The Man From Silat Road/Tiong Bahru Mouth (1/4)

The following is a meditation about Ronnie and the Burns, the first rock band in Singapore.

This will be rewritten a bit and appear in the updated version of i ate tiong bahru.

Ronnie and the Burns

Tiong Bahru Mouth is the title to the sequel to iatb.

SINGAPORE, 1943 : SEE HENG CHWEE

See Heng Chwee had a small general store on Silat Road. An informant told the Japanese that the store was a center for Communist activities. There was a raid, and the Japanese found propaganda in a tobacco pouch. Heng Chwee was taken to Outram Prison and thrown into a cell so small he couldn't stand up or spread his arms. The air smelt evil. The floor hurt his arthritic knees and skeletal buttocks. The uneven brick walls were like teeth against his spine. The Japanese had cracked his sternum, disconnected cartilage and broken two ribs. Beneath his sweat-stained shirt, just over his heart, was a bayonet wound. Heng Chwee was 50 years old.

    For food, he was only given starch: old rice or tapioca. At times he became so thirsty he had no choice but to drink his own urine. Whenever one of his teeth fell out, he put it in a corner with the others; sitting in front to keep the rats away. He left the cell only to be questioned-- and tortured.

  “My daughter...” Heng Chwee told his captors, ”... my neighbor’s son wanted to marry her. But the boy was no good. She took my advice and refused him. He was furious. To retaliate, he hid those papers in the tobacco.”  The Japanese replied by carefully kicking and punching Heng Chwee: unscheduled deaths meant unwanted paperwork.

   Heng Chwee’s cell was constantly dark; all he could do was think. And listen. He heard Chinese, Australian and British men being beaten. Plans for executions. Footsteps, always there were the sounds of footsteps. The rattle in his lungs. Sometimes he heard the muffled sounds of rain. He dreamt of being free.

  A Japanese/Chinese man named Koh acted as Heng Chwee’s translator. Koh believed Heng Chwee was telling the truth, and started compiling evidence. Koh applied for a review. Finally, Heng Chwee's innocence was proven in a court. The "informant" was shot in the head. 

   Thirteen months after he was dragged in, Heng Chwee hobbled out of Outram Prison. His legs were swollen from malnutrition. His wife was late to meet him, because a signature was thought to be forged. The signature was on the form releasing her from the Women’s Quarters of Outram Prison. She, too, had been tortured.

 The two restarted their life together. Again they chose the Silat Road area, near the Sikh Temple, between Tiong Bahru and Keppel Harbor. Again they set up a store and a home. If they walked to the top of a nearby hill they could see Outram Prison.

Men who achieved greatness in Singapore also grew up in the area: Wee Kim Wee, who became the fourth President of Singapore. Peter Lim, a business associate of Cristiano Ronaldo and owner of the Spanish La Liga Valencia football team. Ong Kim Seng, a painter, whose watercolors hang in the collection of Queen Elizabeth. When the Sees moved into the area, however, it was a kampung; a rural village. It was surrounded by a swampy no-man's land of broken tombstones, small bushes, sparse trees and coffins jutting out from eroded hillsides. Around 1858, after the Chinese cemeteries near downtown had become filled, the dead were brought out here, to the tiong bahru. ‘Tiong’ is the Chinese word for ‘burial ground’, and ‘bahru’ is a Malay word meaning ’new’.

Over time, the peaceful farming community of squatters mutated into a battlefield of gang warfare, especially between the 18 Gi Ho and the 18 Koon Tong. The Snake Gang controlled Silat. If the police ever came, they came in pairs, with guns drawn.  Women and children avoided going out alone. When boys went out to gather firewood, or catch fish and eels for food, they always had a lookout. No one knew what the gangs did to trespassing boys. Gang members armed with chains and parangs rode by in the backs of  farm trucks,intimidating the community. Even if you were innocent, if a gang marked you for dead, that was it. At some point, you'd be slashed and stabbed. You'd die.

Without being asked, and without being paid, Heng Chwee kept the village drainage ditches clear of muck, trash and floating corpses. He helped widows, and fed homeless young gangsters. His store was an oasis of peace, open to all: Chinese, Malays and Indians.

Politically-connected rich aunties visited him, though they were terrified to be driven to his house. They came to have their fortunes told. Heng Chwee had a reputation as an oracle, for he was able to read the qian or guanyin, those slips of paper that reveal the future. The neighborhood people began calling him Heng Chwee Peh, Peh being a sign of respect. 

   When Heng Chwee was a boy, China was filled with clashes between the imperial government, warlords, gangs and rebels. Gunships from foreign countries patrolled the coasts, supporting their armies on the territories they claimed. Opium was a plague upon the people. In 1937 Japan invaded. Ten years before he was imprisoned by the Japanese, Heng Chwee sold his farm and his long pigtail so he, his wife and their young daughter could leave China. They sailed on a junk to Nanyang, the land to the south: Singapore. Before he left, Heng Chwee prayed at the graves of his four sons.

Part 2 is here.

3 thoughts on “The Man From Silat Road/Tiong Bahru Mouth (1/4)”

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