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Chi ko pak and ice cream stick 'guns': Life lessons from riding the school bus

My Singapore Life is a CNA Lifestyle series about coming of age in the Lion City. This week, remembering magic of the Walkman and standing up to bullies on the way home from school.

Chi ko pak and ice cream stick 'guns': Life lessons from riding the school bus

Life In 90s Singapore: School bus antics. (Art: Chern Ling)

I was a massive geek in primary school. Scratch that. I’ve always been a massive geek. But it was pretty obvious in primary school. I had a ridiculous side parting, and large plastic spectacles that kept slipping off my face, which was always buried in a book.

LISTEN: My Singapore Life: Blood and innocence on the school bus, read by Lim Yu-Beng

Blood and innocence on the school bus: Fighting back against bullies

I had bunny feet, bunny teeth and was a little tubby from eating too many buns at teatime. So I wasn’t exactly in the best physique to come out on top when it came to fighting, or adopting an aggressive swearing stance. But it didn’t matter. We all came unschooled and innocent to the school bus.

The school bus was where we learned what school could not or would never teach us. This was a sacred space, free of parents and teachers, held together by a pact between students to never divulge what went on, no matter how bad your bruises. It was a place of pure anarchy, with a tolerant bus driver who rarely stopped the bus to deal with any misbehaviour, even when the occasional blood was drawn.

Life in 90s Singapore: The World Cup Panini sticker swop (Art: Chern Ling)

One of the first lessons I learned on the school bus was how to gamble. The year was 1990. I was all of nine years old. It was the World Cup in Italy, and over in Singapore, young boys were going crazy for the Panini sticker book that featured all the teams and players, some with glittery edges (which made them even more valuable).

This was my first time collecting stickers, and boy, did I go crazy. All of my savings, carefully squirrelled away, were being depleted at a massive rate to keep up with the addictive need to buy packets of stickers almost every day from the mama shop below my block.

Naturally, the ratio of getting a sticker that you need versus getting duplicates is rather skewed. And so the boys on the bus taught me to bet with the extras. One of them would be the dealer, and he would lay out his stickers face up in a series of neat piles. We would then proceed to bet with our own duplicates on one of the piles. The dealer would then flip all the piles and the highest number (based on the numbering in the sticker collection) would win.

LISTEN: My Singapore Life: Buying acceptance at the temple of cool, read by Pam Oei

After a while, though, betting with stickers grew a little mundane so we started with real money. The minimum was 20 cents, and it could go all the way up to one whole dollar. Talk about real world application of mathematics!

Out of World Cup season, Harjit, my best friend, would sit next to me and regale me with stories about the movies he had watched. I had rather strict bedtime rules, and was not allowed to stay up late to watch movies, but Harjit apparently had no such curfew and would launch into an epic retelling of the previous night’s movie.

Years later, when I finally watched some of these films, I realised that he had completely made up all of the plots.

Life in 90s Singapore: Michael Jackson and Vanilla Ice (Art: Chern Ling)

No homework was ever done on the school bus, and the closest thing to exams was a chi ko pak competition, with the winner taking home forbidden snacks from the canteen. It was where you agonised over what to say to the girl you’ve been crushing on at school, and discovering new worlds through the genius that was the Walkman. The school bus was when I first heard Roxette and Michael Jackson, and where we all learned to rap along to Ice, Ice, Baby.

All right stop
Collaborate and listen
Ice is back with my brand new invention
Something grabs a hold of me tightly
Flow like a harpoon daily and nightly
Will it ever stop?
Yo, I don't know
Turn off the lights and I'll glow

The school bus was where we learned to swear. And fight. One time, my spectacles flew out the window after a scuffle and landed under a pick-up truck. I had to yell to ask the driver to stop the bus so that I could pick it up. Another time, Harjit kicked me in the nether regions so hard, I couldn’t sit down for a couple of days. This was par for the course, along with the fart sprays.

Life in 90s Singapore: Best friends (Art: Chern Ling)

Harjit and I were also a minority duo against the dominant Chinese boys who sat at the back of the bus, were two years older, and frequently bullied us. They made fun of our skin colour, threw our school bags around and reduced us to tears with their pinches. Being nice to them did not help. Complaining to the bus driver was like speaking to the Great Wall of China.

In desperation, we went beyond the bus. Our friend Timothy, who was Indo-Chinese, did not take the school bus because he lived in a huge house just down the road from school.

More importantly, he was a gunsmith.

LISTEN: My Singapore Life: My Dial-up Modem And The White Noise Of Falling In Love, read by Pam Oei

Okay, he was a “gunsmith”, but one of the highest calibre. We commissioned him to make us ice cream stick guns for five dollars each. He would sketch out a design of the gun before committing to cutting and gluing the sticks together. He ran tests to make sure the firing mechanism was smooth, since we would be fighting and firing from one seat to another. He even tried making a dual trigger gun, so that two rubber bands could be fired in quick succession.

For a while, we gained valuable ground, and managed to pin the bullies to their single long-row seat at the back of the bus. But one day, they went back to the time-tested way of fighting with paper bullets. They were folding them hard and heavy. They hurt. We started losing ground. So we went back to Timothy for help.

He suggested making them thinner and lighter, and to tack a staple to each bullet and opening it on one side. Each bullet was lovingly made for an ideal arc, carrying the right amount of heft to maximise impact velocity, like a perfect string of swear words. This was fighting dirty. But we loved it.

Until we shot someone (accidentally, I swear) too close to his eye and his parents complained. So we had to call a truce, give up our bullets and lay down our rubber bands.

When the bus neared our stop, it was time to tuck in our shirts, brush the dirt of our sleeves and straighten our glasses. The school bus lesson was ending, but tomorrow – who knew what tomorrow would hold?

Marc Nair is a poet and photographer. He has published 10 collections of poetry. New episodes of My Singapore Life are published every Sunday at

Source: CNA/gl