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Fireman turns heads with helmet collection

SWO Junaidi with two of his most prized items - a vintage Greek fire brigade helmet (right) and a leather helmet from the now-defunct Singapore Fire Brigade. The 55-year-old says the most meaningful part of his hobby is his cultural exchange with for
SWO Junaidi with two of his most prized items - a vintage Greek fire brigade helmet (right) and a leather helmet from the now-defunct Singapore Fire Brigade. The 55-year-old says the most meaningful part of his hobby is his cultural exchange with foreign firefighters. PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

SCDF veteran has amassed over 80 helmets and other memorabilia in more than 30 years

Some people have trophy cabinets. Junaidi Rowden has a cabinet full of headgear.

These are not just any old hats, but helmets that have been worn by firemen from France to Greece.

The Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) veteran has amassed a collection of more than 80 helmets, old and new, and countless firefighting memorabilia such as badges and fire engine models, in more than 30 years. These are proudly displayed in glass cabinets in his Hougang five-room flat.

Since the SCDF put up pictures of his "home heritage gallery" on its Facebook page last Tuesday, the post has been "liked" nearly 4,000 times and shared more than 1,000 times as of yesterday afternoon.

"For me, the helmet collection is a hobby. I didn't expect people would want to know more about it," said the 55-year-old SCDF Senior Warrant Officer (SWO).

It all started when a casually dressed German tourist showed up at the Central Fire Station in Hill Street one afternoon in the 1980s, saying that he was a fireman and asking if he could have a look around the place.

SWO Junaidi thought he did not look like a firefighter but showed him around during his break anyway. Over two hours, he gave him a tour of the station and its surroundings, and invited him to join the local firefighters' volleyball session.

Around three months after the man returned to Germany, SWO Junaidi received a parcel from him with items including an ornate leather helmet. That got him interested in collecting helmets.

Besides buying helmets through mail order with his co-workers, he would trade some of his purchases with other collectors.

Over the years, he has spent thousands of dollars on the helmets and other items.

His collection includes vintage pieces from the now-defunct Singapore Fire Brigade, as well as his own helmet from his early days in the Singapore Fire Service, which he joined around 36 years ago in 1980.

Many items in his collection are gifts from firefighters who visited the station.

"Firemen are like brothers. Wherever we go, we look for fire stations," he said. He has visited fire stations in Malaysia and sought out firefighters in San Francisco and Mecca.

Around 15 years ago, to thank SWO Junaidi for his hospitality, an Austrian visitor searched high and low at flea markets in his country to find a helmet that the officer said he had been looking for - a vintage Greek helmet. At the time, it cost around $650, he was told.

"When he gave it to me, I was very happy. It was not a new helmet, but an old one, an original," he said of his prized possession.

Others sent him photos of their collections, introduced him to other collectors and invited him to an exchange for enthusiasts in Italy.

Some European collectors prefer leaving their old fire helmets dull and untouched to preserve their value, but SWO Junaidi has made it a hobby to restore many of his pieces to their former glory.

On his days off, he dismantles a helmet to clean and polish its parts, starting with the biggest ones. He does this with a bench grinder modified to fit a buffing wheel, and a clay compound that serves as a mild abrasive to remove dirt and oxidation.

At the end of the process, which could take months, he lacquers the helmet.

The collection requires regular upkeep, said SWO Junaidi, adding that he has to polish the helmets every six months or so.

To him, the cultural exchange with foreign firefighters is the most meaningful part of his hobby.

Many of the helmets are not just vintage pieces, but reminders of his friends around the world.

His wife, Madam Salina Saini, 52, said: "All of us are proud of him. It is a unique collection."

The only worry, said the housewife, is making sure that the polishing tools are kept before their five grandchildren come to visit.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 15, 2016, with the headline 'Fireman turns heads with helmet collection'. Print Edition | Subscribe