Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Singapore River and the Tua Kow

A couple of weeks ago, I watched a VCD of the China TV documentary series on Cheng Ho's (Admiral Zheng He) voyage to the western seas. Marvelling at how the Chinese built the huge wooden boats, I could not help remembering the days before I went to school. (My daughter was asking me how come I did not go to kindergarten) Yes, I must have been only 4-5 years old when Grandpa (my mum's adopted father - that's another story tied to the World War II) used to bring my brother and me on a trishaw to Siong Peck Kuay (I found out that this was Nankin St), where his coolie-keng (the coolie's clubhouse) was. We were alway looking forward to go to the kopi-tua (the Chinese version of the Sarabat Stall, or coffeeshop on wheels) where we will have kopi (thats coffee with condensed milk) on a plate. Ah, with a big surface, the kopi got cooler faster. (^^)

Grandpa was working in one of the huge Tua Kow (lighter?), one of the numerous that used to clog almost the entire Singapore River near to the place facing the landing place of Sir Stamford Raffles. He would from time to time bring us to his Tua Kow. While it was fun, it was also frightening. We had to jump from Tua Kow to Tua Kow from the river side. If we fell outside the Tua Kow, it would be into the murky, dirty and foul smelling river. If we fell into the Tua Kow, we were to have broken bones, as what my uncle did.

The unladen Tua Kow must be some two storey high, or higher? In those days, these huge Tua Kows are unpowered. Often, like the barges of what you see today, one small powered bumboat would be pulling a line of many Tua Kows from the Singapore River to the outer roads (the sea outside the breakwaters off Clifford Pier), where the cargo ships would be waiting. And the cargo? It could be rice, flour or copra. Ah, sometimes, we got the leftovers (what was spilled into the bottom of the Tua Kow) and so at home, it could be rice, flour or even copra for our stove. In those days, it was either wood, charcoal or copra as fuel. Try cooking rice in those different heating ingredients!

Imagine the coolies, balancing on long narrow planks, carrying heavy sacks of rice or flour from the lorries or the warehouse along the river bank to the Tua Kow. When they carried flour, you would see white-powdered men with a cloth over their shoulder and head as they carried the sacks. For rice sacks, there would be the rounded hook to help them carry, the hooks that the kids of today might be familiar with Captain Hook.

Further up the Singapore River, passing Char-Chun-Tau (in Teochew as the Teochew community dominated this place) where Clarke Quay is now on one side, further into almost where boats could not go, at Kim Seng Road, there were a couple of boat yards, where these huge Tua Kows were built. Brown, very tanned, bare-bodied men worked on the rotten-looking logs floating on the low waters. Two persons with long saws (almost similar to what I saw in the Zheng He documentary) were patiently sawing through the length of the log. Using clamps to make a space, they continued to saw, horizontally.

There was no sign of any blueprint. As my secondary school was by this part of the river, next to Kim Seng Rd, each day as I walked or cycled home, I would watch for the progress of the boat building. And slowly it took shape, from the skeleton, each plank was placed against them. I never got to see how they launched the boat into the water and towed to the river mouth, known to the locals as Chap-Puay-Kuay-Gi. Ah, they must have waited for the extreme high tide, since Singapore River is a tidal River.

Singapore River was the life of Singapore's early days, playing an important role in her entreport trade. Goods from Indonesia and Singapore come through Singapore River, and vice versa. The river bank was a busy place in the day, and a quiet one in the night. There were warehouses made from the shop houses, there were people living there, there were temples and there were hawkers.

Playing in the Tua Kow was part of our childhood fun .. catching those what we called "Hai Ka Chuah" (literally translated as sea-cockroaches). Alas, one day, in 1960, some came to inform Grandma that Grandpa could not be found. The night before, he was on his mission with his Tua Kow in a convoy to bring the goods to the ships on the outer-roads. A storm was brewing. What we knew then was, according to witnesses there, he was trying to cover the goods from the rain. The strong wind blew the cover backwards, knocking him cold, throwing him into the water.

Grandma went to consult a medium as no one seemed to be able to find his body. The medium advised that he would be found that afternoon. That afternoon, police reported spotting his body at Katong, some distance away from the Outer Roads. I was only into my Primary 2 class. From then on, the excitement and memories of the Tua Kow slowly faded.

And some four decades again, in my quest to look back at my younger days, I was surprised to discover that Grandpa's ancestral deities - Sam Tiong Ong (San Zhong Wang) - were still being worshipped. The original temple at the coolie-keng at Nankin Road is now in Toa Payoh.

It was a long journey from Grandpa's home village in Tang-Wha (Tong An) in China to Singapore, enduring poverty and a hard life during the World War II, working towards a better life with the Tua Kow .. and ending with it.

[Ack: Thanks to Ai Lin for the B&W photos from her grandfather's album]