Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Story of Winnie

[I am going to divert here and tell the story of a girl I met and fell in love with during NS. It has something to do with the recent news about the demolition of Rochor Centre to make way for a highway.]

I feel a sense of regret to hear that Rochor Centre is going to be demolished to make way for the new North-South highway. I used to own a flat in nearby Short Street and RC was the place where my girlfriend and I visited often for meals, grocery shopping and picking up that odd sundry good. It was a special time of our lives. The distribution shops upstairs also reminded me of my family's business, which was in the engineering services. The work involved tools, meters, ball-bearings, bolts and nuts and other mechanical things like that.

I met my girlfriend Winnie during NS, at an end-of-OCS party. She was brought along by her best pal whose boyfriend eventually became a career army officer. Me, I went on to study Engineering.

Winnie began her working life early, right after her O-levels. She started at an advertising firm and then became an executive at a temp placement agency. She was a mature, conscientious worker with a sweet personality - all her bosses doted on her. In person, she was a leggy beauty in the mould of Goldie Hawn: big eyes, sassy hair, warm persona. You could immediately tell that this person was innately kind and gentle. I was most attracted to her sexy lips and eyes that were shy, cheeky and sparkly all at once.

Like most girls her age, she enjoyed shopping and was skillful with make-up; but she was frugal. I credit her for teaching me how to shop and look for a bargain. She also liked fashion and I learnt a thing or two about matching clothes from her. If I hadn't met her, I think my engineer wardrobe would have remained cerebral and taken longer to evolve. Maybe never.

Despite her secure day job, Winnie would take up a second one waitressing at hotel banquets. A close friend of hers thought the same, so it was a case of positive buddy influence. Maybe she was working hard to save money.

I found out why one day when she asked if we should apply for a flat. 

As I was still studying, I wondered if we should wait. She was quite adamant that we go ahead.

Winnie wanted to live in town so we bought one of  those old red bricked flats along Short Street. It was all we could afford. It had one bedroom, a hall and a small kitchenette. Although old (the flats were built in the 50s), it came alive after we stripped and repainted the walls. I also did a bit of masonry work on the toilet to bring it up to date. Winnie had a thing about toilets so I was glad to oblige.

Our flat was just beside Sim Lim Square which itself was diagonally opposite Rochor Centre. We would go to RC often to eat and get supplies. Winnie liked a factory outlet there that sold branded garments. With their branded labels cut-off, the clothes sold for $5-$10, sometimes $2. Because they were such good deals, Winnie bought me a few sweaters for school. Aircon there was a killer and so the sweaters were a lifesaver. My schoolmates soon noticed my change in wardrobe and complimented me on my new look. They thought the sweaters were bought from overseas because they were of good quality. They also knew my GF to be an air stewardess. My female classmates would often ask if she was back. They liked her.

Yes, Winnie by then had become an air stewardess. It happened quite by chance after meeting some SIA directors at a hotel function she was waitressing at. They were impressed by her skill and manners. When the  next round of recruitment came up, she was hired. She later wanted me to join her but I thought better of becoming an air steward. The IT industry was booming then and I wanted to be part of it. Air stewarding didn't seem so mentally challenging at the time, nor had it long-term prospects.

Even though Winnie had become an international air stewardess, her frugal ways remained. She seldom ate out. For meals, she would cook rice or instant noodles with a small travel Philips cooker in her room. In all that time that I knew her, she only pampered herself once with a LV luggage bag which was a common purchase amongst air crews then. I would later learn that she manged to save up quite a bit after just a few years working at SIA. She was on the international flights that paid more.

When Winnie wasn't scheduled to fly, we would spend weekend mornings strolling around the area where we lived. Many small coffeeshops existed then, serving HK-style wanton noodles, Chinese nasi lemak (which was a fave with the late-night taxi uncles), bak chor mee (old-style with that bit of fried fish), and Hokkien mee (which was cooked by a teenage couple) - well, just to name a few. 

Rochor, before the river was cleaned up, used to be home to a shanty town and a slew of auto-repair shops - why a large commercial complex now exists in the same area to house back many of the displaced auto businesses. It even has a small Shell petrol station at its atrium.

The area was quite diverse and charming back then. 

For some reason the place gave off an old vibe. Maybe it was the flats. Or it could be the many uncles and aunties who lived and thrived there. Those 'Tiong Bahru' flats behind our flat also gave the place an undeniably nostalgic feel. 

At RC, Winnie and I liked having breakfast in that coffeeshop opposite the NTUC supermart. We often patronised that stall with the assortment of kuehs. The coffeeshop lady was also chatty and friendly. Further along inside the Centre, there were a couple of well-stocked sundry shops that always attracted a flock of curious browsers. An old-style watch shop also reminded me of those from South Bridge Road that I used to visit as a kid living in Geylang. We bought our first clock there for the flat.

As time passed, I wondered if getting the flat was such a good idea. Winnie and I had started to drift apart. She was flying more frequently and my studies were getting intense. We only met up when she was "back in town". We got along essentially like an old couple, but there was nothing intellectually common between the two of us. Also, the one-year grace period was up and we had to put pen to paper to seal the deal for the flat with HDB. That meant getting married. I realised I wasn't ready for such a leap in commitment.

Most likely, it was youth speaking. I brought the issue up with her. Winnie got very upset and called my eldest sister, who hurried down to comfort her. After a while, Winnie accepted that maybe we were indeed too hasty.

