Saturday 17 December 2011

Lessons In Kranji

What would you do if you were young, fit and had lots of time on your hands?

Well, a friend and I decided it was a good time to try out labourer-type jobs. We had just left school after finishing our O-levels. Academically, we were both doing well and had aspirations (like the rest of Singaporeans then in the early 80s) that would eventually lead us to a white collar job in an airconed office. Our thinking then was: "If not now, then when?" And so we made a bet: Let's see who will last longer in our respective back-breaking jobs.

At the time, I had a sister who was working in a wood products company in Kranji. Besides manufacturing their own window and door sills for export, the company, Amigo Timber Pte Ltd, also processed their own raw timber planks. I asked my sis if I could join Amigo as a labourer, someone who helped to sort out the good and bad raw planks. They presumed I was just trying to earn some vacation money and so they said no problem. I then went to Woodlands Central to shop for workman clothes. I bought a popular brown jacket made in China that was clothed from the same tough but processed hemp that I would later encounter in Taiwan as an NS soldier.

My friend, he decided to try out as a construction worker. He bought himself workman clothes and a hard hat.

It did not take long for us to regret our decisions. After the first day, we could hardly pull ourselves out of bed... We were so goddamn dead tired. Our moms had to threaten and coerce out of the house. "How can you disappoint the companies like that!" was their common reprimand. "Work for one more week!" was their follow-up command. In that one day, we learnt that some work were truly "back-breaking!"

My job at Amigo was simple: As a labourer, I was just required to work with two Sorters to, well, sort out wood planks that were either good or bad for manufacturing. The planks were long, often at 12 feet and came in a bundle of 200 bound in steel straps. The light colored ones were usually not heavy, probably 2-3 kg when held at the ends. But the dark heavy woods were a different story. Even at just 4x4 or 5x5 inches, they weighed like a ton, and were a struggle to lift. They were the ones that could even break a camel's back, let alone a scrawny boy sixteen going on seventeen.

The work of the sorters were more specialised: a knowledge of wood types and disease was necessary. What they usually looked out for in a plank were pinholes, evidence that insects had bored into the wood. They would then mark out the offending area with a piece of chalk (or crayon) and the plank would then be put aside. When the percentages were calculated at the end of the sorting, they would decide if that bundle of planks was mostly good or unusually bad. The supplier would get a earful and maybe not get paid. A rather well-known pair of sorters in the industry at the time were the Koh Brothers, both in their 40s. They were quick and could pick out a bad plank even when the evidence was not so obvious. They were often sent to Kalimantan by my boss to quality-check timber before it was paid for and sent back to the company as raw material.

While sorting, we would put the good planks aside into a separate bundle. When that bundle reached a certain height, they were strapped and then forklifted into a corner of the giant shed we all worked under. Needless to say the place was often filled with bundles of wood and much sawdust.

My day would begin at 8am. At 10am, a break. We would know it was time for a break from a shift siren that sounded all over Kranji. That was how we generally sensed time. There was no need to look at our watches.

Our break was either coffee at a small open-bench area next to our company office or at the opposite Kwong Maw Sawmill canteen. This was a small concrete building that faced the main road. I remember the place not so much for its breakfast noodles but for an incident that took place. That day, officers from the government's veterinary service were outside culling wild dogs. But one of them did not shoot a dog very well and it ran past Kwong Maw with its intestines hanging out. I spent the rest of the day replaying that scene. It wasn't pleasant and I was angry with the officers for doing such a sloppy job. If you had to kill an animal, at least do it right.

There were many dogs around the sawmills in Kranji then, even at our company, which had a large expanse of unused land at the back. We treated the dogs like our pets and gave them rice mixed with whatever leftovers the lived-in workers had. The canines were healthy and carefree. However, each time the shooters came, they would retreat further in-field, howling their protests as they did so. It seemed as if they remembered what had happened to their kin before.

