In this first session of her interview, Sally discusses her childhood, early education, family socioeconomic status, and her parents’ background.
Transcriptionist: Yong Jie Li Jeremy
Interviewer: Yong Jie Li Jeremy
Session: 1 of 3
Location: Yale-NUS College, 16 College Avenue West
Date: October 12, 2019
[START OF SESSION 1 OF 3]
Q: Good afternoon. Please tell me your name.
Sally: My name is Sally.
Q: What is your date-of-birth?
Sally: 4th Feb[ruary], 1967.
Q: Where were you born?
Q: Can you describe your childhood?
Sally: We have a timetable to follow. My mother is a housewife. We have lunch prepared for us when we come back to school. Then we do our homework. By nine p.m., we have to go to bed. It’s a routine, have to follow.
Q: Did your mother tell you why she had this routine in place for you?
Sally: No, she never explain. Just follow.
Q: You had to go to school? Was this primary school?
Sally: Kindergarten. I stay at H.D.B. [Housing Development Board] flat. Kindergarten was directly downstairs.
Q: Can you tell me what kindergarten this is?
Sally: P.A.P. [People’s Action Party] kindergarten. At that time, we do not need to wear uniform.
Q: What did you learn in this kindergarten?
Sally: Spelling, colouring, some handicrafts.
Q: And you said it was a P.A.P. kindergarten.
Sally: I think it was a P.A.P. kindergarten, definitely not run by church.
Q: So there were few types of kindergartens in the 1960s?
Sally: Seventies? My knowledge is at the time, not everybody go through kindergarten. One is accessibility—if you’re near, parents bring you around. Number two—actually I not sure how much it cost. At least I went through two years, or three. Some one year.
Q: What about primary school?
Sally: Primary school, yes.
Q: Do you remember the name of your primary school?
Sally: Yes, Fairfield Methodist Girls’ School
Q: What other memories do you have your childhood?
Sally: Play. Playing. Of course, most of the time we’re studying. But exam is not our priority. We have homework but quite minimal. Went through test and exam without much fear. As long as I pass, I’m quite happy. My P.S.L.E. [Primary School Leaving Examination] is just pass or fail. I think I’m the last batch where they will not indicate anything, just pass or fail. I went into the exam happily, I didn’t prepare much.
Q: Which area of Singapore did you grow up in?
Sally: Queenstown, until [I’m] sixteen [years old]?.
Q: Until 1980s?
Sally: Yes. It used to have cinemas, famous Margaret Drive chicken rice, and a church. I go to church somewhere in the Commonwealth. And a Queenstown Library. The cinema and library is within walking distance.
Q: From your home?
Sally: From my home, about fifteen minutes’ walk, but it’s okay.
Q: Did you visit the cinema, the church, the library, when you were growing up?
Sally: Yes. The church every week we go with my parents. The one at Commonwealth, next to Commonwealth M.R.T. [Mass Rapid Transit].
Q: The one today?
Sally: But I’m not going to that church any more. But it’s the same church [as the one today]. It’s Faith Methodist Church. But I go to the Chinese section because my parents speak Mandarin. The cinema is when my father bring us there—one year, few times.
Q: Do you remember the price of a ticket?
Sally: I think it’s very cheap. And then children don’t need to pay at all.
Q: What sorts of shows did your family watch?
Sally: Kung-fu. That time is the famous Taiwan romantic movies. [My parents] only speak Mandarin, so we can only watch Mandarin shows.
Q: There were no English shows?
Sally: There are, but nobody will bring us there. My parents don’t speak English. English show is only [when I’m in] secondary school, I go to town then watch. Unless it’s very famous English show like Moses and the Ten Commandments, then we go to town. —
Q: Regarding the Queenstown Library, do you remember the books you read? Do you remember the authors, the content?
Q: Some children growing up in the 1970s read Enid Blyton.
Sally: Oh ya.
Q: Do you remember?
Sally: Mm, yes.
Q: Do you remember any [other titles]?
Q: What do you remember?
Sally: Not that much. After that we read Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Famous Five or Six.
Q: These were English books?
Q: Were they produced in Singapore?
Q: Where did they come from?
Sally: I think is England?
Q: Did they depict England in their stories?
