Yishun and its links to a 1847 secret society attack off Batam

21 12 2021

Yishun is a satellite town in modern Singapore with a reputation for being in the news for the wrong reasons. It does seem that this may also have been the case in its earliest days — at least as the settlement that the town traces its roots to. The settlement would eventually to be known as “Nee Soon”, Yishun’s name in Teochew and the name of a since-erased village that through its association with the illustrious Lim Nee Soon in the early 20th century, was named after him.

Yishun, on the left bank of what is today Lower Seletar Reservoir. The reservoir was created through the construction of a dam across the mouth of Sungei Seletar.

Located on what could be thought of as the left bank of Sungei Seletar — now Lower Seletar Reservoir, Yishun occupies one of several riverine areas of Singapore that attracted pioneering pepper and gambier planters in Singapore’s earliest days as a East India Company factory (or some say even before). The early planters were almost exclusively from the Teochew dialect group, and had links to the secret societies whose assistance and protection were essential to survival in the early days. The secret societies were however, also a constant source of trouble, with violence often being used as a means towards resolving disputes.

A beautiful sight along the Springleaf Park Connector, this now spruced up upper section of the Sungei Seletar permitted the area to be accessed and provided for its development for gambier and pepper cultivation.

In 1847, the discovery of six boats armed with cannons along with a huge cache of arms in a plantation by Sungei Seletar by a police party, led to them to the arrest of Neo Yang Kwan (Neo Liang Quan). Neo, who was described to have been of “doubtful character”, had come over from the Riau islands and was affiliated with Ngee Heng Kongsi, a Teochew secret society. It was also discovered that he had been behind a well planned and brutal attack on plantations on Galang Island south Batam from Singapore just prior to the discovery, which resulted in the destruction of twenty-eight plantations and the violent deaths of over a hundred.

Still waters do run deep.
It was in a plantation by the river that a cache of arms and cannon-armed boats belonging to a Secret Society affiliated Teochew planter were discovered by the police in 1847. The weapons and boats were apparently used in a brutal reprisal attack on an island off Batam.

Neo’s exit from the plantation scene, possibly after he was taken into custody, nor the issue of land titles that J T Thomson’s 1846 survey of Singapore’s interior provided for, did little to end the disputes that were often over control of land. The first land title that was taken up was in fact related to the area in which Neo had his plantation. Allocated to another Teochew man by the name of Chan Ah Lak in 1850, the settlement came to be known as Chan Chu Kang (曾厝港) [chu kangs (厝港) were river clan settlements that were established up several rivers in Singapore].

Locations of Kangkars (riverside landing areas) and Bangsals (plantation plots) related to chu kangs in Singapore in 1885 (source: Chinese Agricultural Pioneering in Singapore and Johore)

Chan, who seemed well connected and of apparently good standing, was another who was affiliated with Ngee Heng Kongsi. Among the contributions he made was a sum of money that went towards the construction of the temple of literature, Chong Wen Ge, at Telok Ayer Street. As with his predecessor, Neo, Chan cultivated gambier and pepper, on his land allocation, which amounted to some 44 acres (17.8 ha).

A gambier plantation, c. 1900.

Despite the legitimacy of land occupation that the land title offered, secret society activities continued and continued to be a source of trouble. The anti-Catholic disturbances in 1851, during which Catholic owned plantation were targeted, was an example of this. Although not directly affecting Chan Chu Kang, an outcome of this would be the erection of a police thannah (a station or outpost) in Chan Chu Kang that same year. The presence of the thannah however, did little to prevent Chan Chu Kang from being drawn into an even more serious disturbance in 1854 that would leave some four to five hundred dead across Singapore and over three hundred houses destroyed. Remote areas, including Chan Chu Kang, were especially badly affected, and reports had a number of ”wholesale murders” along with the burning of homes taking place at Chan Chu Kang.

An 1865 Map of Singapore showing locations of settlements such as Chan Chu Kang.

While the apparent trigger for the riots may have been a dispute over the price of rice between a Teochew buyer and a Hokkien shopkeeper, tensions between the two dominant Chinese communities had been brewing for some time. Reasons for the rift were wide ranging and included control of gambier and pepper plantations, into which the Hokkiens were making inroads. An influx of an unusually large number of Chinese fleeing China in the wake of the Small Sword Society’s uprising in 1853 together with the disputes that arose over contributions between the two communities to the effort to oust the Qing emperor could also be added to this mix.

A poster depicting the Small Sword Society’s uprising in Shanghai (source: https://chineseposters.net/posters/e37-374)

The troubles in Chan Chu Kang, did not end with the quelling of the riots. On the basis of newspaper articles throughout much of the 1800s and early 1900s, murders, riots, instances of arson, fights between members of rival secret societies or communities and break-ins kept the police thannah very especially busy. Chan Chu Kang’s transformation into Nee Soon Village, which followed Lim Nee Soon’s establishing a rubber processing plant in the village around 1912 and his subsequent purchase of the estate, did little to stop news of murder and crime being reported with regularity.

