Pilgrimage to an isle of legends

11 10 2018

The southern isles of Singapore are steeped in myths, legends and traditions. While most seem to lie buried in the sands that have expanded them, one that lives on is the pilgrimage to Pulau Tembakul – Kusu Island – that some accounts have as going back over two centuries to 1813.

Kusu during a pilgrimage season of the past – crossing the causeway at low tide. (photo: National Museum of Singapore on Facebook).

The annual event draws a steady stream of Taoist devotees. Although the numbers may have fallen from the highs of the 1960s and 1970s, thousands still make the short passage by sea every ninth month of the Chinese lunar calendar (which began on 9 October this year) to seek favour and blessings at the island’s holy sites. The sites are a temple dedicated to the popular Taoist deity Tua Pek Kong, and three keramat-keramat, which in this case are the supposed graves of (Muslim) holy persons who are venerated. This practice has its roots in Sufism and is discouraged by mainstream Islam and has over the years found a following amongst the Chinese.

A devotee making her way to Kusu in 1971 (source: The Aged In Singapore: Veneration Collides With The 20th Century, Nada Skerly Arnold, 1971).

Two of the island’s three keramat-keramat (found at the top of 152 steps).

Perhaps the most popular of the island’s legends is one tied very much to the name Kusu. The island, which in its pre-reclamation days actually resembled a tortoise at high tide; its head, the outcrop on which the temple was built, and its body, the mound to which the head was linked by a natural causeway at low tide at the top of which the keramat-keramat are found. This legend, which also provides a basis for the pilgrimage, has it that a tortoise (or more correctly a turtle) had rescued two fishermen from drowning by turning itself into the island.  There are several more legends that provide an explanation for the origins of the pilgrimage, the keramat-keramat and the personalities that they are associated with – all of which are unverified (see: Kusu Island – on Infopedia).

Another perspective of the island: The tortoise in the early light of day

An old postcard showing Kusu Island before reclamation.

The Tua Pek Kong temple on the ‘head’ of the tortoise (source: The Aged In Singapore: Veneration Collides With The 20th Century, Nada Skerly Arnold, 1971).

The head of the tortoise (photo: Steffen Röhner on Panoramio).

The temple and the expanded island today.


The pilgrimage season in photographs

More on the pilgrimage in modern times: Keeping alive Kusu Island pilgrimage (The Straits Times, 9 Nov 2017).






The full moon of the fourth month on Ubin

17 05 2016

For a few days around the full moon of the fourth month of the Chinese calendar, Pulau Ubin comes alive for a huge religious celebration held in honour of the popular Taoist deity Tua Pek Kong. The festival offers a glimpse into a Singapore that no longer exists and is a reminder of days when villages would have come alive in similar circumstances during feast days associated with their respective temple’s main deities.

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The schedule for this year’s festival is as follows:

Friday 20th May 2016 (4th Month, 14th Day)

10 am  Invite Tua Pek Kong
11 am  Beginning Ritual sts
3.30 pm  Taoist Ritual Part 1
7 pm  Taoist Ritual Part 2
7 pm  Sin Yong Yong Hwa Teochew Opera performnce
10 pm  Invite Jade Emperor

Saturday 21st May 2016 (4th Month, 15th Day)

10 am  Taoist Ritual
1 pm  Lion & Dragon Dance
2.30 pm  Distribution of Blessed Offering
3.30 pm  Sending off Jade Emperor
7 pm  Sin Sin Yong Hwa Teochew Opera
7.30 pm  Crossing the Ping An Bridge
8 pm  Wei Tio Temple’s Tua Ji Ya Pek visit

Sunday 22nd May 2016 (4th Month, 16th Day)

7 pm Sin Sin Yong Hwa Teochew Opera

Mon 23rd May 2016 (4th Month, 17th Day)

7 pm Sin Sin Yong Hwa Teochew Opera

Tuesday 24th May 2016 (4th Month, 18th Day)

7 pm Sin Sin Yong Hwa Teochew Opera

Wednesday 25th May 2016 (4th Month, 19th Day)

10 am Sin Sin Yong Hwa Teochew Opera Qing Chang (Singing only)
6.45 pm Getai
10.30 pm Sending Tua Pek Kong back

Free Ferry service

20th May 2016
Changi-Ubin 6.30pm-9pm
Ubin-Changi 8pm-10pm

21st May 2016
Changi-Ubin 6.30pm-9pm
Ubin-Changi 8pm-10.30pm

22nd to 24th May 2016
Changi-Ubin 6.30pm-9pm
Ubin-Changi 8pm-10pm

25th May 2016
Changi-Ubin 6.30pm-9pm
Ubin-Changi 6.30pm-10.30pm


More information can be found in the following posts:


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All aboard the RSS Endurance

12 02 2015

There is no better way of getting acquainted with some of what goes on on a naval ship than to have a first hand view of its operations. I got a chance to do just that on Monday, when at the invitation of the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN), I found myself out on the RSN’s largest vessel, the RSS Endurance for a voyage out to Raffles Reserved Anchorage for a look at her helicopter embarkation operations.

The RSS Endurance at berth at Changi Naval Base.

The RSS Endurance at berth at Changi Naval Base.

The helo-ops conducted to embark the Super Puma helicopter, was in anticipation of this weekend’s SAF50 @Vivo event. The event launches the Singapore Armed Forces’ (SAF) year-long celebration of 50 years of its formation and will see the first of class 140 metre long Landing Ship Tank (LST) berth at the Vivo City Promenade to allow the lucky members of the public (who managed to get their hands on the highly sought after tickets) with a rare opportunity to have a look at the most versatile asset in the RSN’s fleet.

A view of the breakwater at Changi Naval Base with a glimpse of southeastern Malaysia in the background.

A view of the breakwater at Changi Naval Base with a glimpse of southeastern Malaysia in the background.

I always enjoy a trip out at sea, something I have been doing a lot of of late. Going out on the RSS Endurance was an added bonus for me, not just for the chance to see and photograph the navy in operation,  but also because it was a homecoming of sorts for me as had some involvement in her design during my days in the shipyard in which she was built – the last time I was on board was during trials that were conducted on her.

A view over the bow of the RSS Endurance towards the vastness of the sea.

A view over the bow of the RSS Endurance towards the vastness of the sea.

Besides taking those on the voyage to some of the operational areas on board, the visit also allowed us to see one of the RSS Endurance’s most important rooms, especially in the context of the Singaporean who tends to live to eat more than to eat to live – the galley. The galley, we learnt provides not just sustenance, but the cooks who the crew are often on personal terms with, work even in the nastiest of weather to help keep the morale up in serving up meals that includes many local favourites. Things did get a bit steamy during the visit to the galley, and we were quickly ushered to the cold room to cool off before settling down to a delicious lunch of nasi lemak that the galley specially prepared for our visit.

