Jalan Kayu Memories 1955 to 1958 - Al Taylor

Al Taylor who now resides in Australia writes fondly about his times in Singapore while serving as a young man in the Royal Air Force Far East.

Dear Jalan Kayu History Team,

What a wonderful idea to compile the History of Jalan Kayu somewhere I remember with very great affection. I don't appear to have any pictures of Jalan Kayu but wonderful memories I have aplenty, I served from April 55 to April 58 in the RAF on 81 Sqdn, West Camp, RAF Seletar.

TV today, apart from projecting the local smells, can take you anywhere in the world without leaving your lounge chair. However in 1955 I, like most service people at that time, hardly knew where Singapore was but what a pearl Singapore turned out to be.
Coming from central England country side where I had never seen an Asian person, the four and a half day flight out to Singapore served as an introduction to Indian people, then when I landed in Singapore I was transformed into this multicultural experience that was to have such an endearing effect on my life.

Amazing Jalan Kayu
From the very moment I landed on Singapore soil I was at home, the Gharri trip to RAF Seletar amazed me with sights, sounds and aromas that excited me. When I left England Meat, Food, Clothing was still on the ration (a War time Measure), most other produce was scarce… On my first visit to Jalan Kayu I was astounded at the selection of fruit etc that was just accepted locally, and only some ten years before this wonderful island had been under Japanese occupation. Bananas, Coconuts, Pineapples were all new to me so when I was introduced to a freshly made drink of crushed Pineapple and Ice as you waited just astounded me. The only time I had eaten Rice was made with milk as Rice Pudding so to find that Rice was the Staple diet and not Potatoes was another cultural experience.

Shopping in Jalan Kayu circa 1955
The shopkeepers were all so pleasant and both B.O.R.’s (British Other Ranks) and Locals referred to one another as ‘John’ or the Locals sometimes called us ‘Tuan”. Haggling over price was another new experience and certainly became part of life with the price of an item always inflated, the rule of thumb was for the purchaser to head towards about half the initial request, whilst the vendor was happy to get a sale the idea was to keep the price as close to the starting price as possible.

It is unbelievable just how much I learnt from these local traders that served me so well in later life such as;
a. My first lesson in supply and demand marketing was in Jalan Kayu with the Oil Cloth and Bamboo Parasol type Umbrellas that every one sold, when the Sun was shining they were 50cents and when it was raining they were $1!

b. How to Anesthetise customers with diversion and breaking the resistiveness of a wary buyer by saying “ John would you like a Coke or Tea while you sit down and relax".

c. The wonderful wisdom of K.Wah ‘My Tailor’ who puzzled me the first time I had a shirt(Shark Skin) made to measure because he measured me three times to ensure my shirt as later my suits etc fitted perfectly. The first time he measured me and followed by showing me different materials, the second time he measured was followed by talking about what style and how many buttons on the cuff or did I want a breast pocket etc…. Then just before taking the measurements for the third time he called in from behind a curtain one of his Tailors who sat cross legged and wrote down my measurements…. I questioned why he measured me three times and he replied” First time you very stiff and upright….. Second time you relax bit!….. Third time you relaxed!....Ploblem is make suit to first or second measure it no fit when you relaxed!”. I learnt from K.Wah to measure three times and Cut Once!

