Friday, September 29, 2006

Kampong Fruit Trees (Part 2)

After I moved out of our kampong, I stayed in an HDB (Housing & Development Board) apartment for about 12 years. Then in 1986, I moved to my present home, a terrace house in the Bukit Timah Sixth Avenue vicinity. One night it rained, and I realized that one of the things I missed most about living in a kampong was the sound of rain drops falling on the roof.

In my present house, we too have a guava tree in our backyard. But because we are too lazy to wrap plastic bags around the fruits (yes my kids did not inherit my tree climbing skills), they tended to be infested by insects. My neighbour also complained about the mealy bugs that made him itch. He liked to relax bare body in his backyard which faced ours.

Guava tree
Photo of our guava tree taken from my bedroom window. Just a few months ago, we trimmed it bare.

That of course is the problem with land-scarce Singapore today. Even if you are fortunate enough to own a landed property, your home is likely to have very small compound; and if you wanted to plant fruit trees, you would not have much space left for other gardening activities. That was exactly what happened in my case.

One of the things that attracted me to my present house was this mango tree in the front garden, with huge fruits dangling at face level. For a several years, we enjoyed the huge tasty mangoes, which were so abundant that we used to give the extras to our relatives and friends. But about 5 years ago we had to chop it down because it grew too big and became quite impossible to maintain. Let me explain.


You see, for mangos, you have to spray pesticide when the tree is flowering. Otherwise, the insects will lay their eggs on the flowers and the insects will grow inside the fruit. So by the time you harvest the fruit, it may look very nice outside, but when you cut up the fruit, you will be startled by the crawling insects (weevil bugs) that emerge. Thus when our tree became too big, every time we sprayed pesticide on it, the wind would carry the poison into our neighbours’ homes. After a few seasons of harvesting fruits that were nice to look at but impossible to eat, we decided to chop it down.


Our mango tree also attracted pests. I am not referring to the fruit bats, but the two legged kind. Often, we had taxi drivers who parked their vehicles outside our house and helped themselves to our fruits when my wife and I were at work. It’s very strange. Most of the fruits seemed to be found on the side facing the road. Maybe it’s the morning sun. We even had one filial man who came in his van one Sunday afternoon, equipped with poles and nets. I know he is filial because when I yelled at him from my balcony, he replied that his mother loved mangos. In the face of such unabashed filial piety, what could it do but desist. Anyway, I doubt he would believe me if I told him that, his mother was going to be treated to quite a sight when she cut open the fruits and see some crawling insects.


Banana tree
At first we planted these banana trees in our backyard. But as the kids got bigger and we ran out of space, we decided to plant them across the road from my house. The Bangladeshi workers from the nearby construction sites (all year round there are upgrading/renovation works in my neighbourhood) would certainly agree with our decision.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Kampong Fruit Trees (Part 1)

One reason why I enjoy driving in the countryside of Malaysia is that you can get to see a lot of fruit trees growing in the compounds of people’s homes. Recently, my family made a trip to Kukup, a fishing town on the South-Western tip of the state of Johor. It was rambutan season, and we saw many trees fruiting by the roadside. We also saw many roadside fruit stalls, and it reminded me of Singapore in the 50’s and 60’s.

A 1960's Photo of a roadside durian stall along Farrer Road, courtesy of Memories of Singapore

In our kampong, we used to have lots of fruit trees. Tree climbing was one of our favourite pastimes. Do you know which tree is best for climbing? The guava tree - because of it’s strong branches. We called the guava fruit ‘pak kia’ in Hokkien and ‘kai see kor’, (literally, chicken shit fruit) in Cantonese. We had 2 types of fruits; one with white and the other with pink flesh. The seeds of the guava fruit are extremely hard and indigestible. The result of eating them was that we tended to, as they put it so nicely in the army, ‘shit bricks’.

My naughty niece with a piece of toy shit

My favourite fruit from the kampong days was the soursop. Our tree was very fruitful and produced huge fruits which were much bigger and tastier that those you can buy in the market today. Soursops are quite costly these days, and many fruit vendors do not like to stock them because they ripened very quickly, and cannot be stored for long. Talking of the soursop tree always reminds me of the fat, green caterpillars that tended to breed on it. I think they are from some kind of moth.