Things got a bit steamy ....

Things got a bit steamy ….

... so we had to cool off in the cold room.

… so we had to cool off in the cold room.

Along with the opportunity to witness the helo ops (helicopter operations), one more thing we got to see was of the operations to embark the vessel’s Fast Craft Utility (FCU) into the floodable dock on the vessel’s well-deck. The ability to launch fast landing craft and deploy helicopters are among the amazing array of capabilities, the RSS Endurance and her sister ships are equipped with. While the LSTs are designed primarily to support troop and equipment deployment, the capabilities also extend the ships’ capabilities to supporting a range of peacetime missions from disaster relief, search and rescue, and protection of merchant shipping.

One of the key capabilities the RSS Endurance has is being able to deploy fast landing craft through a stern opening from her well deck.

One of the key capabilities the RSS Endurance has is being able to deploy fast landing craft, Fast Craft Utility or FCU, through a stern opening from her well deck.

A Super Puma taking off at the Raffles Reserved Anchorage. Pulau Senang can be seen in the background.

A Super Puma taking off at the Raffles Reserved Anchorage. Pulau Senang can be seen in the background.

Designed and built by ST Marine, the Endurance class of LSTs proved to be particularly useful during the post 2004 Boxing Day tsunami relief efforts in Aceh. The fast landing craft launched from the vessels could be used to maximum advantage in reaching coastal locations that had been cut off in the wake of the disaster.

The city's skyline as seen from the Singapore Strait.

Enroute to Raffles Reserved Anchorage – the city’s skyline as seen from the Singapore Strait.

For those who missed the chance to win tickets to view this valuable asset in RSN’s fleet  through the online ballot, all is not lost. There would still be a chance to obtain tickets through a on-site draw. Balloting times slots for these are at 3 pm to 6 pm on Thursday and Friday; 9 am to 11 am, 12.30 pm to 2.30 pm, 4 pm to 6 pm on Saturday; and 9 am to 12 pm and 3 pm to 6 pm on Sunday. The winners of the ballot have the opportunity to have a glance at the Bridge, Flight Deck on which a Super Puma is tied down, and the steamy Galley. There is also the chance to ride the waves on one of the RSN’s Fast Craft Utility landing craft.

Smaller fast landing craft for personnel (FCEP - Fast Craft Equipment and Personnel) can be deployed over the shipside.

Smaller fast landing craft for personnel (FCEP – Fast Craft Equipment and Personnel) can be deployed over the shipside.

The cluster of islands at which Raffles first made contact with Singapore, with the Singapore he helped create in the background. St. John's Island is on the left with Lazarus Island and Kusu next to it.

Enroute to Raffles Reserved Anchorage – a view of the cluster of islands at which Raffles first made contact with Singapore, with the Singapore he helped create in the background. St. John’s Island is on the left with Lazarus Island and Kusu next to it.

The SAF50@Vivo event runs from 12 to 15 February 2015.  Besides the RSS Endurance, the capabilities of the other SAF’s services are also on display. Highlights of the event include a SAF50 launch and Total Defence Commemoration on 12 February at 5pm and a Weapons Presentation Ceremony on 15 February at 6pm, which members of the public can view from the Vivo City Level 3 Viewing Gallery. There are also a host of activities and daily performances. More information on the event and SAF50 can be found at www.saf50years.sg.

The helideck has two landing spots. A Super Puma embarked for the SAF50 @ Vivo event is seen here.

The helideck has two landing spots. A Super Puma embarked for the SAF50 @ Vivo event is seen here.

A FCU being manoeuvred for entry into the well deck.

A FCU being manoeuvred for entry into the well deck at Raffles Reserved Anchorage.


More photographs

Helo Ops

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Well Deck Ops

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The Galley

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The Bridge

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Sand and a sargassum sea

29 01 2015

The landscape of our southern seas, once of tiny islands, reefs and sandbars within which sea nomads and pirates took refuge, is one that has drastically been altered. Totems of the new-age now mark the landscape, particularly in the southwest, a landscape that in a matter of time would only be one of the sea’s lost innocence.

The totems of the new age seen on Pulau Ular, from Beting Pempang, with the silhouettes of trees on Pulau Hantu in the foreground. Pulau Ular is an island that is now part of a larger landmass that has it joined it to Pulau Busing to its west and Pulau Bukom Kechil to its east.

The totems of the new age seen on Pulau Ular, from Beting Pempang, with the silhouettes of trees on Pulau Hantu in the foreground. Pulau Ular is an island that is now part of a larger landmass that has it joined it to Pulau Busing to its west and Pulau Bukom Kechil to its east.

Thankfully, not all innocence has been lost and in the shadows of the grey emblems of our industrial advance, we still find some of the joys of our shallow seas, joys that perhaps offer us some hope.

Navigation chart showing locations of patch reefs and sandbars south of the Bukom cluster.

Navigation chart showing locations of patch reefs and sandbars south of the Bukom cluster.

The seascape in the area of the Bukom group of islands and Pulau Hantu, is one we do still find joy in. It is where a cluster of submerged reef and sandbars, in being exposed during the lowest of tides, reveal a world now hard to imagine, rich in life we might never have thought could be there. The reefs also offer us a glimpse at a landscape that is perhaps as alien in appearance as it is bizarre – especially in juxtaposing it against a backdrop painted by the fast encroaching industrial world.

A sea of sargassum. The view across Terumbu Hantu towards Pulau Busing, which is now part of a larger land mass that joins Busing to Pulau Ular and Pulau Bukom Kechil..

A sea of sargassum. The view across Terumbu Hantu towards Pulau Busing.

One particularly outlandish sight is that of a yellowish green sea, under which one of the submerged reefs, Terumbu Hantu, just west of the island of Pulau Hantu. While it probably cannot be described as a pretty sight, especially with the high chance of stepping on a venomous creature such as a stone fish when treading through what is a seasonal sea of sargassum, it does have a hard to describe appeal that does has one stopping to admire it.

A sea of sand ... the view across a sandbar, Beting Pempang, towards a Pulau Busing and Pulau Ular now dominated by a huge petrochemical complex.

A sea of sand … the view across a sandbar, Beting Pempang, towards a Pulau Busing and Pulau Ular.

Another view across Beting Pempang.

Another view across Beting Pempang.

Green green grass of the sea.

Green green grass of the sea.