d. There used to be a Restaurant about four shops up entering Jalan Kayu from Seletar. One morning after a heavy night out starting in the West Camp N.A.A.F.I.( Navy, Army, Air Force, Institute) then on to Jalan Kayu and ending up in Singapore… I was chatting with the lad I had been out with and we both tried to remember what we had had to eat and how good it was…we could not remember anything else about much of the evening but having gone to the N.A.A.F.I and then out to Jalan Kayu so we decided to retrace our steps starting with the N.A.A.F.I. and then on to Jalan Kayu where we entered the first Restaurant and spoke to the Waiter “ Hi John do you remember us?”…. “Yes John you both in here last night”…. “Can you remember what we had”…. “Yes John you both have three Tigers then eat”…. “OK lets do it again John”… So the waiter plied us with three Tigers (which of course we had to force down) …. Eventually he brought two steaming plates and I took one look at this beautifully shaped rice meal and said “John no way I could eat that” looking at the tentacles embedded in the rice… “Why not John” … I just pointed at the tentacles and shook my head… “But you eat last night John… No eat with eyes…Maybe another Tiger”… I nodded and by this time my Mate was tucking into his meal and commenting that “Gee this is great…this is what we had!”… I took another swig of Tiger and swallowed my resistance and thoroughly enjoyed the meal. I learnt from then on to eat with my taste and stomach and not with my eyes, also that Tiger was a wonderful aperitif.

e. At the end of pay fortnight when funds were very low and your desire for a genuine Curry was high it was normal that the further away from the main gate you walked in Jalan Jayu the cheaper the food and Tiger got, there was a little eatery at the far end on the left where the labourers and grass cutters used to collect, their bikes were lined up outside which was a good indication of the quality of the eatery. A really good Curry wrapped in a Banana leaf was a dollar, there were no tables or chairs so overheads were low hence the dollar Curry. We used to join the locals on their haunches and thoroughly enjoy this really tasty Curry eaten with your fingers. From this I learnt that good food does not have to be expensive if your ego and pride are under control.

Dhoby days and great service
I had been elected to serve on the P.S.I. committee which was responsible for overseeing the running of the N.A.A.F.I. and the civilian Dhobi contractor who was engaged by the Air Force to wash and iron our Air Force issue clothing and Towels etc, civilian clothing we had to pay for. The quality of the Dhobi service had dropped and in response to many complaints made to me I raised the matter on the P.S.I. committee, this resulted in the contractor being called to attend a meeting where he was informed of these many complaints, he said he would attend to the points raised, but by the next meeting it was obvious he had not improved his service quality. The rest of the committee wanted his contract terminated but I insisted he be given one more chance and sat down with him and suggested if he wanted to retain his contract he had to perform. I visited his business in Jalan Kayu and discussed his need to improve or lose the contract and that his problems were his problems and not our. Within a week the quality was back to normal and I was able to tell him that is contract now was on a monthly basis to ensure his standard did not drop.He explained that he had sat down and taken the decisions he should have taken months ago and thanked me for helping him. A few days later he came to see me and again thanked me and gave me a little gift wrapped parcel as a thank you. I said I could not accept it as it might be considered a bribe but he was insistent that it was not a bribe so I suggested I would discuss the matter with one of our Officers, the Officer suggested that it was not a bribe but a sign of gratitude which I could accept and he would vouch for, the present was a Gold plated Parker Pen and Pencil set which I used for many years until old age took its toll. That man need not have bothered, but he did, and I learnt respect and compassion and the art of saying a simple thank you!

Thanks for the memories Singapore
I loved the culture of Singapore , the weather, the food, the competitiveness, the aromas, the Choong Sam etc. All of this I missed terribly when I was returned to the UK after three very happy years, In 1982 my family and I migrated to Australia which in many respects has a similar climate to Singapore. Many have asked me why I have never returned to Singapore ,it is quite simple - I prefer to remember Singapore , Jalan Kayu and RAF Seletar as it was as all of that only now exists in my memories.

Terima Kasay Jalan Kayu. Terima Kasay.

Al Taylor


Anonymous said…

I was trying to research all about Serrengoon, Singapore, as I will be visiting in December, and wanted to try and find where I lived in Porchester Avenue, back in 1956. As I clicked onto certain links I came across your site and read a comment from Al Green reminiscing about his time in the Air Force between 1955 - 1958, and wondered how I would be able to get into contact with him, as I was hoping that maybe he served with my father. Mr James |(Jock) Scott. Any help would be appreciated.
Many thanks
Gail Benbow (nee Scott)