Sing’s Tips on Reducing Plastics

It’s World Environment Day today. Well, happy World Environment Day!

But it’s not really that happy, of course, because the rivers and seas are choked with our plastic and the sea creatures are suffering and dying everyday. Just recently, a pilot whale died off Thailand and was found by rescuers to have eaten over 80 plastic bags! That’s just the most recent of thousands of sad tales of marine animals dying because of our plastic habit.

There are plenty of calls now to reduce using plastic. Change is slow, understandably but people are waking up to it. But is life with no plastic so unimaginable?

Palmer Road - Picture 3 Watermarked

In our book The House on Palmer Road, the little protagonist Sing lived in 1930s Singapore when hardly any plastic was used at all. Perhaps we can take a few tips from her on living with little plastic or none at all. Here are a few tips from Sing.

Metal Lunch boxes 

Plastic free lunch box 2

Mother always packed Sing’s sandwiches in a metal lunch box for recess in school. This was great because she didn’t have to queue to buy food at the tuckshop, leaving her with more time to play five stones with her best friend Beng Neo. (You can read more about that in our upcoming sequel The House on Silat Road.) Take some inspiration from her — instead of plastic lunch boxes for school, use metal or stainless steel ones. The metal lunch boxes we have these days are just as funky (maybe even more than plastic ones!) and have the added benefit of looking sleek and chic. Bring it in a pretty insulated plastic-free lunch bag which will keep things either hot or cold if you use in icepack.

Tiffin carriers 

If you’re buying food home from the hawker centre, bring your own container for the hawker to use. Ah Seem or Big Sister would have used a tiffin carrier usually made of enamel to bring warm porridge or some lunch treat when they visited Grandmother during the war years. (You haven’t read about that, too? Look out for it in the upcoming sequel!) In fact, tiffin carriers are making a comeback decorated in pretty designs, like retro beauties pictured here. We like! So does Sing.


Bring your own Coffee Mugs

In the same vein, bring your own reusable cup for your regular coffee fix, instead of using those nasty styrofoam cups that hawker centres provide, or the paper cups at Starbucks and the like. These days there are lots of really nice stainless travel mugs that you can use, while making a stylish statement for the environment. We’d like one of these please…or five.

JMJ houseware stainless steel cups.png

Water bottles instead of bottled water

…And instead of bottled water from the nearby Seven-eleven, put a teensy bit of effort and fill up water in your own plastic-free bottle or flask. After all, Singapore’s tap-water is completely drinkable. What’s more, an insulated flask gives you the added benefit of keeping cold drinks cold all day. Think iced water or ice lemon tea. A plastic disposable bottle can’t beat that.



Baskets for the Market 

Ah Seem would have brought her trusty wicker basket to  the market every day.  It would have carried everything she needed–from vegetables to fish wrapped in newspaper, dried prawns and eggs sitting in their paper mache carriers. And still have room for her wax paper umbrella in case it rained! Shop like Ah Seem and bring your own to the wet market or supermarket, and say no to the plastic bags which turtles and whales eventually choke on!


A Bar of Soap

Lots of plastic bottles are used for our liquid soap and shower gel. Think of how many we use every few months and how many are tossed away. Even if you used refills, they too come in plastic bags. Sing and her big family used good old bars of soap to bathe and wash their hands. It was so effective, even the night soil man carried his own bar of soap at the back of his truck! Liquid soap and shower gel were totally unheard of then.

Bars of soap come mostly packed in paper. Even if they did come in plastic packaging, it uses a lot less plastic than the bottles of liquid soap! So turn to bar soap, and help save the world with every bath you take!

Soap bar

So you see, it’s not that bad, is it? Sing, now 84 years old, has this one thing to say on World Environment Day, “People just don’t want to wash up after themselves these days! That’s why they use so much plastic.” If we just put in little more effort, we’ll go a long way to reducing plastic and doing some good for the only home we have. 🙂

Happy Environment Day, everyone!

