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 haunted island in Northwest Singapore and its laird

17 11 2017

Pulau Sarimbun, a little known island tucked away in the northwest corner of the Johor or Tebrau Strait, has quite an interesting chapter in its history. Now forlorn and isolated due to the area’s heightened security, it was once a picnic spot and later a place of retirement for a Boer War veteran turned planter, tin miner and waterworks engineer, Mr W A Bates Goodall.

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Mr Goodall’s bungalow on Pulau Sarimbun in 1932 (photo courtesy of Mr Stephen Downes-Martin).

Mr Goodall arrived at our shores as part of his deployment when he was in the service with the Manchester Regiment in the early 1900s but left soon after as “soldiering in the east did not appeal to me”.  He visited the island regularly for picnics from 1923 to 1932 and as the “Robinson Crusoe life” appealed to him, decided to live in a bungalow perched on a cliff on the island upon his retirement after 13 years in the waterworks department in 1932. Mr Goodall was sometimes also referred to as the Laird of Sarimbun Island and “ruled” over four “subjects”: a Cambridge educated Chinese clerk, a Malay boatman and two Chinese servants and rented the island for some $35 annually. Mr Goodall lived on the island until his passing in October 1941 – just a few months before the Japanese invaded.

Pulau Sarimbun as seen on a 1938 map.

Interestingly, Mr Goodall wasn’t the island’s first inhabitant. There was apparently a mysterious Russian who lived in a hut on the island, who paid  a rent of “three peppercorns” annually at the end of the 1800s. Sarimbun Island was described in a The Straits Times 15 March 1936 article as “sunny, shady and delightful a spot as can be imagined” and commanding a view “embracing the Jalan Scudai waterfront of Johore, and the Pulai, and Plentong Hills”. The same articles also explains that its name means “shady island” in Malay*, which the people of the strait thought was haunted. A rare indigenous fossil fern thought to have been extinct in Singapore, the Dipteris, was found on the island in 2003.


Mr Max Bevilacqua Bell and the attempt to cross breed Friesian cows with Indian cows in Lim Chu Kang 

It is hard to imagine that Singapore had an agricultural past. The northwest corner, while we know was given to rubber (see also: A Lost World in Lim Chu Kang), was apparently also where cattle was reared.

The very rare photograph of Pulau Sarimbun was sent to me by Mr Stephen Downes-Martin in October 2015. Mr Downes-Martin, who lived in Singapore as a child in 1959, 1960, and then again in 1970, was the stepson of Mr Max Bevilacqua Bell,  a businessman whose association with Singapore began from the early 1920s and lasted until the 1970s. Among Mr Bell’s ventures in Singapore was in cattle rearing. Mr Bell had a farm in Lim Chu Kang on which he attempted to cross breed Friesian cows with Indian cows but the war put a halt to that venture. A photograph of Mr Bell’s house in Lim Chu Kang also came in the same email.

Mr Bell’s farm in Lim Chu Kang in the 1930s (photo courtesy of Mr Stephen Downes-Martin).


* Sarimbun probably follows the naming convention adopted for Singapore’s islands by the Orang Laut, which have a prefix sa- or se-. Rimbun in Malay translates to “lush” from a perspective of vegetation – which well describes the island.

 





Getai night on Pulau Ubin

26 05 2016

A large crowd, one not normally associated with Pulau Ubin on a Wednesday, turned up on the island last evening for the final night of the annual Tua Pek Kong festival. The last night, has in more recent times been marked with a getai (歌台) performance. Crude and somewhat kitsch, Getai (歌台) draws much more interest these days than the traditional street operas and puppet shows once used to provide the deities with a grand send-off.

This year’s getai, with forty dinner tables sold (as opposed to about twenty last year), seems to have attracted a much larger interest. This could be seen in the especially crowded village square (if I may call it that), where Ubin’s free-standing wayang stage – used by the Pulau Ubin Fo Shan Teng Tua Pek Kong Temple (乌敏岛佛山亭大伯公庙) to hold street opera and getai performancesis found.

The getai also saw a special guest, Dr Mohamad Maliki Osman. The Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Defence & Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Mayor, South East District also took to the stage, not to sing, but was able to impress the crowd nonetheless, with a few words in Mandarin and also in Hokkien.


