Skip to content

Calcutta, Kalimpong, and Singapore

Julie Lee Wei/DD 滴滴, Dora Lee Kuo/Ah Tong 彤彤, Su Wu 蘇五, Lei Liu/PP 雷六/勃勃

March 27-April 1, 2010


Tagore's bungalow "Panorama" and St. Joseph's

|Letter, AT to PP, Sat, March 27, 2010

Yes, I did attend St. Joseph's. In fact, I (and Vivien) am wearing the uniform of St. Joseph's in that picture taken in Kalimpong outside the bungalow "Panorama" that was rented from the Tagore family. That would be the Nobelist Rabinadrath Tagore, for literature in the 30's. Helen and Julie are also in uniform, I think, but for the higher classes. It was during my time there that I got tonsillitis and had to go down to Calcutta for a tonsillectomy at a British Army hospital. My memories of St. Joseph's are the pervasive cold, awful food, and the general discomfort. I did excel in Spelling and Dictation, and I liked school though. To attend St. Joseph's, all the kids were boarders. The exceptions were a few upper class Tibetan women. One of them Chimi La was married to a younger associate of Dad's. I think it was she and her friends who dressed Mummy up in Tibetan costume and jewelry to be photographed.

The Asian Steppes. From left: Helen/Baobao 寶寶, Julie/DD 滴滴, Vivien/Feifei 菲菲, Dora/Ahtong 彤彤,    Su Wu/Pengpeng 蓬蓬, Lei Liu/Pupu 勃勃, Nancy/Zhizhi 止止. The "Panorama", Kalimpong, India, 1944.

The Asian Art Museum has had several major exhibitions of Tibetan art, treasures from the Potala and other Lhasa museums, and last year a first-ever exhibit from the kingdom of Bhutan which is now traveling in Europe. After having seen them and studied enough to give tours, I feel I have been there. Arm-chair travel is my cup of tea, hold the yak butter.

I hope you have a good time. But I have heard that the altitude can make you seriously ill, and the food is pretty bad. When are you going? Do take good care. Take it easy, and get acclimated before you do anything.

Leaving India on SS James Buchanan

|Letter, AT to PP, Mon, March 29, 2010

I have been looking high and low for my report cards from those days that Mummy saved and gave me years ago. I am sure they are somewhere around. As it is, I don't even know how I got to Calcutta, probably around 1942-43. I only remember leaving India on the SS James Buchanan, probably l945-46. I must have had narcolepsy when I was small. Dad always said I invariably fell asleep at the dinner table.

I actually remember very little of my childhood. Maybe you remember more? I think we each had different childhoods. There were so many of us and times were fraught. I often wonder how we all came through, albeit in different conditions. I'll write more soon.

|Letter, PP to AT, Mon, March 29, 2010

It is interesting, and surprising, to know that memories of India are vague even for you. Even so, I am sure, whatever it is, you remember far more than I do. I remember absolutely nothing of that period. What has lodge onto my consciousness i believe was told to me much later: the howl of Jackals in the night, waiting outside the house (this must be Kalimpong), on some kind of path, for Peter's return on School days, gamboling and wandering about by myself (I didn't have an amah looking afterme) during most of the day. What I have is one photo, showing me standing all alone in some field, with what is supposed to be the Himalayan foothills behind me, for proof of the legend. Perhaps this is not that strange after all, since we must have left India before I was five at the latest. But I have read of people having clear memories of their lives much earlier than that.

Dream-like memory of a Hankou hotel balcony

The interval between India and Singapore, which you told me I might have spent some time in Wuhan, and certainly in HK, seems dreamlike to me. One image that has been very persistent throughout the years, and which I was not able to place properly until you told me about Wuhan, was that of myself and Nancy on a balcony in a hotel there. When i revisited Hankou (漢口) for the first time in 1980 and saw the facade of some old hotels in the previous French concession, i had the distinct feeling that i'd had been there before.

Singapore I remember a little more. I believe images of riding Helen's girl bicycle on the unpaved street/lane, where houses were set far apart, must be my own. I also have some images of the hospital-ward like bedroom we had in the apartment on (I suppose it must be) Robinson Road, and of some scenes of Helen's funeral. I remember we -- all the kids -- played Hai-Shan-Yu-Dao (海山嶼島?), which involved jumping among sofas/settees/cushions (the islands) and not touching the floor (ocean?). Amazingly, of Pei-Chun Primary School (培群小學) that I attended I remember very little. Here, I suppose some extant photos, more numerous now, must also have played tricks on my memory.

