The burning boat

14 10 2014

One evening a year, a burning boat lights up the dark and forgotten shores of Kampong Wak Hassan. The fire burns quickly, its flames completely consuming the boat ‘s paper shell and its wooden frame in a matter of minutes, sending nine divine beings on a journey to their celestial abodes. The journey brings the beings’ annual nine-day sojourn into the human world to a close and is one that follows a ritual that brings much colour to the shores of Singapore.

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It isn’t only at Kampong Wak Hassan that we see this send-off in Singapore, it is also seen at several waterfront locations across the island. The boat burning act comes at the end of the Kew Ong Yah or Jiu Wang Ye (九王爷) or the Nine Emperor Gods festival, a festival that commemorates the visit of the nine stellar gods – the nine stars of the Big Dipper (seven visible and two invisible). The festival begins with the gods being invited to earth and ends with their journey home on the ninth day.

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The Taoist festival is celebrated with much fervour by the devotees of the Nine Emperor Gods, especially so in southern Chinese immigrant communities in several parts of Thailand and Malaysia. Devotees observe a strict vegetarian diet throughout the festival, which falls on the first nine days of the ninth month of the Chinese lunar calendar, starting on the festival’s eve.  It would once have been common during the festival to observe mediums, many sporting piercings through various parts of the face and on the body, going into a trance. What I especially recall from my younger days was the sight of mediums swords in hand performing acts of self-flagellation, as well as hearing the sounds of cracking whips, all of which over the years seem to have become less common.

A medium sporting a peircing – seen in 1979 (source: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline).

More information on the festival itself is to be found in a Singapore Infopedia article. The article identifies twelve temples in Singapore at which the festival is observed, one of which is the Tou Mu Kung temple at Upper Serangoon Road. Thought to be the first in Singapore at which the festival was celebrated, the temple’s festival observance culminates these days in a send-off for the gods at Pulau Punggol Timor, a man-made island off the much altered Seletar coastline that is accompanied by much pomp and ceremony.

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The ceremony at Wak Hassan, is that celebrated by the Kew Ong Yah temple, which has its origins in Chong Pang Village – it was originally located just stone’s throw away from the landmark Sultan Theatre. Now housed within the Chong Pang Combined temple in Yishun, the temple also commemorates the occasion with much colour, sending the gods off at the seawall of what was a former village by the sea. It was the temple’s ceremony that I found myself at on the evening of 2nd October, the the ninth day of the ninth month this year.

The crowd at Kampong Wak Hassan.

The crowd at Kampong Wak Hassan.

There was already much anticipation in the air when I arrived at 9 pm, more than an hour before the procession was to arrive. A small crowd, made up of many extended families, had already gathered and the chatter included the excited voices of the many children in the crowd. While there was a hint of a sea breeze, it was a sticky evening and many sought relief from the strategically positioned ice-cream vendor and the ice-cream wielding crowd brought an almost festive like atmosphere that is not often seen in the area.

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The anticipation seemed to grow with the passing minutes. A commotion announced the arrival of the two paper boats that were to be used in the ritual. The first, with the head of a dragon, was one that was to be set alight on the beach in which offerings were to be placed. The second, was to carry the gods out to sea and set alight – the flames transporting the gods to the heavens. The presence of the boats, which were moved down to the beach, also provided the signal that arrival of the of the procession of the gods and their paraphernalia was imminent, prompting a frenzy of joss stick lighting among the devotees in the crowd.

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A thunder of drums heralded the arrival of the gods. Representations of the nine gods, masked men dressed in an almost gaudy fashion, circled the roundabout at the end of Sembawang Road in an unsteady dance before the procession moved down to the seawall.  A violently swaying sedan chair brought in the sacred urn. The urn is where the spirits of the gods are carried and the chair is swung from side to side by its bearers as a sign the divine presence. Among those making their way down to the seawall with the procession was Mr K Shanmugam, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Law and an MP for Nee Soon GRC, who takes part regularly in the Kew Ong Yah temple’s Nine Emperor Gods festival celebrations.

