Chew Joo Chiat 周如切 is my great grand-father. My family tree in Singapore begins with him. The purpose of this blog is for my children and grand children to know their root's humble beginning. Secondly, there are inaccuracies and gaps I discovered published in books, articles and websites about Chew Joo Chiat. I also want to talk about some lost landmarks in Joo Chiat.
Site map of the wayang (opera) stage and the Chinese temple at Joo Chiat Place
Last week I took a walk down memory lane to see the changing scenes. At Joo Chiat Place opposite Kim Choo Bak Chang shop there was a permanent wayang (opera) stage of timber and brick with tiled roofing. Its back was towards the road and the front was facing a Chinese temple. The original owner of the two builidings was Chew Joo Chiat's son, Chew Cheng Swee. The wayang or 'teochew hi' (Chinese opera) was performed during the birthday of the gods in the temple and also on certain Chinese festivals. The most popular opera troupes then were the 'lau sai toh' and the 'sar chiak soon'. I understand both had been disbanded some time ago due to poor patronage. The present generations prefer 'ker tai' (singing troupe).
Sugar Art Gold Fish Photo from Samm's blog post
Dough FigurinesPhoto from Samm's blog post
During school days I went to the Chinese wayang not to see the performance but to mingle with other kids watching Chinese artists making sugar art figurines and dough art figurines. For sugar art figurines, moulds were used to make the required shapes like gold fish, rabbit etc. As for dough art figurines no mould was needed. The artist made characters from Chinese stories such as Journey To The West, The Three Kingdoms as well as animals. They were very colourful too. The cheapest one was the figurine of a cockerel because it was the easiest and fastest to make. The sugar figurines were edible. The usual way was to lick it like an ice cream. It could not be kept as it would melt or attract ants and insects. The dough figurine was not edible and also could not be kept too long. When the dough dried up the figurine became brittle and pieces of dough dropped off. It became mouldy very fast.
Actual architectural drawing of the wayang stage
Acual architectural drawing of the Chinese temple
The wayang stage has been replaced by an apartment building block with shops on the ground floor. Joo Chiat Gospel Hall has replaced the Chinese temple.
Apartments block with shops on the ground floor The site was formerly occupied by a Chinese wayang stage
Joo Chiat Gospel Hall The site was originally a Chinese temple
Another such wayang stage was opposite No 65 Joo Chiat Road where Chew Joo Chiat had his residence. The wayang stage was built by him so that he and his family members could watch the 'teochew hi' (Chinese opera) performance from the third level front balcony. His residence is now an empty field. The wayang stage site is now occupied by a block of shophouses as shown the picture below.
The green field was the site ofChew Joo Chiat'sresidenceand across the road, theshophouses behind the street signboard was the site of the wayang (opera) stage
How many of us today can still remember the Joo Chiat Jetty? Before the land reclamation at the east coast in 1966, there was no Marine Parade Road. The beach was right in front of the Church of Singapore. I swam in the sea there during my school days. When I was in the upper secondary school, I went to the beach to study under the shade. I enjoyed the ambience which was quiet and breezy during the day. An Indian 'kachang puteh' man named Ah Pao was selling 'kachang puteh' in front of Tung Ling School (now Church of Singapore). I patronised his stall so often that we became friends. Most school children in Katong knew him too. He was an icon to those who frequented the beach.
Joo Chiat jetty was built in late 1950s. It started from the end of Joo Chiat Road and extended into the sea up to where the former Republic Theatre building now stands. The end of the jetty was a square with railings and lightings. In fact, it was a jetty cum restaurant. It functioned as a jetty during the day and seafood business at night. The seafood restuarant was very popular with the people who lived in the area. They, not only enjoyed a good dinner but also the sea breeze, and the waves providing music to their ears. It holds fond memories to those who partied there, especially the night revellers. Unfortunately, the jetty had to be domolished owing to the land reclamation scheme at the east coast in 1966.
Joo Chiat Square is located at the junction of Joo Chiat Road and Joo Chiat Place. It is a cemented vacant land as shown in the above photo. On 23 Decembeer 2006, Joo Chiat MP Chan Soo Sen launched Joo Chiat Square that will be a gathering point for the community for weekend activities every Saturday for the next several years.
