All at sea

24 07 2014

The launch on Saturday of Singapore HeritageFest 2014, bring us to focus on one of the key reasons for Singapore’s being, the sea. This year’s festival much of which revolves around a maritime based theme, “Our Islands, Our Home” has us looking at our maritime past as well as our present as a maritime nation.

HeritageFest 2014 opens a window to Singapore's island heritage.

HeritageFest 2014 opens a window to Singapore’s island heritage.

It is to raise the profile of this heritage, one that goes back to times well before the arrival of Raffles, that is in fact what the Maritime and Port Authority (MPA) and the National Heritage Board (NHB) hopes to achieve with the establishment of the S$500,000 Maritime Heritage Fund, which the two agencies will administer – for which a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed by the two agencies at Saturday’s launch.

One of the highlights of this year's HeritageFest is a lighthouse trail that includes a stop on Pulau Satumu, Singapore's southernmost island, on top of which Raffles' Lighthouse is perched.

One of the highlights of this year’s HeritageFest is a lighthouse trail that includes a stop on Pulau Satumu, Singapore’s southernmost island, on top of which Raffles’ Lighthouse is perched.

Once a common scene in the waters off the Southern Islands. Boats such as the kolek on the right, are very much part of our maritime heritage (a similar kolek is on display at the Balik Pulau Exhibition at the National Museum).

Once a common scene in the waters off the Southern Islands. Boats such as the kolek on the right, are very much part of our maritime heritage (a similar kolek is on display at the Balik Pulau Exhibition at the National Museum).

The focus of the fund, which complements the NHB’s S$5 million Heritage Grant Scheme launched last year, will be on developing community-initiated projects related to Singapore’s maritime heritage that will promote a greater understanding and appreciation of Singapore’s maritime connections, as was touched on by Mr Lawrence Wong, Minister for Community, Culture and Youth, in his speech at the festival’s launch.

Mr Lawrence Wong, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth and Mr Ong Yew Huat, Chairman of NHB launching Singapore HeritageFest 2014.

Mr Lawrence Wong, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth and Mr Ong Yew Huat, Chairman of NHB launching Singapore HeritageFest 2014.

Mr Wong also spoke of the transformation that will soon take place at the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM), where the launch event was held. Besides a revamp of the museum with expanded galleries that will include a space allocated for the Tang Cargo and see new shops and dining outlets, the museum will be given a new entrance that will open it up to the river and give it a direct connection into the historic heart of Singapore.

Another lighthouse - the very pretty Sultan Shoal Lighthouse at the western extremities of Singapore's waters seen during the lighthouse trail as part of Singapore HeritageFest 2014.

Another lighthouse – the very pretty Sultan Shoal Lighthouse at the western extremities of Singapore’s waters seen during the lighthouse trail as part of Singapore HeritageFest 2014.

The revamp is part of the ongoing effort to develop a civic and cultural belt around Singapore’s colonial civic district (see: The Old Vic’s ticking again) that involves also the newly refurbished Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall, and the conversion of the Old Supreme Court and City Hall into National Gallery - due for completion in 2015.

The Old Vic's definitely back!

The newly refurbished Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall.

A cultural performance at the launch of Singapore HeritageFest2014.

A cultural performance at the launch of Singapore HeritageFest2014.

The launch also coincided with the first evening of a two-night series of programmes taking place around the ACM and the river, River Nights. The event, brought much life and colour to the river, and celebrated its changing identity over the years – in the same way the well received series of activities  for Singapore HeritageFest 2014 celebrates the islands.

A dragon dance performance at the start of River Nights at the ACM's front lawn.

A dragon dance performance at the start of River Nights at the ACM’s front lawn.

More information on the Maritime Heritage Fund, Singapore HeritageFest 2014, River Nights and on Balik Pulau: Stories from Singapore’s Islands (an exhibition at the National Museum of Singapore held in conjunction with HeritageFest 2014) can be found in the following links:





Boarding the junk at sunrise

18 07 2014

An island that always seemed to me to have an air of mystery about it is the oddly shaped Pulau Jong. Set in an area of Singapore, the southern islands, that has much legend attached to it, legend does have it that Pulau Jong or “Junk Island” in Malay, had been a junk that had been transformed by the spirit of the sea into the island. The legend is described by H. T. Haughton in his 1889 paper, Notes on Names of Places in the Island of Singapore and its Vicinity:

Pulau Jong, “junk island”, a small island of a conical shape to the North of Pulau Seking and Pulau Sebarok. The story is that Malay pirates one night attacked a Chinese Junk, which was anchored where the island now is, and just as the Malays got alongside, the Nakhodah of the junk awoke. On seeing the pirates, through terror, he uttered such a frightful yell that the sea-spirit turned the junk into an island much to the consternation of the Malays.

Pulau Jong at sunrise.

Pulau Jong at sunrise.

Lying east of Pulau Semakau (which has absorbed Pulau Seking or Sakeng) and northwest of Pulau Sebarok, the tiny mound of an island measuring some 0.6 ha., is fringed to its north by some of the deepest waters in the Singapore Strait. From afar, the island looks rather inhospitable – particularly at high tide when only it tiny cliff faces and the clump of trees rising some 23 metres on its mound are exposed. It is at low tide that the fringing reefs that surround the island expose themselves – the reefs extend as far out as 0.4 nautical miles (about 700 metres) south-east in the direction of Pulau Sebarok.

Junk Island at low-tide.

Junk Island at low-tide.

The fringing reef on the island's south-east reaching out towards the oil terminal at Sebarok.

The fringing reef on the island’s south-east reaching out towards the oil terminal at Sebarok.

A navigation chart showing water depths around Pulau Jong.

A navigation chart showing water depths around Pulau Jong.

The reefs do make it difficult to land on the relatively untouched island – one of the last to resist human intervention in the waters of Singapore, but landing on it at sunrise was certainly a worthwhile experience, not just for the rich coral life found in the reefs, but also for the majestic perspectives one gets of the island being on it, the view of all that surround it, and an interesting look at the island’s geology and the glimpses it offers into its bird life.

Heading on a dinghy towards the island.

Heading on a dinghy towards the island.

Landing at sunrise - the reefs do make it a challenge to land safely on the island.

Landing at sunrise – the reefs do make it a challenge to land safely on the island.

The island's rock formations are part of the  are Jurong Formation that marks the geology of much of Singapore's west.

The island’s rock formations are part of the are Jurong Formation that marks the geology of much of Singapore’s west.

More rocks ...

More rock formations …

A pair of collared kingfishers.

A pair of collared kingfishers.

And another perched on a rock.

And another perched on a rock.

The junk, a very recognisable feature of southern Singapore’s seascape, has long been identified as an island for possible recreational use. More recently however, it does seem from the 2013 Land Use Plan that it would be be lost to future land reclamation. From the plan we see that it would be part of a large land mass that would also include Pulau Semakau and Pulau Sebarok and like the junks that once featured in the seas around us, the familiar sight of the junk that became an island will soon one that is forgotten.

A northward view.

A northward view.

The coral fringed beach looking west towards Pulau Semakau.

The coral fringed beach looking west towards Pulau Semakau.

Cliff faces on Pulau Jong.

Cliff faces on Pulau Jong.