Across from the yellow-green sea, a sandbar, Beting Pempang, proved a little more inviting. The views across it, while nothing as strange as the sargassum sea, did not disappoint. Without the cover its eastern neighbour had, it offered an opportunity to find more joy in, joy in the form of the amazing lifeforms many of us who cut ourselves off from the sea, would never imagine could exist.

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A flat worm.

A flat worm.

A spider conch.

A spider conch.

A brittle star.

A brittle star.

A swimming file clam.

A swimming file clam.

An eel.

An eel.

In a Singapore that has little sentiment for such little joys, the future does not seem bright for the reefs in this cluster. The 2013 Land Use Plan identifies it as an area in which offshore reclamation is possible in a future when we may need ourselves to spill into the sea to gain breathing space, buried under land that will extend the shores of the Bukom group southward and westward – not a pretty thought. As long as its still is there however, there can be hope.

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

Possible future reclamation identified by the 2013 Land Use Plan sees a bleak future for the reefs south of Bukom.

The sky at twilight from Beting Pempang, coloured by the advancing petrochemical plants that now dominate much of the southwestern shores.

The sky at twilight from Beting Pempang, coloured by the advancing petrochemical plants that now dominate much of the southwestern shores.

More at Ria Tan’s Wild Shores of Singapore: Terumbu Hantu and Terumbu Pempang Kechil.

 





The fast fading ghosts of Ghost Island

12 09 2014

The search for the ghosts of times forgotten takes me to some fascinating places. One place I found myself in recently was an island whose name hints of quite a haunted past, Pulau Hantu – Malay for Ghost Island. Long held with much superstition, why the island, which has remained uninhabited in recent memory, possesses its rather sinister sounding name seems to have been lost on many.

Dawn over an island abandoned by its ghosts.

Dawn over an island abandoned by its ghosts.

One theory about how it got its name is that much of the island (when seen at low tide) seems to vanish like a ghost in the night with the rising tide, leaving no more than two coconut tree lined sandbars above the water. While that is quite plausible, it lacks the mystery and forbidding that many would think is more deserving of the title.

Less than ghostly apparitions ...

Less than ghostly apparitions … across the channel at Pulau Ular

A 1939 newspaper article written about stories and superstitions of old Malaya does provide a more disquieting take on the origins of the island’s name, attributing it to Pulau Hantu’s haunting by spirits of the dead connect to a “long forgotten story of death and cruelty”, revealing some of the superstition with which the island was held by the people of the coast:

Pulau Hantu, though planted with coconuts, has no one living on it. There is no water to be got there by digging, but that is not the reason for no one desiring to live there.  In the centre of the place are to be found many graves, and there is some long-forgotten story of death and cruelty which makes the place haunted by the spirits of these unfortunate people, so that it is but seldom visited by the Malays, and then only to collect ripe coconuts, which are the property of a man on the next island, to which one can wade at very low tides.

(More Stories And Superstitions Of Old Malaya: Tales related by an old Malay to “Yahya”, The Straits Times, 9 April 1939)

An are of mangroves on the northern shore of Pulau Hantu Besar.

An are of mangroves on the northern shore of Pulau Hantu Besar.

The island, or as it is more commonly taken to be today, two islands, Pulau Hantu Besar and Pulau Hantu Kechil, has since expanded in size. Additional land mass through reclamation work in the 1970s, enlarged its total area by some 12 times. While there may have been a reluctance to visit it amongst the people of the sea, it has actually long been known as a spot for recreation, and its sandy beaches and rich coral reefs have attracted many picnic goers and campers as well as divers as far back as the early twentieth century. Sentosa Development Corporation (SDC), under whose charge the two islands have come under since the mid 1970s, continues to keep the islands open for recreational activities.

The view across the lagoon between the two parts to Pulau Hantu towards Pulau Ular.

The view across the lagoon between the two parts to Pulau Hantu towards Pulau Ular.

It is perhaps in keeping with the SDC sanctioned version of the tale behind the islands’ names that sees the two parts to the island being considered as two individuals islets. This version has as much to to with the spirits dwelling on the islands as with the tale told by the old Malay in 1939, as it has with jinns and sea spirits, fitting quite nicely into the collection of stories once told of our seemingly turbulent seas.

Smoking guns at Pulau Ular.

Another view by night across the lagoon – towards the smoking guns across at Pulau Ular.

I am reminded of this coming ashore on Pulau Hantu Besar. This version of the tale is what all visitors are confronted with at the inshore end of the jetties on both islands, told from a prominently placed signboard marked with these words:

There were once two great warriors locked in a fierce battle at sea. Many people died and the blue seas slowly became polluted with human blood, upsetting the Jinns at the bottom of the ocean. In anger, one powerful Jinn created a whirlpool and sucked the two warriors deep into the sea to drown them. Undeterred, they continued their battle.

Suddenly, the Jinn sprayed water onto one of them. The other warrior, seeing his opponent blinded, thrust his sword into his abdomen. At the same time, the wounded warrior forced his sword into the other man. Both collapsed and died.

The gods felt it was wrong for the seas’ spirits to interfere in human affairs, so the Jinn transformed the two warriors into islets so that their spirits could live on. As one of the warriors was smaller than the other, his islet was known as Pulau Hantu Kecil, while the larger one was named Pulau Hantu Besar.

Wandering around the shores of Pulau Hantu Besar, just a few hours past the witching hour, I am confronted not by jinns, sea spirits or ghosts but by the glare of the gods of the new age. It is from the angry stare of smoking chimneys and lighted towers of steel that now rise to the island’s north that the jinns and sea spirits have retreated, leaving only footprints fading in the sand. With no more shadows left to hide in, it is in the echoes that we find the the ghosts of Pulau Hantu, echoes in which I can only hear, the evanescing whispers of words that will soon lose their meaning.

The angry glare of the gods of the new age.

The angry glare of the gods of the new age.


The islands of many ghosts:

Singapore’s islands, rich in the legends of a time we have been made to forget, have many fascinating tales to tell; hints of which are found in the names of many of the islands. The islands were once an integral part of a larger maritime based society that spanned across the Riau archipelago that through the enforcement of national boundaries, resettlement, reclamation and development, have broken their links to a centuries old past.

Among the tales that have survived the self-inflicted amnesia is that of the junk that was turned into the island of Pulau Jong, Junk Island, although it may not be for very much longer. The course that has been set for the junk, based on the 2013 Land Use Plan,  will set it on collision course with a larger land mass that will have it aground by the year 2030.

