was difficult to arrange. At that time, soon after Israel had become a state and the war there was over, there were still no scheduled flights from there to Asia. Anyway the cost of a regular airline ticket for so long a trip was not attractive to the Government office that had promised me a passage to anywhere. A solution was found: I could be on a plane chartered by the Jewish Agency go and to bring back Jews who wanted to come to Israel from India as well as some of the Harbin Jews who were coming that way. I could get to Bombay that way, and on a commercial flight the rest of the way to Singapore.
The day before I left the papers were full of a crash by a big plane at Bombay airport with many dead. That didn't make me nervous. I was as detached and unfeeling to whatever depth I chose to plumb, as usual, when we took off. About ten other passengers, all on some sort of Israeli business. We flew quietly for a long time. I don't remember talking with anybody but the aircrew and not much of that. Coming in to land for refuelling at Baghdad (a little nervous - since we were Israelis and they Muslims) we ran into a howling storm and we were all pretty tense for a while, but the onward flight and the landing at Bombay were unremarkable.
When the plane landed at Bombay airport a man in uniform got on. He was wearing a face mask, and had a cylinder on his back from which he sprayed the cabin and all of us generously with some powder, insecticide maybe, maybe DDT. Then we all got off, maybe ten of us, and were herded off to Customs and Immigration. The pens were rusty, the ink gritty, and the forms so absorbent that ink blots and sweat blotches ruined my first attempt. It was roaring hot. The officials were downright nasty.
Finally, all was completed, and we started eagerly for the door. But were stopped and given the news: we were to be quarantined for ten days. Our plane had touched down in Brazil before coming to Israel and there was some sort of plague or typhus or cholera in Brazil. They took us to a quarantine bungalow at the edge of the airport. And there we were. The bungalow was British India in style, with high ceilings and a wide verandah all around. We had charpoys to sleep on, wooden frames with a rope network for a mattress, like sleeping on a tight web, not uncomfortable and pretty cool; slow big fans from the ceilings; mosquito nets over the beds. A dining room where we were fed in the Indian style: tea and toast for breakfast, fruit ad lib, curry and rice for lunch (tiffin, isn't it man), an omelet at night. Not bad. In fact it was a welcome comfort for me after the army and the poor food at the kibbutz and the austerity in the cities in Israel.
There was nothing to do, little to read. We pooled our cigarettes, we talked....but I remember only one who was with me in quarantine. He was a squat, solid, middle aged Israeli sheep farmer, a moshavnik I think, on his way to Australia to buy breeding rams. Not unfriendly, but not very outgoing. We didn't exchange life stories or anything like that. But one long lazy evening about halfway through the quarantine period, he read my palm. First he showed me how the life line ran straight across his left palm without any break, and explained that only those with that mark can actually read palms. Terrific. So I gave my hand unto him. He looked long and hard, and told me about my past. Of course some of what he said was all-purpose generalities and some was by way of being ranging shots to get my range end elicit guiding feedback.........no statement he made was really wrong. Then he started really hitting precise and what seemed to me to be hidden targets a lot. (For years I "remembered" that he had said the special pet name I had for Chana that nobody else knew but us - but now I'm not sure that this was not enhancement of the story). In the end he impressed the hell out of me and he declined to read my future. Remembering it so vaguely I am still very impressed, though maybe only with his skill as a practical psychologist and trickster. No money changed hands, though.
(A few months later I had a very different fortune telling experience, in Singapore. I was boarding at Mrs. Cantrell's in Tanglin Road at the time, had a nice room on the ground floor. One evening after work I was having tea on my private patio - keeping an eye out for snakes since one had joined me there a few days before - when a charming Indian in a fez came across the lawn and offered to tell me my fortune for a small fee. As is the custom he showed me letters and endorsements from other clients, hoo hah. We agreed on a price, 10 Straits dollars, and he cast coins and chanted and peered at my palm. He gave me a string of generalities that included some clear inaccuracies, and came to climax with the pronouncement that I would be getting a large sum of money soon. "Not hundreds of dollars, Sahib" quoth he, "but lakhs!". A lakh is 10,000. Smartass that I was, I seized on that and told him that instead of ten dollars now I would pay him a hundred dollars as soon as his prediction came true. He protested, I stood firm, and maybe that's why I did not get dollars in lakhs. Now I regret what I did, I should have played by the rules; I sensed that he couldn't make trouble for me of course, because I was a "European". But I digress).