Me (left, aged about 14 or 15) and my brother James and our dog
Nappie sitting of a coconut tree trunk. Behind us is our soursop tree.

We too had a durian tree which I have already blogged about

Of course we also had a few rambutan trees. I remember my mum brought three saplings all the way back by train from a visit to her relatives in Kuala Lumpur on one occasion. Apparently these were special and did not grow to be very large. I had a godmother in the kampong. In her house, they had a tree which produced yellow colour rambutans. Besides that they also had star fruits.

Another fascinating tree was the coconut tree which I have also blogged about
here. I recall climbing up a young coconut tree once. The young tree tended to be curved and quite easy to climb up. But climbing down was a totally different ball game; and I remember having a scary time doing that.

The coconut tree is also interesting because it had a huge root base. There was one occasion when we got people to chop down a full-grown coconut tree. To save money, we decided to dig up the tree stump ourselves. I remember what a tough job that was. All the 4 males in the family, except for my kid brother James, were involved, and I think it took us a whole day to complete the job. In the process, we saw many centipedes. Maybe that’s why the Hokkiens called the centipede ‘yar kang’. (yar as in coconut, kang – I don’t know what that means)

The husk of the coconut makes a very good fuel and can burn for a long time. My father taught me how to use it to produce burnt earth for our gardening purposes.

Apart from the above fruit trees, we also had pomeloes – small ones unlike those from Ipoh, Tambun. They had long, sharp, needle-like thorns. We also had water apples (in Cantonese we call sui yong) and of course, papayas.

…….. to be continued

Friday, September 22, 2006

Next Change: Kampong Fruit Trees

Older Singaporeans will be familiar with terms like Akan Datang and Next Change.

I have been busy with work lately so not much time to blog. But in order not to disappoint my regular readers, here's a preview of what's coming up next.

This photo of a rambutan tree was taken on 22 Jul 2006 at the MacRitchie Reservoir.

Rambutan Tree (2)

Here's a photo of the same tree about 2 weeks later on 07 Aug. when the fruits were beginning to ripen. Too bad, I have lost my tree climbing skills. Anyway, I don't want my picture to appear in the Straits Times for the wrong reasons.

Rambutan Tree (4)

But do you notice that the fruits looked a bit strange? Some of them appear to have been peeled. Maybe someone beat me to them.

Rambutan Tree (5)

Rambutan Tree (6)

And here's the culprit. I bet my friend John Harper envies this chap.

Rambutan Tree (13)

Rambutan Tree (10)

Click on the photos to go to my Flickr site for more photos of this monkey.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Tribute to a Humble Profession

It was raining heavily this morning when I happened to see someone rush by outside my house. The poor chap must have forgotten his umbrella, I thought. Then I realized that the guy was actually a rubbish collector. He was removing the trash from the big plastic bins ahead of the rubbish truck. If you have seen these guys at work, you will know that it is a pretty tough job. Most of the time they had to rush because the truck may be holding up the traffic; and we know how impatient Singaporean drivers are. Furthermore, they have to be cheerful and friendly to us the customers.

Needless to say, this gentleman was not a Singaporean. Nowadays, no Singaporean would take on such a dirty and lowly job. Whilst so much resentment has been generated in the blogosphere about the foreign talents in our midst, I am sure many Singaporeans appreciate foreign workers like this rubbish collector who perform an essential service for our society.

This reminds of yet another lowly profession from my kampong days which has since become extinct in Singapore. Many years ago, I read of a survey about the ‘respectability’ of different professions. Right there at the bottom of the list was a profession known as The Night Soil Carrier. I wonder how many young Singaporeans even know what that is, let alone have seen one of them in action. So while others blog about Singaporeans’ favourite subject –
food, I will play the ‘contrarian’ role and write about something at the other end of the food train instead.


