Thursday, September 22, 2011

Remembering A Hardboard

There's a place in Singapore where you can literally see the biggest cork. It is out there in full view under the sun for all to see. No, it is not in Geylang, despite a fondness of our menfolk flaunting it there. And it's not that kind of cock either!

A picture says a thousand words. Similarly, a 'c' and an 'r' in a word can conjure up images miles apart.

As a kid, I was rather fascinated with materials. It didn't matter if it was wood, glass, ceramic, jade or marble...I would think about its feel and composition.

Perhaps that is why I have no qualms about sewing or knitting - stuff we had to learn in school. Every type of fabric has its own variety. The same goes for threads, buttons, patches, etc. The list goes on.

An iconic material
Looking back at my childhood, there was one material commonly used in construction and interior design. It is a kind of hardboard composed of fibre and dark brown in color - very similar to the backing board found on old cabinet TVs. The reason for the picture you see at top left.

When new, this type of board was pretty stiff. But as it absorbed moisture from the air, it tended to pop a little and flex. If it got too wet, it would become damp and spongy like some wet cardboard. So, even when it was being used as a wall partition, it could not be placed all the way down to the floor. It would be irrevocably damaged whenever a wet mop brushed against it

Standard partition material
My home in Geylang had this board as a partition wall. It was nailed to a planked wooded frame some three inches wide. For ventilation, a wire mesh of about one and a half feet wide was affixed at the top between the partition wall and ceiling. When we first moved to Geylang, we shared the house with my grandma's family. We slept in a room that had an alcove. Some of us smaller kids naturally slept in that elevated space to make way for the others below. Lying in that high alcove, we kids would peep out and look through the whole house, thanks to this all-round wire mesh grating. If we were so inclined, we could even see our aunts don their make-up and change in the next room. Fortunately, even though we were curious about the adult anatomy, we were even more polite; we left spying to just fun and games. I liked, however, that we could look out of the windows of the next room into the street. As a kid, I didn't like to sleep early and watching shadows pass under the street lamp outside my home was my way of counting sheep. The scene was rather poetic too!

A hardboard partition could absorb sound quite well but it was not sound proof. And coupled with a wire mesh grating above, the whole setup permeated sound rather than isolate it. Privacy in that early home of mine must have been tenuous, given that two families also lived there at the same time.

According to history, this kind of hardboard was invented by a man named William H Mason in 1924. He pioneered its production process and so the original hardboard was called 'masonite' after him. Many different types of masonites were produced. Some were based on hardwood and used as house siding while others were soft and bent into useful shapes. The old houses you see peeling in the deep U.S. South were probably sided up with hardwood. The aged wood and paint give such old houses its weathered look. Besides house construction, masonite materials were also bent into the shape of canoes. Used like this, I think the canoe became lighter. But it had to be pretty well lacquered up to keep it from soaking up water!

A versatile material
In 60s/70s Singapore, brown hardboards could be found in products as diverse as school bags and school chairs, not to mention the ubiquitous cabinet TV back. This kind of hardboard was very easy to drill, so it lent itself well to perforation - why it usually was a preferred material among engineers when it came to using it as a ventilated backing for TV, radio and speaker cabinets. To make it waterproof and last longer, such hardboard materials were often waxed smooth on one side. The other side would be rough with a micro mesh texture.

During my primary school time, classroom chairs constructed from iron frame and hardboards were very common. The hardboards formed the back and seat. Because of this, the seats absorbed sweat and would smell. More than that, in Singapore's tropical climate, these chairs became ideal breeding places for bugs, especially bedbugs. Often, our school would rotate our chairs through a Clean and Fumigate cycle to rid them of the varmint. But, with so many kids in school each day, the infection was hard to contain and so we all got bitten sooner or later. No doubt our mums got all very frantic and concerned. This added to their worry of us kids catching head lice too!

But fortunately, my family had Anthisan cream - a tube of ointment that was very effective against itchy bites (such as mosquito ones). Unfortunately, from year 2000 onwards, Anthisan cream could not be sold anymore over the counter without a prescription. You could still get it from JB though, along with other banned medicines such as those for cough (batuk in Malay). 

Even used in schoolbags
As mentioned before, hardboard materials were once used in the making of school bags. Actually, it was a popular material used in all luggage then, giving rise to the term 'hardcase'. Of course, since our school bags were small, the hardboard used had to be thin. It came in pretty printed patterns too with a 'gathered' pouch on the inside lid. To protect the hardboard case from bruising, plastic corner caps were often riveted on. Studs too were placed at the bottom to keep the bag off the floor. Whether it is a school bag or luggage, they were all equipped with spring-loaded catches and locks. These locks made a loud "brrr-tud" sound each time they were sprung open. And although these locks came with very puny and toy-looking keys, being able to lock the bags gave us kids a sense of ownership and power!

Another thing I remembered recently that was made of hardboard were these popular toy swords that were painted red and gold and very ornate, like those used in Chinese wayang and 60s wuxia films. The swords were flat on one side allowing two to be kept back-to-back in the same sheath. My brother and I would each take one each and 'fight'. But because they were made of hardboard, the sword edge would always blunt and fray. I was so happy to see such a sword again at that Museum of Shanghai Toys in Rowell Road. (A picture of the sword is in Images From My Childhood on the right.)

Losing to plastic and cork
When plastic became the new marvel material in the 80s, masonite and other types of hardboards slowly receded into niche areas. They were no longer used in the manufacture of luggage and school bags - not even as a partition board. Yup, the times we lived in can be defined by the materials around us. I remember a time in the 80s when even cork was fancied as a floor and wall tiling material. A foot-square of cork does give off a folksy Western charm. At the time, many of us know cork through 'stick-on' notice boards. For me, I remember it best as a covering for a computer table I built for my XT PC (with an astounding 20MB hard disk then!). The table looked woodish, loggish and best of all, I didn't need use a coaster each time I had a cold drink with me. The cork top absorbed it all!

Now, isn't cork something? Hmm, where's that giant cork again? Hint: It's not in Geylang. It's at a place where bottle-shaped trees can be found. (For a picture, check out the Geylang Stories Pics album.)

Kids on their metal and hardboard chairs still (1980)

According to friend KK, this cream was popular in the 60s/70s
for healing bedbugs. Called "ba sard ko" by the Hokkiens
(literally 'bedbug ointment'.) 

Shelf unit my dad built in the 60s. I just noticed the
Masonite brand on the hardboard backing (mom moving house)
Lower pix: A closer look at the hardboard. Shelf unit is aged but still

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