Friday, December 25, 2009

Tribute to a humble profession (2)

In our recent trip to Yong Peng, we also had the opportunity to visit a rubber plantation. Our hosts who were rubber tappers were very enthusiastic to explain to us about their work. Below are some photos of things you will not find in Singapore - including close-ups of the rubber tapper's knife.


Remember the light that I strapped to my forehead. Nowadays the light is powered by batteries. But in the old days they used something called chow tor - literally, ‘smelly earth’ - in Hokkien. Do you know what was that?

We also discussed the problem of snakes. I happened to chat with a Malaysian friend about this the other day. He is now a Singaporean PR (permanent resident). When he was growing up in Pekan Nanas, he too used to help out in the rubber plantations. He told me he had to wake up at 3 in the morning and start work at 4 am. He said that snakes was not a big problem as long as you do not ‘disturb’ them, although he does recall seeing or peng’s. Do you know what snake is that? The biggest problem apparently was the mosquitoes which came in swarms. They had to cover themselves from head to toe leaving just a slit to see through. What a way to make a living!

Younger readers may not know this. Not so long ago, rubber plantations were a common sight in Singapore. For example, if you were to check out this World War II topographical map which my friend Kenneth put up at, you will see many rubber plantations in the Thomson-Braddell area. (you have to zoom in). In fact, in my previous posts, I have mentioned seeing rubber factories in places like Lorong Chuan, Bukit Timah and Upper Thomson Road. So I believe there are actually living in our midst Singaporeans who once made a living from this humble profession. Do you know anyone like that?


Can you name some places in Singapore where you can still find rubber trees? Of course I am not referring to the islands around Singapore. I am sure there are still lots of them on Pulau Tekong and Pulau Ubin. I can think of three such places.

1) The forests of MacRitchie near the Venus Drive area.
2) Chestnut Drive near the water pipes. I think I saw some the last time I went there for my brisk walking exercise (see photo below).
3) Woodland Town Park East. Whilst researching the whereabouts of Marsiling Hill 180, I saw many rubber trees here.


Anonymous said...

Or Peng is black cobra , very common in forested areas of South East Asian countries


Redstorm said...

Hi Chun See,

The chemical used to power the headlamp strapped to the forehead of a rubber tapper is known as calcium carbide or "chow thor" (smelly soil). Calcium carbide was also commonly used in those days by roadside pushcart hawkers who used the compound to power their portable lamps. The lamps consisted of a small Milo tin filled with calcium carbide and water to cause a chemical reaction and the gas, a by-product, escape thru a long metal neck soldered on in the centre of the tin cover and at the tip of the metal neck where the gas outlet is, the hawker just light it to produce a light.

Thimbuktu said...

When I was about 10 yrs in my young, the visit to the rubber plantation was my elder auntie at Upper Thomas Road (known as Mee Sua kuay in Hokkien) during a schoolday holidays to collect wild bird nests, the monkey pods, etc. It was my curious with lots of things I don't know about Bukit Ho Swee.

Thanks for sharing with Yong Peng the young Singaporean to learn in nature study.

Found this link at:

Zen said...

I can imagine early Singapore was something like yong peng today. It was the rubber and tin boom in the 20th century that attracted our fore-fathers (mostly from south china) to settle down in Malaya(aka nanyang) and some got married and laid their roots in this island. In the late seventies, I met a group of vietnamese refugees in Sembawang which was quite 'ulu' at that time. I directed them to the post office there. One of them remarked to me in cantonese that Sembawang looked like their Saigon. (Note: there was a sizeable number of cantonese residing in Saigon). Time has quickly slipped by. Today Singapore may have only a few rubber trees left but definitely we cannot make a living out of them. Singaporeans now, by and large, have to use their heads to create something out of 'nothing' or to modify, add onto other peoples' products and to call them own own. The IRs to be ready soon are one of the many ways we are going to earn a living in the future.

Edward said...

I think Peirce Reservoir still has rubber trees.

Zen said...

That is life, people make their living according to what their environment can offer. In the case of yong peng it is either from the plantations or vegetable farms - not much a choice. Our rubber-tapper friend and his wife having to slog out in the rubber plantation is a way of life. Now in his fifties, he accumulated enough money to send his daughter to UK for an university education. Both his son and daughter are presently working in Johor earning a decent salary and helping their parents out. The son has already married and the couples are now grand-parents. They are still staying in a wooden house (built by his father), quite spacious, in a large compound grown with vegetables. The house is built on plot of land leased from the govt under the new village scheme. I could not remember the exact amount he paid for the house, something like Rm 25,000 all in. From our friend's house, Chun See and I saw some cocoa plants in the neighbourhood.

Anonymous said...

There were some rubber plantations off Lorong Chuan in what was once Plantation Ave. That is now Serangoon Central. Closer to Serangoon Gardens, there were rubber trees everywhere, particularly near the Shell Petrol Station where its is now Chuan Park or something similar. These trees were being tapped and thus I believe there were rubber trees tappers working near there.

There were also rubber trees around the Cheng San area, now part of the CTE at the Ang Mo Kio Ave 1 flyover.

These sighting were mostly in the 70s, before re-development cleared them all away.

Ang Sar Lee said...

Adding to Anonymous 28 Dec 2009, there were rubber trees at Jalan Nira and the present day Tai Hwan estate which was accessible in the past (and now still) by Burghley Drive and Jalan Pacheli.

veii said...

I wouldn't be too quick to characterise rubber planting as 'humble'. An average smallholding could, depending on prevailing prices, bring in an income of about Rm5000 per month. Given the lower cost of living in rural areas, this provides a pretty comfortable living. Of course, it is a different matter if you are a labourer working on a big plantation.

Anonymous said...

When Ang Sar Lee mentioned Jalan Nira, I used to take a short cut through that dirt track road in the 70s to get to Carisbrooke Grove when I lived. Right at the junction of Jalan Nira and Chartwell drive use to stand a wooden provision shop where we would order some groceries (usually soft drinks that comes in crates) and have them delivered to my home. Jalan Nira leads to Conway Grove, and along the dirt track road is I believe is a tannery (also one along Lorong Chuan) and an entire kampong which was located at what is now the open area/park. The road actually ends at the kampong and then you walk thorugh a small path among the woods to get out at Conway Grove.