Childhood Pastimes in the 1950s

In a normal weekday formal schooling and the afternoon mengaji lessons would take up to around 4pm. There would then be house  chores and errands to do.  After that, and during weekends and school holidays  I had a lot of free time.

Like most of my friends in the 1950s we were active children and we always had something to do to keep us occupied. Those days there were no internet and computer games. There were no televisions. Our activities were largely confined to day activities. They included playing a number of children games, wandering around the kampungs including the bendangs or padi fields, fishing in the canals and catching fighting fishes in the parits or small streams, and a host of other activities.

Main bola (football)

Some games like main bola ( football) and rounders  were played almost the whole year round in the evening  when the weather was fine.  There was a small field in front of my house and we would play football in the evening whenever somebody brought  a soccer ball to the field. Soccer balls at that time were expensive.  A  leather ball cost around $10 depending on the quality and so outside the school it was difficult to play football. The soccer balls that we bought from the shops at that time were of very low quality, mostly imported from India. Leather pieces  were hand-sewn together by thick jute threads which often snapped when wet, and our playing fields were often wet. As a precaution we usually put grease on the thread lines and dried the balls under sunlight to strengthen the threads. Every ball had a rubber bladder which we inflated by using a bicycle pump. And the balls were seldom completely round as we see today. Anyway, that was a ball which was good enough for children to kick around barefoot. Yes, we played barefoot. Shoes were not allowed as it might cause injury to those without them. Some used ankle guards in place of shoes.

Skill  in playing football was defined by the ability to dribble right to the goalmouth, and to score. Among the children those who could kick the ball harder were considered better players.  On a lighter side, I remember an instance when I was still in Malay school  in the mid 50s when our school team played against a very weak visiting side. At half time the scoreline was almost double digit. The football master at half-time  proudly remarked to the team , “Sapa belum score gol lagi?” (Who has not scored a goal yet?). To him all players, probably except the goalkeeper, were expected to score goals. It was his brand of football strategy. No 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 formation as we have today or anything like that. It was a 0-10 formation. Every player other than the goalkeeper should attack  and defend  and every player should score goals.  This  style of play  was similar to the ‘Total Football’ strategy used by the Dutch world cup team led by Johan Cruyff  in the 1974 World Cup!


Rounders was a game similar to  modern day softball. There were two sides in a game; one side will be fielding and pitching and the other side will be batting. We used a small hard rubber ball and batsmen used wooden bats. This game was played by both boys and girls.

Some games were seasonal. There were seasons for main guli (play with marbles), main kotak (play with cigarette boxes) and main gasing (tops spinning). I will describe them briefly.

Main guli (marbles)

Guli or marbles were of two types. One type was made of limestone and was the size of a golf ball. Every player had one guli  and the game was played over three small holes about three feet apart. The game required skill of the fingers as each player tried to roll his guli into all the holes using fingers only, and at the same time to knock other players’ guli away fromm the holes. The player who completed the game first won. This was a boys game.

A second type of guli were glass marbles. Each marble was about one centimetre in diameter. Players would  put in one or two guli each which were spread across a certain line drawn on the ground. The first player able to hit an assigned guli as a target wins and collected all the marbles. The winner ended up having many marbles, while losers would have to look for new supplies.

Main kotak

In those days cigarettes were sold in boxes of tens. The inner part of a box could be taken out leaving the rectangle shaped outer cover. These outer covers were the collectors  item and children played a game to win them.

The most common cigarette box at that time was the ‘Rough Rider’ brand. Some children at that time referred this brand as ‘koboi menembak’ (a shooting cowboy) because the box pictured a cowboy firing a rifle while riding a horse. This box had a nominal value of one. The light blue Players cigarette box was assigned a value of two boxes since it was less common, probably because it was more expensive. The Torchlight brand had a value of three boxes. But, the most sought after was the gold coloured State Express box with its 555 sign. This was assigned a value of five boxes.

Each player would contribute an agreed number of cigarette boxes according to value. The boxes would be arranged to stand up like a building on the ground. From that position each player would throw away his ‘tagan’ which was a small flat piece of concrete or rock. From those positions each player, starting by the furthest position, would aim to knock down the boxes. He would collect those boxes that were hit.

There were of course certain rules attached to the game. For example, when my friends and I played the game we disallowed the usage of iron chain as a ‘tagan’. We considered it to be an unfair advantage.

Main Gasing (Tops spinning)

Wooden tops or gasing were fitted with pointed steel  nails. A player would wound up the top with a thick cotton rope and forcefully  smashed  it on the ground to spin it.

The game was basically a destructive game. The objective was basically to chip off or break another player’s top.

A group of boys would draw a circle on the ground and then agreed who would place his top first as a static target in the circle. All the other players then would take turn in smashing their tops on the target with the objective of chipping or destroying it. But when a player spun his top into the circle  he risked having his top becoming a moving target by the other players as well. If his top failed to roll out of the circle after his spin ended then his top would be kept in the circle as a static target until it is knocked out of the circle.

Wooden tops with fitted nails were available in shops. They were factory made using soft wood. But some oy us kids, myself included, preferred to make our own tops. The  preferred wood were kayu limau (lemon) and kayu nangka (jackfruit)  which were difficult to chip off but they were light in weight. The best wood was kayu jambu batu which had good weight and was very hard and strong. The problem with kayu jambu batu was that it was difficult to carve into a top due to its hardness.

