While the pioneer leaders were the architects of Singapore, everyday heroes helped build society here. This is another story of our Merdeka Generation, those born in the 1950s who lived and persevered through a tumultuous period.
For many, longkang (Malay for "drain") is an unremarkable neighbourhood fixture. But for 65-year-old Mok Loi Wong, the longkang brings back nostalgic memories of a "pond" where he swam and caught fish after rainy days.
Born in 1953 in a kampung in Jalan Ubi, Mr Mok grew up in a wooden hut with an earthen floor and no electricity. More often than not, he spent his waking hours outside.
"Our kampung was one of the only few with Chinese-style attap huts amid the cluster of Malay stilted kampung houses," he said.
His father, who was a photo engraver, owned 0.8ha of farmland where the family planted fruit trees, such as guava, and reared pigs and chicken.
Most of Mr Mok's free time after school was spent helping his parents. To earn some pocket money, Mr Mok and his elder brother would harvest and sell baskets of guava.
"We were paid about 10 cents for each kg, but back then, it was an amazing deal for us," he said, adding that they had more than 200 guava trees that bore fruit all year round.
They had to wake up at the break of dawn. Each with a basket slung around his shoulders, the brothers climbed tall guava trees to pick the fruits.
For shorter trees, the elder brother would use a long pole with a sharp hook to cut the fruits from the ground, while the younger brother would run around with a basket to catch the fruits.
"On days when we were late for school and desperate, my brother and I would hold the tree trunk and shake it as hard as we could. The ripe fruits would fall to the ground," laughed Mr Mok. "Of course we did this only when our parents were not around."
He also remembers his kampung being flooded frequently. "The longkangs would flood a lot every time it rained. For us, this was a magical moment," recalled Mr Mok. "My Malay friends and I would all jump into the longkang to play. "
Nicknamed "Moktar" by his Malay friends, Mr Mok recalls spending a lot of his time with them.
"I became one of them. They gave me a songkok (cap worn by Malay/ Muslim men)," he said, adding that his mother registered him to study Malay as a second language in school.
One of the group's favourite activities was catching eels from freshwater ponds. The eels were then sold to a man for two to three cents each.
Armed with nylon lines, hooks, a piece of wood and some earthworms for bait, the group would look for holes in the ponds where the eels were.
"We put the lines into the holes and when the eel bit onto the line, we would pull the eel out," he said.
"It was a tug of war," he laughed. "The eels were very strong."
Once, Mr Mok threw his bait into a hole and felt an immediate tug. The pull was so strong that all four of his companions had to help pull the string.
"Eels are usually yellowish brown but the thing that came out was black and yellow," he said. "When we realised it was a snake, we let go and all of us fell backwards. I fell right into the muddy waters," said Mr Mok, adding that he was thankful the snake left them alone.
The youngsters eventually discovered that the man who bought their eels sold them to an exotic seafood restaurant "at a much more exorbitant price".
"We just let it be because it was still quite a good deal for us."
During the racial riots in 1964, 11-year-old Mok and his family stayed behind in the kampung, even though many fled.
"My good neighbour Jamal asked us to stay and not leave. He promised to look after us," Mr Mok said. "A lot of people got killed, but they were killed by outsiders, not by the kampung people. One of my neighbour's house was even burned."
He recalled: "One day, the rioters came to my house and started banging on the door. My family had nowhere to go, we were shivering.
"Then from outside, my neighbour Jamal chased the rioters away. It is still a very vivid memory. I am forever thankful to my neighbour for saving us."
In the 1970s, the family moved into a flat in Haig Road, and in 1979, Mr Mok got married. The 70s was also when he joined the Housing and Development Board (HDB) as a gardening apprentice. In the past 40 years or so, he has remained in the same organisation.
He was active in community work, serving as secretary for Geylang Serai Community Sports Club for more than 30 years. He also served in a school advisory board and the Chinese Development Assistance Council.
The avid runner also completed 12 marathons around the world in the past two decades and even named his son Marathon.
Today, Mr Mok is a senior technical executive at HDB and is still involved in community work. By next year, he plans to retire from most of his activities and job. "It is time for me to slowly pass the baton to someone else."
At home, the family man meticulously displays black-and-white photos of his family from over the years.
He has also kept memorabilia from yesteryear, including typewriters and large ceramic water storage containers.
"These photos and items tell a story, not just of my kampung days but of the lives we lived back then," he said. "The kampung days were some of the best days of my life. And I want to pass these stories to the next generation."
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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