Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Playground of the Orang Laut

Facing the Mangroves

Mangrove forests and urban development can hardly co-exist. In the 1820s, mangrove forest made up of about 13% of the total land area. In the 1990s, it was down to about 0.5%. (1)

Mangrove forests can now be found in small patches around the north and northeast of Singapore, and on islands such as Pulau Ubin, Pulau Tekong and Pulau Semakau. (1)

The biggest mangrove forest is the 130-hactre Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve. (2)

There are great positives in maintaining these Mangrove forest. For Sungei Buloh, it is listed as a forest that sees a good level of biodiversity - birds, fishes, etc. The mangrove also help to stabilize the land closest to the sea. (3)
Source: National Archives of Singapore

The Orang Laut (People of the Sea) in Singapore such as the Orang Seletar and Orang Galang would have been closely acquainted to the mangrove forest as they made the river mouths their home. This was where they would get their fishes, fruits and timber. (4)

I had hoped that I could get a taste of what being an Orang Laut is like when I headed north to the town of Kukup, Malaysia

The flight distance from Tuas to Pulau Kukup is 26 kilometres (KM), and a driving distance of 69KM. So it's pretty close to Singapore. To get to Pulau Kukup, you must first set off from Kukup town. It is about 10 minutes boat ride before reaching the island's jetty. An entrance fee was required (RM10) and after which, you can enjoy the serenity of the mangrove forest.
Pulau Kukup Jetty
The development of the island serves as a boon for visitors. Modernity brings to us boardwalk, bridges and watch towers where one can observe nature up close without needing to get one's feet dirtied.  

We were greeted by monkeys. These 'residents' of Pulau Kukup were curious of our presence. As the day we visited the island was a weekday, only my colleagues and I were there. 

We arrived at our first climb - a suspension bridge. The "one-lane" bridge hung over Sungai Ular or snake river, one of the five rivers that meanders inwards through the island.

The bridge is wide enough for only one person to pass
In truth, the entire island was pretty huge and we had seen only a stretch of Sungai Ular. That afternoon, the water was coffee brown and everything looked still.

View of Sungai Ular

Moving further inland, the ground turned muddy. Inversely, such muddy grounds are appreciated by mud skippers and snails.  This is the world as it was when the Orang Lauts ruled the rivers. What I love about this weekday trip is the tranquility of the island and all i heard were noises from animals and the rustling of leaves!

The snails were seen in many locations at Pulau Kukup


4. Florida Museum of Natural History. (Retrieved on June 29, 2014).

Monday, June 23, 2014

[Historical Site] WWII: Ford Motor Factory

A Japanese bayonet and cap as seen on display at the Ford Factory Museum
A bayonet and a cap sat quietly in a showcase. These items are more than 70 years old but they still strike fear in the hearts of those who have lived through those times. A bayonet, when affixed onto a rifle, was a harbinger of pain. Extinguishing lives before their due. While the cap shades the Japanese soldier from the sun, it also adds on to the fearsome demeanour of the Japanese soldier.

Both these items and more are currently being kept in the Old Memories at Ford Factory Museum along Upper Bukit Timah.  

Frontage of the old Ford Factory
History of the Ford Factory in Singapore

The factory's assembly plant was already running in July 1941 and the cost of the entire set-up came up to $1,000,000. (1) The British government was using this plant to build military vehicles and trucks for use in the war against the axis powers. The Singapore-based plant had also provided a source of income for more than 400 workers.

Photo of Ford Motor Company taken in 1942. Source: National Archives of Singapore

The Surrender Papers
This factory was also an important landmark as it was where the fate of Singapore was decided on 15 February 1942. After just eight days of fighting on local soil, Lieutenant-General Arthur Ernest Percival had no choice but to surrender as the island was running out of food, water and ammunition.

More lives would have been lost if Percival had chosen to fight on. He was then asked by the Japanese Imperial Army to surrender unconditionally at the Ford Factory, which the Japanese has made it their Imperial Army Headquarters. Victory was on the faces of Lieutenant-General Tomoyuki Yamashita and his staff, while Percival and his men looked forlorn. Both parties walked into the room location at the far left of the factory.

Lt. Gen Yamashita demanded the surrender of the British-led forces. Source: National Archives of Singapore 

Significance of the Table, Chairs and Clock

The dark wooden oak table was of great monumental significance as it saw the pounding of Yamashita's fist on it to demand that the British surrender immediately. It also held up the surrender papers that Lt. Gen Percival signed. The chairs that were used by both the British and Japanese to sign the surrender papers must have felt the strain with the unfurling of such an important event.

