Learn about Singapore's history through pineapples, coffee and coconuts

Co-Founders of Total Heritage, Dr John Kwok (left) and Mr Ong Chun Yeow, at the National Museum on April 20, 2022. ST PHOTO: SAMUEL ANG

SINGAPORE - The names Lim Nee Soon, Tan Kah Kee and Lee Kong Chian are familiar to many Singaporeans, given that buildings, places and even an MRT station have been named after these merchants to honour their charitable works and service to community.

But the source of their wealth might not be as familiar to most.

The trio had pineapples, at least in part, to thank for their fortunes, having owned plantations and canneries that prepared the fruit of the tropical plant for export.

Pineapples, as well as coconuts and coffee, are three of the cash crops that heritage consultancy Total Heritage will focus on in a series of programmes that it is running as part of this year's Singapore HeritageFest.

Through one of the three crops, participants in the programmes will learn about Singapore's natural landscape, and how it has been shaped by land clearance for plantations decades ago.

They will also find out how to repurpose waste products from the consumption of these three crops into items for everyday use.

Total Heritage co-founder John Kwok said it was in about 1888, when canning was invented, that the mass export of Singapore-grown pineapples became possible.

Pineapple cultivation and export peaked in the 1920s, before tapering in the 1930s.

Even so, said Dr Kwok, about 150 million pineapples were exported from Malaya and Singapore in 1934 - a significant figure despite being part of the low-export years.

He added that pineapples became popular due to the longer growth times of another crop, rubber.

Rubber trees take about five to eight years to mature, and Dr Kwok said businessmen grew pineapples alongside rubber as an interim source of revenue.

The cultivation of these two crops took place across the island, including on land currently occupied by Seletar Airport.

As for coffee, which is also not commonly associated with Singapore today, Dr Kwok said the Nanyang brew that is sold in coffee shops has its roots in a global coffee blight in the late 1800s, which wiped out the arabica species - the most popular species for consumption then and now.

Dr Kwok said in order to save the coffee industry in South-east Asia, the British introduced the robusta and liberica varieties here in the late 1890s.

But the two varieties were not palatable until the Hainanese started roasting their beans in a process that included adding sugar and margarine, he added, noting that this was how Nanyang coffee came to be.

Those who choose the coffee themed programme will get a chance to feel and smell liberica beans to get a sense of what the Hainanese had to work with, said Dr Kwok.

More information on Total Heritage's programmes, which will be held in Fort Canning Park's Spice Garden and the National Museum of Singapore, can be found at www.sgheritagefest.gov.sg

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