Photographs from the final night of the Tua Pek Kong Festival

A boat load of devotees heading to Pulau Ubin.

A boat load of devotees heading to Pulau Ubin.

Lion dancers welcoming visitors.

Lion dancers welcoming visitors.

A larger crowd than ones previously seen turned up to watch the Getai performance held to send the popular deity off.

A larger crowd than ones previously seen turned up to watch the Getai performance held to send the popular deity off.

The lower temple saw a steady stream of devotees making offerings.

The lower temple saw a steady stream of devotees making offerings.

Lighting joss sticks at the temple.

Lighting joss sticks at the temple.

The wayang stage set for the evening's performances.

The wayang stage set for the evening’s performances.

A performer and a dancer.

Perfromers.

The silhouette of a dancer.

The silhouette of a dancer.

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A special guest, Dr Mohamad Maliki Osman, Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Defence & Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Mayor, South East District. He didn't sing but managed to wow the crowd with a few words of Hokkien.

A special guest, Dr Mohamad Maliki Osman, Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Defence & Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Mayor, South East District. He didn’t sing but managed to wow the crowd with a few words of Hokkien.

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Homeward bound.

Homeward bound.






Ubin comes alive

21 05 2016

Photographs taken mainly of the Teochew opera performance held on the first day of festivities this year (20 May 2016). The main festivities of the annual celebration take place today, the day of the full moon. The event lasts until Wednesday and will see nightly Teochew Opera performances on one of the last free-standing Chinese opera stages left in Singapore, except for the final night when a Getai will be held. More on the schedule of this year’s festival can be found in this post: The full moon on the fourth month on Ubin.

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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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51 photographs taken in Singapore that will take you away from Singapore

4 01 2016

Singapore, in its 51st year of independence is sold to the world as an ultra modern metropolis and a shopping and culinary paradise. It is the icons of the new age, such as the futuristic looking Gardens by the Bay and Marina Bay Sands, that now leap out from our tourist brochures and a common perception of Singapore is that it is one huge shopping mall. There is however much more to Singapore that goes practically unnoticed, including these 51 sights of Singapore that one would possibly not associate immediately with Singapore:

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(1) The woods at Upper Peirce Reservoir.

Terumbu Semakau in the moonlight.

(2) Terumbu Semakau, a patch reef off Pulau Semakau, in the moonlight.

Junk Island at low-tide.

(3) Pulau Jong, the last untouched southern island, seen at low-tide.

The beautiful setting in which the 'black and white houses' of Sembawang find themselves in.

(4) The green housing area of the former Naval Base at Sembawang.

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(5) The ‘spinning tops’ off Tampines Road.

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(6) The gateway into a lost world at the former Kampong Tengah in Sembawang.

The former Seng Chew Granite Quarry.

(7) The secret lake at Bukit Gombak (the disused Seng Chew Granite quarry).

The light at the end of the tunnel under Clementi Road.

(8) The light at the end of the tunnel to a lost world under Clementi Road.

A remnant of the western reaches of the line in an area now taken over by nature.

(9) The western reaches of the lost railway.

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

(10) Tanjong Merawang, Tuas, with a view towards Malaysia and Indonesia.

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(11) The pier at Sungei Pandan.

Paddling through the watery forest at Sungei Khatib Bongsu.

(12) The mangrove forest at Sungei Khatib Bongsu.

More views of Beting Bronok at first light.

(13) The flats of Beting Bronok, a designated nature area off Pulau Tekong, seen at first light.

(14) A sandbar at the Terembu Pandan with a view to the container terminal at Pasir Panjang.

(14) A sandbar at the Terembu Pandan with a view to the container terminal at Pasir Panjang.

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(15) A tributary of Sungei Kranji, near the Jalan Gemala nature area.

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(16) A view across Terembu Pempang Laut, a submerged reef four nautical miles from Singapore’s southern coast.

A village house on Pulau Ubin.

(17) The last Malay kampung at Pulau Ubin.

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.

(18) The petrochemical complex on Pulau Ular as seen from Beting Pempang (the silhouettes in the foreground are of trees on Pulau Hantu).

A sense of the space on the flat.

(19) The intertidal flats of Pulau Semakau.

