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 moon between the coconut palms

20 06 2016

THE MOON BETWEEN THE COCONUT PALMS:
A guest post by Edmund Arozoo, once of Jalan Hock Chye, who now reminisces in the light of the silvery Adelaide moon …

 


Edmund Moon Coconut Palms 1

(Photograph: Edmund Arozoo)

Digital Photography has indeed simplified the task of producing quality images of the moon. The ability to mount my old 600 mm manual mirror lens to the body of my DSLR has allowed me to capture some good images indeed. However to push the challenge further I have for past few years been a keen “Moon transit” photographer i.e. capturing aircraft as they fly across the face of the moon.  I am fortunate that where I now live the Moon’s orbit and most of the commercial flight paths make it easy for me to set up my gear in my back balcony or backyard to achieve this. In addition there are many on-line apps that allow real time monitoring of flight paths. However this quest requires lots of patience and luck. Often there are long periods of waiting in-between flights. During these breaks I find myself staring at the moon and my mind wanders back to my kampong days in Singapore.  I start thinking of the significance the moon played then and the beliefs both religious and superstitious of the various races and groups of people in my kampong.

Copy of an old slide image taken in Jalan Hock Chye digitally post processed (Photograph: Edmund Arozoo)

Copy of an old slide image taken in Jalan Hock Chye digitally post processed (Photograph: Edmund Arozoo)

One colourful memory that I always chuckle when I think about it is the ritual that my Chinese neighbours undertook during the eclipse of the moon.  I remember as a kid suddenly hearing the din of pots and pans being struck constantly. Even the large kerosene tins would be brought into play. Most of the Chinese households would be involved and I learnt that the belief was that a Dragon was swallowing the Moon and the noise created was to scare the dragon from completely removing the Moon from the sky. This ritual did go on regularly whenever there was an eclipse for most of my early years but as society became educated the practice faded away.

When I relate this to some of my friends a few remember this practice but others think I made it up.

The significance of the moon is central in Chinese culture. Most if not all festivals are tagged to the lunar calendar

Likewise the Indian celebrations are also pegged to their own lunar calendar. The two main ones Deepavali  which occurs  during the New moon of Ashvin (Hindu calendar) and  Thaipusam which  is celebrated during  the full moon day of the Tamil month of Thai

In the past the Malay Hari Raya dates were determined by the sighting of the new moon by local religious authorities. During those pre mobile phone years the method of relaying the successful sighting was by the use of carbide cannons. Carbide was mixed with water in the hollow of a bamboo cylinder and when the fuse was lit a small explosion took place and this could be heard for miles in the quiet of the evenings. When this was heard in a kampong one of the Malay families would then in turn fire a cannon and the message would then spread from kampong to kampong until the entire Malay community across the island would be informed to start celebrating the following day.

For the Eurasian and Christian households the main festival linked to the moon was Easter which is held on the first Sunday after the first full moon occurring on or after the vernal equinox. The other Holy days of Lent are adjusted accordingly. As kids when we were brought by our parents for the traditional “visitations of churches” on Maundy Thursday we often noticed the bright nearly full or full moon as we walked along the Queen Street / Victoria Street area. The significance of the moon was unknown to us or rather we were more focussed on the treats that we were rewarded with for being well behaved. Treats like freshly baked Hot Cross Buns from the two well-known bakeries around the vicinity “Ah Teng” and “The Red House Bakery”. The other treat would be the Kueh Putu Piring (or Kueh Tutu as it is now known as).

Similarly the dates of Ascension Thursday and Pentecost Sunday vary each year. The former celebrated forty days after Easter, and the latter ten days after the Ascension (50 after Easter).

When Armstrong landed on the moon in 1969, you can just imagine the reaction from the different families in the kampong. There was disbelief, taunting and scepticism.

The full or near-full moon was often a blessing if you came home late at night because it lighted your way home. There were no street lights in the lanes leading to our houses. With the moonlight we could avoid the portholes and on rainy days the resultant puddles that were ever so present.

However the moonlight also did cast numerous shadows from the trees and bushes. With movies like “Pontianak” on our minds combined with the fragrant scent of the newly blossomed frangipani flowers walking home usually turned into a quick paced trot.