Sally: Not very sure. Maybe the Famous Five.
Q: Do you remember the content?
Sally: Nancy Drew is a very good detective.
Q: Did you learn about other societies when you were reading these books?
Sally: They don’t mention Singapore.
Q: Were there any Chinese books?
Sally: The story of how [Chinese] idioms, proverbs come about.
Q: Did your parents read Chinese?
Sally: Chinese newspapers.
Q: How did you learn to read English?
Sally: In school.
Q: Primary school?
Sally: Not that much.
Q: Tell me how you came to learn English in primary school.
Sally: Most of my classmates cannot speak English. We start from one, spelling, making sentences.
Q: You told me your primary school was Fairfield Methodist Girls’ School. What sort of school was this?
Sally: All girls’ school. All the teachers were female. Affiliated to the Methodist Church in Singapore.
Q: There used to English and Chinese schools in Singapore. Was this an English—
Sally: —English school.
Q: You said that your parents meant to the Chinese section of the Methodist church. Were they Christians—
Q: Did they grow up in a [Christian] family?
Sally: No, my father is a Christian, my mother converted.
Q: What about your grandparents?
Sally: My father’s side is Christian, but my mother’s side is Buddhist.
Q: What were their dialect groups?
Sally: Both Hokkien.
Q: Was the Chinese section in this church large? How big was it?
Sally: Quite a lot of people. Speak Chinese, Hokkien, and some Cantonese.
Q: Tell me more about your primary school.
Sally: Primary school was fun because I was underweight so we were made to drink milk. I think it’s free—Magnolia Chocolate. Every day, we have to line up near the small drain in the school where we have to brush our teeth—Brush Our Teeth Campaign. Primary Three we were asked to go for dentist checkup. A bus will come and pick us up and go to the Outram side to go for dental checkup and cleaning. Almost every week I’m called. I do not know why. Good girl, I’ll follow them. At the end of the session they’ll give me a board game: snakes-and-ladders.
Q: What do you think of these practices in school?
Sally: I don’t know, I quite enjoy it. I can go there don’t need to attend classes. It doesn’t affect my studies.
Q: What languages did you learn in school?
Sally: English and Chinese.
Q: Were there other languages that you could or had to learn?
Sally: No, don’t need.
Q: What was the racial composition like in your primary school?
Sally: Mainly, I think, Chinese? I don’t even have a Muslim friend at all in primary school. Partly because this was affiliated to the Methodist Church. It’s mainly Chinese. Of course, there are some who are not Christians. They live nearby the school.
Q: What about people of different races and ethnicities?
Q: What about the schools around you?
Sally: There are some H.D.B. flats and — don’t know what kind of houses they’re called; they’re no longer around.
Q: What about the racial composition in these schools? Were they similar to your school? For instance, you said that your school was majority Chinese.
Sally: No. From where I stay in Queenstown, there is another school. I think I saw some other races—Malays, Indians. Mei Chin Primary and Secondary School. When I take a bus, pass by, I can see them. My school is near Chinatown, it attract a lot of Chinese there.
Q: What about Queenstown itself?
Sally: More Chinese, but we do see Malays and Indians. My level—no, all Chinese. My block—we have some Malays and Indians. My block—not every level will have a lift. Downstairs we have provision shops, barber shop, a market-cum-hawker centre, clinics, coffeeshops. We walk a bit of distance to the bus stop. Anyway, most of us primary school we take school bus unless our school is within our neighbourhood.
Q: Were your parents growing up in Queenstown for—
Q: When did they move?
Sally: After they got married, I was born in Lengkot Bahru, near Bukit Merah. They rented a flat there, then they bought a H.D.B. [in Queenstown].
Q: This was when you were born?
Sally: Until two-three years. 1966 to 1969.
Q: Describe this flat—
Sally: —It’s a three-room flat, corridors, you can always hear your neighbours running about. Four of us plus my brother. Two adults, two children—my younger brother. [He was born] three years younger, 1970.
Q: Did your school have any preference for you to speak a certain language?
Sally: Of course, during English lesson we have to speak English, during Chinese lesson we have to speak Chinese. During break time, recess, it’s up to us.