Before the place becomes Joo Chiat Square, there was a Shell Petrol Station which was one of Joo Chiat Road's landmark since 1950s. Illegal car rental was very popular then, especially in the eastern part of the island. They were also called Pa Ong Chia in Hokkien. Unlike the pirate taxis, they did not cruise on the roads to pick up passengers. The cars were parked at the petrol station waiting for hirer. When business was at its peak, there were about 40 cars for hire. Car rental rates were $1.50 per hour or $15.00 per day on week days and $2.00 per hour or $20.00 per day for Saturday and Sunday. Car models were Morris Minor, Morris Oxford, Hillman Minx and Vaxhual. They were all British made cars as there was no Japanese car then.
To hire a car was easy. You only had to show your identity card or a driving licence for record purposes in case the hirer absconded. The cars were usually hired out for social uses. But there were instances that such cars were used for robbery. A friend of mine who had a 'pah ong chia' business there, had the unfortunate experience. He was not aware that a robber had hired his car to rob until detectives from the Criminal Investigation Department called on him. Pa Ong Chia business stopped a few years before Shell Petrol Station ceased operation.
Before the second world war, Joo Chiat Square was a vacant field. Every evening men gathered there to listen to story telling. They sat on improvised benches around the story teller just like the top photo. My grand uncle was an avid listener of Chinese stories. I was about 4 years old then, and every evenings I would ride on his shoulders to the story telling site which was within walking distance from my home. When the story telling started, there was complete silence and the audience were captivated. I was bored sitting beside my grand uncle with nothing to play. Anyway, I enjoyed the two way trip riding on his broad shoulders.
Joo Chiat Post Office was the only stand by itself 2 storey building at Joo Chiat Road. It was situated between No 159 and No 169, and was one of the landmarks in Joo Chiat Road. The building had since been demolished and the place is now an access road to the carpark at Tembling Road and Joo Chiat Place junction.
The building itself has an interesting history. It was build before WWII and was first used as a licensed retail opium shop. Joo Chiat at that time had migrant Chinese workers and many were opium addicts. Opium could be bought by individual to smoke at home, as my grand uncle did or by opium den operators to cater for poorer opium addicts. Smoking paraphernalia consisted of a long pipe with a small bowl fitted near the end of the pipe. An oil lamp is needed to heat and melt the opium as the addict inhaled the smoke from the pipe. The shop ceased selling opium since the Japanese occupation period.
After WWII the building was converted into a toddy (palm wine) retail shop. Toddy is an alcoholic beverage obtained from the saps of coconut trees. The saps collected were allowed to ferment for a day to turn it into toddy. It catered mainly to the Indian daily rated workers. A municipal labourer quarters was just behind the toddy shop. Majority of the occupiers were Indians who worked for the Municipality. The toddy shop opened in the afternoon, usually after the labourers working hours. Drinking toddy was a way of life for them, especially after a hard day's work in the hot sun as road sweepers, trench diggers, pipes layers and as mason. It was a common sight to see some of them falling to the ground, lying on the roadside and five foot ways, dead drunk.
The final occupant of the building was the Joo Chiat Post Office. The ground floor was used for postal services and the upper floor was supposed to be living quarters for the Post Master. I am not sure if he and his family ever live there. The above photo of Joo Chiat Post Office was taken in 1970.
I was brought up at Joo Chiat Road near Geylang Serai. In 1957 I moved to live at Kg. Eunos. Since then, many landmarks in the area had changed. The house where I grew up had been acquired by HDB and is now a vacant land. Joo Chiat Market was replaced by Joo Chiat Complex. Nearby was an open air Lily cinema. In its place, now stands a multi-storey car parks for the shopping complex. Nam Wah coffee shop where I used to have beer with friends is now Joo Chiat Hotel.
Some very old land marks in the area had been lost completely. Before WWII there was a railway line in the area. Guillemard Road was then unknown. The whole stretch was a railway track. It cut through a few roads before joining the railway track at Joo Chiat Lane. After passing Tembling Road (opposite the temple) it made a turn behing a two storey house and continued towards Everitt Road/Joo Chiat Place junction. From there it went all the way to Jalan Eunos quarry.
During the Japanese occupation there was no train service as some of the railway tracks damaged by bomb was not repaired. After the war the disused railway land was replaced by housing developments. The railway line in Joo Chiat is now history.
I grew up in Joo Chiat and lived in a 2 storey shophouses built by my grandfather. My home was the second unit from the left. Between the 2 blocks of building was an un-named lane that led to a small kampong behind the buildings. Chew Joo Chiat's residence was at the next block. It was hidden from sight by the corner house.
