Monday, September 29, 2014

Bokokang - a village from our past.

Bokokang is a place you probably would not have heard of; much less know that it was in Singapore! 
Its heydays were between the 1840s, a couple of decades after Raffles founded Singapore, to the 1870s. Sadly by the early 20th century, it fell into obscurity and was hardly heard of anymore.

1852 map of gambier farms in Northern Singapore.



Bokokang, (or variously spelt Bookoh Kang, Buko Kanka, Bookoh Khan) was a Teochew  village located on the Kranji River .  It was one of the ‘Chu Kangs’ of the day much like Lim Chu Kang and 
Chua Chu Kang.  The Bukoh clan founded it before 1840 but the exact date is unknown. It was originally known as Bukoh Chu Kang but shortened to Bokokang as time passed, and the name became anglicised in the official records. The earliest record of this name was by government surveyor, John Turnbull Thomson, in 1844.

A Chinese village around 1900s. Bokokang would typically look similar.
(Photo source: National Archives of Singapore)

Why is Bokokang so interesting?
Despite being unknown to most people today, even to those studying local history, Bokokang featured prominently in the early days of Singapore. There were several reasons for its pre-eminent status.

Bokokang had a kangkar, or village centre, in that gambier and pepper-growing region of northern Singapore that became the most important trading port for that region. Its location was always marked on early maps of Singapore. 
Bokokang was located where today the Yew Tee and Sungei Kadut Estates are.

Photo source: National Archives of Singapore


I first heard of Bokokang about 30 years ago when I was doing a study of the early catholic church missionary activities and the early gambier farmers in Singapore.

Gambier was already being farmed here by the Chinese even before Raffles established a trading post in Singapore. Then they were mainly used for medicinal or personal consumption. However, when it was discovered that gambier could be used for tanning and dyeing, the demand from Europe was so overwhelming and the profits from it so lucrative that every farmer wanted to plant gambier. Gambier became the cash crop that fuelled the early economy of Singapore.


Photo source: National Archives of Singapore
It was to the industrious Teochew farmers who sought and opened up the lands in the ‘unwanted’ jungle areas to capitalise on this demand. Concessions known as chu kangs were setup in the North, West and North-Eastern areas of Singapore. These chu kang lands came to be known by the name of the headman (the kangchu) who held the concession. Thus, major farm areas came to be known as Choa Chu Kang, Lim Chu Kang, Yeo Chu Kang, Tan Chu Kang, et cetra.

By the 1850s, there were more than 26 major chu kangs known to the colonial administration. All these chu kangs grew gambier and pepper with many of these farms being sub-divided and tenanted to smallhold farmers.
In 1855, a survey done for the purpose of adminstering taxes, showed that the biggest chu kang in Singapore then was Bokokang, which had 426 coolies working on its lands.

A government survey map (1900) of the Bokokang area showing farm boundaries.
Source: National Archives of Singapore

Bokokang by then was an established trading kangkar and commerce was all by river boats that had to travel around the coast to the city merchants to trade.  Travel across the island was not practical due to the dense jungle as well as the threat of man-eating tigers.

The first cross-island overland passage
In 1845, government surveyor John Turnbull Thomson, who was also at that time the appointed Superintendent of Roads, conducted a mapping survey from Bukit Timah Village heading towards the village of Bokokang. Together with his companion, Dr Robert Little, they marked out a route that was previously known to the local villagers towards the north coast of Singapore Island. It was said that they took 4 days to map and mark the 7 mile route to Bokokang. This route would eventually became the road known as Upper Bukit Timah and Woodlands Road.
From Bokokang, JT Thomson proceeded to survey the route towards the coast at Kranji, thus claiming the title of being the 1st to make a cross-island passage from the city to the northern coast.

From John Thomson's map of Singapore published in 1846.
The map marks Bokokang as "Chinese Village"
(This map was added to the blog on 27 April 2015)

The first outstation church in Singapore
In 1846, the Catholic Church established a small church at Bokokang called St Joseph Chapel. A French missionary, Fr Mauduit, was sent to minister to the immigrant Chinese Catholics who farmed around Kranji. This was the first Christian church to be set up outside of Singapore City and Fr Mauduit was so successful in his mission that by 1851, there were more than 300 Catholic converts at Kranji.

The anti-Catholic Riot of 1851
As the British colonials had a laissez-faire attitude towards activities outside the city, the rural farmlands were mainly controlled by the Chinese triads, especially by the notorious Ghee Hin Huay secret society. 
One way for the local farmers to avoid the threats and intimidations of the triads was to convert to Catholicism. By doing this, they could look to the ‘foreign’ church for protection and they no longer were required to pay tithes or protection money to the triads.