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(20) The greens of the Bukit Course as seen from the western shores of MacRitchie Reservoir.

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

(21) The kampong mosque, Masjid Omar Salmah, at the site of the former Kampong Jantai.

The greenery that now surrounds the area.

(22) The magical (and some say haunted) Jalan Mempurong.

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(23) The western shores of MacRitchie Reservoir.

A very natural looking man made stream close to the area where a village, Kampong Beremban, once was.

(24) A stream at the former Lorong Halus landfill, close to where Kampong Beremban once was.

A stairway.

(25) A pre-war outpost on southern slopes of Pasir Panjang (Kent) Ridge.

The site of the Syonan Jinja where remnants of what was once South-East Asia's leading Japanese Shinto shrine is today an eerie yet peaceful spot. What is seen in the photograph is one of the more visible remnants, a sacred granite water trough for ritual purification.

(26) A trough belonging to the demolished Syonan Jinja Shinto shrine in the MacRithcie forest.

The wooded oasis that is now the grounds of the former Bidadari Muslim Cemetery.

(27) The wooded oasis found at the grounds of the former Bidadari Muslim Cemetery.

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(28) The sand store at the construction aggregates receiving terminal at Pulau Punggol Timor.

Little Guilin is an area of much beauty that some suspect hides several secrets.

(29) A view through the woods at Little Guilin.

Mangroves at Pulau Hantu.

(30) Mangroves at Pulau Hantu.

(31) One sister to another - across the channel between the two Sisters Islands.

(31) One sister to another – across the channel between the two Sisters Islands.

(33) The swimming lagoon on Big Sisters Island.

(32) The swimming lagoon on Big Sisters Island.

The last rural sundry shop, Tee Seng Store.

(33) The last rural sundry shop, Tee Seng Store. It has been in the hands of its proprietor, Mr Ang, for some six decades.

The angry glare of the gods of the new age.

(34) The illuminated towers of the petrochemical complex at Pulau Ular dwarfing the observer at the edge of the fringing reef at Pulau Hantu Besar.

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(35) A newly established Hindu shrine behind the Wei To Temple on Pulau Ubin.

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(36) A Tibetan Buddhist shrine at the Wei To Temple on Pulau Ubin.

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(37) A below ground shelter and storage complex at a 1930s 9.2″ gun battery.

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(38) The view up a deep escape shaft of a pre-war Command Bunker located some 20 metres underground.

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(39) Exposed parts of the Jurong Rock Formation seen on Pulau Jong.

The violin, Pulau Biola a.k.a. Rabbit Island close to the southern reaches of Singapore's territorial waters.

(40) The violin, Pulau Biola a.k.a. Rabbit Island close to the southern reaches of Singapore’s territorial waters.

(40) Tanjong Tajam on Pulau Ubin.

(41) The cliff faces of Tanjong Tajam at the western end of Pulau Ubin.

A sandbar at the Cyrene Reefs.

(42) A sandbar at the Cyrene Reefs.

(43) The calm before the storm - Lower Seletar Reservoir.

(43) The calm before the storm – Lower Seletar Reservoir.

(44) Light and shadow - Sembawang Shipyard and the Beaulieu Jetty.

(44) Light and shadow – Sembawang Shipyard and the Beaulieu Jetty.

(45) Bukit Brown Municipal Cemetery

(45) Bukit Brown Municipal Cemetery

(46) MacRitchie Reservoir near the Syonan Jinja.

(46) MacRitchie Reservoir near the Syonan Jinja.

(47) Remnants of the Jurong Line near Clementi.

(47) Remnants of the Jurong Line near Clementi.

(48) Another of MacRitchie Reservoir.

(48) Another of MacRitchie Reservoir.

(49) The Straits of Johor at Sembawang.

(49) The Straits of Johor at Sembawang.

(50) Masjid Petempatan Melayu at Sembawang and its 6 decade old rubber tree.

(50) Masjid Petempatan Melayu at Sembawang and its 6 decade old rubber tree.

(51) Changi Beach.

(51) Changi Beach.


