Heart and Soul: Childhood games and pastimes in a bygone era

In their childhood days, the writer and his friends sought Y-shaped branches from the tembusu tree to make their catapults. Photo: 123rf.com

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I was driving around our housing area when I noticed some young children playing. They had the most trendy gadgets that could be easily purchased online.

Flashback to the 1950s, 60s and 70s, when I was growing up, the words “toys” and “hobbies” were foreign to our vocabulary. Whatever playthings we had and whatever interests we pursued came from our own resourcefulness and inventiveness.


For target practice, we sought Y-shaped branches from the tembusu tree to make our catapults. It took some effort and practice to bend both arms of the Y into the desired shape, which were then tied and heated over an open fire. When cooled, the surfaces were smoothened. Rubber bands were sourced from old inner tubes from the nearby bicycle shop. To complete the sling, we cut out a piece of old leather or canvas to hold our “bullets”. This was our “weapon”.

Milk tins, lined up along the fence, became our targets – this was our makeshift “shooting range”. The one who knocked down the most tin cans was the champ. Both boys and girls took part. It was plain fun!


Card games were another outlet. For “capital”, we used rubber bands, cigarette or match boxes, and marbles.

Our games were seasonal. Before the “season”, we would frantically build up our reserves which included stacks of empty cigarette packs and King Kong match boxes. We never realised the “wealth” we had accumulated until the season ended and we had to discard the boxes of “cash”.

Spiders and fighting fish

For pets, we kept garden spiders. Males with their white masks were “gladiators”. Being territorial, they would rush at each other with front legs raised, as if wielding swords. They wrestled each other until the loser fled or was eaten alive.

To look for them, we had to study their habitat – normally, two leaves held together by silky threads. There was an entrance at one end and an escape route at the other end.

Catching them was easy. The nests with the occupants were housed in match boxes. To keep them alive and fit, we had to catch smaller spiders and insects for use as their fodder.

We also had to remember to keep the leaves damp, otherwise these arachnids when dehydrated would turn turtle, become motionless – with legs folded – and perish! How long the spiders survived depended on their care by the owners.

Two male garden spiders propped for battle. Photo: 123rf.comTwo male garden spiders propped for battle. Photo: 123rf.com

Having fighting fishes of the Betta genus was something to be proud of. Marshy areas or inundated grassland near padi fields were likely areas to look for tell-tale signs of their existence. A flotilla of bubbles on the water surface meant that chances of scooping up your fighter underneath those bubbles were great. A bamboo sieve was the correct tool to use.

We had to catch them secretly as the habitat could be dangerous – drowning was a possibility. Encounters with leeches and snakes were part of the risks taken but as kids we secretly sneaked out without thinking of the trouble we would be in when something bad happened.

Once caught, the fishes would be transferred into jars or even light bulbs after the filaments had been carefully extracted.

Betta males are fierce fighters. They are brightly coloured and become agitated when they see another male. They display their fins and aggressiveness by taking on a darker hue. Their gills extend out of their gill covers with two scissor-like ventral fins splayed and pointing downwards.

When two of them are put into the same container, pushing and biting ensues, marking the start of the fight. Big portions of the ventral and tail fins are often torn off. When both mouths are caught in a tight grip, they try to outmanoeuvre each other. The loser turns pale and flees, closely chased by the victor.

Prized fighters were given special food like bloodworms, and housed in fanciful containers.


Kite-making was an art. The bamboo frame was sourced from discarded rattan baskets used in the market to contain vegetables.

Cutting the bamboo into strips and planing them into the right thickness to form the “skeleton“ required much practice and patience. Carefully pasting the rice paper over it brought the kite into shape. Unless the kite could fly, it would be back to the drawing board.

Those that could fly carried bold symbols to warn others off. The string that was used to launch the kite was often laced with powdered glass to cut through other kite strings in aerial combat. Often the fingers handling the string got cut in the process. The fun was in making kites of different shapes and sizes.

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Games , pastimes , slingshot , catapult , cards , spiders , fighting fish , kites


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