Growing Up In Kampung Sungei Cina, Marsiling (I) - The story of Mr Abdul Gani


Singapore Memory Project
Mr Abdul Gani

Growing Up In Kampung Sungei Cina, Marsiling (I)
- The story of Mr Abdul Gani, an interview by Mr Lai Tuck Chong on 7th June 2014 at Woodlands Galaxy CC.

There is a river in Marsiling called Sungei Cina. In the last 30 yrs or so, many people have forgotten about its existence as it lay buried amid wild woodland and underbush. The only clue that it existed at all is its large river mouth that flows into the Singapore-Johore straits sea next to the narrow concrete Shell Woodlands Jetty. Spanned by a concrete road bridge, many anglers fish from this rivermouth spot; folks can also be seen wading into waist-high tides to cast a net to catch shrimp. Or walk the mudflats to stab at a rock crab or two with a stainless steel rod. 

It was only in recent years that the river crept back into public consciousness, after the Admiralty Park was built and the river became a water feature of the park. The river has always run parallel to the fence of the Malaysian Naval Base (commonly known as the 'KDM') along one bank; the other bank is next to Riverside Road. The source of this river can be traced to a spot under the present park restaurant next to Republic Poly.  

So the river isn't long nor spectacular but at one time, it gave its name to a kampung. Kampung Sungei Cina.


In the 1950s and '60s, Kampung Sungei Cina grew in size around its namesake river. It occupied the lowlands beside KDM and extended all the way up to the hill where the Shell Co. fuel storage facility stood - its large storage tanks visible to most in the area. Thus was how KSC divided: a hilltop or "atas" part, and a lowland or "bawa" part.

Mr Abdul Gani, 64, grew up in the atas part of KSC along with two brothers and a sister. Home was where Blk 217 of Marsiling Lane is now. The family had moved there in 1960 when he was ten. Previously, he was living in the barracks of the British military police at Lorong Malai just before Bukit Panjang. Mr Gani's father was in the military police then, mom a housewife.

According to Mr Gani, KSC was quite large at the time. It had over 100 families. Some families ran vegetable farms.

Mr Gani enjoyed the kampung environment, saying "kampung life was wonderful!" He was referring to the friendly neighbours, the open spaces and the many places to visit and explore at will. 

Certainly, that part of Marsiling (now filled with flats, a large-vehicle parking lot, a large recreational park, and that long-time Seiko precision engineering plant) looked quite different back then.

"Even across the road from where I lived, at the Blk 37 playground area, was this black-and-white bungalow used by the Bristish forces," recalls Mr Gani. Today, not a clue of it remains although the space still overlooks the Singapore Causeway Customs building.

There was also an open-air cinema called Millow ('mei lu' in Mandarin) where the SPC petrol station now stands, right next to the old Trans Island bus terminus of Service 180/182, next to the hawker centre and market. "A ticket to a show cost 30 cents only," says Mr Gani, his wife nodding in agreement.

Moving to KSC and living so near to the Causeway was quite a change for Mr Gani and his family. "We would take the bicycle and ride to Johor Bahru to do our marketing always," recalls him.

Mr Gani adds: "Before 1965, we didn't need to use our passport to cross over. A Green Bus also ran from Bukit Timah 7th Mile to JB. Its depot was at King Albert Park behind the old MacDonald (hamburger) building."

Things were certainly quite different then. For example, electricity was not supplied by the government but by a private contractor who ran a generator. Mr Gani remembers his mom paying $5 a month for the privilege.

"The supply would come on at 6pm and by 12 midnight, it was cut." The supply was not always available too, says Mr Gani. "During heavy rainstorms, the electricity would often short out!"

Getting potable water was another matter.

"We had to fetch water from the bottom of the hill," says Mr Gani. Apparently water pooled in a "poncho" - a kind of rectangualr trough well that was built by the Japanese during WWII. According to Mr Gani, piped water only came to the kampung towards the end of the 1960s.

Growing up in KSC, Mr Gani helped his mom hawk nasi lemak to the folks at KDM.

"We would enter the base through a hole in the fence by Sungei Cina. It was kind of made proper by the kind guards there. We, after all, supplied them with stuff, so it was ok," says Mr Gani.

On certain days, Mr Gani would also sell goreng pisang (fried banana fritters) from one kampung to the next, yelling out the familiar "Goreng pisang! Goreng pisang!"

Mr Gani remembers an uncle and cousin staying at nearby Mandai Kechil Road and Lorong Fatimah, where a seaside kampung stood. The Malaysian KTM train was also able to bring them to Kranji from there.

Arriving in Marsiling as a boy, Mr Gani soon began his studies at Marsiling Primary School at the foot of Marsiling Hill. Upon graduation, he went to Swiss Cottage Secondary School to further his education, quite an unusual and "far" choice. Many Marsiling residents would prefer to study at Boys' Town Assumption English School in Bukit Panjang.