The reef

I didn’t spend much time in the reef, which has some rather nice looking hard and soft corals and sea cucumber. There were also sightings of nudibranchs and flatworms on the reef’s edge. For more posts on what the reef revealed and also a wonderful drone’s eye view of the island, do also check these postings out:

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The visit to Pulau Jong is part of a series of visits to some of the lesser known shores of Singapore, in search of words and sounds for an IRememberSG funded project, Points of Departure.

A pano of the southern foreshore of Pulau Jong.

A pano of the southern foreshore of Pulau Jong.


 

 

 

 

 





Finding romance on Terumbu Semakau

17 07 2014

At 4.30 am, less than 24 hours after the adventure or what perhaps was more of a near misadventure on Cyrene, on Sunday, I found myself once again on a boat headed south. The destination this time was another patch reef, Terumbu Semakau, which lies just east of the original Pulau Semakau - now part of an enlarged island of the same name that serves as an offshore landfill.

A view of Terumbu Semakau, looking across to the enlarged Pulau Semakau.

A view of Terumbu Semakau under the light of the moon, looking across to an enlarged Pulau Semakau.

Location of Terumbu Semakau relative to Pulau Semakau.

Location of Terumbu Semakau relative to Pulau Semakau as seen on a navigational chart.

Terumbu Semakau in the moonlight.

Terumbu Semakau in the moonlight.

The super moon seen setting over Pulau Semakau.

The super moon seen setting over Pulau Semakau.

Thankfully, the weather provided much greater joy than it did a day before, allowing the group I was with to take-in an almost magical view of the reef bathed in the light of the super moon and then in the early light of day. The setting was one that seemed perfect for romance – the chorus we could hear of romancing amphibians across on Pulau Semakau seemed to testify to that.

6.28 am, the lights of Singapore's southern seas, that of the ships at anchor is seen against the lightening sky.

6.28 am, the lights of Singapore’s southern seas, that of the ships at anchor is seen against the lightening sky.

The terumbu at sunrise.

The terumbu at sunrise.

Finding romance on Terumbu Semakau with the rising of the sun.

Finding romance on Terumbu Semakau with the rising of the sun.

The reef, as with many of southern Singapore’s once numerous patch reefs, bears the scars of the developments of the last five decades. Its once lush meadows of seagrass have all but disappeared, leaving the moonlit scene without the stars that illuminated our visit to Cyrene. The group did however, find a couple of stars that, so disguised, were ones I wouldn’t have recognised. Shaped as their common name suggests, these cushion sea stars are quite recognisable upturned – wearing the unmistakeable mark of a true star on their well hidden undersides.

A cushion star.

A cushion star.

The underbelly of a cushion star.

The underbelly of a cushion star.

A smaller and less richly coloured cushion sea star.

A smaller and less richly coloured cushion sea star.

The expense of the reef did, in the light of the silvery moon, reveal quite a lot more to the keener pairs of eye. Ria Tan in blog post Terumbu Semakau: still no seagrass recovery, does bring to light several interesting sightings. It was, however, as unlikely romance that might have been the highlight of the day - the romance of a pair of rare tiger cowries, taking place discreetly behind a large piece of coral.

A pair of rare tiger cowries, discreet in their romance.

A pair of rare tiger cowries, discreet in their romance.

Feeling crabby, early in the morning.

Feeling crabby, early in the morning.

A less than romantic find - a fish trap erected on the reef.

A less than romantic find – a fish trap erected on the reef.

The romance found on Terumbu Semakau, is one that may soon be lost, as foretold by the Land Use Plan that was released by the Ministry of National Development last year in support of the less than well received Population White Paper. In the plan, the reef is seen to be within an area that is potentially a future land reclamation site that will create an even larger Pulau Semakau – leaving very little of the patch reef systems that once shaped our southern waters left for us to find romance in.

Possible future reclamation poses a threat to the future of the reefs (and the islands).

Possible future reclamation poses a threat to the future of the reef (source: Land Use Plan 2013).

The incinerated waste receiving station at Pulau Semakau as seen from the reef.

The incinerated waste receiving station at Pulau Semakau as seen from the reef.

Branching Montipora corals in the middle of the terumbu.

Branching Montipora corals in the middle of the terumbu.

More views of the reef in the moonlight

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The visit to Terumbu Semakau is part of a series of visits to some of the lesser known shores of Singapore, in search of words and sounds for an IRememberSG funded project, Points of Departure.






The forgotten stars of Singapore

15 07 2014

It is good to be reading about Dr Siti Maryam Yaakub’s work on Singapore’s unseen and unheard of seagrass meadows in Saturday’s edition of The Straits Times. We did, as Dr Siti points out in the article, once have lush meadows of seagrass, ones rich in life and ones which contributed to some of my happier childhood experiences off Changi Beach.

The star of our fast disappearing seagrass meadows.

The star of our fast disappearing seagrass meadows.

Common Sea Stars.

Common Sea Stars.

A sea hare - a type of sea slug.

A sea hare – a type of sea slug.

Coincidentally, I found myself in wading through another meadow, early in the morning of the day the article was published, found at one of offshore Singapore’s patch reef systems that is known collectively the Cyrene Reefs. The meadow, one of the larger surviving meadows in a part of the world where a certain emphasis has been placed on creating land where the sea is, is one that is teeming with life – the most noticeable of which are the huge red or pink knobby sea stars, which had also been prominent in the fields off Changi that featured in my youthful days.

A view across the sandbar at the Cyrene Reefs towards the new container terminal at Pasir Panjang.

A view across the sandbar at the Cyrene Reefs towards the new container terminal at Pasir Panjang.

An anemone.

An anemone.

And a false anemone.

And a cerianthid.

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More Knobby Sea Stars at Cyrene.

More Knobby Sea Stars at Cyrene.

Surveying the landscape from the rather expansive sandbar at Cyrene at 4 in the morning, does provide that sense of the reef and its seagrass meadows having been put under siege by the industrial empire, one that has left its unsightly scars on much of Singapore’s western coast. To the north, the bright lights of a Pasir Panjang relieved of its “pasir” (sand in Malay) reveal that S$3.5 billion container terminal that is only a temporary one - port operations we hear would eventually be consolidated at Tuas. To the south lies Pulau Bukom, the first of Singapore’s islands to be committed to industrial exploitation and to its west Jurong Island, the monster of an island created by joining a cluster of lands through land reclamation has created; both dominated by stacks smoking in the cover of night.

What's smoking on Pulau Bukom at 4 in the morning.

What’s smoking on Pulau Bukom at 4 in the morning.

A fire worm.

A fire worm.

A shrimp.

A shrimp.

A sea cucumber.

A sea cucumber.

The visit to Cyrene, was perhaps to be remembered not for the opportunity it did provide to reacquaint myself with the seagrass adventures of my youthful days, but for the possible misadventure it might have turned into, as the quickening pace of the winds from the west – the much feared Sumatras, promised not just to cover us in rain but also threaten us with a show of light. The attempt the winds prompted to scamper off as quickly as we could from what would have been a location that was completely exposed, was one that Murphy seemed to want to intervene in when the inflatable boat that was to get us out floundered in the wind and the waves; the increasing frequency at which the flashes lit up the sky as well as the fast rising tide adding to the drama.

Before the storm ... an anemone.

Before the storm … an anemone.

The escape as captured by Juria.

