My grandfather was a Teochew who arrived in Singapore on a Chinese junk, after a long and treacherous sea voyage. Like many other Teochews, he had left home in search of a better living because of natural disasters, societal unrest and poor economic conditions in China.
While majority of the Teochews settled along the banks of Singapore River in Chinatown during the 19th and early 20th century, others set up plantations in the dense forests of Singapore. As such, the "Kangchu" system eventually started to form. "Kang" (江) means river, while "Chu" (厝) means house. However, in this context, "Chu" is the clan name of the first headman in charge of the plantations in the area.
Of all places, my grandfather chose to build his house on an elevated land facing the Sungei Kranji river bank, right inside a dense rubber plantation in Lim Chu Kang Village. Maybe it reminded him of his coastal home back in China.
Lim Chu Kang Village was founded by Neo Tiew, a Chinese immigrant who was the sheriff of the village. Incidentally, he was also my best friend’s grandfather! As our village on the banks of the Sungei Kranji was controlled by the Lim clan, it was named Lim Chu Kang.
Grandpa eventually set up a tiny grocery shop in Ama Keng, our village marketplace. Ama Keng was named after the Ama Keng Chinese Temple built in 1900 to worship the holy mother, a goddess of peace and happiness. Ama means "grandmother" in Teochew, and keng means "temple". My parents attended the Ama Keng Primary School nearby. I went to the same school too. Now you know why I was taunted so much in my secondary school in the city.
Grandma kept some poultry and several sows in their farm but gave up after grandpa passed away. They had a big rubber and coconut plantation in the estate. Dad and his siblings used to spend their childhood playing along the river bank, fishing and catching crabs.
Grandpa died when I was little. I don’t remember him very well, except that he was thin and rather slight, and that he used to bring us bananas from the shop in the evenings. He would hide them in the large pockets of his ‘kungfu’ shirt. After he died, I used to stare at his black and white portrait hanging in the living room of my grandmother’s house.
After my parents got married, dad built a new house just steps away from grandpa's. We spent our childhood running from one house to another within the big estate. We had lots of fruit trees growing in the yard. Mum started growing orchids after she left the Royal Air Force while dad worked as a draughtsman. I spent lots of time reading his copies of Architectural Digest, hoping to become an architect one day.
We witnessed some major changes to the ecosystem of the river that arose from the development of Kranji Reservoir. The old Sungei Kranji was once a tidal river with mangrove growing up to the furthest limits of the tidal influence. Later, the damming of the river destroyed the tidal and mangrove habitat. Our large coconut plantation was wiped out because of the changes in the soil condition. The salt water crabs disappeared as the tidal waves stopped flowing in.
The river eventually became a marshland with its own distinctive ecological elements and wildlife. We began to see white lesser egrets feeding on freshwater fish and shrimps. Dad could fish huge snakeheads anytime he wanted until 1987, when we finally moved out of the house.
Today, Kranji Marsh Bund is a freshwater wetland dominated by grasses, sedges, ferns and other plant species that are adapted to a flooded or waterlogged condition, fringing the shoreline and the banks of rivers and streams as well as the edges of the ponds, and are attractive to certain categories of wildlife such as aquatic reptiles, amphibians and herons.
I don’t know why I am reminiscing about all these today. Maybe it’s the wet weather we’re having. I hope you've enjoyed this nostalgic journey as much as I did.