Besides rubber, Lim Nee Soon’s ventures in the area also included pineapple cultivation and canning. This, together with its location at a three-way junction, made Nee Soon village a significant rural centre for the agricultural north of Singapore. Its position would be further augmented with the development of Singapore as a military garrison from the late 1920s. Not only was huge naval base built at the end of Chan Chu Kang / Seletar Road, which passed through Nee Soon, the village would also benefit from the construction of Nee Soon Barracks late in the 1930s. At the same time, a fully equipped post office was also added to the village late in 1939.

Not long after the construction of the barracks was completed, it became the scene of a murder. In March 1941, an Indian soldier with the Royal Artillery quartered in the camp’s H-Block was brutally killed with a machete. A suspect, a fellow soldier, was charged for the murder but was acquitted. War and occupation was on the horizon, during which time Nee Soon Camp become a POW camp for British Indian Army soldiers.

Nee Soon
A view down Transit Road towards Nee Soon Village in the 1960s (David Ayres on Flickr).

The end of the war in 1945, saw Nee Soon Barracks turned into a holding camp for Dutch and Javanese refugees, and as No.1 British Transit Camp transit camp for demobolised military personnel being sent home. Its role as a transit camp would continue, serving for personnel and their families arriving from Britain (hence the name Transit Road). Just before the British pullout in 1971, it became a camp for the Royal New Zealand Army. Australian units, were housed in it as part of the ANZUK force deployed in Singapore post-British-pull-out, after which it became the Singapore Armed Forces’ School of Basic Military Training (SBMT) from 1975. All through this post-war period, murders, gangland activities, and violent crime, continued to make the news — even as the village was being vacated in the early 1980s.

Today, little is left to remind us of a place whose very colourful and eventful modern chapter in its history goes back to the early 1800s. The much altered camp is still around, as its the former post office. The building that house the post office, could be thought of as quite literally having gone to the dogs, having been repurposed as a veterinary clinic. At least it is still there. Also in the area is Springleaf Nature Park. The beautifully spruced-up waterway that is a feature of the park and of the Springleaf Park Connector, could be thought of as a reminder of the waterway that first brought settlement to the area. The use of the former village’s name for the new town does also provide a connection to the past, although this comes through a difficult to relate to and rather different sounding “Yishun”. The physical displacement of the place name by several kilometres, and the subsequent use of the name “Springleaf” to describe the area of the former village, does however, minimise that link that the area has with its colourful and somewhat eventful past.

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The sun rises in Singapore’s north

9 08 2016

A collection of 51 photographs taken at sunrise that show that the north may have some of the best spots in Singapore to greet the new day.


Sunrise, Selat Tebrau (Straits of Johor), 6.54 am, 16 April 2016.

Sunrise over Beaulieu Jetty, 6.41am, 7 May 2016.

Gambas Avenue, 7.08 am, 18 February 2012.

Through the trees at Gambas Avenue, 7.08 am, 18 February 2012.

Greeting the new day, Sembawang Park, 17 April 2016.

Kampong Wak Hassan, 6.35 am, 25 May 2014.

Silhouettes at Kampong Wak Hassan, 6.35 am, 25 May 2014.

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The angry sky over Beaulieu Jetty, 6.55 am, 16 April 2016.

Sunrise, through the incoming Sumatras, 6.30 am, 28 May 2016.

The forgotten shore, 6.47 am, 24 July 2013.

Colours of the forgotten shore, 6.47 am, 24 July 2013.

Through the storm, 7.09 am, 9 June 2013.

A sunrise through the storm, 7.09 am, 9 June 2013.

Kampong Wak Hassan, 22 May 2013.

Solitude, Kampong Wak Hassan, 22 May 2013.

The rising sun over the strait, 7.11 am, 30 March 2013.

Over the strait, 6.41am, Christmas Day 2014.

Over the strait, 6.41am, Christmas Day 2014.

Lower Seletar Reservoir, 6.34 am, 18 December 2013.

Colours of the morning, Lower Seletar Reservoir, 6.34 am, 18 December 2013.

Colours, 6.55 am 30 March 2013.

Colours of the morning, Kampong Tengah, 6.55 am 30 March 2013.

The straits, 7.00 am, 31 May 2013.

Rising of the sun, the straits, 7.00 am, 31 May 2013.

After the storm, 6.43 am, 9 October 2013.

Colours after the storm, 6.43 am, 9 October 2013.

Light through the darkness, 7.03 am, 18 August 2013.

