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A "recycled teenager" learning to blog.

Oct 23, 2014

Footprints of Singapore Immigrants

An oil painting entitled Dr Sun Yat Sen and Chinatown a century ago by artist Chen Chudian displayed at the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall.  (Photo above).

Following in the Footsteps of Singapore's Chinese immigrants

On 26 July 2014, some 200 people gathered at the National Museum to revisit the lives of Singapore's Chinese immigrants and to learn how they helped the nation in Singapore's early years.

They watched a special screening of Footprints - a four-part documentary about Singapore's earliest migrant communities. Those who attended included students and members of clan associations.

The event is a tie-up between Channel NewsAsia and the National Heritage Board, and is part of the celebrations of Singapore's Heritage Festival.


The immigration of Chinese coolies was high between the periods of 1823 to 1891 after Singapore became a free port, between 1910 to 1911 before the first World War and between 1926 to 1927, soon after the war. Coolie emigration decreased after 1927 because of the economic depression, followed by the Japanese occupation and then the World War II.

Unemployed immigrants by the boatloads flocked to Singapore due to the unfavourable conditions in their villages in China. While others were simply attracted to Singapore because there were many job opportunities available for them. 

Coolie trade never peaked after this and most immigrants after World War II were workers with better education, skills and training.  My father arrived in Singapore in the early 1940s with book-keeping qualification in Chinese.

"May you always find new roads to travel; new horizons to explore; new dreams to call your own".   – James Oppenheim

To escape from the Chinese Revolution, (1911–12), nationalist democratic revolt that overthrew the Qing (or Manchu) dynasty in 1912 and civil war in China.  There was news by words of mouth in the village that Nanyang (Chinese: 南洋; literally: "Southern Ocean") offers the uneducated and illiterate people to earn their livings in Singapore for menial jobs as Singapore's growth as an entreport and trading centre.  Many immigrants travel on one way boat ticket to Singapore from China with their hard-earned own life savings.

Coolies worked as rickshaw pullers, trishaw riders and farmers. They were employed in mines, ports, in rubber and other plantations, in clearing jungles and on construction sites. They did back-breaking tasks such as loading and unloading cargo and as farmers. They were employed in ports, in rubber and other plantations, in clearing jungles and on construction sites. They did back-breaking tasks such as loading and unloading cargo and dulang washing or tin ore mining under the scorching sun. It was a common sight in early Singapore to see coolies carrying gunny sacks filled with commodities such as spices and sugar near the Singapore river.

The coolies were, in a way, the backbone of early Singapore's economy because they generated growth for the economy and caused the country to prosper. Few Chinese coolies went back to China later but most coolies settled down in Singapore doing other odd jobs.

A Samsui worker at a construction site 

The coolies contributed to Singapore's growth as a trading centre as they helped in the urban city planning of Singapore. When they provided the necessary transport, more traders and merchants were attracted to Singapore as transportation was readily and easily available When the coolies helped to grow those things more traders and merchants were attracted to Singapore. Not only that, there was an increase in trading activities as there were many varieties of merchandise from Great Britain and other European countries in the early days.

The coolies suffered much hardship, they were very poor and lived in cramped dwellings with no windows and light. Many of the jobs taken by coolies involved hard labour, taking a toll on their bodies.

The coolies lived in cramped environment and most of them were near Chinatown as the Singapore River was near and was easy for them to go to work.

Coolies were employed in almost every sector of work including construction work, plantation work, in ports and mines and as rickshaw pullers. The word “coolie” is believed to have come from the Hindi term kuli, which is also the name of a native tribe of Gujerat in western India. It is believed that the Kulis were among the first coolies as they were easy to recruit because they lived on the northern Indian coast. The word kuli  also means "hire" in Tamil.

Chinese coolies were driven by poverty in China to seek a better life in Singapore.

The newly arrived coolie recruit was called sin kheh which meant "new arrival" in Hokkien. The secret societies and clan associations were involved in controlling and regulating the immigration of coolies from China. Secret societies would help the peasants pay for their journey to Singapore.

Upon arrival, the majority of the early coolies would be handed over to employers of the same dialect, The kongsi, or a "clan association" was either an organisation, a group or a network of like-minded individuals speaking the same dialect or from the same province/part of China. The secret societies therefore acted as agents helping the peasants to come to Singapore, and to find employers from a certain kongsi, depending on the dialect of the particular peasant. Recruitment was carried out based on dialect connections. The secret societies helped support the coolies financially in times of illness, defended their livelihoods and organised final rites.