I can remember many things after Singapore. Yes, it is sometimes fun to recall these things.

|Letter, AT to PP, Tue, March 30, 2010

"Ja-KAL" howling in the night

I followed your account with interest, but I know nothing about your/our being in Wuhan during the period you mention. My only experience of Wuhan is very recent - 2006 fall, when I met Yin Tao (櫻桃) for the first time.

Of Kalimpong, I remember hearing the jackals (pronounced "ja-KAL", in India), but I don't ever remember seeing Peter or you there.

Of Calcutta, I remember I often played alone around the garden of our apartment building on Lower Circular Road. There was a large tamarind tree in front that dropped its beans that I thought tasted rather nice, sweet and sour. I once got on a bike that was lying around, and learned to ride it after several attempts, but did not know how to brake, and rode it into a metal pole, probably a badminton post, just to stop. I still remember the hard jolt I got. There was also a very old Anglo-Indian woman who lived in the ground floor of the building who could look out into the garden and could see me. I was very frightened of her. It's strange because most of my memories consist of my being by myself.

Enough for now. Frank wants to know how many days will you be in Hawaii for the wedding.

Nancy/Zhizhi 止止 and her ayah, Sakina, Calcutta, India,1945.

In Calcutta, old house with marble floor

|Letter, DD to PP, Thu, April 1, 2010

I do remember quite a bit about Calcutta and Kalimpong.

We had a small car, an Austin or Morris, and a chauffeur (called "driver" in India). He was a young Indian man. [In Calcutta] We lived in a very old house, called Auckland Mansion. It was on Lower Circular Road. It was a busy road, commercial, it seemed. I didn't know much about the road because I was mostly confined to the house and garden. Auckland Mansion (the letters were carved on the top of the building) was probably built around 1900. It was a brick building and seemed to be crumbling. There were three floors. The staircase inside was of wood, broad but very dimly lit. It led to our second floor apartment and another apartment across the hall. I don't remember seeing the residents. Dad rented the apartment because the rooms were very big and the floors were covered with large slabs of marble. He loved the marble floors. He tell some Chinese friends who lived in Calcutta and came to visit: "Look, the floors are covered in marble !" Mr. Lo, his friend, who was an information officer for the Chinese government in Chungking, told him he shouldn't have rented the apartment because it might tumble down. The windows were very tall, the ceilings very high. There was a large rectangular room, living room on one end and dining area at the other. There were two bedrooms, off this large room. Dad and Mom and I think Nancy and Pupu were in one bedroom and the other children all in the other bedroom. We each had a bed. Each bed had a mosquito net, which was knotted up during the day, and let down at night. Each bedroom had a bathroom. Then along the large room was a long wide veranda. The kitchen off the large room was very small and cramped.

The cook, the driver, the sweeper, the bearer, and Sakina, Nancy's ayah

We had an Indian cook, Ram, about 40, who cooked delicious European meals as well as Indian curry and some Indian desserts. We had a long dining table that was always laid out with good chinaware and cloth napkins in brass napkin rings. We had an ayah (maid) to take care of Nancy and Pupu. She was called Sakina, and was young, tall, and buxom, an Indian girl of about 20, always dressed in saris. She had bells

on her ankles and lots of colorful glass bangles on her wrists. Eventually she and the driver married, and i think they lived in the small cabin beside the house where the driver lived. There was also an ayah (maid) who came in every day to do some housework and laundry. Also a young Indian boy called a "sweeper" who came in every day to sweep the floors. There were class distinctions among the servants. The ayahs wouldn't sweep the floors. Oh yes, there was another servant, called a "bearer". He would serve the food, and did a few other chores, like dusting the furniture. He wouldn't sweep the floors either. The cook didn't serve the food. He was only in the kitchen, never in the living quarters. I don't think I ever talked to any of the servants except Sakina.

Dad and Mom, India, 1943-45.

The garden and the white woman downstairs

We had a garden consisting of a grass lawn with walls covered by morning glories. We used to play "catch me" or ball or badminton in the garden. The apartment beneath us was occupied by a very old lady who never seemed to come out of the house. One day Helen climbed up to her window and peeked into the apartment and she was sitting up in bed. she may have been bedridden---a white woman. Next to our building was an area covered with weeds and I think a small dry fountain and beyond that another brick building, also very old, like ours. But we never went there. I think the neighborhood must have seen better days, and now had become mostly commercial.

The restaurant Firpo's and the bazaar

We usually went out in the car, but sometimes used the horse-drawn carriages and coaches that clattered about. They were for hire, like taxis. They were like taxis. There were also open-air taxi cars, which we also sometimes rode. We would go to the British shopping district, with expensive English department stores, expensive restaurants and bakeries. Sometimes Dad took us (Helen and me) to a restaurant, Firpo's I think, where the dinners were served by waiters in starched while uniforms and turbans or headdress and there was a ballroom in the center of the dining room where the diners got up and danced ballroom dancing. The people dining in Firpo's Restaurant would be dressed in formal wear, the ladies in long gowns.

