My grandma was particularly fond of Kampong Eunos. Needless to say, it was the place where she first settled in when she reached Selat Por – (Singapore) shore from Chinkang Fukien, China. As soon as my grandparents and my grandfather’s siblings reached Kampong Eunos, they cleared the land and attap houses were built. My uncle Yeo Koon Seng was only three years old then. My aunt and my father were both born there. My father, Yeo Koon Poh, enrolled in the Telok Kurau Primary School and studied two years there. Most likely my grandfather wanted him to study Chinese, so he made the switch to the Chinese school.
My grandparents built atap houses, pigsties, dug ponds to rear fishes and grew water hyacinth as pig food. My grandfather reared cows to pull bullock cart to provide transporting services. When Chew Joo Chiat embarked on building atap houses in his cocnut and fruit estate, building materials were in great demand. My father went to work for Sim Seng (owner Soon Peng Leong, the brother of Soon Peng Yam). He transported those materials just like the rickshaw puller did from the timber yard at Geylang to the construction sites. After my father’s marriage, my grandparents and parents moved to Tanah Merah Kechil.
In the 1920s there was a surge in demand for rented rooms as more immigrants came. My grandparents added a room to the left and a room to the right and a few rooms at the back. Similarly, my other relatives also did the same with their houses. The population grew. The lanes became very small. When it rained the water from the roofs splashed down to the sides of the lanes making them very soggy. On heavy rainy weather, they became mini-streams. Walking along such lanes on rainy days was such a hassle. One had to look out for mud pools, dog and pig pooh, cyclists negotiating the ruts, mud splashes from inconsiderate car drivers etc.
During festivals such as Chinese New Year, Dumpling Festival, Mid-Autumn Festival, or during the birthday of the deity Seong Teh Kong, she would take us to Kg Eunos. The Sheong Teh Kong Temple staged wayang shows twice a year. Before the show, a wayang stage was put up. It was constructed mainly of attap and logs from the mangrove stems. They were tied together with split rattan. Of course, the stage floor was laid with wooden planks. The colorful decorations and partitions were done by the wayang troupe. The left and right wings were for the musicians as well as storage for their paraphernalia. Long scrolls of paintings depicting the theme of the days’ performance were held up by pulleys up above the stage. The back of the stage was reserved for the actors and actresses to make-up whatever roles they were in for the performance at that moment. The back, left and right wings of the whole construction were boarded up to prevent prying eyes. Electric supply was from a huge noisy diesel generator stationed in an obscure corner away from the audience.
Usually all the temples around would stage wayang shows for two days successively. If anyone among the temple devotees wished to give thanks to the gods, he/she might sponsor another day. Every year the temple committee would appoint a ’tow kay’ and a ‘lor chu’ to oversee donations for staging the wayangs. The ’lor chu’ would go around to solicit for donations. Receipts were issued to the donors.
My grandma usually took me along more often than my other siblings, most likely I was older and easier to manage. As we walked along the muddy track to my uncle’s house, we could hear the blaring of the programmes coming from the Redifusion sets coming from each of the residents. Whenever I visited Kg Eunos, I was greeted by the Hokkien and Teochew opera programmes. Most likely the programmes were scheduled at about 10 am. daily – the time I reached Kg Eunos. On rainy days, we had to be especially careful. One slip of the foot would land one into the muddy stream which was flanked by water burheads and dumbcane.
My grandmas would visit her old neighbours and introduce me to them. As if it was a natural reflex action, each one neighbour would push either a triple-five cigarette tin or empty milk tin containing twelve rolled up numbers and enticed me to pick up two numbers, one at a time. The host would read each one, threw it back into the tin, shook it and pushed to me to pick another one. The residents of the whole kampongs were playing a game of chap-ji-ki or twelve numbers. It was a betting game which one could bet as low as twenty cents for two of the twelve numbers. A betting agent, usually an old lady, would visit every household to collect bets. By certain time, usually five in the afternoon, no bets would be accepted. At around seven o’clock the results would be known and winners could collect their winnings from their agents. The agents would get five per cent of the winnings.
Unlike my father’s place in Jalan Tanah Merah Kechil, Kg Eunos was crowded. There were residents everywhere. Take my uncle’s house as an example. My grandma and my uncle would extend their house, to the back, left and right and rented the rooms out. My uncle (Yeo Koon Seng) and his family would occupy the main house. In front of his courtyard was a path which the residents, hawkers etc used. Across the path was another house with many rooms which were rented out. A pond was in front of that house. A toilet was constructed at the side of the pond. With so many residents, a toilet was naturally not enough to cater to all. Later another was constructed on the left of the courtyard under the old Mangrove tree. One had to walk up a few steps before going into the toilet. The pungent smell and buzzing houseflies greeted the visitor if he or she went in before the bucket was emptied. Usually one would either smoke or held a handkerchief to the nose to dull the smell. A more sensitive person would be kept busy by shooing the flies away from the exposed parts of his/her body. Cleaning was done by either old newspapers or toilet tissue paper. Owe betide that person who forgot to bring his paper. He or she would shout or scream for a kind soul to get him or her one.
