Tong Anese and the Tongkangs
Have you ever noticed those tongkangs anchored at Clarke Quay serving as floating restaurants? Or have you ever had your meal on one of those tongkangs? These boats were closely linked to the lives of immigrants from TongAn county, a Hokkien province.
Mr Lim Peng Tong, the Deputy Head of Leisure and Entertainment of Tung Ann District Guild is also the Honorary Secretary of Bao Xing Friendship Association. The association, registered in 2002, used to be a more-than-century-old lightermen shelter called Bao Xing Ku Li Jian, which also housed the Bao Xing Temple.
When Tong Ann clansmen, mostly from the Lim family from MaXiang JinTou Village, arrived in Singapore to search for a job, they headed to Bao Xing Ku Li Jian, which was set up by a famous man called Lin XianQin.. As most Tong Ann clansmen worked as quayside lightermen then, Bao Xing Ku Li Jian inevitably became the gathering and recreational centre for them. It was not surprising then for the lonely clansmen to call Bao Xing their “home”. Some came here hoping to find a job. Others came here to rest and mingle before and after their work before returning to their boats for the night. Each clansman had been given a wooden chest for his clothes and toiletries. The chest also consists of pockets to hold letters as many clansmen received letters from their families through Bao Xing.
Formerly located at Ann Siang Hill near Chinatown, Bao Xing Ku Li Jian shared the same site as Bao Xing Temple where the lightermen’s ancestor, Lin Xiyuan, a Mandarin of the Ming Dynasty was worshipped. Each year, the clansmen will stage opera performances and hold dinners to celebrate the birthday of Lin Xiyuan on the last day of September of the Chinese Lunar calendar.
Today, Bao Xing Friendship Association has moved to a block opposites Hong Lim Park. Besides retaining the altar, in respect of Lin Xiyuan, it also retains a 1- meter long shark bone, a symbolic item for the safety of clansmen working on sea. Another century-old item on the altar is an incense- holder from China with its engravings dating back to the Qing Dynasty.
Clansmen prayed to their God to avoid mishaps on sea. They joined a Ku Li Jian to garner support from fellow clansmen. Those days, not only clansmen from Tong An worked as lightermen, clansmen from other dialect groups or sub-group of the Hokkien clan also took up the job. Hence, different groups or secret societies were formed based on the Ku Li Jian they joined. There were YuanSheng sect 36 of the Tan family; YiXing sect 24 of the Lim family and so on. BaoXing was a sub-sect of YiXing then. As the lightermen trade was monopolized by a few dialect sects which wanted to expand their trade by getting more ‘sites’ under their wings, in the process, they fought and were inevitably viewed as secret societies by the government.
From 1983, Baoxing’s membership began to decline with the move of the tongkang trade to the Pasir Panjang Wharf. With time, Baoxing’s membership further weakened as the older generation passed away. The “slow death” of the trade certainly hastened the decline of the Association’s membership. According to Mr Lim, Bao Xing Friendship Association is currently left with only 30 to 40 members (in 2009) as compared to its previous glorious days, 20 years ago, where there were 500 members.
In the early days, Tong Ann clansmen arrived in Singapore to work as lightermen. Some of them received help from their fellow clansmen or relatives, and with the money saved, they started to own tongkangs and became bosses hiring others as lightermen. These rags to riches clansmen did not forget their less-well-off clansmen. Many of them contributed to the needs of the community and hence, became respected leaders of the Chinese community. Mr Lim Tui Qian and Mr Lin Jin Dian (Lim Kim Tian) were some examples. The “Kim Tian Road” at Tiong Bahru was named after Mr Lim Kim Tian.
Time passed. Things changed. Mr Lim who became the Honorary Secretary of Bao Xing Friendship Association 7 years ago, said he could not do much to its declining membership except to keep news clippings and artefacts.
Bao Xing’s future is anyone’s guess.