So it was a beautiful sight to see the couples dancing in the ballroom. Dad tried to learn the waltz and foxtrot but wasn't much good at it. He'd practise at home, saying boong cha cha, boong cha cha (for the waltz) or "slow slow quick quick slow, slow slow quick quick slow," for the foxtrot. However, he couldn't hear the beat. Mum used to tease him about it.

Mum also took Helen and I to the "bazaar", which was a huge place for shopping. This was an Indian market, consisting of numerous shops adjoining one another, presided over by Indian shopkeepers in Indian style. There was a profusion of goods ----textiles, copper ware, brass ware, pots and pans, spices, vegetable, fruits, saris for Indian women in the most gorgeous colors and prints on silks or cottons, and so on.

Baobao and Didi, boy could be SW, 1945.

Other than the bazaar, we weren't in touch with Indian life and culture. Our car would drive through indian sectors ---very crowded and full of Indian temples.

Dad took us to the Victoria Museum. This was a very grand museum sitting on a large piece of land covered by grass lawns. There were a lot of black crows in Calcutta. Indian men would lie and nap on the lawns with a handkerchief over their eyes so that the crows wouldn't peck out their eyes. I don't remember what I saw in the Museum. I only remember Dad taking us around.

Calcutta was very hot--120 degrees in the hot season. There was also the monsoon, which would rain days and days. Because of the bad weather, Dad had Mum and the children go up to Kalimpong in the Himalayas.

|Letter, SW to DD and PP, Thu, April 1, 2010

Thanks for the memories and nice vignettes of old Calcutta.

Cook spoke Indian and English in Shanghainese

Everything seems right, except that I have no recollection of an Indian cook named Ram, but rather, the cook was Chinese. In fact he was a soldier (from Shanghai) called Zhao Shi-Lian (赵世连), as were all of Dad's staff - Majors Chen , Xie and Gao .

Zhao 'spoke' Indian and English with the same Shanghai accent, and Mom used to laugh when I mimicked him bargaining with the Indian driver over cigarettes, "Yi-ge loopee yi-ge loopee!" (一個 rupee), the driver who somehow managed to understand him countered in English "three rupees", to which Zhao countered "Liang-ge loopee liang-ge loopee" (兩個 rupee), and the deal was made. In fact, Zhao even allowed me one puff on his Indian cigarette (which tasted horrible).

The cook and his crows

I specifically remember Zhao tossing chicken or fish entrails from the steel staircase outside the kitchen (which was on the 3rd floor) to crows who would catch them in flight. I asked him often to do this for me, and he complied whenever he had the material for the 'show'. He used to whistle, and a flock of crows came circling near the staircase, then he would toss the 'food' as far and as high as he could. I used to marvel at the birds? agility when fighting for the morsels in the air.

Fei and Ahtong, boy could be SW, 1945.

|Letter, DD to SW, Thu, April 1, 2010

Yes, I do remember the cook Lao Zhao. I think he succeeded the Indian cook Ram. Yes, I do remember that he spoke in a Shanghai-Mandarin speech that he passed off, when spoken very fast, as Indian speech. Mum would laugh about it. I don't remember his cooking though. Yes, the cook used the iron spiral staircase outside the kitchen to go in and out, never our apartment front door. We children would often go in and out the garden through this spiral staircase.

SW to DD and PP | Thu, April 1, 2010

I can recall one conversation I used to mimic for everyone's amusement:

The cook and the driver, Castor & Pollux

Zhao accuses the Driver, in his glib Shanghai-accented Hindi:

"这弗是都大,哝加了巴泥, 哝加了巴泥"!

Driver bobs his head and emphatically denies that he added water to the milk, with a thick Indian accent, replies agitatedly in a mixture of Hindi and English:

"Nahim, nahim! It's all dudha, all dudha! No pani added, no pani added!"

Zhao looks at the Driver in the eye for a few quiet seconds, accepts the driver's denial:

"好了 好了 好了!弗要再加巴泥."

Relieved by Zhao's acceptance, Driver smiles, tilts head to his right shoulder, shuts his eyes while closing the argument, as usual, with:


Su Wu and Lei Liu, 194?.

There were more of such everyday exchanges between Zhao and the Driver, which fascinated me, and I recall absorbing such interactions like a sponge.

