Initially, if one wanted to reach Jalan Hong Keng from Airport Road, one had to cut through the area outside the airport perimeter fences by the un-named track or vice-versa to reach Airport Road. The residents at Jalan Hong Keng would take one and half kilometers to two kilometers to reach the nearest bus stop along Airport Road (directly opposite Hong San Temple 九皇爷).
The stretch of Jalan Hong Keng which ran along one of longer sides of the airport’s perimeter was covered with red clay soil and of course some sands, gravels or small stones were added to form a better track. One end of the track was “not through” while the other end sloped up and lead to Old Tampines Road.
This area was still considered under airport boundaries. Both sides along this un-named track were fenced and there were landing lights installed within the fenced areas in the direction of the landing path. Most of the residents did not witness any aircraft takeoff in this direction, so it was presumed that this end of the airport was for aircraft landing only.
While crossing this unnamed track, sometimes the residents would have the experiences of having the landing aircrafts just above their heads but in a very safe distance away. It was not a big issue to them. The only problem was the frequent loud reviving noises of aircrafts before takeoffs, especially in the peaceful nights when the residents were asleep. However for those deep sleepers and even with the light sleepers, over the years they had been accustomed to the noises, would not experience much disturbances in their sleep.
Subsequently the Airport Authorities, for some reasons, most probably due to safety and security, had decided to close both ends of this track, so this area was included within the perimeter fencing. Due to the closure of this track, the no-through end of Jalan Hong Keng would need to make it passable by constructing a track to meet at Jalan Ang Teng which led to the Main Road, namely Airport Road. Ss such, the residents had to travel a longer journey, estimated to be at least double the original distance to reach the Main Road (Airport Road @4 km to 5 km)
After the addition of the newly constructed stretch of track, many truck drivers would drive their vehicles loaded with sands, from Tampines by using this track, via Jalan Ang Teng to reach Airport Road.
The drivers would make sure they drive safely, not to have any accident, even minor one to avoid any trouble. It might be their responsibilities to drive safely at the densely populated and constraint area as well as allowing the wet sands to drip more water out from trucks before proceeding to Airport Road or it might be due to the several major crimes that were traced to the hoodlums lurking in Jalan Ang Teng and Lorong Tai Seng that made them more responsible. The negative view was due to bad newspaper reports or someone had witnessed some drivers’ bad driving attitudes at those roads before entering Jalan Hong Keng. Whatever reasons, it is good to practise safe driving.
Fights and self-imposed curfews by rival groups were prevalent in those early days. However during our stay in the late nineteen-sixties, it seemed that the place was quite safe and crime-free. We were less likely to witness any fight between rival groups.
The house which I used to live was No: 64E, Jalan Hong Keng and was paid seven thousand dollars by two families for a thirty-years-lease to the owner who owned this property. It’s considered a “semi-detached house”!
Upon the purchase, the house was divided in two equal spaces to accommodate the two families. Each division consisted of one living room with its own main front door and three bedrooms with one room by the side of the internal passageway which lead to the bedroom at back of the house which was not partitioned due to the space constraint. Not forgetting the safety of the occupants, an additional back door was also constructed for us for the bedroom situated at the back of house.
Additionally, two kitchens with dining areas within each kitchen itself were built adjacent to the inner side of house for more space and convenience. Due to the kampung spirit and trust, both kitchens and dining areas were constructed with an open concept design which were not fully enclosed and did have any door.
A shed with wooden structures and a zinc-roof was also built to the side, behind these kitchens for my father (my father’s eldest brother) to manufacture “potong” ice-creams.
Potong means “cut” in Malay, referring to rectangular popsicles that are cut into portions from a longer block. It is made of coconut milk, skimmed milk, tapioca starch and sugar as the basic ingredients and they are fused with flavours such as yam, durian and the most popular red bean. In addition to these flavours, coconut flesh is shredded to the grated finest to obtain another flavour. Big bags of coarse grained salts were also stored in this area for the ice cream production.
At rear end of each side of the house, an additional bathroom was also built for the two families’ conveniences.
With all the additional construction, it seemed it was not complete without adding more spare to the front part of the house. Thus, a wider verandah with the half human-height walls enclosure and low gates as well as a roof was built. In front of this, a rough cemented floor was also included in the final renovation works.
