Just when did the kelong come to Singapore?

12 09 2017

I am reminded of the kelong from the numerous Facebook posts I have been seeing in the last half a day in which the word is used. What comes to mind is not what the word has more recently to describe – a rigged outcome, especially in referring to match-fixing in sports – but of the fishing traps constructed of wooden stakes that once decorated our shores.

IMG_3143

What the word tends to be used to describe these days.

There were kelongs aplenty in my childhood and apparently there were even more in the days of hardship that followed the war. This is seen in a postwar map showing locations of food production facilities that also included fishing traps, where a proliferation of such traps can be seen along Singapore’s long coastline.

While it may then have seemed that kelongs – characterised by the long rows of bakau timber stakes rising above the sea surface – must have been a feature of the coastal scenery since time immemorial, the kelong was a technological import that arrived not long after the British did. Spears had apparently been the standard fishing implement that was employed prior to the introduction of the much higher yield kelongs. Munshi Abdullah, in his memoirs Hikayat Abdullah, describes the introduction of the kelong, attributed to a man from Malacca named Haji Mata-mata:

A kelong off Singapore – once a common sight.

Some eight months after the settlement had started the fishing fleet came from Malacca to fish in Singapore waters.

Most commonly caught were dorabs for they were an easy prey, never having been fished with hand-lines before in the whole history of Singapore. The fishermen used to stand out 120 -180 yards from the shore. When the Singapore people saw the Malacca fishermen making much money by hook and line fishing they also began to fish with hook-and-line like the Malacca folk. Previously they had known no method of catching fish other than by spearing them. When the Singapore settlement was a year old there came a certain Malacca man named Haji Mata-mata. He constructed large fish-traps with rows of stakes called belat and kelong. Other people built jermal.

In the first kelong which was put up, off Teluk Ayer, they caught a small number of tenggiri fish; in fact such vast surfeit that the fish could not be eaten and had to be thrown away. Their roes were taken out, put in barrels containing salt, and sold as a regular commodity to ships. The people of Singapore were surprised to see the number of fish caught in this way. The place where they built kelong was at Teluk Ayer Point, near Tanjong Malang. It became well-known.

– Munshi Abdullah in Hikayat Abdullah as translated by A H Hill

Advertisements




Gambling at the original sands at Marina Bay

24 08 2017

Gambling at the sands at Marina Bay actually started well before Marina Bay Sands landed – on the evidence of the accounts of Munshi Abdullah. In his autobiography, “Hikayat Abdullah“, Munshi Abdullah describes the events at the time of modern Singapore’s founding in 1819 to which he had not been witness to. He did however have a reliable enough source in the form of  William Farquhar. Farquhar’s observations, as recorded by Abdullah, extended to the physical landscape around the mouth of the Singapore River and the adjacent shoreline and rather interestingly to some of what seemed to go on around the shores.

Especially interesting is a description of mouth of the river in its natural state and the superstitions the local population held of a particular stone at which offerings were made:

In the mouth of the Singapore River there were a great many large rocks, but there was a channel in between the rocks, which was as crooked as a snake when it is beaten. Among all those stones there was one with a sharp point like the snout of a swordfish, and that was called by the sea-gypsies Batu Kepala-Todak (Sword-fish-head Rock), and they believed that that stone had an evil spirit or ghost. It was at that stone that they all paid their vows, and that was the place they feared, and they set up banners and paid it honor: for they said, “If we do not honor it, when we go in and out of the straits it will certainly destroy us all”. So every day they brought offerings and placed them on that stone.

Also interesting is what must have been a most gruesome of sights greeting the newly arrived of skulls, some with hair still on them, rolling about the edge of  the shoreline. The shoreline and its sands, two centuries before it was made into part of Marina Bay and the Sands casino arrived, was also a location for what must have been some of the earliest instances of gambling in Singapore:

And all along the edge of the shore there were rolling hundreds of human skulls in the sand, some old and some new, some with the hair still remaining on them, some with the teeth filed, and others not, skulls of all kinds. Mr. Farquhar was informed of this, and when he saw them, he had them picked up and thrown out to sea; so they were put in sacks and thrown into the sea. At that time the sea-gypsies were asked, “Whose skulls are all these?”‘ And they said, “These are the heads of the victims of piracy, and this is where they were killed.” Wherever native vessels or ships were attacked, the pirates came here and divided the plunder; in some eases they killed one another in struggling for the booty; in other cases it was those whom they had bound. It was on the shore here that they tried their weapons, and here also they had gambling and cock-fighting.

