The view across the Tebrau Strait at 7 am on 21 June 2014, as seen from the seawall at Kampong Wak Hassan, an area that hosted a village by the sea , on which the sun has long set.
The view across the Tebrau Strait at 7 am on 21 June 2014, as seen from the seawall at Kampong Wak Hassan, an area that hosted a village by the sea , on which the sun has long set.
I have made a habit of getting up at ungodly hours of late. While I may not be alone on that in Singapore since the excitement of Brazil began last week, my motivation has little to do with the beautiful game and what I really am losing sleep over is a desire to acquaint myself with some of Singapore’s lesser known shores for a project I have embarked on.
Monday morning had me on a boat at 5 in the morning bound for a relatively remote and unheard shore north of the restricted military island of Pulau Tekong. A submerged reef with a rather curious sounding name, Beting Bronok, I did only hear of it when it came up as one of two nature areas identified for conservation in the 2013 Land Use Plan that was released in support of the hotly debated Population White Paper, which was confirmed in the recently gazetted 2014 Master Plan.
We have added Beting Bronok & Pulau Unum and Jalan Gemala to our list of Nature Areas, where the natural flora and fauna will be protected from human activity. Beting Bronok and Pulau Unum extend the Pulau Tekong Nature Area. These sites contain a wide array of marine and coastal flora and fauna. Of particular significance are two locally endangered mangrove plant species (out of 23 species from 13 families), three very rare and ten rare mollusc species (out of 36 species from 16 families). Some of the wildlife species found here are the Knobbly Sea Star (Protoreaster nodosus) and Thorny Sea Urchin (Prionocidaris sp.).
Beting Bronok and Pulau Umun is one of two nature areas identified for conservation.
‘Beting’, as I understand, refers to a sandbar or a shoal in Malay. That sandbars were identifiable by names is perhaps an indication of the interactions that the people of the littoral might once have had with them. The opportunity for interaction today has of course been drastically diminished with the tide of development sweeping the people of the sea to higher and dryer grounds and many of the staging points for such being closed off.
The Bronok Sandbar and the waters around it, are ones once rich in marine life drawn to its reef, which is exposed only at low spring tides. The only submerged reef left in the northern waters, it unfortunately is in poor health due to the effects of nearby reclamation work. The indefatigable marine conservation champion, Ria Tan, with whom I had the privilege of visiting the reef with, likens what are her annual visits to reef, to watching a favourite grandmother “painfully, slowly fade away” (see her recent post Beting Bronok is slowly dying).
Staring into the gaping mouth of Sungai Johor, the reef is fed by waters where a huge amount of fresh water is mixed in with the sea. The river, is one that does have a history. It was at the heart of the early Johor Sultanate that was established in the fallout from the loss of Malacca to the Portuguese, its waters disturbed by the movements of the floating instruments of colonialisation headed up river in the 16th and 17th centuries.
The cannons the waters hear today, are only imaginary. Fired from dry ground on nearby Tekong, in mock battles fought in that rite of passage required of young Singaporean men as reluctant recruits. The bigger battle for many on Tekong, would be fought in their minds as the young men, many fresh out of school, struggle to adapt to the rigours and physical demands of boot camp away from the comforts of home.
The passage in the dark through knee deep waters from the boat to the dry ground on the sandbar, while it did not quite require a battle, was one that was filled with trepidation – the graphic accounts told on the boat of painful brushes with the not so gentle creatures of the shallows does have the effect of putting the fear of God in you (see also: Chay Hoon’s encounter with a stingray at Beting Bronok and Ivan Kwan stepping on a stonefish). The utterance during the passage of what did sound like “I see a stripey snake” did surely have added effect – especially in recalling an encounter from my youthful days that had a similarly decorated creature sinking its fangs into an ankle belonging to a friend of the family.
That encounter, wasn’t so far away, at Masai in the waters of the same strait, taking place in the confusion that accompanied a frenzied rush to vacate the waters, from which we had been harvesting ikan bilis, that followed shouts of “snake, snake”. The family friend was extremely fortunate. No venom was transferred in the exchange, and other than the shock clearly visible in the colour and expression that he wore, there were no other ill effects.