Somehow, I noticed that there was a lack of animosity between the two men. Although one was Chinese, the other Indian, the two somehow managed to communicate with each other and behaved rather like quarrelsome brothers. In retrospect, Zhao & Driver were like Castor & Pollux.

Speak, Memory - Singapore

|Letter, AT to siblings, August 5, 2020

We lived in three different places in S'pore. When we first arrived, we lived in a nice bungalow in Bukit Timah where the pics of Mummy with Set B on the front steps were taken and Set A were all boarders at Convent of the HIJ. We then moved to a house on stilts on Sarkies Road and l948 we were no longer boarders but lived at home. I remember the night India became independent - August i5 1947. It was very tense at home, because a doctor came to see Helen. It was a terrible time.

Our last residence was an apartment above a store on Robinson Road. We moved there on April 30. My entry on that day also says that Da Ge gave Nancy some "Battery water" to drink and it was burning down her throat. Mummy was furious. It seems that he was causing trouble at that time.

Looking back, 1948 was such a turbulent year for the family. We had truly heroic parents. Pete, do you remember you had an appendectomy on June 28, 1948?

|Letter, SW to siblings, August 5, 2020

We lived on: 1) Ewe Boon Road (off Bukit Timah, which leads to Johore). Dad had a Lincoln, house had a nice large garden, we had a cat called Blackie. 2) Sarkies Road; we had 2 turkeys in an aviary. Mom discovered that I was a complete illiterate, and gave me thorough thrashing (well deserved). 3) Robinson Road (office flat), no school, polio epidemic; I played so hard that I had appendicitis. DD kept telling me to "keep quiet!"

Nancy/Zhizhi, 194?.

I recall ZZ drank some weak lye solution by accident, not battery acid. I witnessed what happened. Da-Ge told the best stories in his "讲故仔、讲故仔 (tell story, tell story)" series.

I had an appendectomy in late June 1948, a Hungarian surgeon Dr. Miki operated on me. I stayed in the hospital for several days. I shared a room with Mr. Thomas Hill, age 50, who had a 30-year old Chinese-Singaporean wife, his second marriage. She came to visit Mr. Hill daily, and spoke to me in Cantonese. Mr. Hill slipped in a bathtub and fractured his hip. He was also Dr. Miki's patient. Mr. Hill was a trader who lived in Cape Town, but moved to S'pore because his wife wanted to be close to family. After I got home from the hospital, Mom made mashed potatoes with butter, and spinach, so fragrant!

|Letter, DD to siblings, August 6, 2020

We moved from Ewe Boon Road to a more modest neighborhood and house. The houses were smaller and closer together. This was because Dad's income had shrunk; he was being paid by Nanking for his office and three staff (Majors Chen and Hsien, and Captain Kao, who was Cantonese.) This second house had no flush toilet. The waste was carried away by a Chinese man carrying buckets on a shoulder pole. He would come every few days.

We moved from this house to the office building on Robinson Road because Helen died (April 16, 1948) when we lived in that house, and the Chinese landlady didn't want the house associated with death, Mummy said. I think Mrs. Rosalind Fu/Foo's younger sister helped Mum find the Robinson Rd. flat. I remember this younger sister; she was helping Mummy move and get ready to leave Singapore. She'd come to our flat in Robinson Road and help Mum in different ways.

|Letter, AT to siblings, August 6, 2020

I remember Rosalind Foo... (She) became very prominent in Singapore and Malaysian society, and art circles. I once saw her name "Sri Rosalind Foo" in the frontispiece of the catalog of a museum exhibition. "Sri" is an honorific in that part of the world. Rosalind Foo introduced the lawyer C. C. Tan to Mummy...

Steps outside the front gate of our house on Ewe Boon Road (有文), Singapore, 1947. From right, mother, Nancy/Zhizhi 止止, Lei Liu/Pupu 勃勃, Su Wu/Pengpeng 蓬蓬. The small bike lying in front traveled, after S'pore, with the family through Suzhou 蘇州, Shanghai 上海, Hong Kong 香港, all the way to Taipei in 1951, and was use by a generation of children in our neighborhood on Lane 23, Yongkang Street 永康街二十三巷, to learn to ride.

|Letter, SW to siblings, August 6, 2020

I remember Auntie Foo...

Now, the British-educated solicitor CC Tan is 陈清才. Mr Tan defended Mother's case in court, pro-bono, and facilitated Mother's departure (with kids) from Singapore.The whole event was another suspenseful episode. Mother told me that both 陈清才 and 陈英禄 are the two serious benefactors in her life.They should never be forgotten, as Mother emphasized: "绝对不能忘记这两个恩人!"

©Julie Lee Wei, Dora Lee Kuo, P.H.Y. Lee, Lei Liu 2010