I understood better why: Winnie was brought up by her grandma. When she moved back in with her parents, she was desperate to get her own place. Her mom wasn't a good caregiver nor housekeeper (her kitchen floor was sticky like malt candy) and her dad liked walking around in his underwear even when I was around. Her only sibling - a younger brother, was also coming of age and needed his own room.

Though Winnie eventually agreed to split, she made an unusual request: Would I stay on with her till she found someone else? Winnie was a nice girl and I did not want to see her hurt or left alone, so I said yes. Maybe it was her way of dealing with the loss. But marriage is a big step and I realised I was the sort who needed a soul mate who could chat with me all sorts of topics under the sun. Marriage would lead to children and for me, that mattered. I wanted us both to be happy in the long-term.

In time, Winnie hooked up with an old guy friend of hers who had an earlier interest in her. But I didn't like him much. You probably wouldn't too bcoz he was unresponsive and liked to keep his sunglasses on all the time, even at first-meeting. Winnie told me that that Jeffrey was an ex-SAF pilot chopped for dangerous flying. At the time that he and Winnie hooked up again, Jeffrey was helping a relative run a restaurant in Florida in the US. I don't know how Winnie did it but she eventually got him employed by SIA as a pilot. Not a bad turn of events for someone once considered a dangerous flyer.

However, this did not have a happy ending. Jeffrey cheated on Winnie with some air stewardesses on several occasions when he started flying. It was Winnie's ex-colleagues in SIA who found out and told her about it. But by then they were already married and had two young kids. Winnie was so depressed about it that her friends, worried for her health, checked her into Tan Tock Seng hospital for observation. But the hospital didn't watch her too well. The day she was admitted, Winnie sneaked out to a nearby HDB point-block and jumped to her death.

I found out about her death one year later from a newspaper obituary. It had been 7-8 years since we last broke up. I was stunned.

What stunned me further was to learn from Winnie's close friends that her mother-in-law, afraid that Winnie might return to haunt the family, actually took scissors to her nice clothes and snipped off all the buttons and pockets. She and Jeffrey then packed all her clothes in black garbage bags and threw them out. That was a grave act not unlike a curse. You mutilate someone's clothes like that only if you do not wish that person's spirit to return - or be reincarnated. I was speechless and aghast at their cruel actions. I thought this kind of thing was only done to enemies???

Here was a decent girl, loved by most and yet have a mother-in-law behaving like that. Did the MIL not know that the chief scoundrel was her son?

On the final day of her wake, her close friend Helen told me that Winnie was sent off by over a hundred of her friends. That seemed right. To me, she remains that hardworking, sweet girl who is fiercely loyal to her friends. She was very generous in spirit and though frugal, was fond of buying thoughtful gifts for friends from her many travels. I should know; I still have a number of them in my Treasure Box of Memories, including several Hallmark cards.

With me, she was extra generous and so she must have been with Jeffrey - why the more it pains me to learn of what he has done to reward Winnie in such a manner. She even bought a house in Sophia Gardens (next to Cathay cinema) so as to start a family. That was where all her savings went. 

I did meet Winnie once after we broke up. It was maybe a year before her death. We bumped into each other at Cold Storage in Holland V. She must have been visiting her close friend Helen who lived nearby. Her young sons, probably aged one and three, were there with her. We had a perfunctory but friendly chat - the sort that acknowledged that we both have moved on. We wished each other well and then parted ways. She looked good and did not seem troubled.

Back when it became clear that our relationship was over, I stood along Rochor Road looking up towards the flat we shared that one year. I was hoping to see Winnie one last time. I knew it was best for the long term, but no matter what, there's always a tinge of regret when separation becomes amicable. Yes, I was sad that the relationship had to end. I just wished I didn't have to think we were incompatible. But that tiny nugget of truth inside me refused to let my heart rule. I left that night without seeing Winnie again. It would take another nine years before I could start another relationship.

But oh, if only we had kept in touch! At the end of the day, she was a decent and beautiful person. And she always said I made her laugh. Perhaps she could have called me in that dark moment of hers and be cheered out of it. Winnie's death changed the way I would handle my ex-gf relationships. There's no need for awkwardness or keeping a distance. We should value a person for whom they are, maybe more, for the qualities that attracted us to them in the first place. 

RIP, Winnie. Thank you for those Rochor/Short Street memories. More importantly, thank you for loving me. I still remember that cabin smell you'd bring home from your long-haul flights, stepping through the doorway dressed in that SIA sarong kebaya that fitted you so well. I missed you then and I still miss you now. Please be in a better place. The angels will count you as one of them.

Note: The red brick flats beside Sim Lim have all been demolished some 4-5 years ago to make way for that iconic Lasalle College of Arts which now stand on the site. Rochor Centre will follow suit from 2013 onwards. By which time, destruction of physical memory of my time there will nearly be complete. Next story: Corporal Raja


  1. Life is cruel - thanks for sharing

  2. Wow. That's one heck of personal story. I thought elements in your story wasn't that unusual. But perhaps it's the way you've expressed your feelings that made it very real and very poignant. It's a sad story. But thanks for sharing.

  3. Great blog on Singapore memories to share your personal experience, Short Street with long memories and all you remember of Willie while she was alive. Nostalgic and memorable places, people and events in Singapore. Well done, Tuck Chong. Keep on blogging!

  4. Thanks for sharing ... A reminder on how reality bites us sometimes