Nothing is more characteristic of the Singapore housing estate than the bamboo pole – the tekkoh (in Hokkien) or galah (in Malay). The sight of the school of bamboo poles – laden with tee-shirts, pants, school uniforms, towels and bedsheets – may not be a feature of the newer estates which did not include the tekkoh in its design, still it is one that many Singaporeans would have grown up to. So what’s the story of the bamboo pole?
By Stephanie Ho
with research by Vina Jie-Min Prasad
One of my most vivid childhood memories of living in Queenstown in the 1970s was that of my mother loading up the bamboo poles with freshly washed clothes. She made sure that each piece of laundry was securely fastened to the pole with wooden pegs before hauling the heavy pole out to dry. Sometimes when the wind roared, and the clothes were not securely fastened, a T-shirt or woe betide, an undergarment, would break free and fly off. I would then be sent downstairs to sheepishly retrieve the garment. Whenever the dark clouds gathered and rain threatened, was always a mad rush to take in the clothes before they got soaked.
For a long time, I had identified the laundry bamboo poles with HDB living until I came across an old photo of Chinatown in the 1950s where rows of bamboo poles crowded out the facades of the shophouses. The photo proved quite clearly that laundry bamboo poles predated the HDB estates. This set me thinking: where did these bamboo poles come from and who started using them to hang laundry?
Chinatown street scene, circa 1950s. (Source: National Library Board).
Bamboo is a common plant grown in China and Southeast Asia. It grows fast, in large quantities and is quick to mature.Bamboo is also light, strong, hard, and easy to work with. In his book Bamboo and Its Uses in China published in 1927, William M. Porterfield’ notes that in China, bamboo poles were used to carry heavy loads and to dry laundry. He also mentioned that bamboo poles were also used to dry laundry, which was especially convenient for boat people and villagers who lived over their shops.
Early use of tekko in Singapore
We do not know who was the first person in Singapore to start using bamboo poles to dry laundry but there is evidence that by the early 1900s, people in Singapore, especially the Chinese, were doing so.
A 1911 news article in the Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser observed that the Chinese in Singapore had solved the problem of drying and airing clothes by sticking a pole through bedroom or drawing-room windows. Singapore’s densely populated Chinatown was filled with bamboo laundry poles along the five-foot-ways included Hokkien, Nanking, and Club Streets.
It was possible that some of the bamboo used were grown locally. A 1949 Singapore Free Press report mentioned that bamboo grew in the older estates in Singapore, and that these were subsequently made into poles used for hanging laundry.
In the 1970s, a “galah” or “tekkoh” man went round Housing and Development Board (HDB) estates selling these poles. At some point, bamboo poles became wrapped in bright-coloured plastic sheaths. These plastic covers made it easier to slide wet clothes through the poles as they were no longer caught in notches of the bamboo pole. Or perhaps to make the chore less drab?
In the HDB estates
Bamboo pole in today’s HDB, 2009. (Source: Peter Morgan, retrieved from Flickr)
When Singaporeans were relocated to HDB estates from the 1960s, they took their bamboo poles with them. In fact, HDB encouraged the use of bamboo laundry poles by introducing pole holders in HDB flats in the 1970s. These pole holders were made of galvanised iron pipes, and residents were advised to insert their bamboo poles into the iron pipes in order to dry their clothes rather than having the poles dangle precariously from all sorts of crevices.
Each flat had five pole holders fitted to the walls of the flat’s back balcony. Interestingly, the pole holders were 9 inches long for flats up to the fifth storey, and 11 inches long for flats above the fifth storey. A possible reason for this difference in length could be to prevent wet laundry from higher floors from dripping onto lower floors’ laundry.
Not everyone was pleased with this clothes hanging situation. Some residents considered the poles and the laundry hanging from it unsightly, not to mention dangerous. Between 1970 to 1975, five women fell to their deaths while putting out laundry. Eventually these complaints led to changes.
In 1995, then Acting Minister for National Development Lim Hng Kiang, announced that new HDB flats would have recessed laundry areas for drying clothes. The improved drying system would have external racks that supported both ends of the bamboo poles, instead of just one. Today, all the new HDB flats come with an external clothes-drying rack where residents can hang their laundry on metal railings an arm’s length from the parapet wall.
Use of the tekkoh to hang laundry out to dry is still a common practice in Singapore today. But with the HDB improvements, and a new generation of Singaporeans with different attitudes towards drying laundry, who knows how long this practice will last?
Did you know?
Besides drying laundry, bamboo poles have been used for unlawful purposes too. A 1958 news article noted that a bamboo pole, a piece of string and an improvised hook have helped a number of Singapore’s small-time crooks to “amass small fortunes”. At the time, thieves have used the poles to fish out pay packets, watches, money, and clothing from houses with open windows.
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Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Bamboo in China: new prospects for an ancient resource. (http://www.fao.org/docrep/s2850e/s2850e07.htm)
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