Q: And what do you notice in your cohort, and around you—what languages do they speak in?
Sally: Mix: Chinese and English.
Q: You said you came from a background that had parents who were Chinese-speaking.
Sally: Ya, quite a number.
Q: Were most of them like that?
Q: What subjects do you learn in primary school.
Sally: English, maths, Chinese, science, civics and moral education, P.E. [physical education].
Q: I’m really interested to find out what you learned in civics and moral education.
Sally: It was conducted in Chinese, called hao gong min [good citizen]. It teach us the behaviour, how should we conduct ourselves.
Q: And what do the textbooks and teachers say about this behaviour you should put on?
Sally: Give up seats, be courteous, it’s mostly in the lower primary we got these lessons. The books are a lot of pictorial.
Q: What did they predict?
Sally: The right behaviour expected in society.
Q: What other correct behaviours did you learn or notice?
Sally: We have to wake up early, so the early bird catches the worm. Give up the seats, be polite.
Q: The term ‘hao gong min’, what does it mean?
Sally: Good citizen.
Q: What did being a good citizen mean in these classes?
Sally: Be considerate to the others.
Q: ‘Citizen’ also describes you something about you as a Singaporean—does it?
Sally: No, I don’t think so.
Q: So it’s more social—
Sally: —Yes, more social.
Q: Did they talk about things like race or religion?
Q: Why do you think this course was conducted in—
Sally: —Chinese. Why? No idea.
Q: Did you find it noteworthy, growing up, that this was in Chinese?
Sally: We never ask.
Q: You said that your kindergarten could be a P.A.P. kindergarten. Does this mean kindergartens had a few types? Some of them ran by churches, some of them by the P.A.P.?
Sally: I think so. I think I know why it’s P.A.P.: they got the P.A.P. symbol.
Q: Were there any other details or elements that made it a P.A.P. kindergarten?
Sally: I think it’s the symbol.
Q: Did any politicians visit your school?
Sally: No. [Laughs].
Q: How different were the subjects in secondary school compared to primary school?
Sally: Primary is only four subjects. Secondary we have history, geography, literature—have to take all these in lower sec[ondary]. Home econ[omics]. Upper sec[ondary] we go to a science stream or a arts stream. Mine’s a science stream.
Q: Did you have a choice?
Q: Why did you choose science?
Sally: Because I don’t like arts. I don’t like cooking, I’m better at maths and science. I don’t mind the human[ities]. In the science class, my science class we only do lit[erature], no history, no geography.
Q: Tell me more about your family—for instance, what they worked as.
Sally: My mother is a housewife, my father work in the shop, shopkeeper.
Q: He owned the shop?
Q: Did he rent it?
Sally: Family. Sort of family related.
Q: What did he sell in this shop?
Sally: Something to do with jewellery. But after that, stop working, he got out, he got a job somewhere, can’t remember, in my primary school.
Q: Do you remember the new place?
Sally: I think work somewhere in Jurong. I know he work somewhere in the factory, but don’t know what he works as.
Q: Describe your family’s socio-economic situation in the 1960s and 1970s.
Sally: I think we were middle-income because my father owns a car. He can afford to send me for piano lessons. I have a piano at home.
Q: Why do you think a car and a piano were indicative of a middle-income?
Sally: Because not everybody—you don’t see a lot of cars on the road.
Q: In the 1960s and 1970s?
Sally: Yes. And not everybody knows how to play an instrument, especially in my primary school.
Q: Were piano lessons expensive or rare?
Sally: I’m not sure if it’s expensive but it’s rare.
Q: And the piano was expensive?
Sally: Ya, because it’s made in Japan: Yamaha. Either Japan or made in China.
Q: Because of that, growing up, did you feel like you were middle-income; did you know?
Sally: I didn’t know.
Q: Compare this to your classmates. Did you feel like there was a similarity or different in the economic backgrounds?
Sally: Have some classmates who are about the same status or even better, a bit of struggling.
Q: How did you know your relative differences or similarities?
Sally: Actually, I didn’t know at that time. We were just playing, we don’t bother about all this. We sort of know but we don’t focus on that.
Q: How could you tell when you were a child?