We did somehow find ourselves in the relatively safety of the bigger boat. The “escape” is described as Ria Tan of the Wild Shores of Singapore saw it in her post “Near Death at Cyrene!“:

Fortunately, by some miracle, the Sumatras made a U-turn around Cyrene! The winds and waves died down. Kok Sheng redirected the dinghy to a less rocky spot, with Chay Hoon using the paddle to hold it away from the shore as every clambered on board. Eventually, everyone made it safely back to the big boat. Phew. Thanks to Alex and crew for making sure we don’t drown! (Why is it we often have a near death experience on Cyrene? During our last trip there in Aug 2013, Russel found a living cone snail!) 

The NEA weather map showing the u-turn of the storm.

The incident brought to mind a close encounter with lightning that I had as a child, the setting for which was provided once again by the waters off Changi Beach. That did teach me about the respect one has to show for the untameable forces of nature as did this new encounter. The incident did also heighten the respect that I have for the folks I was in the company of and the risks they expose themselves to. It is through their tireless efforts, that attention is drawn to the many offshore habitats we have, as well as the many threats to the habitats as Singapore looks to create more land from the sea.

The view towards Jurong Island to the reefs' west.

The view towards Jurong Island to the reefs’ west.

The news over the weekend of the creation of Singapore’s first marine park at Sisters’ Islands is a positive outcome of some of these and other similar efforts and hopefully, it with the efforts of researchers such as Dr Siti and enthusiasts such as the group I was with, we will see a lot more emphasis on the conservation and revitalisation of the once rich offshore habitats that have survived in the waters of Singapore.


The visit to the Cyrene Reefs is part of a series of visits to some of the lesser known shores of Singapore, in search of words and sounds for an IRememberSG funded project, Points of Departure.






Beting Bronok: that bit of Singapore beyond the northern shores of Tekong

20 06 2014

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.

One example of the colourful company one gets to keep that compensates for the lack of sleep.

One example of the colourful company one gets to keep that compensates for the lack of sleep: a noble volute - a variety of large sea snail.

One of the magical moment I am losing sleep over - first light over a submerged reef at exposed at low tide.

One of the magical moments I am losing sleep over: first light over a submerged reef on Beting Bronok, exposed at low tide.

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.

More views of Beting Bronok at first light.

Another view of Beting Bronok at first light.

Marine conservationists carrying out a survey on the reef.

Marine conservationists carrying out a survey on the reef.



Land Use Plan on Beting Bronok & Pulau Unum

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 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 view across Beting Bronok to the gaping mouth of Sungai Johor.

The view across Beting Bronok to the gaping mouth of Sungai Johor.

A glass anemone.

A glass anemone.

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).

A biscuit star.

A deformed biscuit star.

Walking with a walking stick on water - Ria Tan.

Walking with a walking stick on water – Ria Tan.

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 incoming tide with a view of Pengerang on the left bank of Sungai Johor.

The incoming tide with a view of Pengerang on the left bank of Sungai Johor.

An octopus.

An octopus.

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.

Another anemone.

Another anemone.

And another.

And another.

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.

Probably a false scorpion fish I am told.

Probably a false scorpion fish I am told.

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.

A Bailer Snail making a meal of another snail.

A Bailer Snail making a meal of another snail.

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.

A nudibranch.

A nudibranch.

A seahorse taking shelter.

A seahorse taking shelter.

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.

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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.

The wild shores are perhaps a little wilder than you think.

The wild shores are perhaps a little wilder than you think.

 





A view from a sandbar

5 06 2014

It was against the backdrop of the drama of a passing storm playing out in the rapidly changing light of the morning, that I found myself standing on a sandbar four nautical miles out into the Singapore Strait.

Terumbu Pempang Laut and beyond, seen in the light storm coloured morning.

The view from a sandbar in the light of the storm coloured morning.

The view from a sandbar, four nautical miles out.

A rainbow appears as the weather clears.

Walking where few now thread.

Walking where few now tread.

Reflections on the morning.

Reflections on the morning.

The scene revealed by the transformation of night into day in the darkness and light of the storm coloured morning was one that did seem rather surreal, disfigured by the craggy interventions of the natural world juxtaposed against the human interventions that now dominate Singapore’s nearshore.

The morning's drama.

The morning’s drama.

Light in the darkness.

Light in the darkness.

Juxtapositions of the natural world against the human world.

Juxtapositions of the natural world against the human world.

Spot light on the interventions of men that now dominate Singapore's nearshore.

A natural spotlight on the interventions of men that now dominate Singapore’s nearshore.

It wasn’t quite what I had intended in interrupting that much needed weekend’s slumber. The excursion was one to have a feel for the patch reef, Terumbu Pempang Laut, to which the sandbar was a part of, as well as the island to its south, Pulau Sudong, regular visitors from which it would once have hosted.

The changing hues in the early hours of the day as seen from the boat.

The changing hues in the early hours of the day as seen from the boat that left at 6am.

A northward view across the reef.

A northward view across the reef.

The expanded Pulau Sudong, as seen from Terumbu Pempang Laut.

The expanded Pulau Sudong, as seen from Terumbu Pempang Laut.

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It was as close as one could get to Pulau Sudong, now part of a restricted military zone. The island, once itself not much more than perhaps a spit of sand that was part of the surrounding reefs, had been one of several islands off Singapore’s south-western shoreline on which stilted villages of the sea had decorated.

Pulau Sudong in the 1950s (source: National Archives of Singapore Online).

The dwellings on stilts arranged around the island’s foreshore, had been on that had evolved from buoyant mobile dwellings of those, the sea nomads from the pre-Raffles era, who the occupants had inherited the seas from. Living on the sea, the nomads and their descendants also lived off it; the waters and the reefs around the island, contributing much to their livelihoods.

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Even without there being a source of fresh water, the island at its height, supported a community of several hundred and boasted of schools (there apparently were two in the 1940s), a clinic, a community centre and a police post.

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The reefs, teeming with marine life and exposed as the tide receded, was where life on the islands might have often extended to. Men would be seen laying their bubu, traps made by the fishermen themselves out of strips of bamboo, weighing them down with corals that the reef did provide. The womenfolk also found their way to the reefs, seeking a harvest of both edible produce of the sea and items such as corals that could be sold.

Corals were harvested by the women of Pulau Sudong.

Corals were harvested by the women of Pulau Sudong.

Life as the reefs might have seen, is quite wonderfully captured in words by Chew Soo Beng, who in “Fishermen in Flats” (1982), describes the activity on a Terumbu Raya, a reef to Sudong’s west:

Groups of women row their kolek to different parts of the exposed portions of the reef to gather sea produce. In the past, this activity was performed with considerable gaiety, seeming to be an enjoyable activity. Everyone carried a basket and unmarried girls wore bunga raya (hibiscus flower) in their hair.

In teams of threes or fours, usually to form a line, they combed the reef for agar-agar (an edible seaweed), gulong, the trepang and a variety of beche-de-mer. When both the tide and sun were low, the gather chatter of the women at work would drift into the village where the men, excluded from the offshore merriment, conversed beneath their favourite pondok.

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The reefs see a different merriment today. The chatter of women gathering in the harvest is now replaced by the excitement of sea birds seeking a harvest of their own. Human chatter is now heard on occasion, of those who seek only to harvest what the reef can tell them – as an part of a continuous marine survey that the tireless Ria Tan of the Wild Shores of Singapore champions.

The merriment the reefs see today are those of the sea birds seeking their harvest from the sea.

The merriment the reefs see today are those of the sea birds seeking their harvest from the sea.

