by Phang Chung Shin firstname.lastname@example.org. Posted on July 8, 2012, Sunday
The predators of Siniawan river
I GREW up fearing the Siniawan river, knowing there were crocodiles and there had been fatal attacks.
But I also loved the river. It was our swimming pool, where at high tide when the water was clear, we swam, dived and played our favourite game of throwing a one cent coin into the water and competing to find it.
At that moment, fear gave way to joy. But soon an incident shook the Siniawan community. Joy turned to fear and life was never the same again.
In the incident, a brave mother plucked her eldest child from the jaws of a crocodile. It was Hari Raya Puasa in 1956. Her Muslim neighbours from across the river had gone home early, so the river would be quite deserted.
The mother, Ah Kiaw, 35, put on a pair of shorts and headed for the river behind her house with her children — a pair of three-year-old twins, a five-year-old boy and the eldest daughter, Ah Tang, aged six.
Ah Kiaw would have used a sarong on other days when there were more people on the other side of the river as she was quite shy about wearing shorts, but on that day, she decided she would wear them. It later proved to be a crucial decision.
It was about 6pm — time to bathe the kids. Steps cut into the riverbank led straight to the water’s edge where wooden planks served as the bathing and washing area.
That day, 56 years ago, the water level had risen due to an earlier downpour, and the river looked a little muddy.
Ah Kiaw bathed her children one by one. She drenched each of them, rubbed soap over them and rinsed each one by turn.
Ah Tang was the first to be rinsed but then, she decided to go for a dip in the water. With one hand holding onto a dead log, she ventured into the river.
Ah Tang, now 62, recalled: “I dipped my head in the water a few times. The water was up to my neck but it was refreshing even though yellowish in colour.
“Then, suddenly, something grabbed and pulled me under. Gasping for breath, I took in big gulps of the yellowish water and lost consciousness.”
Meanwhile, her mother discovered Ah Tang was missing.
She looked around. There was no sign of her. She was seized by fear, thinking Ah Tang had been taken by shui kui or water ghost.
It was a common belief among folks back then that those who had drowned would become water ghosts and come back after three years to look for substitutes so they themselves could be released from hell and be free to be reincarnated.
Then suddenly, Ah Kiaw saw a lock of hair floating in the water. Instinctively she grabbed and pulled it.
Ah Kiaw, now 91, recalled: “I pulled once and felt it was heavy. I pulled again, I saw Ah Tang’s head surface. Another pull, the head of a crocodile appeared. I pulled hard and kicked at the crocodile.
“I just kicked and kicked until the crocodile let go. I must have kicked its eye. As it turned, it spewed water on my face. I flung Ah Tang as far as I could up the slope and scrambled up the earthen steps with the other three kids in my arms.
“I shouted for help but no one came. I looked back, saw the crocodile turn around and swipe its tail and with a splash, it disappeared into the murky water.
“Ah Tang was unconscious and I could see she had swallowed a lot of water, so I sucked the water from her mouth until she started breathing again. By then, I was shaking with fear, frantically calling for help and shoving and bundling the kids home.”
Siniawan in 1956 was a small, sleepy community of a few hundred souls and news of the crocodile attack sent them into in a frenzy.
I was a nine-year-old boy. I joined the crowd to see the “heroine who fought off the crocodile” and the little girl who was plucked from the jaws of death. I saw the bite marks around her waist and leg.
A school teacher and many villagers advised the parents to send the girl to hospital as they believed crocodile bites were very toxic but Ah Kiaw believed a herbal oil called the Seal Oil (hoi kow jyu) would do the job. She applied it on the wounds and before the bottle was used up, the wounds had healed.
Ah Kiaw now lives a quiet life with one of her sons in a little but comfortable house at the foot of the Peninjau mountain in Siniawan away from the river. But before she and the family could move, they had to dig a well for bathing and other purposes.
Ah Tang thought she was really lucky to have survived. She surmised a few things worked in her favour:
Her mother was wearing shorts, not her usual sarong, which would have hampered her movement;
The crocodile did not make a quick retreat after grabbing her. Instead, it was backing off slowly which had given her mother time to notice her hair on the surface of the water;
Her mother was not overcome by fear when she saw the crocodile but courageously fought and tussled with it until it gave way;
The crocodile was probably of medium size and not the huge monster which would have made it impossible to fight off.
But above all, Ah Tang believed it was the power of her mother’s love that saved her life — the love that took away fear and gave her mother all the strength and courage to fight and triumph in the life-and-death situation.
Asked if she was scared when she saw the crocodile, Ah Kiaw replied: “There was no time to think — no time to fear. I just kicked and pulled as hard as I could. My daughter was in the mouth of the crocodile!”
