Jurong, charm of a frontier town
September 2, 1979
I WENT back to Jurong Town after six years last week and was surprised the place still gives me the feeling of being in a frontier town.
True, the trees are now full-grown, the pavements no more dusty and the buildings less stark. But the town lacks that easy any-old-how flavour one associates with Chinatown or Queenstown. Even the crowd is different. Every place carries its own distinct flavour — it’s subtle but it’s there — expressed in its physical artefacts but more so in its own crowd.
The Jurong crowd is also different. There is not the loud opulence of an Orchard Road crowd, the impeccable elegance of a Shenton Way crowd or the aimless indifference of a Chinatown-People’s Park crowd. The Jurong crowd is a little shabbier, certainly more democratic.
It becomes a pitiful comedy when the Jurong crowd attempts to imitate the other crowds. But in their day-to-day, no-nonsense work clothes, Jurong people exude their own special charm.
The men are a rough-hewn lot, strong and deep-tanned, flat-bellied, with hard etchings on their faces that speak of manual toil and a remorseless sun. And Jurong factory girls are also beautiful: clear eyes, pale skins, straight figures and always the long raven hair.
Yes, little has changed in Jurong. I walked down Corporation Drive to the solitary Jurong Cinema (Shaw’s) and everywhere I saw the same émigré individuals — transient and moving — never staying or working in one place too long.
That frontier-ness can be seen even in Singaporeans working there as clerks and managers. Their clothes are neater — perhaps too neat for a settled town. And there is the almost imperceptible air of casual urgency, a self-satisfied mannerism of people who know their work is vital to the nation and who enjoy doing it.
When I crossed the Jurong River, my first scent of the place was that of plywood — warm, pungent and unfamiliar.
I could sense the pulse of the place, the very heartland of Singapore’s decade-old industrialisation.
Then I came to the bus interchange (picture above), so different and unSingapore-like. It reminded me of some upcountry rail station. I began to seek someplace where I could sort out the mass of confused impressions. I, too, queue up for a bus to Taman Jurong, a leafy square of flats and shop houses away from the iron-grey factories and warehouses.
There is Jurong Coffee House nestled among the foliage where I used to spent nights sipping iced beer and listening to stories about life back home in N/V or “New Villages”. Twenty years ago, during the war between the colonial authorities and Chinese Communist guerillas, the British army built settlements surrounded by barb wires, and forcibly moved Chinese villagers inside them. Today, the war is over, the security fencing has been removed and these “new villages” have since expanded into small towns.
At the coffee house, Janet the waitress is new there. She is also a Hakka girl, like almost all the factory girls I’ve met. As we chatted easily in our common mother tongue, Janet shows the kind of animated friendliness one finds in a small town like Malacca, where she comes from.
Janet is lucky to get this air-conditioned job because she can speak English. But sometimes she feels lonely thinking of home and parents and brothers and sisters and cousins. Come Chinese New Year and she will hurry back, probably crushed in one of those northbound coaches or trains and laden with electrical goodies for her folks.
Out of Taman Jurong I saw factories and warehouses, and more factories and warehouses (there are over 900 plants making a diverse range of consumer stuff, from textiles and TV sets, to plywood boards and paper bags), some in neat regimented rows and some like sprawling giants.
Outside the factories, I saw gate after gate hung with Help Wanted signs for assembly workers, forklift and general drivers, electricians, carpenters, guards, storekeepers, shift monitors, and the occasional clerk, mute witnesses to the woefully high labour turnover and worsening labour shortage. When I was working at the paper product plant, I had a permanent Help Wanted sign hanging next to the gate.
Ah Chui is a forklift driver from Bentong, Pahang. Fed-up with tapping rubber, he had come south eight years earlier with nothing but his clothes and a Class 3 driving licence hoping to be enlisted in the army. But somehow he met this pretty girl working in a plywood factory. He learnt she too used to tap rubber and she was from Bentong, Perak, not Pahang. The coincidence of their hometowns’ names was excuse enough, however, to form an association more than friendship.
Today, Ah Chui is happily married to the Bentong, Perak girl. He is still working at the plywood factory, his first employer. He told me in those days he saved and saved, and worked every conceivable overtime shift so he could have enough money to buy a jade bracelet, gold necklace and ring for his sweetheart in order that she could return home for New Year decked in some finery.
Not all the workers in Jurong, however, stay as long in one job — six months, two years, perhaps, and when the foreman in the next yard offered them a dollar per hour more, they went over to him. Life inside the factory can be a shattering experience for Singaporeans born and reared in the cloistered comfort of city flats. I spent a year working in United Pulp & Paper (known simply as UPP among the workers), a waste-paper recycling mill in Liu Fang Road, one of the dustiest areas in Jurong. The incessant roar of machinery pounded my eardrums. The dust and oil patches ruined my shirt and trousers (painstakingly ironed by my sisters) everywhere I sat or stood or leaned.
There was the coarse shouting of the male workers, frequently punctuated with unprintables. There was the suffocating heat of the asbestos-roofed building and there was the hot sun outside.
But today I admire the people with their brows and backs wet with perspiration. Days and nights, they man the assembly lines, stack the stores, repair the machines, and check the finished products. They are the sinewy carriers of our industrial burdens.
After a day’s work, they push their way into company buses, merry, uninhibited and boisterous. The buses are almost always small and shaky and smelly.
Boon Lay at the western fringe of Jurong Town is where most of the workers’ hostels are located. Labour-intensive factories usually rent three-room flats from the town corporation. Each apartment is spare and Spartan — eight aluminium beds that creak like sin, two formica tables and a few cupboards.
And the hostels are not always safe. Sometimes, when all the occupants of a unit are working the same shift hours, thieves break into their flat, adding misery to their lot.
The girls’ homes are better lived-in. The kitchens have well-worn utensils and amidst the wok-stirring aroma and the chatter in Hakka and Cantonese, I could hear a tape recorder playing a tuneful Mandarin pop song, deepening the nostalgia (that indescribable resigned yearning for home).
Chun Chern, a sweet, quiet young girl who stitches cement paper bags, was lonely for her home in Sitiawan, Perak. In a pensive mood one evening, she wrote me this poem in Chinese that I have translated thus:
A thousand lights gleam in Jurong Town
A thousand lights gleam cold and clear.
Somewhere far north in an obscure New Village
A candle glows warm and dear.
Note: After I left the Army in May 1973, I worked for a year at United Pulp & Paper factory in Liu Fang Road, Jurong, as a personnel and wages clerk. I hopped from job to job until I joined the Straits Times newspaper in August 1977 as a trainee journalist. The above article was based on a visit to Jurong in 1979 where I talked to my old colleagues and girlfriends in the paper factory to find out how much Jurong had changed in the six years since I left. The published text on the newspaper is much shorter due to space constraints. — Francis Chin