Finally the quarantine was over and we were taken to Bombay and released there. I checked into the best hotel, the Taj Mahal and then peeled off to the bar to drown the long dry spell without a drink. "Bartender" says I, "please bring me a double Scotch whiskey and while you're at it please bring me another one too", and he says to me "Oh I am so sorry Sahib, but just the other day Prohibition became the law in India and so would the Sahib be wanting a nice cool lemonade?" and oh shit but there it was.
I had to stay in Bombay three days before I could get a flight to Singapore. Got in contact, can't recall how, with some local Jews and a young brother and sister came to the hotel and I hired a cab and they showed me around Bombay: the Gateway to India monument, the posh residential area, the Jewish quarter. We didn't get on well together, but we behaved of course.
What struck me most about Bombay was the miserable horrifying poverty I had never seen before anyplace else, not even in the slums of Tijuana. Multitudes of families living on a bit of sidewalk right there in the public way, cooking eating washing sleeping shitting sitting giving birth and dying all on about six square feet per family of 10. Oh my god it was awful to see. Right there in front of the Taj Mahal Hotel and its opulence, and that seemed to make it worse and even more wrong.
I disliked India, a lot. I asked people what was being done about the poverty, I read in the newspapers: nothing. It seemed to be acceptable. I found many Indians to behave in ways that I saw as sycophantic and officious at the same time, sneaky and evasive (though "placating" and "mollifying" are less negative terms for the same behavior).
Came time to leave Bombay. First I flew down to Colombo where I stayed at the beautiful Galle Face Hotel whence we were taken at 2 am to so early a takeoff for the long haul across the Indian Ocean to Singapore. We were in a converted 4-engined Lancaster and when one of the four engines barked and stopped the cabin crew told us proudly that this plane is so strong that it can fly on one engine, even, so not to worry. So we didn't worry when a second engine stopped. It was when a third engine began to sputter and the propeller began to stop and start again, and the flight crew came back into the passenger cabin and explained that we had passed the point at which it was better to go forward than to go back, and drinks were free from now on..............that's when we began to properly worry and we worried all the rest of the way which took about three hours but got there allright.
Miriam and Jonathan were waiting at the airport for me. "How terribly thin you are, dear" said Momma; the greeting I'd always had from one or the other of my parents after long separation. Never again, though, for in six months I was downright fat and have never been skinny since (except for a few months at Ein HaShofet in 1957).
We got in their car, a Wolsey 6 I think it was and black of course, and drove up to their then post, Seremban. I had no idea about "the emergency" and so was not nervous about driving through what I later knew to be very dangerous areas.
There was the big house at Seremban. On the ground floor there was the entrance, at the top of the U shaped driveway, and the dining room and a salon. Kitchen and servants quarters were attached, tucked away behind. Second floor (English first floor) was the bedrooms and bathrooms, surrounded by a deep verandah roofed over and with chicks (mats of rattan or bamboo) that were rolled up when not wanted and rolled down to the railings when the sun shone in or when it was raining. I had a nice bedroom and a bathroom with plumbing for the toilet and washbasin but a classical Malayan bath, a "mandi" which was a waist-high glazed clay jar which cooled the water in it, and a small bucket with a handle to ladle out the water and pour it over me. Next to the jar there was a wooden openwork platform so one didn't have to stand on the cold and slippery cement floor.
Breakfast was at 7:00 and very English: bacon & eggs, panfried fish (usually ikan lidah, very like sole, excellently fresh and delicious), toast and coffee, papaya or rambutan or mangosteen or mango.....very nice. I would dress pukka British in Tropic style, while Aertex shirt and khaki shorts (longish and baggy, of course), high topped gartered stockings and heavy shoes. Then I went for a little walk before it got hot, and came back to read with a cool barley water on the verandah until tiffin. Tiffin was a substantial meal, and one had a nice zizz afterwards. Then a mandi, and sit around talking until tea quickly followed by the drinks tray. Momma would pour His Worship a stengah (half a peg of Scotch whiskey, with a spurt of soda) and a suku (half that much) for herself. I took a stengah, myself. Jonathan had four, I had three, Miriam one. Then they betook themselves off to change for dinner. No jacket or tie when we dined alone, just long sleeved shirt and trousers rather than shorts.
First and foremost, there was Singapore.
Founded in the mid-1800s by Stamford Raffles, an English visionary and mercantile adventurer, it had no history before that save its name - Singa Pura - Lion City in Sanskrit.
Chinese came to the empty place (well, there were a few Malay fishing villages, kampongs), when Raffles had set up an entrepot, a free trade area. Business boomed and was good ever since. Transhippments of goods from European countries of manufacture to all of South East Asia but particularly to the Dutch East Indies with their hundred million customers.