Miraculously, all these items survived the war and are now on display in the Old Memories at Ford Factory Museum. Symbolically, the timing on the wall clock shows that it is 6:20 - the exact time that Percival signed over British control of Singapore to the Japanese.

Original table and chairs used in the signing of the surrender documents

Grand Story Teller

To see if we can learn more about this historical place, my colleagues and I made a trip down to the Old Ford Factory. We met a museum staff, Mr Leung Keng Hong. Though he claimed that he was not an official guide, he was extremely kind to have brought us through the exhibits. He gave a very balanced view about why Percival needed to surrender and that war should be avoided at all cost.

Mr Leung in front of the Peace Sculpture

Nugget of Information

Through our entire tour, Mr Leung shared many interesting points which helped to give life to those artifacts that have been silenced for so many years. The tree trunk that was placed in the museum to which he said that the people were so hungry that they stripped the tree of their barks for food. Also, POWs crushed the lalang to extract starch and sugar for their survival.

One interesting point that Mr Leung had raised was that there was a railway track that ran behind the Ford factory. I further quizzed Mr Leung but he could not shed much light to this railway track.

If there was really a railway track at the back of the factory, where could it have been located?


1. The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884-1942). 12 July 1941.
Military Trucks Run Off Assembly Line In Malaya. Page 7

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Yin Fo Fui Kun (应和会馆) Cemetery and Ancestral Hall

The new and the old buildings co-exist for now

Cemeteries and ancestral halls are becoming places of the past in land scarce Singapore. It is claimed that the mosaic-clad tombstones that have been sited at Holland Close since 1969, will be cleared so as to release space "for buildings such as a cultural and social hall" (Zaccheus, June, 8 2014).

My interest of this place lies with the fact that there sits a historical building that was built in 1887. If the tombstones were to be taken away, I want to know if this old building will still be maintained.

So I had to pay a visit to the ancestral hall to hear from the people who manage the land.

Symmetrically-lined tombstones that were erected in 1969

I remember the first time that I caught sight of this cemetery was some 20 years ago when I visited a friend. He was staying at Holland Village and his flat was overlooking the cemetery. He offered me a simple narrative about the cemetery - that it was pretty old and that residents there were not afraid of any spiritual happenings nor has he seen anything unnatural. Funny how we always ask whether those residents have came across spirits whenever we are next to a cemetery. Many a times, they will proffer their stories as if they knew that we were going to ask them about it anyway.

This was also the case when we spoke to the caretaker of the ancestral hall, Mr Tan (陈先生). But let us first focus on the issue on hand. What is this place and whether will the tombstones be removed.

The start of our journey

My colleagues and I walked through the cemetery and were looking at the different tombstones. The sun was shining bright and we were there at about 10:30am. Still, the heat could not dissolve our quest for the truth. We stopped at the different tombstones to read the nicely written inscriptions. Some of which have been carved in stone. There were the 李,黄,陈 and many other different surnames listed. Some of these tombstones had little stones placed on top of them. This was to signify that someone had paid the grave a visit and that they are being tended to.

We also realised that nearly all of the tombstones listed their burial year as 1969. We were curious to find out why.

In a short distance stood a gardener. He was an unassuming and friendly chap who gave me a big smile and was waving at me to come towards him.

The story behind the tombstones

Row after row of mosaic-clad headstones greet visitors of this cemetery

The gardener was tan and his face was weather-beaten. The features just adds on to the authenticity of what he was about to share with us. He spoke totally in Hokkien and some parts of which, I could not really understand as he was putting in certain names of places, or older activities practiced in times gone by.

He shared about how he has tended the cemetery ever since 1983 and that he was the second generation of gardener. He took over the role of tending the cemetery after his father passed on. He shared about how the Hakka community had purchased a big piece of land from the government. Written records showed that they had purchased 40ha of land in 1887. He said that the land stretched all the way to a site where a current school sits. I'm not too sure which school, but I gather it must be either the current CHIJ St. Theresa Convent or Queensway Secondary School. Most of the land have been acquired by the government by the 1960s for re-development. He said that there were also graves where Blk 7, Holland now sits. They have now all been moved to this cemetery.

The caretaker of 双龙山

I walked over to the ancient ancestral hall. We did not know what to expect and whether we needed to remove our shoes as a sign of respect. So we stood at the entrance and had a full view of the wooden tablets before us.