The British however felt threatened by the rising power and prominence of the secret societies, and made these societies illegal in 1890. An official Chinese Protectorate was set up to handle the immigration and official procedures for coolies. Voluntary associations also arose, supporting the coolies in their immigration and transition into Singapore.

They were given to opium inhaling to relieve their tired bodies of its soreness and to gambling in an attempt to escape from their misery. The whites and wealthy Chinese employed the coolies mainly because of their willingness to work hard for little money.

During the Japanese Occupation, Singapore was "Syonan-To" and purchase of "chandu" (opium) was legalized.  Authorisation cards are issued by the Japanese military administrators at a controlled quantity for each person.

As Singapore developed economically, the need for coolies declined. With Singapore's independence in 1965, came new laws and radical economic restructuring. Modern technology was developed and incorporated at a fast pace which included use of machines in freight transport. The coolies in the harbour were no longer needed. Similarly the need for coolies in other areas of work too declined. This forced the coolies to look to other means of living. Coolies to on work as domestic servants, shop assistants and as helping hands in different areas of work. Some coolies even picked up some skills and found employment in shops such as that of shoe makers, blacksmiths and carpenters.

Excerpts from a history project by Harreini Jeyaudin, Bonita Ong, Sahanas d/o Syed Muabarak and Vinnie Heng Kai Ning in 2013 with acknowledgement of sources from Naidu Ratnala Thulaja at Infopedia., the National Archives of Singapore, NewspaperSG of National Library Board are acknowledged with thanks as the source credit on the blog.

The relevant material from various resources to share on this nostalgic blog for the benefit of everyone.  The articles and archived photos are not intended for commercial or for profit purposes.

Oct 19, 2014

Shooting Selfies With Keepsake

Zinkie Aw with Thimbuktu

The Singapore Memory Project (SMP) organized by the Memory Maker Series "Shooting Selfies with Keepsake" conducted by Zinkie Aw at the Woodlands Regional Library on 18 October, 2014. 

Singaporean photographer Zinkie Aw often photographs habits: Habits of people, habits of a society for her choice of conceptual work.  She believes every click of the shutter, be it instinctive or deliberated, is an observation of life via photography.

Her documentary and conceptual photo series are flamboyant ways in which she thinks aloud, and these concern issues that are close to her heart that she wants to share with the world. These works are the precipitation of careful introspection she has day-to-day, and reactions to the society that she lives in.

Zinkie's photos have been published in The Sunday Times (UK), Kult Magazine, Catalog (Singapore), Weekend Weekly (HK), 《 L a V i e . 漂 亮 》 (Taiwan) etc. and also featured in various online news like Invisible Photographer Asia,, PetaPixel, PSFK and other feature sites. Her works have also also exhibited in the Px3 Prix de la Photographie Paris exhibition (2013), Galeri Petronas in Kuala Lumpur (2013) and Goodsman Arts Centre, ION Orchard and Ngee Ann City locally. Additionally, she has also been selected to attend the Angkor Photo Workshop (2012), and also garnered Honourable Mentions (Lifestyle; Deeper Perspective categories) in the International Photography Awards (2013).

Zinkie is also co-producer of film Platform 1932, a documentary made in 2008 before the historical Tanjong Pagar Railway Station ceased to operate as the southern-most terminus of the Malayan Railway line.

The alumna from the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information (Hons) is very thankful for chances and the help that bosses, colleagues, family and friends & acquaintances who has helped her along the process of photography.

Other than conceptual work, she also enjoys events and documentary photography. On a monthly basis, she also guides participants on Street Photography at the Canon Imaging Academy (Singapore)

Zinkie’s flavour of street photography takes on the banal with a quirky twist, often captured in vibrant colour palettes.

It was an interesting, relaxed workshop learning session from Zinkie with loads of practical tips to shoot selfies with keepsake.  She is a bouncy, energetic, enthusiastic young photographer with passion, creative ideas and its fun to learn from her.  Her tips are derived from her personal experiences as a professional photographer for many years.

Say hello at or give a poke on facebook and instagram @zonkie.
View her stuff on flickr too.