Standing on the sandbar at the break of day is as surreal as it is a magical experience, especially so at the moment when the luminescent early light reveals the sandbar’s craggy coral littered surface – the magic is especially in the sense that is does also give of space and isolation, a feeling that does seem elusive on the overcrowded main island.
It didn’t however take very long before I was reminders of where in time and space I was, the roar of the emblems of the new colonial powers of progress and prosperity on an angled path from and to one of the busiest airports in the world at Changi, was hard to ignore. The area lies directly below one of the the approaches to the airport located close to Singapore’s eastern tip and built on land that has come up where the sea once had been, sitting right smack over what had once been one of Singapore’s most beautiful coastal areas, and an area in which I had my first and fondest memories of our once beautiful sea.
As did the seemingly fleeting moments I did steal from the lost paradise of my childhood days, the fleeting moments discovering Beting Bronok’s fading beauty will leave a lasting impression on me. My hope is that, unlike the names of the places of the lost paradise that have faded into obscurity, the curious sounding Beting Bronok is a name through which our future generations are reminded of what had once been our beautiful sea.
7.01 am, 18 June 2014. The new National Stadium at Kallang, set to host its first event this weekend, is seen against the colours of the new day breaking through on a storm tossed morning.
A view of the soon to be opened new National Stadium from across the Kallang River at dawn – the dawn perhaps of a new “Kallang Roar”. The stadium, part of the newly redeveloped Singapore Sports Hub, is a long overdue replacement for the much-loved old National Stadium, which came down in 2010. The old stadium, was where the much feared “Kallang Roar” was born in, the collective noise that was heard from the cheers, chants and stamping of feet when as much as 70,000 packed the stadium during the days of the Malaysia Cup. The stadium, which features a retractable roof, will open its doors on the weekend of 21/22 June when it hosts its first event, the World Cup 10s Rugby.
Another long exposure. This time to capture the early light over the Straits of Johor through another rain coloured morning, at 6.22 am on 7 June 2014.
The eastward view from a location off Terumbu Pempang Laut, a patch reef between Pulau Bukom and Pulau Sudong in the Straits of Singapore, at 6.45 am on the first of June. The view sees the silhouettes of Shell’s Ethylene cracker plant at its Bukom petrochemical complex in the band of the light coloured by the sun’s rising under the shadow of the storm darkened sky. The plant, an addition to Shell’s Bukom petrochemical complex in 2010, sits on what is actually the expanded island of Pulau Ular (which translates as Snake Island), southwest of Pulau Bukom Besar. The island is now joined by reclamation to Pulau Bukom Kechil to its east and Pulau Busing to its west and is connected to Pulau Bukom Besar by bridge.
Shell’s association with Pulau Bukom (Besar), goes back to the 1890s when kerosene storage facilities were first established on the island. A refinery, which was to herald the start of Singapore’s thrust into the the oil refining business – Singapore is now among the world’s top three export refining centres, was completed in 1961.
Shell’s expansion into Pulau Bukom Kechil began in the 1970s and displaced the 200o or so inhabitants who were on the island at the end of the 1960s. In both instances, the development required land to be reclaimed from coastal reefs and mangroves as well as the islands’ hilly terrains to be flattened.
Pulau Bukom was the location of a failed terrorist attack in 1974. Mounted by a team of four from the Japanese Red Army and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestinian intending to blow up oil storage facilities on the island, the aim of what has come to be known as the Laju Incident (the Laju was the ferry that the terrorists hijacked in an attempt to escape), was to disrupt supplies to U.S. supported forces in South Vietnam. More on the incident can be found at the National Library’s Singapore Infopedia page: Laju Hijacking.
Shell’s complex at Pulau Bukom, which incidentally is the Anglo-Dutch company’s largest refinery complex, was in more recent times the scene of a massive fire. The fire burned for some 32 hours on 28 and 29 September 2011 before it was extinguished. The fire, although confined to a small area, caused a huge disruption to the complex’s operations and resulted in a huge financial loss to the company.
Colours of dawn, 6.31 am, 31 May 2014, as seen at the unmanicured beach of Kampong Wak Hassan.
It was in the soft light of a storm washed morning on the first of May that I found myself taking in the quiet beauty of less visited part of Singapore, an island, Kusu Island, just 15 minutes away by boat from mainland Singapore. The island is one I have not set eyes on since the days of my youth, the last I did see of it would have been some three decades ago, when reclamation had already expanded it.