As this was a place for relaxation and enjoying leisure time, both families decided to share the cost to subscribe to the popular Rediffusion radio service. A Rediffusion receiver was installed at the center of the house front wall. Both family members and a Chinese old woman neighbour used to sit at the veranda listening to the broadcasting. The subjects of interest are news, general affairs and of course those popular Chinese dialects – Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese narration of the “wuxia” fiction. “Wuxia” which literally means “martial heroes” is a genre of Chinese fiction concerning the adventures of martial artists in ancient China. Modern “wuxia” stories are largely set in ancient China.
With these spaces, my brothers, even your younger brother, Kim Seng (James) and I used to practise some Kung Fu moves in front of the house. This was a privilege whereby we would not able to do so in a HDB flat.
Actually, both families could easily apply and get a Housing Development Board’s (HDB) flat due to the Government Resettlement Initiative but both families had chosen to live there. The reason being my father wanted to manufacture “Potong” ice -creams while the other family’s father, the co-owner, an elderly farmer of this house liked to do vegetable farming cured his own tobacco.
He would grow some vegetables and carry them to Jalan Ang Teng to sell. Actually he did not need this income but he chose to do so in order to kill his time. Besides growing the vegetables, he would enjoy growing some tobacco plants for his own consumption. Tobacco leaves are cured to make products that can be consumed in different ways: smoked in cigarettes, cigars or pipes or smoked in loose form in hookahs (water pipe).
Behind my house, there was a row of houses built by the owner for rental. Besides these houses at the corner nearest to the track of Jalan Hong Keng, lived a Chinese old couple and the other end, an Indian family and counting from this side, number two, with a big tree nearby was the house that your family had lived in for a short while. It was followed by the Sikhs family (The children about my age came to my father’s wake almost every night) and a Malay barber family. It seemed that we had the multi-racial neighbours with us even in this small environment. We all got along very well indeed.
After all the residents, except your family (my family stayed put due to my father’s lorry having free parking. HDB carpark can’t park lorry) had moved out of their rented houses to the Housing Development Board’s flats and your family also moved out from there to a bigger and better rented house, owned by the same owner, which was situated next to the side of our houses but separated by a track, the whole row of houses were rented out as furniture workshops.
All the furniture parts were imported from Malaysia and the carpenters would finish the final touches in these premises such as varnishing and assemblies of the furniture to the final products. The reason was that it was more cost-cutting, efficient and also solved local manpower shortage.
Some time during the period which your family had moved to the bigger rented house, I’m sure you had noticed that the house (coffee family factory) which was in front of my house had also moved out of the place and the place also became a furniture workshop. This workshop preferred to fabricate and construct all the wooden furniture from scratch as well as the final touches to be done locally.
As it was just in front of my house, my mother and I approached the furniture workshop’s boss to order my marriage furniture set and the prices offered were extremely cheap as well. In the process, I also commissioned a wooden cupboard to our preference for keeping my wife’s dowry clothes. I designed and made a drawing for it to be constructed.
After my marriage, my colleague from the shipyard on learning the cost of my bedroom furniture also wanted to order the same furniture as mine from this workshop. As we approached the boss for the order, we were told that the drawings to construct the bedroom furniture set were returned to the designer and he was unable to construct as per my bedroom furniture design without those drawings.
As a result, I had to copy the bedroom furniture design from my home by drawing the whole bedroom set, including the cupboard design done by me for him to construct the furniture set for my colleague.
Next to this workshop, there was another home factory that made Tofu, also known as bean curd. It is a food prepared by coagulating soy milk and then pressing the resulting curds into solid white blocks of varying softness and it can be silken, soft, firm, extra firm or super firm. Beyond these broad textural categories, there are many varieties of tofu.
Sometimes, my mother would go to this factory in the evening to buy some soy milk. They were so concentrated and smelled good. Homemade one was always better and richer in taste, with a pleasant soy aroma. After adding some sugars, the soy milk tasted very nice to drink. All cooked by firewood instead of gas.
Separated by a narrow track, in front of this home factory with another house was the land lord that owned the vast land and rented out houses of those areas where we and the rest of the neighbouring families stayed.