Raucous and dirty, very Chinese, very seaport, lots of smuggling, prostitution, extortion, opium. Change Alley, little shops with small things from all over, toys, gadgets, gee gaws.
The center veddy British: St. Andrew's Cathedral, the Singapore Cricket Club overlooking the vast playing fields, the Padang. The rest Chinese with a small sprinkling of Indian both Hindu and Muslim and the small Malay population unseen in their kampongs. Temples all over the place. Fancy British neighborhood was Tanglin, side of the Tanglin Club which accepted only the most senior of the British as members and none of other races at all of course.
The big British naval base at Changi, the race course out Bukit Timah Road not far from the monument to Japanese cruelty during their occupation in 1942-1945. No Japanese businessmen or tourists came to Singapore until after 1957.
A lot of power was carried by the Triad Societies, originally Chinese self defense groups but now groups of gangsters like the Mafia in Italy and the USA, and I cut into that in my business and found some friends there too.
"Upcountry", in the "ulu", in Johore and Malacca and Negri Sembilan and Kedah and Perak and Selangor and Sungei Patani and Kelantan and Trengganu, the Federated Malay States and the other parts of the Malay peninsula, the "emergency" was getting into full swing. That meant that "European" (Caucasian) rubber plantation managers and tin mine managers and others were being assassinated - and their wives and children - as were some Chinese who refused to cooperate with the rebels. The rebels were called "Communist Terrorists" or "CTs" by the Government forces; they called themselves the Malayan Peoples' Anti-Colonial Army and termed the Government forces "colonialists". The rebel leader, Chin Peng, had received the Order of the British Empire and marched in the victory parade in London after Japan was defeated. He led the Malayan Peoples' Anti-Japanese Army, supplied and encouraged by the British. After the surrender of Japan, he and his followers looked to the United Kingdom to grant Malaya its independence, as had been done with India. The British had not even considered that notion, and roundly rejected it. When the Communist forces did not hand in their British-supplied arms, after the war was over, it became clear that there would be rebellion. The Chinese in Malaya, about a third of the total population, had their ties with China which was itself newly won by the Communist forces. Many served in and or supported the rebel forces, mostly in secret so as not to get into trouble with the British authorities. Even in the so-called "Unfederated Malay States" where the British had no formal authority, the British Advisor to the ruler in fact dominated everything and the Malay rulers were hollow figureheads. This is true. The Malays mostly stayed out of it, though many manned the British led military and police forces. The Indians tried to stay out of the struggle. The British ruled, and tried to put the rebellion down.
The Emergency, then, commanded a lot of attention. Travel to the upcountry areas was hazardous.
In Singapore itself, the main impression was bright light, powerful stinks, and bustle. Almost all Chinese, the British establishment still was very visible. The center of the city was the Padang, the main square and cricket/soccer playing field on one side of the river, and Raffles Square around which were grouped the major trading houses (on which more later) and department stores. Raffles Hotel was near the Padang. The Singapore Cricket Club dominated one side of the Padang. One lunched very well on the verandah, and next to the dining area was a long row of very special rattan lounge chairs - special because they had leg supports folded out from them and built-on drinks trays. The servants, the "boys" were Chinese; there may have been a few Chinese members, the high society Queen's Chinese whose home language was English (Lee Kuan Yew the Prime Minister/Dictator for so many years, is Queen's Chinese).
Moving along the seaside one would find on Bugis Street the nighttime stalls of the Bugis people who were the satay makers and sellers. Further along would be Kallang Airport, and further yet the Seaview Hotel, second only to Raffles as those things went. (Raffles Hotel was pretty shabby and scruffy in those days between its first flush of glory in Maugham's time and its most recent renovation).
Another well known spot was Change Alley, just off Raffles Place. It was very narrow, pedestrians only, lined on both sides with booth shops selling clothing, cloth, tourist trash souvenirs, foodstuffs, spices, hardware - everything. Some of the little eating shops (which was what small and modest "native" restaurants were called) were very good. There was one place where my friends and I went for fish curry once a week. Our office (Sime, Darby & Co. Ltd. - SIMIT) was just off Raffles Place where we had a large building.
A large outdoor food market, an official one whose weights and measures were inspected by the (British) authorities, was on the other side of Raffles Place. Its permanent features were smooth concrete blocks about 4' x 4', mounted on cement stands at a height of about 4'. On these were laid slabs of meat, kids' heads, fish, vegetables and fruits - one vendor (and one product) to a slab. Eating stalls were grouped in one location...each a three feet square box on wheels with a sort of frame for a canvas awning on top to keep the rain off. Lumps of meat and bundles of vegetables hung on hooks from the upper frame, there was a small cookstove on top of the box and bottles of cooking oil and sauces. Poor people, coolies, ate at these stands, squatting on their heels perched on tiny low stools. I was impressed at the care and grave attention that cook and customers gave to the preliminary discussion that ended with detailed commands about what was to be cooked and how. My coolie acquaintances sometimes hosted me for lunch at those stalls, and I always found the food delicious. One drank Chinese tea, or orange soda, or beer, or stout. The public mood was raucous, bawdy, lively, loud. The stench........one got used to it. Eating a lot of garlic may have helped. We all were heavy smokers.
