A visit to a charcoal factory

23 06 2016

The business of charcoal making, which in the region makes use of wood from the abundant mangrove forests, has long ceased in Singapore. The last factory, on the evidence of a 1972 Straits Times article, was possibly on Pulau Tekong and it only is in some of our neighbouring countries that the production of what some may consider to be black gold can be found.

The charcoal factory at Kuala Sepetang.

The charcoal factory at Kuala Sepetang.

One production centre that I had the opportunity to visit is the factory at Kuala Sepetang, located along the northern Perak coastline, just 15 kilometres from the charming old mining town of Taiping. The factory, operated by a Mr. Chuah Chow Aun, has a reputation for the best charcoal in Asia and does a thriving trade in meeting the demand from the large Japanese market.

Charcoal kilns, the contruction knowhow of which interestingly, was brought in by the Japanese during the war.

Charcoal kilns, the contruction knowhow of which interestingly, was brought in by the Japanese during the war. The logs with barks stripped from them, are ready for the kilns.

The factory is well worth a visit just for the setting it finds itself in. Its long zinc roofed wooden sheds against which stacks of bakau wood logs are arranged, against the backdrop of the beautiful Matang mangrove forest on the banks of the Sungai Kapal Changkol, makes the scene it presents one that somehow looks like one that could well belong in a good old Western movie.

Another view of the factory. Logs are stripped of their barks in the area where they are unloaded from boats that bring them in from the nearby mangrove forest.

Another view of the factory. Logs are stripped of their barks in the area where they are unloaded from boats that bring them in from the nearby mangrove forest.

The sheds are where the main process of turning the wood is carried out. In them one finds rows of smoking kilns, in which the wood is heated and not, as is popularly believed, burnt, with the aim of removing water – which makes up the bulk of its weight when harvested, from the logs. It is a long, tedious and rather labour intensive process that is employed, which starts with the unloading of logs harvested primarily from 30 year old bakau minyak (Rhizophora apiculata) trees for which a sapling is planted for every tree that is harvested. The logs, which measure up to 5 inches in diameter, are prepared for the kilns by stripping their barks before they are stacked against the kilns before being moved in.

Logs of various diameters.

Logs of various diameters.

I was rather surprised to hear that it was in fact the Japanese that brought in the charcoal making techniques that are employed at Kuala Sepetang during the occupation. This process, involves the heating of the kilns – in which logs are positioned vertically on blocks of clay to keep them off the ground before the opening is reduced sufficiently in size to serve as a firing box, for a period of about 10 days. At this stage the temperature within the kilns is raised about 85° C. After this comes a second stage of heating for which the opening is reduced further, for another 12 days during which temperatures are raised to about  220° C. The kiln is left to cool for another week or so before the cured wood can be taken out.

A kiln opening, through which logs are moved into the kiln.

A kiln opening, through which logs are moved into the kiln.

Logs are arranged vertically on clay blocks.

An example of how logs are vertically arranged and the clay blocks on which they are made to stand on.

The first stage during with a larger opening is maintained at the firing box.

The first stage during with a larger opening is maintained at the firing box.

Experience plays an important part in the process and is monitored only through observation of the vapour that billows out of an opening in the kiln. From 1500 logs or about 40 to 50 tonnes of wood that is placed in the kilns before the start of firing, only 10 tonnes of is left as charcoal – the rest of the weight having been expelled as vapour. The vapour however does not go to waste and is in its condensed form, sold as mangrove wood vinegar, which is said to repel mosquitoes and cure common skin problems.

The opening is reduced during the second stage.

The opening is reduced during the second stage.

A kiln in use.

A kiln in use.

The factory, Khay Hor Holdings Sdn. Bhd. or more commonly referred to as the Kuala Sepetang Charcoal Factory, is open for visits. Arrangements can be made for guided tours by contacting Mr. Chuah at +60 12 5739563. More information is available at the Kuala Sepetang Charcoal Factory Facebook Page and at this link: The Charcoal Factory.

Vapour coming out of a kiln - the vapour, which is used to monitor the process , is collected and sold in its condense form as mangrove wood vinegar.

Vapour coming out of a kiln – the vapour, which is used to monitor the process , is collected and sold in its condense form as mangrove wood vinegar.

The entrance to the factory.

The entrance to the factory.

 





The charcoal shop

11 04 2016

I was reminded of the charcoal shop, a sight I would come across every now and again in my childhood, when I stumbled upon one on the old streets of Ipoh about five years ago.