Thank you Zinkie for sharing your helpful tips about "selfie" photography knowledge and experiences at the workshop.  I have learnt many new "thingy" free-of-charge to everyone at the course.

You are an awesome gal, Zinkie.  ZINKIE AWesome!


Oct 17, 2014

No Peace of Life for Unlicensed Hawkers in the Past


Oct 9, 2014

Memories of National Service Registration at Central Manpower Base, Kallang Road

Conscription in Singapore, called National Service (NS), requires all male Singaporean citizens and second-generation permanent residents who have reached the age of 18 to register for national service compulsorily. The NS (Amendment) act was passed on 14 March 1967, as the government felt that it was necessary to build a substantial military force to defend itself.

Then Defence Minister Goh Keng Swee justified the government’s decision to introduce compulsory conscription of male youths on the grounds of establishing a credible defence force and nation-building for Singapore. NS was also seen as the best way to quickly build up Singapore’s defence forces without placing a heavy burden on the country’s financial and manpower resource

As I was born in Singapore in 1948, I was not required for compulsory national service under age group.

However, by virtue of Gazette Notification No. 689 dated 17 March, 1967, I was registered for national service registration in 1965 when I joined the civil service.

An official letter from my Outpatient Services Department, Ministry of Health was handed to me to report to CMPB HQ at Kallang Road, located beside the People's Association Headquaters.  The building was the former Kallang Airport.

The following day when I received the call-up letter, I was given official time-off from work in the morning.

The place was crowded and I had to join the queue at the CMPB HQ office. The single-storey  buildings at Central ManPower Base (CMPB) appeared to be a few disused former army barracks. The old wooden furniture in the CMPB were outdated and primitive designs.  Most of the administration clerical staff were ladies in army uniform.

I produced my pink NRIC (national registration identity card) as proof that I am a Singapore citizen. We had a briefing and then made our national pledge in a hall. Through the process of form filling, I was then instructed to proceed for a medical test, weighing, physical pull-ups and later to be interviewed by the a male army officer. I was required for a blood test; then given a small bottle to collect some urine for me at the toilet.

However, I did not have any urine at the time. I did have an urge to pass urine. So I then bought a bottle of Pepsi Cola at the CMPB canteen for a drink.

About an hour later, urine was naturally produced from my body and collected my urine at the toilet and fill it in the bottle for the medical test.

The registered national servicemen sweared in front of the Singapore national flag for the national pledge as the citizens of Singapore.

The standard proceduce at CMPB was completed and I was informed to wait for the result of my national service registration. The letter was sent officially to my office a few weeks later.

I was selected to serve national service and fixed a date to report to CMPB for the basic military training (BMT) in-camp. We were informed to bring along our personal belongings and toiletries. With about 50 young national servicemen as recruits for the first time, we boarded the 6-tonner truck on our way to the camp.

We were wondering where to go and what would happen to us later until we arrived at the camp. My memories and experience  here .

That was my first experience at CMPB to register my national service over 50 years ago.


Oct 5, 2014

Tampines Singapore in the Past

The banner in Chinese:  "The farmers of Tampines warmly welcome their "Saviour Star" Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

Tampines in the Past

Many old-timers, now known as the "Pioneer Generation Singaporeans", have seen the rapid changing landscapes of Singapore over 50 years.

If Singapore had remained stagnant without the founding fathers and community leaders of Singapore and time stood still, nothing would happen and the HDB new satellite towns in every parts of Singapore to materialize.

The early years of Singapore to develop and build was not easy, not so rapid.

As a case in point, this blog topic mention about Tampines.

How would it be possible for hundreds of thousand Singaporeans who formerly own land as vegetable farms, poultry farms, land for pig rearing, rubber plantations or fruit plantation to earn a living for their families to be resettled.

No, not to have another Bukit Ho Swee fire for the government to acquire private land for the people to develop.

The Straits Times, 6 May, 1970 by Yap Cheng Tong

Better Housing and Increased Incomes

A survey discloses that 16,200 people who came under the Housing Board's massive resettlement plan now have better house and other amenities.

Those who gave up farming for urban jobs have also increased their incomes.

The 16,200 mainly farmers, used to live in the outskirts of the urban centre.

Their land was required for constructions of low cost public housing, schools, industrial estates, and the infrastructure for social and economic development.

