Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Catching crabs and fish in the forest streams (by Freddy Neo)

Recent photo of Pierce Reservoir

I grew up in a house near to the Pierce Reservoir (now called Lower Pierce Reservoir). I attended Sembawang Hills Estate Primary School until 1964. The school was along Old Upper Thomson Road near to Sembawang Hills Circus. It was at the edge of the forest reserve. Pierce Reservoir and the forest reserve were our playgrounds. We went fishing in the Pierce Reservoir and caught various species of tropical fish and fresh water crabs in the forest streams.

When I was in primary six, I was in the afternoon session. The afternoon session was from 1.00 pm but at one stage, we would go to school early so that we could go crabbing or fishing before school. Even on examination days, we still went. On one of the days, I remember we boys were late for the English test and our teacher, Mr. Vasegar (he is now in his 70s) was waiting for us at the entrance to the classroom. He was fuming. He lined us, came around and gave each of us a tight slap. Only then were we allowed to go into the classroom to take our test. In those days, teachers could issue corporal punishment on the spot and none of us would complain. Anyway, if we did tell our parents, we will probably have gotten another beating at home for being naughty.

But Mr. Vasegar could also be quite kind hearted and understanding. There was one afternoon when we were trying to hide our haul of barbs in a powder milk tin container under my desk. In the midst of his maths lesson, he saw the container. This time instead of getting punished, we were allowed to keep the fishes in the classroom. Not only that, he berated us for being so cruel as to put the fishes in such a small container and ordered me to get a big pail from the school janitor to put the fishes. He joined in as we transferred the fishes from the milk tin to the pail.

Usually, I got to keep our haul of crabs or fish because none of my classmates wanted them. One of them, who was my closest friend, was an expert in digging the crab holes to catch the crabs but would not bring any home. He told me that his mother will cane him if she found out that he had gone crabbing in the forest. By the way, the crabs were about the size of a 50 cent coin and I put all of them in my fish tank at home. Away from the pristine water of the jungle stream, none of them survived more than a few days.

Recent photo of Pierce Reservoir

But fishing in the reservoir was our favourite pastime. We used home-made rods or just lines. Our baits were big fat earthworms which we dug at the forest edge. Not to be caught by the rangers, we had to go really deep into the forest. We walked to the opposite bank of the reservoir, away from the park area. There we will be sheltered by the thick foliage and the rangers patrolling in their boat will not be able to see us. When we saw them approaching or coming close in their boat, we will lie low and wait for them to pass before resuming. Anyway, the rangers in those days were quite lenient to us children. Even when they saw us, all they did was to tell us to stop and go home, often leaving us intact with our catch and our equipment.

In those days, the reservoir was teeming with fishes. In one afternoon (3 hours of fishing), each of us could catch about 5 to10 fishes. The fishes were mainly tilapias, red eye barbs which the Hokkiens call "ang bak Jit" and a sharp jaw, long and slender fish of about a foot long (don't know the name, in Hokkien it is just "chiam chwee Hee"). When we took the fishes home, we normally fried them or cooked them in sambal. But they were not nice to eat. I remember them as being quite fishy. I suppose the fun was in the fishing not the eating. Some hot afternoons, we even went skinny dipping in the water.

The forest streams Freddy mentions must have looked like this one near Venus Drive (Lam Chun See)

Being keen aquarists, my elder brother (3 years older) and I liked to catch ornamental fishes in the forest streams or remote forest ponds in the hope of catching some yet-to-be discovered species. He will ride his bicycle and I will ride on the cross bar carrying the punyi as we traveled from our home to the forest. We knew all the streams and ponds at the back of our hands. We knew the pond in the forest near to the water pipe, directly from Devil's Bend junction, will yield us the six zone tiger barbs and the stream where we will catch the two spot rasboras and the clown barbs. We worked as a pair. My brother will go into the water with the punyi and I will be the spotter on the bank telling him where the fishes were for him to scoop up. We were quite familiar with the popular species because we had read them up in the encyclopaedia of tropical fishes. One day we managed to catch a fish (a barb species) not found in the encyclopaedia which we promptly christened as the Neoson barb. Many years later we saw this species for sale in the aquarium shop and it was labeled as the Golden Barb. But to me, that species shall always be Neoson barb.

My elder brother passed away in an accident in 1978.

Related post by Chun See:
The humble punki – a symbol of toil and fun


Lam Chun See said...

Freddy. Thanks for sharing your wonderful childhood memories. These are the simple joys of life that kids of today will never get to savour.

I imagine, writing this post must have brought tears to your eyes, especially the memories of your dear brother.

Zen said...

I had my primary education in the fifties. It goes without saying that corporal punishment was a way of school life then, but the surprising thing was that I never witnessed a student being slapped by a teacher. Perhaps this privilege was exclusively reserved for the principal (Mr F Choo, a former british army officer) who was an expert in delivering a variety of corporal punishment. A once-a-week public canning was promptly out on errant students before a school assembly. In short, he struck fear into the spines of both teachers and students alike. One of his favourite routine checks was to peep through the window to see what was going on inside the class room, and it kept all teachers and students practically on their toes when they sensed intuitively that there were prying eyes outside. I wondered how many people ever see canteen staff donning white uniforms and caps (like those worn by boys brigade) in Singapore schools. This happened in my school-BRS. During my PSLE year the students achieved 100% pass, proving that sometime terror tactic works.

