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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Colours of dawn 31 May 2014

31 05 2014

Colours of dawn, 6.31 am, 31 May 2014, as seen at the unmanicured beach of Kampong Wak Hassan.

JeromeLim-2735





Kampong Wak Hassan: Memories of Times Past

3 09 2013

“It is sad to see that all that remains of it is just a road sign”, sighs Yunos Osman about the village of his birth, where he lived for the first three decades of his life. The sign bears the name ‘Kampong Wak Hassan’, now a 150-metre stretch of road named after the village and except for that there is indeed little to remind us of Yunos’ kampung by the sea.

The seawall at Kampong Wak Hassan.

The seawall at Kampong Wak Hassan.

This kampung was one of several coastal villages situated along a stretch of Singapore’s northern coastline along what is today Sembawang Road and southeast of Tanjong Irau, at the mouth of Sungei Simpang. The oldest of the villages, Kampong Wak Hassan, has a history that goes back to before the 1920s, when it was moved to the area.

The village had its origins in a coconut grove established in 1914 by Wak Hassan bin Ali, who lent his name to the village. Located where Sungei Sembawang had originally spilled into the Johor Strait (just west of what today is Sembawang Shipyard), it was relocated during the construction of the huge British naval base along the northern coastline (the base was to stretch some 6.5 kilometres along the coast from Woodlands to Sembawang).

Kampong Wak Hassan, photo courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore.

Kampong Wak Hassan, photo courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore.

The village was also the area’s longest surviving one, cleared only at the end of the 1990s. For Yunos, who left it in 1994, and other former residents, the attachment they have to the area is still strong. Many return from time to time to sit by the former village’s sea wall. A narrow strip of public land between the road and the wall serves as a place where bygone days can be relived.

Most of the village’s former residents now live in new kampungs, public housing estates with modern amenities. Another former resident and descendant of the village’s founder, Yazlyn Ishak, enjoys the convenient aspects of her new home. However, despite the conveniences they now enjoy, many would have preferred to not trade the days when the sea was their playground, when they woke to the sight of fishing boats returning to waters coloured by the sunrise, when their doors did not have locks, for the urban world they now live in.

New luxury housing development in the area.

New luxury housing development in the area.

For both Yunos and Yazlyn, who moved to Yishun in 1987, it is the ‘kampung spirit’ that set village life apart from their new environment. Yazlyn’s fondest memories are of the times the village came together during preparations for festive occasions and weddings.

The sea wall, now partially collapsed, is a physical reminder of their former home that both Yunos and Yazlyn hope will remain. The area is currently in the throes of redevelopment and the sea wall is the only remaining physical part of the kampung. On part of the land where the kampung once stood, a luxury residential development has already taken shape.

The sea wall still welcomes visitors very much in the same way as the village it protected once did and also serves to remind us of what walls in villages such as Kampong Wak Hassan were – they offered privacy and protection, but were never a barrier to the development of a community; something we find lacking in the new ‘villages’.

The area today.

The area today.

The changes we see taking place around the former Kampong Wak Hassan are perhaps also a reflection of how society has changed. In former times many would have lived by the sea out of necessity because it provided a livelihood. Living by the sea has now become a measure of the material success that the new society so craves.

NB. ‘Kampong’ is the older Malay spelling of ‘kampung’, usage of which has been retained in place names.


This article was published in the September/October 2013 edition of the Friends of the Museums bi-monthly magazine, Passage (see link).






A song which soon will be forgotten

18 04 2013

For me, one of the most difficult things about being at home in Singapore is how little there is of what ties me to it that I can hold on to. The Singapore of today is one which bears little or no resemblance to the Singapore I grew up in, and one which I am very much attached to. I often find myself overcome with that sense of longing and sadness that accompanies a realisation that I can never return to that Singapore I fell in love growing up in.

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I find myself wandering through many of the altered spaces, in search of the little reminders that remain of those times forgotten, often leaving only with regret. Many of these spaces, now devoid of a way of life it once supported, are empty except for the clutter of ornaments inherited from the modern world.

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There are but a few spaces which have been spared this clutter. It is in the echoes of these spaces left without their souls, that I sometimes hear the singing of a song the lyrics of which might once have familiar.

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A familiar tune is still heard along the northern shores. Spared thus far from the interventions the modern world is too fond of, it is where the memory of naturally formed beaches, now a rare find, has been preserved. It is where perhaps a memory of a way of life we have forgotten can also be found in the casting of nets and rowing of sampan–like hulls.

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Alas, the familiar tune may soon be one we are to forget. The advance of a world in which it is hard to find sanity, has reached its doorstep. We see swanky beach front units that reek of the smell of money sprout in an area in which the smells would have been that of seawater soaked wood, of fishing nets drying in the sun, and of the catch from the sea. For how much longer will I be able to hear the familiar tune in my ears, I do not now know, but it is a tune I am determined to try to hear for as long as I am able to.

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About the beach and the former coastal villages :

The beach in the photographs is one of the last natural stretches of sandy beaches left in Singapore. It stretches from the seafront of Sembawang Park eastwards past the seawall at the former Kampong Wak Hassan and past the seafront area of the former Kampong Petempatan Melayu or Kampong Tengah, where it is broken by the mouth of a diverted and canalised former tributary of Sungei Simpang, Sungei Simpang Kiri. It would have run further east towards Tanjong Irau at the mouth of Sungei Simpang – that area, currently used as a military training ground and is inaccessible, is a reserve site for public housing and will be the future Simpang New Town – the coastline of which will be altered by land reclamation based on the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) Master Plan 2008.

Kampong Petempatan Melayu or Kampong Tengah was a Malay Settlement which was established in the 1960s on some 16.5 ha. of land acquired by the Government from the Bukit Sembawang Group. It was a group of three coastal villages just east of the Naval Base which also included Kampong Tanjong Irau to its east and Kampong Wak Hassan to its west. A mosque, touted as the “last kampong mosque in Singapore”, the Masjid Petempatan Melayu, was built in Kampong Tengah which still stands today, despite the disappearance of the village.

Coming a full circle, the land fronting the beach is currently being developed by the Bukit Sembawang Group as a luxury development, Watercove Ville which will see some 80 strata houses built, and in all probability, the beach and beachfront will soon have to be made over.









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