The Italian captain who bought Pulau Bukom …

10 06 2017

Except perhaps for sculptor Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli, whose magnificent work adorns the old Supreme Court, little is known of Singapore’s many connections with the Italian community – except perhaps of the community’s many culinary offerings we are now able to find. It may therefore come as a surprise that the connections do go well back –  even before Italy as an entity existed and that Singapore’s Pulau Bukom was once owned by an Italian man.

Explore Singapore’s surprising Italian connections at The Italian Connection at the Fullerton Hotel.

Pulau Bukom is perhaps better known to us as the island on which Singapore’s successful journey into the oil refining trade, had its beginnings. Shell, who built and operate the refinery, has long been associated with the island. 20 acres of it was bought by the company in 1891 for the purpose of kerosene storage. The transaction netted the island’s owner,  Capitano Giovanni Gaggino a tidy profit. Gaggino, an Italian master mariner, shipowner and adventurer, purchased the island for $500 in 1884 with the intention to supply freshwater to shipping. His purchase of “Freshwater Island” as it was informally known as, was one of many of Gaggino’s ventures here. He would spend 42 of his 72 years in Singapore from 1876 and passed on in 1918, whilst on a trip to Batavia. Capitano Gaggino was also known to have authored several books, one of which was the very first Malay-Italian dictionary.

Capitano Giovanni Gaggino, who once owned Pulau Bukom (source: Reproduction of “La Vallata del Yang-Tse-Kiang” by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Open source).

Even before Gaggino, Italians – many of whom were involved in shipping and trade, made landfall. One rather famous Italian, the renowned botanist and contemporary of Charles Darwin, Odoardo Beccari, used Singapore as a stepping stone to his well documented explorations of the region’s forests. Credited with the discovery of the giant corpse flower, Beccari also documented a month he spent in March 1866 at the “wooden bungalow” of the Italian Consul, Signor Giovanni Leveson (a.k.a. Edward John Leveson) on the Johor Strait. The bungalow is thought to be where Woodlands in Singapore’s north got its name from.

Odoardo Beccari (source: Sailko, Creative Commons License 3.0).

Like Capitano Gaggino, Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli spent a substantial part of his life in Singapore. He arrived from Bangkok in 1921 and remained – except for a period of internment during the Second World War (as a citizen of Italy, one of the Axis states, he was interned in Australia from 1941 to 1945), until his retirement in 1956 . He worked tirelessly and amassed a huge portfolio of work that began with the second Ocean Building on which he provided the decorative artificial stone facings.

Composite image of Rodolfo Nolli and the main (south) entrance of the GPO. Two sets of works – the coat of arms and a pair of flambeau compositions, went missing during the Japanese Occupation (source of images: National Archives of Singapore).

The majestic Ocean Building did not only launch Nolli’s career in Singapore, it also spelled a new era for the bund along Collyer Quay. Before the end of a decade, three even grander edifices would be added: the Union Building, a second generation Hongkong and Shanghai Bank Chambers, and the grandest of them all, the Fullerton Building. The additions, all of which Nolli had work done on, provided the bund with an appearance that could be compared to Shanghai’s more famous embankment.

Ocean Building in the 1920s (Source: W. A. Laxton, The Straits Steamship Fleets)..

Built to house the General Post Office, several municipal offices as well as the exclusive Singapore Club, the Fullerton was decorated with some of Nolli’s more exquisite pieces of the era. Two precast sculptural works: a pair of flambeau compositions and a royal coat of arms – symbols of enlightenment and empire – adorned the main entrance to the GPO. Sadly, these disappeared during the Japanese Occupation and all that can now be seen of Nolli’s contributions in the building is the magnificent plasterwork of the barrel vaulted ceiling of the Singapore Club’s Billiard Hall. The hall is now the Straits Room of The Fullerton Hotel. The hotel has occupied the Fullerton Building since 2001.

The Straits Room is now where the only works of Rodolfo Nolli’s in the Fullerton Building to have survived can be found.

The historic waterfront, 1932, to which Nolli added decorative finishing touches, and the waterfront today (source: top image, Singapore Philatelic Museum; lower image, Jerome Lim).

Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli, whose works are also found in Bangkok – where he spent 7 years of his life, in parts of Malaysia and also in Brunei, was bestowed with a knighthood by the Italian Crown in 1925. This is an honour that another Italian gentleman connected with the Fullerton Building, Cavaliere Giovanni Viterale, has also received. Cavaliere Viterale, the GM of Fullerton Heritage, is a well respected member of the hospitality industry and it was for his contributions to it that he received the honour. The building, which was opened in June 1928, celebrates its 89th anniversary this month.

Nuns of the Canossian order speaking to Cavaliere Giovanni Viterale at the exhibition opening. The order, which has origins in Italy, first arrived in Singapore in 1894 (source: The Fullerton Heritage).

More on the Italian Community, including on an Italian order of missionaries whose work in tending to those in need continues to this very day, the Canossian Daughters of Charity, can be discovered at an exhibition that I curated with Zinke Aw, “The Italian Connection”. The exhibition, The Fullerton Hotel’s East Garden Foyer, runs until 18 July 2017. Information on the exhibition can also be found at The Fullerton Heritage’s website and through the official press release.

 

 

 

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The lost waterfront

19 09 2013

The former waterfront at Collyer Quay is certainly one place which exemplifies how Singapore has transformed over the years, discarding much of what made Singapore a Singapore which was full of character and flavour, to the sea of glass, steel and concrete Singapore has become today.

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The waterfront we inherited from our colonial masters was one of wonderfully designed buildings which might have rivaled Shanghai’s Bund. Even in 1971 after the Overseas Union Shopping Centre (see image above) did spoil some of that flavour, it still retained much of its original character. Then, the three “skyscrapers” that came up in the 1950s: the modern looking 15 storey Shell House (1959); the Bank of China Building (1954); and the Asia Insurance Building (1954) (out of picture), still dominated. It was however the grand looking edifices – several of them attributed to architecture firm Swan and MacLaren which designed many notable buildings from our past, which would have been noticed. This included the Maritime Building (former Union Building) with its tower and the HongKong Bank Chambers (1924) next to it. The Fullerton Building (1928) which housed the General Post Office also wouldn’t have been missed.

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The beginning of the end for the old waterfront came at the end of the decade with the demolition of the HongKong Bank building notable not just for its English Renaissance style design, but also for its stained glass skylight over its main banking hall and huge bronze entrance doors, in 1979. The Maritime Building, built originally for the Union Insurance Society of Canton and which once housed the Far East headquarters of the Royal Air Force, soon followed in the early 1980s. What we do see today is a towering skyline of glass and steel against which the surviving “skyscrapers” of the 1950s are now dwarfed. The buildings along old waterfront which did survive are the Fullerton Building (Fullerton Hotel), Clifford Pier (part of Fullerton Bay Hotel), Bank of China Building, Customs House, and the Asia Insurance Building (Ascott Raffles Place).

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Revisiting Clifford Pier

13 10 2010

Having spent a few hours of my weekend in Rotunda Library of the former Supreme Court, I was able to have a last feel of what must be considered to be the greatest work of Frank Dorrington Ward. This certainly allowed me to have a better appreciation for the genius of the architect who gave us some of the magnificent structures we have inherited from our colonial past, including one that my attention was turned to last evening, Clifford Pier. Ward’s contribution towards the beautiful pier was as the Chief Architect of the team of architects at the Public Works Department that provided the design for what must be the finest pier to be built in Singapore, in which the Art-Deco style features prominently. The pier, which may have looked a little worse for wear in the latter part of its life as a public pier from which many people made their journeys to the southern islands and the gateway for many seamen coming ashore to Singapore, has been wonderfully restored and a large part of it given to use as an exclusive restaurant “One on the Bund”, and the front end of it being converted into an entrance to the very posh Fullerton Bay Hotel.

Clifford Pier at its opening in 1933 (source: Woh Hup 80, Building with Integrity).

The front end of the pier now serves as the entrance to the posh Fullerton Bay Hotel.