Morticia Caramouska Addams said...

Right at the end of Jalan Lanjut, there was a stream. I remember going there with my sister and wading ankle deep in the water. There were plain looking guppies there-females I think and some other nondescript fishes. Gradually as development chased away the kampong nearby, the stream silted up. Then plastic bags would appear and block the flow of water. But that was the best little stream I ever played in.

Edward said...

Hi Freddy, I also have many fond memories of Pierce Reservoir, from my childhood days till my teenage years.

I am so sorry to hear of your brother's passing.

Edward said...

Hi Freddy, the fish that we like to catch in Pierce Reservoir is called "ahruan". You have to use live bait (usually small fishes) for this particular fish. Alternatively, you could also use a spinner.

The "ahruan" is quite a sporting fish in that it puts up a good fight when you are reeling it in. It is quite tasty and is supposed to have medicinal value as well.

I guess the both of us appreciate fishes for different reasons!

Brian and Tess said...

A wonderful blog Freddy and I think we can all identify with such childhood memories - and this is just the sort of independent adventure that kids today in the UK (and maybe in Spore?) miss out on with their overorganised and protected lives.

By the way do primary schools still operate a two shift day? I recall that from my days in Spore in the early 60s, its something we have never had here in the UK and I marvelled at the intensively used schools when I was in Spore. We had such short days, mornings and only two afternoons (but also Saturday morning school) in my days at Changi Grammar School - but that was before the days of air conditioning!

Freddy Neo said...

My brother was a chief officer on board a NOL liner when he died. Chief Officers are responsible for ensuring that the cargoes are delivered to the consignees in good condition. The ship was carrying paper pulp from Finland and sailing to Fremantle in W. Australia. One of the crew found him dead in the hold. Apparently he had went in to check the cargo and had asphyxiated because of lack of oxygen. The ship was then in the middle of the Indian Ocean. At my father's request, his body was brought to Frementle and an autopsy was done there.
Until today I still miss him.


At that time, the aruan (snakehead) in the reservoir was the local species which is smaller. The Thai variety, which is much bigger was introduced later and they have taken over the reservoir.

Brian & Tess,

Yes, my childhood days catching fishes and crabs in the reservoir and forest streams were carefree and happy days, much like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn?

Because of shortage of space, our schools then had to cram the students into two sessions. Now all the secondary schools are on single session. Most primary schools still operate on two sessions. But according to the
Ministry of Education, in about 5 years time, all primary schools will have single session as well.

Zen said...

I remember during our kampong days I entertained my two elder cousins (from chinatown on school holidays) by searching for fighting fishes in a grassy spot near a small stream (described by chun see as 'si kei hor'). We spotted a small depression filled with dark water. Trying our luck we waddled in and I jabbed my 'punki'(a rattan scoop with two handles) into the murky water. With a single scoop of the punki, and to our surprise, found a few lovely fighting fishes with vibrant colours and long tails jumping spiritedly about in the punki. After much effort, eventually we caught about twenty fishes. Later on my cousins took most of the fishes back home, and probably showing off the prized catch to his urban friends, while I retained five for myself. We use to say do not judge a book by its cover and in this particular instance, do not judge an obscure spot filled with pitch-dark water.

Edward said...

Freddy, do you remember there used to be a soldier stationed outside Peirce Reservoir during the early 60s? He carried a rifle and stood in his sentry post which I think was along Old Upper Thomson Road (probably near your primary school). I have seen him fishing in the boat shed near the entrance of the reservoir. Because he was in uniform, nobody disturbed him. I am not sure why he was stationed there. I cannot see how a single solider can protect the reservoir against sabotage. This was probably during the period of Konfrontasi, the conflict between Indonesia and Malaysia.

Packaging Supplier | Packing Supplies said...

Fishing is the activity of catching fish. Fish are normally caught in the wild. Techniques for catching fish include hand gathering, spearing, netting, angling and trapping.

The term fishing may be applied to catching other aquatic animals such as shellfish, cephalopods, crustaceans, and echinoderms. The term is not usually applied to catching aquatic mammals, such as whales, where the term whaling is more appropriate, or to farmed fish. In addition to providing food, modern fishing is also a recreational sport.

Freddy Neo said...


There was a power substation near to my primary school, along Old Upper Thomson Road junction with Jacaranda Road. Though the school has been demolished, the power substation is still there. In the early 60s during the confrontasi days, a Malay Regiment Unit was stationed there to guard the installation. I remember they lived in a tent and yes, sentries and prowlers were deployed. The soldiers did not bother us. In fact we feel quite safe with them around.

Term papers said...

Well I've enjoyed reading That It was at the edge of the forest reserve. Pierce Reservoir and the forest reserve were your playgrounds. You went fishing in the Pierce Reservoir and caught various species of tropical fish and fresh water crabs in the forest streams.