Welcoming the stars of the Big Dipper

30 09 2016

The coming of the Chinese ninth month brings two widely celebrated Taoist celebrations to Singapore, both of which  have a connection with water. One, the pilgrimage to the island of Kusu, is held over an entire month. This sees thousands of pilgrims flocking to the island, where a Tua Pek Kong temple and several hill top shrines are located. The other celebration, held over the first nine days of the month, is the Nine Emperor Gods Festival or Kew Ong Yah or Jiu Wang Ye (九王爷).

Devotees from the Kim San Temple at East Coast Beach.

Devotees from the Kim San Temple at East Coast Beach.

The Nine Emperor Gods festival is especially interesting. The celebration proper begins with an invitation to the gods – nine stars of the Big Dipper, to descend to earth for an annual sojourn. The often very elaborate invitation ceremony is  traditionally held on the eve of the 1st day of the month. Taking place by the sea or a river, it involves the carriage of the gods on a sedan or a palanquin that is always violently rocked as a sign of a divine presence.

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This year sees the invitation spread out over several days, with a few being held on the eve itself, which falls on Friday 30 September. One that I managed to catch over at East Coast Park was that of the Kim San temple from Jalan Ulu Siglap on 29 September, the photographs of which accompany this post. The festival ends with an equally grand send off, with the gods ascending to the heavens on a burning boat. More on this and the festivalcan be found in a previous post: The Burning Boat.

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How the west was lost

9 01 2015

The mention of Tuas, a far flung location in the west of Singapore, conjures up an image of its bleak and rather uninspiring industrial landscape, a patchwork of dull and faceless buildings within which much of Singapore manufacturing output is produced.  It would have been a very different Tuas that would have come to mind a little more that a generation ago, a Tuas that for those who express little sentiment for its then untamed shores, would have seemed wild, inaccessible and unproductive; a tangle of mangrove lined tidal inlets and muddy seashores.

The shores of the wild west today.

The shores of the wild west today.

The sea at the far west (National Archives of Singapore).

Wild as it was, it was not without human habitation. Access to the far west certainly was possible, requiring a drive along the long Jurong Road that wound through a rather lonely part of Singapore. The drive would end at the mouth of the Sungei Tuas estuary, the furthest west one could possible head to for a while on a public metalled road. It lay just beyond the road’s 18th milestone and brought with it the promise of seafood at what was the fishing village of Tuas to all who dared to venture.

Tuas Village, 1970. [This digital copy (c) National Library Board Singapore 2008. The original work (c) Tan Marilyn].

Tuas Village, 1970.
[This digital copy (c) National Library Board Singapore 2008. The original work (c) Tan Marilyn].

That reward, would of course only be made possible to those who not only had to endure what seemed an endless journey, but also brave enough; there were parts of the drive that especially on the after dinner journey in the dark, would not have been ones appreciated by the fainthearted. One particular stretch was at the road’s 13th milestone, just before one came to Hong Kah Village on the return journey, had been the source of many a tale of horror. That was where the gravestones of the Bulim cemetery close to the edge of the road, in the glare of the vehicle’s headlamps, would seem to reach out to anyone passing.

The reward just beyond the 18th milestone of the long and winding Jurong Road – the restaurant is still in existence in a location close to where it originall was (National Archives of Singapore).

It is a different set of horrors that await the visitor on the journey to the Tuas of today; the roads now far from lonely. Much of what we refer to Tuas today lies west of where the village had been, on land that has come out of the sea. This includes the “hockey stick” – a huge southward projection of land to the south part of which will host the future Tuas mega-port. Tuas, at its north-western corner, is also where the Second Link is located, carrying vehicles over to Malaysia, from what had been Tanjong Karang.

A lone mangrove tree within sight of the Second Link.

A lone mangrove tree within sight of the Second Link.

It is just south of Tanjong Karang where a small reminder of the previously wild west can be found (discounting the vast coastline of the Live Firing Area to its north from which our eyes have been shielded), although it lies out of sight to most of us beyond one of the ugly security fences that kills and deprives of any joys we can still derive from the seashore.

Life where one may not expect it.

Life where one may not expect it.

The intertidal region that exists, reaches out to the Merwang Beacon. It includes a naturally occurring extension of a much altered shoreline plus perhaps, a small remnant of what could be the original foreshore. It was at this point that the western tip of the island of Singapore in its unaltered state had been at Tanjong Merawang. Around the beacon, and also in the area just north of it where a small cluster of mangroves can be found, we are able to discover that there is still a small celebration of what might have been (see Ria Tan’s post on the visit  made on 23 Dec 2014: Return to Tuas Merawang Beacon).

The intertidal zone at Tanjong Merawang looking out towards Merawang Beacon and Pulau Merambong.

The intertidal zone at Tanjong Merawang looking out towards Merawang Beacon and Pulau Merambong.

