In the old days, "Mata-mata" was Malay for police. It's usage was so common that it got incorporated into the other dialects as well. You can find its use in Hokkien, Cantonese, Teochew, etc., - often shortened to just "mata", as in "Kew mata lei" (Cantonese, "Let's call the police come.")
So, when you go to a primary school named Mattar Primary School, everybody will tease and say you went to a police school. Your school would be the "mata chu" (police station). Nevermind that there's also a Mattar East Primary School!
However, having a government minister that was named Ahmad Mattar at the time made us feel better, so we largely ignored the taunts.
Despite its name, I liked my school. It had probably the biggest school field in its day. I know, kids tend to imagine things larger given their small size, but I've been back and I can say that the school field was probably 3-4 football fields large. Why such a big field, you ask? Well, it's because it's shared between three schools: Aljunied Primary, Mattar East Primary and Mattar Primary.
Recess time was the best. We would literally run out of breath before reaching the other side. This was fantastic for the game of Catching. Run far enough and no one will bother to chase after you.
Yes, the field was huge to us at the time. However, there were two spots we avoided. One was a long grassy patch that was shoe-suckingly muddy, the other was in the middle by the fence where a banana tree stood hung over. Banana trees were supposed to be very haunted so we never dared venture near.
Besides that tree, the chainlinked fence itself held a fascination for us.
It ran for a few hundred metres by the left edge of the field. But because it bordered the wild area between the school field and the MacPherson estate canal, it was also similarly wild and overgrown with morning glory creepers and lallang. You'd find bees, lady bugs, stick insects, etc., often on the plants. This fence ran from the left all the way to the back of the school where our school canteen was.
Our school was typical of its kind in those days: four storeys and arranged like the letter H. A porch covered driveway (supported by many round metal poles) lies in front just where the flag poles are. Each morning, we would face the school and flagpoles to sing our national anthem. Two students (usually prefects) would be tasked to raise the flags. When I was in P6 I was tasked to lead the school in morning exercise. A small metal dias (painted yellow with chain all round) was built for this purpose in the field. I remember being very nervous on my first trip out, but I soon got over it. If you were in the morning session, you would assemble in the front porch area. At one time, I even led the anthem singing. I didn't like it much as I felt very uncomfortable in my singlet and starched uniform. Till this day, I wonder why my mom never got us the light polyester kind! And I used to envy kids who wore them!
On the left of the school (facing it) would be a garden and fish pond. It had a curved railing with pointed tips (something you would see at the Van Kleef aquarium also). I was always fascinated by a large cactus in the corner. It's one of those dark green ones with long sharp needles and many ungainly arms.
The school canteen at the back of the school was also typical of its time.
It had food stalls at one end and a large stage at the other. In between were the tables and benches for dining and an assembly space that also doubled as a badminton court. The roof was of an inverted-V shape supported by leaning cantilever steel girdle beams that themselves were anchored by low cylindrical concrete bases. We often stood on these bases to get a better view of the stage when we got to P5 and P6 when we had to line up at the back.
The stage itself was made of parquet with two side staircases. Behind, along its width, was a storage area; two concrete staircases led up to it. The wall of this storage area was also the back wall of the canteen. It's recognisable for the many ventilated airholes that punctuate up and down the length of the wall. Behind this wall was a small patch of sandy area and then a grassy slope down the drain. Whenever we boys wanted to play 'hamtum bola' in the field, we would rush down this slope and jump the drain. This slope ran the side of the school. I remember spending many recesses in the shade of the school on top of this slope to trade/play with picture cards and stickers. It was a much quieter and undisturbed area. Picture cards with Ultraman was popular, as well as Xiao Liu Mang (the Little Wanderer) and Long Fu Meng (Dragon Tiger Gate - those 70s pants wearing, high-kicking kung fu fighters).
The storage area of the stage was also a popular play area. I remember forming a "Famous Five Club" with my buddies and we would spend recess 'spying' on our classmates through the airholes. It helped that the toy vendor outside the school sold spy toys as well. A popular one was a small book that held a torch; another one held a gun. -All palm-sized and made of plastic, of course. My spy 'books' were black and green respectively. I still have them (check out the pics on Facebook group Mattar Primary School)
Back to that wild fence.
As you can imagine, this fence ran the left and back of our school. It went up that grassy slope and down the length of the canteen. Between the fence and canteen was a popular sandy area. Both boys and girls would use this area for play like skipping, marbles and sa ku lei, a kind of coin/washer distance tossing game.
Playing marbles with that fence in view was something. Because what lay beyond was quite wild... you could kiss your marble goodbye when it rolled into that fence. We often dreaded that. And there's no way to get in unless with parang and fire torch. At a time when pythons swallowing chickens and children were common (real or rumoured), we often imagined a giant python to be living in that wild bush beyond.
After this sandy patch, the fence ran on and turned back upwards after a small space behind the canteen. It then ran parallel to the basketball court to open up to a small gate. On the other side was a low block of single-room flats. This backgate opened to a short sandy path that connected to an open space between two such blocks of flats. Vendors and children would mingle and carry out their activities after school while school buses took time and turns to arrive. It was quite the ideal waiting place as we would play quite a bit with one another. We often wished our school buses would come late, and they often did!
From this backgate, the fence ran on by some tall casurina trees along the main driveway to the front gate. From there, it continues on to Mattar East Primary and to the main Aljunied Road. And along this main Aljunied Road was where Aljunied Primary was. Beyond this school was the canal and where this wild fence would both end and begin. Yes, it was a huge compound that these three schools set on. And we boys had a fun time running about it.
One lasting memory of playing on it was during a game of humtam bola - a kind of tag game with a small rubber ball or tennis ball. One time somebody threw it at my classmate, Sarbjit Singh. It hit his tonchek (his balled-up hair on top, typical of a Sikh boy) and bounced over the fence into the wild bush. Despite losing the ball, we could do nothing but look at each other and laugh. It was funny and ironic at the same time. Just like that field, being so large and giving us endless opportunities to play and run about in it.
Next story: Eat and Play
Next story: Eat and Play