I guess these days in Singapore, the Moon between coconut palms is only a recollection of some of the older generation. Moonlight between high-rise would be the norm.


Edmund’s other experiences of a Singapore that doesn’t exist anymore:


 

 





Goodbye for now my friend

3 06 2016

Like a thief in the night, change in Singapore comes swiftly and suddenly. One big change, albeit temporarily, that will soon be upon us, involves yet another space I have a fondness for. This is the stretch of the former rail corridor between Bukit Timah Road and Holland Road. The greenest part of the Green Corridor, as the very green rail corridor has been christened by the movement calling for its preservation as a green space, it has been one the the few escapes I am able to find from a Singapore that has been over concretised. While the work is not meant to leave a permanent scar on the Green Corridor, the changes it may bring to the corridor visually could take many more years before it regains the appearance of the world I had grown to love.

The Rail Corridor in greener days.

My favourite stretch of the Rail Corridor in greener days.

Work will soon begin to lay a pipeline that is intended to address the growing city centre’s needs far into the future. Some 11 kilometres of the former corridor will be affected stretching from Rifle Range, where the Murnane Service Reservoir is, southwards to Tanjong Pagar Railway Station (which will itself be closed off from 2017 to 2025 for the construction of a Circle Line MRT Station below ).

Existing water pipelines close to Murnane Reservoir.

Existing water pipelines close to Murnane Reservoir.

The affected parts of the corridor will be closed off in phases, commencing with the stretch between Holland Road and Commonwealth Avenue in the later part of June 2016 with the other stretches being closed from te third quarter of 2016. The various stretches will be reopened as work is completed with the Holland Road and Commonwealth Avenue stretch’s opening scheduled for the end of 2017. The stretches between PIE / Jalan Anak Bukit and Holland Road and Commonwealth Avenue to Jalan Kilang Barat are scheduled to reopen by the fourth quarter of 2018, while the southernmost stretch of the corridor will be the last to reopen at the end of 2019.

One of the stretches affected, at Tanglin Halt, during the days of the railway.

One of the stretches affected, at Tanglin Halt, during the days of the railway.

First announced close to two years ago in June 2014, one of the tasks before work was to start was the development of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to look at possible impacts and recommend mitigation measures during the period of pipe laying. An environmental consulting firm, CH2M Hill Singapore Consulting Pte Ltd, was engaged to carry this out and also to develop an Environmental Monitoring and Management Plan (EMMP). This, as members of the Rail Corridor Partnership who attended a briefing on it earlier this week had understood, has been accepted by the various Government agencies involved.

Bukit Timah Railway Station, one of four activity nodes for which concept designs are to be proposed.

Bukit Timah Railway Station, around which the pipeline would be run to avoid damage to the heritage structure.

While EISs and EIAs  may involve qualitative identification of threats and assessments of the severity of their impacts, and contain an element of subjectivity, they have an important role to play in the management of invasive activities in environmentally sensitive areas. In the case of the pipeline, work is certainly needed, and having an EIS carried out is better that not having one done at all.

Minister for Environment and Water Resources, Vivian Balakrishnan along the rail corridor during Saturday's briefing to the Rail Corridor Partnership.

Another heritage structure, to which impact is avoided, the truss bridge at Bukit Timah. Here the pipejacking method will be employed and the pipeline will be run deep underground, under the Downtown MRT line.

One key finding of the EIS was on the impact the initial planned routing of the pipeline in the vicinity of Murnane Reservoir would have had on the flora nad fauna rich area of dense secondary forest through which the pipeline was to be run (on the opposite side of Rifle Range Road). This prompted a rethink, which involved much effort, to have the pipeline’s path altered to avoid the secondary forest. In most instances, impacts following mitigation measures are maintained at negligible to minor, with the a few exceptions.

A Oriental Pied Hornbill seen (and heard) during Saturday's walk.

A Oriental Pied Hornbill in the sensitive Holland Woods area.