Amigo's lived-in workers were all from the Philippines. They usually signed on with a no-break three-year  contract. 'No-break' meant not being able to leave the country to visit their families back home. It was tough because a couple of them were married and had kids. Their families were poor. I remember helping Ricardo (a roguish chap in the mould of HK actor Simon Yam) to buy pencils, ball-point pens (Red Leaf) and exercise books to send back home to his children. At the time, school children in Singapore didn't think twice about throwing such pens away even if they were good and still filled with ink.

Another memorable occasion was to help George, our resident forklift driver, to buy a special remote controlled 18-wheeler toy for his fourite nephew. I didn't know then that such a toy existed (it was mostly cars and helicopters then). George was a garrulous fella who looked dark like Justice Bao. He drank quite  a bit and his bloodshot eyes only made him look more fierce than he already did. He told me he had a degree in aeronautics. But as the degrees in his country were little recognised elsewhere, his could only find work in other trades. I found George intelligent; you could tell from the jokes he told.

There were others characters such as Yahya and Ismail, both Malays. Yahya was our boilerman, a stout fella who made sure that our boiler was kept optimum by feeding it wood. This boiler supplied steam to the pipes in our wood drying kiln. It was run at a temperature of 230 degrees Celsius. Yahya also looked after our air-quality meter, a revolving cyclinder with graph paper and ink needle. This device was attached to our chimney to monitor air escaping into the atmosphere. Its graph paper often needed replacing. Besides air quality and boiler operation, I also learnt from Yahya a thing about being presentable. Although just a boilerman he was always very well groomed and neatly dressed. His tailored pants were ironed to a crease, his white shirts and singlets very FAB-white and never old. Although he spoke little, he had a great presence. His smile was the most genuine and warmest I've ever seen on someone.

Ismail on the other hand, was a skinny chap with curly hair. He was chatty and his big bright eyes seemed to indicate a kind of lively innocence and goofy goodness. He was my wood-carting budding (me at one end, him at the other). In age, he was one year older than me and had dropped out of school earlier. Like my neighbour Aziz, he also aspired to have his own motorbike. Even then, Malay youths seemed to have a thing for bike riding - something Chinese parents often frowned upon. I was very happy when Ismail later got married, but was also sad when his new wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was breast-feeding their new-born girl then.

As work buddies, Ismail and I often spent our breaks together. After lunch we would find the coolest spot atop the wood plank bundles to lay back and "talk cock". Afterwards, we would fall into a siesta. Lunch-time sleep was what helped us recharge everyday.

Kranji was, at the time, quite the happening timber and wood processing industrial estate. A few large companies were into making furniture. Next to our company Amigo was the largest of them all, HK Teakwood. They churned out standardised furniture, not all of them natural wood. Our own company was only involved in making sills that were exported to window makers in Europe. These manufacturers would in turn churn out complicated double-glazed windows that opened out in three different ways. This allowed them to be used in all kinds of weather. The window sills that Amigo supplied were not difficult to put togther. They were often made up of three pieces of narrow wood planks glued together and than routed (cut) to a specific profile. There were, of course, grooves and slots too for holding specialised metal hinges.

Kranji Industrial Estate itself wasn't that large then. Mostly, it ended a short distance from where our company was, at a spot where the only bus service to that place - No. 208 - made a u-turn and headed back up to Marsiling. The road did not run through to Neo Tiew/Lim Chu Kang then - it ended next to a waterway. This and the wharf at Kwong Maw Sawmill were very popular fishing spots then. But at the time I was more interested in flying kites than fish.

My time at Amigo Timber was just a couple of months but I learnt quite a bit. Things such as the various types of wood felled and planked, the art of quality-checking them, the use of a two-needle moisture meter and kiln operation, and the wonderful people who treated their work and materials with great respect. I also learned to drive a forklift, which was quite different from driving a car - the steerable wheels were behind. I also learned to strap bundles of wood together using a common crate strapping tool. The narrow steel straps were hard and could cause a nasty cut when they were tightened too much and snapped.

More than all these, I learned a litte bit more about life. And not just blue-collar life. It was life in the back alleys and dark saloons. It happened one public holiday eve.

