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May 15, 2016

What is a Kelong?

The original meaning of "kelong" is a word in the Malay language.  It means "stake", a stick or post pointed at one end for driving onto the ground as a boundary mark, part of a fence, etc.

My long-timer pioneer generation friends know what a real kelong is and where the kelongs in Singapore and Malaysia were found.

However, the meaning of "kelong" was corrupted and the younger generation of  Singaporeans today assumed that the actual meaning of "kelong" is popularly defined as "a term used in Singapore/Malaysia to indicate an objective by non appropriate means" as found in the Urban Dictionary.

An example on the use of the word "kelong" was given in the Urban Dictionary.

[ A football game between two teams has been fixed such that Team A will win, even before the game commences.  Team A has 'kelong' the game].

What is a kelong?

A kelong is an offshore platform built predominantly with wood and propped up by tree trunks or wooden poles of about 20m in length.

Wooden poles are also used to construct a funnel-like structure to guide the fish into the net in the centre of the kelong.  The net is lifted daily and the fish collected for sale.

As we watch at the next photos, we would notice the formation of the stakes in a way to create a boundary mark for a specific purpose.

After many months of hard work under the scorching hot sun in the open ocean, the massive structure took shape and form as the building of the "kelong" was completed to see the full pictures below:

The flooring of the kelong shown in the above photo.

A kelong for fish and tourists

Source:  An excerpt from an article by Ong Wee Hock in the Singapore Monitor published on 11 November, 1984. 

... For the benefit of expatriate readers, the kelong is a large, permanent fish trap, with the fishermen living on top of the trap and their work.  From a distance, the kelong looks like a house standing on palm stilts in the sea some hundreds of metres off the coast.

Reliable authorities explain that the kelong was thought up by crafty migrant Chinese who needed to eke out a living from the sea.  Instead of sailing out in search of fish, they came up with the idea of a permanent base.

In their heydays, kelongs sprouted all round the coasts of Singapore and Malaysia, providing healthy, low-cholesterol protein for the people inland.

Civilisation caught up with the kelong.

In Singapore, land reclamation came along.  Where kelongs once stood, now stand the towering public and private flats.  The sea off the reclaimed coastline is too deep for kelongs.  They are just a memory for me, from the days of my youthful bicycle trips through Bedok and Changi.

It was therefore with great relish that I embarked on a trip to a kelong 2 hours boat-ride off the coast of Mersing, a town on the east coast of Malaysia which is about 2 hours drive from Singapore.

... The kelong's nets were raised at 9:30 pm and five more times, at regular intervals, up to 5:30am.  The owner said bad weather would mean only 3 to 5 raisings a night.

On average, each raising netted between 6 to 8 shallow baskets of fish.  At a very rough estimate, the night's catch could be anything from 100 to 120 kilos of fish.

The bulk of the fish was ikan bilis.  Next was ikan kuning.  There were a few idiotic squids which got caught in the next, but no prawns.

Going by my estimate, and contrary to what the owners might claim, the kelong makes at least  M$150 to M$180 a day, given good weather and fair catches. But even with this it's not economic.

The kelong used to harvest better fish - ikan parang, prawns and tuna.

Trawled, caught, frozen, and packed away by those modern companies with giant refrigerated boats operating miles off the coast.  And so the kelong is left high and dry, a dying enterprise.

But not the kelong I visited.  It's been given a new lease of life by 3 enterprising new owners.  They are determined to turn it into a "fish-trap-cum-tourist resort".

The takings from the fish-trap pay for the salaries of the foreman and his 2 henchmen, and for the cost of chartering launches to bring the fish to market.

The tourist resort operations provides the jam for the bread and butter.

At M$100 per person for a weekend, from Friday afternoon to Sunday afternoon for a minimum party of 10, this is a bargain.

This price includes the boat rides to and from the kelong, breakfast, lunch and dinner on Saturday, and breakfast and lunch on Sunday.

For city slickers, the kelong is an enlightening experience.  Minimum toilet facilities (a hole in the floor) and raw nature.  But the coast is clear, the beach clean and the corals - a fantasy of nature.