It was with the group that I ventured out to the sandbar. Of the finds of the morning’s harvest, the one that did perhaps trigger the greatest excitement was a sighting of a small giant fluted clam. This find, along with what else the reef did reveal, is described by Ria in Terumbu Pempang Laut check up in her blog, which is a glorious celebration of life on our shores.

The giant clam that raised the level of excitement.

The giant clam that raised the level of excitement.

On the reef's edge.

On the reef’s edge.

One thing that Ria does point out in her post that did get my attention, is that life around the shores of the reefs and the islands might to come to an end. The reefs, along with the cluster that it belongs to which also includes Terumbu Pempang Tengah to its immediate east and  Terumbu Pempang Darat, face an uncertain future. The Land Use Plan, released to support the less than popularly received Population White Paper in early 2013, does show that the area is one where future land reclamation work could take place.

Possible future reclamation poses a threat to the future of the reefs (and the islands).

Possible future reclamation poses a threat to the future of the reefs and the islands (source: Land Use Plan 2013).

If that does happen, the reefs will be incorporated into part of a land mass that will include the Bukom cluster of islands and the Hantu twins, leaving the only ghosts haunting our southern shores (hantu translates into “ghost” in Malay) – there was also another Pulau Hantu that has since been renamed as Keppel Island, that of lost islands and reefs, and of a people and a way-of-life that will never again be seen.

The future of many of the islands as individuals such as Pulau Jong, are also under threat from the Land Use Plan.

The future of many of the southern islands as individual islands, such as Pulau Jong (seen here with Pulau Sebarok), are also under threat from the Land Use Plan.

Life on Pulau Sudong, one of the last of the Southern Islands to host a resident population, did itself come to an abrupt end in early 1980. By then, reclamation that added some 174 ha. to its area, had already decimated the once rich fishing grounds that surrounded it, prompting a move for many in the late 1970s to seek a new beginning in Tanah Besar as the mainland was referred to, completing an assimilation into the Malay world.

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Initially intended as a recreational island, Pulau Sudong was closed to the public in mid-1982. Used since as part of an air force live-firing area that also includes Pulau Pawai and Pulau Senang to its south, what ghosts it may have inherited from its long discarded past, may also have abandoned it.

Reflections off a lagoon at low tide.

Reflections off a lagoon at low tide.

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Strange Horizons: Snake Island at dawn through the darkness of the storm

2 06 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.

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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.





The Gateway into the Lost World

25 02 2014

It is in a deserted and somewhat forgotten corner of Singapore, that you will find the Gateway into the Lost World. It stands alone – the space to which it opens into is one that nature has reclaimed, giving little away as to what it might once have been.

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Once surrounded by a world we now have sought to forget, that of a village of wooden dwellings that was serenaded by the songs of the nearby sea, the gateway stands all alone except for the mosque that does remind us of what might once have been.

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In surroundings that does take one well away from the madness of the urban world, it probably isn’t hard to imagine what might once have been – a space in which the joy and peace of  waking to the smell of the sea would quite easily be found. It also isn’t difficult to imagine it as a place that would have inspired one who lived there to paint, as a talented architect who I suspect did live in a house beyond the now lonesome gates (word is that the gateway was to a house in which an architect of European origin lived), did –  producing more than 50 seascapes with watercolours that were the subject of an exhibition at the Lone Pine Gallery at Ming Court Hotel (now Orchard Parade Hotel) in 1986.

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The architect, James Westwater Ferrie who started a well known local architectural firm James Ferrie and Partners, arrived in Singapore from the UK in 1948. Having described himself in an interview about the exhibition that was published in 27 January 1986 edition of The Straits Times, as having “always like the sea” and being “closely associated with water”, he was I an avid sailor who sought also to live by the sea. He also offered a brief description of where he had lived: “in Sembawang with a garden stretching down to the sea” in explaining that the focus of his paintings was on “the skies and boats” where he lived. 

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Ferrie passed away in the UK in February 1993, and it would only be in his paintings, that the memory of the world around him in Sembawang is preserved, with the boats he sought to depict having long disappeared along with the villagers the boats belong to. The area however does remain a place to seek that peace Ferrie would have sought in building his home by the sea, having been spared thus far from the sea of concrete that is fast spreading through what once might have been an island in the sun. It may however not be long before the sound of a silence that now complements the songs of the sea will, as with the world the gateway did lead to, be a thing we would only be able to imagine as the relentless march of concrete does seem now to be very close to its doorstep.

The nearby mosque in the woods (Masjid Petempatan Melayu).

The nearby mosque in the woods (Masjid Petempatan Melayu).

The greenery that now surrounds the area.

The greenery that now surrounds the area.





A walk along the ridge: Commemorating the Battle of Pasir Panjang

4 02 2014

Jerome Lim, The Wondering Wanderer:

A walk that is well worth the 4-5 hours, offering a peek into a part of Singapore many of us would never think of exploring on our own. This year, it will take place on 15 Feb at 7 am. To sign up for it, visit this link: http://habitatnews.nus.edu.sg/index.php.

(see also: Lost on the Ridge)

Also happening around the same time is a series of National Heritage Board Battle for Singapore Heritage Tours on 8/9 Feb and 15 Feb. More information can be found at the I Love Museums website

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Originally posted on The Long and Winding Road:

I took a walk with a group of about 50 yesterday morning, along a part of Singapore that I frequent only because of visits I make from time-to-time to the National University of Singapore (NUS) in the course of my work, and in doing so, I learnt quite a lot about the area where one of the fiercest battles took place as the impregnable fortress that the colonial masters of Singapore had thought the island was, capitulated to the invading Japanese Imperial Army in the dark days of the February of 1942. The walk had in fact been one that takes place on an annual basis to commemorate the battle, the Battle of Pasir Panjang, with took place over the 13th and 14th of February, in the final hours before General Percival did the unthinkable, being made to take a march of shame up the hill on which General Yamashita…

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Riding on in a world that will soon change

26 11 2013

One of the few places in central Singapore left untouched by the spread of the concrete jungle, the area bounded by Thomson, Whitley Road (Pan Island Expressway) and Lornie Road, will in the not so distant future, see the change it has long resisted.

The area bounded by Thomson Road, Lornie Road and Whitley Road, hides some beautiful sights which has long resisted the advance of the concrete world.

The area bounded by Thomson Road, Lornie Road and Whitley Road, hides some beautiful sights which has long resisted the advance of the concrete world.

The area, a large part of which Bukit Brown Cemetery and the cemeteries adjoining it occupies, is where a calm and peaceful world now exists, one not just of cemetery land reclaimed in part by nature, but of laid back open spaces, colonial era bungalows beautifully set in lush greenery, and where horses sometimes outnumber cars on a few of its roads.

Gates of Bukit Brown Cemetery.

Gates of Bukit Brown Cemetery.

While it may be a while before the concrete invasion arrives – much of the area has been earmarked for housing developments in the longer term, the winds of change have begun to pick up speed. Alien structures related to the MRT Station have already landed and exhumation of graves affected by the new road through Bukit Brown will commence soon.

Notices of exhumation at Bukit Brown Cemetery.

Notices of exhumation at Bukit Brown Cemetery.

Close-by, across Thomson Road, which will soon see construction work beginning on the North-South Expressway, Toa Payoh Rise has been widened and looks nothing like the quiet and peaceful road it once was.

Toa Payoh Rise losing its gentle feel in 2010 as work started to widen the once laid-back road.