 





The granite island alive

4 06 2015

Pulau Ubin, the granite island, comes alive for a few days around the full moon of the fourth month of the Chinese calendar, when the celebrations in honour of the Taoist deity Tua Pek Kong are held. The festivities, now still going on, offers an opportunity to have a glimpse into a Singapore we have discarded. The highlight for many is the Teochew opera performance, which is being held on five of the six evenings of the six day celebration, the last being this evening. The festival will end tomorrow, with a getai performance.


More information can be found in the following posts:


Photographs of Pulau Ubin taken during the full moon of the fourth month this year

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The celebration returns to Pulau Ubin

26 05 2015

Every year around Vesak Day, Pulau Ubin comes alive as the Pulau Ubin Fo Shan Teng Tua Pek Kong Temple (乌敏岛佛山亭大伯公庙) holds a series of festivities to celebrate the Tua Pek Kong festival. It is one of two occasions during which Teochew opera and getai performances are staged and offers a rare opportunity to watch Teochew opera as one might have done in the old days, under the stars. This year’s festival will be celebrated from 31 May to 5 Jun 2015 with opera performances every evening, except on the last when a getai performance will be held. The main day of the festival is on 1 Jun. More information on the festival schedule is provided below.

Backstage at the wayang stage: a festive face of Ubin.

Backstage at the wayang stage during last year’s celebrations.

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

A brightly dressed dancer on stage during the last evening’s getai performance two festivals back.

The schedule for this year's Tua Pek Kong Festival.

The schedule for this year’s Tua Pek Kong Festival.

A quick look at the main events as translated by Victor Yue:

Sunday 31 May 2015 (4th Month 14th Day)
10 am: Invite Tua Pek Kong
1 pm: Prayer ritual starts
3 pm: First Taoist Ritual
7 pm: Second Taoist Ritual
7 pm: Sin Sin Yong Hua Teochew Opera performance starts
10 pm: Invite Jade Emperor

Monday 1 Jun 2015 (4th Month 15 Day) – also Vesak Day, a Public Holiday
10 am: Prayers starts
1 pm: Lion and Dragon Dances
2.30 pm: Distribution of Temple Offerings
3.30 pm: Send off Jade Emperor
7 pm: Sin Sin Yong Hua Teochew Opera performance starts
8 pm: Tua Ji Ya Pek (First and Second Grandpa deity from the nearby temple) visit

Tuesday 2 Jun 2015 (4th Month 16th Day)
7 pm: Sin Sin Yong Hua Teochew Opera performance starts

Wednesday 3 Jun 2015 (4th Month 17th Day)
7 pm: Sin Sin Yong Hua Teochew Opera performance starts

Thursday 4 Jun 2015 (4th Month 18th Day)
7 pm: Sin Sin Yong Hua Teochew Opera performance starts

Friday 5 Jun 2015 (4th Month 19th Day)
10 am: Teochew Opera Singing (From Sin Sin Yong Hua)
6.15 pm: Pulau Ubin Fo Shan Ting Da Bo Gong Night (Getai) with Dr Mohamad Maliki Bin Osman, Minister for Defence & National Development, Mayor for South East District, and MP for East Coast GRC as Guest of Honour
10.30 pm: Tua Pek Kong returns

Free Ferry Service
31 May  to 4 Jun 2015 from Changi Jetty (6.30 pm to 9 pm) and from Pulau Ubin Jetty (8 pm – 10 pm)
5 Jun 2015 from Changi Jetty (6.30pm to 10pm) and from Pulau Ubin Jetty: (6.30 pm – 10.30 pm)


More photographs from the main celebrations last year:

More backstage scenes.

More backstage scenes.

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A view of the wayang stage during the evening's performance.

A view of the wayang stage during the evening’s performance.

The Teochew Opera performances is one of the draws of the festival.

The Teochew Opera performances is one of the draws of the festival.

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The ritual sees the appearance of the Tua Ya Pek (大爷伯) or Bai Wuchang (白无常) and ...

The ritual sees the appearance of the Tua Ya Pek (大爷伯) or Bai Wuchang (白无常) and …

... the Li Ya Pek (二爷伯) or Hei Wuchang (黑无常). Collectively the pair - guardians of the Taoist interpretation of the hell or purgatory of afterlife, are known as the Tua Li Ya Pek (大二爷伯) or Heibai Wuchang (黑白无常).