Tablets at the Ancestral Hall

A gentleman in a well-worn shirt and dark pants, and shoes that were held together by green rafia strings, glided past us. He then cast a look at us and with a waving movement of his hands, invited us into the ancestral hall. Somehow mesmerized, I followed him towards the right side of the hall. He stopped. I stopped. Only to realised that I was suddenly surrounded by hundreds of yellow porcelain urns that came in different shapes and sizes.

I had also noticed that two workers were busily removing pieces of wood. To break the ice, I asked this gentleman what was happening here. He said that they were doing some restoration work as the termites had eaten through the wood that was holding up the ceiling. They have to move the urns so that work could be done.

Only then did he introduced himself as 陈先生 (Mr Tan) and that he has been the caretaker for over 30 years. This was when he started to share with us his many stories - some historical, other spiritual to a point of ghostly.

Within the Ancestral Hall

He said that in the ancestral hall, he has collected urns and tablets that are not only from the Chinese Hakka community, but also Indians and foreigners such as Hong Kong residents. 陈先生 also made mention of a couple whose bodies laid behind the tablets and that their bodies had remained in a well preserved state.

Entrance to the historical Ancestral Hall
We then moved towards the entrance to which he turned to look at the altar. He pointed to the signboard and also the red pillars and said that all these wood actually came from Malacca. He gave me the names of the types of wood used, but I can hardly make out the different types of wood if I was given their English names, more so when he rattled off the names in Mandarin.
He had also shared that the ancestral hall was used as a school.

We have spoken quite a bit by now and I thought that here was my chance to go for the jugular. I meekly asked Mr Tan whether the news report about the removal of the tombstones was true - That the Association was going to build a pagoda to house these urns. You could just hear the irritation in his voice. "No way, No way! I do not know why it was reported as such". He then added, "我们是不会封山的” meaning we will never seal off the place. 

The place that's called Double Dragon Hill (双龙山)

I did not want to agitate the poor man further. So I asked him why was this place called "双龙山”. The frown lines slowly disappeared and started to share about the past, saying that there were two hills. One was in front of the ancestral hall, and the other was slightly to the back. 

I asked if there were many Dutch families staying in this area since it's called Holland Village. He simply replied, "No, mostly Hakka people lived here".

And here's the hook...

I was not ready to ask him anything that he was not comfortable to answer and the questions that I have were already well and truly answered. We were moving towards the doorway when he turned around and said, "I see three people playing mahjong". I interjected,"Now? You mean where we are now standing?"

"There are times. Just at the doorway". I shifted myself away from the doorway.

"Come, follow me", Mr Tan beckoned. "Let me show you the room of the former caretaker".

The caretaker's room that looks towards the entrance door on left wing of the hall

Not sure of what was to expect, I followed him and to ensure that I kept myself alive, I made sure there was a little bit of distance between us just in case I got dragged into something that I did not want to be a participant in. He continued with his story saying that the former caretaker had a very bad dream and was told that something untowards would happen to him. Shortly after, the caretaker was found dead in his room.

This was when Mr Tan opened the door to the room and thank goodness, we saw just ladders and other tools and nothing else. So it has been converted to a storeroom.

By now, Mr Tan had spent more than 30 minutes with us and as abrupt as we first met him at the ancestral hall, he ended the tour with " 我要回去做工了” (I need to get back to work).

Still, the entire experience was totally enriching. The gardener and the caretaker really took time off their work to chat with us. Today, we have learnt much about the Chinese culture and also history of Singapore. 

My colleague, Michael who was with me during this visit, aptly closed this visit by saying, "It was interesting seeing this remnant of old Singapore juxtaposed with the new, with the HDB flats in the background. The caretakers were so approachable and generous with their time and easy manner, reminding me of what Singapore was like back in our kampong days and leaving me somewhat wistful."

Good read/ References  

1. Zaccheus, M. (June 6, 2014). Hakka tombstones may have to go. Straits Times.
2. Wong, D. (November 30, 2012). An oddly-placed cemetery.
3. The Hakka Story. Retrieved on June 14, 2014.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Starting Afresh

The history of Singapore - The Ministry of Education are now looking to incorporate history lessons that goes back centuries, way before Sir Stamford Raffles. Singapore's history did not start in 1819. Our documented history goes as far back as the 14th century. There is really so much to discover about Singapore.

We have to learn from the past to equip ourselves for the future.

So I'm starting afresh with this blog. I'll dedicate my writings to my Singapore exploration. I'll focus on historical sites that I've visited; the disappearing landscapes; and other historical research that I'm doing.

I want to find out more about the Singapore I live in and I will like you to join me in this exploration. So do share your story - let's build the story of Singapore together.