The Singapore River wound through the city, its banks lined with warehouses ("godowns"). Big heavy sampans would bring loads of goods alongside, a thin plank that seemed all too flexible to me was laid across the gap, and coolies carried the gigantic loads off the sampan and across the road into the godown. When burdened they walked with a rolling dip in their gait, which I saw as a technique for keeping balance or making the load less agonizing to carry. Outwardly they were very cheerful, talking and joking loudly, squatting down for a smoke when there was a break in the activity. They would gamble on a primitive sort of upright roulette wheel, brought around on the back of a bike, with a dried pressed duck as the prize. The winner would almost always share the duck with his or her buddies at lunch time. A refreshing drink was the coffee brought around on a bicycle by an Indian vender: a little coffee and a lot of milk poured between two glasses from one held high to the other held low to produce a fine foamy frothy drink.
The rest of Singapore was 3-story houses,with a few areas of 8 story blocks. Families typically lived many to one small room, with communal bathing and toilet facilities and tiny kitchens or a stove in the hallway. The Chinese tolerated filth all around them as well as terrific noise levels. Their persons and their clothes were scrupulously clean, except for the beggars and derelicts. In the crowded streets, people on foot predominated; there were lots of bicycles; tricycles (a canopied double seat behind a peddling human) were common; and cars and buses would force a path through the throng with loud horn and threatening engine noises. There were, however, main through streets where cars could get up to 30 mph and just go whizzing along. The bullock cart was not unheard of or - greaseless axles screaming and groaning - unheard.
On the basis of my stepfather's influence (as a senior official in the Public Works Department he related to Sime, Darby who had major product lines in engineering equipment and supplies), I got a job as a marketing assistant in the Singapore office of Sime, Darby & Co. Ltd.
This was a firm started by Scots from Aberdeen, before the Second World War. It had connections with Shaw, Darby in London, and with Shaw, Scott in India. Its Directors had mostly been captives of the Japanese and some had survived slave labor on the Siam Railway, a serious distinction since over 80% of those who worked on it died there.
I was the first American and the first Jew to work for them, but I never sensed any slights or disadvantage. Of course my self-protective insensitivity may have masked some subtle realities, and my stepfather's powerful aura may have prevented some things though certainly not affecting the behavior of the 20 or 30 other young men I worked with.
Another factor that I credit is my ability to adapt and blend in with my surroundings. I still find it hard to admit my strengths, but of course this is an important one. Probably learned during a childhood in which I went rapidly from one culture to another - just about every year - with no roots and no stable influence outside of my own self, I seemed a pretty authentic British kid in Malaya in 1937-38, a real Americcun in Chicago and Winnetka (1938-42), a shitkicking Suthroner in Tennessee in 1942 - and an only slightly alien Brit in Singapore and Malaya from 1949 to 1957. I exaggerate for effect, but the adaptiveness is real and very useful. Today I can still behave in a reassuringly un-alien way with people who are very unlike me.
Simit's office was in its own building just off Raffles Square. Engineering and Directors' offices were upstairs; Singapore Branch Imports Department was on the ground floor. High ceilings with electric fans hanging down (air conditioning came in a few years later), a large room with desks and filing cabinets, some partitioned off offices around the perimeter for the more senior people including I. Craig Gordon - Ivor Gordon - Imports Manager and my boss until good Wally Chapman came down from Malacca and Gordon went on to Kuching as Branch Manager there. Peter Watkins, who had joined when I did, and I sat at adjoining desks and shared a secretary, Miss Nuebronner. She was Eurasian, touchy and poised to resent any real or fancied slight, and became a good friend.
My first day. I was introduced to Ooie Boon Leong, Senior Salesman on the Carreras cigarettes account that I was to manage. Boon Leong was a handsome, strongly built man in his 30s (middle aged, to me). He spoke very good English and hit just the right note of respectful competence. Naively I did exactly the best thing I could have done: I admitted my total ignorance of the task at hand and asked him to be my mentor. He loosened up, at that. Of course now I see how grossly unfair it was, saddling a skilled and experienced salesperson with a young squirt as his boss just because one was Chinese and the other "European". I got paid much more than he did (my salary was about $7,500 a year). (On the other hand, he got goodies from the wholesalers with whom we dealt, while I felt constrained to decline). But Boon Leong knew the rules of that colonial game, and may not even have been irritated by them.
