The Original Lau Pa Sat
Bumboats At Telok Ayer Basin
The Dark World of Smuggling, Smuggler & Murder
The father of the Writer, the late Mr. Tong Seng Mun (TSM), used to get his supply of wild animals, birds and fish for his animal trading business from the ships which came from the neighbouring countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand etc. The ships were usually anchored off Telok Ayer Basin and TSM often had to hire bumboats to ferry his stocks of animals, fish and birds from the ship ashore. In the course of his business, he got to know Ah Lau ( 亚刘)the leader/headman of the gang in Telok Ayer Basin/Lau Pa Sat area. Because he was English educated and with his network of friends in civil service, TSM was able to help Ah Lau with correspondence and government matters which were in English. In return, as a good friend of the headman, no other gangster dared give TSM any trouble as he went about his business getting his supplies through Telok Ayer Basin. The two men developed a healthy respect for each other and often met over lunch to chit-chat.
Ostensibly, Ah Lau was a hawker in the original Lau Pa Sat which was at that time a wet and cooked food market. In reality, his fellow gang members and he were involved in the smuggling of opium. Ah Lau was a giant of a man. Tall with a muscular physique and a booming voice, he had the features and characteristics of a leader. Through his years in the rough and tumble of life in the harbour (Telok Ayer Basin), he was a fearless and formidable fighter. In a physical scuffle or a fight with weapons, he could easily take on 3 to 4 men. He was a heavy drinker and gambler. Being a generous friend, Ah Lau had his band of loyal gang members who operated in the original Lau Pa Sat/Telok Ayer Basin area. They were not petty gangsters who preyed on the community. Their core business was in the smuggling of opium.
The modus operandi of Ah Lau and his fellow gang members was quite simple. For a fee, they retrieved drums of opium which had been dropped off into the sea at pre-determined locations in the Outer Port Limit area / Outer Roads by larger ships as arranged by opium smuggling syndicates with their overseas suppliers.
Using small tongkangs/bumboats, and under the cover of darkness, Ah Lau’s men would dive into the sea to retrieve the drums of opium, load them into the tongkang/bumboat and bring them ashore. They went about their business in this way for a few years. Trust was the hall-mark of their business because they operated on a basis where there was no documentation to account for the number of drums found or retrieved and eventually delivered ashore to the syndicates.
Then things started to go awry. On a few occasions, some drums of opium could not be found and went missing. Suspicion began to surface. Undertones of double-crossing began circulating. The opium syndicates suspected someone within their own circle might have hijacked their goods. Coincidentally, around that time, Ah Lau struck a big lottery. Being a generous man, he was dishing out gifts to his fellow gang members and throwing lavish dinner parties where the most expensive brandies and whiskies were free-flowing. His wife was bedecked in gold and jewellery. His family was looking to buy a new house. These confirmed to the opium syndicates that Ah Lau was the culprit who was hijacking their drums of opium.
Unbeknown to Ah Lau and his gang members, the opium syndicates hatched a plan to murder him for betraying and cheating them. Friends and gang members, including TSM, who knew Ah Lau well strongly felt he would never do such a thing. They believed the drums could not be found because they were washed away by the strong under-current in the Outer Roads. They felt it was a wrongful accusation. But the syndicate members believed otherwise.
One day, Ah Lau was invited by a few unknown syndicate members to lunch. Their sinister plan was to bring him out of his power-base in the Telok Ayer Basin/Lau Pa Sat area, get him drunk and attack him because they believed Ah Lau had betrayed them and hijacked the drums of opium which were not retrieved. Somehow ,TSM got wind of the syndicate members’ plan and rushed over to La Pa Sat from his shop at Pagoda Street to warn Ah Lau of the dangerous situation he was in. But he was too late. When he arrived at Lau Pa Sat, Ah Lau and the syndicate members had already left. He asked Ah Lau’s “ lieutenants” to look for Ah Lau to inform him of the danger he was in. But they did not know where he went and could not find him at all his favourite restaurants. In those days, before the advent of mobile phones and when even land-line telephones were not that wide available, there was no way to contact Ah Lau. TSM could only hope that Ah Lau would be able to defend himself if attacked knowing how good a fighter he was. He never expected Ah Lau’s attackers to use a gun to shoot him from behind.
The next morning, TSM was shocked to read the front page report in a Chinese newspaper of a murder case. The murder victim was his good friend, Ah Lau. According to the newspaper report, Ah Lau was found dead in a vacant house. He was shot in the back of his head a few times and also had a few stab wounds. He was heavily intoxicated. It is not known if anybody was arrested and charged for Ah Lau’s murder.
After-Note: Although TSM had friends who were smuggling opium, he never got himself involved in the drug business however lucrative and tempting it was. It was his firm belief that the drug business attracts bad retribution and bad karma.