A staple of Singaporeans’ Instagram feeds, the narrow and colourful spiral staircases found at the back of old shophouses are familiar to all Singaporeans. But older folks may view these pretty relics with a certain grimness since they know of its noble but dreadful purpose.
Built to facilitate night soil collection, labourers once plodded up these very steps to collect the, uh, consolidated deposits of a household and replace it with a new bucket. Long before there was even a Ministry of Environment or flushable toilets, people still had to relieve themselves. Why the term night soil? Well, apart from being a euphemism for poo, it’s also factual. Night soil men had to think of something widely available and cheap to cover up the stench of their cargo, so why not soil?
And so, night soil labourers collected human feces and put them into their trucks. One neat little fact about these trucks is that each bucket would go into its own little cubby hole. The truck had 32 doors – one for each bucket. The vehicle is something my Father, who is in his 70s, remembers distinctly to this day.
For buildings which only have one storey, the night soil collection point was usually a little alcove in the outer wall of the building. So instead of trudging up the stairs, the night soil man would have to stick his hands into the gap in the wall for his bucket.
Once the night soil is on board the smelliest vehicle in Singapore, it gets emptied into a large concrete tank. It then goes through a process at a sewerage station before it becomes fertilizer for one of Singapore’s many farms.
Another fun fact: Singapore’s last night soil processing facility only shut down in 1987. That’s just one year after Motorola launched what became the world’s best-selling pager, the Bravo numeric pager!
The last night soil processing facility used to be at Lorong Halus, which also used to be the site of a landfill. Lorong Halus is now largely known for being a wetland reserve. Who knew that before the unusual birds and the adventurous hikers, Lorong Halus was where we put our dumps – both the organic and inorganic garbage!
What have you learnt today about Singapore’s night soil collection system? Do you now view your elders with a newfound respect, now that you know what they had to put up with, back in the day?