Overcoming the Bukit Ho Swee tragedy


Singapore Memory Project
Seah, James

Before the Bukit Ho Swee Fire on 25 May, 1961, I was staying in a zinc-roofed hut similar to those shown in these photos. It has a kitchen in the front door and enters into a single bedroom. 

My mother, two elder sisters in their early twenties and I sleeps in a big bedroom.
I was about 11 years old.

My father slept at the kitchen area where my father sleeps in a canvas foldable bed at night.

The community toilet and bathroom, about 200 metres away, were shared by about 6 tenants. The water was provided from a shared standpipe and collected into pails to be brought into the house.

A single incandescent light bulb of 40 volts. The hut was dim and an oil lamps was used in the evening for doing my school homework. 

In the evening, I would play with my neighbourhood friends to play hide-and-seek games in the landlord's compound ground and the landlord's ancestor tomb behind his house.

During weekends, my friends and I would play games at the Delta Community Centre at Zion Road. 

My family used to go to bed at about 9 O'clock and the kampong was quite in the night.
                                                                                                On the fateful day of 25 May, 1961, my family was homeless. Together with our neighbours as fire victims, we had to sleep in the classroom of Seng Poh Primary School for about a week.
Many youngsters today, including my own children, have only read about it in the history textbooks.
Most residents of Bukit Ho Swee still living in this lifetime could remember the tragic event of the "Singapore Great Fire" over forty-nine years ago vividly.
On that day, it was Hari Raya Haji and a school holiday.  I was attending Primary 6 at Delta Primary School.My mother and I went to my second auntie's house at Chin Swee Road that morning.

There was pandemonium at the junction of Havelock Road, beside the wet market  as my mother 
and I were heading for home at Beo Lane at about 3:30 pm.

There was a dark billowing smoke in the sky, the smell was toxic. People were shouting "Fire, Fire", screaming, shouting and the scenario was the first time in my life. I had never seen a fire which burnt down houses and places before, did not read about it, watched on television (TV broadcast in Singapore began in April 1963 in monochrome) or documentaries on movies. It was a real ( not reel) fire in front of my own eyes to witness the Bukit Ho Swee fire. To me, it was excitement rather than fear of  danger and fire hazard.
During the fire, victims were carrying bulky cupboards, tables, chairs and pots and pans. Instead of saving lives, people and domestic animals. There were some compassionate people who carried away fowls, goats and pigs they reared, including their loved pets to safety.  In a crisis, the milk of human kindness was  publicly demonstrated.
However, there were a few unscrupulous people who looted the personal belongings of the fire victims.

On reaching home, my mother had the presence of mind to start packing important items without waste of time. She was calm and did not panic, having gone through the tough experience of the Japanese Occupation when she was young.  She just carried a big sarong cloth slung at her shoulder and dragged me to leave the house quickly.  I found out later that some jewellery and the most important, the birth certificates and documents of the my family were already packed in preparation in the event of an emergency.
While my mother was busy salvaging whatever lightweight personal items in a rush, I only carried with me my school bag with all the text books and stationery needed for school.
I was dazed and did not realise that it was the last time I could see that home we escaped from. It wasn't a fire drill exercise but I didn’t know the consequences. I exchanged to slippers to a pair of shoes which I went to second auntie’s house. I thought that I would be returning to the house later.

My mother and I ran as fast as we could to flee away from the burnt houses. There was a stampede. The older and weaker people were carried by younger and stronger ones.  I noticed my neighbor's daughter knelt down on the ground to pray, starring them at a darkened sky of smoke. 
Once we reached Havelock Road, we walked towards Delta Circus for safety. My mother could run well as I followed her.  She asked me which way should we go. For one moment, she was at a loss...
A car stopped in front of us at Prince Philip Avenue, and the driver was the daughter of my mother's relative.  She was very kind and told us that she heard about the fire at Bukit Ho Swee. Just a spectator who wanted to help whoever she happens to know and even strangers. What a fortunate coincidence for my mother and I to meet the kind lady, a saviour indeed.

In the car, we were driven to the Kim Seng School opposite the Great World Amusement Park.  She was informed that the centralised fire victim camps were set up at several schools at Kim Seng Road and River Valley Road.
The school compound was crowded with thousands of fire victims, police, military personnels, Red Cross, St John Ambulance Brigade, doctors, nurses, volunteers and helpers.  

Tents were erected for registration of fire victims, cooking utensils to cook on the spot and supply meals; biscuit, hot and cold drinks and beverage, distribution of blankets and clothings through the generosity of  sponsors and donors.  There was also milk powder for babies.
Every victim was issued with an aluminium mug and tiffin holder, spoon and fork (similar to those provided during my National Service days).

There was a long queue for toilets and bathrooms in the school at everytime day and night.

My mother and I were settled to occupy a corner of the classroom, together with about 30 families or more.  Endless announcements were made whenever over the loud speakers in four official languages and dialects. Paging for the names of fire victims searching for their friends and families to locate lost and found people.
My father had rushed from his shop at Chinatown to the school camp, and later my three elder sisters found our personal particulars registration record to get a family reunion.  We had a sigh of relief and were happy to be reunited that evening at the school camp. Dinner and supper was supplied to us with halal and non-halal food to the fire victims.
I remembered that I sat on the floor in the classroom to do home-work after dinner and slept on the floor that night. Some innocent young children were running around the school, playing games.
The school compound was floodlighted with lamps throughout the night. 

To a young boy of eleven, I knew not understand about the fire disaster of over 12,000 homeless. The worries of my future were left to the adults in the family, or where to find another home after the fire.

It was surreal.

After my family had visited the fire site and the shocking scene of the aftermath of the fire the following day.

My sister than told me that the students who were homeless did not have to attend school. My father and sisters returned to work after a few days though.
Within the week, My family was then allocated a HDB 2-room flat at Margaret Drive.   The HDB flats were built a few months later on the fire site and my family and I were transferred to a 1-room emergency flat at Jalan Bukit Ho Swee.Staying in a HDB flat was self-contained with the PUB supoly for water and electricity in the home. We had privacy and the living space was bigger than our kampong hut where we once lived. 

I enjoyed the comfortable bedroom to enjoy, the hygienic environment and a playground in the nearby housing estate.

About 9 months later, my family moved to the HDB 1-room emergency flat at Blk 9, Jalan Bukit Ho Swee.

Being adjusted to the flat at Margaret Drive, we could still prefer the flat at Jalan Bukit Ho Swee as compared to the zinc-roof hut at Beo Lane before the Bukit Ho Swee fire.

(photos)Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew speaking to Bukit Ho Swee fire victims who moved into the HDB 1-room emergency flat in 1962 during the opening ceremony at Jalan Bukit Ho Swee. In the background was the HDB 1-room emergency flat shown in this photo. Bukit Ho Swee Fire site upon completion of the HDB flats.

It was an experience from living in kampong to a HDB flat from my personal perspective.