Income and social parities

We found acceptable accommodation in the home of a charming Chinese lady. An English sergeant in the RAF with his nursing sister wife, had an upstairs room, my wife and I had the other upstairs room, and we shared the upstairs bathroom. We all shared the kitchen and lounge downstairs with my landlady, her little daughter, and her casual suitor who played cards and drank tea with her, always with the door open.

The Englishman came from Jamaica and was delightful company. His wife, from a fishing village in the UK, was inclined to be a trifle snooty with the natives, including me and the landlady, although she was charming. Her husband explained that his wife and most of his peer group would not socialise with the lower ranks, and certainly not with the Singaporeans she worked with. Ranks above him would not socialise with those below, either, and not with the locals. The very top service ranks, however, socialised with Asians, presumably at pukka level. The lower ranks apparently disliked their chiefs being on equal terms with their colonial subjects.

The airman thought it all very funny, as he had grown up in a sugar plantation under an egalitarian father. He was worth knowing. He told us that his wife was head of a clinic, where some of the junior staff (all Singaporeans) had equal to or higher qualifications, obtained in the UK. Being English, she had to head the roost. His wife was paid as much as a locally born UK-trained doctor and he himself was paid twice that. I knew that school principals were paid half the salary of a young local doctor and I was to earn half of that again. Night after night we used to talk, but his wife would be busy upstairs most of the time, while the landlady played cards with her platonic suitor.

Looking for work was frightening. There was nothing. As the Russians say, “When we sigh, nobody hears us.” I finally found a very low-paid job teaching English at a commercial school, and was ripped off; only part of my salary was paid. This happened at another school, where the owner and I traded blows – again I did not get my money.

Hunger is the teacher of many (I read), and my wife and I looked like increasing our learning. I rang the USIS (the US Information Service) office and received courtesy and relevant information. On the other hand, ringing the appropriate head (an Englishman) in the Education Authority, I was told rudely that there were no vacancies. “If I peddled salt, it rains; if I peddled flour, the wind blows,” as some long-suffering Japanese said. That was my story too.

I then rang a Singaporean teacher friend who pointed me in the right direction and I was asked to start teaching the following day. There was a shortage of teachers. I wondered what the Englishman was doing in his job.

My income was enough for the rent and transport, but we needed food too. My wife, having some training in singing, found work in a major Chinese hotel frequented by wealthy Asians, and our lifestyle shot to great heights. … But our financial basis was inadequate and the future unpromising.

While the Ceylon Tamils ignored us, except for one supportive couple (the teachers), the other Asians, as well as a few continental male Europeans, expressed great interest in us. We could not blame the latter. Here was a young, attractive, white girl, obviously poor enough to need the job, and her Asian husband was a nobody.

Fresh meat – that was clearly how some saw her. For example, a Dutchman invited us to his place after her work one night (I always picked her up) and plied us with lots and lots of drink. My training in Melbourne came in useful, and I remained sober while he became inebriated and made his intentions clear. So we left, chuckling. …. And she, to her credit, would not accept an invitation without my inclusion. And she did not have to – “Twice on Sunday” and the rest of it was the name of the song.

Early in my wife’s new career, we were befriended by some very nice Indians. They were the leading members of the Indian business community. One couple in particular almost adopted us. So, in addition to cocktail parties thrown by the Indian Chamber of Commerce, we went to private dinners and lunches. In between, our dear friend would ring and say, “Come to dinner, Raj. I will pick you up in … minutes,” and so he did. We felt so much at home with his wife and son. Years later I was to name my first son after that boy. Other members of that community also took us out regularly, in pure friendship – there was never any doubt about that. Apparently, we were seen as an interesting couple, partly because we would talk freely, irrespective of status.

(These extracts from ‘Destiny Will Out’ indicate that, just by being ourselves – relaxed, chatty and friendly, we were accepted socially. I doubt that they knew our background. Our ability to mix and talk freely was, I believe, what mattered. And we must have been a unique pair in the colonial era.)