The island has been one that has been the subject of many tales from the past. Taking on the shape of a tortoise or turtle when the tide came in – it had been a pair of rocky outcrops set on a reef that were separated at high tide, with the smaller of the two outcrops resembling a head, and the larger mound, the body; legend does have it as having been a turtle that turned into an island in the act of rescuing shipwrecked sailors from the sea.
The legend is one connected with a annual pilgrimage that the island hosts during the ninth month of the Chinese lunar calendar when the sleepy island sees hundreds of thousands of Taoist devotees from the mainland who visit to pay homage at the island’s Tua Peh Kong temple (set on the smaller outcrop) and also the island’s three keramats (on the mound). The tradition is thought to go back to the days before Raffles arrived (see: “Before the Days of Raffles” – article on The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884-1942), 19 October 1932, Page 7) and draws some 100,000 to 200,000 visitors over the pilgrimage month.
The sight of Kusu during the pilgrimage must certainly be an amazing one – especially in days before the reclamation of the early 1970s provided more room for the mass of visitors – the reclamation saw some 270,000 cubic metres of sand filled into the sea and provided Kusu with an additional 7.3 ha. of land area (on top of the original 1.2 ha.) with swimming (two lagoons) and picnicking facilities added.
That sight was, however, not the same one that I did get of Kusu in the early light. I had gone over with a group of Marine Conservationists, who were kind enough to allow Juria and me (we are both attempting to document memories of the coastline and the islands as part of a IrememberSG project, Points of Departure) to tag along. The timing of the journey, which had us embarking a boat at Marina South Pier at 5 in the morning, had been timed to bring the group led by Ria Tan (many will be familiar with her Wild Shores of Singapore site) to the island at low tide. As I was experimenting with capturing sounds of the shoreline after the brief Sumatra squall had passed, the group was threading through the flats and reefs exposed by the shallow water of the western lagoon and beyond the rock bund to document marine life in and around what is a regenerated reef that I never realised was there. You can see what the group did manage to find on Ria’s post “How is Kusu Island doing?“.
Sitting on the bund, I did, for a brief moment, find myself transported faraway in time, to a Singapore I once was familiar with. It didn’t take long however, before the sounds of the sea were punctured by the drone of jets flying above and I noticed the illuminated wheel and adjacent to it the unmistakable paraphernalia of the modern city looming on the horizon. It was then that I heard the chatter of my companions for the morning, busy at work, bringing me back to where I was in time and space.
I have for long, longed to be transported to a childhood sea. And while I do know that sea is one I will never again see, I do at least have moments such as these to look forward to and be thankful for; moments, that in a world I can not longer feel for, is able to bring a sense of peace that might otherwise elude me.
Information on Kusu Island, including newspaper articles with illustrations of what it did once look like can be found in the following links:
6.51am 9 September 2013. Rays of the rising sun stream over a part of Singapore which will very soon change. The area at the crossroads of Sembawang Road and Canberra Link will see new Housing and Development Board (HDB) flats coming up, their completion estimated around late 2016, early 2017.
6.42 am 27 July 2013. The lightening sky at dawn is coloured by the bright lights cast from Sembawang Shipyard at which ship repair work goes on through the night. The two rows of ships and floating docks which can be seen are tied-up along a finger pier which is probably the northern most extension from Singapore. The shipyard, and previously the naval dockyard of the former British naval base which was turned over to Singapore in 1968, has been a feature in the area since 1938. Under a Land Use Plan released early this year, the yard will be moving out to free the land it now occupies for future development, cutting one of the last links the area has with its past.
6.38 am on 23 July 2013. The colours of the breaking day illuminate the icons of the new Singapore, which the Merlion probably best represents. The body of water, Marina Bay, now a reservoir of fresh water, had once been the sea where the inner harbour, the Inner Roads, once fed Singapore with its immigrants and with goods from east and west , the foundation on which Singapore’s early success was built upon.
The colours of the sunrise seen at 6.47 am from a wild and forgotten shore along which I find quiet moments on many a morning.
