Friends of the Museums Singapore publication “Passage” July/August 2015 issue with courtesy of the National Museum of Singapore reproduced on this blog to share.
I was born in 1948 and grew up in Kampong Bukit Ho Swee until a devastating fire burned it to the ground in May 1961. In the 1950s, when I was young, the kampong was a residential precinct of about 2,800 home not far from the larger Kampong Tiong Bahru. The post-World War II years saw a boom in the population, which had increased from 2,772 people in 1948 to 19,017 by 1957.
It was a carefree childhood. I remember that a cemented path led to the landlord’s house at 21A, Beo Lane, behind which was a row of tenants’ houses. My family’s home had just two rooms and so my father slept in the kitchen area on a foldable canvas bed. The landlord’s great grandfather’s tomb was located behind his house and my friends and I used it as a playground.
There was a banyan tree opposite the landlord’s house, which was lit up at night. Under this tree, my childhood buddies and I would get together after dinner for a chit-chat. I remember that Ah Huat was a good story-teller who used to tell us ghost stories that he made up in order to scare us. He was a friendly dark-complexioned boy who was studying at Gan Eng Seng Secondary School. His family’s house was also destroyed during the fire and I lost contact with him.
During the kampong days, it was common for villagers to rear chicken, ducks and pigs. My mother kept herself busy with household chores, marketing and cooking meals for the family. When I was at school and my sisters and my father were at work, mother built a wooden cage and reared a few chicks. The day-old chicks were bought from a poultry shop in Beach Road and I used to play with and feed them. It was fun and I treated them as pets. Outside the house, my mother also built a wooden rack from discarded planks and pieces of wood found all over the place around the kampong. She was quite innovative and creative. The wooden racks were used for small pots of plants such as chillies, bitter gourd and tomatoes, which were easy to grow. She often used these fresh, home-grown vegetables for our meals.
Our landlord, Sai Chek (Uncle Lion in Hokkien) had a son nicknamed Luk Tee (sixth child in Hokkien) because he was the family’s sixth child. Luk Tee was in Secondary Four and his favourite hobby was rearing fighting fish for sale. During weekends, he would take his best fighting fish to competitions. They were kept in small jars and placed along the corridors in the house until they were sold. As he had often won first prize in these competitions,Luk Tee was known as the “Fighting Fish King of Bukit Ho Swee” and as his reputation grew, so did his business. The row of fighting fish jars had cardboard pieces inserted between them to prevent the fish from fighting and being injured. Luk Tee also had a secret formula for feeding his fish … fresh, fat maggots to make them strong and fierce.
Since you couldn’t buy maggots from pet shops, aquariums or anywhere else in Singapore, he created a concrete “maggot pool” directly opposite where I lived. Whenever there was a shortage in the supply of maggots, Luk Tee would pay someone to extract excrement from the toilet (at that time the bucket system was used) and would throw these “fighting fish vitamins” into the maggot pool, which was filled with two or three inches of water. Within several days, the fresh maggots would be scooped into a container to feed the fish. This was his secret to success.
Bukit Ho Swee today is vastly different from what it used to be – high-rise apartment buildings now comprise the landscape. We live in different times, with different adventures and challenges ahead for the younger generations. They too have hopes and aspirations just as we did, but also better opportunities in the Bukit Ho Swee of today.
Sketches by Andrew Yeo Kian Hwee. Photo courtesy of the author.
James Seah is 66 years old, a member of the pioneer generation and a blogger who shares his memories of Singapore’s past. Born and bred here, he grew up in Kampong Bukit Ho Swee.
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