The last memories of Chia Chwee Kang

24 02 2022

The stretch of Upper Thomson Road between Yio Chu Kang and Mandai Roads is one that has was filled with sights that held a fascination for me as a child. The two large carved wooden elephants that stood out at the front of the Thai Handicraft store close what is today the entrance of Thomson Nature Park, is one such sight that remains etched in my memory. Another that I remember was the standalone building, resembling one of those that served as rest stops on the main trunk road up country in which an Ampang Yong Tau Foo eating place operated, not far from Upper Thomson Road’s junction with Mandai Road.

The area near Springleaf MRT Station (on the northbound side of Upper Thomson Road), early 1990s – courtesy of Rolf Strohmann.

Much has changed since those days with the rural communities provided the area with much of its past flavour, having long been displaced. There is however as much that is familiar in the area as there is unfamiliar. The former Upper Thomson Secondary School complex, a remnant from the 1960s, is one that is familiar, as is the Ampang Yong Tau Foo outlet, which has since moved into the row of shophouses at Thong Soon Avenue.

The former Upper Thomson Secondary School (UTSS).

Known today as Springleaf, having borrowed its name from a private housing estate of that name, the area is now associated with nature park, and more recently, an MRT station. On the side of Upper Thomson Secondary School, the MRT station opens up to an empty plot of land that awaits future development, a plot that until the 1990s, held on to the memory of the name Chia Chwee Kang (汫水港), by a cluster of temples that were found on it.

A memory of a time and place forgotten – courtesy of Rolf Strohmann.

The name Chia Chwee Kang, which translates into “fresh water stream” from either Teochew or Hokkien, was a name that the area was known by from the early 1900s. The name was a reference to a stream at the source of Sungei Seletar – the river that brought settlers into the area as far back as the early 19th century when a riverside settlement named Chan Chu Kang was established.

The source of the Seletar River – now contained within a dam.

The cluster of temples were the Chia Chwee Kang Hong San See (汫水港凤山寺), Chia Chwee Kang Tou Mu Kong (汫水港斗母宫) or Kew Ong Yah, and the Nee Soon Village Tian Gong Tan 义顺村天公坛, for which an interesting set of photographs were sent over by a Rolf Strohmann recently. Taken in the early 1990s, the photographs include quite a few taken during the Nine Emperor Gods Festival being celebrated by the Chia Chwee Kang Tou Mu Kong temple. This was just before the cluster of temples and the Chia Chwee Kang Tua Pek Kong temple that was located across the road, moved out (eventually moving into the Chong Pang Combined Temple together with three other temples in 1996). The festival incidentally, is still celebrated in a big way by the temple from the end of the eight month to the first nine days of the ninth month of the Chinese calendar, which now involves elaborate ceremonies at Sembawang beach.

The Chong Pang Combined Temple at Yishun Ring Road.

Besides the buildings of the former Upper Thomson Secondary School and the Ampang Yong Tau Foo place, the Shell service station and a row of terraced shophouses (in which the Ampang Yong Tau Foo outlet now operates), and perhaps the Nee Soon (telephone) Exchange building are all that is left to serve as markers of my childhood memories. At the southern end of the shophouse row is a Han’s café that may also serve as a marker for others. Now a household name, the café began its business in the same shophouse row as bakery back in 1978. Of Chia Chwee Kang, while its name is remembered in the Chong Pang Combined Temple some distance away, as a place, it seems now all but forgotten.

Chia Chwee Kang erased – the area where the cluster of temples were located.

Photos (Courtesy of Rolf Strohmann):






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.





A memory that is going to the dogs

24 12 2012

Long abandoned by its erstwhile companions, the building that served as the former Nee Soon Post Office had stood for many years alone and almost forgotten. The bustling villages that once occupied an area that was dominated by a huge rubber factory for which it was built to serve are long gone, leaving the post office and a few other buildings behind to serve as an only reminder of what had once been. At the building, the only evidence of its former use is found in the post office boxes (P.O. Boxes) at an extension to its right and a post box painted in the bright and unmistakeable colours of the Telecommunication Authority which once ran the post offices.

Evidence of when the Nee Soon Post Office closed - a orange and white postbox with the old Singapore Telecom logo.

Evidence of when the Nee Soon Post
Office closed – a orange and white postbox with the old Singapore
Telecom logo.

PO Boxes at the disused Post Office.

PO Boxes at the disused Post Office.

