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A "recycled teenager" learning to blog.

Dec 11, 2012

Memories of Bukit Ho Swee Fire

Group photo of my friends at Woodlands Regional Library on 9 December, 2012.

My friends in the photo (from left to right): Ng Koon How, Lina-Catcat, Thimbuktu, Lam Chun See, James Tann and Tay Choon Kwee.

This blog is posted with the courtesy of Lina-Catcat, Lam Chun See and James Tann who posted their photos to "Thimbuktu on Facebook". With thanks and acknowledgement for publishing them on this blog.

Special thanks to Lina-Catcat, a friend on Facebook whom I met for the first time in person at the "Bukit Ho Swee Fire" Public Talk at the Woodlands Regional Library on 9 December, 2012 at 2.00 pm.  With her creativity and skillful art of photography, she has captured a video clip and selected photos of my moments of nostalgic memories during the sharing session of the event.  I was not aware of her camera skills to take the unsolicited photos ; )

The National Heritage Board's flyers for the event.

I would like to thank Mr Alvin Tan, Director of Heritage Institution, National Heritage Board who kindly invited me to share my personal experience about the Bukit Ho Swee fire about 51 years ago.

According to Mr Alvin Tan in My Paper published on 6 December, 2012:

"The whole purpose of this series is to look at milestone events in Singapore's history that showcase how Singaporeans rallied together in times of crisis.  We hope that members of the public, especially the younger generation would learn a lot and better appreciate how Singaporeans worked together in such times".

Mr Alvin Tan, Director, Heritage Institution, National Heritage Board
The importance of fire prevention was highlighted in the message of the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) which are shown in the presentation slides during the talk:

"Fire is a good servant but a bad master":  You must be careful to use fire wisely and under control so that it will not hurt you and others.
 Why was the news about the Bukit Ho Swee fire in 1961 in Singapore suddenly the spotlight in the recent national news media?

Who cares about this little known kampong in Singapore to young Singaporeans today?

When I asked the audience at the public talk to raise their hands if anyone knows about the Bukit Ho Swee fire, only one young lady did.  She heard about it from her grandmother because she was not yet born in 1961.

The National Heritage Board, with the support of the Ministry of Home Affairs' Heritage Development Unit and the National Library Board, organised a series of public talks in conjunction with the launch of its exhibition on the Bukit Ho Swee fire of 1961.

As I reel back the mental video of my personal memories of the Bukit Ho Swee fire which happened 51 years ago,  I have to close my eyes and the stories to be told in mixed feelings...sometimes funny, sometimes silly, sometimes naive to have the first experience of real life fire in first person narration.  I did not try to dramatise or exaggerate the situation in my family calamity and 16,000 homeless. 

It may look like fun while watching a "Towering Inferno" movie...

I have to tell the truth that I was not frightened while watching the dark smoke as my mother held my hand tightly and we rushed towards Beo Lane from Beo Crescent at the junction of Havelock Road.  I was dumb-striken on the spot to watch as a curious spectator.

Had not been my mother's calmness and experience during the Japanese Occupation to control herself, we could not have been able to escape from the fire in 10 to 15 minutes flat to run towards Prince Philip Avenue (near Delta Circus) for safety.  

I have never seen a burning house anywhere before, never watch any movies or video on television (there was no TV in Singapore in 1961).  I was as curious to find out something exciting...there was no time or fire drill to learn.

As reported in TODAY on 5 December, 2012 as "History Showcase - Bukit Ho Swee fire of roving exhibition", I was a 9-year-old Bukit Ho Swee boy.  As I was sleeping one night in 1959,  I was awaken by a  loud commotion outside our bedroom.  There was shouting of "fire, fire" and my parents and the neighbors quickly ran out of the house.

Later awhile, we were told that actually there was house-breaking in one of the houses.  A quick-thinking young man said that if he had shouted "thief, thief", most likely the womenfolks would not dare to affront an armed thief, to avoid trouble.

However, everybody would come out of the house, and the crowd could arrest or scare the thief away.

From the screen slide on the photo, that was the lesson I learn from the Bukit Ho Swee fire.

Next, I spoke about my personal childhood memories of kampong life at Bukit Ho Swee in the 1950s.

To avoid repeating the older stories posted on my previous blogs, here's my untold stories stored in my "memory bank"  to share at this public talk.

I must clarify that I was not a sole survivor in the Bukit Ho Swee fire or had done any heroic acts of bravery to save people.  Like other fellow fire victims, my mother and I were escaping away from the fire to save our very own lives.

We learnt later that many able-bodied Singaporeans with community kampong spirit volunteered to help with donations in cash and kinds.  Many of the volunteers were from everywhere in Singapore and we are thankful to them, especially the philanthropists, for their generosity and compassion.