The Singapore Pineapple

PineappleWe love pineapples—in pineapple tarts, in rojak, in pineapple upside down cake and especially, Thai pineapple fried rice, which some say is really a Singaporean creation! But the best way to enjoy them is on their own, when they are fully ripened and freshly sliced. Then they are sweet and tangy and very refreshing.

Most of the pineapples you see in the markets today come from the Philippines. Some are from Malaysia. But once upon a time, Singapore too grew lots and lots of pineapples. (Spot the cart of pineapples on page 15 of The Little Singapore Book.)

In the early 1900s, pineapple was often grown together with rubber on the same plantation. At that time, rubber was a very profitable crop. That meant that you can sell it for lots of money. But rubber trees grow very very slowly, and take at least five years to mature. The pineapple bush, on the other hand, grows quickly and you can harvest the fruit in just 18 months.

Rubber plantation owners in Singapore and Malaya would grow pineapples and sell them while waiting for their rubber trees to grow. Some of them, such as “Pineapple King” Lim Nee Soon, became very rich this way. (Did you know that Nee Soon Village, Nee Soon Road and Yishun were all named after him?)

During that time, there was even  the Singapore pineapple—what they called canned pineapples from the island. Canning helps to preserve the fresh fruit, and canned food was becoming very very popular then. So Singapore began canning its pineapples and those from the Malay Peninsular to ship and sell them to faraway countries like the UK. Until 1921, most of the canned pineapples from Malaya were produced in Singapore. In fact, pineapple canning became one of Singapore’s earliest manufacturing industries and provided many jobs for the people on the island.

By the late 1920s, however, prices for pineapple were falling and plantation owners in Singapore gradually turned to other crops. After the Second World War, very very few pineapple plantations were left on the island. Most had moved to Johor and the rest of the Peninsula.

Categorized as Things

Singapore’s Bumboats

BumboatsWMOnce upon a time, the Singapore River was crowded with bumboats. They carried goods such as nutmeg and pepper between the ships moored out at sea and the warehouses, which were also called godowns.

Back in the day, bumboats came in all colours, shapes and sizes. Some were powered by motors, some depended on oars. Others were guided by long poles as they crawled slowly along. Most of them had big rubber tires strapped to their sides, in case they bumped into each other in the busy river. And all of them had “faces” painted on their bow, so that they could “spot” danger.

But lots of traffic meant that the Singapore River got really really dirty. After Singapore became independent, there was a massive national campaign to clean it up and bumboats were eventually banned from it.

These days, you can spot a few bumboats trawling the river. These are river taxis and they now carry only people, not goods.


Childhood Favourites – White Rabbit Candy

You can buy lots of sweets and candies in the shops these days. And there are huge shops selling nothing but candy too. But can you imagine that not that long ago, such a sight was not to be seen in Singapore?

Many of the sweets we take for granted now — like the different kinds of fruit gummies, multicoloured lollipops, the whole plethora of candy beans, popping candy, gobstoppers and chocolate candy — were either not available or really hard to find! Back in the 1960s and 70s, children had only a small variety of sweets to enjoy, most of them made in China. And if you were lucky or very good, you may have been treated to a special box of Dolly Mixtures or stretchy black Liquorice, imported all the way from Britain. (These seemed like they came straight out of an Enid Blyton storybook, which kids of the 70s devoured with a passion.)

These days, you can still find lots of the traditional Made-in-China candy in some supermarkets like Sheng Siong. They are not as popular now, but one still remains a favourite. That’s the White Rabbit candy!

Illustrated by Sim Mei-Ann

Do you anything about it? It’s a big favourite during Chinese New Year, with its red, blue and black markings and trademark rabbit drawn on the wrapper. Kids loved to unwrap the sweet and bite off bits of the paper wrapping inside. It’s actually not paper, but a paper-thin layer made of glutinous rice flour. The sweet itself is a sweet, milky, chewy candy that everyone loves.