It wasn’t too long ago when hoardings were erected around the building, after which the building’s roof came off. With the recent demolition of the former Jalan Kayu Post Office building, there was some concern that the building was about to suffer a similar fate. A sign posted on the hoardings did however serve to provide reassurance that the building wasn’t being demolished, but rather, it was about to go to the dogs – literally! A veterinary clinic had taken over the premises for its use.

The building that housed the former Nee Soon Post Office is being given a new lease of life.

The building that housed the former
Nee Soon Post Office is being given a new lease of life.

The renovation and refurbishment of the former post office is now almost complete. The freshly painted building now stands with a new extension added to its left. The two reminders of the building’s previous use, the post box and the P.O. Boxes can still be seen – the P.O. Boxes have been relocated to the new extension as the extension to the right at which they were located has been torn down. While the P.O. Boxes do bear the finish that they were left with, the post box will look very new with a fresh coat of paint – something I wish that wasn’t done as the worn and faded look it was left in did give the appearance of a forgotten memory that had been frozen in time.

The disused Post Office building now stands as a reminder of the old Nee Soon Village.

The disused Post Office building before the recent renovation.

While it would have been nice to see what certainly is a building which stands as one of the only reminders of a world that once was, it is good to see that some use has been found that will allow the building to be maintained – is always difficult in a Singapore that is quick to abandon its past and where conservation has more often than not to pay for itself, to find use in a way that is ideal. That in it going to the dogs does help to keep the building standing, may perhaps be not such a bad thing after all.

Nee Soon Post Office when it was in use.

The post office when it was in operation.

Painting over

Painting over a memory that was frozen in time.





That old rusty red coloured building along Sembawang Road

3 04 2010

There was a rusty red coloured building that once greeted the traveller along Sembawang Road. This would have been just after where the road started at the junction with Mandai Road. The building seemed to leap out at you on the right side of the road travelling north, just after you passed the old Post Office up Mandai Road on the left, breaking the monotony of what seemed an endless journey to the village of Chong Pang and towards Sembawang end, as was often the case on the many car rides to the Mata Jetty and the coastal villages near end of Sembawang Road, sitting in the back seat of the car. There were the other occasions when the journey was made by bus, which made it even longer, as was it would have been sitting even with the bus load of boisterous boys who were my classmates, on the road to (as it appeared to us) the inclined field at Sembawang School close to Chye Kay Village, to cheer the school football team playing for the North Zone schools championship, and perhaps later, on the bus journeys on service number 169 to Sembawang Shipyard.

The rusty red coloured building rising over the area, as seen in the mid 1980s, before it was demolished (Source: National Archives of Singapore).

The rusty red building was one that rose imposingly over the area, seemingly keeping the village around it hidden in its shadows, which dominated the area with its physical presence, and gave an immediately recognisable face to the village that had been given its name by the original owner of the building, the illustrious Lim Nee Soon. Nee Soon had in 1912, built the Thong Aik Rubber Factory that the building was a part of along what was then Seletar Road, to process the latex that was drawn from the rubber trees found in the plantations to the north of the area. Together with the many plantations that had come up around the area, which grew crops such as pepper, gambier and pineapple, along with the rubber trees, the factory provided opportunities drawing many immigrants to the area which had been referred to, in Teochew (many of the immigrants were Teochew speaking), as Kangkar, “Kangkar” being a geographical term used to describe an area by a river, the area being by the Seletar River. The factory was subsequently renamed as the Nee Soon and Sons Rubber Works in the 1920s, and in 1928, was taken over by “Rubber King” Lee Kong Chian and renamed Lee Rubber. In 1959, the factory was leased to Kota Trading Co. Sdn. Bhd. a subsidiary of Lee Rubber.

An old postcard of Lim Nee Soon's rubber factory and the surrounding area.

The rubber factory was leased by Kota Trading Co. Sdn. Bhd. a subsidiary of Lee Rubber in 1959.

I am not really sure when the factory disappeared – I remember seeing that it was still there on my way to the shipyard around 1983 and 1984 when Yishun New Town was being populated with people being resettled from the villages around. I guess it must have disappeared sometime after, perhaps in the later part of the 1980s. There is an empty feeling I get passing through the area today … along with the factory, the villages and the businesses around have mostly vanished, leaving the area almost like a ghost town.

Another view of the rusty red building (Source: National Archives of Singapore).

The buildings belonging to the rubber factory before being demolished (Source: National Archives of Singapore).

Another building belonging to the rubber factory before being demolished (Source: National Archives of Singapore).