Mr Gani explains his choice: "Swiss Cottage at the time had two streams. An English one in the morning; a Malay one in the afternoon. I joined the afternoon stream."

But going to such a far school meant eating less.

"My mom gave me 80 cents pocket money. Sixty cents went to the two-way bus ride leaving me with only 20 cents for food. I tell you, with only 20 cents left, I could only eat fried ubi kayu. And very often!" recalls Mr Gani of a cheap and filling meal he grew up on.

With limited pocket money, it didn't mean that Mr Gani and his pals did not get to enjoy some 'luxury' food. He recalls a wonderful dessert stall along Jalan Wayang Satu, later renamed as Whitley Road.

"There was a wonderful cendol and ice kacang stall near the petrol station. If we didn't have enough money, the few of us would pool our resources and enjoy together!"

Studying in that area also meant learning of some "lobangs" to make extra pocket money, says Mr Gani.

"At the Bukit Timah Turf Club, we would be paid $2 a day to help stamp down the grass after each race!"

Mr Gani and his pals did not think twice of saving bus fare and cycling all the way from Marsiling to Jalan Wayang Satu. It was the coming back that discouraged them. But Mr Gani and his pals would return home "cowboy-style". 

"The Shell tanker-truck drivers were very nice. They would let us hitch a ride back. They would run ropes along the side and we would hold on with one hand, the other hand on our bikes. In this way, we got towed back home. The tanker-truck drivers would actually drive slow. When we reached Kranji, we would let go and cycle home via the old Marsiling Road near the Metal Box company."

Mr Gani's teenage adventures would eventually come to an end when he was called up for National Service in Dec 1968. Before that, he spent a gap year working at the British Naval Base Dockyard. He remembers packing ammunition for the Vietnam War. They weren't told of that fact but the markings on the crates gave clues. He was paid some $130 a month.

For National Service, Mr Gani was sent to the 5 SIR combat unit. He recalls the training as "more siong than siong", using the Hokkien word for very tough. He and his pals had to undergo jungle warfare training in Mandai, a rather virgin jungle back then. Recalls Mr Gani: "When night fell, we could hardly see the five fingers held up in front of us!" They also did jungle training in Kota Tinggi where both primary and secondary jungles could be found. 

Mr Gani would later graduate from his training as a Scout. He remembers taking part in an important five-nation army exercise in 1970 - the Exercise Bersatu Padu - that involved forces from Malaysia, Australia, the UK and New Zealand - a highlight of his NS stint. Another highlight was going to Tebrau Camp in Johor to train and also collect pay for the armed forces.

Recalling further his kampung days, Mr Gani said it was affected by the 1960s racial riots too. "Other ethnic race workers from the British Naval Base dockyard, who made up about 70 percent of the workforce there then would come and make trouble at our kampung, knocking on doors and frightening the folks. They were unhappy that some of us did not support their strike." Special forces were deployed in the kampung but that did not deter the rioters, says Mr Gani. "It was a very very scary situation at the time!"

Besides racial harmony, kampung life also caused Mr Gani to aspire to something else - marrying an "outsider."

"Back then, a guy would end up marrying his neighbour's daughter. Me and my friend Russo decided to find a wife from outside the kampung. So we challenged each other!"

Mr Gani would later marry a minah (lady) from Toa Payoh; his friend Russo found his love in Whampoa.

Kampung life was certainly simple then. And what you wanted, you worked for it. Mr Gani remembers saving hard for his first pair of Lee pants. They were of a fashionable white color! He remembers also an outstanding shirt branded "Bel Lune" (this author's spelling) that was as colorful as a horse-racing jockey's shirt!

"These days, when kids ask for an iPad, they get. Last time, we had to work and save up!" observes Mr Gani.

Mr Gani and his family stayed in KSC until 1973 when the area was requisitioned by the government for clearing. Two years prior, however, his dad was allotted a new flat along Marsiling Lane, one of the first blocks there (Blk 3). But they opted to stay longer in the kampung. Those houses right behind Shell on top of the hill survived for another four/five years and was eventually cleared in the late 70s or early 80s. The back slope of this remaining KSC kampung led down to the coastal sea and that decommissioned Shell Ruthenia Refuelling Jetty of iron and wood that became such a popular swimming and fishing spot for generations of Marsiling kids. 
Over the years, this jetty slowly got BBQed out of existence by seafood lovers who used its planks for fire. By the late 1990s it had all but disappeared from view.

When Mr Gani himself got married, he also chose a flat near his parents. It was Blk 4. He stayed there for five years before moving to Blk 1A in Woodlands Central in 1978. In 1987, he moved a final time to Blk 824 where he still resides in till today.

The End