Occupying the ground unit of an old shophouse and with walls and floors darkened in varying degrees by carbon dust, the shop bore many similarities with the ones that I remember; the only clues of the time and the place were in the more modern looking implements used to sort, weigh and pack the charcoal and the sacks and bags that the charcoal was being packed into.

The charcoal shop -this one seen in Ipoh in 2010, was once a common sight in Singapore.

The charcoal shop, this one spotted in Ipoh in late 2010, was once a common sight in Singapore. The shop has since stopped operating.

Shops such these were commonplace in days when charcoal fired just about anything. From stoves and clothing irons in homes, to the ovens and furnaces of commercial establishments, the reach of charcoal then exceeded beyond that of gas and electricity. Demand fell with resettlement and redevelopment, electricity and gas were more suited for use in the public housing units the population was being moved into, and the use of charcoal was reduced to the occasional barbecue, and to the rare occasions when the charcoal stove would be dusted off for the making of festive snacks. From a high of 300 shops, the numbers were reduced to about a hundred by the time 1980 had arrived. Those that did survive, were to disappear over the two decades that followed.

The shop's interior.

The shop’s interior.

Besides the supply of charcoal for domestic use, trade in charcoal in Singapore also extended to a thriving import and export business. Based initially in the Rochor area, the trade moved to Kampong Arang at Tanjong Rhu when Nicoll Highway and the Merdeka Bridge were built. With the clean-up of the Kallang Basin reaching their final stages in the late 1980s, the trade was to be moved once again, this time to Lorong Halus (more information: The curious ridge of sand which runs from Katong to Kallang Bay).

Little remains of the charcoal trade today. Like many of the trades that added life and colour to our world, it has since been replaced by the grey of the economy of the new age; remembered only by a few, whose memories will soon fade.





Green fields and purple waters

2 01 2016

A veritable feast of colour awaits the visitor to Sekinchan. A seemingly laid back town along the northern Selangor coast, it has, in the time since it featured in the 2011 TV series “The Seeds of Life”, become popular as a destination for an excursion with the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur less than an hour and a half’s drive away. Set in the midst of vibrant green paddy fields and boasting of a riverine harbour painted by a substantial fleet of fishing boats, wooden jetties and the river’s brown, almost purple waters, Sekinchan is a destination that is especially popular with photographers.

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The river mouth near Pantai Redang, Sekinchan

There are two very distinct sides to Sekinchan, each set on either side of Malaysian Federal Route 5. The main thoroughfare that brings the busloads of visitors into the town, also divides it into a landward side on the east in which most of the town’s agricultural activities take place, and a seaward side in the west where its harbour and its fishing related activities are concentrated in. The rather picturesque paddy fields in the east, said to be among the highest yielding in the country, are also amongst the country’s most photographed.

The paddy fields.

The paddy fields.

Another view of the paddy fields.

Another view of the paddy fields.

More paddy fields.

More paddy fields.

A wooden bridge over an irrigation canal.

A wooden bridge over an irrigation canal.

The western side, with its crowd of boats and jetties in what is known locally as Ang Mo Kang or Red Hair Harbour, also provides many opportunities for the photographer, as does the nearby Pantai Redang (Redang Beach). It is just south of Pantai Redang that the river which plays host to the fishing harbour spills into the sea, providing the observer with a seascape at low tide coloured by a rare mix of hues:  the purple of the river, the mud brown of the tidal flats, the grey of the shallow waters of the sea, all against the blue of the sky.

The fishing harbour.

The fishing harbour.

The purple stream.

The purple stream spilling into the sea close to Pantai Redang.

Fish being sorted out for sale.

Fish being sorted out.

Pantai Redang, is also where the colour red features rather prominently. It is where the wishing tree stands, painted almost  red by thousands of ribbons on the hopes and wishes of many have been penned. In the shadow of the tree stands the equally red Datuk Kong (拿督公) temple from which one can obtain the weighted red ribbons that must be thrown up to the tree after one’s wishes are inscribed.

The wishing tree at Pantai Redang.

The wishing tree at Pantai Redang.

The Datuk Kong temple.

The Datuk Kong temple.

A window into the Datuk Kong temple.

A window into the Datuk Kong temple.

Besides the many attractions (there are many more) the visitor should pay a visit to – should one have the time, a visit to one of the many seafood restaurants in town offering the freshest of catches for a meal is a must before hitting the road. A quick visit to the old parts of town on the eastern side is also recommended for its quaint looking shops, as is a stop at one of the fruit stalls lining the road out of town for what must surely be Sekinchan’s best offering – its sweet and extremely juicy large green mangoes.

A seafood restaurant.

A seafood restaurant.

A shopfront in the old town.

