84 Sophia Road.
This road was always pronounced So-fire by my grandmother who lived there, and by my school principal, my school being at the top of Mount Sophia, the missionary-founded Methodist Girl’s School (1887).
I lived in suburban Holland Road about 20 minutes from the city, but I spent the better part of 13 years growing up in this old part of Singapore.
When kindergarten was over at the red-bricked Prinsep Street Presbyterian Church, which first began as the Malay Chapel in 1843, my grandmother would be waiting in the courtyard, standing under a black cotton parasol at noon. We would walk back to her house on the hill, past narrow Indian makeshift stalls along the five-foot walkways of shophouses.
These were the equivalent of corner tobacconists in the West, set in dim alcoves in the perimeters of shophouses, selling cigarettes, Tamil celebrity tabloids featuring dark beautiful faces, smiles as golden as the jewelry in their ears and hair, alongside toothpaste, shampoo, and boiled sweets in tall plastic jars, 10 cents for three. Once my grandma bought me a banana, which she plucked from a comb of bananas hung up with raffia string.
Sophia Road and its vicinity, on the fringe of the civic district, was seedy and shabby, at least that’s what I thought throughout those years growing up in the 1970s. I’ve since learned it wasn’t that way in the years after the war, for there was Eu Villa (1915), built by the Chinese medicine magnate Eu Tong Sen, up on the Adis Road hill, and other bungalows and mansions owned by other rich men who had sold them off in the years after the war. Sophia Road, with its association to a grandparent from another age, lacked the stateliness of the rain trees of Holland Road and the stillness which emanated from the thick clusters of houses in District 10, at the time considered an uninhabited neighbourhood.
In Sophia Road, I used to walk up a stretch of pavement along one side of the street, which had rows of terraced two-storey houses with neat yards in the front. I would then cross the road and walk into an entrance of pink terrazo steps that led to the front door of a townhouse, which faced up the street and was hidden from view by potted plants. My grandma’s townhouse was single-storeyed, with a Malay family lodged in the basement. This basement once hid young Singapore girls who lived in the neighbourhood during the Japanese Occupation. There was an adjacent yard next to the front steps, where a tall straggly white tea rose bush flourished alongside luxuriant ixora plants, whose bunches of vermillion dart-like flowers were as big as blooms of hydrangea.
I’ll always remember the pavement that led up Sophia Road. This pavement was made of oblong concrete slabs, like the greying keys of a piano. About 20 had dates inscribed as if by finger in the cement: 3-11-1939, 21-6-1941, 18-9-1942, the dates seemingly random, the latest date somewhere in 1947 at least.
I never knew why the dates were inscribed on a pavement like that, for my slippered feet to walk on. Some were pitted, had edges broken off, some popped up from the ground like see-saws when stepped on, and if these stones held any significance at all, no one seemed to bother about them any more.
This part of town felt old and dilapidated; even the neighbours who lived across my grandma’s house seemed old to me for I was eight at the time of remembering. There was a lady who lived in a house opposite, although all you saw was a single whitewashed wall with doorways cut into it.
You climbed up several red-brick steps to knock on the door, which would open into a small courtyard before entering the home itself. A small garden would be at the back, with pots of pink bougainvilleas, snake plants, and elephant ear plants. She was Eurasian, my grandma said, and I forget her name now, only that I was afraid of her because she was tall and thin, with a hooked nose, and round gold-rimmed glasses, and when the sun shone on her hair, neat in a bun, it seemed to be set alight.
We would meet her occasionally, when both parties would be returning from an errand perhaps, or she was tending to the tropical periwinkles on her doorstep. I would be fiercely prompted to greet her, and terrified of this tall, thin lady with the beak-like nose, I would obey. I could only gaze at her hooked beak, her eyes hidden by the glint of glass and the distance of the years now, but I remember clearly the long line of her nose.
She always never called me by my name, only “Princess.”
There is so much detail I find myself remembering, and a sudden need to record them here is compelling. This will be the first in a series called Childhood.