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My dad’s life story Part 1 – Passage from India

Dad and Mum's engagement portrait

Philip William Lemos: 1929-2004 | 
This part focuses on his early life in India, his family’s migration to Malaya before he then settled in Singapore where he met my mother. It is the first part of an account of my father’s life, recorded as an oral history in conversation with him during his last days while he received palliative care in a hospice in 2004. 

Early life in India

1919Grandpa Emmanuel Daniel and Grandma Beatrice Maud were married. He was 19 years old and she was 20 then. They were living in Hanipaalam, running a coconut and spices estate which his family owned. Dad tells of his early memories of sitting in the dickie seat of a horse carriage with someone walloping the driver when drunk.

1929Dad, Philip William (PW) was born in Simla (aka Shimla), India on 24 February. The family was living there at the time, after Grandpa had transferred to work at a sweet factory owned by Perry & Co. Grandpa then went to work at the Kolar Gold Field (Oorgaum), located 40 miles from Bangalore and they sold off the other estate.

1931PW aged 2 years – Grandpa went off to Mandalay to work for Perry & Co.

1932Grandpa returned to India. Dad attended Hadia School until aged 6.

1936PW aged 7 years – Grandpa went to Kuala Selangor and worked at a nipah palm estate where they produced brown sugar from which they made palm wine aka ‘toddy’ or ‘arak’. (Refer to TST Tories brand).

The family tree

The family migrates to Malaya

1937 – Grandpa was retrenched – family was living with Nanna and Uncle Willy. Grandma’s sister, Aunty Mabel’s husband passed away and they gave money for grandpa to move the family to Malaya where the economic prospects were better.

1938 – PW aged 9 years – Great grandpa died (youngest brother to Arthur and Willy).

1939 – Grandpa went back to India to visit family. Grandpa worked for Federation Engineers in Pahang (setting up and supervising). PW was sent to school at St John’s School in Kuala Lumpur (KL) as a boarder. 

1940 – Grandpa worked at the Selangor Turf Club as a secretary and was retrenched.  (met FC Tan and Freddie Ebert who later married Dad’s sister Gladys and went off to England). Grandpa then went to work as a supervisor in the SocFin estate (producing palm oil). Dad tells of the amusing anecdote of the Pataling Bridge incident when both Grandma and Grandpa were on a bicycle together and the chain broke, and Grandma jumped off just in time to avoid them both falling into the river.

1941PW aged 11 years – now in Standard 3 at St John’s School when World War II started. The family then moved to KL during the Japanese Occupation. 

1941-1946 – The Japanese Occupation saw the family living at Jalan Imbi (Imbi Road) in a property rented from Mr Banes. Arnold neighbour). The kids attended school in Japanese, and the family sold coffee and soap to survive.  Yoshoka (a Japanese Engineer) was the one who started the estate in Slim River where the family lived later on. The Occupation was a terrible time of torture and massacre by Japanese soldiers and the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) under Chin Peng, in alliance with the British. 

1946 – The Japanese surrendered and WWII ended. The Malayan Union was formed, comprised of the Malay states and the Straits Settlements of Penang and Malacca. The union was subsequently replaced by the Federation of Malaysia in 1948. The pro-independence MCP then went underground, still fighting the British. Dad mentions Sir Gerald Templer (aka Tiger of Malaya) who led the British charge against the Malayan National Liberation Army ((MNLA) when he was appointed High Commissioner for Malaya to deal with the period known as the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960).

1947 – Dad’s schooling resumed at St John’s as a mature student. His sister Gladys meanwhile pursued a nursing career in Alor Star and Penang. She met Freddie Ebert who was a pilot with the RSAF in Penang. Freddie was posted to KL airport/airfield (MSA), then transferred to Penang Bayan-Lepas, then to Kallang Airport in Singapore. They were wed at Arthur Terrace. Freddie helped to get his brother-in-law, my Uncle Teddy, a job.

1949 PW aged 20 – Dad transferred to boarding school in Malacca at St. Francis Institution (SFI). He was Head Prefect in his final high school (aka Senior Cambridge) year. At SFI Dad excelled at sports. He played cricket (was a wicket keeper who broke his nose playing cricket), basketball and hockey. The injury would permanently block one of his nostrils and affect his breathing for the rest of his life. He never had surgery to address this. And football (or soccer) was of no interest to him as he had a damaged nerve on his foot.

He speaks highly of his good friend and school mate George De Witt who won a scholarship to study Botany, rising to become Director of the Rubber Institute of Malaya. He also mentions Brother Basil, a teacher at SFI who later became the principal of St Michael’s School in Singapore where I attended my primary education. 

Settling down in Singapore

1950 PW aged 21 years – Dad graduated high school and was waiting for brother-in-law Freddie Ebert to help get him a job as an air-traffic controller. In the meantime Dad applied for and joined the Met Service in Singapore as a cadet. But he left before being offered the Bloome Scholarship as he couldn’t stand doing the night shift.

1940-1953 – In September, Dad gave notice to the Met Service in order to join and start a career with the Ministry of Education in Singapore as a teacher. He began teaching at Geylang School while concurrently attending classes with other trainee teachers in what was known as the “Normal trained” scheme. He continued teaching there until 1957. His pay during training was $215 a month and after graduating it rose to $425 per month. Mum, on the other hand, went through the alternative “Certificate trained” scheme where she attended classes at the Teachers Training College (TTC) located at Paterson Road before graduating and being sent to a school to teach.

1955 – PW aged 26 years – Dad met Mum. The initial meeting occurred at a UN Fundraising Dance for the World Assembly of Youth (WAY) held at Anglo-Chines School (ACS) at Barker Road. Tickets were organised by Grace Wee, Uncle Chew Chin Jin’s sister, whose husband Eric Wee was the president of WAY. It was a blind date arranged by Dad’s teching mate Lim Ee Guan who was at the time courting Chin Jin’s cousin Mable Lee Soo Bee. Dad tells of how the practice of men courting prospective wives was known as “smelling”. Uncle Ee Guan was Dad’s best man at the wedding in 1957.

1955-1957 – Dad and Mum’s courting years. This was also when Dad started playing tennis, during his early teaching days. He would usually play at the Haig Road and Petain Road tennis courts with Shelek Nathan.

1957 – PW aged 28 years, LKS aged 22 years – Mum and Dad got married on 22 April at the Cathedral of Good Shepherd. The blessing of the marriage between my Dad, a Catholic and my Mum, a Methodist, was allowed to proceed at the cathedral without my mother having to convert to Catholicism, but only on condition that my Mum agree with the Archibishop of Singapore that she would raise as Catholics any children the marriage would produce.

Mum’s parents boycotted the event. They objected to their eldest daughter choosing to marry a man who was of the wrong ethnicity and who professed belief in a version of Christianity they didn’t approved of. Most notable in the wedding portrait taken at the studio is the absence of Mum’s parents. Her cousin Daisy being the only representative from her side of the family. Their wedding reception was held t the Dynasty Room of the Adephi Hotel and the couple subsequently honeymooned in Slim River.

All this happened against the political backdrop of the times, during the year that Malaya obtained its independence from the British Empire on 31 August.