The night soil carrier is a man who collects human waste. Back in the days when many of us stayed in kampongs, the so-called Bucket System was the most modern and hygienic method of waste disposal available. In those days, the family toilet was usually built several metres to the rear of our homes, away from the public view, as well as to keep away the smell. Thus if you needed to answer nature’s call when it rained, you would need an umbrella. Each day, we would deposit our ‘stuff’ into a metal bucket and the next morning, the night soil truck would come around to pick up the buckets. The night soil carrier would bring along an empty bucket to replace the full one. He would then attach a metal cover to the old one and carry it, 2 at a time to the truck. The truck looked a bit like the armoured vans used by our banks today. It had several rows of ‘deposit boxes’ for the buckets. These were brought back to the sewerage centre where they were emptied of their contents and the buckets cleaned. And all this was done manually!


The above 3 photos are Property of National Archives of Singapore

According to the PUB
website, the bucket system was phased out in 1987. But actually, the bucket system was not the most primitive system. Even in my days, it was not uncommon to see what PUB calls ‘overhanging toilets’ built over fish ponds. (Photo on right taken by my friend Peh S K in Pulau Ubin). In fact if you go to Malaysia, you can still see these in some rural areas. I am sure many Singaporeans who have visited the fishing village of Kukup in Southern Johor and stayed at the holiday chalets there have experienced what it was like to ‘do your business’ directly into the sea.

And that reminds me of yet another interesting system which only our NS (national service) boys would have experienced – the Taiwanese army camp system. For those army boys like my friend Victor who missed out on this unique experience, I shall describe it below. Unfortunately I do not have any photos to illustrate.

Basically the toilets were made up of 2 rows of cubicles built over 2 long narrow drains over which you have to squat. The partitions were only about chest high, and so sometimes, when you and you neighbour happened to finish your missions at the same time, you would get bit of a shock to see another person face to face when you stood up. There were no individual flushes. Occasionally, somebody would turn on the tap and the water would flow from one end of the drain to the other. If you happen to be occupying the last cubicle, you would be treated to quite an unforgettable sight. I hope this is sufficient to motivate some of our reluctant young men to look forward to their NS.

It’s been about one year since I started this blog. Occasionally I find young people commenting that they wished they could be living in my kampong days. Frankly, I doubt they would want to do that if they fully appreciated the conditions that I have deliberately described in a nostalgic and light-hearted way.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

More "Strange Fruits" - Chuck Hio

Last week, I brought some clients to the Ponderosa Golf and Country Club in JB and saw something very interesting. It reminded me of Chun See's earlier blog aboutthe Strange Fruits we saw at Braddell Road.

I wonder if there is any relationship between the two cases?

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Remembering September 11th

September 11, 2001 is undoubtedly the most famous date this century. Whilst the world remembers September-11 as a day synonymous with hatred and violence, my siblings and I associate it with love and family devotion. You see, September 11, 2001 was the day my father passed away. In fact, I can still remember that evening when we were at the funeral parlour in Sin Ming area and speaking to my brother in Perth about his travel arrangements to return to Singapore, when he informed us about the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York.

My father was born in Singapore in 1918. We don’t know much about his younger days, except that it was quite tough during the pre-war days. One thing I know is that my grandmother placed great importance on English education and so my father was sent to the Anglo Chinese School for his education. Thanks to her, my son as well as my nephew are now in ACS.

Altogether, my parents had 7 children; 5 sons and 2 daughters, but unfortunately, 2 of them passed away quite young, before I was born in fact. The oldest, a boy, died as an infant during the Japanese Occupation; what of, we do not know as my parents did not talk about it; but I recall some mention of Malaria. The fourth, a girl died of sickness shortly before I was born. My father was very fond of girls. I learned only recently that this was the reason why I was named Chun See. The character See (思) in Chinese meant to think or reflect. I guess he still missed her badly at the time I was born. Both my parents didn’t like to talk about these 2 departed children; but on one occasion, my father remarked that my youngest daughter, who was a toddler at that time, looked like my departed sister.

1950 Photo of my dad with his darling pet daughter, my elder sister Pat

My father got to know my mother through his good friends, the Ng brothers including my seventh uncle, the badminton champion. The Ngs were a huge family of 11 children, mostly boys and only 2 girls I believe; my mum being one of them. She was number 5.