Several islands, having been renamed, have also lost their ghosts. One that comes to mind is the former Pulau Penyabong (now Pulau Tekukor), where warriors were said to have dueled to the death. That tale also features Tekukor’s northern companion, the former Pulau Blakang Mati, which in being re-branded as Sentosa – the isle of Peace and Tranquility, has been cleansed of what is possibly a gory past.

The islands that are the subject of this post, Pulau Hantu, were, interestingly not alone in being so named. The other Pulau Hantu, is to be found in Keppel Harbour (see post: A Sunrise from Ghost Island) and having had its ghost exorcised in 1983 after Keppel Shipyard gained possession of it, is now called Keppel Island. Keppel shipyard has since moved away from the area and the island is now where the Marina @ Keppel Bay is located.

The Pulau Hantu, or I should say Pulau-pulau Hantu, I found myself looking for ghosts on, are located in the south-west, just south of a more recently created island that has fused the previously individual islands of Pulau Bukom Kechil, Pulau Ular, and Pulau Busing – on which a petrochemical complex is being developed, together.

Apart from the hantu found in their names, there is little that is now ghostly about the islands. A popular dive spot, the islands are also where campers and fishermen, seeking an escape from the urban world, can head to. While the surreal glow from the monster of a petrochemical complex on Pulau Ular brightening up the northern shores of the two islands may not be what a camper seeking an escape might appreciate, the islands are probably as far out from urban Singapore one could practically run off to, while still remaining in Singapore.

More information on Pulau Hantu (Besar and Kechil), as well as the rich array of marine life found in its reefs can be found at the following links:

Sisters’ Islands and Pulau Hantu (Sentosa Leisure Management)

The Hantu Bloggers

A special National Day at Pulau Hantu! (Wildshores of Singapore)

Lionfish on Lion City’s birthday at Pulau Hantu!

Sea the hidden depths of Singapore (Asia One)

The view across the inter-tidal mud flat towards what would once have been Pulau Busing.

The view across the inter-tidal mud flat towards what would once have been Pulau Busing.

A different ghost in the night.

A different ghost in the night.


 





Strange Horizons: Past, present and the probable future

14 08 2014

One of the last untouched islands of Singapore, Pulau Jong, is seen with the first to be developed for industrial use, Pulau Bukom Besar (on the right), and its smaller neighbour Pulau Bukom Kechil – a juxtaposition perhaps of past, present, and perhaps the probable future.

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Pulau Bukom Besar’s development goes back to the 1890s when Shell established a kerosene storage facility on the island, then deemed a safe distance away from the main island of Singapore, outside the then port limits. The age of industrialisation in Singapore brought with it the refinery that Shell built – which heralded the start of Singapore involvement with the oil refining business, in 1961. The expansion into Pulau Bukom Kechil began in the 1970s. More on this can be found on a previous post: Snake Island at dawn through the darkness of the storm.

Sadly for Pulau Jong and its large fringing reef, a 2013 Land Use Plan seems to show that future plans could involve its absorption into a larger land mass through reclamation, joining it with the islands of Pulau Sebarok to its southeast and the enlarged Pulau Semakau (now Singapore’s offshore landfill) to its southwest.





The bloodstained cliffs south of Sentosa

7 08 2014

Unlike its better known northern companion, the isle of Peace and Tranquility, Sentosa, the island of Pulau Tekukor is one that rarely gets a mention. Named in Malay after the rather benign spotted-neck dove – tekukur (as it is spelt today) is derived from the sound the bird makes, the name, so it seems, masks quite a sinister past.

A tekukur in flight.

A tekukur in flight.

Pulau Tekukor or Dove Island - hear stories of its past when it was known as Pulau Penyabong and its association with the origins of the former name of Sentosa, Pulau Blakang Mati.

Pulau Tekukor or Dove Island.

If one of the forgotten stories of our shores are to be believed, a curse was said to have been placed on Pulau Tekukor and despite the island’s welcoming sandy beaches, the island is one that unlike its immediate neighbours, has never been inhabited. The curse, one that left its soil incapable of supporting any useful plant life as well as leaving it without a source of freshwater, as the story goes, is a result of the island’s violent past, a past that does provide a possible explanation as to how the nearby island of Sentosa acquired its mysterious previous name,  Pulau Blakang Mati (the island of death at the back).

The eastern end of Sentosa today with Terumbu Buran in the foreground.

The paradise end of Sentosa today with Terumbu Buran in the foreground, now an isle for the living.

Pulau Tekukor was once itself, known by another name, Pulau Penyabong. Penyabung (as penyabong is spelt today), as is used in more recent times, has connotations of bloody confrontations, having been associated with the cruel but once popular sport of cockfighting. The fights, however, that were thought to have taken place on the island, so that blood not stain the soils of the more sacredly held islands, involved creatures not of the feathered kind. Pitting keris wielding Malay and Bugis warriors of the old world, these confrontations were duels to the death, for which the reward for the vanquished, was a final journey to be buried on an island that now for some, does seem like paradise on earth.

Another view of Tekukor a.k.a. Penyabong, Sisters' Islands can be seen to its south-west. The channel on the west of the island, Sisters Fairway is also known as Selat Tanjong Hakim.

Another view of Tekukor a.k.a. Penyabong, Sisters’ Islands can be seen to its south-west. The channel on the west of the island, Sisters Fairway is also known as Selat Tanjong Hakim.

Besides the curiously named Pulau Blakang Mati, another name that is thought to be linked to the bloody battles, is Selat Tanjong Hakim (now more commonly referred to Sisters’ Fairway in navigation charts). Hakim being the Malay word for judge – the selat or strait west of Penyabong, would have watched over the duels, in the same way a judge might have presided over the fights.

Another view of the former Pulau Blakang Mati.

Another view of the former Pulau Blakang Mati.

As Pulau Tekukor, the island became a commercial explosives storage facility for the Port of Singapore Authority (PSA) in the 1980s- after the island was enlarged by reclamation of its western shores. There was also a proposal to turn it into a sanctuary for long-tailed macaques that surfaced in the mid 2000s that did not take off and as of today, there are no known plans for the island and the island remains as mysterious as it long has been.

The sandy beaches and 'bloodstained' cliff faces of Tekukor.

The sandy beaches and ‘bloodstained’ cliff faces of Tekukor.

In its cliff faces that are still seen today – stained by the blood of the fallen, there perhaps is the only reminder of the story of the island; a tale that, as with the many stories from our islands handed down through the generations telling us of a past we long have discarded, may never again be told.





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.






