A pauper’s house under the jackfruit tree?

24 05 2010

In Singapore, we have grown accustomed to the many names by which places could be referred to by the different ethnic groups. While this usually revolves around either a translation of what the name means in a different language or the pronunciation especially in the case where a proper name is involved. Once in a while, we do come across a set of names that when translated; takes meanings which seem completely different from one another, which is the case with an area that was once known as Rumah Miskin.

The area that was once called Rumah Miskin and also Mangka-kah, seen today.

I had become acquainted with the area early in my life, passing through on the back of a bechak (trishaw). This was on the many trips accompanying my maternal grandmother to an area a little further away that she referred to as Kampong Jawa. My impression of the area had always been that of the longish building with a staircase that had a wooden banister visible from Balestier Road. The building had been part of the Rumah Miskin Police Station, which had stood as a landmark at the corner of Serangoon Road and Balestier Road for many years. The name, Rumah Miskin translated as “Pauper’s House”, had always been a source of fascination for me. My grandmother, who had in all probability not put much thought into the origins of the name, was not able to offer much to satisfy my curiosity as to the origins of the area’s name. Unable to find an explanation, I allowed my imagination provide the explanation, and for a while, I had the impression that the building with the staircase must have once been that home for the poor.

Another view of the Rumah Miskin area today.

It was later in life that I learnt of another intriguing name by which the area had been referred to. Rumah Miskin was used by the Malay and English speaking communities, and the Chinese speaking community had referred to the area as Mangka-kah, which in Hokkien or Teochew, could be taken to mean “jackfruit leg” (possibly at the foot of or in the shadow of the jackfruit tree) or perhaps “mosquito bitten leg”. The former does seem quite plausible as an explanation of the origins of the name, and as some would have it, that came from jackfruit groves that were thought to have existed in the area. I was also told later that there was another interpretation of “jackfruit leg” that could provide another possible explanation for the name, which unrelated as it may sound, does seem to have something to do with the Malay name for the area.

The Rumah Miskin area is also where another landmark, the Kwang Wai Shiu Hospital, which had recently been in the news for the hefty increase in rent following a renewal on its 99 year lease, which expired this February, stands. The hospital was known as the Kwang Wai Shiu Free Hospital then, and did, as the name suggests, provide free treatment for the less fortunate. My grandmother had herself visited the outpatient clinic there on many occasions in the 1970s, when she found that it was more affordable (despite having to pay for the treatment) than the Rakyat Clinic that she used along Balestier Road. The hospital had started in 1910 with buildings that had been inherited from the original pauper’s hospital, Tan Tock Seng, when that moved to Moulmein Road in 1909. That set of buildings were demolished sometime in the early 1950s to make way for the hospital buildings that we see today. It was actually from the pauper’s hospital that the area took its name, the hospital being a home for infirmed and poor, hence the name Rumah Miskin. As to what this has got to do with the name Mangka-kah, the explanation was that the name originated with the sight of patients of the hospital hobbling around on their diseased legs which could be observed in the area – the wounds and sores on their legs of these patients were said to resemble a jackfruit, hence “jackfruit leg”. Whichever explanation for the origins of the name Mangka-kah, it would probably be difficult to establish today.

The Kwan Wai Shiu Hospital building was rebuilt in the early 1950s.

Information board on Kwan Wai Shiu Hospital.

Today, all we see is an empty plot of land at the junction where the Rumah Miskin Police Station had stood as a landmark. The buildings had been used as a halfway house for drug addicts by the Singapore Anti-Narcotics Association (SANA) when the Police Station closed its doors around 1975, and for a while later, became the premises of the Indian Fine Arts Society, before being demolished. With the demise of the buildings, the names Rumah Miskin and Mangka-kah seem to have perished as well – I have not heard of it being used for quite a long while now. With this, there is somehow a sense of loss and sadness, not just at the passing of another landmark, but also with a name that would soon be lost with time.

The buildings of the Rumah Miskin Police Station are conspicuously absent from the plot of land where they once served as a landmark.

Another view of the junction where the Rumah Miskin Police Station once stood.

Some old buildings still stand in the area ...

As wrecking equipment stand threateningly in the vicinity.

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2 responses

14 06 2010
nst

Apart from the pauper’s hospital, there was also a leprosy asylum at the site, so you are probably right that “mangka-kah” referred to the unfortunate lepers who had been disfigured by the disease before the discovery of antibiotics.

15 06 2010
The wondering wanderer

Oh yes, NST, there would have been a leper’s ward or an asylum at the Pauper’s Hospital – and as you rightly pointed out, that would possibly have been the origin of the name “Mangka-Kah”! Thanks!

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