Sunday, May 3, 2009

Miniature Museum of The World-Singapore

In late February this year, I commented on Sumaiya's post that I wished there was a miniature museum in Singapore. This was what I said: .. I wish there were more mini museum in Singapore. Sometime back, someone here did a Singapore river scene in the 50s but alas, its gone before I have a chance to see it." As you can tell from the picture above, I found it! In the Fuk Tak Chi Museum. And it's not the scene of the 50's but the 1800s!

So I trot down there for lunch today, a break between work and spent about 30 minutes snapping away. There is just this one exhibit but the quality more than made up for the quantity!

The Fuk Tak Chi Museum was a Chinese temple built by Chinese immigrants. It was also the oldest Chinese temple in Singapore. In the museum are close to 2000 exhibits of artifacts which were collected by the residents of Chinatown over many years.

The model however is a recent creation. It is of a row of old shophouses at Telok Ayer Street (1:48 scale?). The real houses have been conserved and are right there outside the museum. Many of them have been converted to restaurants and offices, clubs and watering holes. I work in one of these conserved shophouses at the other side of the river. Can you imagine the mini model was right under my nose all this while?

Front View
Back View
Side View-Right
Side View- Left
Details -Coolies

In the days when Chinese immigrants settled here, Telok Ayer Street ran along the shoreline of a bay that has long since been reclaimed from the sea. The area was where many Hakka and Cantonese immigrants settled as it was also the area where a lot of coolie agents had their offices.

In fact, the Fuk Tak Chi temple also served as the headquarters for the Hakka and Cantonese communities here. In the early days, temples also doubled as welfare associations, a place where disputes were settled and were closely associated with clan associations and development of the community.
"Coolie" is derived from the Chinese word "ku-li "meaning "hard labour". Ku also means "bitter". The coolie's life was thus a hard and bitter one in early Singapore. They came to Singapore, driven by poverty in China to seek a better life here but many, many ended up serving instead as indentured, unskilled labourers.
"Coolies worked as rickshaw pullers, trishaw riders and farmers. They were employed in mines, ports, in rubber and other plantations, in clearing jungles and on construction sites. They did back-breaking tasks such as loading and unloading cargo and dulang washing or tin ore mining under the scorching sun. It was a common sight in early Singapore to see coolies carrying gunny sacks filled with commodities such as spices and sugar near the Singapore river."-National Library, Singapore

"The majority of the early coolies were indentured to a kongsi, or a "clan association", and their services engaged through a coolie agent or headman. The kongsi was either an organisation, a group or a network of individuals. It acted as a contract or business agency that hired labour in China and supplied them to businesses in Singapore. The kongsi would pay for the passage of the coolies on the condition that the coolies worked for a designated length of time until all expenses incurred were duly paid off. Kongsis usually charged money either from the businesses to which they supplied labour or from the labourers themselves for their service of bringing them into Singapore from China." National Library, Singapore
"Most of the Chinese coolies usually were in different ways coerced and bonded into being coolies for the rest of their lives either before their arrival in China itself or soon after coming to Singapore. The newly arrived coolie recruit was called sin kheh which meant "new arrival" in Hokkien."-National Library, Singapore
Coolies were generally very poor and lived in cramped dwellings with hardly any windows or light. These lodgings could be described as "Dickensian" for most lacked water or toilets. Overcrowding was a big problem and coolie lived in cubicle so small some estimated it stood at about 60 sqft per man.
They were given to opium inhaling to relieve their tired bodies of its soreness and to gambling in an attempt to escape from their misery.
The picture below depicts a group of coolies playing "Chap Ji Kee". Some older folks still engaged in this gambling game but it is getting rarer now. "The whites and wealthy Chinese employed the coolies mainly because of their willingness to work hard for little money. The coolies were, in a way, the backbone of early Singapore's economy because they generated growth for the economy and caused the country to prosper. Few Chinese coolies went back to China later but most coolies settled down in Singapore doing other odd jobs."-National Library, Singapore
Details- Temple Celebration
I heard that in the old days, the image of Goddess of Mercy would be carried around various Cantonese, Hakka and Hainan temples around town . I would imagine the procession of "Mazu" in those days were pretty similar to practices still found in Taiwan nowadays. These processions are boisterous affairs with devotees following the procession with noisy drums and loud horns.

