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Mar 31, 2012

Ways Done in the Past - Charcoal for Fuel

What are these wooden logs?

These are the charcoal, a black substance that resembles coal and is used as a source of fuel. Charcoal is generally made from wood that has been burnt, or charred, while being deprived of oxygen so that what's left is an impure carbon residue. While charcoal is used in the manufacture of various objects from crayons to filters, its most common use is as a fuel.

Children fanning charcoal stove in the kampong kitchen  c 1960
 In the ways done in the past in Singapore, charcoal for fuel for domestic uses in the homes is very common in the 1950s. My mother used it this way when we lived in Bukit Ho Swee in the 1960s. We did not realize that this was a fire hazard, especially when a fan had to be used to stoke the fire for more heat.

As the saying goes: "add fuel to the flame (figuratively): to make a problem worse; to say or do something that makes a bad situation worse; to make an angry person get even angrier. (Alludes to causing a flame to grow larger someone or something to move forward when fuel is added). Rumour-mongers who love speculations to attack people with their mouths and words (now can use digitally through SMS, Facebook and more fast and convenient ways) are never to ask me how the fire was started in Bukit Ho Swee in 1961. I would chase these "kay poh" people away because my own house was burnt down and I who could tell how the stove with burning charcoal was accidentally overturned or something. Please don't disturb me!

In fact my mother had told me that everybody who lived in attap wooden houses in Bukit Ho Swee or other kampongs were living with fear of a fire.

As I remembered that my mother was interviewed in Hokkien by a small group of young people after the fire, apparently non-Bukit Ho Swee residents, and asked: "Ah Mng, si mi nang pang heh ah" (Auntie, who set the fire?).

She told them not to bother her with this type of investigations because like other fire victims, she was already feeling sad and worried without a home. Can you help us with a house for my family, she asked with annoyance at a time of crisis.

My mother had heard from elders a Buddha quotation (but not in so many words though)-
It is as if a man had been wounded by an arrow thickly smeared with poison, and his friends and kinsmen were to get a surgeon to heal him, and he were to say, I will not have this arrow pulled out until I know by what man I was wounded, whether he is of the warrior caste, or a brahmin, or of the agricultural, or the lowest caste. Or if he were to say, I will not have this arrow pulled out until I know of what name of family the man is — or whether he is tall, or short or of middle height … Before knowing all this, the man would die.
Simply in her plain words: "When shot by poisoned arrow, pulled it out and look for help. Don't ask too many useless question or will just die". I knew her meanings and could understand what she said. Later on, I found this quotation in the Buddha Dharma.

The frequently asked question about the Bukit Ho Swee Fire is found in the latest book "Pioneers Once More" (The Singapore Public Service 1959-2009) by Chua Mui Hoong on Page 59:
"A major test for the new HDB came in 1961 when the slums at Bukit Ho Swee burnt down in a fire. This was the third fire in the area. Those who lost their homes were rehoused in nine months. Ironically, this gave rise to a rumour that the HDB had been responsible for the fire to clear the slums in the first place.

Mr Lim Kim San, the energetic and practical businessman who took charge of its building programme as a hands-on Housing & Development Board (HDB) Chairman, pooh-poophed this suggestion in his interview with the Oral History Department, waying the HDB's technical team was able to come up with plans quickly, knowing the urgency of the problem.

There were fire victims with lots of speculations, gossips and rumours during the fire to coincide with the rapid building of HDB flats in the early days of Singapore's development of housing for the people. The "kopitiam talk" spread like wildfire because the kampong people were told that "the HDB flats were built to standby for the Bukit Ho Swee fire victims..."
In primary school, I have read a nursery story of "The Three Little Pigs" who built a house with straw, another with wood and another with brick to protect against the big, bad wolf. I did not attend nursery school in my young days, so I was a late learner in school. It wasn't my fault or the education system, young kids at that time had more time to play because nurseries and kindergartens were not built for the community in those days.

The favorite nursery story book for children.

Fuels for domestic uses in the kampongs

The burning charcoal and earthen stove.

Another fuel for cooking used in the kampong as I remembered, was with sawdust. That was with my auntie at Kim Chuan Road where she lived in the 1960s. Please read about it here .

The sawdust was supplied by the wooden log factory near the house. My cousins would usually collect the firewood sawn sawdust in sacks at very low cost. However, the sawdust as fuel was very dusty, smoky and highly polluted unlike the use of charcoal.

This is the photo of a specially designed stove in the kitchen as displayed at the Pinang Peranakan Museum in Penang. For the purpose of exhibition, charcoal was not used.

With the help of "memory aids" from the National Archives of Singapore, with photo credit and acknowledgement with thanks the curated old photos on this blog.

These photos were taken at a charcoal yard somewhere in nearby Indonesian island and transported on boats to Tanjong Rhu in the past.

Charcoal are still available in Singapore now, especially the shops near Changi Point, Pasir Ris Park, East Coast Park, West Coast Park, Sembawang Park and other beaches provided by the National Park for rental of barbecue pits.

These charcoal in smaller sizes and quantities are packed and sold as fuel for grilling purposes on the barbecue pits.

BBQ party at the beach.

The most common ways done now for domestic use of fuel in the homes are portable gas cylinder by delivery shown in this photo. An alternative fuel which is cleaner and safer to protect the environment.



Blogger lim said...

Cylinder gas is definitely the cleaner fuel today. But the fear of fire is never lessened - gas leak, explosion, and forgetting to turn off the fire.

April 2, 2012 at 11:03 PM  
Blogger Thimbuktu said...

William Lam's input transferred from his Facebook posting:

Charcoal was all along imported mainly from the Riau Province in Sumatra Indonesia. Originally it came in through Rochor Port which was situated somewhere at the site of the present Golden Mile Shopping Complex and also at the Telok Ayer Area.

Both these places were replaced by Tanjong Rhu, which was later also shifted to Pasir Panjang Port. My maternal grandfather was a big importer of charcoal from Sumatra and owned many ships which carried the charcoal into Singapore.

April 3, 2012 at 8:54 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

hi, thanks for sharing it.yes Cylinder gas is definitely the cleaner fuel today. use it carefully and turn off your Gas Regulator when not using it. you can visit our site for industrial gas and Gas Regulator in Singapore

February 10, 2015 at 11:27 AM  

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