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My mum’s life story Part 2 – Settling in Singapore and teaching

Family wedding portrait

Susie Lemos née Lim Khay-Siew:  born 1935

This second part of Mum’s life story focuses on her migration to Singapore to begin teacher’s training, and then starting a family herself with a challenging marriage and having children.

Teacher's training in Singapore

1954 – Mum arrived in Singapore and was accepted into the Teacher’s Training College (TTC) to train to be a teacher. As a ‘cert-trained’ teacher she attended two years of classes which were initially held at the old Anglo Chinese School (ACS) campus at Cairnhill, before the new TTC campus at Paterson Road was completed.  Mum talks of hanging out with her best friend Lim Gek-Chin and how they would walk to Orchard Road for lunch and share a plate of noodles together, supplementing it with a pack of ‘kacang putih’, because the allowance of $100 per month they received as trainee teachers then was barely sufficient to live on.

In Singapore, Mum stayed with the family of her father’s eldest brother, Lim Ka-Huat. Her tua pek (oldest uncle) had chosen to move his whole family from Medan to Singapore for better economic prospects following the war. The elder Lim’s family comprised 3 boys and 3 girls and they initially lived with Rev Chew Hock-Hin, who was married to Ka-Huat’s wife Sim-Ee’s sister. They temporarily lived at his Hillside Drive home before re-settling at Sommerville Road at Braddell Heights. Reverend Chew Hock-Hin was the pastor of Paya Lebar Methodist Church and had two sons Chew Chin-Ghee and Chew Chin-Jin and a daughter Grace. Chew Hock-Hin was also the eight son of Singapore’s entrepreneur Chew Boon-Lay. He subsequently became pastor of the Trinity Methodist Church in Serangoon Gardens which Mum was a founding member of in the 60s.

Ka-Huat and his family then moved to Lim Tua Tow Road in Upper Serangoon. I’m told that the terrace house at Lim Tua Tow Road which I used to frequent as a young child was actually the second one on the same street which the Lim family moved to. It was memorable for having a toilet with the old “bucket system” where the ‘night-soil’ truck would come to manually service every day.

Living with the Lim cousins

Mum recalled sharing a bunk bed with her cousin Lim Swee-Hiang (whom I referred to as Aunty Daisy) when she stayed with the Lim family at Lim Tua Tow Road. My fond memories of my childhood revolved around large extended family gatherings my mother was always included in, during celebratory occasions revolving around my Ah Peh Kong (Lim Ka-Huat) and Ah Em Poh (Khoo Sim-Ee) who were the patriarch and matriarch. The celebrations were always memorable for the delicious food my grand aunt cooked. She made the best Indonesian pork rissoles, lor mee, assam laksa, fried bee hoon, kueh pie tee which we looked forward to having at these family gatherings. Her festive cookies, including tins of crispy waffles and kueh kapit (love letters) were legendary!

The Lim siblings from Lim Tua Tow Road treated my mother as one of them. There was eldest son Lim Swee-Guan, who married Alice Wong and had two sons Hee-Beng and Hee-Soon. I don’t remember much of Uncle Guan because he died young. Son No.2 was Kim-Hock (who was given away at birth to Ka-Huat’s sister Kay-Tin who was married but unable to bear children. He was therefore renamed Oei Kim-Hock and he persuaded his birth father to include him in the family’s migration to Singapore. Like my mother he too became a teacher and was principal of Selegie Primary School when he married Agatha and had two children Pamela and Malcolm. Son No.3 was Lim Swee-Siong, who remained single until he succumbed, like his mother, to lung cancer. He was into folk dancing and someone we suspected was secretly gay! There’s always a gay uncle or ‘guncle’ lurking in the background, no?

Of Mum’s female Lim cousins, there was the eldest Lim Swee-Lian, who married Wan Hui-Peng and they had a daughter (Wan Siew-Bin) and three sons (Wan Siew-Teck, Wan Siew-Oon and Wan Siew-Tai). Daughter No.2 was Lim Swee-Kiok who married her cousin Chew Chin-Jin and they had three girls (June-Deborah Chew Ai-Sim, Eunice Chew Ai-Bee and Serene Chew Ai-Cheng). Aunty Kiok played the piano and organ and she became a piano teacher who taught me too. Daughter No.3 was Lim Swee-Hiang, who because a nurse, met her husband Ng Beng-Wai and moved with him to Taiping in the Malaysian state of Ipoh where he had a medical general practice. They had a daughter Patricia Ng Phaik-Mei.

Singapore Cousins

Dating and getting engaged

While training to be a teacher in Singapore, Mum met various young men whom she dated. One of them was Robert Cheok, whom she knew through her cousin Swee-Kiok and her husband Chin-Jin.  Uncle Bobby (as I later referred to him) was known as ‘adik’ to the Chew brothers Chin-Jin and Chin-Ghee and was to become the best man at Uncle Chin-Jin’s wedding. Although Mum didn’t end up marrying him, they remained close friends and he would help her with her teacher’s training homework. He eventually married Shirley Cheung, who was Catholic and she became my godmother when I was born in 1962.