In tandem with a temple celebration is the inevitable staging of a wayang. A wayang (actually a Malay word) is a Chinese opera, performed in Mandarin or one of the numerous Chinese dialects.(usually Hokkien, Cantonese or Teochew).

Performed on a make-shift stage, wayangs are typically held in the months of August and September during the Hungry Ghost Festival or during temple celebrations.

I remember these scenes vividly as I have an elder cousin who was crazy about Chinese opera and we would accompany her to watch one of these everytime they staged it. It happened very frequently then and as children, we were excited not because of the opera but because the play we enjoyed, running between the stilts below the stage, eating sticky candy ( I remembered once I had to cut chunks of my hair off thanks to the candy!) and being in the crowd, watching in complete awe and fascination, the actors backstage, preparing..

Details-Vanishing Trades

/ "Shoe Last" Maker
"The immigration of Chinese coolies was high between the periods of 1823 to 1891 after Singapore became a free port, between 1910 to 1911 before the first world war and between 1926 to 1927, soon after the first world war. Coolie emigration decreased after 1927 because of economic depression, followed by the Japanese occupation and then the World War II. Coolie trade never peaked after this and most immigrants after World War II were skilled labour"-National Library, Singapore

Amahs (Lifelong maids)
Bullock Cart Driver
Cigarette Seller

When I was in India, there were these cigarette vendors who still sell them by the sticks. My mum told me she was one of them when she was young. She also remembered being caught once by the police as she was not licensed. The policeman treated her really well and even brought her food when she was detained. She was let off with a warning. A few days later, the policeman got a matchmaker to look for my grandmother to ask for my mum's hand in marriage!! My mum was still fuming with being detained at the police station and flatly said "NO"!

Travelling Food Vendors

Letter Writer

Opera Actors
Rickshaw Puller

Street Corner Barber with full service including shaving and ear cleaning

Five Foot Way Traders
Story Teller


  1. How interesting! I've always been interested in Chinese history, I read lots of novels and even more history books but I much prefer your way of telling a story. In Genoa there were sort of coolies since the birth of the harbour ( Rome Empiretime). In our dialect they are called camalli and camallare means to bear great weights. They were the spinal bone of the harbour but since middleage they joined in a society, the Compagnia, and in fact they make the rules. Up to now they are a closed society, elder sons can join it but only one in a family. Of course their work is no longer backbreaking but they retain a lot of privileges in health and insurance matters. I dare say they have too many privilges since the Compagnia nearly caused the bankrupt of Genoa port at the beginning of '70. But that was a political problem.Big hugs to you and family ( I love your mum's story!)

  2. Thank you Rosanna, for sharing the history of the camalli as well! I always knew that there were many parallels between Chinese and Italian history. For a long time, I was fascinated with the Mafias (read all the godfather stories by Mario Puzo, saw all the movies).

    Likewise, in Singapore, many of the migrants from China formed gangs (what else can they do? They only have each other).

    I was at an exhibition at the museum on Chinese Secret Societies. They exhibited the "Rules" , many on brotherly duties and love (still practised here but fewer of them now). The main rule is that no women can ever be allowed to join as they cause too many trouble! Especially amongst the men! I am afraid I have to agree. LOL

  3. nice..
    i needed those pictures for my school project..Can I use them? thanks. :)

  4. What an interesting blog, introduced by a thought-provoking photo. The unusual wall painting of the dwellings is also a strangely modern interpretation. Something like this hieroglyphic view of a park by Swiss painter Paul Klee,
    The image can be seen at who can supply you with a canvas print of it.