During the war time, my parents must have stayed in Segamat for a while because their second son, my present eldest brother Chun Chew, was born in Segamat in 1945. (This part I am a bit confused because I also recall my father telling me about an incident with the Japanese soldiers in the Padang area. He was with one of my uncles. Apparently, they did not bow properly to the Japanese soldiers and got slapped and punished to run backwards until they fell.)

(Latest: My sister just told me a near disastrous brush my mother had with the Japanese soldiers in Segamat, which should be of interest to my young female readers. Apparently, she only narrated this to my sister and not to the rest of us. On one occasion, they received news that the Japanese soldiers were on their way looking for women. So my mother, and some of the other girls, including one of my aunts, went hiding in the woods. Whilst they were hiding in the bushes, they saw the Japanese soldiers go by. She remembered they wore yellow colour socks.)

After the war, they returned to Singapore and moved to Nelson Road near the Singapore harbour. Subsequently, they moved to Geylang Lorong 14, before finally settling down in Lorong Kinchir, also known as Chui Arm Lor in Hokkien where I was born. It was a mainly HoKKien kampong and my family was one of the few Cantonese families there.

My father was quite well-known in our kampong. The villagers called him Sam-Kor (三哥) because he was the third in his family. My uncles, the Ngs, called him Kou-Kow (or tall dog) – but actually he wasn’t extremely tall. He was also one of the few English-educated men in our kampong. As such, our neighbours often came to him for help in official correspondence with the authorities. We frequently saw him banging away at his Underwood type-writer. I taught myself to type in secondary three using that same type writer. We remember one case where he helped this widow by the name of Ba-li who had many children to apply for a license to operate a drinks stall in a school canteen. She got her stall and subsequently became quite well-off. Every year, we got a free crate of glasses of famous soft drinks brands.

My father was also quite strong physically. He often rode a bicycle and carried water from our well. He was quite a good swimmer too. The photo below is taken in 1948 at a place known as the Tiger Swimming Pool. I heard that it was located next to the sea near to the Haw Par Villa. The kid in the photo was my present eldest brother Chun Chew.

My father was also active in community service. He held the post of vice-president of the Naval Base’s trade union. He worked for many years at the Naval Base in Sembawang as a senior clerk and was retrenched at about age 50 when the British forces withdrew from Singapore. He was also involved in the early years of the NTUC (National Trade Union Congress) labour movement. He was also a member of the Serangoon Gardens Citizens Consultative Committee for a number of years. In fact, I recently met an 80 year old gentleman at the Lentor Residence who claimed to know my father from the days when he too was on the Serangoon Gardens CCC. He said my father was one of 2 representatives from our kampong in the SGCCC. I am confident that he remembered correctly because he was able to give the name of the other gentleman from our kampong. I will interview him one of these days for the full story.

Fortunately, after my father was retrenched in 1968, my eldest brother Chun Chew and my elder sister Pat had already completed their secondary four education and started to work and contribute to the family income.Thanks to their sacrifice, my elder brother David (no. 3) and I (no. 4) were able to get a university education.

I always felt that in addition to a Father's Day and a Mother's Day, we should have a Elder Sibling's Day. I suppose September 11 is as good a choice as any other.

Duty Honour Country

Two days ago, I wrote about the ongoing discussions about National Service and foreign talents at Mr Wang Bakes Good Karma: Rethinking NS - Part 1. I said that I was surprised that after 35 years, the resentment against NS has not changed much. I also said that I did not want to participate in the discussion because I sensed that the generation gap was too big.

Meantime, the discussion at Mr Wang’s site rages on. Last time I checked, there was a whopping 90 comments posted. This being such an important topic, close to the hearts of young Singaporeans, I think it is simply wrong for older Singaporeans like me, who have gone through the entire NS experience, not to share our thoughts. I hope some of the other ‘lau pengs’ like Chris, Victor, Frannxis and Peter will say something too.

Firstly, I want to tell these young men I understand your feelings of resentment, frustration and even sense of betrayal. When I was in the university, surrounded by Malaysians, I felt exactly the same. While my friends were charging up Peng Kang Hill, feeding the mosquitoes in the jungles of Mandai, and going through all the extra drills and change parades, these guys were enjoying the privileges that have been provided through our parents’ hard work and sacrifice. Before long, they will graduate and take away our choicest jobs, and when we finally join the working world, they will become our bosses. Plus they are taking away our girls too! (which was why I decided to take back one of theirs by marrying a Malaysian girl .. .. Haha .. just kidding lah). So criticizing our government was a favourite past time in those days; and the situation was not helped by the presence of some very persuasive and eloquent student activists like Tan Wah Piow. But strangely, I felt very angry when I hear my Malaysian friends criticize our government.

