Canterbury’s People: Gladys Smit was born in Singapore and she has devoted her entire life to bringing happiness to other people. Despite her 80 years of age and her visual incapacity she continues to be an active community worker and is an author of three books.
Life in Singapore
Born in Singapore in 1922, Gladys has had a very full life. Her father was born in Singapore of Dutch-born parents and her mother was from Malacca in Malaysia. Gladys had a very close relationship with her mother who loved being at home looking after the 13 children. Gladys was only 11 years of age when her mother passed away.
When Gladys was 17 years old her father remarried. Shortly after this Gladys decided to move out and establish a life of her own. Being young and keen, Gladys worked hard and made sure that she trained and gained qualifications in the various positions she held. Two years later Gladys married her husband Leslie Rozario, a singer known as “Singapore’s Perry Como”.
Gladys felt a little apprehensive about marrying into the Rozario family as they were from Singaporean high society but they made her very welcome and she soon started to manage eight musical bands herself.
WW2 Years in Singapore
Gladys lived in Singapore during World War Two and witnessed the Japanese atrocities and the effects it had on the city and its people. She was working for the Singapore Traction Company that ran electric trams services in Singapore at the time. When the Japanese occupied Singapore in 1942 they took over running the company.
“It was a dreadful time. I automatically continued working as a telephonist. The company was renamed Tokubetusi. They respected me as I was with child. They listen when I spoke up for employees who were brutally punished for trivial misbehaviour.”
In the evening Leslie and Gladys worked at the German Club at Pasir Panjang as a duo. Leslie played the piano whilst Gladys sang to get extra rations and yen (Japanese currency) to supplement their budget. They worked hard and made sure they pleased the Germans, with the result that they received rations above their quota from some Germans who frequented the club. This went a long way to allow them to share with the neighbours.
The Japanese placed the Hinomaru (Japanese Flag) on Gladys’ front door indicating that her home was protected area. This gave Gladys the opportunity to give refuge to young girls and women who often feared being raped.
Towards the end of the war there were dogfights between the Japanese bombers and British B29 planes. After the war was over, Gladys recalls:
“There were bodies lying on either side of the road, mutilated and bleeding from multiple wounds inflicted by some of those who were dobbed in to the Japanese Kempetai in return for favours for them.”
Whilst Singaporeans were waiting for the British Government to return, the island was in chaos. There was acute shortage of food, the yen was being refused and only those who had British pounds could purchase food at a very high price.
After the war was over, Gladys and her husband gradually re-established their lives. They raised their six children and continued to manage bands and performed in Singapore’s vibrant entertainment industry.
In 1959 Singapore became a republic. The People’s Action Party won the election. The new Government launched a campaign to raise funds to build a National Theatre for the people of Singapore. Gladys was nominated Chair of the National Carnival that was to take place for three days in June 1960.
Gladys’ husband died suddenly from a cerebral haemorrhage 15 days before the grand opening. This tragic event was made even more traumatic as it happened on the day of her son’s first birthday celebrations. Her mother-in-law was living with the family at the time and Gladys realised that she was now the only one to support her six children and mother-in-law.
Being resourceful and determined not to let her family suffer, Gladys worked day and night in different jobs. She was be a secretary during the day, a cloakroom supervisor at the Singapore Race Course on weekends and on race days, and occasionally she would also work as a secretary at night, producing reports for business executives. Gladys thrived with such challenging work:
“My children were my cliff hangers [reason to live] … it was an interesting time and I never stopped.”
In 1964, while managing the Oasis nightclub, Gladys met her second husband Wilbur. He was an Officer in the British Royal Air Force and the couple were swept up in a ‘whirlwind romance’. After they were married, Gladys and four of her children including newly born Lyette went to England with Wilbur. But it wasn’t long before Gladys realised that the marriage would not work.
Gladys and three of her children returned to Singapore, leaving behind her son Trevor who had joined the Royal Air Force in England. With the help of her mother-in-law and family, Gladys re-established herself in Singapore, once again focussing on work and family life.
New Life in Australia
While working in the travel industry in Singapore, Gladys met Hans Smit in 1972. Hans was being transferred from his job in Singapore to Australia. He got on well with the children and she felt so secure and comfortable with him that she agreed to move to Australia with two of her sons. The couple were married in Sydney in 1974. By this stage most of Gladys’ children were grown up and lived independently: Gladys’ son Richard was already in Australia, her other son Collin was a recognised pianist in Branson, Missouri, USA where he lived with his family and her married daughter Karen remained in Singapore.
From the start Gladys felt happy in Australia, “it felt quite natural and I realised this was the first phase of another life for myself”.
Gladys, Hans and their sons Noel and Phillip stayed with Richard who was living in Campsie. They started the search for their own home the day after arriving in the area.
They found one in Second Avenue through M & L Hollander Real Estate Agency, which still exists in Campsie.
Gladys and Hans were very happy then. They started a band with all their sons and friends, and their house became the meeting place for many migrants and they held lots of parties there.
Similar to finding a home, it was not long before Gladys found work with a travel agency in Beamish Street, Campsie.
Using her skills, energy and vivacity, Gladys has continued to move on and settle in Australia. She has held a variety of positions, working in the travel industry, establishing a college for Japanese students and managing a few bus and coach companies. Gladys retired from professional life in 1996, becoming an author of three books. All the while she has kept close links with the Canterbury community, both socially and as a voluntary worker.
Finding her feet quickly is a quality that has been part of Gladys’ life from her past life experience to her present challenge of being visually impaired.
“My vision suddenly became impaired two years after I retired … I was devastated … I was in the middle of writing my manuscript … I feared being in a land of darkness.”
After being given some words of wisdom by her 11 year old grandson who said that she was a leader and must remain fearless and brave, she decided to go on with her life and with some help from a welfare worker, Gladys soon accepted her new situation. She got in touch with the Royal Blind Society and it was not long before she started a club for visually impaired people in the Canterbury/ Bankstown area. The Royal Blind Society also gave her computer training so that she could complete her manuscripts and says that “now my computer sees for me”. Gladys is now writing the third volume of her autobiography, Touch of Blindness.
Gladys’ religious beliefs have helped her enormously. She now attends St Michael’s Church in Belfield since it is close and can go there by herself. Prior to this she was an active member of St Mel’s Church for many years.
“If I get down I go to church and this gives me strength to help others … people call me for help at all times of the day, I can’t turn away from them.”
Gladys is a committed community worker, giving much help to families in need in the area. She coordinates 16 volunteers to collect and distribute excess dairy products and bread from businesses to 60 households in need of extra support. For this outstanding work she has received the Seniors Achievement Award and the Leadership Achievement Award from Canterbury City Council in 2003.
Gladys is very happy living in the Campsie area and has never considered moving elsewhere. She enjoys being close to all the facilities including the church, doctors, shops and library and the bus stop is at the front of her home.
“I am in the second phase of my life … I can’t give up, people need me and I want to go on helping them … when I first became blind I wanted to collapse … . But vision impossible is not mission impossible … It is not what you have lost in life that counts, it is what you do with what you have left that counts … Singapore will always be in my heart as my grass roots flourished there, but I love Australia.”
Gladys also adds:
“I have been blessed with a very wonderful and sociable life and children whose progress in life I am very proud of. They have a talent for music … they bring happiness to so many. Just like their father. I have fifteen grandchildren and five great grandchildren and they are spread all over the world … children are the most important thing in the world to me.”