The cigarette and tobacco business was done with a ring of wholesalers. There were five in Singapore, two in Kuala Lumpur, another two each in Penang and Ipoh, and one each in every other city and many of the towns in both the Federated and the Unfederated Malay States, in Sarawak, and in British North Borneo. Maybe 30 in all. When I started in 1949 I was responsible for Singapore only, but by 1951 I was in charge of the Carreras agency for the whole area (and soon after that, for the Huntley & Palmers biscuits and the Cadbury-Fry chocolates agencies as well).
Boon Leong took me around to meet the dealers in Singapore, that first week. On the surface they seemed shrewd but their premises and physical appearance was most unimpressive. I was taken into small shophouses, set in a row of equally squalid shophouses each two stories high - goods were stored upstairs and in most of the downstairs area, still in packing cases, and there was only a small counter and a couple of stools to sit on in the middle of the tiny empty space on the floor.
But I had been told about these people. All had started as laborers, coolies, and were now immensely rich and powerful. They didn't put on any front, and, except for wildly extravagant weddings and business dinners, lived modestly. It was clear to me that they had skills and drive far above my own capacities, so I treated them with respect. I accepted their hospitality (awful coffee, or awful orange crush - it wasn't until much later that I knew enough to ask them for their own tea), and told them what I had told Boon Leong: that I was but an egg and knew nothing, but would be grateful if they would guide me so I could learn the business and be of help to them. They liked that. Most people in my position, the Danes as well as the Brits, were arrogant and distant; all assumed airs of superiority. Among the Chinese one of the greatest weaknesses is to seem "proud". They regard that with distaste and resentment. Since I was manifestly not "proud" they were very nice to me, helpful in the way of business and friendly socially. My great success in this career over 8 years there was based on the relationships that were based on mutual respect, though I didn't define it then or call it that.
So, the deal was this. Sime Darby, Simit, imported cigarettes and tobacco from Carreras, the manufacturer of Craven A and Piccadilly No. 1 in England. We shared domination of the South East Asia market with two other British manufacturers; American cigarettes were not yet fashionable. The quantities to be imported were set by me for the Singapore market, based on my market analysis. At first the Imports Manager, Ivor Gordon, checked my figures and assumptions, but after a year I was on my own. I made my estimates after talking with the dealers.
When the cigarettes arrived (about 3 months after order), I saw to their passage through Customs (Singapore had an excise tax on cigarettes) and to their warehousing in our godowns. Then I saw to their distribution to the dealers, invoicing, rotation in our godowns and dealers' godowns, positioning in important retail outlets, point of sale displays, and replacements of old stocks.
My job depended on my making a net profit for my department in Simit every month. Although I had a four year contract with Simit my worth was judged every month and my place in the company secure or insecure accordingly. The monthly P&L was a hard edged document, in which indirect overheads such as Director's fees, interest on capital laid out for purchases, insurance costs, rent on godown space, etc. were fully charged to gross income. Of course the direct costs (salaries, etc.) and bad debts I allowed were also charged, with cost of goods. "Net profit" was indeed fully "net".
I was a very successful marketing manager. My judgement improved with experience, my good contacts in the marketplace guided me right, and my ability to project and to guess more than made up for my lack of care and accuracy in mathematical modelling. My forecasts - the basis for our orders from manufacturers in Europe - were made by my intuitive (but based on factors named above) appreciations. I would say that I was right about 90% of the time. My peers, who based their forecasts on exhaustive statistical analysis and mathematical modelling, did less well and hit the mark at about 70%. My reputation flourished, and my responsibilities increased.
After about two years as Assistant in charge of the Carreras agency in Singapore, my area was extended to all of Malaya, Sarawak and British North Borneo. I was now a specialist, supporting and exhorting the Branch Imports Managers. I met all the dealers throughout Malaya, and even made a daring voyage through Sarawak, Labuan and British North Borneo. And in my third year I was assigned responsibility for the Huntley & Palmers biscuits agency and the Cadbury-Fry chocolates agency, company-wide, in addition.
When I first came to Singapore I boarded in a high-class boarding house, Mrs. Cantrell's. After a few months there I was assigned a room in a company mess, at Orchard Road in the center of town. We were on the second floor of a large, white building, in an apartment with three bedrooms and bathrooms, a living room with balcony, a dining room, a tiny kitchen and cook's living quarters into which we never penetrated. The three of us (Hugh Johnson, Ng Wah Hing, and me) shared the rent and together paid the cook salary and reimbursement for food that he bought. Utility bills were insignificant.