But that was 35 years ago. I thought that things would have changed by now. Today’s NS enlistees are children of first generation NS men themselves. How come so many of them still do not accept NS? How come there is still all this foolish talk about engaging foreigners to defend our country? Maybe there is a weakness in our national education. But to be honest, I think the problem lies with the parents. I think we fathers have the duty to explain to our sons the meaning of NS. Maybe we should all follow the example of Yue Fei’s mother and tattoo the words Duty, Honour, Country on the backs of our sons, because this is what the whole issue is all about.

It has nothing to do with the foreign talents, or the shabby way in which our government appears to be treating us, while pandering to the foreigners. It has to do with the relationship between you and your country. Yes, you may feel angry that our government has cheapened this country by making Singapore citizenship so easily available to foreigners who do not share the same love you have for it; but it is still your country. You were born here, you grew up here, your girl friends live here and your parents will grow old and die here.

So first ask yourself this question. Is Singapore your country?

If it is, then whose duty is it to defend Singapore?

Finally, do you love your country? If you do, then it is not an obligation, or a ‘necessary evil’, but an honour to defend it. Somebody has to defend it; if not you, who? And that involves sacrifice. It has to cost you something doesn’t it?

And how can you defend it if you are not trained? Do you think that with 3 months of NS without live bullets, like what our friends in Malaysia are doing, you can acquire sufficient skill to keep yourself alive during a war, let alone drive away attackers?

Let me end by sharing a story my pastor once told us. He was a medical doctor, and he had a Jewish friend who was a brilliant and very successful doctor in the United States. Once he met this Jewish doctor at an annual conference in New York. He told my pastor that he would not be attending the following year’s conference.

Why? Because he was migrating.

Where to? ……Israel.

My NS Stories

A Jog Down Memory Lane
What Melvyn Missed
The Dangers of NS
Pay Correct Sir
My Commanders
The Dangers of Kenging
I Remember Gillman Camp

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Discussion About NS

There's an interesting discussion going on about NS and foreign talents at Mr Wang Bakes Good Karma: Rethinking NS - Part 1

Strange that after 35 years, the issues are exactly the same. When I was balloted out and had my NS disrupted and joined the University of Spore in 1971, I was surrounded by mostly Malaysians in the U. (I was in the Engineering Faculty, and thus very few Spore girls). The kind of sentiments, resentment etc. were exactly the same as those expressed by many of Mr Wang's readers.

Reminds me of the words of a song, "Some things will never change, that's just the way it is."

Anyway, I did not participate in the discussion because I sense the generation gap is too big. Maybe some of you would like to go there join the discussion.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Toys Were Us (5): Carton Boxes – By Chuck Hio

This afternoon, after work, when I went for my regular brisk walking exercise at MacRitichie Reservoir with my buddy, Chun See, I saw some kids playing with something I used to do three-and-a-half decades ago.

Watching the kids laugh and squeal in excitement as they slid down the grassy slope in their carton boxes, my thoughts went back to those childhood days when I grew up in a kampong known as Tian Tor Long. Do you know where that was? I give you a hint – the name means Battery Factory in Hokkien.

Give up? It was a kampong located at the Princess Elizabeth Housing Estate, around the Hill View area, near to the Ever Ready Battery factory. The slope was just behind Princess Elizabeth Community Centre. It was around 1970, and I was about 10 years old at that time.

As the words of the Carpenters song go, “Those were such happy times, and not so long ago. How I wonder where they’d gone.

Sadly, we had to move out to make way for progress in the 1980’s. We moved to a flat in Hill View Avenue, not far from where we grew up. Today the place is an open ground awaiting development.

“Looking back on how it was
In years gone by
And the good times that I had
Makes today seem rather sad
So much has changed.”

(Carpenters - Yesterday Once More)