What was once a rickety jetty at the end of Sembawang Road, once referred to as Mata or Beaulieu Jetty, was the base from which I partook of many of my memorable childhood adventures in and around the beach. The jetty then was in a state of disrepair … a few burnt planks greeting the visitor, along with a few missing and loose planks that made it rather hazardous to tread one’s way over the jetty, not to mention the absence of any form of barriers to prevent one from falling into the sea or the rocky seabed at low tide. The jetty was built in the 1940s, started by the British and completed by the Japanese, then served as a popular place to fish and catch crabs.
The sea then brought a rather bountiful harvest of crabs to anyone willing to put up with the stench of rotting fish that was thought to attract crabs when used as bait, as well as the dangerous conditions on the jetty. A night spent could yield as much as two 5 gallon pails filled with a bounty of flower crabs of reasonable maturity, and a few large clawed mud crabs, unlike the tiny ones we see being caught these days. The implements would include a few square nets with a bamboo frame weighed down with lead sheets wrapped around the lower ends of the frame, a piece of wire to serve as a hook to attach the rotting fish to the top of the frame, and a ball of string, mostly nylon, but raffia was sometimes used as well, one end to be attached to the net, and the other to the kerb at the jetty’s side which allowed the nets to be raised or lowered.
Around the jetty, the beach was rather filthy. A stench, from the mix of rotting seaweed, washed up debris and dead fish, greeted whoever dared venture onto the beach. To the left of the jetty was the rockier part of the beach, where wading into the murky waters with a torch or a kerosene lamp in one hand, and a butterfly net in the other, we were able to scoop prawns – visible due to the eyes which could be seen in the light of the lamp, along with some kind of puffer fish – which would bloat itself up when caught, and inadvertently jellyfish. Sea snakes and eels (sometimes we could tell) could be seen darting around in the light sometimes. Wading in the sea along the sandy side on the right side of the jetty, besides prawns, we could sometimes see crabs darting across the sand which could be also be scooped up using the butterfly net.
A trip to the jetty would always be accompanied by some kind excursion, whether it was to the row of Indian hawker stalls close to the row of bars down Sembawang Road to get our supper of mee goreng and teh tarik, or maybe a stroll in the dark along the dark winding what was once Kelopak, Mata and Beaulieu Roads that led to the jetty from Sembawang Road, with a sharing of tales of the supernatural. There were two muslim graves near the final bend of the road that led to the jetty – somewhere along where the Sembawang Wharf fence which somehow made the stories feel even more real!
Back then, we were also able to build open fires on the beach. With a few twigs, some charcoal, a few red bricks or small rocks, a piece of grill, a few skewers and some oil, we could have a barbecue which had already been prepared or one that involved the harvest from the sea … I can still smell the aroma of the crabs turning orange over the ambers!
Having said that the jetty was rather dangerous … there were actually several incidents, including several drowning incidents involving the jetty that I remember which had not much to do with the safety of the jetty itself, although in one instance, the lack of any barriers along the jetty’s edges made it possible for the incident to happen. In that incident which happened in 1975, a car had been driven off the jetty at high speed, resulting in the death of a woman passenger. It turned out that the accident was deliberately staged and that the driver who was the husband of the passenger, had entered into a suicide pact with his wife – pulling out at the last minute, leaving his wife to drown … the driver of the car was eventually charged with murder and was convicted on a reduced charge of manslaughter.