Film: 3859

Places + Locations | 1950 | Sound | B/W


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A day in the life of a Chinese family who run a vegetable farm in the city of Singapore, a British crown colony. Also footage of street markets, the modern business district and a Chinese street opera (wayang) performance by the river.

A noisy, bustling street market in the city of Singapore - possibly in Chinatown. Chinese pedestrians, loaded trolleys, bicycles and hawkers swarm the street haphazardly, the men in shorts and singlets or unbuttoned shirts, the women in ankle-length trousers and blouses or 'samfus'. A cacophony of voices, mainly in Chinese dialect: hawkers advertising their goods, customers haggling, babies wailing; also vehicles passing. Examples of how 'you can buy anything here': a man with a cart attached to the front of his bicycle, filled with wooden shoes. Two men rifle through a pile of shirts on a mat on the ground. Another bicycle-cart filled with what looks like dried fish or Chinese herbs. A woman in a samfu and wide-brimmed Chinese hat pushes along a trolley with a canopy or roof and deep inbuilt vats of 'hot sweet soup', a cylinder of chopsticks or spoons on the end. Women, also in wide-brimmed hats, squat on the ground, displaying food for sale. Makeshift stalls with canvas roofs line a street: in the foreground, a 'pork sausage stall' which also has waxed ducks suspended by metal hooks in front; a man sharpens (?) a cleaver on a wooden chopping board. Customers weigh out strings of pork sausage ('lap cheong') and select eggs? in front of another makeshift stall. A lady weighs out a root vegetable (sweet potato?) in front of shallow rattan woven baskets filled with leafy green vegetables: there is enough home produce in Singapore to feed the whole population, now nearly 2 million.

A busy road in the modern commercial centre of Singapore, probably around Shenton Way: buses, cars, trishaws, pedestrians in neat shirts and trousers; a few shophouses by the side remain standing next to newer blocks of multi-storey buildings; the Pan American Airways building can be seen in a converted shophouse. A shot of Chinatown from across two busy roads: gritty two-storey shophouses line a narrow street completely filled by a labyrinthine series of umbrella canopies and street market stalls; a line of trishaws stands by the road ready for passengers, a brazen contrast to the motor vehicles zooming past: 9/10s of the population live and work here.

The presenter, an Englishman in a suit, standing next to a map of Singapore island, talking about how he once lived in Singapore, and how tiny it is, at 20 miles across. Marked on the map are the defence areas for the British navy and airforce, which establishes that this is pre-1963 (Singapore's independence from Britain); this is corroborated by the name 'Malaya' for the peninsula above it (which changed its name to 'Malaysia' in 1963); the term 'city of Singapore', used on this map, was only granted by royal charter in 1951, but whether this is pre-1957 (when Malaya got its independence from Britain but retained its name) is uncertain. The bulk of the land in Singapore island is, as shown on the map, swampy or marshy; much of the food production is done by several thousand small vegetable farms scattered around the island, 'some no bigger than your school playground.' The presenter introduces one such farm which lies in the southeast of the island.

An aerial view of Singapore's vegetable farms: vegetable beds are in neat rows, houses in clusters are built on poorer soil, near shady coconut trees. A cluster of farmhouses: simple thatched attap roofs, wooden fences, coconut trees, vegetable beds in the foreground, in the early morning, before 7 am. The exterior of Choo Seng's house - a wooden structure painted white, corrugated iron showing through the attap roof, clothes hanging to dry on a line, an incense burning urn by the side, wide-brimmed farmers' sun hats hanging on the fence; Choo Seng is the first out, puts on his hat and his hoe over his shoulder, walks towards the fields.

The interior of the house: a concrete floor, a wire-frame-and-cloth cradle suspended from the ceiling with baby Lee inside; an older girl, Poh Heng (or Ho Eng? The commentator seems to say different things at different times), enters and rocks the cradle. Close-up of the springs that suspend the cradle from the ceiling and enable it to bounce up and down; behind it, hanging from the roof, a small incense holder. Chickens in the wood-and-wire pen which is underneath all houses.

Ah Soon, the eldest boy, carries a large coconut palm leaf about 1 1/2 times his height and balances it on wooden frames over a bed of turnip seedlings to shade them from the sun - one of the tasks the older children perform before going to school. Mrs Seng (a mistake, perhaps, as Chinese surnames tend to come before their other names, hence making her Mrs Choo, or Choo Seng really Seng Choo.) squats on wooden planks by the water hyacinth pool at the back of the house and does the washing by scrubbing pieces of clothing on a washing stone (?), she smiles to reveal a few gold teeth: she wears a samfu and has her hair in a bun. Two young sons, Choo Ho and Choo Kok, wearing shorts and sun hats, sit with a friend from next door on a mound of soil along the rows of ploughed land, watching Mrs Seng and playing.