Marymount Convent, a long time occupant of the mound next to Toa Payoh Rise, already once affected by the construction of Marymount Road, held its last mass – the convent will have to vacate the land on which it has occupied for some 63 years. Not far away – at the corner where Mount Pleasant Road runs through, the houses and the Old Police Academy another with a long association with the area, will also not be spared. The expansive grounds of the academy was where many would have spent a Sunday afternoon in simpler days watching grown men kicking a ball on the field. Besides football matches close-up, one could sometimes get a treat of a glimpse at a parade or a Police Tattoo practice session as one passed on the bus.

Riding off into a sunset - the Old Police Academy south of the Polo Club will be one of the victims of the winds of change will may soon blow into the area.

Riding off into a sunset – the Old Police Academy south of the Polo Club will be one of the victims of the winds of change will may soon blow into the area.

With the many changes about to descend on the area, one probably constant along that stretch of Thomson Road – or at least the hope is there that it would be, is the Singapore Polo Club. A feature in the area for more than seven decades, the club first moved to the location, just as the dark days of the Occupation were upon us in 1941.

The Polo Club's grounds as seen from Thomson Road.

The Polo Club’s grounds as seen from Thomson Road.

Sitting across the huge monsoon drain in which many boys would once have been seen wading in to catch tiny fishes, the grounds of the Polo Club – with it huge green playing field, is one that I almost always kept a look out for, in the hope of catching a glimpse of a match underway.

Some of us would have fond memories of catching fish from the huge monsoon drain running by the eastern edge of the Polo Club.

Some of us would have fond memories of catching fish from the huge monsoon drain running by the eastern edge of the Polo Club.

The grounds, the lease on which the club holds for another 20 years, wasn’t the club’s first. One of the oldest polo clubs in the region (as well as being one of the oldest sporting clubs in Singapore) dating back to 1886 by officers of the King’s Own Regiment – not too long after the rules of modern polo was formalised. The first grounds on which the sport was played at was one shared with golfers of the Singapore Golf Club at the Race Course or what is Farrer Park today.

The Polo Club's Indoor Arena and Stables.

The Polo Club’s Indoor Arena and Stables.

It does seem that from a 1938 newspaper article contributed by René Onraet, the Inspector General of the Straits Settlements Police from 1935 to 1939, who was a keen polo player and also a President of the club that the game was also played at the reclamation site across Beach Road in front of Raffles Hotel. This was where the NAAFI Britannia Club / SAF NCO Club and Beach Road Camp were to come up, a site currently being developed into the massive Foster + Partners designed South Beach residential and commercial complex.

The grounds at Balestier Road which hosted the Singapore Polo Club from 1914 to 1941.

The grounds at Balestier Road which hosted the Singapore Polo Club from 1914 to 1941.

The club sought new premises after being prevented from using the Race Course grounds in 1913 – moving to its first dedicated grounds at Balestier Road (Rumah Miskin) in June 1914 – grounds now occupied by the cluster of buildings which once were used by the Balestier Boys’s School, Balestier Mixed School and Balestier Girls’ School.

The Prince of Wales playing polo at the Balestier Road ground in 1922 (source: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

The Prince of Wales playing polo at the Balestier Road ground in 1922 (source: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

The grounds were unfortunately limited in size, and a search was initiated for a new ground at the end of the 1930s. It was the club’s President, René Onraet, who was instrumental in securing the current premises, which incidentally was right by what was the Police Training School – the Old Police Academy.

The Singapore Polo Club has occupied its current grounds since 1941.

The Singapore Polo Club has occupied its current grounds since 1941. The grounds were said to have been used as vegetable plots during the Japanese Occupation.

Although the grounds were ready at the end of 1941, it wasn’t until 1946 that the first game of polo was played on the grounds which by the time required some effort to restore it. The war had seen the grounds turned, as a couple of newspaper reports would have it, into vegetable plots – complete with drainage ditches and water wells. The club’s website makes mention of the Japanese Imperial Army converting the grounds into a gun emplacement area, before turning it into a squatter’s camp.

Prince Charles participating in a game on the Thomson Road ground in 1974 (source: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

Prince Charles participating in a game on the Thomson Road ground in 1974 (source: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

Over the years, the club has expanded it membership and now includes activities such as equestrian sports, as well as having facilities for other sports. Along with club, the area around the club, also plays host to the likes of the Riding for the Disabled Association and the National Equestrian Centre at Jalan Mashhor.

The sun rises on Jalan Mashhor, home of the RDA and National Equestrian Centre.

The sun rises on Jalan Mashhor, home of the RDA and National Equestrian Centre.

Another view of Jalan Mashhor.

Another view of Jalan Mashhor.

The Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA).

The Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA).

The National Equestrian Centre - with the Mediacorp Caldecott Broadcast Centre seen in the background. The Broadcast Centre is scheduled to move to Buona Vista in 2015.

The National Equestrian Centre – with the Mediacorp Caldecott Broadcast Centre seen in the background. The Broadcast Centre is scheduled to move to Buona Vista in 2015.

The area where a healthy cluster of horse related activity centres are located is one which based on the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) Draft Master Plan 2013 will be retained for sports and recreation use in the future.

Masjid Omar Salmah, at Jalan Mashhor which was built in the 1970s and is now long abandoned by Kampong Jantai it was built to serve.

Masjid Omar Salmah, at Jalan Mashhor which was built in the 1970s and is now long abandoned by Kampong Jantai it was built to serve.

Another view of the National Equestrian Centre.

Another view of the National Equestrian Centre.

The area where the Polo Club is (in green) on the recently released URA Draft Master Plan, is designated for Sports and Recreation use, but the rest of the area around it may see a change.

The area where the Polo Club is (in green) on the recently released URA Draft Master Plan, is designated for Sports and Recreation use, but the rest of the area around it may see a change (http://www.ura.gov.sg/MS/DMP2013/draft-master-plan/map.html).

While it does look like this might remain a beautiful world for some time to come, time is being called on the gorgeous world which now surrounds it. It won’t be long before the wooded areas across Thomson Road are cleared for development. The greater loss will however be the places of escape to the west. That is the green and beautiful world of the cemetery grounds. Grounds where men and horses, and perhaps the good spirits of the world beyond us, have but a few precious moments in which they can continue to roam freely in.

Jalan Mashhor at sunrise.

Jalan Mashhor at sunrise.

The road to nowhere ... at least for the time being.

The road to nowhere … at least for the time being (MRT related structures are clearly visible).


More on the game of Polo and how it is played in Singapore: A Royal Salute to the sport of kings.





Watching the stars under the stars

29 05 2013

The last place in Singapore to soak in the atmosphere of the festivities which accompany a religious festival in a setting most of us may not seen for a quarter of a century is Pulau Ubin, the last island off Singapore (save for Sentosa) which has a community of residents. It is in the remnants of a village close to the island’s jetty where a Chinese Taoist temple, the Tua Pek Kong temple (Pulau Ubin Fo Shan Ting Da Bo Gong Temple or 乌敏岛佛山亭大伯公庙) dedicated to the Earth Deity 土地公 (Tu Di Gong in Mandarin) who is also commonly referred to in Singapore as 大伯公 – Tua Pek Kong in Hokkien or Da Bo Gong in Mandarin, is found. It setting is very much one that is reminiscent of many of the rural Chinese villages which were common on the main island of Singapore up until the 1980s, with a village temple at its centre with a permanent Chinese Opera (referred to locally as “wayang”) stage often located across a clearing from it.

