In and around Tanah Merah Kechil. 1946- 1963
I was very curious at the three words ‘Tanah Merah Kechil’which I had seen from old maps. The Malay word ’Tanah’ sometimes spelt as ’Tannah’ and the word ’Kechil’ sometimes spelt as ’Ketchil’. But why Tanah Merah Kechil? ‘Tanah Merah’ in English means ’Red Earth or Earth Red‘ in literal translation. The word ‘Kechil’ is translated as ’Small’. But was there a ’Tanah Merah Besar‘? The answer is ’Yes’ The road after the Changi Prison, if you are heading East, is ‘Tanah Merah Besar’. But why red earth? Don’t we know that the earth of the hills of Singapore are all red? Was it the blood of the murdered boy, Nadim in the legend ‘The Swordfish’ not only covered Bukit Merah, but also to all the hills in Singapore?
The top layer of the soil of the highland is covered by decomposing organic plant and animal parts. Underneath the rotting plant and animal substances is the humus which is either black or dark brown. Below that layer of humus is the red laterite soil. Due to heavy rain and loss of plant cover of certain parts of the area, the top soil is eroded and therefore exposing the red laterite soil.
The hills along East Coast just before Bedok were quite high and were subjected to constant bombardment of the waves which eroded much of the top soil exposing the red laterite soil. From afar that hill looked red, so that area according the early map of Singapore was named as Little Red Cliff. The hill at Ayer Gemuroh was much higher so the exposed red laterite soil area was bigger, so it was named as Big Red Cliff.
The path that led to the Little Red Cliff was also of red laterite soil. My parents without prior knowledge of that name ’Tanah Merah Kechil’ had quite correctly called that track ’Ung Tor Lor’ in Hokkien which means ’Red Earth Road’. Tanah Merah Kechil in the 50’s stretched from East Coast Road, (a short distance from Parbury Avenue, went up an inclination of the hill to the hilltop and then slope down to the valley. A coconut trunk bridge was built across a stream. Then it went up to the hill top across Piah Teng’s land and down to another valley (where Ban Guan’s family was). Here another coconut trunk bridge was constructed. Then it went on an incline up to a ridge where the 8 ½ ms Changi Road was. On rainy days the earth became soft and motor vehicles often caught in the ruts.
I often went to Bedok with my Grandma. Sometimes when we went to Uncle Yam’s shop, we could get a glimpse of the sea water at the beach at high tide. As we went nearer we could see the kampong folks with their children enjoy in the water. The younger children usually bathed naked. Bigger girls and adults had their sarongs on while the teenage boys had their baggy pants on. The pants were usually handed down from their elders. Some teenagers would ply along their beach selling otak otak, nasi lemak or mee siam. Their otak otak (wrapped in coconut leaflets) after grilled over a charcoal fire would arrange and pin onto two long sticks in neat rows quite like a xylophone. The vendors carried these racks and went about singing ’Otak! Otak!’. The ‘nasi lemak’ was wrapped with banana leaves . Their contents were no difference from those of today’s - the pandan rice, ikan kuning, a small slice of fried eggs, some sambal ikan bilis and a squarish banana leaf which separ!
ated the chili from the rice. The mee siam vendor wrapped their cooked dried mee siam with rectangular banana leaves formed it into a pyramid and filled it with mee siam. The the top flap was folded down and pinned to the edge of the opposite sides with a coconut mid-rib. The gravy was contained in an big bottle. The vendor went about selling, with one arm carrying a bottle of gravy and on their other arm a basket of packed mee siam. When making a sale, he unwrapped the packed dried mee siam by pulling out the mid-rib of the coconut leaf which was used to lock the packet in place, and then poured some gravy onto the mee siam. One was to use the mid-rib of the coconut leaflet to dish the mee siam and pushed it into the mouth. Sometimes we could see white kolek sailing along the water of the beach. I always wondered how they could sail by. My grandmother seldom allowed us the go near the beach and warn us never to wander near it as we would be drowned by the sea. We were al!
ways very obedient.
I had a glimpse of the Bedok Sea only at sea level. It was a body of water with Malay adults and children playing in the water at high tide. Out in the sea, there were many atap huts with long rows of stakes leading out of them. My grandmas said that those were kelong where fish were caught. I had no inkling of what she was saying. Occasionally a sail boat sailed by. I was fascinated as it was my first sight of a sail boat.
One bright morning, my Grandma decided to take me for a walk along the ‘Ung Tor Lor’ or ‘Tanah Merah Kechil’ in Malay. It was easy at first, walking past the Malay houses, a mosque and then came to a coconut trunk bridge or ‘ya khong kio’. The climb was becoming tougher. On the left I could see the tombstones of the Teo Chew cemetery Pang Suah Kia. On the right were the farms planting sweet potatoes and tapioca.