The magnificent pier, built to replace Johnston’s Pier in 1933, never seemed to go to sleep and was always alive with activity in the 1970s when I was growing up. It was a place that I certainly have many fond memories of, having visited on many occasions to watch the comings and goings of the passengers of the launches that bobbled up and down the sides of the pier. There was always a frenzy of activity as passengers would scramble up and down the precariously slippery steps to or from the spacious deck of the pier. Already busy as it was, the ninth month of the Chinese lunar calendar would bring with it the frenzy crowd of pilgrims heading to Kusu Island for the annual pilgrimage. The pier was also where I had embarked on several adventures of my own – to the islands that lay beyond the southern shores of Singapore and also on to the high seas. It would have been nice if the pier had kept its place as a gateway to the southern islands and beyond – a focal point close to the old heart of the city from which a doorway opened to the shores that lay beyond Singapore – an area that is significant to the history of Singapore as one being where many of the our forefathers – the early immigrants who made Singapore what it is would have first set foot on the island. This sadly wasn’t to be as the conversion of what is now known as Marina Bay into a fresh water reservoir with the construction of the Marina Barrage put paid to any thoughts some of us might have harboured on this. The pier ceased operations in 2004 as the Marina Barrage had cut off what had once been the Inner Roads of the harbour to the sea.

An early view of Clifford Pier (c. 1950) from an old postcard (courtesy of Mr. Low Kam Hoong).

The pier is perhaps best known for the beautiful concrete trusses which support its roof structure, which provided a wide unsupported span of the roof supports, allowing a clear and unobstructed space across much of the expansive deck of the once well used pier – another piece of architectural genius given to Singapore by Frank Dorrington Ward and his team. While the trusses have perhaps escaped the eyes of many in the hundreds of thousands who might have passed under the roof they provide support for during the 71 years of the pier’s operation, it was (and still is) a sight to behold.

Deck of Clifford Pier with the beautiful concrete arched trusses of the roof structure above (source: Woh Hup 80, Building with Integrity).

Clifford Pier as it appears today as "One on the Bund".

The beautifully illuminated concrete trusses of the roof structure - not everybody gets to get close up and personal with them anymore.

Another view of the setting of the restaurant that now occupies Clifford Pier.

The restoration and conversion of the use of the pier does provide an opportunity to savour the beauty of the truss structure, particularly in the evenings when the effects of the varied and changing hues provided by the coloured illumination which does seem to bring the beauty of structures out brilliantly. However, it is unfortunate for many of us that much of the pier within the exclusive restaurant remains inaccessible to the general public to allow an up close and personal appreciation of the wonderfully design roof structure. I had in the past attempted to capture the trusses on camera but was prevented from doing so and only got a chance to do it as a guest of an event held at the restaurant last evening. While it is nice to see the restoration of buildings that are our monuments and heritage and the use of them in a very dignified manner as is the case with Clifford Pier, and with the consideration that certainly must be made from a commercial perspective, it would still be nice if at least some parts of it are made accessible to the general public who like me, have a link or a memory to a past that might be worth a revisit from time to time. I do hope that whatever is planned for some of the future heritage sites such as the grand station at Tanjong Pagar that consideration be put in to allow parts of them to at least remain accessible to us.


The beautiful setting inside the restaurant.


More views of the restaurant.

Maybe other ideas on conservation are required to allow the general public to fully appreciate some of our heritage buildings?

The entrance to the Fullerton Bay Hotel at the front end of the pier.

The view of the restaurant from the entrance.

Views of the wonderful structure of the pier.

A close-up of the trusses ...

Air-conditioning vents blend in with the existing structure.


The decor of the restaurant does include many reminders of the past.

More views of last evening’s event:

Dough figurines that were commonly found amongst the vendors that accompanied the the wayangs (street Chinese Operas) of old.

The open air deck at the far end of the pier.





An adventure on the “high seas”

13 06 2010

In today’s age of air travel, it would probably be difficult for many of us to want to embark on a journey between continents that might have taken weeks, or even a journey between cities in the region taking at least a few days, other than when one is perhaps considering going on a leisurely cruise. There was a time however, when such a journey would have had to be made out of necessity and not to indulge oneself in leisure as we would be inclined to these day. It was perhaps in the 1970s when air travel became accessible (and affordable) to many, and up to that point, travel between the regional ports would have probably been made aboard a cargo liner on which passengers were allowed to be carried on.

The M.V. Kimanis and several other cargo liners owned by the Straits Steamship Company plied the route between Borneo and the Malayan Peninsula (Source: W.A. Laxon, The Straits Steamship Fleets).