One especially sensitive area identified by the EIS is in the Holland Woods area, just south of the former Bukit Timah Railway Station, which contain several fauna hot spots. Several unexpected species of animals were recorded during the survey carried out as part of the EIS, including the Malayan Giant Frog and the Civet. The impact to fauna in this area after mitigation is expected to be moderate. In all, some 188 species of fauna were recorded, 11 of which are non-native, with 458 species expected. Other impacts considered, include that to the landscape, airborne noise, ground borne noise and vibration, damage to waterbodies as well as to commercial and recreational activities.

Disruption to users of the rail corridor such as walkers, joggers and cyclists, will be minimised throughout the construction period.

Disruption to users of the rail corridor such as walkers, joggers and cyclists, will be minimised throughout the construction period by the provision of alternative pathways.

Beyond the laying of the pipeline, the former rail corridor will probably be the subject of redevelopment efforts aimed at preserving it as a continuous green corridor that will at the same time be of use to the wider community. Based on the information previously provided by the Urban Redevelopment Authority overseeing this, the detailed design for a 4 kilometre signature stretch from Bukit Timah Railway Station (BTRS) to Hillview Road area. The outcome of this, which would have taken in public and stakeholders’ feedback, and the visual impact it will possible have on the corridor, is yet to be seen.





A time machine to the Singapore of the 60s

31 05 2016

It is wonderful that technology allows the wealth of photographs that exist of a Singapore we no longer see to be shared. Those especially taken by those whose stay in Singapore was temporary, offer perspectives of places as they were that the local might have thought little of capturing. One of my favourite sets of photographs are those of a David Ayres. Shared through a Flickr album Oldies SE Asia containing some 250 photographs, they take us back to Mr. Ayres’ days in the Royal Navy and include many scenes of places of the Singapore of my childhood that I would not otherwise have been able to ever see again.

A part of Singapore we can never go back to. The view is of the waterfront and the Inner Roads from a vantage point just across the mouth of the Stamford Canal from Esplanade or Queen Elizabeth Walk. Land reclamation has since taken this view away, replacing it with a view that will include One Raffles Link and Esplanade Theatres by the Bay (David Ayres on Flickr).

Mr. Ayres interactions in Singapore came from his two stints at HMS Terror (now Sembawang Camp) in the Naval Base. The first in 1963/64, just about the time I was born, and again in 1966/67. Now 71, he finally managed a trip that he said he he just had to make having not been back to Singapore since he last saw it almost 50 years ago at the end of his second stint in 1967.

A HMS Terror (now Sembawang Camp) barrack block, one that is familiar to me as it was the same block I was accommodated during my reservist in-camp training stints in the 1990s (David Ayres on Flickr).

I managed to say a quick hello to Mr. Ayres during his short visit, managing a short chat with him at a coffee shop in what had once been Sembawang Village, an area that is quite well represented in Mr. Ayres’ set of photographs.  Once a busy area of watering holes, shops and makeshift eating stalls located just across one of the main entrances to the huge Naval Base – an entrance used especially by personnel headed to HMS Terror,  all that it has since been reduced to is the row of two-storey shophouses in which the coffee shop was at.

David Ayres (R), with Phil and Nora, the founder of Old Sembawang Naval Base Facebook group.

David Ayres (R), with his mate Phil and Nora, the founder of Old Sembawang Naval Base Facebook group, in the shadow of the Nelson Bar of today.

The Nelson Bar as seen in 1967 (David Ayres on Flickr).

It was interesting to learn that there was much Mr. Ayres could still recognise from his walk earlier in the day around the former Naval Base, a walk he did with his mate Phil with the help of Nora of the Old Sembawang Naval Base Facebook group. It is perhaps fortunate for Mr. Ayres that Sembawang, a part of Singapore he would have been most familiar with, is one of few places left in Singapore in which much of its past is still to be found in the present.

The Red House, as the Fleet Sailing Centre was referred to because of its red roof (David Ayres on Flickr).

The Red House today as seen from SAF Yacht Club. It's red roof tiles have since been replaced by green ones and the sea pavilion is now in a rather dilapidated state.

The Red House today as seen from SAF Yacht Club. It’s red roof tiles have since been replaced by green ones and the sea pavilion is now in a rather dilapidated state.