It was first made over 70 years ago at the ABC Candy Factory in Shanghai in 1943. Someone working there had tasted a milk candy from the United States and liked it. So he took the idea back to the factory, developed a recipe and in half a year, came up with the milk candies.

Note to the grown-ups : A few years ago, the White Rabbit Sweets were affected during the melamine milk food scare in China. Singapore pulled the sweets off the shelves when it was found to have traces of melamine. Since then, the sweets are made using milk from New Zealand, as White Rabbit has for quite some time been back on the supermarket shelves here.

Categorized as Things

When Singapore Queued For A Week

Queuing is a very Singaporean trait these days. We like things to be done orderly, and queuing is the fairest way to take turns. You’ll see Singaporeans queuing at food stalls, at the cashier, for buses, etc.

But from 25 to 28 March 2015, Singaporeans queued like they had never queued before! You’ll see a picture of how we queued on page 64 of The Little Singapore Book.

A few days before, on 23 March 2015, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister and founding father, passed away at 91 years old. Everyone in Singapore was very sad and lots and lots of people wanted to pay their respects to this man whom people knew as the “Father of Modern Singapore”. When his body lay in state at the Parliament House, massive queues of people formed on the first day, as tens of thousands of people waited to see him one last time. The line snaked all around the business district of Shenton Way, along the historic Singapore river, in front of shophouses and office buildings, until it reached the Parliament House. The queue was eight hours long, and  whether in rain or under the hot sun, Singaporeans were willing to wait in line.

For four days, volunteers, policemen and army soldiers helped to organise the queue which now wound its way many times around the Padang, to the floating platform at Marina Square, and back again. The queue went on non-stop day and night for four days, with people often waiting for as long as eight hours. The only time the queue was closed was when the crowds grew too large and the organisers needed to clear those who were waiting.

Old people, pregnant women, the handicapped and little children had an ‘express queue’ which was a little shorter. For that, they still had to wait for over an hour.

During this national week of mourning, Singaporeans of all shapes, sizes, colours and ages came together to help each other, handing out food and water and umbrellas for those patiently waiting. It was an amazing sight. It also showed how much people respected Mr Lee, the country’s first Prime Minister, who took us from Independence to First World success in 50 short years.

By the time the queue was closed on 28th March 8pm to prepare for the State Funeral,  over 415,000 people from all walks of life had queued to say farewell to Mr Lee.


Once Upon These Crops


Once upon a time, Singapore grew lots of important crops. People came from all over the region to buy and sell gambier, nutmeg, rubber and the king of spice—pepper. Singapore even became the centre of trade for some of these crops in Southeast Asia. They are no longer grown commercially in Singapore, but you can still find them in the Botanic Gardens and the Spice Garden at Fort Canning.

It may not look like much with its egg shape and wrinkled skin, but the seed of the nutmeg tree is one of the most important spices in the world. It was so so valuable that countries fought many many wars over it.

When the British arrived in Singapore, they tried planting nutmeg on the island. They were successful and for a while, everyone wanted to grow nutmeg. But a disease killed off the nutmeg trees and by the 1860s, no one grew it anymore on the island.



This comes from the leaves of the plant. It is used to tan leather, as a dye, a food additive and as a medicine. Singapore once had many gambier plantations. It was also the main centre of the gambier trade until the 1900s.

This is the tiny tiny fruit of a flowering vine. When dried, it is known as a peppercorn and is used for cooking. It is often grown together with the gambier plant in Singapore. Pepper is one of the world’s most important spices and Singapore was a once regional center of the pepper trade

At one time, this was the most important crop not just in Singapore, but the whole of Malaya. It is harvested by collecting a sticky milk called latex from the tree. Did you know that the best way to harvest it was discovered in Singapore more than 100 years ago? It is still being used today!

Credit: Illustrations by Sim Mei-Ann