TIGER, TIGER, TIGERS!

A new book on the history of St Joseph's Church, the Catholic church in Bukit Timah, highlights the efforts of priests in building early church communities in colonial Singapore. These excerpts feature the terror caused by tigers, and the wedding rituals of the Chinese community.

The terror of tigers overwhelmed the whole of Malaya in the 19th century. Father Mauduit had himself tackled these man-eating cats even till his last days at the Mission Station. These flesh-consuming beasts preyed on susceptible Chinese coolies who worked in fields which were fenced by the jungle walls. There was no telling what hid behind the trees, and the beasts were not selective about their next meal, whether they were Christians or not.

Father Perie here gives a most chilling account of an attack on one of his Christians.

"One Sunday, at about 10 o'clock in the day, one Christian came to me saying, 'Father, a tiger has eaten up Kam-ko-Pe.' I called for helpers with guns, axes and picks, and we went (to the scene). A man said that Kam-ko-Pe, while returning home from mass, passed in front of his pigsty and found that one of his pigs had disappeared. He shouted to his son in the house, 'A tiger has taken the pig.' And without telling anyone, he went with a big knife to the place where the tiger would have to pass to return to the forest. He was hoping to find the carcass of the pig. As soon as Kam-ko-Pe reached the woods, they heard a shout, and then a scream. The son heard and understood it all. 'My father is dead,' he said. The boy wanted to run to his father's aid but was restrained by the people.

"At the entrance of the forest, we fired our guns to frighten off the tiger. The hat of the poor Chinese attracted our eyes. It was there that the tiger took the man. It was eating the pig when it heard Kam-ko-Pe (approaching). And thirsting for blood, the tiger left the first victim to eat the man. After a few steps, we noticed some blood and a few pieces of clothing. So, we were sure of his death. Then we saw more blood and a bone with some flesh. Surely, the tiger was here. The fright was general among the hunters because everyone feared that the monster would jump at him. 'Kam-ko-Pe is here,' shouted one of my men. Indeed, next to the trunk of a tree, lying half devoured was the body of the unfortunate Christian, and it was difficult to recognise. Immediately, with some branches, we made a stretcher to carry the remains back for burial."

  • MISSION ON A HILL, FAR, FAR AWAY: CHURCH, COMMUNITY, SOCIETY: HISTORY OF ST JOSEPH'S CHURCH (BUKIT TIMAH, 1846-2016)

  • By Clement Liew

    Published by St Joseph's Church (Bukit Timah)

    Available at $46 from major Catholic bookshops and St Joseph's Church ( Tel: 6766-0891)

The Christians in the middle of the jungle lived in constant danger. If it was not the hoeys, it would have been the snake or the tiger that would cause hurt or even death. Sadly, there was still a more painful reality as far as the laws of the jungle was concerned - the life of a coolie was worth little. In one incident, a Christian coolie was carried off by a tiger. The monster, still clutching the poor soul in its jaws, leapt over a river and hid the body of its victim in some bushes. The Chief of Police for Bukit Timah came to know of the incident and forbade Father Perie to remove the body for burial...

"The chief of the police of Bukit Timah however forbade us to touch the body, wanting to hunt the tiger near the victim. (Despite) this) we found the body and carried it on branches to the church for burial. But the police stopped us. They wanted us to return the body to the forest where we found it. But I, the priest (of the parish), refused and sent my catechist to the Chief of Police, and the corpse went to church.

" The Chief of Police became very angry and was quite against me. I ordered the dead body to be put in front of the church, with the Christians in charge of watching over it. Soon I saw the Chief of Police coming with seven policemen. I was not afraid, but my Chinese friends were. I came down when the English policemen arrived at the door. I invited him (the Chief of Police) to my room. He accepted, and knowing of his love for brandy, I asked my servant to bring two glasses and a bottle of alcohol. I poured the cognac, and my visitor drank it quickly. I was saved. Politely, I told him that the law forbade the touching of the bodies of those killed by knives or suicide, but no one leaves the bodies of persons who had drowned in the water, and was not the law to apply in this case?

"The Englishman said, 'I understand, but had we killed the tiger, its skin had the value of one hundred dollars, and the newspaper would report this fact.' I gave him a glass of brandy and he was pleased with me. (Then) I asked if he would like to see the wounds of the poor victim, he agreed, and we came down. The Chinese who came to see were very anxious. They were happy to see the policemen leaving. They were afraid that I was going to be imprisoned. But now, the Chief of Police shook hands with me and left."

In colonial Singapore, only the "White Man" was worth anything, just as in other colonies of the time. Clearly, the Christian Church had a most important role in the lives of the ordinary Chinese in such countries.

Besides preaching the gospel, Father Perie found that he had to teach and show his flock that every one of them counted, and they were equally important and deserved a measure of dignity.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 28, 2016, with the headline 'TIGER, TIGER, TIGERS!'. Print Edition | Subscribe