After the fire, my family and the 16,000 fire victims were homeless, found us in a situation and circumstances of hopelessness and hearts were too weak to think about the those depressed moments of uncertainties, it was like the end of the world for us to expect us for the worst of our parents' lives and the lives of  the young children.  Further down the blog, please watch a video-clip "Promise - the Bukit Ho Swee Story" and look out for the poignant photo of an old man with only his clothing and watching at the fire, and another archived photo of a man with his wife and a crying daughter, pointing towards the houses in fire...

 Do you believe that I was a timid little boy when I was growing up in Bukit Ho Swee?

The name "Bukit Ho Swee" was associated with "pai kia", secret society gangsters and a notorious place where no decent people would want to raise their children in the 1960s if they can afford to have an alternative better place to live.

I was born in a poor family with no inheritance of landed properties from my grandparents in prestigious areas of Singapore.  I am not ashamed or embarrassed to know that I was born in Bukit Ho Swee.

Who to be born poor or born rich; die poor or die rich are not choose our parents at birth?  Wherever we are born in a country of birth would be the pride of as our country built by every citizens for peace, harmony and prosperity. Bless God thy Motherland, thy Father and thy Mother! Be thankful and grateful for our children to live in a land of opportunity, in our country with our next generations for hope, home and heart.

When I was a young boy at Bukit Ho Swee, my mother taught me to look at the road while walking, don't stare or glare at other people.   In the kampong, there were many gang clash incidents because of  "staring sessions".  Mostly started with questioning "Li chit toh si mi. Kua nin peh chor si mi?" (What gang group do you belong. Why are you looking at your father?).   I survived Bukit Ho Swee by playing dumb and  did not pretend to be brave or belong to any secret societies. The gangsters have grown old just like us.

The only society I belong to in school was the Red Cross Society and the motto is "Serve One Another".

Regardless of big countries, small countries or "the little red dot on the map",  the powerful treatment of elements by Nature versus Man are equally powerful to wipe off the faces from the earth God created mankind against it fire, flood, earthquake, tsunami, tornado or the tinnie tiny virus called SARS.  Be kind to all humanity, strong or weak, big or small,  who are fragile as human and never to take life for granted to live in peace and harmony in a borrowed time, borrowed world.

Man cannot fight against the phenomena of Nature, but the strength of  the human spirit to revive, restore and rebuild the community with the help of the concerned authorities, the government and everyone to survive, the ways the Bukit Ho Swee fire victims have adapted and survived in 5 decades.

Watching the video-clips during the presentation, thinking along with memories of the Bukit Ho Swee fire.

As mentioned in the blog above, the "Promise. The Bukit Ho Swee Story" video with acknowledge and thanks to Kreta Ayer-Kim Seng Citizens Consultative Committee which was presented on the Tree Planting Day at Havelock View on 4 December, 2012 as a homage to former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

Thanks to Angeline Koh of  Digital Storytelling Asia  who was commissioned to create and produce the creative video.

The second video was updated by "sittinginpictures" Director Chang Soh Kiak for "Foodage" on Okto TV with thanks and acknowlegement.  With appreciation to Dick Yip and Peter Chan for helping us in this episode about the Bukit Ho Swee fire and the 1-room emergency flats at Jalan Bukit Ho Swee.

Thanks to Unk Dicko's blog: "Walking back 50 years...Tiong Bahru, Bt Ho Swee" here .   It makes me laugh at Unk Dicko's comment on the communal toilets for the tenants to do their "big business to attend" at the emergency flats.

In conclusion, I asked them: "Did anyone know why the attap, zinc-roof wooden houses are no longer found in Singapore today?" and showed the following slide on the screen.

A young boy who sat in the front row of the hall raised his hand and said: "Oh yes, I heard "The Three Little Pigs" story from my teacher in school.

The story of "The Three Little Pigs" and the big bad wolf who wanted to eat up the three little pigs.

The moral of the story: "The big bad wolf is like the fire.  The houses in straw and wood could be easily destroyed. Houses built of bricks would provide better safety against fire (and the big bad wolf)!

The message:  "Prevention is better than cure.  Fire prevention is better than fire-fighting"!

TERBIT is an info-ed of how Singaporeans overcame major crises since its independence. Told through the personal stories of the people involved – survivors, journalists and the people who were there to render assistance, Terbit shows how Singaporeans came together to help other fellow Singaporeans during the Spyros Fire, the SARs, the recessions, the New World hotel collapse, and even the Tsunami where Singaporean perished.

Some people may ask why is the need to remind TV viewers about fire in Singapore.  Its already the history of Singapore so long ago and gone to be forgotten.  Time has healed and memories of the fire was over.  The fire victims are no longer emotional or sadness.  Its the past.

On the day of the Bukit Ho Swee fire, my mother and I did not stay longer than necessary at the fire site.  We were running away to find safer places  with other fire victims at the Relief Centers.  I learned more from this Suria TV about the fire engines, the newspaper reporters and various activities to help at Bukit Ho Swee in many ways.



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