Growing Up in the 1950s – Story of Joseph Tan

We managed to get Uncle Joseph to write some of his thoughts on his life. Here is his story which #loveRTSN is proud to share:

I WAS born in 1951 when Singapore was a British Colony. I lived my childhood and most of my teenage years in Lorong Low Koon, off Upper Serangoon Road. My family of nine, my parents and six sisters lived in an atap house on my maternal grandfather’s land.

The kampung days
Being the only son, my mother doted on me tremendously. We barely made ends meet but I revelled in the more than three acres of my grandpa’s land filled with many kinds of fruit trees and wide open spaces. Indeed, I had a happy childhood, roaming the countryside, catching spiders, swimming in the swampy river, catching crabs and frogs, picking clams for my mother to make my favourite clam omelette, flying kites, playing marbles, etc.

Every few months or so, an ‘abang’ would come and plucked coconuts using connected bamboo sticks with a sickle tied at its end. He would grant my request for some young coconuts which I relished for its refreshing water and kernel. I remember taking my first shot with my uncle’s shotgun at a hanging coconut as my target. It was on target! Yes, in those days, my uncle had a gun licence for hunting.

I had a lot of fun but I took my studies very seriously. I attended Montfort School at primary, secondary and pre-university one (now known as JC) levels.
In those days, we did not have piped water or electricity until the latter half of the 60s. Night soil carriers cleared human excrement weekly! Then, it was a normal way of life for me and I never griped about it to anyone. However, I was highly motivated to excel in my studies so that I could get a good job and helped my parents financially.

Understanding the Japanese Occupation
My maternal grandpa’s house was a large, 5-room, single-storey bungalow sited at the centre of his freehold land. It survived the Japanese Occupation, having bullets sprayed by Japanese soldiers through the brick walls of one room, penetrating it and the metal support frame of a bed. Concrete slabs of the veranda almost broke from sheer force of the soldiers boot kicks. They were never repaired and served as grim reminder of the ordeals of the Occupation. Over the years, my mother and her siblings built houses, mostly zinc-roofed, on the land after they were married. The bullet-holed bed was taken by my mother to her new house, which over the years reminded me of the war episode.

Two episodes recounted to me by my parents remain etched vividly in my memory. One, from my mother, was about how she, her grandmother, her mother and her seven siblings, survived by hiding in an underground pit covered with coconut trunks and tree branches. A squad of Japanese soldiers walked by without noticing the covered pit, to the great relief of its tenants.

Growing Up in the 1950s – Story of Joseph Tan

The second, from my father, was how, as a teenager, he was rounded up by Japanese soldiers, brought to a beach and escaped by running for his life in the middle of the night. That was indeed a lucky break for him, otherwise, he could have suffered a similar fate of demise that befell many young men of his generation.

Thankfully, my generation and the ones after me, have lived in relative peace except for the periods of Malayan Emergency, Confrontasi and racial riots in the 60s. World War 2 and the Korean War were history to me. Vietnam War, which happened in my youth, seemed far away.

My peers of the post-war generation lived through the uncertainties and challenges of a young Nation, trying to make the best out of limited resources through sheer gut and wit. Secret society activities, pirate taxis plying the roads, sporadic bank robberies, opium smoking and kidnapping were relatively common occurrences.

Thankfully, I was not caught up in the angst of my time while growing up. I roamed the countryside which was my playground during my free time and school holidays. I suffered cuts and bruises along the way. I remembered nearly drowning, crossing a river with two of my childhood friends. Yes, I thoroughly enjoyed my childhood adventures but I never neglected my studies. For me, I always put it top priority, even in my adult life.

On Inspiration
Mr Teo Kah Leng in my formative years studying in Montfort School from 1959 to 1969. He was my principal in primary school and then my English Language teacher in Secondary 3, after he retired as principal but continued teaching. From him I learnt some good values in life. I remember his two wise sayings which stayed with me for life. One was “Success is 99% perspiration, 1% inspiration”. The other was “Procrastination is the thief of time”. These two wise sayings inspired and motivated me to study hard and not waste my precious time by leaving important things partially done. It further honed my discipline and practice in ‘delayed gratification syndrome’, when I would put aside playtime for study as priority.

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