The old times
As a cash register technician, Wee Char Lee has seen how machines have evolved – from mechanical to now electronic. And his job was not all that safe either during his time.
BY: Eleanor Yap
Wee Char Lee, 87, has seen technology evolve from mechanical to electro-mechanical, and later to electronic. “Now all those machines are obsolete. Today, it is all electronic, and smaller and lighter in size,” he said.
He has also witnessed the Singapore of the past with the Japanese Occupation in 1942. He was around the age of 14 or 15 then. At that time, it was a requirement to learn Japanese so he went to study the language. After four months, he quit and joined a Japanese trade school at Happy World stadium (which was at the time located at the junction of Geylang and Mountbatten) for two years. “I learned about mechanical things, including how to repair airline engines.”
In 1943, he ended up working at a motor workshop, repairing cars. “Whatever job that came, I quickly grabbed it first,” he said. He worked at the place for only a year and quit, becoming interested in a job as a cash register technician with Brinkman Ltd. His new company would send Char Lee to Malaysia from Singapore where he was based to repair customers’ machines. He shared that his customers included the likes of Fitzpatrick’s Supermarket and Cold Storage. He also had to service some bank clients who had his company’s machines.
“Do you know that POSB headquarters was originally in Malaysia not in Singapore? They had 15 to 20 of our accounting machines. At the time there was no electronic so spare parts for the machines were sent by post or by airmail. As at the time Singapore was still under Malaysia control (Singapore gained her independence in 1965).” He shared that in his job, he covered the regions from Malacca right up to Alor Star. “I was this one-man show.”
Also, thanks to him learning Japanese early on, he could speak a bit of the language which helped at time as after the war, when the British were still in Malaysia, the Communists became active. “They were just as notorious as the Japanese and they often took potshots at the ang mohs,” said Char Lee. From time to time, his company would send him to Japan for training on one or two models of machines. He also had to come back to Singapore every so often to teach his young apprentices from Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Ceylon on how to repair the machines. “Whatever I was trained on, I then had to teach them.”
A dangerous job
During 1945 when the British returned to Malaysia, he realised his job was becoming more dangerous. One time, he recounted that a customer’s machine in a tin mine area in Sungai Lembing, Pahang, Malaysia broke down and he was called in to repair it. Travelling from Kuala Lumpur where he was now based to Kuantan by plane, his manager then picked him up upon arrival. After which, he was ferried in an armored truck.
“I threw my two bags in the truck and went to the top to observe. Along the way, there were Communists and it was dangerous. The sergeant told me to come down and said to me, “I am suppose to bring you in and out in one piece, not several pieces”.”
Because of this and the situation between the military and Communists was escalating, he felt it necessary to ask his company for insurance. “I wanted insurance as if I got hurt, what would happen to my family? I was travelling from Singapore (where he was based at the time) to Malaysia and was with a European man, who was my boss. Communists like to attack the whites.” His boss however said no and he decided to quit and go home. After two days, a registered letter from his boss came to his house, urging him to talk things over. To say the least, the company ended up insuring him. “This was the first time I put my foot down. It was very daring.”
Overall, Char Lee was satisfied and happy with his job. “I was very contented to see the machines I had fixed and that it made the customers satisfied. … I never thought of pay, I just worked. As long as I was able to fix the machines, I was happy.”
When he was 55, he thought he would be put out to pasture but that didn’t happen. When he saw the people from his company’s human resources department, he asked them if they were going to retire him. They summarily replied to him to go back to work. “There was a shortage at the time of trained technical staff.”
Char Lee shared that closer to his retirement, Brinkman changed its name to NCR (National Cash Register). Though he would have liked to have been sent to NCR’s headquarters in Dayton, Ohio, for training, that never happened. He instead got his bank security and alarm system training in the 1980s in Canton, Ohio and other trainings mainly in Japan. “Japan was nearer so we got sent there.”
He worked in the job for 40 years before he finally retired in November 1987.
First stint in volunteering
The father of three and grandfather of six also revealed his first time volunteering. At the age of 16, he started volunteering as an air observer and what was called “half-stars” (the lowest rank). These observers had to patrol the streets at nights and look out for enemy airplanes. If there were, they would have to tell their respective communities to shut the lights or else the enemy would drop the bombs.
“I wanted to help those people who had nice houses so they could [continue] to stay in them and not get bombed.”
At age 17, he shared an incident where all half-stars were called to assemble at the central police station in Tekka, where there were 200 people waiting for the commanding officer to come. The officer came and went up to a platform and spoke Japanese, which Char Lee was happy as he understood. He asked the crowd how many could understand Japanese.
“My legs were shaking and I put up my hand. The officer asked me to come up to the platform, and said that I was now in charge of all the local air observers.”
The air observers also had the tedious task of digging trenches and tunnels in places like Jurong (back in the days when it was wild) for the Japanese army so they could defend themselves. “Because I was in charge, I didn’t have to dig. I [instead] got 15 air observers to cut down vegetables and tapioca as food rations for two weeks.” He volunteered in this role till the Japanese left and Singapore was officially returned to British colonial rule in 1945.
Char Lee shared that one air observer who only volunteered two weeks wanted to go home to check on his family who were living in Cairnhill (Orchard area). “We had a roll call every morning at 6am. I told him not to go but he said to me not to worry and that he would come back before roll call. He went out to the farm where we were based in Jurong and borrowed a bicycle and rode home. After his wife cooked for him, he cycled back, reaching the farm at 4.30am to 5am.” A close call but one incident he remembers clearly.
Since his earlier experience volunteering, Char Lee knew this was something he would continue doing. “As long as the Lord keeps me healthy, I will do his Will. This is my motto.”
He has been volunteering at a community organisation called the Presbyterian Community Services (PCS) for 40 years. He gets called two to three times a week to be a listening ear to other seniors, and he also gives talks on reflexology. “We chit-chat with the seniors and we see how we can help. They get excited when they find out I am older than them. They complain about their legs but then they see me walking. I don’t know if they want to cry or laugh. I thank God for giving me the strength to walk and help them.”
He is also an elder at the Prinsep Street Presbyterian Church, which he has been doing for as long as his work at PCS. “If I am on duty and people need prayers, I will pray for them. I do visitations also.”
“I find it satisfying to be able to help others in need and to see people happy. If I don’t do this work, I would be a dull guy.” Though Char Lee has been through many changes and historical events, he will forever have lots of stories to share.