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It was close to midnight when a semi-melodious chant in Hokkien rose above the gentle sounds of the waves of the nearby sea – the chants prayers sung, almost, by a Taoist priest. Once the prayers were completed, it was time for the party of temple officials and the Minister to wet launch the boat carrying the gods, setting it alight in the process, after which attention was turned to the second boat. Fanned by the strengthening sea breeze, the flames seemed in both cases to leap off the burning boat, offering onlookers such as myself, quite a sight to behold. It was past midnight when it was all over, and as quickly as the fire consumed the boats, the crowd dispersed.

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Together with the accompanying ceremony, the fiery end makes the send-off ceremony one of more colourful religious rituals that is seen today in Singapore. The setting for the send-off by the sea provides a connection to who we are and to where we came from; the sea being a naturally where we might, in the past, have sought a connection with the beliefs of our forefathers, many whom arrived here from the coastal communities of Southeast Asia, India and China. Now one of the few religious rituals celebrated by the sea that still is quite visible, the festival serves to connect us with a shore we are very quickly losing sight of. The shore that made us who we were is today a shore that has turned us into who we are not.

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A paddle through the magical watery woods

30 07 2014

The process of acquainting myself with the shores of Singapore for a project I am working on, Points of Departure, has provided me with some incredible experiences. One that I was especially grateful to have had was the experience of paddling through a green watery space that is almost magical in its beauty. Set in the relatively unspoilt lower reaches of Sungei Khatib Bongsu, one of Singapore’s last un-dammed rivers, the space is one that seems far out of place in the Singapore of today and holds in and around its many estuarine channels, one of the largest concentration of mangroves east of the Causeway along the island’s northern coast.

Paddling through the watery forest at Sungei Khatib Bongsu.

Paddling through the watery forest at Sungei Khatib Bongsu.

The much misunderstood mangrove forest, is very much a part of Singapore’s natural heritage. The watery forests, had for long, dominated much of Singapore’s coastal and estuarine areas, accounting for as much as an estimated 13% of Singapore’s land area at the time of the arrival of the British. Much has since been lost through development and reclamation and today, the area mangrove forests occupy amount to less that 1% of Singapore’s expanded land area. It is in such forests that we find a rich diversity of plant and animal life. Mangroves, importantly, also serve as nurseries for aquatic life as well as act as natural barriers that help protect our shorelines from erosion.

Khatib Bongsu is a watery but very green world.

Khatib Bongsu is a watery but very green world.

The island’s northern coast was especially rich in mangrove forests. Much has however, been cleared through the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, with large tracts being lost during the construction of the airbase at Seletar and the naval base at Sembawang in the early 1900s. The mangroves of the north, spread along the coast as well as inland through its many estuaries, along with those found across the strait in Johor, were once the domain of the Orang Seletar. A nomadic group of boat dwellers, the Orang Seletar had for long, featured in the Johor or Tebrau Strait, living off the sea and the mangroves; finding safe harbour in bad weather within the relatively sheltered mangrove lined estuaries.

Mangrove forests had once dominated much of coastal Singapore.

Mangrove forests had once dominated much of coastal Singapore.

Boat dwelling Orang Seletar families could apparently be found along Singapore’s northern coast until as recently as the 1970s. While the Orang Seletar in Singapore have, over the course of time, largely been assimilated into the wider Malay community, the are still communities of Orang Seletar across the strait in Johor. Clinging on to their Orang Seletar identity, the nine communities there live no longer on the water, but on the land in houses close to the water.

Safe harbour in the watery woods.

Safe harbour in the watery woods.

It is the labyrinth of tree shaded channels and the remnants of its more recent prawn farming past that makes the side of the right bank of Sungei Khatib Bongsu’s lower reaches an especially interesting area to kayak through. Much has since been reclaimed by the mangrove forest and although there still is evidence of human activity in the area, it is a wonderfully green and peaceful space that brings much joy to to the rower.

The canalised upper part of Sungei Khatib Bongsu.

The canalised upper part of Sungei Khatib Bongsu.

The area around Sungei Khatib Bongsu today, as seen on Google Maps.

The area around Sungei Khatib Bongsu today, as seen on Google Maps.