Life at the Kelong

A boy holding fishes at the kelong.  Photo taken on 31 August, 1954.

Young girls at the kelong in 1967.

Daughter of the kelong's owner in 1967.

The owner of a kelong, Hwa Soon, spoke on how a sudden gust of wind blew his entire kelong into the sea of Ponggol Point on Sunday, while he and a few friends were having a party.  Mr Hwa, 45, said his kelong collapsed at about 5.30am when his friends were in a 'jolly mood' and it was lucky no one was injured or drowned.  According to Mr Hwa, there was no storm that night and the sea was 'quite calm'.  

Picture shows the collapsed kelong in the sea off Punggol Point on 30 August, 1976.

In 1996, a statement from the Primary Production Department (PPD) said the kelong is to be used solely for commercial fishing.  "It is not to be used for social visits, recreation, holidaying purposes or any other activities by relatives, friends and any other people, whether or not a fee is imposed," it said.

Any person who flouts the rule is liable, under the Fisheries Act, to a fine not exceeding $10,000 or a jail term not exceeding one year or both.

The kelongs that once dotted the coastline of Singapore are becoming a rare sight.

Once numbering 45, these offshore fishing platforms anchored into the sea-bed on long wooden poles have dwindled to just 14 in the last 30 years.

And the kelong population is likely to sink further, said a spokesman for the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA), which administers Singapore's kelong community.

The reasons:  New kelong licences are not being issued, and prices of the poles used to prop up the platforms have surged tenfold.

In the 1960s, the AVA stopped issuing new licences because the trade was deemed "not viable and not sustainable".  This, said the AVA spokesman, is in line with what is happening in the rest of the world, where "capture fishery production is expected to decline as overfishing continues".

In its place are fish farms, which import fry and rear them until they are large enough to be sold at markets.

The preparation of wire-netting

A fisherman tending to his nets while seated in his sampan near the river mouth of Kallang River in 1985.  In the background are new Housing and Development Board flats, juxtaposed with squatter huts along the river bank.

Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and his son, Hsien Loong, visited Pulau Sudong in the Southern Islands on 28 April, 1963.

The 25 kelongs in Changi were demolished for the development of the Changi Airport.

The AVA has launched a fund for fish farmers looking to increase their yield.  The agency is also working to identify faster-growing breeds to supply to local fish farms.

Its aim:  to raise the percentage of local fish in the national supply from the current 4 per cent to 15 per cent in the next five years.

Ms November Tan, who runs environmental workshops islandwide, acknowledges that aquaculture is a popular solution for food sustainability:  "Food security will be easier met with fish farming," she said, but added that there are environmental problems with aquaculture.

"There are issues with water pollution due to faecal waste and risk of disease due to fish overcrowding."

The best solution, she said, is to cut down on consumption so the natural population in the sea can replenish itself.

"It boils down to consumer choice," she said.  "Singaporeans almost never ask where our fish come from.  We seem to think there is a never-ending supply.  That is not the case."

In the meantime, 63-year-old Thomas Tan laments the demise of the kelong.  "It is sad.  The younger generation might never know what a kelong is," said the retiree, who used to visit them in his younger days and even took his girlfriend, now his wife, for meals there.

"But Singapore cannot continue in the old way in a changing world."

Note:  The archived photos posted on this blog are curated from the National Archives of Singapore and NewspaperSG with acknowledgement and thanks to share with our nostalgia friends.

The above photo with my Outpatient Services (OPS) colleagues at a private kelong opposite Punggol pier in 1978


Blogger Unk Dicko said...

Great post James !
The old pics bring back the memories we all have.
Even today, many are looking to have overnight trips to kelongs.

May 15, 2017 at 2:58 PM  
Blogger saba said...

Thank you for the photos and the post. I use to go changi beach after school in the early 1970s and classmate father's has sampans for rent. WE have even rowed the sampan to a deserted kelong. So nice to be able to see this pictures and remember the care free days of this island.

November 8, 2019 at 9:19 AM  

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