A very different shoreline and river, 1819 (source: The Singapore River: A Social History, 1819-2002 by Stephen Dobbs).

Boat Quay – the site of a swamp when Raffles first landed on the opposite bank. Soil from a hill at what is today’s Raffles’ Place was used to fill the swamp (what would be the very first reclamation to take place in Singapore).

Marina Bay today, a body of fresh water where the sea had once washed up to.





Last rites, Sungei Road and the soul of Singapore

11 07 2017

The 10th of July, marked not just the final chapter for Sungei Road, but also for the generations of traders who once coloured the streets of Singapore. The closure of the popular and well-known flea market, also known as Thieves Market and Robinson Petang, saw what are technically Singapore’s last street hawkers moved off the streets. While hope for a new beginning for the collection of mostly small second-hand goods traders does exist, their continued existence is under threat by the fact they would now be scattered across town.

Hope also lies in an initiative by the President of the Association for the Recycling of Second Hand Goods, Mr Koh Ah Koon, which was announced at a farewell of sorts organised for the market. Mr Koh hopes to resurrect the market on the sixth floor car park of Golden Mile Tower as early as on Saturday 15th July, 2017. Not all the traders however are making the move due to cost considerations and the location. There is also a chance that the move may not even be allowed to happen. Approval would be needed as it would involve a change in usage of a parking space. Whatever will be, the market as we knew it, will no longer be the one we came to know. The passing of this imperfect world modern Singapore has no place for, sees not just the loss of a place in the hearts of many of us, but also the loss of one of last places in which the soul of old and gentle Singapore could still be found.

Crowds were on hand to witness Sungei Road’s final moments.

Some traders decided to pack up early.

A lion dance to bid farewell.

Mr Koh Ah Koon, President of the Association for the Recycling of Second Hand Goods speaks to members of the media.

The now famous Mr Kulasekaran Ramiah.

An emotional goodbye.

A final sale.

Packing up for the very last time.

Enforcement wardens move in – must say they were generally helpful and friendly.

All packed and ready to go.

Some made a quicker exit.

A last ride.

The final walk.

The closure of the flea market leaves Singapore like a head without body (and soul).

The cleaners are quickly sent in.

The closure gives many of the traders a feeling of being alone in the darkness.







A postcard from the past: Shaw House and Lido

29 06 2017

Another landmark of the Orchard Road that I loved was the old Shaw House. That, stood at the corner of Orchard and Scotts Road through the 1960s to the 1980s. What made the building special was the branch of The Chartered Bank that was housed on its ground floor, a branch that my mother frequented and one at which I obtained my favourite piggy bank that was modelled after the Disney cartoon character Donald Duck. Completed in 1958, the modern 10-storey block was lit the path for the eventual transformation of Orchard Road. It was one of two that the Shaw Brothers built, the other being Lido Theatre next to it – a cinema at which I caught many Pink Panther movies. In its latter years, Shaw House was also where a popular restaurant Copper Kettle opened.





A postcard from the past: a view over the Killiney Road area in the 1970s

22 06 2017

Another postcard from the past: a view over the Killiney Road and River Valley area in the early 1970s. What can quite clearly be made out is Killiney Road, Dublin Road, Lloyd Road, Tiverton Lane and Devonshire Road at the bottom of the picture. Some of the buildings that are identifiable in the foreground include the old Killiney Road Market (from its roof), Mitre Hotel, and if you look hard enough, the roof of 38 Oxley Road!

What this postcard brings to mind is in fact 38 Oxley Road, which has been very much in the news of late. I was first made aware of it being the house of the then Prime Minister from the backseat of the car of a neighbour, Uncle Singh. We were in the vicinity one evening and Uncle Singh decided to drive through the short stretch of Oxley Road (that was before entry to the stretch was restricted to residents) just to show his son and me where the Prime Minister lived, pointing the Gurkha guards manning the sentry posts out as he drove past. This would have been sometime in 1969 or 1970 as I was in kindergarten then. What I don’t recall was why we were in the area (we were living in Toa Payoh), or what I was doing in his car. I do remember the car, an old and rather beat up Austin Cambridge, which had a corroded floorboard and torn PVC upholstery on its backseat – so much so that the coconut husk used for the filling of its cushion was showing through.