A passenger plane (Boeing?) is seen and heard taking off over the farmhouses. A flock of pigeons scatter: the biggest airport (Kallang?) in 'South Asia' is less than a mile away. Poh Heng uses this chance to climb up to the bird house which the pigeons have just vacated to collect their eggs. Two large jackfruit - the largest fruit in the world and a delicacy - hang from a branch; Ah Soon reaches up and wraps a grimy shirt/jacket round them, gropes blindly with a string for a few moments, then finally manages to fasten the jacket as protection from ants and birds.

Poh Heng carries two bamboo poles with washing hung over them ('like flags') to a corner of the farm compound where there are racks for poles, and large earthen jars. Granny in her samfu holds the baby and laughs - this used to be her job. Mrs Seng empties duck feed from a shallow rattan basket into a narrow trough after breakfast. A flock of Peking ducks waddle toward the trough and feed noisily; flies buzz around the food. Choo Seng, in shorts and his sun hat, out in his vegetable beds, hoeing a bed for new mustard (?) plants.

Poh Heng, in a girl's uniform (cross-back pinafore and a short-sleeved white blouse) and Ah Soon in a white shirt and khaki shorts, both carrying little suitcases, walk across a plank bridge over the irrigation canal, through vegetable beds, towards school; their younger siblings play on tree branches in the foreground. Baby Lee in a pair of striped shorts, sits on a wooden table, a tame mynah bird perched in front of him; neither looks remotely perturbed.

Choo Seng wades through the water hyacinth pond, two metal watering cans with long thin spouts hanging from a pole he carries on his shoulders; he bends forward and dips the cans in the water. He walks through the vegetable beds, watering in front of him, and on both sides - most vegetables require watering three times a day. Close-up of dried-up leafy vegetables being doused in water. Mrs Seng walks sideways through beds of seedlings, sprinkling/scattering fertiliser from a tin bucket over them. Close-up of the crab and prawn combination used in the fertiliser.

Choo Seng squats on a narrow wooden footbridge over a pond of water lettuce, scooping vegetables into two rattan baskets next to him. He stands up carefully, balancing on the wobbling planks, hangs the baskets by their handles from a pole and slings it across his shoulder. He walks to the piggery - an open air wooden structure with a thatched roof; rattan baskets, concrete steps leading up to the cooking tank; he empties the water lettuce into one of the big baskets next to the tank. A bunch of squealing, active black piglets. The sow. Piglets suckling: pork is the favourite meat of the Chinese.

Ah Soon walks through the vegetable beds, coming back from school, which is morning-only, stops on the plank bridge, dips his hand in the water for a quick wash. Work on all the farms is in full swing by noon: two men with watering cans pass each other in the vegetable beds. Poh Heng on her way home too; she meets her father carrying baskets by the plank bridge, asks if she can play, then runs off grinning excitedly.

Ah Soon, now only in shorts and barefoot, climbs the jackfruit tree with ease; he kicks some red ants off his foot. Close-up of the non-poisonous red ants scurrying about on the bark: Ah Soon is used to their painful bite and continues climbing. Poh Heng and two other children from next door play a 'hopping game', joining one of their feet to the others, then hopping on the other foot, their backs to each other. They hop in a circle until they lose their balance and fall over, giggling. Ah Soon removes a gunny sack from around a huge jackfruit suspended near the ground; cuts it at the stem with a sharp blade, and gets pulled down by the weight of the 22-pounder in his hand. Ah Soon hefts the fruit on his shoulder and walks off through the plantation, past long grasses and coconut trees.

Poh Heng and her mother squat in front of piles of water hyacinth leaves and stems, chopping food for the pigs; chickens nearby. Close-up of a cleaver chopping stems. Poh Heng, in silhouette, tosses a basketful of the stems, which require boiling to be softened, into the cooking tank in the piggery. Choo Seng's silhouette through the steam rising from the cooking tank, using a long rake to stir the mixture of water hyacinth, brown lettuce and old salt fish. Piglets, grunting and squealing, move around I their sunlit pen, smelling the food. Mrs Seng empties a large bucket of swill into a pen chock-full of piglets for their twice-daily feeding: a terrific squealing, then only the sound of chewing when the food hits the trough. A row of pig tails swinging furiously as they eat. Mrs Seng hurls bucketloads of water scooped from the hyacinth pond into the sty, over the pigs, which are bathed frequently.

The water being tossed into the sty flows out again through the back fence into an algae-covered pool outside, together with droppings and refuse from the sty. Choo Seng empties this liquid into wooden buckets using a long-handled bucket/scoop: this will be used as manure. He carries the bucket from a pole on his back to the vegetable patch nearby - thus showing how small and well-planned the farms are. He sets the buckets down and tips liquid manure all over the vegetable beds.

Ah Soon, in his hat, finishes scooping out an irrigation channel from the soil with his bare hands: this is for the odd occasion that Singapore experiences dry weather. Water from the hyacinth pond flows lightly and rapidly into the channel.

Choo Seng carries two heavy baskets filled with mud across a rod on his shoulders into a vegetable bed; his two younger sons, also in hats, stand in the foreground: one cheekily sneaks up to his brother and knocks his hat off, which the latter simply picks up, nonplussed. Close-up of the rich pond mud used daily to nourish the well-worked soil being thrown onto the ground. Choo Seng and Ah Soon with hoes, raising the vegetable beds for aeration and irrigation.