A shopfront in the old town.

An old kopitiam.

An old kopitiam.

A temple.

A temple.

Fruits on display at a roadside fruit stall.

Fruits on display at a roadside fruit stall – fruits – especially the delicious huge juicy mangoes seen on the top, are recommended buys from Sekinchan.


 





Seeking the familiar in the unfamiliar

1 01 2016

I love a wander around the streets of the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur. KL, as the city is fondly referred to, not unlike Singapore, has seen an incredible transformation over the last three decades. But unlike Singapore, which has discarded much of what that made it what it was, KL has retained pockets of of the old world; a world that gives me that sense of familiarity that is missing from the streets of the city I spent most of my life in.

One area I am particularly fond of taking a stroll through is in the part of KL around Petaling Street. Much about it has changed – and is still changing, in its back lanes and kaki-kaki-lima (five-foot-ways) I am able to find enough familiar to me from my excursions to it of two and a half decades past. Still around are the busy places of worship and the old but now shrinking back lane wet market and familiar food-stalls at Madras Lane. The old shophouses along Jalan Sultan are also still there, although some of the trades found in them – such as an old denture workshop, seemed in the two years since I last visited the street, to have closed for good.

A peek into the late 19th century Kuan Ti temple at Jalan Tun H S Lee.

A peek into the late 19th century Kuan Ti temple at Jalan Tun H S Lee.

A five-foot-way along Jalan Tun H S Lee.

A five-foot-way along Jalan Tun H S Lee.

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The front of an old pet bird shop along Jalan Sultan.

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Kneading dough at a back lane pau stall.

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A back lane kopitiam (coffee shop) at a back lane flea market, Pasar Karat.

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The back lane wet market at Madras Lane.

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The well-known Four-Eyed (bespectacled) One – Sze Ngan Chye roast duck cart along Petaling Street.

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Slaughtered birds at a live chicken stall at the wet market.

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KL favourites in a back lane – the Madras Lane Yong Tau Foo and Laska stalls.





The Causeway queue that started at Queensway

25 08 2015

The recent news relating to the introduction of Vehicle Entry Permits (VEP) for Singapore registered private vehicles entering Malaysia, brings to mind the VEP in its previous form. A requirement in force from 1 May 1967, in the same year that full immigration controls at the two previously unified countries’ only land crossing point, the VEP was issued free and took the form of a paper disc. Much like a road tax disc and similarly sized, the disc, commonly referred to as the “White Disc” was to be displayed on the windscreen. The initial intention of implementing the VEP was to stem a loss of revenue due to Malaysian based motorists using Singapore registered vehicles permanently in West Malaysia to take advantage of the then lower road taxes in Singapore.

The “White Disc” (posted by Victor Tang on Facebook Group “On a Little Street in Singapore”).

Most motorists from the era will remember the effort that was required just to obtain the VEP, which after December 1973, had a its validity limited to 14 days from the previous 6 to 12 month validity. This required a visit to the Malaysian Registrar of Motor Vehicles’ Office, which was at a colonial bungalow at Holland Park off Queensway (the entrance to it was at Queensway – somewhere around where the crest of the hill, just past the Commonwealth Crescent area in the direction of Holland Road), and a good amount of patience as queues for the VEP were notoriously long – especially during the holiday season (the VEPs issued per day ran into the thousands).

The queue for the VEP at Queensway in the 1970s (source: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/ – National Archives Online).

The VEP was eventually scrapped from 1 May 1986 and for close to three decades, Singapore registered vehicles could enter Malaysia for up to 90 days a year without the need for a permit. The new VEP requirements take effect from 1 September 2015, which requires vehicles to be registered through the Malaysian Road Transport Department’s website. Along with the VEP, Singapore registered vehicles would be required to pay a RM20 fee per entry, which based on current information, will take effect from 1 October 2015.





How the west was lost

9 01 2015

The mention of Tuas, a far flung location in the west of Singapore, conjures up an image of its bleak and rather uninspiring industrial landscape, a patchwork of dull and faceless buildings within which much of Singapore manufacturing output is produced.  It would have been a very different Tuas that would have come to mind a little more that a generation ago, a Tuas that for those who express little sentiment for its then untamed shores, would have seemed wild, inaccessible and unproductive; a tangle of mangrove lined tidal inlets and muddy seashores.

The shores of the wild west today.

The shores of the wild west today.

The sea at the far west (National Archives of Singapore).