Credit to NAS: Chew Joo Chiat's residence
Above photo shows Chew Joo Chiat's residence. A neighbouring house was on fire and the firemen fought the fire from his house. Chew also built a wayang stage directly across the road for his entertainment, especially at his birthday, Chinese festivals and others. He watched the 'teowchew hee' from front balcony at level three.
Credit to NAS: wayang show
It was also an access to a Chinese school next to the kampong. The lane was of red laterite and sand. It was my drawing board as a kid. I could draw and then erase with a stick or with the swipe of my foot. It was also my playground where I played marbles, garsing (top) etc with other kids.
After WWII the lane became a mini wet market cum food alley. Fish and vegetables were sold there. The fishes were fresh as they came directly from the kelongs (fishing stakes) at Maring Parade. Some of them could be seen jumping or gasping for air. Vegetables were from our local farms. Further in the lane were the food hawkers. They were selling soup hokkien mee, bak chor mee, bubo item/tigu, yew char kuay ............... There was only one mee siam stall from an Indonesian hawker.
A pork stall and a coffee stall were added later.
Joo Chiat was awarded Singapore's First Heritage Town in 2011 by The National Heritage Board. On Saturday 30th June 2012 Joo Chiat Heritage Night was held at the Siglap South Cummunity Club to celebrate the award. My wife and I were invited to the function. We were pleasantly surprised to be placed at the VIP table sitting together with Mr Charles Chong MP for Joo Chiat and Puan Noor Aishah, widow of Singaopore's First President, the late Inche Yusof bin Ishak.
Highlight of the evening:
Photographic Exhibition of Joo Chiat Heritage
Get together of Joo Chiat's Heritage Residents
Sit down multi ethnic 4 course dinner
Robert Fernando in Concert
L to R: Charles Chong MP for Joo Chiat, Puan Noor Aishah, Dr Uma Rajan BBM PBS
Mr Nah Juay Hng Group Director, People's Association
My wife and I are on the left opposite Mr Charles Chong and Puan Noor Aishah
Robert sang old favourites accompanied by a 3 piece band. A few senior couples could not resist the dance music took to the floor. I am sure they were longing for this moment to be young once more. The songs of yester year with dance music brought my memory back to the 50s and 60s. At that time Singapore Hotel at Geylang Road was a very popular place for tea dance. The floor was alway packed with dancers and there were frequent fights between groups of youngsters. Those were the days.
Temasek Polytechnic foreign students at 112 Katong
On Thursday 12 April 2012 I was with a group of Temasek Polytechnic International Freshmen exploring Joo Chiat/Katong area. They have not heard of the Peranakan before and was very keen to learn its culture. They went to Koon Seng Road to view the Peranakan houses, visited the Peranakan antique shop at East Coast Road and tasted Peranakan food including Katong laksa. The group leader, Jack did not eat spicy food. He told me that as a leader he had to show an example and ate the Katong laksa. It turned out that the laksa was not very spicy and he liked it.
It was raining when we were on our way to the Community Centre at Joo Chiat Road. I told them that Joo Chiat was awarded the First Heritage Town in Singapore by the National Heritage Board last year. The presentation of the award and Joo Chiat Heritage Exhibitions was graced by the Minister for Information, Communication and the Arts, Lui Tuck Yew. The ceremony was held at the town's community club when Joo Chiat ward was no more in Joo Chiat but in Siglap. Thinking that everything remained the same, I was eager to show our foreign students the exhibits that showcase Joo Chiat's Hertiage. We called at the ground floor office and was told by a staff that Joo Chiat ward is no longer in Joo Chiat and if we wish to know anything about Joo Chiat Heritage Award we had to make our way to the Siglap Community Club. I felt so embarrassed to have disappointed the students.
I know Joo Chiat ward has moved to Siglap. But, has Joo Chiat Heritage Town also moved to Siglap? No wonder people make a joke out of it. They said there was no more sleaze in Joo Chiat (Siglap). I have friends living in Siglap. Can they say that they live in Joo Chiat now? Is it not confusing? I hope in the next General Election Joo Chiat ward will be returned to its rightful place where it used to be that is in Joo Chiat area.
Last year the Land Transport Authority (LTA) and Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) decided to clear Bukit Brown to make way for a highway and future housing development. Just a month before that I was told by a relative that Chew Joo Chiat first wife was buried there. So, it became my mission to find my great grandmother's grave. No relative alive today knows her name as well as her date of death. To search the whole of Bukit Brown Cemetery would be like looking for a pin in a hay stack. I searchd the NEA's registry of death but it was useless without the name and date death of the person. I tried a long shot by contacting the Goh brothers of Asia Paranormal Investigator (API), Raymond and Charles. I told them my problem to find my greatmother's grave. I was surprised by their prompt reply with a bonus thrown in, that was a photo of a tombstone.