Then straight ahead, suddenly the area seemed devoid of earth, and trees - only the blue sky was seen. I was thrilled at what loomed ahead. I moved higher step by step as my legs were aching. Then the light blue horizon came into view. Then the dark shade of the islands of Indonesia. Next were the numerous kelongs and their stakes that dotted the sea from left to right in the form of an arc. I saw the ripples of the white foamy waves advancing towards the coast. And finally the panoramic view of whole stretch of the sea and coast. I was spellbound. No words could describe how I felt. The feeling was boosted by the cool sea-breeze brushing past me. I stood there rooted to the ground as I had never seen such a wonderful sight at such a height before. Later I realized that I was standing at the Little Red Earth Cliff which the early cartographer had named.
When I was posted to Dryburgh English School (later merged to Presbyterian Boys’ School) the trip via Bedok Boys’ School to East Coast Road junction with Tembeling Road cost me 15 cents for a student concessionary ticket. In order to save 5 cents, I would usually board and alight the red Katong Bedok bus at East Coast Road where the Small Red Cliff was. I would use a long flight of concrete staircase - about 100 steps. There was huge bungalow house at the highest point of the hill. It was believed to be a Custom House for I often saw huge stacks of cigarettes being burnt at the side of the road. I believed those contraband cigarettes must have been confiscated from those smugglers who brought them.
At the foot of the hill were the remains of a row of single-storeyed houses. It looked either had been looted or caught fire. I had never been near there. My father said that it was used by the Japanese to brew medicine. Could it be the place where the Japanese experimented with drugs to kill or to maim the thousands of Anti-Japanese people?
A long the coast were bungalows. One particular house nearest to the Katong Bedok bus stop that struck me, had a flat top with round white light lamps around it. Further down was another one with a gate with a semi-circular sign “Wysman Haven” above it. I cannot remember whether the sign was with neon lights. As a young boy I did not find out what house it was.
Further up the coast towards Bedok Village, was a huge Chinese tomb. It was rumoured that it belonged to a very rich man. Inside the cavernous tomb, it was stored with abundant raw food supplies, equipped with stove and cooking paraphernalia. When the man died, his slaves were entombed with him. When the burial ceremony was over, it seemed that passers-by heard wailing cries of people inside. They opened up the tomb and released those entombed with the corpse of the rich man. True or not? Nobody could provide evidence to that rumour.
At the junction of Parbury Avenue and East Coast Road, there was a row of Peranakan houses which numbered from 495 to 507, was used as a government medical clinic. My mother brought us there for medical checkups. At peak hours, it was so crowded. It was made worse with the shrill cries of babies and toddlers. Across the road was a coffee shop. It was a breather when we went to the coffee shop after the checkups.
Most of the woman kampong folks preferred to deliver their babies at home. I remembered my father had to fetch a mid-wife (named Ah Leng) on his bicycle to our house to deliver one of my brothers. There was a follow-up for three successive days instructing my mother how to take care of the new born baby.
At times we saw trucks with ’Cathay Keris Film Studio’ painted at their sides. Then the actors and actresses took up their positions and got ready for film shooting. We, the kampong folks would stay at a distance to watch the proceedings. There was once I saw the workers build up a huge fire out of the dry twigs and grass and an actress went behind the fire struggling and screaming and then ‘fainted’ while the camera crew was shooting in front of the fire. After that when scene was over, the actress changed her dress into a torn and tattered one. The crew then put patches of red paint all over her to simulate blood that oozed out of her body. Then the shooting continued. At other times there were shooting of other shows. We really had enjoyable times watching those shootings. Well! The next time when you watch old Malay shows about the Myths, Legends and Heroes of bygone eras by P Ramlee, Hamid Bond, Melati, Ah Leng, there are chances that they were scenes that shot!
at the hills of Tanah Merah Kechil. Cathay Keris Film Studio operated at East Coast Road behind Ocean Park Hotel just before the Siglap Canal.
At present, 2010, it is the Ocean Park condominium. In the 1960’s Datok Loke Wan Tho developed the land at Jalan Buloh Perindu to build Seaside Park. The roads in Seaside Park were all named after the legends of Malay eras. Some examples are Jalan Keris, Jalan Selandang Delima, Jalan Puteri Jula Juli, Jalan Negara Ku, Jalan Dondang Sayang and Jalan Azam.