Wild as it was, it was not without human habitation. Access to the far west certainly was possible, requiring a drive along the long Jurong Road that wound through a rather lonely part of Singapore. The drive would end at the mouth of the Sungei Tuas estuary, the furthest west one could possible head to for a while on a public metalled road. It lay just beyond the road’s 18th milestone and brought with it the promise of seafood at what was the fishing village of Tuas to all who dared to venture.

Tuas Village, 1970. [This digital copy (c) National Library Board Singapore 2008. The original work (c) Tan Marilyn].

Tuas Village, 1970.
[This digital copy (c) National Library Board Singapore 2008. The original work (c) Tan Marilyn].

That reward, would of course only be made possible to those who not only had to endure what seemed an endless journey, but also brave enough; there were parts of the drive that especially on the after dinner journey in the dark, would not have been ones appreciated by the fainthearted. One particular stretch was at the road’s 13th milestone, just before one came to Hong Kah Village on the return journey, had been the source of many a tale of horror. That was where the gravestones of the Bulim cemetery close to the edge of the road, in the glare of the vehicle’s headlamps, would seem to reach out to anyone passing.

The reward just beyond the 18th milestone of the long and winding Jurong Road – the restaurant is still in existence in a location close to where it originall was (National Archives of Singapore).

It is a different set of horrors that await the visitor on the journey to the Tuas of today; the roads now far from lonely. Much of what we refer to Tuas today lies west of where the village had been, on land that has come out of the sea. This includes the “hockey stick” – a huge southward projection of land to the south part of which will host the future Tuas mega-port. Tuas, at its north-western corner, is also where the Second Link is located, carrying vehicles over to Malaysia, from what had been Tanjong Karang.

A lone mangrove tree within sight of the Second Link.

A lone mangrove tree within sight of the Second Link.

It is just south of Tanjong Karang where a small reminder of the previously wild west can be found (discounting the vast coastline of the Live Firing Area to its north from which our eyes have been shielded), although it lies out of sight to most of us beyond one of the ugly security fences that kills and deprives of any joys we can still derive from the seashore.

Life where one may not expect it.

Life where one may not expect it.

The intertidal region that exists, reaches out to the Merwang Beacon. It includes a naturally occurring extension of a much altered shoreline plus perhaps, a small remnant of what could be the original foreshore. It was at this point that the western tip of the island of Singapore in its unaltered state had been at Tanjong Merawang. Around the beacon, and also in the area just north of it where a small cluster of mangroves can be found, we are able to discover that there is still a small celebration of what might have been (see Ria Tan’s post on the visit  made on 23 Dec 2014: Return to Tuas Merawang Beacon).

The intertidal zone at Tanjong Merawang looking out towards Merawang Beacon and Pulau Merambong.

The intertidal zone at Tanjong Merawang looking out towards Merawang Beacon and Pulau Merambong.

A celebration above the sea that the shore also offers, is a perspective of the western end of the Singapore Strait. On a clear day, parts of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia can be seen, with the view southwest extending to the Indonesian Karimun Islands. That lies far beyond the Malaysian island of Pulau Merambong in the foreground. It would be interesting to note that the waters around Merambong is home to Malaysia’s largest intertidal seagrass meadow. And, in it, the country’s largest concentration of seahorses is said to be found.

The coastline of the far west of Singapore as seen in a 1927 map.

The coastline of the far west of Singapore as seen in a 1927 map.

This is unfortunately, under threat (see: Seagrass meadow in danger, The Star, 24 Mar 2014). Concerns raised on the impact that an ill-conceived and highly controversial luxury development project, Forest City, which will see four huge islands rise out of the waters close to Pulau Merambong, will have, include the threat it may pose to the rich marine life in the waters that surrounds the island. What that will do to what is left of the wild west of Singapore, already decimated by the developments closer to it, time will only tell.





St. Joseph’s Cathedral, Kuching

7 07 2013

The capital of the East Malaysian State of Sarawak, Kuching, has some rather unusual pieces of architecture, the recently completed DUN Sarawak being one. Another is the Catholic Cathedral of St. Joseph, consecrated in 1969 as St. Joseph’s Church, replacing a much older Neo-Gothic style church which was built by Chinese labourers during the reign of Charles Brooke, the second White Rajah in 1891. Elevated to a cathedral in 1976 when the Kuching Archdiocese was established, the building features an unusual roof structure somewhat reminiscent of that of the Church of the Blessed  Sacrament in Singapore. The roof in this case is made up of very dense belian wood.

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Besides the cathedral’s building, what is also interesting is the parish cemetery next to it. The cemetery is where the graves of 21 Iban warriors who gave their lives during the Malayan Emergency, the remains of which have been recovered from various parts of Malaysia and Singapore for reburial at the cemetery in 2011.

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