A return to our islands in the sun

27 06 2014

Balik Pulau: Stories from Singapore’s Islands, as the name of the exhibition currently on at the National Museum of Singapore does suggest, takes us back to the islands of Singapore. Many of more than 70 island had once been inhabited – with communities that numbered from the hundreds to the thousands who were moved to the main island as part of redevelopment efforts. These communities were not just a well forgotten part of Singapore’s history, but also of the culture and history of a wider society that existed well before the coming of the British that was spread across the Riau Archipelago.

Lazarus and St. John's Islands (Pulau Sekijang Pelepah and Pulau Sekijang Bendara), two islands, now joined by a causeway that were once inhabited.

Lazarus and St. John’s Islands (Pulau Sekijang Pelepah and Pulau Sekijang Bendara), two islands, now joined by a causeway that were once inhabited.

An old postcard showing Kusu Island before reclamation.

An old postcard showing Kusu Island before reclamation.

The exhibition, curated by Marcus Ng and Yu-Mei Balasingamchow, revisits life as it was and now hard to imagine on several of the inhabited islands through a mix of artefacts of island life, archival images, and most interestingly, the experience of island life told through video interviews with some of the islands’ former inhabitants. One interview that I did find particularly interesting was that of a former resident of Pulau Seking (or Sakeng) – the last of the southern islands to be inhabited with its residents having been resettled as recently as 1994, the very emotional Mr Teo Yan Teck. The interview see Mr Teo, who have lived on the island for close to four decades, talk about how he came to settle on the island, the emotions he felt when told he had to leave and also of the burning of boats by the islanders before they were to leave the island and a way of life they were used to, for good.

A highlight of Balik Pulau is the video interviews with some of the islands' former residents.

A highlight of Balik Pulau is the video interviews with some of the islands’ former residents.

A kolek sauh from Pulau Seraya at the exhibition - boats were an integral part of island life and featured in races the islands played host to.

A kolek sauh from Pulau Seraya at the exhibition – boats were an integral part of island life and featured in races the islands played host to.

Mr Teo, when asked about how he felt about leaving the island.

Mr Teo, when asked about how he felt about leaving the island.

The fascinating exhibition, which runs until 10 August 2014, will also play an important part as a hub one of the focal points for the upcoming Singapore Heritage Festival (SHS). Now in its 11th edition, the SHS, the theme of which this year will be Our Islands, Our Home, will run from 18 to 27 July 2014 and sees over 60 programmes available for the participation of the public, put up with the help of 40 community groups, individuals and partners with the aim of drawing Singaporeans to connect with their shared history and heritage.

The festival offers an opportunity to explore some of the southern islands through excursions.

The festival this year offers an opportunity to explore some of the southern islands through excursions.

A sandy beach at Pulau Seringat - an enlarged island which incorporates the former reef island of Pulau Renggit.

A sandy beach at Pulau Seringat – an enlarged island which incorporates the former reef island of Pulau Renggit.

The sisters.

The sisters.

St. John's Island.

St. John’s Island.

Pulau Tekukor or Dove Island - hear stories of its past when it was known as Pulau Penyabong and its association with the origins of the former name of Sentosa, Pulau Blakang Mati.

Pulau Tekukor or Dove Island – hear stories of its past when it was known as Pulau Penyabong and its association with the origins of the former name of Sentosa, Pulau Blakang Mati.

Kusu Island today.

An enlarged Kusu Island today.

The highlight of this year’s SHS has to be without a doubt the opportunity it provides to reconnect with the islands, not just through the exhibition and through a series of talks that are being lined up, but also through an immersive experience that guided excursions to the islands will certainly provide. The excursions will include visits to St. John’s, Lazarus and Seringat Islands; a rare opportunity to visit one of Singapore’s lighthouses (Raffles Lighthouse) and have a look from the boat at another (Sultan Shoal); and a night of Nanyin at Kusu Island.  Space for the excursions will be limited and sign-ups will be possible from 1 July 2014 at www.heritagefest.sg. More information on the SHS is also available at www.heritagefest.sg and information on the exhibition at http://www.nationalmuseum.sg/.

The Tua Pek Kong temple on Kusu Island, the site of an annual pilgrimage.

The Tua Pek Kong temple on Kusu Island, the site of an annual pilgrimage.

The temple also sees Nanyin performances by the Siong Leng Musical Association during the ninth lunar month and will by special arrangement host a night of nanyin that sees young musicians performing an traditional music form.

The temple also sees Nanyin performances by the Siong Leng Musical Association during the ninth lunar month and will by special arrangement host a night of nanyin that sees young musicians performing an traditional music form.

Another look at the Tua Pek Kong Temple.

Another look at the Tua Pek Kong Temple.

Besides the temple, the Keramats, graves of Malay saints that are venerated, are also visited by devotees.

Besides the temple, the Keramats, graves of Malay saints that are venerated, are also visited by devotees.

Another look at two of the keramats.

Another look at two of the keramats.

 





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.

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.





A window into a Singapore we have discarded

6 05 2014

Update, 3 December 2016:

The house featured, Teck Seng’s Place, will be open on the 2nd and 4th weekend of the month and public holidays, from 10.00am – 2.00pm from. The house is also one of the highlights in NParks’ Kampung Tour, which is held on every third Saturday of the month. The house together with the Ubin Fruit Orchard will also feature in NParks’ new Rustic Reflections Tour, which will commence next year on every third Saturday of the month. More information on the tours can be found at https://www.nparks.gov.sg/ubin.


It may well be on the island from which the early building blocks of modern Singapore was obtained that we will find the last reminders of a way of life the new world it built has rendered irrelevant. The island, Pulau Ubin or the granite island, is the last to support the remnants of a once ubiquitous village community, a feature not only of the island but also much of a rural Singapore we no longer see.

A window into a forgotten way of life.

A window into a forgotten way of life.

While in all probability, the days for what’s left of the island’s village communities are numbered; there remains only a handful of villagers who now number in their tens rather than in the low thousands at its height and who hold stubbornly on to a way of life that will have little appeal to the generations that will follow; there at least in a well preserved village house, House 363B, that little reminder of a time and place that does now seem all too far away.

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House 363B is typical of a Chinese village dwelling, with a zinc roof, and a cemented base supporting half cemented and half wooded walls. Outside it, rubber sheet rollers tell us of days when much of the rural landscape had been dominated by rubber trees. On the inside, there is a collection of once familiar household items. These include a food safe – complete with receptacles placed under its four legs to keep insects out (a necessity in homes in the pre-refrigerator era), classic furniture, foot-pedal sewing machines, dachings and other implements of that forgotten age. It is in the house where life as it might have been, sans life itself, is being showcased, providing the generations of the future with a glimpse of how we did once live.