Fear gripped her for a long time after the incident. At times, when she really had no choice but to go back to the river to fetch water, her legs actually shook — and every night, for many nights, “I dreamed of myself fighting with crocodiles.”
The incident kept many away from the river for years, forcing them to fetch water from a common well and collect rainwater for bathing and washing.
The voices of kids playing in the river, splashing, laughing, and shouting were gone. The river was silent.
A horrid encounter
It was in 2000. Chang Senn, a 23-year old butcher, went for his usual evening bath.
He narrated: “It was 7pm and already dark. I went for my bath in the river below my house. The water was only waist deep near the riverbank but I went a bit further out where it was more than 10 feet deep.
“I was so used to doing that. During the dry season, I could actually wade across to the other side of the river without any incident.
“However, for some months before that fateful day, some contractors had been excavating sand from the area and some spots in the river had become deep ponds. That must have attracted crocodiles to live there. But I had been living by the river, swimming and bathing there without any untoward incident.
“Just after I went into the water, I felt my right leg was caught by something and I was being pulled down. I reached down with my hand to find out what it was and in the process, I might have swiped my fingers over the eye(s) of the crocodile because it let go, but the next moment, it came from below and took my groin in its jaws and pulled me into the water.
“By then, I knew what it was because the monster started to swing me from side to side. I fought each swinging movement by trying to move in the opposite direction. With the croc’s head in between my thighs, it was probably harder for the monster to swing its head.
“I tried frantically to pry open its mouth but to no avail. In the struggle, I went for the eyes and managed to scratch them. The beast let go. By then, I realised my best chance was to get back to the riverbank, so I swam with my feet upright in the water. Somehow, I thought if I swam horizontally, the monster would grab me in the middle and that would have done me in.
“The croc came for me the third time, caught me in the right thigh and tried to drag me down. It ripped the flesh off my thigh but I managed to free myself.
“As I desperately moved towards the riverbank, I saw the dark shadow of the croc’s head lunging at me for the fourth time, aiming at my head.
“With all the force I could muster, I blocked the deadly swipe with my right arm. That block must have blunted the force of the attack as the croc’s jaws missed my head and grazed my chest.
“In desperation, I grabbed its head, locking my fingers somewhere, probably around the eyes, and tussled with the creature in the water. I held on tight to its head and dragged it towards the riverbank, anchoring my feet on the riverbed.
“Bent over, with my hands in a deadly grip, I backed towards the riverbank. As I reached shallow water, with the croc in tow, thrashing its tail and trying to pull me out to the deeper water, I felt something tug me at the back. I thought I was attacked by a second croc.
“As my head shot up from the water, I heard my mother’s voice. She had just tugged at my under- wear thinking I had drowned and wanted to pull my body up. With all my might, I pushed the croc away. It snapped at me, skimming my hand. I clambered up the wooden steps by the riverbank, shouting at my mother and siblings who had come to look for me, to run.
“Up on high ground, in the dimness of the crescent moon, I saw the full length of my attacker, tail thrashing, eyes flickering. It was probably 15 or 16 feet long, head to tail. I staggered towards my house but collapsed after a few steps.”
Tough and strong
Chang Senn is a very tough guy. As a butcher, he could lift a 100kg carcass all by himself. He is also a very good swimmer but he said in the deadly and horrid moments with his gruesome attacker in the river, his dominant thought was “I am only 20 something. I want to live. So I don’t care about anything else. I just fought the fellow with all my might.”
Penhulu Lai Shey Hiong of Siniawan said Chang was lucky because he was very strong but when he visited him in the hospital, he found that his body was like a battlefield after a fierce battle.
It was covered with bites, wounds, and torn flesh. The muscles on his lower right leg and thigh were in tatters. Chang was hospitalised for more than a month. It has been 12 years and the scar on his right lower leg still looks horrendous.
Penghulu Lai later helped get approval from the Water Board to connect water pipes to Chang’s house. The pipes were voluntarily laid by villagers.
I visited the spot where Chang was attacked.
It was high tide. Most of the riverbank was submerged but there was the bare patch of land where Chang and his family had been using as a landing area up and down the river.
Sharp bamboo pegs have been driven into the ground at the water’s edge to prevent kids from venturing beyond it or to prevent crocs from climbing up. It was eerily quiet. Even under the mid-day sun, a chill ran down my spine as I visualised the horrid attack scenes 12 years ago as man and croc tussled and thrashed about in the dark waters.
I just could not understand how that young man could venture to bathe in that place at that hour.
Penghulu Lai said sightings of the crocs were rare but if I wanted a glimpse of the predators of the Siniawan River, I could hire a fisherman’s sampan and go a bit upstream at night and I would be able to see them with their red flickering eyes under the shine of a powerful torch light.
I promptly declined the offer.