Paddling through the network of channels and bund encircled former prawn ponds – accessible through the concrete channels that once were their sluice gates, the sounds that are heard are mostly of the mangrove’s many avian residents. It was however the shrill call of one of the mangrove’s more diminutive winged creatures, the Ashy Tailorbird, that seemed to dominate, a call that could in the not too distant future, be drowned out by the noise of the fast advancing human world.  It is just north of Yishun Avenue 6, where the frontier seems now to be, that we see a wide barren patch. The patch is one cleared of its greenery so that a major road – an extension of Admiralty Road East, can be built; a sign that time may soon be called on an oasis that for long has been a sanctuary for a rich and diverse avian population.

The walk into the mangroves.

The walk into the mangroves.

The beginnings of a new road.

The beginnings of a new road.

The Sungei Khatib Bongsu mangroves, lies in an area between Sungei Khatib Bongsu and the left bank of Sungei Seletar at its mouth that lies beyond the Lower Seletar Dam that has been designated as South Simpang; at the southern area of a large plot of land reserved for public housing that will become the future Simpang New Town. The area is one that is especially rich in bird life, attracting a mix of  resident and migratory species and was a major breeding site for Black-crowned Night Herons, a herony that has fallen victim to mosquito fogging. While there is little to suggest that the herons will return to breed, the area is still one where many rare and endangered species of birds continue to be sighted and while kayaking through, what possibly was a critically endangered Great-billed Heron made a graceful appearance.

Evidence of the former prawn ponds.

Evidence of the former prawn ponds.

Kayaking into the ponds.

Kayaking into the former ponds.

It is for the area’s rich biodiversity that the Nature Society (Singapore) or NSS has long campaigned for its preservation and a proposal for its conservation was submitted by the NSS as far back as in 1993. This did seem to have some initial success and the area, now used as a military training area into which access is largely restricted, was identified as a nature area for conservation, as was reflected in the first issue of the Singapore Green Plan. Its protection as a nature area seemed once again confirmed by the then Acting Minister for National Development, Mr Lim Hng Kiang, during the budget debate on 18 March 1994 (see: Singapore Parliament Reports), with the Minister saying: “We have acceded to their (NSS) request in priorities and we have conserved Sungei Buloh Bird Sanctuary and Khatib Bongsu“. 

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Unfortunately, the area has failed to make a reappearance in subsequently releases of the list of nature area for conservation, an omission that was also seen in subsequent editions of the Singapore Green Plan. What we now see consistently reflected in the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) Master Plans (see: Master Plan), is that as part of a larger reserve area for the future Simpang, the area’s shoreline stands to be altered by the reclamation of land. Along with land reclamation, plans the Public Utilities Board (PUB) appears to have for Sungei Khatib Bongsu’s conversion into a reservoir that will also include the neighbouring Sungei Simpang under Phase 2 of the Seletar-Serangoon Scheme (SRSS), does mean that the future of the mangroves is rather uncertain.

A resident that faces an uncertain future.

A resident that faces an uncertain future.

Phase 2 of the SRSS involves the impounding of Sungei Khatib Bongsu, Sungei Simpang and Sungei Seletar to create the Coastal Seletar Reservoir. Based on the 2008 State of the Environment Report, this was to be carried out in tandem with land reclamation along the Simpang and Sembawang coast. The reclamation could commence as early as next year, 2015 (see State of the Environment 2008 Report Chapter 3: Water).

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In the meantime, the NSS does continue with its efforts to bring to the attention of the various agencies involved in urban planning of the importance of the survival of the mangroves at Khatib Bongsu. Providing feedback to the URA on its Draft Master Plan in 2013 (see Feedback on the Updated URA Master Plan, November 2013), the NSS highlights the following:

Present here is the endangered mangrove tree species, Lumnitzera racemosa, listed in the Singapore Red Data Book (RDB). Growing plentifully by the edge and on the mangrove is the Hoya diversifolia. On the whole the mangrove here is extensive and healthy, with thicker stretches along Sg Khatib Bongsu and the estuary of Sg Seletar. 