The bucket was emptied once a day by a collector. The owner of the toilet would have to pay him monthly to take the night soil away. That collector carried a pole with one large metal bin balancing on one end of it. If one bin is heavier than the other, he had to shift his pole with the heavier side nearer to his body. It was not very pleasant if one was inside the toilet when he came along to empty the bucket. When the two metal tins were filled, he would carry them to the farms to sell to the farmers. Some people would mention just in jess that the night soil carrier earned double – toilet owners paid him to clear the toilet. He got paid when he disposed off the night soil.
One incident that deeply etched in my mind was when some mischievous children came to know the occupation of the night soil carrier. They would insensitively taunt the children ’Toh Sai Kia! Toh Sai Kai!’ in the Hokkien dialect. (In English, it is ‘Sons of a Nighsoil Carrier’). His children were so devastated that they refused to go the school. In those days, some teachers were also not very sensitive to the children. When entering the parents’ occupations in the school attendance registers, they literally wrote ’night soil carrier’. I believed many children were emotionally affected by such an occupation, as such an occupation although noble was not very pleasant. Some considerate teachers entered such occupation as ‘health worker’, which I thought was more appropriate.
In the evening, the fans of Ong Toh, the Hokkien story-teller of the Redifusion, would gather at my uncle’s house or whoever house who had a Redifusion set to listen to the programme. Everyone listened attentively as the story teller unfolded the sequential events in a very interesting manner. He would stop at a very exciting part when the time was up. This would entice the fans to listen to the up and coming chapter in the following evening.
My aunt, whom we called Ah Nia, was a Peranakan. She used to get her children to buy coffee from the kampong coffee shop every morning for breakfast. She did the same even for her guests. I thought she had never brewed coffee herself. Unlike where I stayed, there was a hive of activities. As early as five in the morning, there were hawkers calling out their wares – the nasi lemak sellers, the baker, puttu mayam, the noodle seller etc. There was this particular hawker whom I liked to highlight. He moved his tricycle about the kampong. His assistant would carry a piece of wood and a knocker. The curved wood was usually made of bamboo. When knocked by the knocker, the curved wood would give a very loud resonance. It could project its sound clear and far. The attendant would usually knock a tune different from others. Customers would recognize his tune. If they liked his noodles, they would shout for him, “Hey! Mee!” Or Simply ‘Mee-ah!’” If his attention was acknowledged, the customers would then shout out the order. Then he would go the hawker to order. He would carry the food to the customers, left them there and then went on knocking his two wooden pieces. After a while he returned to collect the empty bowls and payment – usually 20c per bowl.
There was this particular kampong folk, as well as close friend, named Ah Poh. He was a well-informed man. I think this close affinity must have stretched back to my my grandparents days. He was very jovial and often discuss traditional medicine with my grandmother whenever they met. Ah Poh was multi-tasker. He was steeped in Mandarin and had good knowledge of herbal medicine as well as knowledge of worldly affairs. He particularly well-liked by the kampong folks because of vast store of knowledge. He switched from job to job. There was once he carried two baskets slung on a pole on his shoulder selling stewed duck. Kampong folks would gamble with him using 3 dices on a dish. Before gambling he would discuss the method of play and the wager amount – 10c for a duck head, 50c for a drumstick, $1 for half a duck or $2 for the whole duck. If the customer lost he/she paid for the amount as agreed. If the customer won, he would give that piece of duct as agreed.
Whenever my father visited his brother, he would patronize that noodle stall which was stationed at a corner of his uncle’s row of atap house. It was as if visiting Kampong Eunos without visiting that stall deemed one had not visited Kampong Eunos. That hawker sold only soup meepok noodle. One must eat his noodle piping hot, then one could get its rich aroma coming from the pork seasoning as well his fried onion oil and soup. The three-layered belly pork was so finely chopped up and seasoned with some secret recipe. Then he made the ‘wanton’ himself, occasionally helped by his wife. He called his ‘wanton’ ‘pian sip’. The thin ‘pian sip’ skin was a 3 inch by 3 inch square. The chopped pork was spread onto the skin and then folded up diagonally to become a triangle. His fresh red raw chilli was so well sliced by a razor-sharp kitchen knife. His soup also gave a long lasting after taste. We had never seen how he prepared his soup, but we guessed that he must have done a lot of trials and errors before he got it right. When a order was taken, first he got a handful of raw meepok noodle. Then he scooped the seasoned chopped pork and two pieces of ‘pian sip’into the bowl. Next, he immersed the cooked meepok into cold water and then boiled again. After that, he poured the boiling hot soup onto the bowl which contained the chopped pork. Then he put the cooked meepok into the bowl. Pepper and a pinch chopped of onion leaf were added. Then it was ready to serve. Words could not describe fully how tasty it was. By the time the bowl of steamy noodle had reached the customer, the pork was already cooked and the temperature was just right for the taste buds. The cooked pork, the steamy soup coupled with the soft spicy pepper and strain of sliced chilli and the fried onion oil made the taste heavenly. One would finish the whole bowl within minutes. At peak hours one had to wait for at least half an hour. But who was that man? He was a tall slender man from Chao Ann, China. It was not known whether the dish was concocted by him or elsewhere. As he grew older, he hunched. Customers used to brand his noodle – ‘ku mee’ or ‘kieow ku mee’ meaning ‘hunchback noodle.’ His descendants now sell his noodle in many coffee shops and hawkers’ centre in Bedok. They name it ‘Bak Chor Mee’.
