Life & Times of a Catholic Teochew Fisherman – Part 1

Before he returned to the Lord on 13 July 2017 at the grand old age of 101, Joseph Lee Ah Ngiap recorded his oral history, providing us a fascinating insight into the life of a working-class Singaporean Teochew Catholic throughout the most notable times of our nation’s history


Growing up as a Catholic in Ponggol

Joseph Lee Ah Ngiap was born in Singapore, in the year 1917. His father, also named Joseph Lee, was the son of Chinese migrants from the Chao Yang District in Guangdong Province, a majority Teochew area. Their hometown was Hai Men Zheng. Joseph mentions that his grandparents were already practicing Catholics in China when they migrated to Singapore, although it is unclear if they were converts or born into the faith.

Joseph’s father was 14 when he was brought to Singapore, the youngest of 7 children. Families were quite large in those days – Joseph himself had 6 siblings, 3 brothers and 3 sisters. However, tragedy struck the family when Joseph was only 5. His mother, recovering from giving birth to his younger sister, passed away from complications after consuming medicine that had been mislabelled. His father eventually remarried, adding two adopted siblings to the family, a brother and a sister.

Growing up in Ponggol, Joseph was baptised and attended Mass at the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  Catechism classes were given in Teochew in order to cater to the needs of the Chinese migrant community that settled in the area.  The families lived in close proximity, forming a Catholic majority in their little neighbourhood. Joseph recalls that Teochew Catholics did not isolate themselves in an enclave but mingled and  lived harmoniously with people of other races and religions in the neighbourhood.

As a boy, Joseph would help one of his uncles with his kelong or fish farm. These kelongs were wooden platforms constructed off the shore from which the fishermen would catch, rear and sort through fish. These experiences would give him the skills and know-how to set up his own kelong later in life.

A Fisherman’s Life

Joseph was 25 years old when an incident happened that would change his life. When his younger sister was bitten by a snake, the family brought her to a Chinese physician for treatment. The physician’s wife, who was a Catholic, took notice of the family and decided to play matchmaker for Joseph and one of her daughters, Agnes.  Soon after, the couple were married in Nativity Church.

At the age of 30, now a married man, Joseph decided to start a kelong of his own. He remembers the construction to be quite an arduous task. The  first thing to do was to procure the materials. The trunk of a betel nut tree cost two dollars apiece, a princely sum back in those days. A hundred such trees were required for the kelong’s construction, each trunk requiring four men to lift. These trunks would then be turned into stakes that had the circumference of a large milo tin. To build the foundations of the kelong, Joseph employed some skilled Malay workers, who dived deep into the water to push the stakes into the seabed. The cost of this endeavour meant that in the early days of the business, much of the income from the daily catch went towards paying off the debts incurred in the kelong’s construction. To make matters worse, the start-up of Joseph’s kelong coincided with the Japanese conquest of Singapore.

The War Years

As with many other Singaporeans, Joseph and his family suffered under the Japanese Occupation. Joseph recalls being caught fishing at night by Japanese soldiers, past the stipulated curfew hours. In order to lure the fish at night, he had to use a small light as bait, and this light was what gave him away. Although Joseph was lucky that the Japanese soldiers did not arrest him, he did however suffer a savage beating at their hands. It was also a dangerous time for the females in the family.  When the Japanese soldiers came to inspect the houses, they not only expected the residents to provide refreshments, sometimes they also took away the women. So the women took to hiding amongst discarded coconut husks whenever the soldiers approached the neighbourhood.

However, being a fisherman during the Japanese Occupation did have its advantages. Joseph recalls that the Japanese tended to be less suspicious of the working class, or those with “rough hands” as he puts it. People who held clerical jobs under the British colonial government were far more likely to be taken away for execution. Joseph also remembers having once caught a pufferfish or fogu, which the Japanese considered a delicacy, so the soldiers were willing to trade with him for a bag of rice. Despite fearing repercussions if the fish was not properly prepared and rid of its poison, he made the trade and was able to feed his family in those trying times.


Post-War and Resettlement

After the war, Joseph continued to operate his kelong, selling the fish he caught to wholesalers in the nearby Kangkar fishing port. His wife Agnes, being an industrious woman, set up a chicken farm to help support the family as well.

As Singapore began to modernize, the government’s resettlement policies caused life to change once again. The couple who made their living from fishing and farming moved in with their children to new HDB apartments. Ever adaptable, Joseph took the change in his stride, spending his retirement frequenting the new markets. As some of his children migrated to Australia, he would also make trips there to visit them, and spent many happy hours indulging in his love for fishing.

For the second instalment of Life & Times of a Catholic Teochew Fisherman, click here