The Italian captain who bought Pulau Bukom …

10 06 2017

Except perhaps for sculptor Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli, whose magnificent work adorns the old Supreme Court, little is known of Singapore’s many connections with the Italian community – except perhaps of the community’s many culinary offerings we are now able to find. It may therefore come as a surprise that the connections do go well back –  even before Italy as an entity existed and that Singapore’s Pulau Bukom was once owned by an Italian man.

Explore Singapore’s surprising Italian connections at The Italian Connection at the Fullerton Hotel.

Pulau Bukom is perhaps better known to us as the island on which Singapore’s successful journey into the oil refining trade, had its beginnings. Shell, who built and operate the refinery, has long been associated with the island. 20 acres of it was bought by the company in 1891 for the purpose of kerosene storage. The transaction netted the island’s owner,  Capitano Giovanni Gaggino a tidy profit. Gaggino, an Italian master mariner, shipowner and adventurer, purchased the island for $500 in 1884 with the intention to supply freshwater to shipping. His purchase of “Freshwater Island” as it was informally known as, was one of many of Gaggino’s ventures here. He would spend 42 of his 72 years in Singapore from 1876 and passed on in 1918, whilst on a trip to Batavia. Capitano Gaggino was also known to have authored several books, one of which was the very first Malay-Italian dictionary.

Capitano Giovanni Gaggino, who once owned Pulau Bukom (source: Reproduction of “La Vallata del Yang-Tse-Kiang” by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Open source).

Even before Gaggino, Italians – many of whom were involved in shipping and trade, made landfall. One rather famous Italian, the renowned botanist and contemporary of Charles Darwin, Odoardo Beccari, used Singapore as a stepping stone to his well documented explorations of the region’s forests. Credited with the discovery of the giant corpse flower, Beccari also documented a month he spent in March 1866 at the “wooden bungalow” of the Italian Consul, Signor Giovanni Leveson (a.k.a. Edward John Leveson) on the Johor Strait. The bungalow is thought to be where Woodlands in Singapore’s north got its name from.

Odoardo Beccari (source: Sailko, Creative Commons License 3.0).

Like Capitano Gaggino, Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli spent a substantial part of his life in Singapore. He arrived from Bangkok in 1921 and remained – except for a period of internment during the Second World War (as a citizen of Italy, one of the Axis states, he was interned in Australia from 1941 to 1945), until his retirement in 1956 . He worked tirelessly and amassed a huge portfolio of work that began with the second Ocean Building on which he provided the decorative artificial stone facings.

Composite image of Rodolfo Nolli and the main (south) entrance of the GPO. Two sets of works – the coat of arms and a pair of flambeau compositions, went missing during the Japanese Occupation (source of images: National Archives of Singapore).

The majestic Ocean Building did not only launch Nolli’s career in Singapore, it also spelled a new era for the bund along Collyer Quay. Before the end of a decade, three even grander edifices would be added: the Union Building, a second generation Hongkong and Shanghai Bank Chambers, and the grandest of them all, the Fullerton Building. The additions, all of which Nolli had work done on, provided the bund with an appearance that could be compared to Shanghai’s more famous embankment.

Ocean Building in the 1920s (Source: W. A. Laxton, The Straits Steamship Fleets)..

Built to house the General Post Office, several municipal offices as well as the exclusive Singapore Club, the Fullerton was decorated with some of Nolli’s more exquisite pieces of the era. Two precast sculptural works: a pair of flambeau compositions and a royal coat of arms – symbols of enlightenment and empire – adorned the main entrance to the GPO. Sadly, these disappeared during the Japanese Occupation and all that can now be seen of Nolli’s contributions in the building is the magnificent plasterwork of the barrel vaulted ceiling of the Singapore Club’s Billiard Hall. The hall is now the Straits Room of The Fullerton Hotel. The hotel has occupied the Fullerton Building since 2001.

The Straits Room is now where the only works of Rodolfo Nolli’s in the Fullerton Building to have survived can be found.

The historic waterfront, 1932, to which Nolli added decorative finishing touches, and the waterfront today (source: top image, Singapore Philatelic Museum; lower image, Jerome Lim).

Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli, whose works are also found in Bangkok – where he spent 7 years of his life, in parts of Malaysia and also in Brunei, was bestowed with a knighthood by the Italian Crown in 1925. This is an honour that another Italian gentleman connected with the Fullerton Building, Cavaliere Giovanni Viterale, has also received. Cavaliere Viterale, the GM of Fullerton Heritage, is a well respected member of the hospitality industry and it was for his contributions to it that he received the honour. The building, which was opened in June 1928, celebrates its 89th anniversary this month.

Nuns of the Canossian order speaking to Cavaliere Giovanni Viterale at the exhibition opening. The order, which has origins in Italy, first arrived in Singapore in 1894 (source: The Fullerton Heritage).

More on the Italian Community, including on an Italian order of missionaries whose work in tending to those in need continues to this very day, the Canossian Daughters of Charity, can be discovered at an exhibition that I curated with Zinke Aw, “The Italian Connection”. The exhibition, The Fullerton Hotel’s East Garden Foyer, runs until 18 July 2017. Information on the exhibition can also be found at The Fullerton Heritage’s website and through the official press release.

 

 

 





Making the cut (rubber and the forgotten art of rubber tapping)

6 06 2017

The cultivation of rubber, once the mainstay of the Malayan economy, has left a mark not just on our northern neignbours, Malaysia, but also here in Singapore. Clusters of aging rubber trees or even individual trees in Singapore’s less developed parts mark former rubber plantations, the largest of which are found on Pulau Ubin and Pulau Tekong. In the northwest, a pier turned sea pavilion, built to move rubber out of a long isolated area of Singapore in the 1920s, also recalls a business on which many fortunes were made (and lost) and in the west, two surviving dragon kilns speak of the pottery making trade fed by the demand for clay latex cups from the many plantations. There is also a little corner of a former rubber plantation in the northeast in which its past is commemorated by five old rubber trees found in a corner. The five are all that remain of hundreds that a Japanese monk had planted to acknowledge the donation of the plot by the plantation’s owners – to be used as a burial place for hundreds of karayuki-san who died penniless.

Latex being collected in a clay latex cup – many kilns were established across Singapore, including the two surviving dragon kilns at Jalan Bahar, to produce these cups.

One of the things I found fascinating as a child was the sight of rubber tappers moving from tree to tree that I would catch on the many drives to Malaysia. From comfort breaks taken in and around rubber estates – due to their isolation – I could see the results of the tappers’ actions. The cuts made on the trees’ bark were quite visible as were the cups of latex. What I was not able to see close up however was how the tapper actually made the cut; that is, until just a few days ago when I was able to catch a demonstration of the art. The live demo (see video below) was performed by a retired rubber tapper, Uncle Ah Ha, as part of an Outward Bound School (OBS) UBiNavigate 2017 trail organised for Pesta Ubin 2017.

An old rubber press in the OBS area of Pulau Ubin – in surprisingly good condition.

UBiNavigate also gave its participants the opportunity to explore the western part of Pulau Ubin. An area in which OBS operates, the area is normally off-limits to the general public. Once where Ong Seng Chew owned a rubber estate, this corner of the island is still filled with many reminders of that past such as an old rubber press lying in a bed of tree fall, broken bottles that once held the enzymes required for the rubber production process, and rubber trees that have long been abandoned.

Part of the UBiNavigate trail taking participants through the relatively unexplored western side of Ubin.

Several aspects of Ubin’s much storied past were also in evidence, some of which were related to the quarrying activities that provided much of the granite used to build modern Singapore. Besides the sight of a former quarry – just beyond the fence of OBS Camp 1, two concrete storage rooms could be seen, fitted with heavy steel doors. These storerooms were apparently used for the storage of dynamite that the nearby quarry used for blasting.

A dynamite store that used by a nearby quarry.

Several other interesting “discoveries” tell us of the the island’s previous inhabitants: a solitary tomb of a Madam Goh that is still tended to by her descendants, a disused well, a concrete communal stove, and the concrete base of a Chinese village-style dwelling. More on UBiNavigate, which was held on 3 June 2017, can be found at https://ubinavigate.wixsite.com/2017.

Latex dripping into a clay latex cup.

Remains of narrow necked enzyme bottles used in rubber processing.


Other rubbery posts:


More views around the western end of Pulau Ubin

An abandoned well.

Coconut shells were also utilised as latex cups.

The OBS Reservoir.

A beach on the southwestern shoreline of Ubin.

A solitary tomb of a Madam Goh.

Remains of an old communal stove.

A shrine built in 1979.

Another of the shrine.









%d bloggers like this: