Saturday, August 6, 2005

Life on the Farm - Part 3

The Animal Farm

Our animal farm was located on a lower area of our farm land.  The land sloped towards a flat area which was about the size of 2 football fields.  (See: Farm-view)  Beyond this was a ravine at the bottom of which ran a stream in a northerly direction.  On the opposite side of the ravine was a hillslope planted with rubber trees which probably dated back to the time of the Straits Settlements

During the Emergency after the Japanese occupation, different groups of people would show up at the farmhouse for some food or just a rest and a chat with my father.  One day, while Pa was standing by the front door, he noticed a group of armed men in jungle green uniforms carefully creeping through the bushes towards the farmhouse with rifles in their hands.  My eldest brother was then about a year old.  He was playing outside the door.  Pa calmly walked out the door and picked him up.  The armed men turned out to be British soldiers.  They lowered their guns after they checked Pa's identifications.  Then they sat down, relaxed and even played with the baby.  Pa of course did not dare to tell them, even if he could speak English, that another group of armed men has just left the place a few hours earlier.

It was in this house that my two elder brothers and elder sister were born before Pa built our second house.  It was later converted into a material store and cooking house where the food for the farm animals were prepared. 


We had two huge woks.  One was cemented into a stove with a wall 1 foot thick built around it to about 4 feet high.  It resembled a huge cooking pot with a hole measuring 2 by 2 feet for putting in fire-wood at the base, on a lower level.  The other wok, slightly smaller was cemented on a stove beside the first.  Both stove openings faced one area where we could feed in fire-wood from a wood stack.  The big wok was for cooking a mixture of cut-up banana trees, yam plants, water hyacinths, tapioca, red beans, kaoliang, copra cake and corn.  The red beans, kaoliang, corn, and copra-cakes were bought from a stock-feed supplier, while the rest come from our own farm.  The red beans were imported from China.  They're the same red beans that restaurants now use for preparing ice-kacang and no longer considered animal food.  They've become too expensive to be fed to animals. 

Sometimes we had to buy the tapioca from neighbouring farms.  It used to cost 3 cents a kati (a kati is equivalent to 600 grams). The whole gang of us would go over to the place with all our tools, dig up the tapioca and load them into a large gunny sack and transport them back to our place on a bicycle.  We couldn't ride it of course.  It was too heavy, at least 100 katis.  Pa would push it and some of us would stabilise it from behind. 

Most of the local ingredients had to be cut into pieces before cooking.  Once in a while we get careless and cut our own fingers.  I once chopped off the tip of my left index while cutting tapioca.  I yelled out when I saw my finger tip on the chopping block and my blood dripping.  My mother rushed me back to the house and applied some ointment and wrapped it up with a strip of white cloth.  I blacked out for a moment.  Fortunately, years later, I could still learn to play the guitar, but the last string often had a dead sound to it.  The second time I cut my own hand, it was quite close to the knuckle.  Luckily, it wasn't too deep, but the scar is still there.  I was then chopping the hyacinths. 

Number 7 brother was left-handed.  But our parents got him to write with his right hand.  One day, he cut his right thumb leaving only a small bit of his nail intact.  He was cutting tapioca, holding the knife with his left hand and the tapioca in his right.  My mother had to take him to hospital.  They gave him a few stitches.  He had no choice now but to write with his left hand.  Luckily, he had only just started schooling.  Otherwise, it would have been difficult for him to catch up.

The banana trunk had to be sliced into thin, discs-like pieces, then chopped into tiny cubes.  The thinest disc we could managed to slice was about 4mm.  The slicing knife was shaped like a cresent and had a hollow handle on either end and the blade with its cutting edge on the inner side, had to be honed until it was razor sharp.  Then we attached a piece of split bamboo, shaped to fit into the handles straight across the blade.  This flat piece of bamboo worked like a jig to limit the thickness of the disc.  It took about an hour to slice up a 6 foot trunk.  We usually had to cut up 3 banana trunks for each cooking session.

Farming was mostly heavy work.  We had to do this gathering, cutting, chopping and cooking work every 3 or 4 days to feed about 100 - 120 pigs.  What we cooked in the big wok was all vegetarian and meant for the pigs.  In the smaller wok, we cooked fish, shrimps and a lot of other sea food which my father bought cheaply from the market.  These were the unwanted catches that fishermen could not sell for human cosnsumption, so they become animal food.  These were cooked and mixed with milled oats, corn and other cheap grains and fed to the chickens and ducks and a portion of it mixed into the pig food.  We didn’t rear egg-layer chickens on a large scale until much later, when I was schooling.