A good part of the base housing still remains intact, as do the former dockyard and stores basin, both of which still operating under another guise. Part of HMS Terror is also still around, a part that is visible over its perimeter fence. There also is the former “Aggie Westons” on the hill across from the dockyard gates. This saw use as the Fernleaf Centre in the days when the NZ Force SEA had troops based in Sembawang and is now in use by HomeTeam NS as a recreation centre. A sea pavilion, which served as the Fleet Sailing Centre in the days of the Naval Base, is also still visible from the SAF Yacht Club. Referred to as the “Red House” for its red roof tiles, the pavilion has since been turned green and as observed by Mr. Ayres, now looks rather dilapidated.

‘Aggie Westons’ in David’s time in Sembawang, it became Fernleaf Centre during the days of the New Zealand Force SEA and is today used by HomeTeam NS as a recreation centre. David made a stop here during his recent visit to Sembawang (David Ayres on Flickr).

As we poured over some photographs Mr. Ayres had printed over glasses of lime juice, he also made mention that the row of shophouses we were at had not been around during his first stint at HMS Terror. One of the area’s last additions, it had been put up before Mr. Ayres came back for his second tour. It is in the row that several bars including the Nelson Bar were housed and was a popular drinking spot for servicemen up to the days when the New Zealand forces had a presence in the area. It is also worth mentioning that the cluster of stalls found in the area, popular as stopover for personnel looking for a quick bite, was where the improvised hawker dish we know as Roti John is said to have originated from.

The cluster of food stalls at Sembawang Village, where Roti John was said to have been invented (David Ayres on Flickr).

Besides those in and around the Naval Base, Mr. Ayres captures include many other places that featured in my younger days; places in and around the city centre, then referred to as Singapore, as well as a few far flung places such as Changi. There are also scenes found in the set taken in peninsula Malaysia that are familiar to me from the drives my father was fond of making north of the Causeway. The photographs of the city centre have proved to be particularly fascinating to younger Singaporeans. One taken of Raffles Place in its landscape car-park rooftop garden days  in the direction of Battery Road, made its rounds in 2012, going viral in Singapore. One impression of the modern city that had replaced the one in his photographs that Mr. Ayres and his friend Phil had, was of seeing very few elderly people in it; this perhaps is a manifestation of the disconnect with the brave new world that the city centre has become many in the older generation feel.

Mr. Ayres’ capture of Raffles Place in 1966 made its rounds around the internet in 2012 (David Ayres on Flickr).

Mr Ayres’ photographs have a quality that goes beyond simple snapshots. Well composed and often offering a wider view of the places he found himself in, they not only take us back to the places we once knew but also immerse us into the scene being captured. The photographs are for me, a means to travel back in time, back to the places I could otherwise have little hope of seeing again, and back to a world I would not otherwise have been able to go home to.

A street that once came alive in the evenings with its food offerings – the section of Albert Street at its Selegie Road end where Albert Court Hotel is today (David Ayres on Flickr).

An “Ice Water Stall” outside what is today the National Museum (David Ayres on Flickr).

The gate post and the Indian Rubber tree today. The tree has since gained the status of a protected tree, having been listed as one of Singapore’s 256 Heritage Trees.

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Changi Creek, 1966 (David Ayres on Flickr).

Changi Creek today.

Changi Creek today.

A familiar scene along Canberra Road that Mr. Ayres captured in 1966. The convoy of dockyard (and later Sembawang Shipyard) workers rushing home was seen into the 1980s (David Ayres on Flickr).

Jalan Sendudok in Sembawang. Notice that the Chinese characters used for Sembawang differ from those used today. The road, which still exists, has since been realigned (David Ayres on Flickr).

Where Selegie met Serangoon over the Rochor Canal, 1966. This photograph helps take me back to visits to Tekka market, the roof of which can be seen on the left of the photo, with my mother whenever mutton curry was on the menu (David Ayres on Flickr).

The same area today, Sans the open canal and and unfamiliar buildings, it now looks completely different.

The same area today, Sans the open canal and and now unfamiliar buildings, it looks a completely different place.

1966. The North Bridge Road that I knew, close to its junction with Bras Basah Road, close to where Jubilee and Odeon Theatres were, which would have been behind the photographer (David Ayres on Flickr).

The same area today.

The same area today.

