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.

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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

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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.








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