Sunday, October 27, 2013

Featured in Bukit Gombak Newsletter

I guess I had gained some notoriety from writing this blog about my old beloved housing estate.
About three months ago, I got a call from the Bukit Gombak CCC asking if I could meet them to talk about my blog articles. They were interested in using some articles and pictures from this blog for a new newsletter which they intended to publish for their constituents.

I had no objections as I felt it would be beneficial to this blog to let more people know of our old estate. Free publicity, why not! So after a few sessions with them, here is the article extracted from their inaugural newsletter which they publish last week.

I have added a link below if you are interested in reading the newsletter in its entirety.

p.s. I must clarify that I am not a resident of Bukit Gombak constituency.

Related link: iGombak newsletter

Sunday, October 13, 2013

My Great Great Grandfather founded Chua Chu Kang.

It all started less than two months ago with a question from reader Maidi Lei, "Was the maternal grandfather of Goh Tong Liang the kangchu of Chua Chu Kang?"

This seemingly innocent query was to set off for me a hectic schedule of searches, visits to NLB and the National Archives and bothering friends and relatives for confirmation of facts which till today is still making my head spin!

First, let me explain two things I mentioned above, without which enlightenment you'd probably think I am just blabbering away. These are Goh Tong Liang and the term kangchu.

Goh Tong Liang was my grand uncle, i.e. he was the eldest brother of my grandfather Goh Tong Siew. He was elected to the Legislative Assembly in 1955 and represented the constituency of Bukit Panjang. I wrote about him previously in a blog article about a Sports House at Princess Elizabeth Estate School being named after him.

My granduncle and grandfather came from a very well-known and respected family that seemed to have lived in the Chua Chu Kang/Bukit Panjang rural area for  a very long time. However, I had quite scant details of the actual family background apart from what little my mother told me when I was younger. He was one of the early peranakan kampong boys who was educated at Raffles Institution.

Goh Tong Liang.
Legislative Assemblyman for Bukit Panjang, 1955.
Here is a Straits Times report of 1951 which mentioned my granduncle and that his father and grandfather were responsible for opening up the farm areas in Chua Chu Kang and Jurong during the gambier and pepper farming days of the 19th century.

The Kangchu

The period from the 1840s to the 1850s after the founding of Singapore was the peak period when gambier was the major crop that contributed to the trade and economy of the Straits Settlement. 

Gambier was initially used as a medicinal product and was also used for chewing the betelnut quid. However, when it was discovered that gambier could be used for tanning and dyeing, the surge in demand for it by Europeans, and the huge profits it generated, made gambier the crop that every farmer wanted to plant!

At that time, the ruling British colonialists had no interest in the areas outside the Singapore Municipal City. So in order to start a plantation in the countryside, a permit was actually required from the Temenggong (or later Sultan) of Johore instead. This was because the Temenggong still considered Singapore as his land. 
The Temenggong issued a "Surat Sungei" which was a title deed that permitted the holder to farm the riverine lands. Apart from planting gambier and pepper, the surat sungei also bestowed the holder the title of Kangchu, literally, "Master of the River" in the Teochew dialect. 

The Kangchu thus became the local headman who held the rights to farm the land, authority to collect rent and taxes from tenants, controlled the opium trade in his territory, as well as the manufacture and sale of liquor and spirits. Included in his rights were also vice activities such as gambling and prostitution.

The land which was allocated to the Kangchu, and based around a river, became known as "Chu Kang" and usually took on the surname of the Kangchu.
Thus, as can be seen in a 1852 map of early Singapore, we had districts known as Choa Chu Kang, Leem Chu Kang, Chu Chu Kang, Who Hen Kang, Buko Kang, Chan Chu Kang, Tan Chu Kang, Lau Chu Kang, Su Lin Kang, Peng Kang and Yeo Chu Kang among others.
1852 map showing major Chu Kangs in northern Singapore.

My Great Great Grandfather.
My connection to the Kangchu of Chua Chu Kang is through the maternal line of my grandfather. My great great grandfather was called Chua Chin Huat (蔡进发) who established his chu kang at a tributary of the Kranji River. This tributary was the Peng Siang River.
In fact today, Choa Chu Kang New Town is built upon the very same homestead that belonged to my G-G-Grandfather. The family home, which was a masonry brick building unique in a rural kampong, was located coincidentally where today the Choa Chu Kang MRT Station is. The area around his house was known as Keat Hong.

How CHUA Chu Kang became CHOA Chu Kang
In the 1980s, the Singapore Government started to convert dialect names to Hanyu Pinyin Mandarin.
Chua Chu Kang was to be renamed CAICUOGANG, while Bukit Panjang was to be renamed ZHENGHUA.  The people of the district petitioned the authorities not to rename the regions for historical and heritage reasons. Thus, Caicuogang New Town and Zhenghua New Town were dropped and the old names were to be retained.

Unfortunately, and probably as a result of not knowing the history of the area, the chu kang owned by the Chuas was renamed as Choa Chu Kang from the original Chua Chu Kang. In all probability, Caicuogang New Town was erroneously reverted to CHOA Chu Kang simply because the main trunk road that run from Bukit Panjang to Choa Chu Kang Village at the coast was called Choa Chu Kang Road.

The problem with this reverted name is that the original CHOA Chu Kang was another farm area that was located at the Berih River near where today's cemeteries are located. (See map above for location of the original Choa Chu Kang on the left).
My GGG-father's homestead was marked as Chu Chu Kang on old maps which is where today's Choa Chu Kang New Town is located. I can't imagine that they will ever change the name back to Chua.

A 1965 map showing the areas known as Choa Chu Kang and Chua Chu Kang. (Click for full size details)

(Corrections made: In my original article, I name Chua Heok Nghee as the Kanchu of Chua Chu Kang. It has now been established that Chua Heok Nghee was the brother of the actual kangchu Chua Chin Huat. Chua Chu Kang settlement was developed in the 1840s by Chua Chin Huat and Goh Ah Piao who is Goh Tong Liang's grandfather.)


In doing my research into the origins of the chu kangs of Singapore in the mid 19th century, I came across some very interesting information as well.
Yio Chu Kang was established by a kangchu name Eo Ah Chong. while Chan Chu Kang (today's Nee Soon/Yishun) was established by a kangchu name Chan Ah Lak.

But the most curious information was how Tengah probably got it name. 
Tengah means 'centre or middle' in the Malay language but its origin is not Malay!

In 1863, a surat sungai was issued to a certain Teng Ah Tong (aka Ting Ah Tong).
His chu kang was located at a then unnamed tributary of the Kranji River near Chua Chu Kang.
His concession became Teng Chu Kang and is recorded in a municipal survey of 1855 as Ten Ah Kang. Teng Ah Teng was colloquially known as Teng-Ah and eventually the  tributary river came to be called the Tingah River or Teng Ah River.
The area where he had his chu kang was acquired by the British military in the 1930s to build an airfield , which took the name of the location, Tengah.
The area thereafter became well known as Tengah because of the airfield.

Related links:
Bokokang- a village from our past