Ricardo and his pals invited me to a drink in town. Town was somewhere near Desker Road along Serangoon Road. After some drinks, they went their separate ways. Ricardo pulled me into a backlane. The place was crowded with men and well-lit, with big white bulbs and colorful lights. Pinkish light also spilled from open doorways to splash on adjacent walls. It was all quite the fantasy. Young women with thick make-up sat just inside the doorways, waiting. I realised then that we had plopped right into a  red-light district area.

Ricardo asked me if I wanted to "do it". I was quite sure and said no. I've heard enough about VD from public education campaigns to even want to contemplate. Plus, I respected women too much to want to get into that sort of thing. Ricardo simply shrugged and said "Ok, wait for me here" and off he went, disappearing into a dimly-lit doorway. I looked for something to occupy my time and found a make-shift stand nearby selling all sorts of aphrodisiacs and sex aids. Much of the medicines seemed to originate from Thailand or India, judging from the squiggly scripts on the labels. There were also many condoms that had hair attached - supposedly stiff animal hair whose function was to help titillate female genitalia while the silicon sac offered protection to the men. Some of the packaging did look old, with suspicious yellow lubricant floating in them.

After an indeterminate time, Ricardo emerged all broad smiles and flustered. Was it his first time? I decided not to make a comment, slightly amused at his state. "Come on, let's go," he said.

"Let's go" brought us to a bar in Kallang, near the National Stadium. It was one of those dimly-lit affairs with round high-back sofas. We bought a couple of drinks for two skimpily-clad girls. One of them spoke Riccardo's dialect and soon they were laughing away. I was trying desperately to act all grown up hoping that my tender age did not show. In an act of manliness, I put an arm round my companion - she didn't shrink away and didn't seem to mind. I remember her smelling of a mixture of perfume, cigarette smoke and hairspray. In that dim light, we could not see each other very well but I think she was probably in her 20s. We sat like that, listening to Ric's animated conversation. From time to time, she would stroke my thigh. I didn't know what else to do so I played with her rather stiff curls.

After some time, Ricardo and I got up to leave. "Come, let's go, she's not here." Who's not here, I asked. "Sally."

That night, I never found out who Sally was nor where she had disappeared to. From that bar in Kallang, we hopped on to a few more, eventually ending up somewhere in Orchard Road looking for that elusive girl. I was all in a daze because, from not having been in a bar before, I was like in half a dozen in one night, drinking and getting fondled. Maybe I shouldn't have been wearing that tight trendy pair of pants after all!

I knew Sally wasn't Ricardo's wife. In an earlier time, I would have been very critical of him. But having worked and ate with these fellas, I realised that they lived mostly a life of deprivations, only able to see their loved ones once every few years. Because overseas calls were very expensive, they didn't even telephone each other, preferring to write letters or send postcards. Or maybe that their families were too poor to even afford a phone. Even if they could, maybe the waiting line was long, like in India. That wait could take 10 years or more then.

That short work-stint in Kranji opened my eyes to a few things. I learnt not to judge unfillial husbands, sex workers and ladies who worked in smoked-filled and dimly-lit rooms.  Unsavory as their world might have seemed, they each have a role to play. And each was just trying to make a living. Somehow, the pains from my physical labours seemed insignificant compared to the challenges these folks faced. I made it a point to study hard then and hopefully make a difference to such folk when I finally come into my own as an adult. In my head I was imagining doing that from behind a large desk in an aircon office. "Really?", "Honestly?". In life, there are no easy answers.

And my friend? He went on to do what he loved best - being a rice microbiologist. But not before working in the insurance business first to make enough monies to finance his studies further. Life, as I implied earlier, often runs not to a preordained script. And this friend came from a rather well-to-do family that owned a timber business in Johor. Yellow teak, best shelving wood ever.

Next story: A VCR Affair

1 comment:

  1. TC. As you can see, having lived in Farrer Rd and Sixth Ave most of my adult life, I can relate to the stories here much better than those of Geylang which is 'not my territory'