the Bugis Street of 2017, because the original Bugis Street is now a metro station!
Bugis Street early 1960’s – early evening for food & beer.
One would sit down at any table and you would then be asked by several ‘servers’ if you wanted a beer – each ‘server’ worked for a different outlet, and there were many outlets, so the service was first class due to the competition.
Other servers would arrive and offer plastic menus with pictures or just a list of contents contained in each dish – some had titles such as nasi goreng, laksa or wanton mee to name just three dishes. There was always a large choice of food, and it was all freshly cooked to order, and inexpensive.
Bugis Street was famous, not just for the food stalls and beer, but also for the ‘girls’, although many were not female, but males dressed as females. The ‘trans’ girls would parade up and down the street in their finery and offer to sit near or on someone’s lap while photographs were taken. For this service ‘she’ would charge a small fee.
Around mid-night the ‘girls’ would show up.
If they worked the street for a number of hours they would earn a very good living. It was known that a certain first tripper boy seamen, around fifteen or sixteen years old was caught up with the whole ambiance of Bugis St and slid off with one of the very attractive ‘attractions’. It didn’t take long for his mates to see the young first tripper running like mad towards them, as if the hounds of hell were after him. His introduction to Bugis Street nightlife was not what he expected.
Does anybody wish to take my picture?
How to tell the difference between the ‘she’ men and real women? The real women couldn’t afford to dress as well as the ‘she’ men. I was always told to check the Adams apple on the ‘women’ so as to work out whether the person was a male or female – but I never got that close!
Before anyone asks about the above two photographs, they were found on the internet – I didn’t take them!
In the 1980’s Bugis Street was closed due to the building of the MRT station. Later the Government realised that they had killed off a major Singapore ‘attraction’, so they opened ‘new’ Bugis Street, which is across the main road (Victoria Street), and is now an open air market stall and food area. Regardless of the promotional effort it is not Bugis Street . . .
I’d been spending the salary advance issued by the agent on arrival, and after a few days this was getting low so thought I’d better dip in to the cash that I carried from the UK rather than draw down from my salary.
The main place to change money at that time was of course Change Alley across the road from Clifford Pier at Collyer Quay.
The above shows Clifford Pier at Collyer Quay – as you see the cargo ships worked cargo using their own equipment, loading and discharging in to lighters & barges.
In 1966 the powerful UK pound was worth $8.58 Singapore dollars, (compared to today which is $1.71 to the GBP) and in Change Alley one would bargain with Chinese, Indian, Armenians, Malays and many other nationalities, all wishing to take your pound note.
It was not air-conditioner, and when it rained you got wet.
Life in the East
Change Alley today – are you in London, Sydney, Bangkok or Singapore?
On returning to the hotel I had a message from the agent – they would pick me up in the morning and take me to sign on the LST.
Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, who founded modern Singapore,
the Lion City, 29th January 1819.