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The house is perhaps symbolic of what we in Singapore hope for Ubin, not just an ready made escape from the brave new world we have embraced just a short boat ride away, but in its wild, undisturbed, and unmanicured state, a world where we can relive a life we have discarded.

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Ubin does of course offer potentially more than that. The authorities do seem to be committed to not only keeping it in its rustic state for our future generations, but are also taking efforts to regenerate and protect its natural environment. This along with the noises being heard on an interest to keep what is left of the island’s heritage, the efforts taken in developing environmentally friendly solutions in the provision of electrical power for the island, and the attempts to engage Singaporeans on what they would like to see of Ubin (see also Enhancing Pulau Ubin’s heritage and rustic charm), does give us hope that Ubin will not become another part of a forgotten Singapore that will be lost.

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On the subject of Pulau Ubin, the Tua Pek Kong Temple on Pulau Ubin (Pulau Ubin Fo Shan Ting Da Bo Gong Temple or 乌敏岛佛山亭大伯公庙), hosts an annual festival in honour of the deity over 6 days this year from 12 to 17 May 2014. It is well worth a visit there to soak up an atmosphere of a traditional religious celebration in a setting that is only available on the island.

The highlights of the celebration, besides the religious ceremonies, include Teochew Opera performances on each of the first five evenings (12 to 16 May) at 7pm and one in the morning of the last day at 10 am, as well as a Getai performance on the last evening that does draw a huge crowd. Free boat rides to Ubin will also be offered during the festival evenings from 6.30 pm (to Ubin) and up to 10 pm (from Ubin). More information on this year’s festival can be found at this site.

More information on previous Getai and Teochew Opera performances on Pulau Ubin can be found at the following posts:


About house 363B, Teck Seng’s Place (information from NParks)

Overlooking the Sensory Trail ponds, House 363B has been refurbished and conserved as a model of a Chinese kampung house. Built in the 1970s, the house was owned by Mr Chew Teck Seng who used to operate a provision shop in the village centre known as ‘Teck Seng Provision Shop’. When Mr Chew’s family resettled to mainland Singapore mainland in 2005, the house was returned to the state.

Renamed ‘Teck Seng’s Place’, the house offers visitors a nostalgic trip back in time to life on Pulau Ubin during the 1970s. The interpretive signs and memorabilia, like retro furniture and old photographs, centre around the fictional narrative of the Tan family, highlighting key milestones such as the grandfather’s first voyage to Pulau Ubin from China, the family’s struggles to eke out a sustainable living, as well as the growth of the family.

The house will be open on the 2nd and 4th weekend of the month and public holidays, from 10.00am – 2.00pm. Teck Seng’s Place is currently one of the highlights in NParks’ Kampung Tour, held on every third Saturday of the month. Ubin Fruit Orchard and Teck Seng’s Place will also be highlights in NParks’ new Rustic Reflections Tour, which will commence next year on every third Saturday of the month. Members of the public can visit NParks’ website (https://www.nparks.gov.sg/ubin) for updates and more information on how to register for these guided tours.






Singapore Landscapes: the tortoise in the early light of day

5 05 2014

It was in the soft light of a storm washed morning on the first of May that I found myself taking in the quiet beauty of less visited part of Singapore, an island, Kusu Island, just 15 minutes away by boat from mainland Singapore. The island is one I have not set eyes on since the days of my youth, the last I did see of it would have been some three decades ago, when reclamation had already expanded it.

Low tide in the swimming lagoon.

Low tide in the northern swimming lagoon.

The island has been one that has been the subject of many tales from the past. Taking on the shape of a tortoise or turtle when the tide came in – it had been a pair of rocky outcrops set on a reef that were separated at high tide, with the smaller of the two outcrops resembling a head, and the larger mound, the body; legend does have it as having been a turtle that turned into an island in the act of rescuing shipwrecked sailors from the sea.

The swimming lagoon at low tide in the light of dawn.

The swimming lagoon at low tide in the light of dawn.

The incoming storm - the approaching Sumatra.

The incoming storm – the approaching Sumatra.

The legend is one connected with a annual pilgrimage that the island hosts during the ninth month of the Chinese lunar calendar when the sleepy island sees hundreds of thousands of Taoist devotees from the mainland who visit to pay homage at the island’s Tua Peh Kong temple (set on the smaller outcrop) and also the island’s three keramats (on the mound). The tradition is thought to go back to the days before Raffles arrived (see: “Before the Days of Raffles” – article on The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884-1942), 19 October 1932, Page 7) and draws some 100,000 to 200,000 visitors over the pilgrimage month.

A postcard of Kusu Island at low tide, showing the smaller rocky outcrop on which the Tua Peh Kong Temple is, from the larger side (posted by Yun Xin on the Facebook Group 'On a little street in Singapore').

A postcard of Kusu Island at low tide, showing the smaller rocky outcrop on which the Tua Peh Kong Temple is, from the larger side (posted by Yun Xin on the Facebook Group ‘On a little street in Singapore’).

A view of the temple with Lazarus Island across the channel.

A view of the temple seen today with Lazarus Island across the channel.

The sight of Kusu during the pilgrimage must certainly be an amazing one – especially in days before the reclamation of the early 1970s provided more room for the mass of visitors – the reclamation saw some 270,000 cubic metres of sand filled into the sea and provided Kusu with an additional 7.3 ha. of land area (on top of the original 1.2 ha.) with swimming (two lagoons) and picnicking facilities added.

Conservationists at work.

Conservationists at work.

That sight was, however, not the same one that I did get of Kusu in the early light. I had gone over with a group of Marine Conservationists, who were kind enough to allow Juria and me (we are both attempting to document memories of the coastline and the islands as part of a IrememberSG project, Points of Departure) to tag along. The timing of the journey, which had us embarking a boat at Marina South Pier at 5 in the morning, had been timed to bring the group led by Ria Tan (many will be familiar with her Wild Shores of Singapore site) to the island at low tide. As I was experimenting with capturing sounds of the shoreline after the brief Sumatra squall had passed, the group was threading through the flats and reefs exposed by the shallow water of the western lagoon and beyond the rock bund to document marine life in and around what is a regenerated reef that I never realised was there. You can see what the group did manage to find on Ria’s post “How is Kusu Island doing?“.

Another view of the western lagoon at dawn.

Another view of the northern lagoon at dawn.

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Sitting on the bund, I did, for a brief moment, find myself transported faraway in time, to a Singapore I once was familiar with. It didn’t take long however, before the sounds of the sea were punctured by the drone of jets flying above and I noticed the illuminated wheel and adjacent to it the unmistakable paraphernalia of the modern city looming on the horizon. It was then that I heard the chatter of my companions for the morning, busy at work, bringing me back to where I was in time and space.