Within the compound of the land lord, there’s a factory that made Lead Acid Batteries’ lead dioxide or peroxide and sponge lead plates. Most likely, workers would assemble all the parts to complete the batteries as final products. The uncertainty was due to not seeing the actual operation but from hearsay only. If I did not remember wrongly, your mum and our auntie had worked in this factory for a few days and I often saw them going home with some brownish dusts that still stuck to their hands and clothes. It might be good for those who needed some extra incomes but the factory for some reasons had ceased operation after a very short period. It was forcefully demolished by the government as it was an illegal factory.
While moving inwards the Kampung, towards Upper Jalan Eunos, we could find some more cottage industries especially furniture workshops, including a furniture upholstery workshop and also a provision shop.
As I did not roam around the area, there were of course a lot more of the houses which I was not familiar with, including one or two house owners who frequently engaged in some sort of gambling activities. These activities had influenced some of the housewives greatly. As a result, even my own mother had cultivated the bad habit to gamble.
However I was aware that on the way to a little walking or cycling path that lead to Upper Jalan Eunos, was a home that also served as a junkyard or scrapyard. As it was a junkyard or scrapyard it was also accessible by a wider track that lead to Jalan Ang Teng.
Away from this home towards Upper Jalan Eunos, the width of the path was limited to just for walking or cycling. While walking along this path one would come across some rubber trees which was an “eye-opener” for those who did see a rubber tree before.
At the end of this path, there was a bitumen paved road with more shops nearby, including two coffee shops and a public bus terminal for Singapore Bus Services (SBS) bus number 51. As it was a decent bitumen road, accessible by the buses and few of the Bethlehem Shipyard’s workers also lived nearby the terminal, the company’s bus would pick up or drop their workers here and I was one of the lucky ones that enjoyed this privilege.
Besides all these houses that had I described, there were more communities existed along Jalan Hong Keng which I had little or no knowledge at all, especially those living at the other end of Jalan Hong Keng, towards Tampines side.
It happened that we had an old neighbour from the previous kampung that we had stayed, lived at this side of the track. The family had farmed some vegetables and poultries but to a very small scale for their own consumption and at the most, they would sell the surplus. In fact, most of neighbourhood communities, even those at Upper Jalan Eunos also had this practice. Additional to this common practice, I noticed that there were one or two families breeding cows.
Although most of the families living around this area, might find their place interesting to stay, all the communities along Jalan Hong Keng as well as the nearby areas, such as Upper Jalan Eunos and Jalan Ang Teng had to move out to other places as it was marked for Land Acquisition and Resettlement. Of course the Land Acquisition and Resettlement slowly expanded to other areas.
The whole area is now transformed to a major industrial and commercial hub countless buildings and infrastructure built up creating lots of wealth , economic activities and most importantly jobs for the people.
Written by Tan Kwee Meng
JALAN HONG KENG
As a teenager, I lived in a leaking desolated zinc wooded rental house in a kumpung on the fringe of Paya Lebar airport at a place called Jalan Hong Keng near to Kaki Bukit or Lorong Ternak Malay kumpung. It flooded when it rained. I had to wear slippers walking the 5 km red mud track to the bus stop to go to school before I changed to school shoes. I still recall vividly whenever I went to the makeshift wooden shack to excrete, I could see many maggots wriggling and crawling on the piles of shit not to mention the stench and stink! Once a week, the nightsoil collector came to empty the shit in the bucket. Initially there was no electricity and water had to be drawn from a well.
Things started improving when there was pipe water and I had one piece of 4 feet fluorescent lighting in the zinc wooded house instead of the hurricane lamp running on kerosene. We had to sleep inside mosquito net with mosquito coils burning throughout the night especially during raining season towards end of the year.
It was in the 1970s.
Fast forward, only 2 landmarks remain in my old place where I spent my childhood and schooling. The huge water tank red/white color at Kaki Bukit near to the army driving school and Hong San temple off Airport Road still remain unmolested. The rest i.e. every inch has been transformed beyond recognition within my lifetime in one single generation. Huge factories, office & workshop buildings, fire station and yes driving school etc replaced all those zinc wooden huts which I used to live in. There is no more kumpung left and few of our young ever lived thru that forgotten era. I’m not even a Merdeka generation even though my parents belong to the Pioneer generation.