This the the story of Robert Christopher Smith, my grandfather.
He was the son of Robert George Smith and Rose Ratnam. His father, Robert senior, met his wife, Rose, who was from Sri Lanka, when he was posted to Goa as part of the British Merchant Navy. He later got posted to Ipoh where he served as postmaster during the time when Malaysia was a British colony.
Robert junior, or Bob, as he was more often called, was one of 13 siblings and they lived in a house with 20 or so dogs in the yard. One of the dogs, Itam, had only one ear after a fight. Other dogs were various mongrels which the Smiths tended to adopt.Robert senior, being the resident white man in the village who owned guns, also took it upon himself to eliminate the threat to the villagers from tigers. Bob would often accompany his father on such hunts. They would lure the tiger by leading a goat to the jungle at night and tying it to a post. Both of them would then climb up a tree and wait for the goat’s bleating noise and scent to draw the tiger. The guns they used fired .404 Jeffery cartridges. This was a popular cartridge in the British colonies at the time for hunting big game.Apart from hunting tigers, they also hunted wild boar for food. Any meat they could not finish was dried in the sun to make a dish called “dendeng” in Malay.Apparently, Robert senior was from Liverpool even though my grandfather thought that our family was Irish. My grandfather recalled his father playing the bagpipes while dressed in a kilt. Robert senior was also a strict man. Any lapses in discipline from his children were dealt with lashings from his belt.
The young Bob with his love for guns also supposed signed up for the Malay Regiment. However, this was supposedly before the Second World War as he did not have any accounts of fighting the Japanese. The other job he took up was that of a train engineer. Again, there were not many details of this part of his life apart from him saying how more coal was needed to make the train go faster.When the Second World War broke out, the family fled their home in Ipoh to seek safety in Singapore. The family found a place to stay on the second floor of a coffee shop along Pasir Panjang Road. The room they were staying in had a hole in the floor so they could see if Japanese troops were about. Being an obvious white person, Robert senior could not be seen in the streets. Bob, having a darker complexion from his Indian mother, could often go about without arousing any suspicion. However, during one unfortunate incident, Bob was stopped in the streets by a soldier and slapped across the face when he didn’t answer a question properly. He was arrested and taken to their headquarters where they tortured him by making him stand on top of an oil drum with a fire burning underneath. He somehow managed to escape when they were less vigilant. I remember he didn’t like the Japanese very much even after the war.
The part where my grandfather met my grandmother, Mary Chua, is where the chronology of my grandfather’s stories gets confusing. Love and war cause much irrationality after all. After coming to Singapore, Bob found work in a shipyard. Presumably, it was the Sembawang shipyard and I have no idea what he did there but he was part of the boxing scene, boxing under the name of Bobby Star. Star because of a star he had on his boxing shorts. Incidentally, his brother, William, was also a keen boxer and went under the name “Tiger William”.Bob went on runs to build up stamina for his boxing matches. On one such run, he passed by the home of Mary Chua whom he saw sitting at the veranda of their home at Jalan Kerong. He thought to himself she was such a pretty woman to be looking and smiling at him and was fast smitten. He approached her one day and they hit it off.
So this is where it gets weird because I was wondering how that came about during the war. Did he still have a job and find time to box during the time of the Japanese Occupation? He also spoke of how the home of his wife’s family was bombed. The family members were supposedly there for a party. He went after the bombing to find both bodies and body parts which he then buried using his hands and whatever tools he could find. They then fled to seek refuge in the Cathay Building.
Sadly, I don’t know what was happening to the other members of the Smith family at this time. I’ve reached out to other members of my extended family to fill in the blanks. For now, I am glad that they survived the war.