Those days there were rumours abound. There was once a rumour scare that a tiger was sneaking around the neighbourhood. When the sun went down every household would stay indoors and latched their doors. Everyone was all ears for any unusual sounds. If there were, the entire household members would grab whatever in hands be they broomsticks, parangs, changkuls, spades or metal rods. The able-bodied males would use their powerful torchlights and searched high and low in every nook and corner - up the trees, in the pig sties, chicken coops, wood piles, etc. Then there was this landowner whose name was Mr Gan Cheng Huat. Those days, landowners were allowed to own rifles. He owned a rifle. On one of those Sundays, he took out his rifle and started shooting at water fowls and other birds at the same time searching for the tiger. When a bird was shot, we would rush to where the bird was dropped and retrieved it. We went hills after hills from Kampong Tanah Merah Kechil to Siglap,!
then to Chai Chee. We came back without sighting any tiger but a handful of dead birds. We, the siblings got an earful from our parents for following Mr Gan without their consent. We regretted our actions.
Then there was also the oily man scare. It was reported that a naked man whose whole body was smeared with oil was seen loitering around the kampong committing thefts as well as molesting women. It was rumored that someone actually caught hold of him but he slipped off because of his slippery body. Again the adults of the whole kampong would light up kerosene lamps outside their houses and stayed awake to keep watch. There were instances of mistaken identity. The victims were roughened up.
When Chin Shih Huang built the Great Wall of China, it was believed that the success was due to the sacrificial of human lives. In early 1920s, the Causeway linking Singapore and Johore was being built. It believed that to successfully building the Causeway, human lives were to be sacrificed. The rumours took the kampong by storms. Any new faces who came into the kampongs were carefully watched and sometimes abusive. Everybody was on the alert for any eventuality. Then again it was rumoured that when the Lim Yew Hock government was building Merdeka Bridge, pregnant women were needed to be sacrificed. The pregnant women of the kampong then made themselves scarce. Mdm Ong Ka’s daughter Ong Poh Chu told us a very convincing story. A lady whose daughter was kidnapped pleaded everyday in tears to an inspector whom she knew was involved in such kidnapping cases. The inspector took pity on her and relented. He promised to help but told her not to divulge anything to anyone as i!
t was a state secret. Naturally she promised at once. It was told that she was brought to a tunnel where all the kidnapped pregnant women were drugged and were shaved bald. She went through everyone calling her daughter’s name but in vain. She came out of the tunnel feeling disappointed but related to everyone she met about her experiences.
There was also a ‘Pontianak’ scare. It was about a Malay pregnant woman who died during childbirth. Her wandering spirit stayed behind on Earth to take revenge on the one who caused her to die. It was believed that she had long hair and always appeared in white. A stream of red blood also flowed down one side of her mouth attacking only men. It seemed she floated from trees to trees from dawn to dusk. Again the whole kampong was very frightened of the scare. Nobody dared to venture out at night.
It seemed she was afraid of one thing - the needle. It was advised that whenever any man was attacked by it, the best defence was to poke its eyes with a needle. My grandma advised everyone of us to carry a needle in our wallet. I dutifully carried one too. With passing months when nobody was attacked by it, the Pontianak scare slowly faded away.
Then there was also a story of a taxi driver. She picked up a fare along Changi Road one late night. She alighted at the Changi 8th milestone Hokkien cemetery. She paid her fare and walked into the cemetery. Then when the driver scrutinized the fare she paid, it turned out to be joss paper. He sped home and was sick for days.
One afternoon, I was walking back from school alone. Being curious, I saw a bird cage. I walked nearer to observe it. There was a small human figure made of dough. Fearing for my life, my hair stood on ends. I flew home as if I had seen a ghost. I had heard of bomohs making figure of humans. Whoever approached him for revenge, he would cast a spell on the dough figure simulating that real person. When he disfigured any part of the dough figure, it would be literally affecting the real person, rendering him sick with pain. For many days, I dared not walk alone along that stretch of road.
Whenever, we walked along Jalan Haji Salam, we sometimes encountered an elderly man without shirt, clad only with a sarong, carrying a pot of burning incense (kemuyan) moving around the house at the same time mumbling in his mouth. The smell of the incense was quite unlike Chinese joss-sticks. It was overpowering. We walked briskly away fearing that he might be a bomoh would cast a spell a spell on us.
In 1959, there were a few times, we watched film shows at an open ground in the kampong. At about six, a Ministry of Culture van would show up, A cloth screen was put up, then music was played The music attracted so many of the kampong folks. We siblings were also attracted to it. It seemed we were the only non-Malays there. The films were in black and white and were in Malay. One film that I remembered was a man who fell in love with a mermaid. After the show, there was a brief talk on current affairs of Singapore.
It was really very exciting experiencing the thrills and spills of a Malay kampong life. Such experiences enriched our lives so much that whenever we siblings met, we would recall those days we had.