One evening, I visited my cousins. Hong Huat and Eng Teng invited me to a place for supper. We went through the twisting narrow sandy lanes between atap houses. Then we came to a row of houses formed to a shape of U. In the middle were several rows of crudely-made make-shift tables and benches. We waited after ordering. Within a few minutes came the dry version of meepok fishball came. We tucked in. I felt that it was the best meepok I had ever eaten. The noodle was springy but not hard. The sauce was spicy but not tongue-burning. The fishball was chewvy and bouncy and not so saltish but at the same time exuded a taste of spiciness and sweetness. We tucked in non-stop as if by stopping it would render the flavor lost. Soon the porcelain bowl was empty. We proceed to drink soup. The mildly-saltish hot soup (sprinkled with a pinch of onion leaves) really washed down every morsel left lingering in the mouth. I left the stall with the after taste lingering in my mouth for hours. Today, the stall is at Dunman Food Centre.
This chapter would not be completed if I failed to mention the fruit estate behind the row of shop house belonging to Yeo Teow Swee. My grandfather besides rearing fowls and pigs, owning bullock cart for transport, he was also a fruit trader. When the fruit in the estate was in season, he would go scouting for the trees that bore the most number of young unripe fruit. Then he would farm (reserve) the whole tree by paying an initial payment. When the fruits were ripe he built a little hut at the estate to keep watch for fruit thieves. He paid the tree owner the rest of the agreed sum once the fruit had been harvested and sold. Some of the fruits were the rambutans, mangosteens and durians.
The row of atap house that Yeo Teow Swee built was exactly at the opposite of the T-junction with Telok Kurau Road. Whenever we took the Changi bus to Kampong Eunos, my grandmother would point to the row of atap house and said, “We can alight at the bus stop in front of the row of atap houses.” So we always did that in subsequent visits. There was once I accompanied my mother there. After alighting from the bus stop, we crossed the left side of the road. We stopped at the middle white line. Suddenly out of nowhere a motorcyclist with a pillow rider sped by and dragged my mother (who was carrying Hong Hup in her arm) down. They suffered bruises. The motorcyclist and his pillion helped them up and I recognized that he was one of the teachers in Bedok Boys’ School. Fortunately, my mother and my brother were not seriously injured.
Teow Swee had made a name here by contracting to supply cleaning materials such as rags and brooms to the Public Works Department. Thus we in Tanah Merah Kechil also played a part acting as a collecting agent for him. That row of houses evoked certain memories in me. There was a coffee shop which was managed by Chew who lost his leg in an accident. In the coffee shop, there was a huge stove and a huge cauldron. Saw dust was used to boil water. Just like any other coffee shops of those days, there were several pieces of round marble and around each round table were several pieces of the wooden chair with four cylindrical legs, a round seat and a back rest. Adjacent to the coffee shop was a provision shop which was managed by his second son – named Koon Sai. To the left was a tailor. My father usually got his pants tailored there. I got a few of pants made there too. Across the road, on the right of Telok Kurau Road, was a bakery shop. That bakery shop used charcoal to bake his bread. When the bread was taken off the oven, the top part was usually burnt. The baker would then cut away the burnt part, sliced them up and then wrapped with translucent paper. Coffee shop owners of that area got their bread from that bakery. Whenever we bought bread from him, we would mention the name of the coffee shop and a special discount was given. Next to that bakery was a barber shop which my father used to patronize.
Yeo Teow Swee although not literate, but he had very good business acumen. Besides supplying cleaning materials to PWD, built and rented out houses, owned shops, he was also the overseer of the land in Tanah Merah Kechil where we lived. Later he ventured into rambutan planting as well as fowl and pig rearing. His children although having better lives than the nephews and nieces, they were not pampered either. They were roped in to help him run his business. In 1957, he died after a short illness. The children took over the business.
A visit to Kampong Eunos would not be completed if the descendants of the famed landowner, Chew Joo Chiat was not mentioned. The descendants stayed a few doors away from my uncle’s house. I had never interacted with them but my cousins, especially Hong Ho. They attended the same school and had often interacted with each other. One of them he mentioned was Chew Peng Hock. Joo Chiat’s descendants stayed in different areas of Joo Chiat. One family even stayed in Kampong Chai Chee which my father often talked about. Recently, I came in contact with fellow blogger, Philip Chew. He is also a descendant of Chew Joo Chiat.
In the early sixties, developer took over the land fronting Changi Road 5 milestone and the row of atap was demolished. I remembered I helped to load some of the timber of the long row of houses unto a lorry and brought to Tanah Merah Kechil for firewood. Now in its place, there is a row of double-storeyed concrete shophouses.
The piece of land together with the house at Kampong Eunos was acquired by government in the 80s as it encroached on the East West MRT Line.