Low Nong Nong ( Lau Wong Tong / Low Ee Long), a Hockchew rickshaw puller and construction coolie lies buried at Bukit Brown in a simple tomb at the pauper section of Hill 3 Division 7, tomb no 120. His story carved on his tombstone however bears a rich story of a turbulent moment in time where poor ricksha coolies banded together to seek justice in terms of a more favorable rental rates of rickshaw from the owners (towkay) of this ricksha.
|Living conditions for Rickshaw coolies|
Pah Mata ! (Strike Police !)In 1938, the towkays of rickshaws raised the rental fees. This together with the perception that there was manipulation of the China Relief Fund contributions, became a major issue for the growing number of rickshaw coolies, some already unemployed as the number of rickshaw licenses issued declined over the years and other modern modes of transportation coming into competition. Some of the rickshaw coolies banded together in protest and calling for a strike. It was said that 4,000 pullers went on strike en mass, creating a frightening scene especially for the colonial masters.
Not all coolies protested. Coolies aligned with their clan associations and the clan towkays continued their trade. However they also became targets from this protesting coolies. On October 17, 1938 such a scene played out when a major clash between the police and the rickshaw pullers happened at the junction of Arab Street and Victoria Street. A rickshaw rider defying protest was assaulted by two rickshaw coolies and 1 arrest was made. A crowd of 400 protestor's came to rescue their captured comrade and some were armed with fighting sticks, bottles, rickshaw shaft, bricks and stones. Shouts of Pah Mata Pah ! (strike police strike ) fueled the chaos and some of the policeman were hurt. More police came and eventually the crowd was dispersed.Lying on the ground, face down was Low Nong Nong with a fractured skull. A resident of Geylang, Low Nong Nong was one of the coolies who participated in the protest and was left unemployed and hungry for days. He was last seen borrowing money from a fellow friend. Whether he participated actively in the riots or was a innocent bystander was unknown, but became a focal point of the class struggle.
Low Nong Nong, age about 40 was taken to Tan Tock Seng Hospital, but he never recovered from his fractured skull injuries.
A martyr's funeral
Nearly 3000 rickshaw pullers accompanied the lorry bearing Low Nong Nong, ( having claimed his body from Tan Tock Seng Hospital the very day of his death ) in what was the longest funeral procession seen in recent times, stretching from Wayang Satu to Newton Circus and finally to a pauper's grave in Bukit Brown.
|Rickshaw pullers marching to Bukit Brown|
|Low Nong Nong, died October 17, 1938|
The riots, the longest ever lasted from October 4 to November 14, ended when an understanding was achieved on the ricksha pullers daily rate. It was however a pyrrhic victory for the ricksa coolies. Low Nong Nong paid the ultimate price with his life. 4 ricksha puller rioters ( Tiong Moi Kiang, Ting Ee Kiang, Swee Ah See and Leng Kim Peow) and 1 unemployed rioter (Low Ah Hock) were sentenced to the maximum of 6 months rigorous imprisonment.
About 1,600 rickshaw pullers were sent back to China at the expense of the Straits Settlement government. In November 1938 alone, 800 unemployed coolies ( 917 if include their wives and children) returned to China on a government sponsored ship back to Amoy (Xiamen) with an additional three Strait Settlement dollars for passage from Amoy to their village. This workers are unlikely ever to see or set foot in Singapore again as it cost $300 chinese dollar for a quota ticket or license to work here.
|Ricksha pullers leaving for China|
The riots itself left a bitter aftertaste to the colonial masters, fearful of future riots, Mr A.B Jordan, Secretary of Chinese Affairs push for the quicker hastening of the disappearance of rickshaws in Singapore. He went on to say, "The public suffered the inconveniences of these strikes with commendable patience and good temper. But it was regrettable that there was so much intimidation during the strikes of the Singapore Traction Company's employees and of the rickshaw pullers, in the latter , a rickshaw puller was killed and a number was sent to prison for rioting".
The memory of Low Nong Nong gradually faded into the written text but with the efforts of the community in all things Bukit Brown, he is rediscovered and remembered. His tomb is located in Hill 3, Division 7, plot 120A.
|Low Nong Nong remembered|
|Rickshaw's eventually were replaced with modern transportation|
Maximum Penalty for Chinese Rioters. (1938, October 19). The Singapore Free Press
No one saw dead ricksha puller hit.(1938, October 28). The Singapore Free Press
Majority of Ricksha pullers willing to return to work. (1938, October 19).The Singapore Free Press
Ricksha pullers leave for China. (1938, November 11). The Singapore Free Press
Ricksha unnecessary in Singapore. (1939, July 13). The Singapore Free Press
Warren, J. F. (2003). Rickshaw coolie: a people's history of Singapore, 1880-1940. NUS Press.
Social History and the Photograph: Glimpses of the Singapore Rickshaw Coolie in the early 20th. Century by Jim Warren.Published at Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society , Vol. 58, No. 1 (248) (1985), pp. 29-42 (Accessed from JStor)