Sketch by Jack Chalker

Fort Canning


Fort Canning

Fort Canning was the headquarters of the General Staff and the Royal Corps of Signals. I was to take over from L/C Mackie who was being returned to the regiment.

A platoon truck was ready waiting when I reached the guardroom and soon on our way to my new home at Fort Canning.

Fort Canning was a complete change to me, no drills or parades, and the accommodation was much better. The work in the Garrison Adjutant's Office was more to my liking and had a heavy work-load, often still in the office late at night typing Part 1 or 2 orders and correspondence. I could not understand why a Tamil was employed to do the pays of the garrison when there were people like myself able to do the job.

My work there was difficult, as the Garrison Adjutant and the Garrison Sergeant Major were unreliable, often missing from their posts, frankly they were a couple of alcoholics. This became an embarrassment on many occasions when H.Q. telephoned for one or the other to go across to the underground headquarters. This was a labyrinth of corridors and offices, operations rooms and corps of signals built under the reservoir which fed water supply to most of Singapore.

Most Saturday nights and Sundays I could get a pass to leave the Fort as these were issued from the G.A's office. I became friendly with a Corporal serving with the R.C.S., who came from Blackpool and used to talk about the Tower Ballroom and the great times he had there. He had seen all the major ballroom championships and was well versed in who was at the top then.

So Tommy Barker and myself arranged to go dancing at the Happy World, and 1 was interested to watch him dance. I must admit he had a style of his own and he seemed to float over the floor, and I loved watching him dance. We never went out alone and arranged our outings to suit his shifts.

One night at the Happy World there was a notice up for an Amateur Ballroom Championship to be held the following Friday night. "Why don't you have a go Alistair?" my pal said. "Why don't you?" I replied. Anyway we talked about it during the evening and Tommy was very.

persistent, to such an extent he approached the Chinese girl (Nita) to enter with me. As she could not speak English he was unable to make her understand. That, then, seemed to be the end of it, but not so. He went up to four Chinese men sitting at another table to see if any of them spoke or understood English. Apparently one did, so Tommy pressurised him into approaching Nita and explaining what was wanted. After much excitable talking the chap came over and said she would but was very nervous about it all.

It was left that we would be there on Friday, and as Tommy and I returned to the Fort I was trying to persuade him to also enter, but he was adamant that he would be cheer leader.

Friday night arrived with the two of us, dressed in our whites, highly polished brass buttons, looking as good as one can in army uniform. For once, the dance hall was full when we arrived. Lo and behold we were surprised as Nita was dressed in a long beautiful white evening gown and had a very special hair-do. This was very pleasing and in my own way managed to convey to her that she looked stunning. We had a few dances together before the competition started.

Tommy was fussing and telling me just to go out and enjoy it, helping me to put number 6 on my back. The Chinese were there dressed in "tails", the Navy, Army and Air Force all had entrants. I said to Tommy "It's a forgone conclusion, a Chinese couple will win". The dances were Waltz, Slow Foxtrot, Quickstep, Tango and Viennese Waltz.

Have you ever seen a bundle of nerves? Well, this fellow was and even a "whisky on the rocks" could not calm me down. However, the first dance was called and my partner and I took the floor along with some twenty couples. Once the music started we danced well and Tommy, who had a very loud voice, started shouting "No.6. Come on No.6" and how he did it I'll never know, but he soon had a great band of No.6 cheering. My best dances are the Slow Foxtrot and Tango and my pal kept saying in between dances, "You've only the Navy chap to worry about but I think you are well on top." "Keep your head. Nita is doing great, you two haven't made one mistake."

Was I glad when the competition was over and, yes, No.6 was adjudged the winner. Both Nita and I were presented with a small cup and a Westminster chime mantel clock. It appeared we were popular winners and I think my pal's experience in Blackpool got the judges thinking No.6. Who knows?, but the Manager came to our table with a bottle of bubbly and brought Nita to join us for the rest of the evening. Lots of people came to congratulate us and, when things quietened down, a well dressed Chinese gentleman approached our table and asked if he could join us as he had a proposition for me.

He asked me if I could come along to his Dance Studio to give some lessons on how to dance smoothly. My pal said "Great, you go Alistair". So agreeing, it was arranged for Sunday afternoon. They came and collected me at the Fort gates and brought me back afterwards.

Now, remember, I could not speak Chinese and suggested if I demonstrated with one of the girls this would be best and the teacher was able to understand what I was trying to impart. So it was back to basics for the class as whilst they were learning steps from the teacher, who was using a Victor Sylvester book on dancing, had not learned the basic of all ballroom dancing. Each class was based on balance, posture and walking as in dancing. First it was the men whom I spent some time with as they are the ones to be the leaders, explaining all dances are from the hips and with the ladies explaining how to avoid getting their toes stood on.

A few weeks later they were progressing well enough to introduce some variations to the basic steps. Give them their due, Chinese are very good at learning, having very supple bodies.

Suffice to say that a few really good smooth dancers emerged from this class and most of them went on, after the class, to the New World dance hall, open on Sunday afternoons, where I met up with Tommy, who benefited from all this by getting free dances for the afternoon as the teacher paid the girls' tokens.

Back at the office things were getting rather desperate. There was a mood of war in the air. Tommy, who worked in the signals, dropped a few hints that had come through intelligence.

All was to change when the code word "Matador" was signalled through on the afternoon of 8th December 1941.


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