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I have for long, longed to be transported to a childhood sea. And while I do know that sea is one I will never again see, I do at least have moments such as these to look forward to and be thankful for; moments, that in a world I can not longer feel for, is able to bring a sense of peace that might otherwise elude me.

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Information on Kusu Island, including newspaper articles with illustrations of what it did once look like can be found in the following links:

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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:





Paradise found in a paradise lost

7 08 2012

Very early on a Saturday morning, I found myself boarding a boat headed for Singapore’s offshore landfill at Pulau Semakau. Established in the sea space that once separated two of Singapore’s once inhabited southern islands, Pulau Sakeng (or Seking as it was also known as) and (the original) Pulau Semakau, and contained by a 7 kilometre bund, the landfill has seen the creation of an enlarged single island which has kept the name of the larger of the two islands, Pulau Semakau.

The enlarged Pulau Semakau has been created from a landfill between two existing islands the original Pulau Semakau (to the west) and the smaller Pulau Sakeng (to the east) that is contained by a 7 km perimeter bund.


(Memories of Pulau Seking (Sakeng) posted on youtube by a former resident)

The original Southern Islands of Singapore – Pulau Seking (Sakeng) can be seen south of Pulau Bukom. The larger island to the west of Pulau Seking was the original Pulau Semakau to which it is now attached .

What had motivated me to catch a taxi at 4.15 in the morning just to get on the boat wasn’t so much a fascination for what Singapore does with its waste, but a intertidal walk on, what may surprise some, an expansive tidal flat on what is left of a natural shoreline that has long been known to be rich in marine biodiversity – that despite the extensive disturbance of the natural environment caused by what has gone on around the island. The large tidal flat is one of the few that’s also left in a Singapore that has been robbed of much of its natural shorelines by the extensive land reclamation work that has been carried out both on its mainland and offshore and offers an experience that is well worth waking up at 3.45 am for.

Part of the natural shoreline of the original Pulau Semakau which has an expansive tidal flat still exists in the north-western corner of the enlarged island, home to an offshore landfill.

The journey to Pulau Semakau began with a boat ride at 5.15 am.

A very comfortable hour’s boat ride from Marina South Pier was all it took to get to the island. The ride in the darkness before daybreak offered none of the excitement that had accompanied my first journeys to the southern islands, but the ride was certainly by a very similar sense of anticipation. The point of landing on Pulau Semakau was the area which once had been Pulau Sakeng, the last to be vacated of the two islands in the early 1990s and cleared of its stilted wooden dwellings that extended out from its shoreline, bears no resemblance at all to an island that for its inhabitants would have seemed like a little piece of paradise compared to the all too crowded mainland they now find themselves in.

… which arrived at about 6.20 am at what once was Pulau Sakeng (now part of the enlarged Pulau Semakau).

What was meant to have been a half an hour’s walk to the north-west corner of the enlarged island and where what is left of the tidal flats which had once surrounded the original Pulau Semakau is still left relatively untouched, turned into one that took a little more than an hour with the distraction caused by the colours of the fast lightening sky behind us. From the wide roadway built on top of the northern bund we had walked along, we trudged through a small mosquito infested forested area to get to the tidal flats, which by the time we got there, lay exposed by the tide which had already ebbed, with a few bakau mangrove trees to greet us and perhaps remind us of the coastal vegetation which would have once encircled the island, and is thought to give the island its name.

The walk into the darkness towards the western end of Pulau Semakau.

The colours of the sunrise served to lengthen what would have been a half an hour’s walk along the bund.

The view towards Pulau Jong.

Tidal flats have for me always served as wonderful places for discovery and walks I am now able to take on such flats always bring to mind the wonderful excursions of the sea grass fields off Changi Beach of my childhood, during a time when the sandy seabed there was littered with an abundance of knobbly sea stars, sea cucumbers, and crabs darting across and burrowing into the sand. Those were times when armed with a butterfly net, we would fill a small plastic pail with harvest of edible marine snails (gong-gong), shrimps and flower crabs which we could put on a grill.

A forested area separates the natural shoreline at the western end from the paved road constructed on the bund.

The sun rises over the flat.

Evidence of a concrete jetty that was once used by the island’s inhabitants seen in the mangroves.

A lone mangrove on the tidal flat.

Mangrove regeneration … besides the naturally occurring regeneration of mangroves, mangroves have been replanted along the areas of the coastline disturbed by the work that has gone on.

A group of photographers walking across the tidal flat.

Another view of the tidal flat looking towards Pulau Bukom.

A field of sea grass.

The tide starting to flow in – a view towards the edge of the tidal flat.

A sense of the space on the flat.

Right at the beginning of the walk on the tidal flat, our guide, Ron, made a very interesting discovery – a red nudibranch (sea-slug) that he had not previously spotted on the flats in the many other occasions he has visited it. There was a lot more that the flat was to reveal over the very interesting two-hour walk including three varieties of sea cucumber, two other very pretty looking nudibranchs, moon snails, anemones, flat worms, a giant clam, knobbly sea stars and even a very shy octopus that dove for cover as soon as it was spotted – best seen through the photographs that follow …

A red nudibranch not seen on the flats before.

A very pretty nudibranch – the Gymnodoris rubropapulosa.

A third nudibranch – Jorunna funebris (Funeral Nudibranch).

A flat worm.

And one in its natural environment.

Close-up of a maze coral.

Knobbly sea stars.

A tube anemone.

Another anemone.

Sea cucumber.

Zoanthids.

Moon snail.

The intertidal walk that I participated in is one of several ways in which Pulau Semakau can be visited, and was one that was run by licensed tour guide Robert Heigermoser. Other ways in which the island can be visited are on activities organised by interest groups such as the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research, the Nature Society Singapore, The Astronomical Society of Singapore (TASOS), and the Sports Fishing Association (Singapore) that needs the blessing of the National Environment Agency (NEA). Guided tours and walks would often include a landfill tour. The tour which is interesting in that it introduces various aspects of the landfill including its history, as well as a bus tour around the landfill and the receiving station where waste incinerated at one of the three incinerators on the mainland is transferred from barges to tipper trucks which carry the waste to the landfill site. More information on Pulau Semakau, activities on Pulau Semakau and the landfill at the NEA website can be found at this link (Landfill Brochure) and also on this link link (Semakau Landfill).

One of the cells of the landfill that has been filled up.

The southernmost point of Singapore that the public has access to is at the end of a bund that contains a lagoon that will be used for phase 2 of the landfill when all the cells in phase 1 have been used.