Seen against the light of dawn by the Tebrau or Johor Strait is a fence at the beach in Sembawang. More recently erected, it marked, for some reason, a long discarded boundary between what used to be a huge British naval base, vacated in 1971 and the area to its east, once occupied by coastal villages, the last of which was cleared in the later half of the 1990s. The fence came down two weeks ago, coinciding with the completion of “renewal” work at Sembawang Park which was developed at the end of the 1970s on the eastern edge of the former base. For long spared from the huge wave of development that has swept across much of the island of Singapore, the Sembawang area is in the midst of change as new public housing and luxury private residential developments in the area will transform what was an area with a well known laid-back feel and old world charm into another well populated and overly manicured neighbourhood in new Singapore.
A view of The Bench through the rain with the colours of the rising of the sun in the backdrop at 7.06 am on 9 July 2013. The Bench is very much a part of the scene along the top of an old seawall that used to belong to Kampong Wak Hassan at the end of Sembawang Road. That it is there, under the cool shade of a tree, is a mystery. Nobody does seem to know why it is there or who it had belonged to. It does serve to connect us with the kampong (now spelt kampung) or village which might otherwise be forgotten. The village was one of the last of the villages which one featured across much of rural Singapore to be cleared in 1998. More information on the village can be found on a previous post Monoscapes: Kampong Wak Hassan beach. The beach along the seawall is also one of the last natural sandy beaches left in Singapore and serves as a welcome escape for me from the overly urbanised landscape of modern Singapore (see: The song of a forgotten shore).
It is for this treat that was a most beautiful welcome to the new day that I am glad that I resisted the urge to have a sleep-in on the first of May – despite having arrived back in Singapore late the night before.
6.58 am on 18 April 2013. Dawn breaks over an old world in Singapore in the midst of change – the former Seletar Airbase which is shedding its old world feel in embracing a new world – the Seletar Aerospace Park .
What is possibly one of the last natural accessible stretches of sand along the coastline of the island of Singapore lies along the northern shoreline off Sembawang Park, stretching to the area off the former coastal villages of Kampong Wak Hassan and Kampong Tengah. Except for the attempt to “renew” the area around Sembawang Park which will result in it losing much of its previous charm, the shoreline in the area is one that is relatively untouched. Left in an almost natural state, the beach is one rich in character and in which the memories of a world that has ceased to exist can still be found. With property developments gaining pace in the area, it probably will not be long before the memories provided by the old but falling seawall and the natural beach, are paved over in the same way much of our previously beautiful coastline has. Until then, it is one of the few places close to a world I would otherwise find hard to remember, in which I can find a rare escape from the concretised world that Singapore has too quickly become.
About the former Kampong Wak Hassan:
The former village (kampong or kampung as it is spelt today), was one of several coastal villages that were found just to the east of Sembawang Road and the former British Naval Base, running along the coastline to Tanjong Irau at the mouth of Sungei Simpang. While the coastline played host to the nomadic inhabitants of the Straits of Johor, the Orang Laut, specifically the Orang Seletar, the kampong, stands as the oldest of the settlements in the stretch.
The village came to the location after work to build the huge naval base which ran along the northern coast from what is today Sembawang Road west to to the Causewayin the late 1920s displaced the the original Kampong Wak Hassan which grew from a coconut grove founded by Wak Hassan bin Ali at the original mouth of Sungei Sembawang (the area just west of what is today Sembawang Shipyard) in the 1914 (being granted rights by the Straits Settlements’ Commissioner of Lands to the use of the land stretching from the mouth of the river to Westhill Estate – which became Chong Pang Village).
While the base did provide residents of the village with employment opportunities, most of the villagers who may have originally been employed in rubber plantations which once occupied the lands around the coast and in the coconut groves, were involved in fishing.
The village besides being the oldest in the area, was also the longest lasting. While most of the inhabitants of the other villages were resettled at the end of the 1980s, the last inhabitants of Kampong Wak Hassan only moved out as recently as in 1998.
Previous posts related to Kampong Wak Hassan and the greater Sembawang area:
A place to greet the new day:
7.04am 21 December 2012. Sunrise over the Straits of Johor.
This year’s North-East Monsoons has brought us lots of rain, so much so that the sky at dawn has more often than not been covered in a pall of grey cloud with spectacular shows of colour at sunrise being very much a rarity this month. The pall did seem to lift the last two mornings which did result with two very different and unusual celebrations of the new day: