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Jun 1, 2019

Growing up in a Boon Lay farm

Mr Winston Chai, a kampong boy at heart, cherishes his childhood memories of open spaces and communal living in Jurong.

[Source:  The Straits Times on 17 February 2013.  By Teh Joo Lin]

When his science teacher taught the class about shrimps, water stick insects, and other aquatic creatures in Primary 4, Mr Winston Chai was the only student in his class of 40 who didn't bat an eyelid.

These were daily sightings at the fish and vegetable farm where he spent the first 14 years of his life in the late 1970s and 1980s.

Mr Chai, 38, says: "Until that lesson, I didn't realise how different my childhood was.  Even my form teacher was very intrigued when he realised that I knew all this first-hand, because he himself never had such an experience."

He started supplying bags of water plants and animals to stock up the school's eco-garden.

Mr Chai was born in 1975 to a family that reared tropical fish and grew vegetables in Jalan Bahar, near Boon Lay.

Plenty of room

His house - built from wooden planks and topped with a zinc roof - sat on a knoll on the plot of land, which was about the size of three to four football fields.

His neighbours had also cleared the forest to rear pigs and chickens, and plant fruit trees and vegetables.

The environment was a world away from the high-rise housing estates that they would move to in the late 1980s, when the Government took back the land.

Mr Chai, a civil servant, says: "I miss the wide, open spaces.  Back then, I had no concept of what space constraints were.  When I visited my relatives who lived in a three-room flat, I couldn't understand how three or four cousins could share a room.  In our house, if we were short of rooms, my grandfather just built a new wing."

The farmhouse had 11 rooms for the family of seven.

There were two garages and even a warehouse.

Growing up, Mr Chai spent most of his time outdoors.  He caught everything from fish to frogs, climbed guava trees, sped down dirt slopes in a bicycle and darted around the graves of the nearby Choa Chu Kang cemetery - but only in the day.

Badminton games

"It was spooky at night.  At that time, especially in the 1980s, vampire and ghost movies from Hong Kong were popular.  They fed my imagination," he says.

In the evenings, the grown-ups had their fun too, when they put down their tools, picked up badminton racquets, and made a beeline for Mr Chai's home.

The nightly "badminton tournaments" took place there because the house had a courtyard that was laid with concrete and spotlights.

Somehow, the wide tracts of land that separated one home from another brought everyone closer together.

He says: "There were a lot of communal activities where the concept of sharing was instinctive.  Today, we get privacy and we exchange pleasantries with neighbours, but things don't really go much further than that."

Python party

Neighbours often came knocking to share their harvests, such as papayas and mangoes.

Even pythons, which slithered onto the farmland to prey on the poultry, were shared.

He says: "When people see pythons now, they don't know what to do.  For us, the natural instinct was to take control of the threat on our own.  We didn't call the police.  We just grabbed a pole and a gunny sack."

Snakes up to 2m long ended up in the cooking pot.

He says: "The snake was used to make herbal soup.  All the neighbours would be invited to dinner and there would be a huge 'python feast'.

"But I wasn't a fan of the soup.  I haven't had it since."

Shortcut for soldiers

Other types of "intruders" were treated more civilly - soldiers who strayed onto the land when they got lost during night exercises.

One night, after the family was roused by "banging on the door", Mr Chai's grandfather flung it open to real dozens of uniformed men wearing helmets, field packs and rifles.  They needed directions.

He says: "My grandfather let them walk through our property and take a shortcut.  Otherwise, they would have had to make a huge detour.  It was quite funny sight to see them troop past one by one."

Several years later, it was Mr Chai's turn to enlist for national service and undergo training near the farmland.

He says: "That brought back a lot of memories of childhood."

By then, lost soldiers no longer had anyone to turn to for directions.  The farms had already been torn down.  The land was overrun with overgrown grass.

The family moved to a five-room Housing Board flat in Teck Whye, and his father earned his keep as a taxi driver.

He says: "From being woken up by the crow of roosters and birds chirping, it became the noise of traffic.  But the move wasn't traumatic for me.  It was more so for my grandparents."

From Boon Lay to Bukit Batok

More than two decades have since passed.  Mr Chai went on to graduate from university, tie the knot with his former schoolmate and move to an apartment off Bukit Batok, which he chose for the surrounding nature and greenery.

Other preferences from the past have stayed with him.

Recalling how he dreamt up his own games and fashioned his own catapults and fishing poles, he says: "We were pretty much self-sufficient, and made the most of what we had.  Until today, I don't like to depend on others.  People also say I am not a conventional thinker in the way I approach my problems.  That has really stuck with me through adulthood."

"At the end of the day, I am still a kampong boy at heart."


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