I'd wake up at 7, have a shower, and eat an English breakfast or a variation (very fond of Crosse & Blackwell's Black Leicestershire Mushrooms on toast, I was). Dressed in white shirt and a tie and white duck trousers, off to the office in my Fiat Topolino. Reserved parking place in the alley behind the office building. Into the office. My desk in a row of big desks on three sides of the big room, maybe six desks, fans circling overhead. My (shared) secretary brings me the mail, and office boy brings coffee, I read and write instructions for action on most of the incoming stuff. By 9:30 I am awake enough to say goodmorning to Hugh and Peter Hind and Peter Watkins, who worked near me. Typically we are all hung over from last night's drinking.
At 11 I'd go out with Boon Leong or one of the junior salesmen, to visit the dealers and find out what's going on in the market. We'd arrange it so that at lunchtime we'd at one of the dealers' shops where we'd been invited to eat, though on Wednesdays we'd go off to my eating club and some days I'd go with others from the office to have some lunch in Change Alley (curried fish with rice, or curried chicken) or at the Singapore Cricket Club on the verandah overlooking the padang. Sometimes we'd go in a bunch, some of the dealers and some salesmen and me, for something special: Hainanese chicken-rice ("kai fun"), or dim sum, or Cantonese roast chicken with gunpowder sauce. Two or three beers with lunch - always.
After lunch it would be some more visits to dealers, possibly I'd drop in at the godown to check out spoiled cigarettes or melted down chocolate bars. Then back to the office to work on indents for supplies, sign off invoices and bills of lading and insurance documents (maybe 100 signatures a day), draft some correspondence or reports or proposals, and so back to the mess at 5:00 for tea and small sandwiches. Bit of a lie down, a nice cold shower, and decide on a program for the evening. Often we went out to a business dinner with the dealers, mostly followed by a visit to the local dance hall (the "cabaret"). Dined sometimes at some other mess. Once in a while a company dinner (dinner jacket, of course)...sherry beforehand, white wine with the fish, red with the meat, champagne with the sweet and savory, coffee, then much brandy or whisky unless you went on to liqueurs. After going out to any of the above, or to a movie, we usually ended up at a street stall having a late night snack such as Hokkien mee or johk or satay.
Or I'd stay home and read and have cookie make me dinner, whatever I wanted. On stay home nights, I'd drink a half bottle of whisky or brandy. When I went out - more than that, though rarely as much as a full bottle. This was not unusual. I was known to have a hard head, and could take my liquor, but I was not a champion. This was a cultural virtue. The Chinese think that (mild) drunkenness is a fine state. Somebody who drinks enthusiastically with them is certainly not "proud". It took me three agonizing months to get to a proper capacity, and there were always the hours spent kneeling on the bathroom floor with my arms around the toilet bowl, long cold showers to make the room stop spinning around. The resulting capacity was regarding with favor, and somehow I liked it.
Food became a hobby and avocation with me, and I learned a lot about Chinese and Indian cuisines. I became the Simit expert at setting up a Chinese feast for a visiting Principal's Representative and a group of dealers, booking the tables at a restaurant of my choosing, ten to a table, usually four to six tables. I'd meet with the restaurant's cook two days before and we'd work out a menu that stayed within the classical patters but took advantage of what was available. In addition I arranged for supplies of booze - our own imports, naturally: Beck's Beer, Guinness Stout, Dewars whiskey, Otard Cognac, champagne from Ruinart Pere et Fils. And supplies of Craven A and Picadilly No.1 cigarettes (rarely our cheap brand, Sport). Or setting up an Indian feast at the Federal Muslim Restaurant for our Muslim dealers (O.A. Hajee Mohammed Ismail & Co.), with curried chicken, lamb kurma, shrimps vindaloo, beriyani rice, poppadums, achar limau pickles, raita. Orange crush for them, beer for us.
I learned to play badminton at the dealers' homes, and did that a lot (and eventually got so good that I was a substitute on the Perak State championship team for a year). Badminton was taken very seriously out there.
I read a lot (there was a public library, and I bought books from the illiterate but astonishingly knowledgeable Indian bookseller who would come trotting to me in my office triumphantly clutching the latest from T.S. Eliot).