Close-up of a hand picking out an old Chinese coin with a square hole in it from the soil: because Chinese have been farming in Singapore for over a hundred years, such finds of coins and porcelain are not uncommon. Ah Soon, excited by this find, takes it to his father and Poh Heng in the vegetable beds. Ah Soon and Poh Heng run off along the narrow raised banks of fish ponds to ask a neighbour about it. On the way, they stop to watch freshwater fish being caught in a small seine net by men, women and children in the water. A netful of fish is hauled up, writhing and tossing. Close-up of smaller fish being removed and thrown back in while larger ones are kept. Two women, each holding one end of the seine net, drag it in an arc out into the middle of the pond, where the water is waist-deep.

Ah Soon and Poh Heng walk down some stairs into an arbour, past a small statue of what looks like an ancient Chinese scholar. A Chinese scholar, calligrapher and fruit farmer in traditional garb (Mandarin collar and trousers) greets them; they bow respectfully and hand him the coin, which he examines and compares with another coin he wears around his neck for luck. He invites them into the 'pavilion'/house, an airy wooden building with stone tables and trees in front of it. The coin is about 90 years old and not worth very much, but interesting nonetheless. Inside his 'pavilion': bronze gongs from Borneo, now oxidised and worn with age, on the wall. 400-year-old Ming porcelain vases and vessels from China on a table. Close-up of the scholar looking in his coin box; a small figure which may be an ancient Chinese magistrate stands on the windowsill. Close-up of the box of coins as he explains how to tell the age of Chinese coins. Ah Soon and Poh Heng put their wooden clogs back on as they step out the door, having taken them off is is customary before entering a house.

Choo Seng sprays insecticide across a vegetable bed, using a manual sprayer and watering can. With the sun setting, Ah Soon takes the coconut palm shelters off from over the seedlings they were protecting. He carries them to a pile by the side; vehicles pass in the background. Poh Heng brings the washing on bamboo poles in; the poles are nearly twice her height in length.

The whole family, including grandmother, gather over a patch of vegetables, harvest them and prepare them for the market. Mrs Seng washes a bunch of white radishes in a pool. Choo Seng carries two large bundles of white radishes to the farmhouse for collection before dawn. The family place baskets of vegetables on a rack outside the house for collection by the lorries the next morning, before they awake. Ah Soon heaves his 'prize jackfruit' onto the rack. The family go indoors, having finished their work for the day.

A busy waterfront scene by the Singapore River - possibly Boat or Clarke Quay - wooden boats parked on one side; a row of godowns and shophouses on the road beside them, a large makeshift stage on stilts with a thatched roof, canopies, and walls made out of large Chinese patterned drapes: a travelling theatre (Chinese opera, or wayang) has set up there. A worker on the stage, in front of highly elaborate scenery (lanterns, dragons in the sea, etc) and props, hands a large basket of costumes, presumably, to a man on the ground; under the stilts can be seen a clutter of other items. A group of old ladies in samfus, their hair in buns and holding fans, chatter on the grimy cushions laid on the ground for the audience: other people mill around, some buying tidbits (?) from a man hunched over an open portable fan stove. Some of the children are in Western dress.

Backstage, the leading actress in her 'wayang' makeup (a 'painted face', highly accentuated eyes, eyebrows and lips), an accessory on her bundled up hair, but in an ordinary blouse and wearing a wristwatch, fixes pins to her hair and chats with Poh Heng, who stands watching behind her. The actress putting on her eye shadow as seen in the table mirror, on which is propped a photograph of a lady - whose ethnicity is unclear - in a western blouse and skirt. The actress smiles and talks as she combs her fringe. An actor in a long wispy stage beard hanging from his ears, dressed and made up as a 'wise noble man', wearing an an ancient civil servant's (?) hat and glittering robe. An actor made up as the clown but in a singlet grins and waves and fans himself. The leading actress has her costume put on and fastened for her by a man.

A shot of the Seng family standing in the audience, their faces reflecting the light from the stage. A sea of transfixed faces gazing up at the action. The stage is a replica of the elaborate interior of an ancient Chinese imperial court or study; the actor dressed as the nobleman is now wearing a mask with a moustache, and plays out a scene from a story familiar to everyone in the audience, gesturing with his long sleeves while singing. The orchestra members play on drums, cymbals, wooden clappers in the wings behind a carved screen. An actor and the leading actress sing and move on stage as a scene shifter, as per convention, changes some of the scenery in full view of the audience.

Choo Seng, his baby asleep in his arms, watches from the audience: they will have to leave soon as they have an early start the next day. The opera continues onstage, in gaudy, spectacular fashion; light bulbs illuminate a sign on the proscenium arch, presumably with the title of the story or the name of the troupe on it. Actors in full warrior regalia on stage: the show goes on till dawn.

A slightly incongruous picture of what looks like caucasian men, women and children in western dress walking off through a forest to music.


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