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.

 

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Scaling the heights of construction

10 06 2013

A sight that greeted me on a walk around Maxwell Road on a Sunday, was one I had not seen in Singapore for quite a while – that of wooden scaffolding being erected at the Airview Building just across from the URA Centre. Once a common sight and used extensively in the 1960s and 1970s for construction of many of our early high-rises as well as in building maintenance, the wooden scaffold has all but disappeared from sight here in Singapore.

A close-up of the lashing on a cross joint.

A close-up of the lashing on a cross joint of a wooden scaffold – these were common sights at construction sites in the 1960s and 1970s.

A bakau pole pile.

A bakau pole pile.

My first impressions of the wooden scaffolds were made during a repainting exercise at the end of 1971 on the exterior of the block of flats I had lived in, in anticipation of the visit of HM Queen Elizabeth II to the block that was to take place in February 1972. What was an amazing sight of fearless men, moving poles and planks up, as the scaffold poles were seemingly effortlessly tied up, floor-by-floor up all nineteen storeys of the block, has remained with me to this day.

Scaffolds along the corridor of the Airview Building.

Scaffolds along the corridor of the Airview Building.

Bakau wood scaffolds being put at the Airview Building.

Bakau wood scaffolds being put at the Airview Building.

The wooden scaffolds, made up of a framework of heavy bakau wood poles (a material which harvested from the numerous bakau mangrove forests in Singapore and Malaysia was readily available – the same wood was also used in the production of charcoal) arranged both horizontally and vertically with diagonals added for support, were then seen at construction sites everywhere. The poles would be manually hosited-up, and tied together using a natural fibre rope or strip, such as bamboo strips, with planks laid across the horizontal poles as a deck and ladders tied to provide vertical access. What was also amazing was the sight of the painters as they went about their business, starting from the top, they moved down floor by floor without so much as a safety line or belt attached to them.

Wooden scaffolds seen at HDB blocks of flats under construction in the mid 1960s (image source: http://a2o.nas.sg/picas). They were used extensively in high-rise construction and maintenance up to the 1970s.

Wooden scaffolds seen at HDB blocks of flats under construction in the mid 1960s (image source: http://a2o.nas.sg/picas). They were used extensively in high-rise construction and maintenance up to the 1970s.

Synthetic cords are now used where natural fibre cords were previously used.

Synthetic cords are now used where natural fibre cords were previously used.

The wooden poles are often handled manually and sometimes sawn on the spot to size.

The wooden poles are often handled manually and sometimes sawn on the spot to size.

The MSA Building (later SIA Building) under construction in the late 1960s with wooden scaffolds around the exterior (external photograph – source: http://sgarchperspectives.blogspot.sg/2012/02/malayan-architects-co-partnership-1960.html).

There were over the years many incidents not just involving falls from scaffolding, but also wooden scaffolds collapsing. This prompted the Authorities to regulate their use, restricting the maximum heights of wooden scaffolds used in construction in the early 1970s, and disallowing their use completely from high-rise construction in  the early 1980s.  This along with the introduction of modular metal scaffolding (which not only is much quicker to erect, but also has a better safety record) as well as gondolas which made their appearance in the early 1970s saw that they became a less of a common sight over the years.

An incident in 1972 during which wooden scaffolding at the construction site of Apollo Hotel collapsed resulting in the death of two workers.

An incident in 1972 during which wooden scaffolding at the construction site of Apollo Hotel collapsed resulting in the death of two workers (image source: http://a2o.nas.sg/picas).

Lashing the diagonals.

Lashing the diagonals.

A scaffolding worker lashing the wooden poles.

A scaffolding worker lashing the wooden poles.

Ladders are tied to the scaffolds to provide vertical access.

Ladders are tied to the scaffolds to provide vertical access.

Another once common sight at the construction site which has disappeared, is that of the women with their signature red cloth headdresses, bearing loads their frail frames had seemed too tiny to support. A tribute to these women who came from Sanshui (Samsui) District of Guangdong Province in China to make a living here as menial workers at construction sites, is found across the road from the Airview Building at the side of the URA Centre.

A tribute to the women who built Singapore.

A tribute to the women who built Singapore.

The stories of these women who built Singapore –  most came over in the 1920s to the 1940s and were sworn to single-hood, and the resilience they demonstrated (many who by the time I saw them in the 1960s  and 1970s were in already well advanced in age), are well worth hearing. The story of one, Madam Ng Moey Chye, can be found at an exhibition currently being held at the National Museum’s Stamford Gallery. The exhibition runs until the 23rd of June 2013 and features the stories of six pioneering tradesmen. More information on the exhibition, Trading Stories: Conversations with Six Tradesmen, is available at a previous post on it, “Trading stories with six tradesmen“.

Exhibition panels featuring former Samsui woman, Mdm Ng Moey Chye, 81, who was actually the daughter of another Samsui woman.

Exhibition panels featuring former Samsui woman, Mdm Ng Moey Chye, at Trading Stories: Conversations with Six Tradesmen.








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