The increasing defection to the Catholic Church angered the triads so much that on 15 Feb 1851 the secret society declared war on the Catholic farmers. For a whole week, catholic-owned farms were pillaged, burnt and destroyed and the fighting was finally put down through the intervention of the military forces sent by the colonial government to quell the riot. The riot began at Bokokang and spread to other predominantly Catholic areas like Serangoon. This incident was known as the Anti-Catholic Riot of 1851.

The decline of Bokokang
Gambier was the major cash crop grown in Singapore between the 1830s to its peak in the 1870s.  However, gambier was a plant that was not self sustaining nor was it environmentally-friendly. Gambier leached the soil of all its nutrients so much so that within 15 years most of the soil became infertile. 
Further more, in order to process gambier, three times the amount of firewood in volume was required. The farmers had to constantly chop trees to fuel the cooking process. This resulted in devastating deforestation. In fact, by the turn of the century, it was reported that 75% of the tree cover in Singapore had been deforestation due to this agriculture. This alarmed the authorities so much that the central Bukit Timah region was declared ‘out-of-bounds’ to farming and made into a Nature Reserve to preserve what little was left of the primary forest.

After the 1850s, the soil around Kranji was no longer fertile enough to sustain the gambier growth. Farmers began to look for land elsewhere. The Bukoh clan uprooted and sought new lands around Batu Pahat and Muar in Johore State.

In 1858, a priest from St Joseph Church led a group of 25 Catholic farmers from Bokokang to new lands in Johor.  They set up a new settlement on a river that was given to them under a Surat Sungei concession from the Sultan of Johore.
The new settlement was called Pontian Kechil. The 25 farmers started the small town and the Catholic priest, Fr Augustin Perie, himself was instrumental in creating the road from Pontian Kechil to Ayer Hitam in Johore.

With the steady departure of farmers for new farms in Johore, Bokokang went into decline. Additionally, with the opening of the trunk Bukit Timah Road, river transport became a slower and less viable option. The kangkar was no longer required for transporting the processed goods to town.


Its demise was sealed with the establishment of the Tank Road-Kranji Railway in 1903 that totally bypassed the village. Through natural attrition, Bokokang was not heard of since.


Map of Kranji area showing the gambier and pepper farms












Monday, September 22, 2014

Princess Elizabeth Estate Community Centre - Redux

More than 2 years ago, I wrote a summary of how the community centres started at our old housing estate. From the 1st in 1952, to the 2nd at the shophouse, the 3rd and most familiar one built by People's Association in 1963, and finally, the one at the new Hillview Estate in the 1980s. (article here)

At that time of writing, photographs of the old community centres were extremely difficult to come by. Fortunately, in the past year, the National Archive of Singapore had begun to periodically release old records, maps and documents for public access. This has resulted in more pictures of our old estate being available for viewing.

I have collated some pictures in relation to the old (3rd) community centre for easy viewing here.
If you were in PEE sometime between 1963 to the 1980s, you would have known this building which was the focus of all social events at our estate then.

The first set of pictures is of the laying of the foundation stone by the then Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew on 5th May 1963. This was done during his constituency visit around Singapore in relation to the referendum of merger with the Federation of Malaya.

This is followed by some pictures of the official opening of the community centre by Haji Ya'acob Mohd, the Parliamentary Secretary to the PM's Office, on 11 September 1963.

Finally, a few photos of the 8th Anniversary Celebration of the Community Centre on 24th June 1972. This last set of pictures has special significance for myself as my father and sister are featured in some of them!


1. Laying the foundation Stone - 5th May 1963

On the right of this photo, you can see the mangosteen trees, remnants of what used to be the small  orchard that surrounded 2 badminton courts upon which the new CC was built.
The block in the rear is Blk 17 Prince Charles Rise.








2. Official Opening by Parliamentary Secretary, Mr Ya'acob bin Mohd on 11th Sep 1963.




(Some that I can identify as follows:- Right to Left)
Mr Chua Tong Nee, Quah Baba, Mr Koh Keng Kwee, Mrs Michael Wong, ?, Mrs Kim Swee, Mr Kim Swee, Mr Ya'acob Mohd, Leong Kai Ngin, Dr Rajah, Mr Lee Teck Hup, ? ? ? ? ? ?.

It is interesting to note that during the early years of the community centre, the management and running of the place were all done by unpaid resident volunteers. Only the Organising Secretary, Mr Ronald Lim, who was also a resident of PEE, was employed by the newly established People's Association.


3. The CC 8th Anniversary Celebration Dinner on 24th June 1972.


Mr Lee greeting members of the CC management committee.
Beside Mr Lee is Mr Chor Yeok Eng, MP for Bukit Timah, on his right is Mr Chai Chong Yii, later MP for Bukit Batok and beside Mr Chai is my dad, who was the Management Committee chairman at the time.





