Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Kampong Life (1) – Let There Be Light

The National Heritage Board has organized a series of events to promote International Museum Day including, the Museum Hoppin' Trail. My friend at, Kenneth who went on a sneak preview, has posted some nice photos in his blog as well as in his photo album at

One particular photo caught my attention. It showed several household items that we used to have in our kampong house back in the 1950’s. I would like to blog about three of these items.

The first object is labeled (1) in the photo. Do you know what it is? It a chopsticks holder. It’s made of china. I wouldn't have remembered this without seeing this photo.

The second item is a calendar. The metal frame usually has a picture of a famous actress or singer. When the year is over, you can use it as a serving tray for drinks. I doubt that you find such calendars anymore. But you can still find the horse racing calendar like the one here which I found hanging in my colleague’s cubicle. Many old-timers of my generation still liked to use this type of calendar. They like the big fonts as well as the dates of Singapore public holidays – apart from the important racing dates of course. When I was in primary school, I often waited eagerly for the end of the month to come around. Do you know why? I liked to use the paper to wrap my exercise books; with the clear side facing outwards of course.

The third item in the photo is the pressure lamp. This type of pressure lamp was very common in the 50’s and 60’s. Many households had this type of pressure lamps and many pasar malam (night street market) stalls as well. In Hokkien, we called it ‘pong teng’. I am not too familiar with the operation of this lamp because I was too young then, but I liked to watch my father or my eldest brother light it up. Maybe one of you readers can do us the honour of explaining how this is done.

Besides the pressure lamp, we also had the smaller kerozene lamp, the type with a wick (also called paraffin lamp). I think we did not have electricity in our kampong in Lorong Kinchir until around 1960. I know this because I recall one evening, when my father came back late from work; and while he was having his dinner in the dim light of this oil lamp, I had to recite my ‘times table’ to him. I was probably in Primary one or two at that time. So the year should be1959 or 1960.

Electricity only came to our village after the PAP government came to power. My eldest brother, Chun Chew, remembers Lee Kuan Yew visiting our village and promising us ‘upgrading’ in the form of electricity. The member of parliament for our constituency at that time was a Mr Tan Kia Gan. He was later replaced by a Mr Roderigo. My father served under him for several years in the CCC – Citizens’ Consultative Committee.

Footnote: I found a website that gives a good explanation of the operation of a pressure lamp (here).


Victor said...

I don't know exactly how the kerosene lamp was lighted up but I used to see people briskly pumping a plunger located near the kerosene container at the bottom of the lamp. The lamp was already lighted up but as if by magic, the harder and quicker they pumped, the brighter the lamp became.

Talking about kerosene lamps, do you remember that there was a type of lamp that is even older? It is crudely made out of Ovaltine or Milo cans. It had a straw-like 6-inch tube sticking out from the cover of the can. Inside the can you put in a type of chemical called chou4 dian4 (臭电). I think you need to add some water to it and it will give off a type of flammable gas. Just cover the can tight, light the end of the tube with a match and voila, you have an instant lamp that lasts quite a while. The lamp was mainly used by street hawkers at that time.

Chia YH said...

I remembered that one! The gas that it creates stinks, and I remember those old men sitting at the corner of streets selling small articles like newspaper and 4D(?) or some small foodstuff.

Anonymous said...

The aweful smelling gas emitted from, if I am not mistaken, a chemical Carbide compound mixed with water. Kampong folks had another use for this chemical -pest control. When they detected a rat under-ground hiding place, the compound was poured into the hollow together with water. A poisonous gas would emit and quickly kill off the pests.

Anonymous said...

I can visually remember how to use the kerosine pressure lamp. First fill up the base container of the lamp with kerosene. Lift up the glass covering of the lamp and pour spirit onto a small cup inside the lamp. Light the spirit. The upward flame caused by the burning spirit would heat up the mettle (fragile) located at the top of the lamp. When the mettle turns reddish, we should pump the the kerosene through a device at the base of the lamp. The mettle would then glow, giving off a brightlight.

Lam Chun See said...

Zen, I think the mettle you refered to should be spelt 'mantle'.

fr said...

The 'horse-racing' calendars were useful. Besides wrapping books we could mark out on them important dates and things that we wanted to do.

I think one thing that could be in this picture is a mosquito net. These nets were quite widely used to hang over our beds when we slept.

Lam Chun See said...

Yes, we used to have those mosquito nets too. We called them 'man cheong' in Cantonese. I blogged about it in my early post on Our Kampong.

If you don't tuck the edges in properly into the mattress; or if you had a 'rough' partner like my elder brother, the net gets dislodged, then the next morning you find some lazy, swollen mosquitoes resting on the net. We will then whack them and OUR blood get splattered all over the net.

Anonymous said...

"Upgrading in the form of electricity". That's funny. Maybe that's why the PAP logo is a lightning.

iml said...

I still remember, my uncles used to sleep on those white denim cloth wooden foldable deck bed(if that's what you call them). Every night all deck out on the hall way and folded up the next morning. Standard Chartered Bank, probably
30 years ago, I have seen the Big tall and friendly northern indian guard would place their wooden bed in front of the main bank entrance. That's how they sleep guarding the bank!! Those were the good old days.

Anonymous said...

Hi Mr Lam
Even my son likes that horse racing dates calendar! He likes to look at the little pictures they have to mark the public holidays.

The ones they print nowadays also have the school holidays indicated. And I've seen one which had Valentine's Day highlighted!

noelbynature said...

such an animated discussion! Chun See, can i link your post to yesterday? =)

Lam Chun See said...

Yes I remember those denim cloth wooden foldable beds mentioned by It's My Life Story. We called them 'fan poe chong'(帆布床) in Cantonese. You can see them at the Chinatown Heritage Centre.

Noelbynature - yes pls go ahead a link to

Anonymous said...

Water and electricity supplies were in the wish-list among kampong folks then. There was a period (before 1959) when every kampong, if lucky, was installed with a common public water-point within a concrete curb, where people can queue up for free supply of water. Off peak period may find ladies washing clothes there. Before the arrival of Govt supplied electricity, power was provided by private operators, using generators (like those at Pasar Malam) charging a fixed amount (?) monthly.