This was a time when just the thought of a voyage by sea might have evoked the romantic notion of travelling in style and luxury that is associated with the ocean liners of the North Atlantic. Indeed, for the well heeled, the leisurely journey might have been taken in lavishly decorated cabins, whilst being waited on by a steward dressed in all whites, in a setting, as I was told, could be compared to one in a Joseph Conrad novel. For the less well off, there would have been a choice of a more modest second class cabin which would have been comfortable enough for the journey; or, in a less than comfortable third class dormitory like cabin (if there were any – many of the ships coming from India had this), or perhaps as a deck passenger. A passage as a deck passenger would be unheard of these days, especially with the adoption of the International Ship and Port Security (ISPS) Code – one of a slew of measures implemented in the wake of the 9-11 attacks. Back then, it would have been a cheap and practical means of getting about, with deck passengers having to brave the elements during the passage on the open deck or perhaps, where the situation might have allowed it, in the cargo holds.

The M.V. Kimanis was a 90 metre long, 3189 ton, cargo liner built in Dundee in 1951 and was in the Straits Steamship fleet up to 1982.

One of the local shipping companies that ran a passenger service was the now defunct Straits Steamship Company. The Singapore based company was founded in 1890 and at its height, operated a fleet of 53 vessels, plying routes that connected ports in the Malayan peninsula, including Singapore with ports in the far flung corners of British Borneo. Many of the ports in Borneo would have had names steeped in the history of the rule of the British and the White Rajahs (in Sarawak), such as Jesselton (now Kota Kinabalu). Many of the ships that the company operated had themselves been named after the ports which the company served.

A subsidiary of Straits Steamship Company started Malayan Airways, which later became MSA and was split into two entities, Singapore Airlines and Malaysian Airline System.

By the time the 1970s had arrived, air travel had taken root and demand for passenger travel by sea had diminished (incidentally, it was a subsidiary of the Straits Steamship Company, that started Malayan Airways, the predecessor to Malaysia-Singapore Airlines (MSA), from which both Malaysian Airline System (MAS) and Singapore Airlines (SIA) were born). The Straits Steamship Company thus promoted passenger travel on the ships they operated for leisure (as a cheaper alternative to the one offered on the M.V. Rasa Sayang which was then offering cruises on the Malacca Straits and around the Indonesian Islands before being sold off a year or so after a tragic fire killed a few crew members in 1977), offering a window into a world of a forgotten age of sea travel. The cost of was a very affordable $80 for the three day return trip to Port Swettenham (or Port Klang as the port had just been renamed as), and it was on such a voyage, aboard one of the Straits Steamship’s vessels, the M.V. Kimanis, that I had an opportunity to have that experience, not once, but twice in 1975.

On the main deck of the Kimanis.

The first voyage that I had on the Kimanis would best be described as an adventure of a lifetime. It had been my very first experience on board a ship and one in which provided me with a view, not just into what life was on board, but also a first hand experience of the stories that I had heard of a voyage on what seemed to me, the “high seas”. It was a voyage that began one evening from Clifford Pier, and via a launch that took us out from the Inner Roads to the Outer Roads and the Eastern Anchorage, where the M.V. Kimanis was anchored. Arriving at the accommodation ladder of the davit rigged black vessel, which featured three white deckhouses, it was with some difficulty that we got onto the ladder having to contend with the violent rolling and heaving of the launch, needing the assistance of the receiving crew members of the Kimanis. I still remember being quite afraid of falling in – even as I was ascending the ladder to the main deck of the vessel.

Wandering around the main deck of the Kimanis was an adventure in itself.

Once onboard, we were greeted by the Chief Steward, a Hainanese man with a greying head of hair, decked in a starched white shirt with epaulettes that seemed to extend up from his shoulders, and brought to our cabins by a steward. The second class cabins we were to stay in were on the next deck above, located along the ship’s side, and had tiny portholes from which we could have a view of the numerous ships that lay at anchor. The cabins were modestly furnished, two single bunks, a rattan chair and dresser, a wardrobe and a wash basin. Showers were to be taken and visits to the toilet were to be made in the communal washrooms arranged on the centreline at the aft end of the alleyway. A door at this end on the aft bulkhead opened to an open deck which also provided access to the main deck below and the deck above. Right at the after end of the next deck was an open deck with an awning that offered partial shelter from the elements on which a bar counter was located, with tables and chairs that formed an open air lounge area. That was where passengers would sit and exchange stories and I remember a man who had started his journey in Tawau with quite a few interesting stories to tell. I can’t remember any of them, but what I do remember very vividly was how he looked – he wore the scars of burns to his face very prominently. We had also on that voyage, met a very friendly and talkative Australian man, from whom I had first heard of what we call the papaya being referred to as a “paw-paw”. He also introduced to a gourd to us which he said was delicious, which he referred to as a choko – which we would later discover was also planted in the Cameron Highlands.

