Tag Archives: Punggol

Pinoy style toponymy

A young local politician told me that the origin of Alabang is the word abang (tagalog for “to wait”). Bandits during the Spanish era use to ambush unsuspecting people he said.

Legends are more appealing than real history. The small Rio Alban (the one in Festival Mall) gave her name to Alabang. Boring story, I know, the legend’s more catchy.

Three years ago, I blogged about the origin of Muntinlupa’s barrio names. Many were surprised that all had botanical word origins.

Most stories about how places got its name are fabulated. They’re mostly “alamat” (legends) but Filipinos takes them as facts.

Pre-colonial Singapore were populated by Malays that had the same practice. They had a profound admiration towards nature and named places to honor it.

The names of the two towns I call home here, Punngol and Tampines, had natural and botanic origins.

Two years ago, we moved to Tampines township. Its name came from the tree “tempinis”. An ironwood variety, like the rare hard Philippine mangkono.

Punggol town got its name from an old Malay word. It was a method of gathering fruits from trees by hurling clubs. Our ancestors adapted the word in tagalog, “pukol”, which generally means “to throw”.

You see, the intangible historical links are there, we only need to pay attention.

Some other places Malays named after plants here are: the heritage district of Kampong Glam, after the tree Gelam. Kranji (I wrote about its WWII site here) from the keranji tree. Sembawang, Katong and many others.

The popular Filipino hangout place, Orchard Road, got its name from trees that used to lined it. What kind of tree? according to local historians, nutmeg. Not far from Orchard there’s a street called Nutmeg.

In the Philippines we call nutmeg as tanghas or duguan (from the red flesh the covers the seeds). The seed is dried up and grounded. It is used as spice and skin medicine.

I grew up in a street called Bagtican (white lauan). I knew even as a child that it’s a tree but never saw one until 9 years ago in Los Baños. It’s a threatened tree because of market demand.

Why knowing the real story behind places names is important?

Well, for one it dispels ludicrous myths that people ends up believing—and studying toponymy (ah, the scientific and fancy name of the study of places names) is a gateway to history.

Try researching where your place got its name and you’ll go into a history rabbit hole!

A River called Serangoon Sungei

I was out and running this morning along the Sungei Serangoon. A river that plays an important part in this nation’s water conservation efforts. Because of the island’s geographical limitation they’re forced to trap rain and sewage water for reuse. Singapore aim to be fully water self-sufficient in the future. I come from a country abundant with natural water resource and yet for some inexplicable reasons still perennially experience water shortage.

Because the river is part of a water catch basin system, it doesn’t flow like a normal river. Most of the time it’s placid with only the occasional breeze moving and ruffling its waters. How the water stays fresh and habitable by marine life is testament to their technology and their ability to manage this natural resource. When the waters are perfectly still the river takes the appearance of a giant mirror, reflecting all objects on top of it.

On a warm day, I sometime get up early so I could catch the sun rise from the direction of Johor. The river drains towards the Straits of Johor.

There’s a small patch of forest opposite the asphalt road and the wooden boardwalk the government created. I once saw birdwatchers camp out in the vicinity trying to catch a glimpse of the different kinds of birds in area. If only I could afford those powerful cameras I surely would join them. One of the most awesome scenes I enjoy observing in the river are these small birds diving into the water to snatch their fish prey. They would hover above the river to spot their victim, stop in mid flight, then plunge straight into the water, free fall speed!

There’s a mangrove forest that has been preserved near the Sengkang town. If you’re coming from the Punggol side, this is just across the bridge. It’s a sanctuary for a diverse marine ecology – I hope it stays there forever. The sunset near this area is spectacular especially during this time of the year.

There are spots along the river where people are allowed to fish. I once ask a Chinese man what kind of fishes they catch and I was shown a bucket with a few cichlid looking fishes. Seawater is a couple of kilometers away, I wonder if they also reel in salt water fishes.

There’s a huge chunk of land along the river that was once a dump site. This area is now used to treat water. Land development is of vital importance here, as population is projected to grow, so are housing projects.

They now take their garbage to Malaysia, where there are large areas for waste disposal. It makes sense, it’s not far and there are still vast hinterlands there.

The strait of Johor acts as a natural border between these two country. So close is Malaysia that you could see the windows of the factories and houses in the area where Punggol Sungei meets the sea. I read from a late 19th century account that Malayan tigers used to swim across this strait to snatch humans. There are no more tigers in the area but I heard that in Johor there are still reserves where these incredible predators freely roam.

January 2013

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