1956 – Mum meets Philip William Lemos. It was during a dance organised by Eric Wee (husband of Chin-Jin’s sister Grace) for the World Assembly of Youth (WAY) which was headquartered at Orchard Road. Dad had been dating other teachers and nurses but his relationship with the vibrant young girl from Medan and Penang blossomed and they were soon engaged to be married.

Defiant wedding

1957 – LKS marries Philip William Lemos (PWL). The marriage was objected to by Mum’s parents in Medan and they instructed her Uncle Ka-Huat (Mum’s Tua Pek) to stop the marriage and then scolded him when he failed to do so. When the hard-headed young woman, now above the legal marital age of 21, went ahead to marry my Dad, they disowned her and boycotted the wedding held on 22 April at the Good Shepherd Cathedral in Singapore.

Mum’s paid $300 for her wedding gown and her bridesmaid was Nancy Lim a friend from Penang who was staying at the WYCS while doing a secretarial course in Singapore at the time. Dad’s best man was Lim Ee Guan, who was one of his closer fellow teaching mates. In her father’s absence, Mum asked Cher Poh-Chia to give her away and walk her down the aisle. He was the principal of Charlton School where Mum taught after qualifying as a fully-trained teacher. He was a Roman Catholic and gladly stepped in for her father who refused to attend the wedding.

The newly-weds honeymooned in Slim River in the Malayan state of Perak, where Dad’s family lived and where my paternal grandfather Emmanuel Lemos was a supervisor on an oil palm estate. After the wedding, Mum left Lim Tua Tow Road to live with Dad.

Starting a family

1959 – Mum had a miscarriage. The first child she was carrying would have been a boy. Mum explains that she and Dad were living at Worthing Road in Serangoon Gardens at the time and it was the new school term and she made the mistake of lifting a heavy stack of 200 student exercise books. Dad rushed her off to the hospital but it was too late and she’d lost their unborn boy.

1960 – My sister Sandy (Sandra Maude Lemos) was born on 19 May at the Khoo Maternity Clinic at Geyland Road.

1961 – With my parents living in Serangoon Gardens, with my father teaching at the Serangoon Gardens South School, he persuades his father who was retiring in Malaysia to buy a property there so he could spend his retired in Singapore where his children and grandchildren had settled. So grandpa Lemos bought the house at Crowhurst Drive and my parents moved there to form part of the extended family.

1962 – I (Philip Selwyn Lemos) came next and was born on 20 January at the Kandang Kerbau Hospital. It was a long labour through the night for Mum and I finally emerged and took my first breath at 6.30am. I was sort of born in a manger, given ‘kandang kerbau’ literally means ‘buffalo shed’! 

My paternal grandfather Emmanuel had recently died under mysterious circumstances in Slim River and the timing of my arrival was not seen favourably by the Lemos family. My grandpa never got to see his fourth grandchild and it was to the family as if I had arrived to replace their beloved Emmanuel.

Post-partum trauma

Mum struggled emotionally after the birth of her second child. This third pregnancy was unwelcomed. She admits to eating lots of raw papayas, in the hope this might cause a spontaneous abortion of a child she didn’t think it was a good time to have. Suffering from post-partum depression, after childbirth the situation seemed so insurmountable that Mum attempted to end her life. 

What with the on-going social and economic challenges of raising two kids amidst political uncertainty (the PAP government had come into power and had effected pay cuts for teachers), plus Dad’s recent diagnosis of tuberculosis, which he was still recovering from, plus emotional strife at home at Crowhurst Drive from a mother-in-law who disliked and wanted to control her (supposedly offering her son money to engage a divorce lawyer to “get rid of her”), little support from her own parents living in another country who had disowned her (because they disapproved of her marriage) and some triggering advice received from the almoner at the maternity hospital, it was all too much for a young mother of two to deal with.

With the attempted suicide—done with a hammer taken to her skull in the bathroom, the permanent scars of which can still be seen today—Mum was taken to the Woodbridge mental hospital where she received electro-shock treatment. As part of her rehabilitation, once discharged from hospital Mum moved out on her own and stayed in a hostel near Katong Park for a while. Dad would visit her there and in an attempt to keep his young family together, he had to choose between his mother or his wife and children. He chose the latter and so the marriage, which the naysayers had predicted wouldn’t work, was thus saved.

The marriage survives

1963 – With the sudden death of the disapproving mother-in-law from a bout of pneumonia, the semi-detached house my grandfather had bought in Crowhurst Drive for his retirement (and never got to enjoy) was left to the three Lemos siblings. Dad’s older brother Terrence was unemployed and his sister married and living overseas. 