A celebration above the sea that the shore also offers, is a perspective of the western end of the Singapore Strait. On a clear day, parts of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia can be seen, with the view southwest extending to the Indonesian Karimun Islands. That lies far beyond the Malaysian island of Pulau Merambong in the foreground. It would be interesting to note that the waters around Merambong is home to Malaysia’s largest intertidal seagrass meadow. And, in it, the country’s largest concentration of seahorses is said to be found.

The coastline of the far west of Singapore as seen in a 1927 map.

The coastline of the far west of Singapore as seen in a 1927 map.

This is unfortunately, under threat (see: Seagrass meadow in danger, The Star, 24 Mar 2014). Concerns raised on the impact that an ill-conceived and highly controversial luxury development project, Forest City, which will see four huge islands rise out of the waters close to Pulau Merambong, will have, include the threat it may pose to the rich marine life in the waters that surrounds the island. What that will do to what is left of the wild west of Singapore, already decimated by the developments closer to it, time will only tell.





The burning boat

14 10 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

The crowd at Kampong Wak Hassan.

The crowd at Kampong Wak Hassan.

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

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

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

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

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

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Dawn by the strait

26 05 2014

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

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Silhouettes of a joy we have forgotten

3 03 2014

Silhouettes of the morning in a place by the sea, the simple joy of which we have long forgotten. The place, Sembawang, is one that hangs on to one of the last stretches of natural beaches left in Singapore. It is where I often find myself celebrating the new day, being one of the few places left in Singapore that is able to take me back to days when finding joy did seem a lot less complicated.

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(photographs taken on the morning of 2 March 2014)





The Gateway into the Lost World

25 02 2014

It is in a deserted and somewhat forgotten corner of Singapore that you will find the Gateway into the Lost World. Standing all on its own, it opens into a space now beautifully reclaimed by nature; a space in which little is given away of the world it might once have been.

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The gateway is all that is left of a dwelling place from where one could listen to the songs sung by the nearby sea. One of several found in the area, it shared the space with a village of humble wooden dwellings of which little remains except for a mosque. While there are no visuals that will allow us to picture what the house may have looked like, it is not hard to imagine the peace and joy its settings would have brought to its occupants.

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One who found joy in living by the same sea was the late James Westwater Ferrie. An architect, Ferrie lived in one of several houses found in the area of the now lonesome gates. Inspired by the setting he found himself living in, Ferrie, who was also a talented painter, found the time to also reproduce its seascapes in watercolour, more than 50 of which were exhibited at the Lone Pine Gallery in Ming Court Hotel (now Orchard Parade Hotel) in 1986.

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Ferrie, who started James Ferrie and Partners, had been resident in Singapore since arriving from the UK in 1948. In an interview for his exhibition (27 January 1986 edition of The Straits Times), Ferrie , an avid sailor, spoke of his affinity with the sea having “always liked the sea” and being “closely associated with water”. Ferrie also described the his Sembawang home as one “with a garden stretching down to the sea” that provided him a view of “the skies and boats” depicted in his watercolours.

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

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

Ferrie passed away in February 1993, not long after he returned to the UK. By this time, his house by the sea and the cluster it was in, had already been acquired by the State. Now emptied of the boats that Ferrie depicted, it is perhaps only in Ferrie’s paintings that the memory of the area’s once colourful seas is now preserved.

The greenery that now surrounds the area.

The greenery that now surrounds the area.

Left temporarily on its own, the place its state of isolation, is one in which peace is still to be found. Given the pace at which redevelopment is taking place in the area, it is only a matter of time before a space in which an escape can be found is turned into yet another space one will then need an escape from.


Update June 2016:

I have been advised that there were four houses in the area of the gate built in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The gate itself had led to a bungalow owned by a Mr Chua Boon Peng, who was the MD of Cycle and Carriage.


See also: History rich Sembawang, gateway to Singapore’s WWII past (Sunday Times 19 June 2016)





The Bench through the rain

11 07 2013

A view of The Bench through the rain with the colours of the rising of the sun in the backdrop at 7.06 am on 9 July 2013. The Bench is very much a part of the scene along the top of an old seawall that used to belong to Kampong Wak Hassan at the end of Sembawang Road. That it is there, under the cool shade of a tree, is a mystery. Nobody does seem to know why it is there or who it had belonged to. It does serve to connect us with the kampong (now spelt kampung) or village which might otherwise be forgotten. The village was one of the last of the villages which one featured across much of rural Singapore to be cleared in 1998. More information on the village can be found on a previous post Monoscapes: Kampong Wak Hassan beach. The beach along the seawall is also one of the last natural sandy beaches left in Singapore and serves as a welcome escape for me from the overly urbanised landscape of modern Singapore (see: The song of a forgotten shore).

A view through the rain, 7.06 am, 9 July 2013.