The bar area where passengers exchanged stories.

Besides lounging around at the bar, the day long voyage to Port Klang provided an opportunity for my sister and me to roam the main deck – I was fascinated by the vents that seemed to rise like trumpets out onto the main deck. Somehow, I had imagined them to be sound pipes through which the men working below decks could communicate with crew on the main deck. Meal times were particularly interesting and a steward would alert passengers to meal times by walking through the accommodation area ringing a bell, which would trigger a procession of children following the steward around as if he was the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Meals were served very formally and besides having to dress appropriately for meals, we had to pay careful attention to table etiquette. That was also the first occasion in which I was to be confronted by the intimidating array of cutlery on the table. I quickly learnt the trick for navigating through the cutlery, starting from the outside in as each course was served.

Meal times were particularly interesting on board the Kimanis. A typical menu (Source: W.A. Laxon, The Straits Steamship Fleets).

Arriving at Port Klang, we were greeted by the sight of the wharf side container cranes, which I imagined to be chairs of giants, half expecting to meet a giant on the passage into port. Tugs boats appeared as the ship was guided into port, and went alongside, as I looked forward in anticipation of being able to go ashore. It was on this particular trip that we first visited Genting Highlands, taking a bus into Kuala Lumpur where we could catch a taxi to Genting. I remembered the journey down quite well for the way the taxi driver negotiated the hairpin bends at a seemingly high speed, and as a result, my mother swore never to take a taxi to Genting again! The stay in Port Klang which had been scheduled for one day, spilled over into a second day. We were told that there was always a slowdown for one reason or another at the port – and so we were to have a four day stay on board for the price of three days!

Up on the Bridge - the children on board were given a treat by the Scottish Captain who allowed each of us to handle the helm for about a minute or so.

Little did I know it then, it was on the return voyage to Singapore that the children on board were in for a treat. The ship’s Captain, a Scotsman, invited us children up to view the Bridge, and provided each of us with the chance to be at the helm where we could have a hand in steering the ship. While this experience lasted maybe only for a minute or so, it was certainly a big treat leaving a big impression on me, and at that moment, I decided that I did not want to be a pilot that I seemed to always have wanted to be, and instead thought that it would be more my cup of tea to sail the seven seas and see the world at the same time. I was to have a second experience on the Kimanis later that same year, one which perhaps, I would devote another post to. However, it was this first experience that was to be the one that I would most remember.





The gateway to the roads that lay to the south of Singapore

21 05 2010

There was a time when embarking on a journey to not just a distant land, but to a destination that would now be considered closer to home, would mean saying goodbye not at the terminal building of Kallang or Paya Lebar Airport as it might have then been, but perhaps at a wharf in Tanjong Pagar or a pier along Collyer Quay. That was a time when the journey would invariably have had to be one made by sea, not with the intent of a leisurely cruise as we are inclined to do these days, but out of necessity. So it was that piers came into prominence as entry and exit points through which the many immigrants, some of whom were our ancestors, arriving in Singapore, and travellers setting off on their journey would pass.

Clifford Pier as seen today. The pier would have been the starting point for many a journey from Singapore back in the earlier part of the 20th Century.

View of the Roads in the 1950s from an old postcard. Clifford Pier, the Inner Roads, the Detached Mole (breakwater) and the Outer Roads beyond can be clearly seen (courtesy of Mr. Low Kam Hoong).

In those days, the inner harbour that would have greeted the immigrants to Singapore, or where those setting off on their journey from Singapore would have had a last glimpse of the island, would have appeared to be very different to what is in the area today. For much of the twentieth century, Singapore’s busy harbour been separated by a breakwater referred to as the “Detached Mole”, built in 1911, which ran parallel to the shoreline. This in the area where today, another breakwater of sorts, the reclaimed parcel of land which now forms part of the southern boundary of the Marina Bay reservoir, and on which the Marina Bay Sands Integrated Resort and part of the East Coast Parkway has been built on, now sits. The breakwater back then, separated what was referred to as the Roads – the Inner Roads within the breakwater where the smaller coastal vessels and the tongkangs and twakows (lighters and bumboats) and passenger launches could be safely anchored. The smaller boats ferried their cargoes of goods and people to and from the larger ocean going vessels, being less susceptible to the effects of waves and wind, anchored in the Outer Roads that lay beyond the breakwater.