Devotees offering candles at the Pulau Ubin Tua Pek Kong Temple. The temples celebrates two festivals in a big way.

Devotees offering candles at the Pulau Ubin Tua Pek Kong Temple. The temples celebrates two festivals in a big way.

Colours painted by the setting sun - setting the tone for a colourful night of entertainment under the stars.

Colours painted by the setting sun – setting the tone for a colourful night of entertainment under the stars.

The temple plays host twice a year to a series of festivities which are held to commemorate two important Chinese festivals which the temple celebrates in a big way. The bigger of the two is the Tua Pek Kong festival, celebrated to commemorate the birthday of the Earth Deity around the 15th day of the 4th Chinese month, while the Hungry Ghost festival which is celebrated with an auction around the 15th day of the 7th month, is a relatively quieter affair.

An image of the Earth Deity, Tua Pek King at the main altar of the Pulau Ubin Tua Pek Kong Temple.

An image of the Earth Deity, Tua Pek King at the main altar of the Pulau Ubin Tua Pek Kong Temple.

It is during both the festivals that the wayang stage sees use. Wayangs in the form of Teochew opera performed by the island’s Teochew Opera Troupe  (which I photographed at last year’s Hungry Ghosts Festival – click on this link for the post) based at the temple, are staged for the entertainment of the temple’s devotees (also for the visiting spirits in the case of the Hungry Ghost Festival)  providing a wonderful opportunity for Singaporean’s to revisit an almost forgotten tradition. In keeping up with the times, the stage also plays host to what perhaps is the new-age wayang – the getai (歌台), a somewhat kitsch (some even consider it crude) form of entertainment which by and large have replaced the wayangs of old during similar celebrations around Singapore.

A brightly dressed dancer on stage - getai is often seen as kitsch and somewhat crude, but it does have a huge following in Singapore.

A brightly dressed dancer on stage – getai is often seen as kitsch and somewhat crude, but it does have a huge following in Singapore.

I had the opportunity to see the new wayang in action in the old village like setting provided by Pulau Ubin’s stage last evening. The getai was held on the last evening of the series of festivities held over six days from 23 to 28 May this year and saw a huge turnout  - boats worked like clockwork ferrying a steady stream of visitors to the temple and the festivities – which certainly made the atmosphere very festival like. Under the stars in in the comfort of the cool breeze, the audience had the seats provided already filled as the stage came alive with lights and action matched by the brilliant colours provided by the of rays of the setting sun.

The large crowd seated in front of the stage.

The large crowd seated in front of the stage.

While I would not be one to admit to being a fan of getai, I will admit that the experience of watching the gaudily dressed stars of the song stage, entertain with song many which were could well be tunes of yesteryear, as well as converse and joke in Hokkien on a stage under the stars, was one that I thoroughly enjoyed. It was particularly heartening to see the large crowd – many who broke out into smiles and laughter as the evening entertainment progressed, enjoy themselves. The atmosphere was such that it did also seem to free both young and old from the distractions we have to much of in the modern world (I must have been the only one not taking a photograph or a video clip with a mobile device who was seen to be fiddling with my mobile phone).

Marcus Chin (陈建彬) on stage.

Marcus Chin (陈建彬) on stage.

Members of the audience had their eyes glued to the stage throughout most of the evening.

Members of the audience had their eyes glued to the stage throughout most of the evening.

The getai show which was hosted by Xu Qiong Fang (浒琼芳) and Wang Lei (王雷) saw a string of getai stars appear on stage. Not having admitted to being a fan, there is also no need for me to pretend to know who I was being entertained by. I did however recognise one of the stars from a previous experience watching getai under the Flyer. That was veteran entertainer Marcus Chin (陈建彬). I was able to identify the Babes in the City (宝贝姐妹) pairing, only through a comment left on my instagram post  by filmaker Royston Tan (the pair featured in a video he produced, “The Happy Dragon“, to promote Safe Sex) .

Babes in the City (宝贝姐妹).

Babes in the City (宝贝姐妹).

Host Wang Lei (王雷) also entertained - standing next to him is Lee Bao En (李宝恩 ), a young getai star from Johor.

Host Wang Lei (王雷) also sang – standing next to him is Lee Bao En (李宝恩), a young getai star from Johor.

A relatively more recently introduced  form of festival entertainment, the getai does in fact have a long enough tradition, having gained in popularity during the 1970s as interest in the traditional forms of entertainment such as the Chinese Opera and Puppet Shows was waning. On the evidence of the turnout, it does seem that, love it or hate it, it does have a following and being more adaptable than the more traditional street theatre, it certainly is here to stay.  It was nice to be out under the stars in a setting one can otherwise no longer find. It felt as if it was yesterday … almost. It would have been nice to see just one thing more – the mobile food vendors (particularly the bird’s nest drink and the steamed sweet corn seller) who never were very far away whenever the wayang came to town.

The view backstage.

The view backstage.

A view through a window of the permanent wayang stage.

A view through a window of the permanent wayang stage.

More photographs of the stage and audience:

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A reminder of a world we long have discarded

10 05 2013

A road which featured in the many drives my father took us on to wonderful coastline at the eastern tip of Singapore was Tampines Road. Once Singapore’s longest road, the road is today 5 kilometres shorter than it was, truncated in part by the construction of the Tampines Expressway (TPE) on the eastern end of the road. While much of the road bears little resemblance to the rural road off which the fencing of the northern boundary of the then Paya Lebar International Airport featured, as did many kampongs and fishing ponds, there are still some reminders of the world which except for the airport which is now used by the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF), has long since vanished.

A peek at a world left behind.

A window into a little piece of Tampines Road which the time seems to have been left behind.

A motor and tyre workshop dominates much of an area where time seems to stand very still.

A motor and tyre workshop dominates much of an area where time seems to stand very still.

One reminder is a little pocket of a more recent past, which seems to lie well forgotten, at what was the 9¾ milestone of the old Tampines Road. Close to where a cluster of huge temple complexes which if memory serves me right started to crop up in the 1970s is, the reminder is a remnant of what once was Hun Yeang Village – the name of which is remembered only by that little bit of Hun Yeang Road which still does exist. The area lining Tampines Road around Hun Yeang Road was where in the 1970s the Hun Yeang Community Centre and the Tampines Veterinary Clinic could also be found, all which have since disappeared, leaving only a rather dilapidated looking row of shophouses from the village’s more recent past behind. The row houses businesses dominated by a tyre and motor workshop, all of which does seem to be wedged in between the past and the present – a reminder of the suburban Singapore of the 1970s that we have discarded.

The row of shophouses at Hun Yeang Road.

The row of shophouses at Hun Yeang Road.

A scene which resembles that of the semi-urban rural world of the 1970s.

A scene which resembles that of the semi-urban rural world of the 1970s.

The area to the left was where the Community Centre once was, and to the right where the vet clinic was.

The area to the left was where the Community Centre once was, and to the right where the vet clinic was.