For planting, the tapioca tree had to be cut into short lengths of about 150mm and planted in rows of dug up and loosened earth and formed into long beds raised to about 500mm high. Holes were dug near the base on one side of the bed about 600mm apart and the cut tapioca tree was dropped in each hole in a right-angled position to the bed and covered with soil.  When the first leaves started to appear, manure, usually pig dung was poured on top of the beds.  Tapioca took about 8 - 10 months to grow.  Harvesting was an equally tough job.  The stump and the roots were pulled from the ground after we cut down the trees.  If the ground was too hard, especially during the dry season, a pick was used to dig in at the base of the stump and the whole bunch was levered out.

The tapioca tree consisted of 1 - 3 main trunks sticking up from the ground.  Below the ground the tubular roots grew up to about 300 - 400mm long and each root was 40 - 60mm in diameter, tapering off in a pointed end.  Each tree yielded about 5 - 6 units of tapiocas of normal size, and some of various sizes, some even as small as peanuts.

Banana trees came from the grove or “payoh” behind the pig-stys.  Beyond that was a ravine of about 6 meters deep and 10 meters wide.  There was a stream at the bottom of the ravine.  The water ran clear and fresh during good weather and it formed part of our playground in the afternoons when our father went out for his daily trip to the local coffeeshop.  We would catch shrimps and lots of small colourful fishes called guppies.  Once we almost caught an eel, but it got away.

This 'payoh' with its loose sandy soil also yielded lots of earthworms.  We used to dig them out from the soil and fed them to our ducks.  Sometimes accidents happened.  One of us would be digging with the hoe while the rest would grab the worms before they disappeared back into the earth.  Once while I was digging 2nd brother quickly bent down and tried to grab a worm.  The hoe landed on his head instead.  Seeing a gash on his scalp and blood flowing, we rushed him back home.  Ma quickly applied some ointment on the wound and covered it with a pad cut out from a piece of white cloth.  Most probably the scar is still visible.

Pig farming required a lot of water.  We used to wash the stalls and bathe the animals by scooping the water from the tanks with metal pails and splashing them on their bodies.  Then we had to throw the water in such a way that it went like a torrent to flush out the solid waste.  When our source of water from the hills became too unreliable, Pa installed a diesel engine pump on the edge of the ravine to pump up water from the stream.  This made our life a lot easier.  We now used hoses connected to the pipes and spray or shoot the water as we liked, depending on what we needed to use it for.  We fitted a short length of metal pipe to the end of the hose.  To spray, we stuck a forefinger in front of the nozzle to disperse the jet of water coming out.

We took care not to let our pig waste water flow into the stream.  We had a special pond built to contain the solid waste, while the water flowed into 2 huge ponds where water hyacinths grew.  We harvested these hyacinths from the ponds, broke off their roots and loaded them into specially made baskets.  We had to wade into waist-high water to do this job in the hot afternoons.  The temptation to splash around or swim in the murky water was always there.  As always, after this job was done, we would stink like the waste pond itself.  Sometimes even a thorough wash with fragrant soap couldn't rid us of the smell.  My brother and I would put a long pole through one of these baskets and carry it to the “cooking-house”.  Usually we had to harvest about 2 or 3 baskets of them for each cooking session. 

The pig waste pond usually looked very solid on the surface.  Because of the pig's vegetarian diet, the waste was mostly fibrous and light material.  Thus they stay afloat while the liquid became hidden beneath.  I'm not sure how deep it was.  But we never made the mistake of stepping on the surface.  You could end up in pig waste up to your head.  Pa made a fence around it just to make sure we wouldn't fall in by accident.

Yams grew abundantly in the shallow drains flowing to the hyacinth ponds.  The stalks and leaves were also cut and cooked together with the rest of the materials.  Growing alongside the yams were kangkong which I used to harvest by cutting the newly grown stalks and tying them into a bundle of about 4 - 5 kgs which my father sold to retailers at the morning market.  It was a boring, routine job and I was the only one given that task and I dreaded it because I had to do it alone. 

Another dreadful job of which I was given the sole responsibility was scraping off the chicken droppings from our hen-house.  These egg-layers were housed in rows and rows of wire-mesh cubicles.  The hen stayed in this cubicle big enough only for her to turn around to eat from the food tray or drink from the water trough, throughout her egg-laying life.  The bottom mesh on which the hen stood was made to slope outwards at an slight angle so the the eggs can roll out as soon as it was laid.  Most of the droppings were wet and the smell was like stink-bombs that party gate-crashers loved to use in those days.  As soon as I finished that job, I had to go for a complete clean-up bath and change of clothes.

...more to come....


  1. I witnessed the whole event while Liong Khoon chopped his thumb..
    may be he lost concentration while I tried to play with him at that moment..
    His thumb turned to a "hook" shape after healed....
    There was no microsurgery technique at that time and a few stitches on his thumb was the best treatment .....

  2. Ugh!!
    No SOCSO then (workers' insurance).

  3. survival maa... tell that to child workers in India, Africa work, no food. We're lucky those were only 'minor' accidents. Tell you later about a 'major' one I was lucky to get thru....

  4. Uncle, look like u have a lot brother and sister. R u the youngest ones?