Wandering around

When there were no games to play we had other group activities. We often wandered around in the kampung. The kampung included the house, the bushes and the trees around them, and the bendangs or padi fields. We climbed trees, and learned to recognise the animals and plants.

Most of us then would have a home- made lastik or catapult to shoot at mango fruits on trees and even birds. Yes, many children had a destructive tendency during those days. Until today I could not reason out why many chose to trap birds or to shoot them down with catapults just for the fun of it.

The bendangs or padi fields in Bagan Serai always fascinated me . During planting and growing season you could see vast acreages of flat green padi fields. The green padi fields stretching to the horizon gave a sense of peace and tranquility which  even the golf courses of today could not match. During harvesting season when the padi ripened the field would have dried and would change from green to yellow.

During planting time you could see  men and women  young and old planting padi in the bendang.  During harvesting time  the planters and their families were in full force cutting the plants.

During those time in the 1950s mechanisation was not known. Almost everything was done manually. The effort these village folks put in would not be easily understood by the generation today. Hard work definitely has a different meaning today.

I enjoyed the harvesting season. The bendangs were then dried up. We used to play on the  high ground between each lot of padi fields. In some fields the farmers planted mango trees there and their fruits usually ripened close to the  harvesting season.

Fighting-fish (Ikan Semilai)

This breed of fish were found in the parits or streams of water, the edges of the bendangs or anywhere where there were plants growing in water. These fishes were very small and often dark in colour. These fishes get excited when they see another of their kind. And when that happen their fins would open up and glow beautifully. I do not know its scientific name but in the local language then we called it ikan semilai. We normally caught and put them into individual jars, separated by a paper or board partition. When the partition was lifted the fish in one jar would see the other in the other jar and they would get excited. Sometimes, some children would put two into a jar to watch them glow and fight. The loser would end up getting its beautiful fins damaged: another destructive sport of the time?


Menimba in Malay means to remove water by using a timba or pail. During the dry season the parits tended to dry up and fishes were there to be caught. What the bigger boys of those time did was to block off two sides of the parit trapping fishes within a 20 to 30 feet area. Then the hard work began. They would get down barefooted into the parit and start removing the water using pails, hence the term menimba. They would continue until the water level was minimal and the parit became very muddy. Then they would start catching the fishes with bare hands.

Two types of fishes were normally caught. The haruan and the keli. Both were dangerous. The haruan is a big fish  in muddy water. It is brown in colour and thus sometimes difficult to detect in the mud. It doesn’t bite, but it is a big and strong fish and can hurt the catcher through its struggle. The keli or catfish is famous for its fangs. It is not as large as the haruan but its sting  can really hurt. Remember, these fishes were in their own territory of muddy water and the barefooted  boys had to be extra careful.

Well, there were of course other creatures in the muddy waters. Water snakes for example. But to the boys, this was a minor occupational hazard.

Perhaps an extra note on the haruan needs to be made. During those times it was just an ordinary muddy water fish and of not much value. Today, the wild haruan  from the parit is highly demanded for various purposes: it is said that a haruan soup would heal internal injury faster than any western medication! This explains why people who have just undergone surgery take haruan soup!

This were some of  my activities during non school hours. These were some of the pastimes of a child during my early childhood. There were of course other  activities and two need special mention: the Main Wau (kite flying) and the Wayang Padang .

Main Wau (kite flying)

Kites were sold in shops those days, but I made my own kite. The frames were made of bamboo shafts which had to be dried up to ensure that they were light. Balancing the frame was important to ensure that the kite would soar up in a straight direction.

The kite was generally a toy for enjoyment, to see it soar into the sky was  an excitement. But some of the bigger boys chose to turn kite flying into a destructive competition. The cord that we used was normally the Griffin Brand Number 10 thread. It was a strong thread. But some boys coated it with glass powder, made from crushed light bulbs. The glass powder was mixed with glue paste and would be coated around certain parts of the cord. Thus  when two person were flying their kites and if their cords touched each other in the sky, then the glass-coated cord would cut the plain cord. The kite of the loser would be flown away and lost.

I kept away from anyone flying kite with glass-coated cord. Its easy to recognise it since the cords were usually coloured as compared to the plain white cord. But, why on earth would a person wanted to turn simple kite flying into a destructive pastime? I haven’t  figured out the answer?

Wayang Padang (Open air movies)

Once in a while a car would pass through the road in front of my house announcing that there would be a movie shown in the  town padang (field) that  night. Yes. It was the wayang padang.  These public screening of movies were usually sponsored by companies selling consumer products. The notable ones during those times were companies selling Brylcreem and beverages like Ovaltine and Milo.  They would show the movies from a projector on a large truck to a large white screen on the field. Half way through the movie would be stopped to facilitate sale of the products. Sometime they gave free sample drinks. The show usually attracted quite a large crowd since people took this opportunity to have a night outing. For many people this was a rare treat. The movies shown were usually westerns which included lots of actions.

My parents  seldom allowed me to be outside the house after dusk. But on the occasion of the wayang padang permission was usually granted. After all, many of my friends were there.


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