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Sago to Go - Our Pioneering Manufacturing Export

By Yvonne Chan, Assistant Manager

Sago Tree
A photograph of a sago palm tree. Although Singapore was a regional center for raw sago processing, the sago palm was cultivated here in relatively small quantities. Most of the raw sago processed in Singapore factories were imported from neighbouring Borneo and Sumatra.
Source: Chiang Ker Chiu

Sago is a starch made from the powdery pith of the trunk of the sago palm tree. It is mainly used as a food starch in making desserts and other delicacies. It was also used as a textile starch1, and as a hospital food for sick and recovering patients because of its easy digestibility.2

Although some sago palms were cultivated and prepared in Singapore by Malay planters for local consumption, they were never grown here in large quantities.3 This was due to the abundance of raw sago which was cultivated in nearby countries (especially Sumatra)4 and could be cheaplyl imported into Singapore. The relatively longer time sago palms took to mature, and the interest of local planters in more lucrative cash crops like gambier, pepper and nutmeg also discouraged more intensive cultivation of sago palm.

Instead Singapore became a major centre for processing raw sago from the mid-19th century to the late 1940s.5 Processed sago took the form of either sago flour or granulated pearl sago. Raw sago was imported for processing in Singapore factories from Sumatra and Borneo, and refined sago was mostly re-exported to Europe and India.6 In fact, the preparation of sago for export to Europe and India was almost exclusively done in Singapore making it a staple export item in 1834. In the late 1840s, there were 17 sago factories in operation in Singapore, which exported approximately 8,900 piculs (or 536 tons) of processed sago yearly. By 1871, this figure has swelled to 10,898 tons for sago flour and 5,818 tons for sago pearl.7

Wooden shelter area
Workers processing sago using traditional non-mechanized methods. The men press the raw sago into larger moulds with their feet, to prepare it for subsequent drying under the sun or at a fire. Circa. 1950
Source: National Archives of Singapore

The Decline of the Sago Industry

By the late 1950s, industrialisation and changes in world demand began to take its toll on the sago industry. Consumer countries had started importing and processing raw sago rather than buying from Singapore8. This saw exports of sago flour and pearl decreasing from 21,850 tons in 19469 to 14,211 tons in 195810.

Kantilal Jamnadas Shah, a sago manufacturer in Singapore recalled that the sago manufacturing industry in Singapore began its decline in the 1950s when the India government imposed a sudden ban on imports of foreign manufactured sago, depriving local businessmen of a crucial export market for their sago products. India decided that she could produce her own sago flour instead of buying it from Singapore.11 Lim Kim San, another local sago manufacturer, also identified the 1950s with the decline of Singapore's sago manufacturing industry. But unlike Jamnadas, he believed that the primary cause of this decline was the replacement of global demand for sago by 'farina', a flour product made from sweet potatoes, produced mainly in South America.12 Indeed exports of sago flour and pearl had decreased from 21,850 tons in 194613 to 14,211 tons in 195814. The official reason being that consumer countries had started importing and processing raw sago rather than importing it from Singapore15

Lim Hong Cher, who spent almost thirty years working in a sago factory, remembered that 1978 marked the final end of sago manufacturing in Singapore and the permanent relocation of the industry to Indonesia.16

Sago and Street Names

Old Street Scene
A 1950 photograph that captures the vibrant, bustling activity on Sago Street. The Sago Street area was home to many sago factories in the 19th century. It was also an infamous red-light district.
Source: National Archives of Singapore

Despite the end of the sago processing industry, its many years of existence left its mark on Singapore street names such as Sago Street and Sago Lane in Chinatown. In the later part of the 19th century, Sago Street was a well-known red light district and Sago Lane was famous for its Chinese 'death-houses', where people close to death were brought to prepare for their funerals and to die.

Deathhouse street view
A 'death-house' at Sago Lane, where aged and sick Chinese people retired to prepare for their impending death. Circa 1962.
Source: K F Wong

Mr. Sew Teng Kok describes the chilling conditions in a death house:

"When we talk about death houses, we think that those people found along the ground floor of the death house are all... usually dead. But not [so]. Some of them are about to die, about to die. Some families would put those people who are about to die into one of these death houses just to let them pass the rest of their time over there. Maybe they were critically ill or they had diseases that were incurable. So if you were to step into one of these death houses, [for] a child it is very scary. You can see them skinny looking, sleeping on a mat, yelling away in pain or quietly dozing away, waiting for the time to come. These people may drag for a few days, if they are lucky in the sense that their time has arrived, or they may be there for one or two months."10

1Lim Hong Cher, Oral History Interview in Hokkien, Acc 000745/06, Reel 1

2Lim Kim San, Oral History Interview in English, Acc 526/21, Reel 4

3Straits Settlements Annual Report 1865/6, Microfiche No. NAS 000558, p.47

4Lim Kim San, Oral History Interview, Acc 526/21, Reel 4


6"Commerce" in Straits Settlements Annual Report, 1864/5, Microfiche No. NAS 000558, p.72; and Lim Kim San, Oral History Interview in English, Acc 526, Reel 4