A total of 185 species of birds, resident and migratory, have been recorded at the Khatib Bongsu  area. This comes to 49 % of the total number of bird species in Singapore (376, Pocket Checklist 2011, unpublished  )  – almost comparable to that at Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve. 13 bird species found here are listed in the RDB  and among these are:  Rusty-breasted Cuckoo, Straw-headed Bulbul, Ruddy Kingfisher, Grey-headed Fish Eagle, Changeable Hawk Eagle, White-chested Babbler, etc. The Grey-headed Fish Eagle  and the Changeable Hawk eagle are nesting in the Albizia woodlands in this area.

The mangrove dependent species present are : Crab-eating Frog, Dog-faced Water Snake & Malaysian Wood Rat. The Malaysian Wood Rat is regarded is locally uncommon.   In 2000, Banded Krait (RDB species) was found here near the edge mangrove. Otters, probably the Smooth Otter, have been sighted by fishermen and birdwatchers in the abandoned fish ponds and the Khatib Bongsu river. 

URA Master Plan 2014, showing the reserve area at Simpang.

URA Master Plan 2014, showing the reserve area at Simpang.

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It will certainly be a great loss to Singapore should the PUB and the Housing and Development Board (HDB) proceed with their plans for the area. What we stand to lose is not just another regenerated green patch, but a part of our natural heritage that as a habitat for the diverse array of plant and animals many of which are at risk of disappearing altogether from our shores, is one that can never be replaced.

The present shoreline at Simpang, threatened by possible future land reclamation.

The present shoreline at Simpang, threatened by possible future land reclamation.

The white sands at Tanjong Irau, another shoreline under threat of the possible future Simpang-Sembawang land reclamation.

The white sands at Tanjong Irau, another shoreline under threat of the possible future Simpang-Sembawang land reclamation.





Worshiping the sun in a place on which the sun has set

23 06 2014

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.

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Early light over the strait

8 06 2014

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.

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Colours of dawn 31 May 2014

31 05 2014

Colours of dawn, 6.31 am, 31 May 2014, as seen at the unmanicured beach of Kampong Wak Hassan.

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Dawn by the strait

26 05 2014

The colours of the dawn, at 6.35 am on 25 May 2014, seen painting the lightening sky over the Johor Strait (or Tebrau Strait). The area by the sea where the former Kampong Wak Hassan had once been, looks east towards the Pasir Gudang area of Johor across the channel, does make it an ideal location to catch the spectacle that often comes with the dawn of the new day.

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The last rubber tree

17 04 2014

It is in a part of Singapore struggling to hold on to times the modern world has discarded that we find a remnant of forgotten days – a tree, said to be the last of the rubber trees, which is one of what were many more on the huge Bukit Sembawang plantation that had once dominated the area.

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There is much mystery that surrounds the tree, which towers over a mosque, described as be the “last kampung mosque in Singapore” – itself a remnant of a forgotten world. The 60 to 70-year-old tree is believed to have resisted all attempts to have it cut down – it is said that those who have attempted to cut it down had been struck ill in a fashion similar to many other trees found across the island that are believed to be inhabited by spirits.

On this, another story from the area does come to mind. The story is one that takes us back to the days when the huge King George IV graving dock  was being constructed – one that also involved a rubber tree that needed to be cleared to level the ground to build the dock. Workers had feared chopping the tree down for similar reasons, resulting in a delay in the construction. That tree did eventually get removed and act that was thought to be responsible for the deaths of several people involved in its removal that were to follow. More on this story can be found in a previous post, Last Post Standing.

Like the mosque beside it – which operates on a Temporary Occupation License, the tree is on State land and does face an uncertain future. While the area close to the mosque has so far been spared from development, the redevelopment of the area does seem to be gaining momentum. Not far away, we already see an area that once belonged to those who lived off the sea, given to those who in modern Singapore, are can pay the price it costs now to afford the luxury of living by the sea. It does seem to only be a matter of time before the brave new world does arrive in the area. Until then, we do for now, have the story of the tree to listen to, as well as the wealth of stories of times past that will be lost when the new world does eventually arrive.








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