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... stories, adventures and all things related to life in Singapore and Southeast Asia by AWA members

An Insider's Time-Capsule: A Pioneer Recalls Her AWA Days (1949-1982)

by Martha Smith

reprinted from Bamboo Telegraph, April 2005 (originally published in Bamboo Telegraph, January 1989)

"How I looked forward to the 2nd Tuesday of each month in 1949 when AWA had their meetings in the American Club, then located in the Cathay Building: a time to dress-up and see your friends. At the time the little cubicle serving as a Library would be open and you could check out reading material which was difficult to come by in those days following World War II. There was not much social life for a young wife of a junior employee in an American Company in those days. There were not many Americans living in Singapore and the expatriate community was dominated by the English and the Colonial system of government and etiquette.

However, AWA was beginning to spread its wings with the first ever Fashion Show - which was really discarded or disliked dressed of AWA members that were modeled and then sold to the highest bidder. There were few clothes available in Singapore then and since we did 3 year tours by the end of that tour your closet was bare, so there was much enthusiasm for the Fashion Show.

Soon the Rummage Sales became popular because of the shortage of goods and this was our biggest money maker for years. Anything was accepted and I usually worked at the "odds and ends" table where we sold wired strapless bras as seines to be used by Malay fisherman - used toothbrushes sold like hot cakes to be used to scrub vegetables and fruit in the market - used hot water bottles had a big future, but cosmetics and costume jewelry brought the best prices. Workers had first choice of these "goodies" and it was common practice to buy used dresses and take them to a dressmaker to be copied, but be sure and tell the dressmaker not to duplicate the cigarette burn on the front of the dress! Zippers were priceless commodities and many a dress was purchased for $1 for the zipper. My main duty was to care for those who fainted in the mad rush at the gate and inside once the gates were opened to the public. The best day I had was when 7 passed out and were taken to a pew of the church (Presbyterian Church on Orchard was the site for the annual sales) to recuperate. The money made at these sales was fantastic for the time and this was used to provide necessities and luxuries for the Children's Aid Society. These children were isolated from Singapore fund raisers as they were mostly Eurasian children. Refrigerators, beds and linen, etc. was given to them. Sometimes collections of small change was taken up at AWA meetings to buy eggs and powdered milk (dented tins were purchased at a discount) for the children. Many AWA members on their own would take the "left-overs" from cocktail and large dinner parties to the home also. Many members gave time to be with the children at the home helping where needed.

When "Rummage Sales" fizzled out because goods became accessible in Singapore it was decided to have a "Christmas Bazaar." The first Bazaar each member was asked to donate 6 items - didn't matter what it was - everything sold. After that, workshops were formed the following year to mass produce the most popular items. Friendships were formed at the workshops and craft production was learned by the workers. One of the first Christmas Bazaars was held at the home of the US Ambassador on Grange Road and there was a fear that the home could not bear the weight of so many people - so certain areas were "off limits" in the upstairs area, but nothing happened. Many Singaporeans came to just see the residency.

AWA activities grew with the increased number of members, but were always the leader in new ideas presented for activities to their members. We had interesting speakers at each meeting - usually on some local subject of interest to us all.

It was at an AWA meeting that a few of us young mothers were complaining about having to send our small children away to school that we decided to teach our children ourselves in our homes using the Calvert System. The talk continued at cocktail parties and dinner parties, then the husbands overheard the chatter and took up the debate. Many of us felt the "little red school house" method of education for our children would be a good idea as more and more families became interested in the project and so the outcome was the Singapore American School.

So you can see what can come from the idle chatter at an AWA meeting and I hope it never ceases."


Martha Smith's letter (above) to the AWA gives us a rare opportunity to experience the early years with AWA. Martha graduated from Drake School of Law in June 1949 and married her husband Chuck that same evening. The very next day she and her husband set sail for Singapore. Throughout her 33 years in Southeast Asia, Martha's contributions left a legacy which has made things easier for today's expatriate women. To name but a few, Martha and her friends were founders of the Singapore American School and she was one of their first teachers. She hired staff, designed a school uniform, served as PTA president and wrote for The Singapore American.

​Martha Smith, 1982 (original photo by Kay Gerard)


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AWA members are women who come from many countries and life experiences but they all have one thing in common — they have chosen to live in Singapore. Some members are new to Singapore,  while some have been here a long time or have returned to Singapore after time away. Our magazine - written and curated by AWA members - focuses on a diverse range of topics including wellness and family, travel tips, cultural events and information, and other helpful tips around navigating and experiencing life in Singapore to it's fullest. 

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