So Dad decided to keep the house and bought out his siblings’ shares following the settlement of grandma’s estate. The house, which Mum continues to live in, and which my grandfather originally bought off-of-the-plan at $21K, was re-valued at the time at all of $27K!

1973 – With Mum eventually reconciled with her parents, us four Lemoses finally went to visit them in Medan. It was the first time my sister and I flew on a plane and we enjoyed our whirlwind tour of Medan, meeting all the various Lim relatives during the school holidays.

Uncle Teddy

1976 – My father’s older brother Terence, who continued to live with us at Crowhurst Drive, dies. My Dad’s older brother never quite got over the death of his parents in quick succession. Unlike my father, who had chosen to return to school after the war as a mature student and get on with life, Uncle Teddy never finished school and remained dependent on his parents. Following their deaths, he stayed with us in the third bedroom of the house now owned by my Dad and he would become boisterous and violent whenever he drank.

Mum explains that he fancied our nanny Ah Cheng and wished to marry her. When she turned him down, Uncle Teddy blamed Mum for the rejection and so the relationship between Mum and her brother-in-law remained strained. In his dejection and social isolation he would attend mass twice a day at the nearby St Francis Xavier Catholic church, record the mass on his portable cassette player and then listen to it again at home.

Uncle Teddy eventually became more and more emotionally unstable and one day he snapped and in a violent outburst he started smashing his things, including the holy figurines in his room and my distraught father had no choice but to have him committed to the mental institution for treatment. We visited him there a few times and a short while later Dad received a call one morning with the shocking news that his brother had died overnight. The certified cause of death was a bout of brocho-pneumonia which we didn’t even know about. We buried him at Choa Chu Kang Cemetery. 

The back bedroom at Crowhurst Drive remained an untouched mess for years while my father couldn’t bring himself to deal with yet another family tragedy, until I went in one day armed with a stack of garbage bags, forcing Dad to come in and start clearing up the place with me so we could all finally move forward.

History repeats itself and the eldest leaves home

1979 – Sandy left home not too long after starting her first job as a flight stewardess with Singapore Airlines. In what seemed like history repeating itself, my sister Sandy (who was 19 at the time) defied our parents when she started a relationship with a man, Robert John Sweet (RJS), who was an Australian man from Victoria living in Singapore whom she had met on one of her flights. He was a sales executive who worked for Kempthorne Lighting and was actively wooing her when he treated my parents and I to a fancy meal at the La Brasserie at the now demolished Marco Polo Hotel. When Sandy wanted to go on a trip to Sydney with Robert, I was forced to tag along (well, I did go rather willingly) as their chaperone. Being a dependent family member of my sister’s, my return flight on staff family discount cost us all of $166, which was 10% of the regular return airfare!

Sandy’s subsequent walk out happened after my parents found out that Robert was actually still married and confronted her about it because they disapproved of the relationship. My sister explained to them that he was separated from his wife and he would marry Sandy as soon as the divorce came through. My father was adamant that she should stop seeing him immediately. An ultimatum was given that she either break up with him or leave the house. My sister, after a quick discussion with Robert, packed her bags and walked out the door. 

This was a very distressing time for my parents and me. After a month of silence, not knowing if we would ever see her again, Sandy phoned and her tearful father relented and the lost daughter was reunited with the family. Sandy would subsequently leave the airlines, taking up a receptionist job with ANZ Bank. And when she and RJS moved to Perth, the company transferred her to a new job there.

1980 – Sandy got married to RJS in Perth in a simple marriage ceremony at the marriage registry.  My parents weren’t present at the wedding and Mum explains that it was not during school holidays. So, being teachers, it was impossible for both Dad and her to be there. And because my sister was only 20 at the time, Dad had to provide his legal consent by proxy for his daughter to marry Bob. For a Singaporean to marry, they must be at least 21 years old and this still remains the legal requirement to date.

Son enlists in National Service

1980 – At the age of 18, immediately after completing my ‘A’ Levels, I enlisted in the Singapore Armed Forces to fulfil my National Service obligations as a male Singapore citizen. The enlistment took place on Boxing Day at the Central Manpower Base at Dempsey Road. Following an enlistment ceremony, we said our farewells to our families and were carted off in 3-tonners to commence 3 moths of Basic Military Training at the Infantry Training Depot (ITD) in Sembawang. Mum tells us how inconsolable she was during the drive home with Dad and she sobbed away like she would never see her only son again. 

A few days later, on New Year’s Eve, we were allowed to go home and in sharp contrast Mum couldn’t stop laughing when she saw me almost bald with my new recruits’ haircut. On our subsequent first home leave weekend in January, I went home completely tanned, bruised and scarred from days spent learning Individual Field Craft (IFC) which included speed personal camouflaging out in the bush. As it became time for the weekend to end and time for me to return to camp (and the physical and mental torture of my basic military boot camp), I was extremely sullen and it was the turn of our domestic maid Siew-Noi to cry seeing me in such a miserable state!