Sally: Sometimes you say how you travel, not overseas, how you travel to one place to another place in Singapore. They’ll say how long you walk, then we’ll say, “Why don’t you take a bus or car?” That’s how we know they don’t own a car.
Q: Were the bus rides expensive or—
Sally: —Oh very cheap, ten cents. — Things are very cheap. I used to have some mama shop [provision shop] outside my school selling ice cream for five cents. —
Q: [What is] your secondary school?
Sally: Secondary follow up, also Fairfield, affiliated. It’s still girls’ school but integrated into one, so they call it Fairfield Methodist School. Used to be all-girls’ school now is co-ed school. Used to be a all-girls’ school then forced to leave the site and move to school to another place, the introduce the boys. It was a requirement by the government. My Sec[ondary] Four was in a new premises. We were not happy about it. My first three years of secondary school was all girls. Then Sec Four we start to see boys in Sec One.
Q: Did you hear about the Chinese schools then, in SG?
Sally: Ya. When I lower sec[ondary] then I understand this Chinese school. More of Chinese-speaking.
Q: How was this different from your school, which also had Chinese lessons?
Sally: Theirs is first language. Their Chinese is more difficult because I did buy assessment book, [from] that time only place was M.P.H. [Bookstore]. I bought some Chinese assessment paper to try, I didn’t realise that was the difficult one, which I couldn’t do most of the questions.
Q: What’s the different between Chinese as a first language? In your school, were you given an option?
Q: Your first language was?
Sally: Still English. And Chinese.
Q: Chinese was—
Sally: —They call it mother tongue. They don’t really call it mother tongue that time. They call it Chinese.
Q: You knew that Chinese schools had Chinese as the first language?
Sally: Ya. And then some, what I hear from my parents, not all lessons are conducted in English. Maybe their maths or science are conducted in Chinese.
Q: When you were growing up, how did you come to know about these Chinese schools? You said you only knew about them in lower secondary?
Sally: Because my father came from a Chinese-educated school. He mention it. His is a Chinese-medium school, Chung Cheng, Zhong Zheng. I think his is the main school.
Q: This was in secondary?
Q: Your father went to school. At what age?
Sally: Don’t know.
Q: Do you remember the year he was born?
Q: Would it be around the 1940s, 1950s?
Sally: 1950s. He everything speak in Chinese, hardly know English.
Q: Did your father talk about Chung Cheng when you were growing up?
Sally: He say his school got a lake in the school. He’s in basketball. He didn’t do well in studies, stayed back at least once because he didn’t put time in his studies. It’s a reminder you have to study hard.
Q: That’s what he told you?
Sally: That’s what my mother told me. My mother—I don’t think she went to primary school that much. She went through three years of primary school. My father live near Chinatown, school is easily accessible. My mother stay in kampong, to go to school, she have to walk some distance out.
Q: Where did she grow up?
Sally: West coast side, that time is all kampong. It’s all wooden house.
Q: Your father was in Chung Cheng in the 1950s. Did he tell you about the student activities?
Sally: Sometimes there’s news, he’ll mention a bit. There used to be some student movement, but he did not participate.
Q: What did he share about the student movements?
Sally: They will have some protests in school.
Q: Did he tell you the reason why some students protested?
Sally: He didn’t say.
Q: Did he describe this protest? Who protested? What did they protest about?
Sally: Chinese students from Chinese schools.
Q: What did they protest about?
Sally: He didn’t say. This was during his student time. He say, “Oh, when I was a student, something happen.”
Q: You mean to say when you were growing up, there was news of student protest—
Sally: —Not student protest, but protest happening in some other parts of the world.
Q: What sorts of protests did you read or hear about on the T.V.?
Sally: I cannot remember.
Q: But he would take the opportunity to share about the Chinese students?
Sally: Ya, he’ll mention.
Q: Did your father tell you why he didn’t participate in these?
Sally: My grandfather is very strict. They have a certain curfew, he have to go back. He is the eldest son, so he have to set a good example for his brothers and sisters.
Q: Did he tell you if he thought about participating?
Sally: No, he didn’t.
Q: Right now, do you understand what those protests were about?
Sally: Vague ideas. [Shakes head, shrugs.]
[END OF SESSION 1 OF 3]