The old Princess Elizabeth Estate Community Centre.

If you are able to identify anyone else in the above photos, perhaps your parents, uncles, aunts or even yourself!, please drop me a comment below.


Photo source: National Archive of Singapore.


Thursday, September 18, 2014

Photos from ex-residents (19) - More from Tay Kay Swee

Two photographs from way back in 1956/1957 from Tay Kay Swee.
Can you identify any of them?

      Teachers vs. Students Football Match played at our estate big field.
      Kay Swee is the centre of the middle row. Those on his right were teachers and those on his left         were students. Wonder what was the outcome of the match?

Front L-R:- ?, James, ?, Foo x x, Lim Mou Sing, ?, ?, ?, Tai Sun, ?
Middle L-R:- Robert De Souza, Bakar, ?, Tay Kay Swee, ?, ?, Ah Song.
Back L-R: Krisnan, Edmond Doss, ?, ?.







    Deep Sea fishing trip with residents of P.E.E and Scout Master Bernard Fernandez around 1957.
    Photo taken in front of the Principal's office at the school.






Standing L- R : 
1 & 4)  Nair brothers  ( Block 23 )
2) Chan Kum Fatt (107 Prince Charles Rise )
3) Bernard Fernandez ( Scout Master / teacher )

Front row L- R :
1) Seetoh Chow Hoi ( PEE "Lok Hoy Tailor" shop )
2) Tay Kay Swee (116 Princess Anne Hill )



Friday, September 12, 2014

The Girl Guides - 1958

These are the Girl Guides from 1958 in a group photo with their Guide Mistress, Ms Jane Charles, taken outside the ground floor classrooms.
Probably long before most of our time (at least mine!), some of these young ladies may even be your aunts or mothers! Do drop me a comment  if you still recall any of them, or tell us of your days in the school scout or guide movement at Princess Elizabeth Estate School.

(Click on the photo for a large detailed view)
Seated L- R :
 1) ?  (Lived in Fuyong Estate)
 2) Tay Sock Joo
 3) Loo Kim Suan 
 4) Susie Ponnusamy ( Principal M.Ponnusamy's daughter )
 5) ?
 6) ?
 7) ?  
 8) Ms Jane Charles ( teacher )
 9) Victoria Cunico 
10) Leela Nair 
11) ?
12) Catherine Seetoh 
13) Wong Hock Soon 
14) Tay Sock Suan.

Standing L- R :
1) ?  (Lived at 7th mile) 
2) Tan Phuah Choo
3) ? 

4) Aw Choy Peng.

Photo credit: Catherine Seetoh.



Sunday, September 7, 2014

Photos from ex-residents (18) - Tay Kay Swee

Tay Kay Swee was in Princess Elizabeth Estate School from 1954-1957.
(See previous blog article here.)
He shares with us the following photos from his school days and of his scout days at PEES.

The Inter-school Table Tennis Champions for 1956.
(Tay Kay Swee is 2nd from left. Beng Seng far right
& Leong Li Lian front left )

Scout Badges 







Friday, September 5, 2014

Looking for old friends - Tay Kay Swee

Tay Kay Swee was a pupil at Princess Elizabeth Estate School from 1954 to 1957.
That would make him one of the pioneers at PEE School that moved to Hillview in 1955.

Kay Swee lived with his family at Blk 19 Princess Anne Hill.
He moved away in 1976 but his family remained there till the estate was closed in 1994.

Tay Kay Swee was in the school scout movement as well as being an active sportsman in school.
He sent me an old photo that was taken after the scout troop ended a camping trip to Sembawang Beach. He was a Troop Leader then in 1956.
He is very keen to meet up with his school mates or anyone from the scout troop.


Princess Elizabeth Estate School Scouts - 9 August 1956.













Though information is sketchy, here's a bit that might help:

Tay Kay Swee - Seated 2nd from left
Idris - Seated 1st far left.
Edmond A Doss - Scout Master - seated 3rd from left
Robert De Souza - Scout Master - seated 4th from left
Lau Cheng Hock (Dr) - seated 2nd from right.
Mohinder Singh - Back row 3rd from right - lived near the circus beside Castrol
Beng Seng - Middle row 2nd from right - sportsman & table tennis player - lived next to the Ang                              family (Ang Meng Huat/Ang Meng Kong) facing the football field.
Kam Fatt- Middle row 6th from right - lived at house facing football field.
Also searching for Seetoh Hon Hoy, the estate tailor's son who was a scout but not in the above photo.

If you can recognise or identify anyone from the photo, do put in a comment below and hopefully, I can get some sort of reunion going for them, as this blog has done for many others.