After reading June Yong’s interesting post
about the Grassroots Heritage Centre, I decided to pay a visit the other day at lunch time. As June mentioned, there were lots of useful information about the history of community centres in Singapore for the past 40 years. But I confess I did not pay much attention. Instead, I was excited to see many familiar objects which brought back memories.
The first object that caught my attention was the rattan basket or what we called ‘punki’ in Hokkien. (sorry I do not know the correct name in English). I have not seen this type of rattan punki for a long time. Nowadays, they are all made of plastic and black in colour.
To me the humble punki is a symbol of toil as well as fun. Toil because it reminds me of the tough defence exercises in the army where we had to dig trenches and moved earth with it. Fun because we used to catch fighting fishes from the nearby ponds with it during our kampong days.
As most of the NS boys in Singapore are familiar with the former activity, I will limit this post to sharing about how we used the punki for one of the most enjoyable activities of my childhood.
To catch a fighting fish, you must first locate a suitable site. We usually look for patches of grass or vegetation on the edge of the pond; like the one you see in the picture below (taken at MacRitchie Reservoir), but our grass was taller and the water dirtier. It’s strange how this instinct stays with you all your life. Every time I come across a lake or pond like this, my mind immediately asks; “Are there any fighting fishes here?”
Next you wade quietly to the knee-deep, murky water in front of the patch and plunged in the punki. Immediately, use one hand to beat around the bush, literally, to chase the fishes into your punki, whilst steadying it with the other hand. After that, you raise the punki in eager anticipation. What a thrill it was to see a brightly-coloured, struggling male fighting fish in your punki. However, we occasionally get a rude shock when we see a huge hairy spider scurrying around instead.
The kind of fighting fish we caught were quite different from the ones you see in the aquariums. Those they sell in the aquariums are Siamese fighting fish with bigger, more elegant fins and tails. Ours had smaller fins and tail. They are called betta imbellis, so I learned.
We would put our precious catch in tin cans and bring them home and transfer them to glass Horlicks bottles together with some water plants, usually the hydrilla, and keep them in a dark area, such as (don’t laugh) under our beds, to let them regain their bright colours.
What do we feed them? We usually catch tubifex worms from the nearby Kallang River. How? Please read my earlier story, ( Our Kampong). Alternatively, we use a spoon to scoop mosquito larvae, which were in ample supply, from nearby drains.
Then comes the cruel part where we would let our fishes fight by putting them into a bigger bottle. I am glad that kids nowadays are not so cruel.
This is a photo of me and my younger brother taken in the early 60's. Do you see the pond on our left? On our right is another pond where we catch the fighting fishes. I figure this spot is now right smack on the CTE.
Besides the punki, I also saw some other familiar objects like wooden badminton rackets and a mock-up of the community centre. I will blog about these another time.
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