Bombs, Clothes Lines and Jeeps

A partially opened door to our bomb shelter.

The entrance to our bomb shelter, note the ventilation hole above the door.

Our apartment in Singapore is like most apartments in Australia but one corner of it is quite different.

We have a bomb shelter.

Yes, our nine-year old apartment has a fair dinkum bomb shelter. This is because all apartments in Singapore are required to have a bomb shelter under Singapore’s Civil Defence Shelter Act 1997.

As you can see from the thick door and walls, this room is designed to withstand a blast.

The bomb shelter is the strongest place in the apartment so when an explosion hits the idea is that the building crumbles but the bomb shelter stands strong. The shelters in a building are placed on top of each other for reinforcement. You might be 23 stories in the sky with a sheer drop outside your bomb shelter door but you are safe, albeit squashed in a small, dark room on top of a lot of other small, dark rooms.

Bottom of a thick doorway with a large tub of washing powder resting on it. In the background are wire baskets with groceries.

The bomb shelter has a thick doorway and walls to protect our groceries.

There is only one door and for most people it is a loooong way down. According to Time Out Singapore the Singapore Civil Defence Force is equipped to rescue people from heights. I am relieved!

Does the legislation about bomb shelters reflect the historic instability of this region of the world? This is after all the region where the Cold War ran hot with the Vietnam War and the communist insurgencies in Indonesia and what was then known as Malaya. According to the Singapore Civil Defence Force, the first shelters in this bomb shelter program were established in 1983. What triggered that move? Perhaps I will find out when I visit the Civil Defence Heritage Gallery. There seems to be a museum for everything in Singapore. The list of museums I should visit is growing longer.

The second thing to know about bomb shelters in Singapore is that this is where the family’s maid sleeps at night.

We were shocked. I reiterate; bomb shelters are small and dark. I would not want to sleep in one voluntarily. Though I suppose if a bomb sneaked up on a building during the night then the maid would be the most likely to survive.

There are a lot of maids in Singapore but the word maid does not seem to be used. They are referred to as helpers. Hiring a helper is an option, not a requirement, for expats here. From observation it seems that it is mostly families with children who have a helper. We don’t have a helper as it seems rather unnecessary for a household of three adults.

Instead, we have made our bomb shelter our pantry. There are many uses for a bomb shelter. It could be a general store room, or as one website suggested, you could make it into a mini-library or a shoe cupboard. Check out ‘7 things to do with your HDB flat’s bomb shelter‘ for more ideas for bomb shelters. An HDB (Housing and Development Board) flat is the government housing where most Singaporean’s live.

Retractable clothes line attached high up on the wall.

This is the wall mounted clothes line which can retract up into the ceiling. The grill at the back allows plenty of fresh air into the laundry, kitchen and bomb shelter (when the door is open). The bomb shelter is to the left of this clothes line.

Next to our bomb shelter is our laundry area. I reckon that builders in Australia should adopt our laundry design. Apartment buildings in Australia generally don’t have anywhere to air-dry clothes. This design flaw means that apartment dwellers in Australia have no choice but to use a tumble dryer which is not good for the environment. Even balconies cannot be used for drying clothes because body corporate rules generally forbid this.

Singapore apartment buildings have a great solution. Each flat has either an under-cover laundry area which is open to the air, or a special little balcony to dry clothes.

We also have another ingenious solution to the lack of space and the need to dry clothes – a clothes line that can be hoisted into the laundry ceiling.

When I told my mother about this she was reminded of her aunt’s indoor clothes line from the 1940s. It had a wooden frame and when not used it rested in the high ceiling. It was lowered by pulleys. Mum didn’t think her aunt’s clothes line looked anything like ours.

Our open-air, under-cover laundry area leads directly to the kitchen through an open doorway. I love the open-air feel of the kitchen. There is always a breeze to take away cooking smells. We are also fortunate to have large windows in our kitchen so it is bathed in natural light during the day.

This jeep has three wheels on each side to allow it to roll easily up stairs.

This jeep has three wheels on each side to allow it to roll easily up stairs.

We have another feature in our laundry area. We don’t have a car in Singapore so we rely on our feet and the fantastic public transport system for shopping. One of the first things I did is buy a carrier for our groceries.