Interestingly, the man who gave his name to Hun Yeang Road (as well as the village) was Mr Khoo Hun Yeang, a prominent Penang born businessman who lived from 1860 to 1917. Mr Khoo, whose father owned a coconut plantation on the mainland side of Penang, had in his time run the coconut plantation as well as making a name in other businesses. He was also later to join the Opium and Spirit revenue farm in Penang in which his father was a partner in, and later serve as a Managing Partner (from 1899) and Managing Director (from 1902 to 1906) of the Opium and Spirit Farm in Singapore. The farms – which were licenses granted through a tender for the collection of taxes on behalf of the then Straits Settlements government for items on which the government regulated and had a monopoly on, particularly that related to Opium and spirits were highly lucrative. Mr Khoo left the Opium and Spirit Farm in 1906, moving to Kuching (there is also a street in Kuching named after him) where he was involved in the construction business. Mr Khoo’s association with the area came about through his purchase of a 81 ha. fruit and rubber plantation here in 1913. Tragically, Mr Khoo passed away in a motor accident in Medan to which he has gone to to seek medical treatment in 1917 and is buried in Penang.

Truck tyres dominate the scene in front of the row of shophouses.

Truck tyres in front of the row of shophouses.

That time would catch up with what’s left of the former Hun Yeang Village, there is little doubt. But until that happens, this little piece of the past will be one I will hold on to, not so much as a place I have interacted with, but one in which I am reminded of that more familiar and gentler world I grew up in – a world that much as I would like to, I would never be able to return to.

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Images related to Tampines Primary School / Hun Yeang Village provided by hoosiers:

Tampines Primary School Crest / Badge.

Tampines Primary School Crest / Badge.

Members of the Staff, 1968.

Members of the Staff, 1968.

Members of the Staff, 1982.

Members of the Staff, 1982.

This gentleman was our senior assistant then. I got to meet him during this CNY for the first time since 1977 (37 yrs later). Pretty overwhelming..

This gentleman was our senior assistant then.
I got to meet him during this CNY for the first time since 1977 (37 yrs later). Pretty overwhelming..

The mere sight of this turquoise Ford Anglia will strike fear in every pupil of TPS as it means the Senior Assistant cum Discipline Master is around somewhere in the school..

The mere sight of this turquoise Ford Anglia will strike fear in every pupil of TPS as it means the Senior Assistant cum Discipline Master is around somewhere in the school..

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Map showing location of Hun Yeang Village.

Map showing location of Hun Yeang Village.

Excursion to Paya Lebar Airport.

Excursion to Paya Lebar Airport.






Strange Horizons: The giant spinning tops off Tampines Road

9 05 2013

What does look like two giant spinning tops from the bottom of a grassy slope along Tampines Road are actually two concrete inverted cone shaped storage tanks built to each hold 8448 cubic metres of NEWater – water recycled from waste treated to become drinking quality water. The elevated tanks which measure 43 metres in diameter at the top, make up the Tampines NEWater Service Reservoir maintained by the Public Utilities Board (PUB) provide storage for NEWater produced nearby for use by nearby electronic chip manufacturing factories which require very clean water.

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Off a little street in Singapore

19 04 2013

Off the busy and lively streets and as much an ubiquitous part of Singapore’s urban landscape as shophouses were, the back lane often took on a life of its own in that Singapore seem almost to have forgotten about. The back lane, besides being a hangout for hoodlums and a centre for undesirable activities, as is often depicted in popular culture, were also where children played and where honest tradesmen conducted their businesses. Unsanitary as they may have appeared to be, the best makan (food) around could often be found from makeshift food stalls set up in the back lane – the back lanes close to Rex Cinema with nasi padang, chendol and Indian rojak to die for, comes immediately to mind.

A reminder of back lanes past? A charcoal stove sits silently in a back lane.

A reminder of back lanes past? A charcoal stove sits silently in a back lane.

Back lanes would once have been the centre of life off the streets.

Back lanes would once have been the centre of life off the streets.

Despite being associated with the shophouses that characterised urban Singapore, back lanes came into being after many of the shop houses were already up. Shophouses were initially built back-to-back and it was only following an amendment to the Municipal Ordinance in 1909 that back lanes came into being and back lanes had to be retrofitted at the back of existing shophouses in a massive scheme starting from 1910 which went on well past the end of the war. The scheme to part of the backs of  shophouses was seen as a necessity not just to provide much needed access for fire-fighting between the tinderboxes of the overpopulated shophouses, but also to allow for basic sanitation to be provided .

Bicycles parked along a back lane. Back lanes were added after many of the shophouses were already built following the passing of the Municipal Ordinance of 1909.

Bicycles parked along a back lane. Back lanes were added after many of the shophouses were already built following the passing of the Municipal Ordinance of 1909.

The back lanes which were to eventually allow space for water to be piped and sewer lines to be run, initially made it easier to conduct  the unpleasant business of nightsoil collection (which actually went on right up until 1987). As compensation for land lost due to the back lanes, the Municipality reconstructed the backs of the affected shophouses and the spiral staircases which served as secondary exits and fire escapes we see at the backs of shophouses today were added in as part of the reconstruction.

A (sealed-up) night soil port - would once have been covered with a flap through which night soil buckets were collected and replaced by nightsoil workers.

A remnant of a forgotten past: a (sealed-up) night soil port. It would once have been fitted with a flap through which night soil buckets were collected and replaced.

Back lanes offer a doorway into the past.

A back door – back lanes are more recent than the shophouses the backs of which now open into them, Many were fitted after the shophouses were built.

Back lanes do exist today, in the many places where shophouses have survived – over 6000 shophouses have been conserved on the island with large clusters of them found in areas such as Tanjong Pagar, Chinatown, Katong/Joo Chiat, Jalan Besar and Geylang. While there are a few that still are alive in one way or another, most are silent and devoid of the life we would once have seen in them. The back lane however is still a place I often find myself wandering in – many have a lot of character as well a sense of mystery about them, and they are often where, despite the air of silence which now hangs over them, much colour, texture and a few little surprises, missing on the overly sanitised streets of Singapore, can still be found.

The back lane is where much colour and texture can still be found.

The back lane is where much colour and texture can still be found.

An abandoned motorcycle.

An abandoned motorcycle.

Plastic basins left to be drained.

Plastic basins left to be drained.

A signs warning against the mistreatment of cats in the back lane. The alley cat is still very much a part of the back lane scene.

A signs warning against the mistreatment of cats in the back lane. The alley cat is still very much a part of the back lane scene.

Back lanes these days serve as storage spaces more than anything else.

Back lanes these days serve as storage spaces more than anything else.





A church once occupied by Sin

19 03 2013

I took a walk by what, for a short moment, appeared to be a church in the woods. In an area in which woods in any form would have long abandoned – the corner of Waterloo Street and Middle Road, the building which resembles a small village church has for the better part of a century not actually used as one. Together with an adjacent two storey building, the church is now part of the Sculpture Square complex, a space dedicated to the promotion and development of contemporary 3-dimensional (3D) art.

A church in the woods?

A church in the woods?

My memories of the buildings are ones which date back to my younger days (of which I have actually written about in a previous post). The church building itself was always a curious sight each time I passed through the area, whether on the way home from church in the late 1960s and early 1970s, or from school in the late 1970s, when it had been occupied by Sin. The walls of the building were then coloured not just by the colour of its fading coat of paint, but also by streaks of motor oil and grease, having been used by a motor workshop, the Sin Sin Motor Co. My mother remembers it being used as a motor workshop as far back as her own days in school (she went to St. Anthony’s Convent further down Middle Road in the 1950s). The building next to it, which is built in a similar layout as many in the area which might ones which have been homes of wealthy merchants, had in those days been used as the Tai Loke Hotel (previously Tai Loke Lodging House) – one of several rather seedy looking budget hotels found in the area.