Another view of Clifford Pier, the Inner Roads, and the Breakwater in the 1960s (source: http://www.singas.co.uk)

Map of Singapore Harbour in the 1950s showing the Detached Mole, Inner Roads and Outer Roads.

Where the limits of the Inner Roads, the Breakwater would have been. On this sits the reclaimed land on which the Marina Bay Sands Integrated Resort has being built on.

The starting point for many a journey would have taken place at Clifford Pier, named after Sir Hugh Charles Clifford, the Governor of the Straits Settlements from 1927 to 1929, which replaced the original Johnston’s Pier opposite Fullerton Square in 1933. The wonderfully built structure features a roof structure supported by beautiful concrete arched trusses designed by the Public Works Department, served as the arrival point for many immigrants as well as a departure point for many seafarers and travellers out of Singapore. It was one of my favourite places, growing up in Singapore in the 1970s, being first of all, across another favourite place of mine, Change Alley, on which Derek Tait has an interesting post on, and also being where I could, in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the going-ons of the pier, observe the comings and goings of travellers and seafarers through the wide hall like deck of the pier, and up and down the numerous stairs at the pier’s end and sides from which the colourful wooden launches took or discharged their passengers. It was also where, I could catch the sea breeze on a muggy evening, standing by its open sides.

View of the Inner Roads from Collyer Quay in the 1960s with a fleet of passenger launches moored in the foreground (Source: http://www.singas.co.uk).

Looking across Marina Bay from the Esplanade Theatres by the Bay across the area that would have once been the Inner Roads.

Change Alley across from Clifford Pier as well as Clifford Pier, was one of my favourite places in the 1970s. I remember being greeted by the sound of the many Laughing Bags that the vendors set off filling the alley as you walked through it.

Clifford Pier would also have been where boats that would take us to what seemed then to me as the distant shores of the then inhabited islands that lay to the south could be boarded, with the promise of an adventure on the high seas that I would somehow associate with a trip to what I would see as my Islands in the Sun. It was also from Clifford Pier that I also later embarked on a voyage of adventure of my own, far beyond my Islands in the Sun, one which I would be describing in another post. It is also interesting to note that the pier is known to locals as Hong Ten Ma Tou 红灯码头, or Red Lamp Pier, named after a red lamp that was placed on it to serve as a navigation aid to seafarers, or so the information plaque says. It is thought however that it was actually hung on Johnston’s Pier and the locals continued the use of the name for the new pier when it replaced Johnston’s Pier.

The beautiful arched concrete trusses that support the roof of the pier.

A window in the façade of the pier.

It may be comforting to know that despite the large wave of land reclamation and redevelopment that has swept over much of the Inner Roads and the areas around Collyer Quay and has seen Clifford Pier cut off from the boats, ships and islands that provided it with a reason for her being. But alas, Clifford Pier is now, despite looking none the worse for wear, only a pale shadow of what it was in its heyday. Where the pier had once been alive with the continuous footsteps of seafarers, travellers and the many interested onlookers that pass through its deck, it is now devoid of life, surrounded by waters that can only lap sadly and silently onto the columns that hold it up.

Plaque commemorating the opening of Clifford Pier in 1933.

Information plaque on Clifford Pier.





My islands in the sun

13 04 2010

There was a time for me when my “Islands in the Sun”, borrowing the title of Harry Belafonte’s rendition of the theme song from the 1957 movie, Island in the Sun, were the group of islands that lay to the south of Singapore. I am not sure why I called them that, but I always looked forward to a trip to one of these islands, perhaps for the chance to visit Clifford Pier and descend the slippery steps to one of the boats, or perhaps for the chance to feel the sea breeze against my face as the boat chugged along the southern seas of Singapore. It more likely though, that it was the chance to sail the high seas, as my imagination would have it, to the sheltered bays of the islands that lay beyond the Roads, where the likes of Blackbeard and Captain Hook would await, ready to pounce on the unsuspecting vessel, on their brigs with the skull and crossbones fluttering atop the main mast.

The Southern Islands of Singapore were once bustling with village life. Several, including Pulau Ayer Chawan, Pulau Ayer Merbau, Pulau Merlimau, Pulau Pesek, Pulau Pesek Kecil, Pulau Sakra and Pulau Seraya in the south western group, have been joined together as Jurong Island and have ceased to exist.

