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Charcoal 'Village' Dealers have to vacate land

By Joyce Lim
March 12, 2007
Electronic New Paper

A GROUP of workers sitting on borrowed land, on borrowed time, plying an almost forgotten trade.

Then came a very wet blanket: a pool of water to drown out their fire-starters.

Charcoal dealers working from warehouses at Lorong Halus have been given until June to move out of their premises, located between Punggol and Pasir Ris.

They are upset, as it was only two years ago that they spent good money renovating their warehouses.

They were told by officials that the site would be affected by the Public Utilities Board's proposed Serangoon Reservoir Scheme, to be carried out over the next 10 to 20 years.

Admittedly, the dealers should have expected this day.

They have only temporary occupation licences, and the HDB is required to give only a month's notice for them to vacate.

One of the oldest dealers, Mr Goh Choon Chor, 68, recalled how they were told in 1987 that they could stay for only three years and had to build temporary warehouses themselves.

'But year after year, the HDB did not have any plans for this
site,' he said.

The dealers are upset that urbanisation has brought attention to their charcoal haven.

Mr Peter Ang, 51, one of the workers, said: 'In the past, nobody knew of this place. It's only in recent years that people discovered us because there were wakeboarding activities along the river.'

Defence Minister Teo Chee Hean has also recently mooted the idea of turning Lorong Halus - with its the rugged terrain and river crossings - into an adventure site.

They were first informed of the need to vacate last October. Another letter arrived in January.

Yet, the dealers have yet to find another site for their operations.

They are doubtful about their ability to pull off another 'comeback'.

They arrived in Lorong Halus after their shops in Kampong Arang ('coal village' in Malay) in Tanjong Rhu had to give way to public housing estates in 1986.

They swiftly recovered then, building warehouses from scratch in just two months.

But it is a dying trade. As the rent increased - from $300 in 1987 to about $1,800 per unit per month today - many dealerships could not survive.

There used to be about 20 charcoal shops here. Six are left.

They import charcoal from Indonesia and Thailand, then resell it to Hong Kong, Japan and Taiwan.

They also repack the big sacks of charcoal into smaller packs for supermarkets and restaurants here.

Two years ago, the dealers spent tens of thousands of dollars restoring the badly weathered warehouses.

One tenant, who declined to be named, claimed: 'An officer from the HDB advised us to renovate them. We wouldn't have spent the money if we had known that they would take the place back so soon.

'We thought that we could stay for at least another five years.'

Mr Goh is anxious.

He said: 'Many of our businesses are run on credit. We are not cash-rich. Moving to a new place will require more money.'

There is a more immediate worry. Mr Goh, who earns between $1,000 and $2,000 a month, must now find a way to store the 2,000 sacks of charcoal, each weighing 50kg, still stacked in his warehouse.

Eyes peeled for another site

AN HDB spokesman told The New Paper on Sunday that when the charcoal operators were relocated to Lorong Halus in March 1987, they had been told that - on vacating those premises - they would have to find another location on their own.

Also, the Temporary Occupation Licence (TOL) agreement states that no compensation will be paid by the HDB, and no alternative site need be given, should the TOL be revoked.

However, the HDB is regularly in touch with the charcoal dealers to keep them informed of any suitable HDB factories that may be up for tender.

The spokesman said: 'We had arranged a site visit for the operators to view a vacant factory at Defu last November.'

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