Yeo Hong Eng conjures up the sights and sounds of Kampong Eunos: wayang performances, making his way through narrow, muddy lanes, and helping neighbours pick out lucky numbers for chap ji ki. 

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Attap houses that were built in Kampong Eunos. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore, SPH

Kampong Eunos was the place where my grandma first settled in when she reached Selat Por’s (‘Singapore’) shores from Chinkang Fukien, China. As soon as my grandparents and my grandfather’s siblings reached Kampong Eunos, they cleared the land and attap houses (houses built out of the attap palm leaves and wattles) were built. My uncle Yeo Koon Seng was only three years old then. My aunt and my father were both born there. My father, Yeo Koon Poh, enrolled in the Telok Kurau Primary School and studied two years there. Most likely my grandfather wanted him to study Chinese, so he made the switch to the Chinese school.

My grandparents built attap houses, pigsties, dug ponds to rear fishes and grew water hyacinth as pig food. My grandfather reared cows to pull bullock carts to provide transport services. When Chew Joo Chiat embarked on building attap houses in his coconut and fruit estate, building materials were in great demand. My father went to work for Sim Seng (owner Soon Peng Leong, the brother of Soon Peng Yam). He transported those materials just like the rickshaw puller did from the timber yard at Geylang to the construction sites. After my father’s marriage, my grandparents and parents moved to Tanah Merah Kechil.

In the 1920s there was a surge in demand for rented rooms as more immigrants came. My grandparents added a room to the left and a room to the right and a few rooms at the back. Similarly, my other relatives also did the same with their houses.

The residents of Kampong Eunos, experiencing flooding in 1974. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
The residents of Kampong Eunos, experiencing flooding in 1974. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore

The population grew. The lanes became very small. When it rained the water from the roofs splashed down to the sides of the lanes making them very soggy. In heavy rainy weather, they became mini-streams. Walking along such lanes on rainy days was a hassle. One had to look out for mud pools, dog and pig poo, cyclists negotiating the ruts, mud splashes from inconsiderate car drivers etc.

During festivals such as Chinese New Year, Dumpling Festival, Mid-Autumn Festival, or during the birthday of the deity Seong Teh Kong, my grandmother would take us to Kampong Eunos. The Sheong Teh Kong Temple staged wayang (a form of theatre) shows twice a year. Before the show, a wayang stage was put up. It was constructed mainly of attap and logs from the mangrove stems. They were tied together with split rattan.

A portrait of a wayang actress from 1930.
A portrait of a wayang actress from 1930. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore

Of course, the stage floor was laid with wooden planks. The colorful decorations and partitions were done by the wayang troupe. The left and right wings were for the musicians as well as storage for their paraphernalia. Long scrolls of paintings depicting the theme of the days’ performance were held up by pulleys up above the stage. The back of the stage was reserved for the actors and actresses to put make-up on for whatever roles they were in for the performance at that moment. The back, left and right wings of the whole construction were boarded up to prevent prying eyes. Electric supply was from a huge noisy diesel generator stationed in an obscure corner away from the audience.

Usually all the temples around would stage wayang shows for two days successively. If anyone among the temple devotees wished to give thanks to the gods, he/she might sponsor another day. Every year the temple committee would appoint a tow kay (boss) and a lor chu to oversee donations for staging the wayang performances. The ’lor chu’ would go around to solicit for donations. Receipts were issued to the donors.

Waiting for a wayang performance to begin. Photo credit: National Archives of Singapore
Waiting for a wayang performance to begin. Photo credit: National Archives of Singapore

My grandma usually took me along more often than my other siblings, most likely because I was older and easier to manage. As we walked along the muddy track to my uncle’s house, we could hear the blaring of the programmes coming from the Redifusion sets coming from each of the residents. Whenever I visited Kampong Eunos, I was greeted by the Hokkien and Teochew opera programmes.

Most likely the programmes were scheduled at about 10 am. daily – the time I reached Kampong Eunos. On rainy days, we had to be especially careful. One slip of the foot would land one into the muddy stream which was flanked by water burheads and dumbcane.

My grandmas would visit her old neighbours and introduce me to them. As if it was a natural reflex action, each neighbour would push either a triple-five cigarette tin or empty milk tin containing twelve rolled-up numbers and entice me to pick up two numbers, one at a time. The host would read each one, throw it back into the tin, shake it and push me to pick another one.

The 555 cigarette tin from which Yeo Hong Eng was asked to pick winning numbers for chap ji ki.
The 555 cigarette tin from which Yeo Hong Eng was asked to pick winning numbers for chap ji ki. Image credit: Vintage Ad Browser

The residents of the whole kampong were playing a game of chap-ji-ki (‘twelve numbers’). It was a betting game which one could bet as low as twenty cents for two of the twelve numbers. A betting agent, usually an old lady, would visit every household to collect bets. By a certain time, usually five in the afternoon, no more bets would be accepted. At around seven o’clock the results would be known and winners could collect their winnings from their agents. The agents would get five per cent of the winnings.

Mr Yeo Hong Eng’s story first appeared here on the Singapore Memory Project portal. Keep an eye out for part two of his memoirs of Kampong Eunos, where he shares what he remembers of the duties of the night soil men! Read more memories of Kampong Eunos here and here, and comment to let us know about your own kampong days!

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