Went to the movies. Engaged in sexual pleasures. Dined with friends. Became an honorary Scot because I was willing to volunteer for Scottish Country Dancing at the Tanglin Club on St. Andrews' night and Bobbie Burns Night. Attended weddings, funerals, Chinese New Year and Triad rituals. Watched the Brits at cricket, the Indians at Thaipusam and Dipavali, the Ghurkas at Dashera, the Malays when the durian was ripe and when the ramvong was danced, watched Wayang Kulit and Chinese opera and gamelan performances, found out from the Semoi how they directed their dreams......
And so I passed my time.
The "Europeans" (caucasians) in Singapore and Malaya fell into two groups: those who ate local foods, and those who insisted on foods that they were used to. Many but not all of the Europeans who worked and lived out in the "ulu" as managers on rubber plantations, palm oil plantations and tin mines were in the first group. Most, by far, of those who lived in the cities - Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Malacca, Ipoh and Penang - were in the second group.
Those Europeans who chose not to eat local foods were supplied by a chain of markets called Singapore Cold Storage; there were branches in all the cities named above. SCS imported frozen meat from Australia and New Zealand, milk and cheese, and canned vegetables, jams and the like. SCS also had bakeries of their own for (ugh) white bread. I knew some Americans in USIS who brought huge packing cases of canned foods with them not knowing they would be available from SCS; it was a little pathetic. Even more pathetic - to me - were those who declined to eat with their local friends. American diplomats would be invited to Chinese dinners with local dignitaries and actually not touch a bite of food or drink a drop of anything! It was grossly insulting to their hosts, of course, and deeply resented. Such Europeans could not believe that I ate everything, anyplace. They pointed out that I got amoebic dysentery twice a year. I pointed out that they did, too; everybody got it twice a year, Chinese, Malays...everybody. No big deal, a bottle of paregoric (an opium based remedy quite legal at the time) stopped one up right away, with no harm done.
At the European clubs and restaurants great efforts were made to duplicate English or French cuisines. Formal dinners were on the English pattern: soup (with Sherry), fish (with white wine), meat course (with red wine), sweet, savory, awful coffee (with cognac), Ladies Retire while Gents Pass the Port (to the left, dammit, Blenkinsop!). Sometimes this food was not too bad. Haggis, on St. Andrew's Eve, though, was.
Local foodstuffs included a great variety of fish and shrimp, a great variety of fruit, rice, chicken and pork. Vegetables, red meats, milk products, etc. were imported.
The Chinese, of course, had the most sophisticated cuisines. Even poor coolies knew what they wanted and how they wanted it prepared, and took a lot of time and trouble about it. Wealthier Chinese supplemented the local produce with imported shark fin, mushrooms, and various condiments. Tea was imported. They drank lots of beer, local and imported, local orange crush and other soft drinks, terrible coffee, and Chinese rice wine ("samsu").
Except for rice gruel - "tchok" - foods were eaten at room temperature. At formal dinners in restaurants, business dinners, it was men only. Women and children were almost always included at family gatherings or meals taken at work when they were around.
Formal dinners were around tables of ten. The dishes, usually ten in number plus fried rice afterwards, arrived in no special order that I could discern. Steamed white rice, the staple of other meals, was not served; fried rice was served after everything else "to fill up on in case there has not been enough". Good manners required that nobody have any fried rice ("No, no, thank you, there has been so much that I cannot take another mouthful!"). It, together with anything left on the serving dishes, was to go to the poor. Food was brought to the table in serving dishes which were put in the center. Everybody took from the serving dishes, and held the food in chopsticks over one's individual rice bowl or put a portion of soup in it. No nonsense about taking from the serving dish with the backside of one's chopsticks.
Drinks at lunchtime were beer or stout and at dinners whisky or brandy or stout. Non drinkers of alcohol (many Chinese are violently allergic and turn bright red at the slightest bit) drink orange crush. No tea. I learned to ask for Chinese tea when visiting my dealers, to avoid orange crush or horrible sludgy coffee. That tea was made in tiny iron or clay teapots - older and crustier was better - and served in tiny cups. One was polite to take two and no more. At dinners it was customary to have a drink between course, or anyway now and then. A macho thing was when somebody shouted "yam SENG!" and everyone was to drink "bottoms up" - not a small thing, when it was a nearly full water glass of cognac or whisky. Whisky = Scotch, of course. Depending on the company, this might happen three or four times during the course of a dinner.