The view from the bund southwest towards Pulau Pawai and Pulau Senang which is a live-firing area.

Part of the visit also included a drive through of the receiving station where incinerated waste from the mainland’s rubbish incinerators are transferred from barges onto tipper trucks.

The boat back and with the receiving station in the background.





A visit to the lighthouse on Singapore’s One Tree Island

12 04 2011

An hour by boat from Pasir Panjang Ferry Terminal, lies Pulau Satumu, which by virtue of being the southernmost island of Singapore, is the southernmost point in Singapore. The island, which is some 14 km south of the nearest point on the main island of Singapore is also home to a lighthouse, Raffles Lighthouse, one of four offshore lighthouses operated by the Maritime and Port Authority (MPA), the others being on Sultan Shoal, Pedra Branca and Pulau Pisang which is on Malaysian territory. Being very much one who has always taken an interest in all things nautical, I have always been drawn to lighthouses … my very first encounters with one being the one that had shone its beacon from the top of the Fullerton Building that I loved watching on the many strolls with my parents down Collyer Quay, and when the opportunity arose to catch a boat to Raffles Lighthouse, I certainly wasn’t going to give it a miss.

Pulau Satumu or "One Tree Island", the southernmost island of Singapore, is home to Raffles Lighthouse.

The visit to the lighthouse, part of a learning journey organised by the MPA in conjunction with Singapore Maritime Week was a rare opportunity. Lighthouses are protected places in Singapore and access to the islands that the lighthouses of the form that most of us have an impression of is restricted, and I certainly did not need a second asking. So, on an overcast and rather muggy day, I found myself sitting in a launch at Pasir Panjang Ferry Terminal with a large group of students, as I keenly anticipated the start of a journey that would take me to the first ever operating lighthouse that I would have ever visited in Singapore, to the gentle rolling of the launch to the undulations on the surface of the sea.

Lighthouses currently operated by the MPA, as seen on a nautical chart at Raffles Lighthouse.

The ride which took a little more than an hour, provided me with an excellent opportunity to have a look at the massive changes to the waters around the south west of Singapore. What greets the eye immediately upon leaving the ferry terminal is the reclamation taking place off Pasir Panjang, part of the effort to expand the container terminals that the area now hosts. Moving off along with the launch we were in, was a double ended ramped single deck vehicle ferry with a load of construction vehicles, a sign of the frenzy of activity that is now surely taking place offshore. The Semakau landfill (perhaps more appropriately “seafill”), which has joined Pulau Semakau with Pulau Seking (a.k.a. Pulau Sakeng), is clearly visible from the start, the long building that serves as a receiving station is instantly recognisable. The first island we actually pass along the way is Pulau Bukom on which the Shell Refinery has long been a feature, and moving southeast we soon see Pulau Jong, a tiny rocky island which is topped by green vegetation, before going past Pulau Sebarok which houses petroleum products receiving and discharging facilities as is evident by the many tanks and berthing spaces on the island. It was in going around Pulau Sebarok that we catch the first sight of Raffles Lighthouse in the grey of the overcast sky … just as I had envisaged it – well, almost … there are certainly more than a single tree that one might have expected knowing the origin of the name of the island that the lighthouse was built on. Pulau Satumu, based on information found on Wikipedia, “means one tree island — sa refers to satu (one) and tumu is the Malay name for the large mangrove tree, Bruguiera confugata”.

On the launch to Pulau Satumu.

Pulau Jong.

The receiving station at Pulau Semakau, looking beyond Pulau Jong.

Pulau Sebarok.

Enroute to Raffles Lighthouse.

The stern and exposed propeller of an unladen tanker - probably undergoing sea trials ....

Raffles Lighthouse on Pulau Satumu as seen on the approach to the jetty.

Raffles Lighthouse as seen on land.

Once on land, whilst waiting to be taken up to the lighthouse, MPA was kind enough to provide the participants of the tour with lunch, and it was over lunch that I had a chat with a member of MPA’s staff. One of the interesting things he did mention was that there were holiday facilities for staff at Sultan Shoal, as well as there being rooms within the lighthouse that were reserved just to allow Ministers to take a holiday on the island. One thing we could do before going up was to have a walk around what certainly seemed like one of the few idyllic places left in Singapore, that is until the silence was punctured by the roar of jets flying above – the island being in close proximity to the live firing range used by the Airforce at the cluster of islands that lay to the west of Pulau Satumu: Pulau Senang, Pulau Pawai, and Pulau Sudong. Still, the island does exudes a charm that has been lost from the coastal areas of Singapore with a little beach and coconut grove leading to the southernmost point of Singapore.

A bench at Raffles Lighthouse.

An idyllic scene from Pulau Satumu.

The beach leading to the southernmost point of Singapore.

Pulau Senang.

It was soon time to ascend the flight of steps up to the top of the lighthouse – 107 steps we were told, 86 built into the lighthouse and a further 17 on the iron stairway up to the top – hard work even for the fit. Standing some 72 feet high, the lighthouse, the second oldest operated by Singapore (the oldest being Horsburg Lighthouse built in 1851), was built in 1855, on what was then referred to as Coney Islet, and looks none the worse for wear in spite of its age. A little bit of its history can be found in the infopedia stub on the lighthouse. At the top we were greeted by one of the two lighthouse keepers on duty Mr. Mani. The lighthouse keepers work on a rotating 12 hours shift for 10 days, returning to the mainland for 10 off days, and are involved in the upkeep of equipment and in the event that the beacon fails – would require to operate the emergency beacon run off batteries. It is quite a quiet and lonely life for ten days … something that is probably hard to imagine in the fast pace world that we live in today. Lighthouses, which have always been important aids to navigation, has with the advent of GPS and electronic navigation means, been rendered somewhat obsolete. However, these are still around and serve an improtant function as a backup in event that electronic means onboard ship fail.

The stairway to the top ...

A window at the bottom of the lighthouse.

A pressurised vapour kerosene mantle burner system that was employed at the turn of the 20th Century at a landing just before the top.

Up the last flight of stairs.

The beacon at the top of the lighthouse.

A radar reflector.

Mr Mani, one of the two lighthouse keepers on duty showing us around at the top.

All too soon, it was time to leave, the launch taking a different route that took us to Marina South, with a stop off Marina South to watch a demo by MPA’s fire-fighting vessel Api-Api, throwing a spray of sea water with its two monitors. Soon back on dry land, we were to be greeted by a different spray altogether – one of a shower that was threatening to come down on us the whole day … fortunately we had made our trip to Raffles Lighthouse and back, with pleasant memories of a rare foray to an otherwise off-limits southernmost part of Singapore.