This reminded me of my grandmother’s jeep. As children we used to walk down to High Street, Kew in Melbourne with Gran and her jeep. It was a box on wheels. It had four wheels and a vinyl cover stretched over a frame of four straight rods. I remember finding it difficult as a child to reach the bottom of the jeep to get things out.

Lo and behold, I found a photo online of the same type of jeep my grandmother had. It seems there is still some interest in these jeeps though I find the type I am using is much better. It has a light aluminium frame and does not take up much space.

Old Shopping Jeep

This jeep is just like the one my grandmother had.

Singaporeans love plastic bags. I use these as rubbish bags but where was I to store them? Without thinking I walked to the jeep and stuffed them in there. Then I thought about what I had done. My subconscious had delved back forty odd years ago. I was storing plastic bags in the jeep just like my grandmother had done. Our minds work in mysterious ways. If you had asked me a month ago where my grandmother had stored her plastic bags I would not have remembered that she stored them in her jeep.

My eighteen year old is annoyed at me calling our shopping carrier a jeep. To her a jeep is a rich four-wheel drive. She doesn’t even know about the old jeeps which were rough as guts and loaded with character. What is becoming of this world!

There are plenty of references to shopping jeeps online, but they all seem to be Australian. In fact most of the references seem to come from Melbourne. I found a couple of references to jeeps in New South Wales, but I don’t recall seeing people using them even in the inner suburbs of Sydney. I would be interested to know the etymology of the word.

In writing this post I have stumbled upon some great blogs which I will probably refer to in future posts. But I can’t leave you without mentioning one that in the wonderfully serendipitous way the world works seems to be connected to mine. For some further thoughts on shopping trolleys in Melbourne, check out Stumble Down Under by Cosette Paneque, a Cuban-American expat, now living in Melbourne.

One Melbourne expat stumbling through a new life in Singapore is now linked to a Miami expat who stumbles through her new life in Melbourne.

I just had to say that!

23 thoughts on “Bombs, Clothes Lines and Jeeps

  1. I’ve never heard the word ‘jeep’ for a shopping trolley – and I’m from Queensland, so maybe it’s specifically Victorian. But I see lots of people using shopping trolleys around my (very flat and well paved) suburb, as well as at farmers markets. I remember m mother-in-law in country Qld had wooden slats on a pulley for drying clothes under cover – very practical, and nothing like the one in your photo. Enjoy Singapore.


    • Thank you Marion for your comment about the word ‘jeep’. It would be good if we could get a comment from someone from each state to see where the word was used.

      I would have loved to have a clothes line pulley thing for our carport when we were living through the wet season in Queensland. I reckon there would be a market for the Singaporean clothes lines in Australia.


    • Thanks Jennifer! I have been rather frustrated because I have loads of writing ideas but have had to put them aside to doing all the things necessary to get us set up in Singapore. Hopefully the posts will start to flow now.

      Are you originally from NSW? I would be curious to know if you have heard of the use of the word ‘jeep’ for a shopping trolley.


  2. Fascinating post; I’m really enjoying reading about your new life in Singapore. I wonder whether the beginning of the bomb shelter program in 1983 has anything to do with the Total Defence program of 1984 onwards. In February I saw an exhibition marking 30 years of TD, Because You Played A Part, at the National Museum of Singapore: The exhibition coincided with the anniversary of the fall of Singapore in 1942, included a walking tour of nearby Second World War sites (primarily intended for school students), and connected virtually all aspects of life in Singapore to national defence. A Singapore Armed Forces medic serving in Afghanistan was shown as contributing to national defence – but so were a woman exercising with her husband to keep him fit for national service (women may volunteer for military service but are not compelled), a juvenile criminal who reformed through a police soccer team, and a leader of a ‘multi-racial’, ‘multi-generational’ community garden. (I really must blog about the exhibition!) Is the purpose of the bomb shelter program to keep the possibility of an armed threat in people’s minds – and kitchens! – so that they are more willing to ‘work for the good of the nation’?


    • Thank you for your insights Ashleigh. Please write about that exhibition! I think you are right that the bomb shelter is a room packed with insights into Singapore life, past, present and future.


  3. Hi Yvonne – I’ve never heard the word ‘jeep’ used in the context of carrying shopping. I grew up in WA, and my parents are both from regional NSW. I’ve lived in Melbourne for a couple of stints, but never heard talk of jeeps…although at that time in my life, grocery shopping wasn’t a major focus!