That pirates once roamed the seas around the islands was once true, the islands having been the domain of the gypsies of the sea, the Orang Laut, who living off the sea. The Orang Laut, translated into “Sea People”, were known, well before Munshi Abdullah made a mention of them in his autobiography Hikayat Abdullah, in which he describes hundreds of skulls rolling at the entrance to the Singapore River, skulls which were said to belong to the victims of the priates, to turn to piracy, roaming around much of the seas of the Malay Archipelago in boats called “Perahu Pucok”, translated into “sprout boats” that doubled up as their homes. The Orang Laut had in fact been present at the time of Raffles landing on the river, and were said to have scampered at the sight of the landing party. By the time I had got to visit the seas though, piracy had been a thing of the past, suppressed largely through the efforts of a Captain Samuel Congalton of the East India Company, and remained only as a figment of a child’s overactive imagination. The Orang Laut by then, had by then, also ceased to exist as an community, having largely assimilated into the greater Malay communities of South-East Asia, the last known communities of Orang Laut being recorded in the 1960s. This included the communities who inhabited some of the southern islands such as Pulau Brani and Pulau Bukom.

My imagination aside, the southern islands of Singapore were certainly in a world apart from the one that I lived in – one may say that it is even today where one can be transported from the hustle and bustle of the island city, into the empty silence of a deserted dolled up islands, or into the huge mess of steel and concrete that is a petrochemical complex, but back then it was a different but living world, where communities of people who would in going about their day-to-day activities, give the islands a special charm.

On the slow boat to Pulau Sekijang Pelepah, 1970.

A trip I made to the islands in 1970 that I have some memories of, maybe because of the photographs that I still have, was one on which I had accompanied my mother, who being a school teacher, was taking her class on an excursion (excursions were what school children always looked forward to at the year’s end – I am not sure if they still do) to one of the islands, Pulau Sekijang Pelepah, now known as Lazarus Island. I made it a point to sit by the opened access door of the ferry to catch the salt scented wind on my face as the ferry broke through the waves stirred up by the north east monsoons. The seemingly long and slightly uncomfortable passage, which may have caused discomfort to several of the ferry’s passengers, was finally broken by the sight of the green islands that lay ahead. As the ferry approached, the wooden structures of the houses on stilts that lined the shoreline, some extending well into the sea, connected by raised wooden walkways that doubled as kelongs beneath them, came into view.

On the jetty, Pulau Sekijang Pelepah.

Arriving alongside the rickety jetty that looked as if it was about to topple over, the tide meant that we had to step out onto the slippery narrow steps that led up to the walkway above, aided by a boatman. Stepping onto the walkway, I was overcome by a sense of fear, brought about not by the pirates of my imagination, but by having to walk over the rickety walkway of the jetty, on which gaps from missing planks featured prominently, giving me a clear view of the murky sea that lay beneath the jetty.

The land’s end of the rickety jetty complete with missing planks.

Having lived mostly off the sea for generations, modern society caught up on the islanders by the time the 1970s had arrived. Many were forced to commute to Singapore to make a living and to receive their education. There was the odd primary school that was built, including one on St. John’s Island (Pulau Sekijang Bendara) – I remember a national primary school level football competition in which the team from the school I attended, St. Michael’s School, played against opponents from St. John’s Island School in the final, narrowly losing 1-2 to the islanders, but post-primary schooling had to be for all on the main island. The island villages which were run by a headman, a Penghulu, disappeared mostly in the 1970s and 1980s due to resettlement (a few were resettled earlier due to the setting up and expansion of the Shell refinery complex on Pulau Bukom), and many who had spent almost their entire lives on the islands, were forced to adapt to the confines of the small public flat.

Today, the islands are mostly uninhabited, wiped clean of the life that once existed. Many of the islands have also since disappeared, some absorbed into larger entities like Jurong Island, where a huge petrochemical complex now stands. Jurong Island through a series of land reclamations in the 1990s, joins together several islands to the south west of Singapore, including the main islands of Pulau Ayer Chawan, Pulau Ayer Merbau, Pulau Merlimau, Pulau Pesek, Pulau Pesek Kecil, Pulau Sakra and Pulau Seraya, increasing the total land area of the former individual islands there by three times.

Island village on stilts – Pulau Brani, early 20th Century.








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