The church building when it was used as a motor workshop and the Tai Loke Hotel next to it, 1987 (source: http://a2o.nas.sg/picas/)

The church building when it was used as a motor workshop and the Tai Loke Hotel next to it, seen from Middle Road in 1987 (source: http://a2o.nas.sg/picas/).

While not much is known about the building which the Tai Loke occupied, there is enough that is known about the church building which was erected from 1870 to 1875, based on information on a National Heritage Board (NHB) plaque at the site as well as on Sculpture Square’s website. It first saw use as the Christian Institute. The Methodists were in 1885, invited to use the building and it became the Middle Road Church (or Malay Church) after a transfer to the Methodists was made in 1892, until the church moved to Kampong Kapor in 1929. Interestingly, the building also housed the Methodist Girls’ School which was started at nearby Short Street for a while until 1900. According to information on Sculpture Square’s website, the building had apparently also seen life as a Chinese restaurant, the “May Blossom Restaurant” during the war.

A photograph of the abandoned church building in the 1990s - after the motor workshop had vacated it (from Sculpture Square's website).

A photograph of the abandoned church building in the 1990s – after the motor workshop had vacated it (from Sculpture Square’s website).

Following years of neglect, the former church building when it was vacated by the motor workshop possibly at the end of the 1980s, was left in rather a dilapidated condition and it was a local sculptor, Sun Yu Li, who saw its potential for use as an arts venue which was opened as Sculpture Square in 1999.





A dying tradition lives under the light of the silvery moon

3 09 2012

The seventh month in the Chinese calendar is a month that is held with much superstition in a predominantly Chinese Singapore. It is a month when, as beliefs would have it, the gates of hell are opened and it’s residents return to the earthly world. It is a time when the air fills with the smell of offerings being burned and when tents and stages appear in many open spaces all across Singapore to host dinners during which lively seventh month auctions are held during which entertainment (for both the returning spirits and the living), more often than not, in the form of Getai(歌台) – a live variety show, is often a noisy accompaniment.

Offerings are made to the spirit world when the gates of hell are opened during the seventh month.

Getai, popular as it is today, is however, a more recent addition as entertainment to accompany seventh month dinners. Before its introduction in the 1970s, it would have been more common to see Chinese opera performances and various forms of Chinese puppet shows at such events and during festive occasions at the various Taoist temples in Singapore.

Chinese opera was a common sight at seventh month festivities in the 1960s and 1970s.

The various forms of Chinese opera back in the 1960s and 1970s as I remember them, were always looked forward to with much anticipation by the young and old. My maternal grandmother, despite her not understanding a word of the Chinese dialects that were used in the performances was a big fan, bringing me along to the opera whenever it hit town. Travelling opera troupes were common then, moving from village to village setting up temporary wooden stages on which served not only as a performance stage but also as a place to spend the night. The travelling opera troupes brought with them a whole entourage of food and toy vendors with them and it was that more than the performances that I would look forward to whenever I was asked to accompany my grandmother to the wayangs as Chinese opera performances are often referred to in Singapore and in Malaysia.

A temporary opera stage set up during a Teochew Opera performance at the Singapore Flyer.

It was also common then to see more permanent structures that served as stages back then – they were a feature of many Chinese villages and were also found around temples. Perhaps the last permanent stage in Singapore is one that is not on the main island but one found in what must be the last bastion of ways forgotten that has stubbornly resisted the wave of urbanisation that has changed the landscape of the main island, Pulau Ubin, an island in the north-east of Singapore. Although many of the island’s original residents have moved to the mainland and many of their wooden homes and jetties that once decorated the island’s shoreline have been cleared, there is still a small reminder of how life might once have been on the island – a small community still exists, mainly to provide services to the curious visitors from the main island who come to get a taste of a Singapore that has largely been forgotten.

The permanent stage at Pulau Ubin – it was common to see such stages around temples and in Chinese villages up until the 1980s.

The permanent stage at Pulau Ubin is one that sits across a clearing from the village’s temple which is dedicated to the popular Taoist deity, Tua Pek Kong (大伯公). It is also one that is still used, playing host to Teochew Opera performances by the temple’s opera troupe twice a year – once during the Tua Pek Kong Festival and once during the seventh month festivities. I have long wanted to catch one of the performances in a setting that one can no longer find elsewhere in Singapore, but never found the time to do it – until the last weekend when I was able to find some time to take the boat over for the seventh month festivities which were held on Friday and Saturday evening.

The Tua Pek Kong Temple on Pulau Ubin.

The clearing in front of the temple at Pulau Ubin with the tent set up for the seventh month auction.

For me, it is always nice to take the slow but short boat ride to the island – something I often did in my youth, not just because Pulau Ubin offers a wonderful escape for the urban jungle, but also because it takes me back to a world that rural Singapore once had been. We do have a few places to run off to on the main island, but it is only on Pulau Ubin that one gets a feel that one is far removed from the cold concrete of the urban world in which I can return to the gentler times in which we once lived.

On the slow boat to Ubin.

Ubin in sight – all it takes is a short boat ride to find that a little reminder of a Singapore that has long been forgotten.

Pulau Ubin offers an escape from the maddening urban sprawl.

Although the festivities on the island are now a quieter and a less crowded affair than it might once have been here and in similar celebrations that once took place across the island, it is still nice to be able to witness a dying tradition held in a traditional setting that we would otherwise not be able to see in Singapore any more. While it still is difficult for me to understand and appreciate what was taking place on stage, especially with the amplified voice of the auctioneer booming over the shrill voices of the performers on stage, it was still a joy to watch the elaborately made-up and kitted-out performers go through their routines. It was also comforting to see that the members of the troupe included both the young and the old, signalling that there is hope that a fading tradition may yet survive.

The stage manager calling lines from the script out to the performers – a necessity as the troupe members are all doing this part-time.

The treat that comes with any wayang performance is that it brings with it the opportunity to go backstage. It is here where we get to see the performers painstaking preparations in first doing up their elaborate make-up and in dressing up in the costumes, as well as watch the musicians who provide the characteristic wind, string and percussion sounds that Chinese Opera wouldn’t be what it is without.

Going backstage is always a treat. A performer gets ready as a drummer adds his sounds to the opera in the background.

A performer preparing for the evening’s performance backstage.

The same performer doing her make-up.

Another putting a hair extension on.

The fifteen year old little drummer boy.

Performers also double up as musicians as the troupe is short of members.

I would have liked to have spent the whole night at the festivities, but as I was feeling quite worn out having only returned to Singapore early that morning on a late night flight, I decided to leave after about two hours at the wayang. The two hours and the hour prior to that on the island were ones that helped me not just to reconnect with a world I would otherwise have forgotten, but also to the many evenings I had spent as a child catching the cool breeze in my hair by the sea. Those are times the new world seems to want us to forget, times when the simple things in life mattered a lot more … There will be a time that I hope will never come when this world we find on Pulau Ubin will cease to exist. I will however take comfort in it as long as it is there … and as long as there are those who seek to keep traditions such as the Teochew opera we once in a while are able to see there, alive.

The light of the silvery moon seen on Pulau Ubin – the festivities are held during the full moon of the seventh month.

A section of the audience and participants in the seventh month dinner.


Close-ups of performers and scenes from the Teochew Opera:








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