Of soups, the most prestigious was birds nest soup, made from the glutinous stickum exuded by a certain type of swallow in building their nests. The source was in gigantic caves in Sarawak and Borneo, where the nests were gathered by agile specialists using very long poles since they - the nests - were on tiny ledges along the sides of the caves and usually dozens of feet from the floor. The flavor of the soup is hard to describe: it was a little salty and a little sour. Not my favorite though of course I was politely enthusiastic when it was served. I preferred sharksfin soup, the fins in the form of gelatinous strings with a strong fishy flavor. A variation I like included crab eggs with the rest of the soup, sometimes so dense as to be almost a stew. The cost of the fins rose with their size - though not, to my taste, the flavor. Another soup was Winter Melon Soup, served in a foot high melon whose base had been squared off so it stood upright. The tope had been cut off and the seeds and some of the flesh removed to make room for a thin chicken and various things soup. One spooned off a bit of melon with a spoonful of soup.
Roast sucking pig was a favorite. It was served butterflied out, that is to say it was split and flattened so that the four corners were its four little legs. Only the crisp skin (with a very thin layer of fat under it) was eaten at the first pass. The skin had been scored so that one could lift a piece up and pull it off without needing a knife to cut it. When all the skin had been eaten (and the kidneys pulled off the lifted carcass and given to the favored guest despite his polite protestations) the rest was taken away, to reappear later as a pork with mushrooms and other vegetables seasoned dish.
Fish took two main forms. One was deep fried and served with onions and peppers (not hot peppers), in a sweet and sour sauce. Yummy. The other was steamed in a wine sauce. Also yummy. The fish were served whole (about 18 inches long, as a rule), and one first ate the flesh on top of the skeleton and then reached under the skeleton to pull out the flesh beneath, never turning the fish itself over because then your boat would turn over next time you went to sea. See?
Shrimp were plentiful, and served fried and sauteed as well as roasted in their shell. Big, big shrimp.
Chicken was also ubiquitous, steamed or sauteed with vegetables and sauce. Two chicken specialities were served only in specialty restuarants: dry roasted chicken served with "gunpowder" salt (which I christened thus: it is rough rock salt and pepper and dried spices), and Hainanese chicken-rice (called kai fun), which is steamed chicken and giblets chopped into bone-in pieces Chinese style, served with chicken soup and rice steamed in chicken soup and served with bean sauce. One's kai fun capacity, a matter of pride, was measured in bowls of rice consumed with appropriate helpings of chicken; the rice bowls for this were double the usual size. I was champion Ang Moh Kwai (Red Faced Devil) at this, at the Swee Kee Restaurant, whose food I so widely praised that they went from a little one roomed eating house to a large two storey building. Well, others praised it too, but the towkay and his family recognized my part in their success and fed me free until I moved from Singapore. I really did bring them hundreds of loyal customers; in eating circles in Singapore, I was well known. This was not (only) because I was a serious eater, but also because in the course of my promoting sales of my firm's imports Beck's Beer and Bulldog Guinesss Stout I bought rounds for the house wherever I was.
Noodles were eaten mostly at night, as Hokkien mee, sold at stalls in the street, or during the day as snacks sold from travelling hawkers' carriers.
Dim sum houses opened at eleven and closed in the afternoon. Pretty girls carried
the trays of little dishes through the aisles, one pointed, and then somebody came
to count the empty dishes on one's table and reckon up the bill. Much, much beer
and stout was drunk at these happy sessions.
The places where dim sum were sold were sort of bawdy, and were dance hall and hostess bars at night.
Malays ate local foods as curries, and used a lot of dried fish paste called "blachan", similar to the "nam huoc" of Vietnam. Rice was their staple. Fish and prawns were common, as was chicken, and goat was sometimes eaten; as Muslims they did not consider pork. The abundant fruits were widely eaten. One, the durian, was believed to be an aphrodisiac; during its season, parties were held under durian trees, waiting for the ripe fruit to drop. The Malays, again as Muslims, did not allow alcohol - at least in public.
The Indians, mostly from Southern India, ate curries and kurmas and vindaloos and bread or rice too. Their particular drink of choice was toddy, the juice of a type of palm tree fruit. Drunkeness was an endemic problem, and the government licensed toddy shops where it was produced and consumed, sort of like beer gardens. Only Indians allowed. The toddy fermented very quickly, and what was not consumed from a day's batch was supposed to be destroyed. To me it had a flavor of kerosene; I only drank it one time to try it and a few more times to be polite to Tamil acquaintances.
Curried fish was often good, curried chicken too. I liked kurma, not spicy but rich. Vindaloo was very spicy and tomato flavored, with tamarind and yoghurt. One could have just about any protein, including cheese, as curry or kurma or vindaloo. Beriyani was rice cooked with ghee and saffron, enriched with raisins and nuts - a particular favorite of mine. Lentil stew (dahl cha) and pickled lime (achar limau) were other favorites. The Indian restaurants I patronized were often Muslim but all served beer (very good with Indian food, say I).