Colourful experience all-round

Now retired, Mr Lee (above) was 17 years old when he and his younger brother were part of the People's Association contingent (below) at the 1971 parade.
Now retired, Mr Lee (above) was 17 years old when he and his younger brother were part of the People's Association contingent at the 1971 parade.PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN, COURTESY OF LEE ENG KHONG
Now retired, Mr Lee (above) was 17 years old when he and his younger brother were part of the People's Association contingent (below) at the 1971 parade.
Now retired, Mr Lee was 17 years old when he and his younger brother were part of the People's Association contingent (above) at the 1971 parade.PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN, COURTESY OF LEE ENG KHONG

If Mr Lee Eng Khong, 63, thinks back on life in the 1970s, the word that comes to mind is "colourful". There was the cultural phenomenon of disco, Singapore's first colour television broadcasts in 1974 and the legendary Bruce Lee. Then there was the colourful streamer float from the People's Association in the 1971 National Day Parade.

Fresh out of school, he was 17, waiting to enlist in national service. He loved the performing arts and Chinese culture, so when he came across a newspaper advertisement by the People's Association (PA) recruiting members for its newly formed drama group, he jumped at the opportunity.

He dragged his younger brother Eng Lock along for the auditions. Both brothers made it. Training was held two evenings a week at the old Kallang Airport where the brothers learnt to perform and act on stage, as well as hone their Mandarin pronunciation.

The drama director was Mr Kai Wah On from Hong Kong, whose stage name was Seow Long. He later returned to Hong Kong and was an assistant director to Yuen Woo-ping in the 1978 martial arts film Drunken Fist starring Jackie Chan.

"Experienced in stage design, Mr Seow Long was entrusted with the task of designing a float that represented the association," said the older Mr Lee. While the brothers did not take part in building the float, they witnessed its gradual transformation at every practice, like a caterpillar becoming a butterfly.

 

"Initially, there was just the bare skeleton of a jeep that was fenced up to keep away troublemakers. Then it became more beautiful as layers were added - the body, the logo and the multi-coloured ribbons," the elder Mr Lee said.

In those days, anyone could be at the parade as there was no ticketing system... The television broadcast was still in black and white, so coming to the parade was the only way to see it in colour.

The Lee brothers were among the 30 boys and 30 girls chosen to be part of the marching contingent.

Basic practice started with marching drills once a week after their drama class at the PA's big carpark. As the weeks went by and Aug 9 drew closer, extra practice sessions were added. By then, the float was completed and everyone would march over to the old National Stadium, which was still under construction, to practise in the carpark there.

Fifteen-a-side, a square formation surrounded the float that was driven at the speed of the entourage. Everyone had one hand on a streamer that had to be held taut at the waist as they marched straight. To people watching, it looked as if they were towing the float. It was important everyone was in sync.

"The colourful streamers were marked with numbers for easy identification. We would also roll them up to make sure they were not tangled," he said.

On Aug 9 itself, everyone assembled at the PA for breakfast before going to Connaught Drive to wait for the start of the parade at the Padang. The march past started at 9.09am with nine Hawker Hunters screaming overhead in their National Day debut.

On opposite ends of the float, the proud brothers marched past City Hall, where President Benjamin Sheares was at his first National Day Parade as the head of state.

"It was a beautiful day. There was cheering along the way and the louder the applause, the happier we felt," he said with a laugh.

In those days, anyone could be at the parade as there was no ticketing system, so people lined the streets. The television broadcast was still in black and white, so coming to the parade was the only way to see it in colour.

The float's unique design made it one of the icons of early NDP history. It was replicated for Singapore's jubilee celebrations last year.

Now a grandfather of three, Mr Lee's passion for the arts has not waned. He joined the Hua Xia Philharmonic Society in 2013 after he retired to do what he loves - sing and perform. He also volunteers at a community centre near his Hougang home and even has a tourist guide licence. The poster boy for active ageing wants to encourage others to be a part of a vibrant community, to live life in a kaleidoscope of colours, like that float in 1971.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 09, 2016, with the headline 'Colourful experience all-round'. Print Edition | Subscribe