  4. Ah such adventures – in observation 😉 All the best Yvonne, looking forward to more of your discoveries about your new home. I don’t think I’d like sleeping in that bomb shelter either.


    • This morning I discovered one down-side to the open air laundry area. There is a thick pall of smelly smoke from the Indonesian fires enveloping Singapore. Hubble still has a cough from the cold we had a couple of weeks ago so I have had to close everything up and resort to using the air conditioners.

      The smell from the Indonesian fires is different to the smell from Australian bush fires. I suppose that is a result of different types of trees burning.

      Sadly the supermarkets are full of vegetable oil that contains palm oil. I had to go to several supermarkets and read ingredient lists on many oils to find one without palm oil.


      • Goodluck with finding oil. Thanks for sharing your observations Yvonne, and hope Alan is well now.


  5. Loved this story. We heard about HDB apartments when we did a tour in Singapore in July but our guide didn’t tell us about the bomb shelters. I also loved seeing people drying clothes on balconies – as we saw in Japan. I’m disgusted by our western societies’ attitudes to this issue. Nuff said.

    (BTW Will try to ask my Qld mum about ‘jeeps’ but I hadn’t heard the term.)


    • I agree with you. I like seeing people drying clothes on balconies. The clothes signify that this is a lived building. In Australia apartment blocks tend to look like impersonal office buildings. Likewise I was very glad to buy a couple of potted plants at the market the other day so I could show that our balcony is the face of a lived apartment.

      In response to my question about shopping jeeps on Twitter this morning the Australian National Dictionary Centre (@ozworders) said, “We claim ‘jeep’ and ‘shopping jeep’ in this sense as Oz (specifically Vic.). The term appears not long after the orig. ‘jeep’ 40s.” They have also tweeted quotes from Victorian newspapers talking about shopping jeeps.


  6. I Yvonne yes I remember those shopping jeeps you have talked about and the photograph illustrating them. I remember them being used mainly by ‘old’ people! When I walked with my small children from North Port to South Melbourne market, they were everywhere. Of course I didn’t own one, as I had a pram with baby(ies) in them. I like your three wheeled one!


    • Yes, people seem to remember them as things that Grandmas used. They are also used by people who don’t use cars for shopping. I don’t think that anyone using a car would use a jeep. Like you, my mother didn’t have one either because she had a pram.

      Thanks for the comment 🙂


  7. My granny in London had a wooden airer to dry the washing in her kitchen where she had a combustion stove/boiler, it was lowered from the ceiling by a pulley too. But her house had very high ceilings, at least 16′ high, I don’t think it would work in modern Australian houses which tend to have lower ceilings.


    • That is a good point. However, it would work on Australian balconies if only body corporates allowed drying of clothes on balconies. You would just have to give over your balcony to drying clothes for a few hours a week.


      • I’ve seen a clever idea that uses the vent from gas ducted heating: a cupboard built over a vent, with rails and hanging space for shirts etc.
        But all that’s really needed is air flow. I once lived in a marvellous flat above a shop, and it had no garden and no balcony. It had two bow windows at opposite ends of the living room, and I just used to place an airing rack by the open window and the breeze blowing through was enough to dry everything in a day. (I was much too poor to have a dryer in those days!)


      • There is so much that can be done with a home where thought has gone into the design to maximise natural airflow. Our current place has a window at either end of the living room. We have not needed to open the other window because we get such a strong wind through one window that any more would cause havoc.

        I like the idea of the cupboard over the ducted heating vent. I also like the English idea of a drying cupboard where the drying clothes share the cupboard that contains the water heater. However, having a water heater inside the home could be problematic in the event of a leak.


    • Our ceilings are about 12 feet high according to Hubble, which is higher than normal for modern Singapore flats. They have these clothes lines in flats with lower ceilings too, but of course the laundry area is not in a high-use area like a kitchen.


      • LOL, oh yes indeed!
        The sad thing about all of this is to note just how badly most of our homes are designed. Architects just don’t seem to think about sustainability issues, or even about simple practicalities like getting the washing dry when it’s raining. Our architect had lots of great ideas and initiatives and we love our home, but we didn’t think about the laundry much, and neither did he.
        And really, he should have. It was actually his job to think about that on our behalf.


      • That’s what I like about the green building movement – it is about thinking through issues like this in building design and construction.


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