Now - where there used to be market gardening, flower planting, poultry or pig rearing - satellite towns have sprung up, like Queenstown, Macpherson, Toa Payoh and Jurong Town.

One decade

The effects of this huge resettlement programme, which began a decade ago, were studied in a census carried out from November, 1967 to March, 1968.  The results have just been published.

The census was jointly carried out by the Economic Research Centre of the University of Singapore and the Housing Board, under the overall direction of Dr. Stephen Yeh, head of the HDB's Research Department.

It covered 37 resettlement sites totalling 8,456 acres in Ama Keng, Jurong, Chua Chu Kang, Lim Chu Kang, Kranji, Tampines, and other rural area.

Twenty-one of the sites, containing almost 10,000 people, were under Land Office management.

The rest, which had not been completely redeveloped at the time of the census, were managed by the Housing Board.

Zinc roofs

The census found that housing condition have improved.  Zinc-roofed houses have replaced attap homes.

Amenities have also improved.  In Housing Board managed areas, 73 per cent of the 1,389 households now have piped water, described as an "improvement" although no pre-census figures are available.

The 10 per cent who had no bath facilities before resettlement have been reduced to 6 per cent.

In Land Office arears, 94 per cent of the 842 families now have piped water - again an improvement.

All of them now have toilet facilities; two per cent had none before.

In Housing Board areas the average monthly income dropped from $197 before resettlement to $164 after the move.

The average farm income after resettlement dropped to $77 from $174, while non-farm income went up to $155 from $198.


The drop in income was partly because those affected had still not completely recovered from the disruption caused by resettlement.

But in fully developed areas, under the Land Office, the average monthly household income rose to $231 after resettlement, from $214.

In those areas farm income dropped from $184 to $114, while non-farm income increased from $161 to $208.

This was because more of the resettled people changed from farm to non-farm occupations.

In Housing Board areas, 979 people were non-farm wage-earners before resettlement.  After relocation the figure rose to 1,138.

Singapore Monitor dated 20 October, 1984

Singapore is expected to be squatter-free by 1990

By the end of this year, there will be an estimated 35,000 to 38,000 squatters left, and the Government plans to resettle all of them in the next few years.

The Senior Parliamentary Secretary (National Development) Mr Lee Yiok Seng said on 9 October, 1984 that the pace of resettlement had accelerated during the last few years.

A total of 60,512 squatters were resettled between 1980 and 1983 - almost two-thirds the number resettled in the preceding nine years.  They received $505.4 million in compensation ...

Mr Lee said the number of squatters resettle them 1970 and 1979 was 104,643.

"It is the Government's intention to make Singapore a squatter-free country by 1990," Mr Lee said.

The aspiration of Singaporeans living in slums and squattered areas for better standards of housing has made resettlement an accepted fact of life, he said.

According to the Housing & Development Board (HDB)m 1983/84 annual report, the number of resettlement cases cleared by the board rose from 14,900 in the previous financial year to 17,900 during the last financial year.

More than 9,000 families were affected.  Most of them were resettled in the new towns in Jurong, Hougang and Tampines.

More than 10,000 of the resettlement cases were rehoused in HDB accomodation in the last financial year and 7,652 found their own accomodation.

Tampines Before Resettlement

Fishing pond in Tampines c 1980s
The above photos of the small scale cottage industry for bean curd makers in Tampines.

The Urban and Rural Services Consultative Committee Visit Tampines on 6 May, 1964

PM Lee Kuan Yew tour Tampines on 31 March, 1963

Its not a fire at Tampines ... the smoke of fire-crackers to welcome PM

PM Lee Kuan Yew receive well-wishers in Tampines on 12 November, 1963

Tampines residents present PM with token of appreciation on 31 March, 1963

President Yusof bin Ishak and PM Lee Kuan Yew invited community leaders of Tampines to Sri Temasek on 16 Februay, 1963 for dinner.

Tampines Community Leaders invited to Sri Temasek on 4 May, 1963 for dinner.

With the splendid efforts of the Government, relevant government authorities, community leaders and all Singaporeans over the decades to help the successful and smooth resettlement process in many parts of Singapore to develop and build the schools, public housing, industrial estates, recreational parks, roads and MRT stations and to become Singapore today.

Tampines Singapore - Then and Now here .