Light through the darkness, 7.03 am, 18 August 2013.

The early harvest, 6.34 am, 2 May 2013.

The early harvest, 6.47 am, 2 May 2013.

The fence, 7.02 am, 2 February 2013.

The seawall, 7.02 am, 2 February 2013.

The view towards Pasir Gudang, 6.58 am, 21 November 2013.

The rising sun over Pasir Gudang, 6.58 am, 21 November 2013.

6.50 am, 24 June 2012.

Light rays, 6.50 am, 24 June 2012.

6.45 am, 7 June 2014.

Dark and light, 6.45 am, 7 June 2014.

Walking on water, 6.44 am, 14 June 2014.

Walking on water, 6.44 am, 14 June 2014.

The forgotten shore, 6.25 am, 15 June 2014.

First light, the forgotten shore, 6.25 am, 15 June 2014.

6.55 am, 22 June 2012.

Red clouds over the straits, 6.55 am, 22 June 2012.

Through the haze, 7.09am, 21 June 2016.

The rising sun through the haze, 7.09am, 21 June 2012.

7.19 am, 22 December 2012.

Morning glow, 7.19 am, 22 December 2012.

Sunrise over Mandai, 6.51 am, 3 October 2013

Sunrise over Mandai, 6.51 am, 3 October 2013.

6.54 am, 5 June 2014.

Colours of the new day, 6.54 am, 5 June 2014.

The seawall, 6.45 am, 7 June 2014.

The bench, 6.45 am, 7 June 2014.

The seawall, 6.31 am, 8 June 2014.

The bench, 6.31 am, 8 June 2014.

The incoming tide, 7.14 am, 14 June 2014.

The incoming tide, 7.14 am, 14 June 2014.

Happy campers at sunrise, 6.45 am, 19 June 2014.

Happy campers at sunrise, 6.45 am, 19 June 2014.

6.22 am, 31 May 2014.

A pastel shaded morning, 6.22 am, 31 May 2014.

The cyclist, 6.38 am, 30 May 2015.

The cyclist, 6.38 am, 30 May 2015.

The fisherman, 6.36 am, 5 June 2015.

The fisherman, 6.36 am, 5 June 2015.

The finger pier, Sembawang Shipyard, 6.41am, 9 June 2015.

The finger pier, Sembawang Shipyard, 6.41am, 9 June 2015.

Pretty in pink, 6.22am, 1 June 2015.

Pretty in pink, 6.22am, 1 June 2015.

On the jetty, 6.52 am, 28 February 2015.

On the jetty, 6.52 am, 28 February 2015.

The beach, 6.22 am, 28 March 2015.

The beach, 6.22 am, 28 March 2015.

Tossing the crab trap, 7.02 am, 1 March 2015.

Tossing the trap, 7.02 am, 1 March 2015.

The last trees of the Sungei Seletar mangrove forest, 7.06 am, 26 May 2016.

The last trees of the Sungei Seletar mangrove forest, 7.06 am, 26 May 2016.

Dreamy, 6.39 am, 24 November 2016.

Dreamy morning, 6.39 am, 24 November 2014.

Three's company, 6.36 am, 13 November 2014.

Three’s company, 6.36 am, 13 November 2014.

Where once there were trees, 6.52 am, 30 October 2014.

The sun rises on a changing landscape, 6.52 am, 30 October 2014.

The new world, 6.55 am, 21 November 2014.

The new world, 6.55 am, 21 November 2014.

Bubu man, 6.49 am, 13 November 2014.

Bubu man, 6.49 am, 13 November 2014.

The rising sun, 6.50 am, 24 November 2014.

The rising sun, 6.50 am, 24 November 2014.

Play, 6.53 am, 24 November 2014.

Play, 6.53 am, 24 November 2014.

Through the storm.

Under the clouds, 22 November 2013.

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Over the last forested hill, 9 July 2016, 6.24 am.






Light in the darkness

29 05 2014

Light in the darkness after the storm, 6.41 am, Lower Seletar Reservoir, 28 May 2014.

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Celebrating a new day in an old world made new

18 12 2013

The celebration of the new day as seen in the relatively new world at Lower Seletar Reservoir Park.

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Work on the reservoir, formed by the damming of the Sungei Seletar estuary, was completed in the late 1985. The construction of the 975 metre long dam at a cost of some S$60.8 million, cut off a river around which the Nee Soon area developed and with which is an association with the indigenous community of sea dwellers known as the Orang Seletar.

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The dam now provides a link between what is today the Yishun (the public housing estate named after Nee Soon) area of Singapore with the Seletar area and has created a reservoir with a surface area of some 352 hectares. The reservoir was originally named as the Sungei Seletar Reservoir, and was renamed in May 1992.

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