Tombstone of Tan Quan Neo
On that Saturday I got my younger brother Hector to go with me to the cemetery. There we met the Goh brothers as arrranged. They drove us to the site. From the paved road we had to walk upslope on the undulating ground plus hopping over many graves to reach the semi jungle area. I tumbled a few times before reaching the area. There most of the graves were in a bad state. Then Charles pointed out to me Mrs Chew Joo Chiat's grave. The place was dark as the sunlight was blocked by leaves of tall trees. The tombstone was obstructed by thick tree vines dropped from above. I took a few photos and then noticed a side tombstone written in English words. The name of the deceased Tan Quan Neo was clearly written. She died on 19th April 1927, just a year plus after Chew Joo Chiat's death. Then it struck me that Tan Quan Neo is the name of Chew Joo Chiat's second wife. Chew Joo Chiat's grave plot had a double tombs. Tan Quan Neo's tomb was reserved next to his but she was not buried there. Why?
Tan Quan Neo's empty tomb is on the left of the double tomb
Tan Quan Neo married Chew Joo Chiat and had only one child. She is Chew Quee Neo, wife of Lee Tian Seck compradore of Batu Pahat Bank in 1960s. Her grave had been neglected for years. Perhaps she had no male descendants to visit and clean up her tomb during each Qing Ming Festival.
My concern now is to find my great grandmother's grave. Is it true that her body was buried at Bukit Brown Cemetery? I thought she died in China. I may have to make more journeys to Bukit Brown Cemetery to find her resting place. My mission unaccomplished!
Joo Chiat Road in the early days was a dirt track stretching from Geylang Serai all the way to the east coast beach. It was then known as the Confederate Estate Road. The dirt track was owned and maitained by Chew Joo Chiat. It was made up into a metal road by the Municipality and named the road after Chew Joo Chiat as Joo Chiat Road. Motorised transport made access to the east coast and the beach more attractive. People from other parts of Singapore migrated to the east coast to be nearer the sea. Furthermore, development of the area from Katong to Joo Chiat was very rapid resulting in a land boom. Joo Chiat was not entirely coconut plantations. There was also a rubber estate off Joo Chiat Road. It had a factory with machines processing rubber from latex into rubber sheets. As land values increased, housing in Joo Chiat Road expanded rapidly. Large coconut plantations fragmented and about 53,000 square feet of rubber estates came under the hammer.
1920s saw Joo Chiat Road having colourful rows of Perankan terraced houses and bungalows with fanciful names like Noel Villa, Sandy Point Villa, Mafeking House and others. Most of the residential buildings were occupied by the Peranakans except the shophouses nearer the Joo Chiat Market. Some coconut trees and fruit trees by the roadside were untouched by housing development.
Gei Hin Kwan Hotel, Happy Hotel, Katong Hotel, Japanese Koyakan Hotel and a few others lined sporadically along Joo Chiat Road. They were popular with clubs, associations and other organisations that held their meetings, anniversary and celebrations there. In those days some hotels also operated illegaly as brothels. Some was caught by the law and fined at a Magistrate Court.
Besides prostitutions at the hotels there were triads and gangs in the area. They collected protection money from the shopkeepers and hawkers, and extorted money from the rich and wealthy. One extortion incident was reported in The Straits Times on 22 November 1923. The articles stated:
"The maximum sentence of six months' rigorous imprisonment was passed on a Chinese who was found guilty of attempting extortion in the second Police Court yesterday.
The complainant, a Hokien trader of No 246 Joo Chiat Road, stated that he discovered a letter in his house early on the morning of November 11 which was to the effect that he would have to pay a certain amount of money over at a shop, No 30 Joo Chiat Road and if within 3 days the money was not paid, he would meet with some trouble. Two days later a Chinese called at the shop and said that he was the man to collect the money deposited by the complainant. He was told to wait and in the meantime the complainant was informed. The latter went to the shop and conducted the accused to a coffee shop, where he was subsequently arrested by a police corporal who had already been informed."
The newspapers report did not mention the name of the Hokien trader. Chew Joo Chiat was a Hokien trader at that time and his obituary stated that he died at his residence No 246 Joo Chiat Road. The Hokien trader wth the same address as Chew could not be a coincidence. Therefore, could the person in the attempted extortion be Chew Joo Chiat himself?