25/2/96 Once, there was a girl, the prettiest in a line
|Sunday, February 25,1996
The Sunday Times, Page 4
Once, there was a girl, the prettiest in a line
SHE was the prettiest girl in the line and l was her supervisor. I made the mistake of taking her out.
She was 19, had come from Penang, and could hardly speak English. We spoke in pidgin Mandarin and Hokkien. I liked her Hokkien, which was more sing-song like Thai, and less coarse than the version I grew up with.
I was 24, and had been a line supervisor in the factory for about a year when she joined. There were 40 girls under my charge. Their work for eight hours each shift was to prise open, with an ice-cream stick, the three legs of little silicon chips which had to be pinched together earlier in the process for scope work.
There were many lines on the factory floor, each with girls tackling one or two specific tasks under a line supervisor. Most of the other lines required scope work, and the girls who manned them were generally better qualified, with probably a Secondary Two or vocational education.
Mine was literally the End of the Line. All the minute work on the chips had been done by the time they came to my line for their legs to be prised apart and their heads to be sealed with a cap. They were ready for shipment after they were "baked" in a high-temperature oven for 12 hours or longer.
Six or eight of my girls were sealers. They each sat on a high stool in front of a glass vacuum box, and inserted their hands deep into the two black rubber gloves built into the box, to cap the chips, probably with a hydraulic press. I forget the details, because it was so long ago.
The rest of my girls sat at two long facing rows of workbenches. Each had two baskets, one with chips to be worked on, the other for finished chips. Often, the girls sat silently, prising open the legs of one chip after another in a mindless rhythm, much like a chwee-kway seller on a good morning. They could finish thousands of chips in a shift.
I plotted the line's daily productivity on a wall chart with coloured pins and each time the graph dipped, I would have to answer to my foreman who worked only during the day, from 8.30 am to 5 pm.
Line supervisors and their girls worked three rotating shifts, each lasting two weeks: the morning shift, from 7am to 3 pm- the swing shift from 3-11 pm, and the graveyard shift from 11 pm to 7 am.
The factory, National Semiconductor, was in Lower Delta Road. Most of the Chinese and Indian girls lived in the one- and two-room HDB blocks in neighbouring Bukit Merah and Tiong Bahru, and the Malay girls mainly in the kampungs tucked away in various pockets along Alexandra Road and Kampung Bahru, under Mount Faber.
The Malaysians-and there were many of them-shared rented rooms in the several five-room point blocks nearby. The girls made a little more than $200 a month, $300 when there was more overtime work.
MY GIRLS liked me, or at least I think they did not dislike me. I signed their punch-cards when they were late they did not have to give me a reason; allowed them to talk in the swing and graveyard shifts, after the foremen and admin bureaucrats had gone home.
And often, as I walked down the line, I would remark on this girl's love bites on her neck-"Wah, you have big mosquitoes in your house!"-and that girl's new haircut. Their work was tedious enough, I did not want to run them like machines.
But things changed when I started taking out the new girl. She was a bright, promising worker, but I corrupted her. She began to see herself as privileged, and so started coming in late, took longer breaks and generally did less work than the others. Soon there was a sullenness in the line where before there was always a certain cheerfulness.
And then it happened. One night, in the early pre-dawn hours of the graveyard shift, a sealer fell to the floor, the whites of her eyes turned up, saliva foaming at her mouth, and her limbs jerking in a fit. Before I knew what was happening, another girl in the line had also fallen, as if on cue, followed by a third. There was some screaming, I remember.
My two efficient line-leaders calmed the rest of the girls, and attended to the three who were thrashing about on the white-tiled floor, while I summoned the night nurse from the 24-hour, in-house clinic.
The two girls from the line recovered soon enough after the nurse came but the sealer was still caught up in a such a terrible crying jag that she had to be taken to the clinic and given a tranquiliser. She spent the rest of the shift in the narrow bed behind a curtain in the clinic.
I will never know if that episode of hysteria was linked to the new girl, but I blamed her and told her l had to stop seeing her after work. A couple of days afterwards, she called me from a hospital. She was sick, and would have to stay there for a week or longer.
At the hospital, she told me it had something to do with her intestines. I did not ask for more details. It was only much later, while I was having a cup of coffee with the night nurse in the canteen, that she referred to the girl's stoma, presuming I knew about it. I was shocked. I didn't know.
The first time I saw the quilted patch of cloth on one side of her waist tied with a bikini string round the body, I had asked her what it was. A talisman which her grandmother insisted that she wore every day, she had replied, and I had not thought about it again. I never knew it covered an aperture. How long had she been this way? She was brave, to have struck out from home to come here and live an independent life.
After she was discharged from hospital, she decided to quit and return to Penang. I took her to the train station and sat with her as she wept, while the others in the car turned round to look at us. I was relieved when the time came for the train to pull out of the station, and I had to get down from the car.
For several weeks afterwards, she wrote me long letters in Chinese. And then she stopped writing.
THESE memories came back to me recently, when Mr Gilbert Amelio CEO of National Semiconductor, visited Singapore to launch his "transformation management" book, and a week afterwards, was in the news again for being hired by Apple for an obscene sum to bring bite back to the ailing company.
Stirred by these memories, I drove down to Lower Delta Road early this week. The red-brick building was still there, but it was no longer occupied by National Semiconductor. The operator on 100 told me its new address was Lorong 3, Toa Payoh.
I drove over there to look at the new factory. It looked more high-tech not the kind of place where girls would still be prising open legs of computer chips with ice-cream sticks.
That belonged to the first phase of Singapore's industrialisation, and I guess in a small, peripheral way, I had been part of it. Operations of that kind had long ago been shifted to Malacca and Penang, and then Bangkok.
I thought I saw the girl once in a shopping centre some years ago, but I could have been mistaken.
On the last day of my almost two-year stay in the factory, some of my girls took me to a nearby studio to have a souvenir photograph taken. I have not seen them sinceñand it was 22 years ago.