Further down North Bridge Road in 1966 – a back entrance to Raffles Institution is seen on the left and the walls of the former Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (now CHIJMES) can be seen on the other side of the road (David Ayres on Flickr).

The same area today.

The same area today.

A river crossing in Malaysia in 1967. Not in Singapore but many from Singapore who travelled up north by road would have had this experience before road bridges across the major rivers were completed. One such crossing was at Muar. This existed up to the 1960s. My own experience was of two crossings on the road up to Kuantan in the 1970s and early 1980s. One had been at Endau, at which a tow boat similar to what is seen here was used. The other was a narrower crossing at Rompin that utilised a ferry pulled by wire-rope (David Ayres on Flickr).

 

 





Drama on the Straits of Johor

28 05 2016

The Sumatras, squalls that blow rapidly in from the west, can sometimes add to the drama of the lightening skies at dawn. Such was the case this morning on the Straits of Johor, as observed from Beaulieu Jetty in Sembawang at first light. It didn’t take long however for the scene to turn from the magical one pictured at 6.28 am to one of darkness and gloom. More on the Sumatras can be found on the National Environment Agency’s website: Sumatras. Other encounters I have had with Sumatras at dawn can be found at the following posts:

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Clouds being blown in by the Sumatras at daybreak, 6.28am 28 May 2016.

6.36 am, just two minutes before the sky opened up its floodgates.

6.36 am, just two minutes before the sky opened up its floodgates.

 





Getai night on Pulau Ubin

26 05 2016

A large crowd, one not normally associated with Pulau Ubin on a Wednesday, turned up on the island last evening for the final night of the annual Tua Pek Kong festival. The last night, has in more recent times been marked with a getai (歌台) performance. Crude and somewhat kitsch, Getai (歌台) draws much more interest these days than the traditional street operas and puppet shows once used to provide the deities with a grand send-off.

This year’s getai, with forty dinner tables sold (as opposed to about twenty last year), seems to have attracted a much larger interest. This could be seen in the especially crowded village square (if I may call it that), where Ubin’s free-standing wayang stage – used by the Pulau Ubin Fo Shan Teng Tua Pek Kong Temple (乌敏岛佛山亭大伯公庙) to hold street opera and getai performancesis found.

The getai also saw a special guest, Dr Mohamad Maliki Osman. The Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Defence & Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Mayor, South East District also took to the stage, not to sing, but was able to impress the crowd nonetheless, with a few words in Mandarin and also in Hokkien.


Photographs from the final night of the Tua Pek Kong Festival

A boat load of devotees heading to Pulau Ubin.

A boat load of devotees heading to Pulau Ubin.

Lion dancers welcoming visitors.

Lion dancers welcoming visitors.

A larger crowd than ones previously seen turned up to watch the Getai performance held to send the popular deity off.

A larger crowd than ones previously seen turned up to watch the Getai performance held to send the popular deity off.

The lower temple saw a steady stream of devotees making offerings.

The lower temple saw a steady stream of devotees making offerings.

Lighting joss sticks at the temple.

Lighting joss sticks at the temple.

The wayang stage set for the evening's performances.

The wayang stage set for the evening’s performances.

A performer and a dancer.

Perfromers.

The silhouette of a dancer.

The silhouette of a dancer.

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A special guest, Dr Mohamad Maliki Osman, Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Defence & Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Mayor, South East District. He didn't sing but managed to wow the crowd with a few words of Hokkien.

A special guest, Dr Mohamad Maliki Osman, Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Defence & Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Mayor, South East District. He didn’t sing but managed to wow the crowd with a few words of Hokkien.

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Homeward bound.

Homeward bound.






Singapore in the 1960s – three blasts from the past

25 05 2016

Footage found online that take us back to a Singapore we have all but forgotten.

The first is a video posted online by Gary Porter on the Memories of Singapore Facebook group that shows the National Theatre crescent-shaped fountain, the fountain at Holland Circus and a gathering of hawkers. The second is an excerpt from a French / Italian 1967 movie Cinq gars pour Singapour or Five Ashore in Singapore that was filmed in Singapore in 1966 that takes has us take walk through one of my favourite childhood places, Change Alley. The third is from the 1967 British film Pretty Polly, which starred Hayley Mills and Shashi Kapoor.

 








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