… the Li Ya Pek (二爷伯) or Hei Wuchang (黑无常). Collectively the pair – guardians of the Taoist interpretation of the hell or purgatory of afterlife, are known as the Tua Li Ya Pek (大二爷伯) or Heibai Wuchang (黑白无常).

A dragon dance held during the celebrations.

A dragon dance held during the celebrations.

The three stars make an appearance.

The three stars make an appearance.

The opera troupe onstage paying respects to the deity.

The opera troupe onstage paying respects to the deity.

The Tua Pek Kong temple.

The Tua Pek Kong temple.

The temple during one of the rituals.

The temple during one of the rituals.

 





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.

 





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.





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.


 

 

 

 

 





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.

JeromeLim-3999 Beting Bronok

JeromeLim-4009 Beting Bronok

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.

JeromeLim-2967 Terumbu Pempang Laut 20140601

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.





The festive face of Ubin

15 05 2014

It is during two Taoist festivals celebrated in a big way by the Pulau Ubin Fo Shan Teng Tua Pek Kong Temple (乌敏岛佛山亭大伯公庙), the Tua Pek Kong festival celebrated around Vesak Day in May, and the Hungry Ghosts Festival during the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar, that the somewhat sleepy island takes on a festive air.

Backstage at the wayang stage: a festive face of Ubin.

Backstage at the wayang stage: a festive face of Ubin.

The Tua Pek Kong temple.

The Tua Pek Kong temple.

The island, particularly during the Tua Pek Kong festival, is overrun by thousands of visitors who range from the many devotees who go over to participate in the rituals at the temple and the curious who are there to soak up the atmosphere of what might once have been a common scene on the main island of Singapore; to the hundreds who would head there festival or not, to seek an escape from the madness of the concrete jungle.

The Teochew Opera performances is one of the draws of the festival.

The Teochew Opera performances is one of the draws of the festival.

A dragon dance held during the celebrations.

A dragon dance held during the celebrations.

The three stars make an appearance.

A modern interpretation of the three stars make an appearance.

It is more than just the colourful religious rituals that would be of interest to the curious. It is during the two festivals that we also see the use of the permanent Chinese opera stage – one of possibly two that are still left in Singapore. It has long been a tradition for Chinese temples to hold a ‘wayang‘, as the various forms of Chinese opera is commonly referred to in Singapore and Malaysia, in conjunction with festivities to entertain the deities and in the case of the seventh month, the spirits who return and many permanent stages were a feature of temples in villages across Singapore.

The opera troupe onstage paying respects to the deity.

The opera troupe onstage paying respects to the deity.

A view of the wayang stage during the evening's performance.

A view of the wayang stage during the evening’s performance.

While interest in wayangs, which had a following among the masses, has waned in the wake of the introduction of more modern forms of entertainment, the art is being kept alive at the Ubin temple and by its Teochew opera troupe on which the spotlight does shine during the two big festivals that the temple celebrates.

More backstage scenes.

More backstage scenes.

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At the time of writing, this year’s Tua Pek Kong festival (the photographs of which are used in this post) is still being celebrated. The celebrations will draw to a close on Saturday (17 May) with a getai (歌台) after which the temple sends Tua Pek Kong (Da Bo Gong or 大伯公) off. On the evidence of last year’s celebrations, the getai does also draw a sizeable crowd (see a post on last year’s Getai at Watching the stars under the stars) and for the experience of watching the stars (of the local getai circuit), under the stars, it certainly is well worth going over to Ubin on the final evening of the festival.

The temple during one of the rituals.

The temple during one of the rituals.

The ritual sees the appearance of the Tua Ya Pek (大爷伯) or Bai Wuchang (白无常) and ...

The ritual sees the appearance of the Camel cigarette smoking Tua Ya Pek (大爷伯) or Bai Wuchang (白无常) and …

... the Li Ya Pek (二爷伯) or Hei Wuchang (黑无常). Collectively the pair - guardians of the Taoist interpretation of the hell or purgatory of afterlife, are known as the Tua Li Ya Pek (大二爷伯) or Heibai Wuchang (黑白无常).

… the Li Ya Pek (二爷伯) or Hei Wuchang (黑无常). Collectively the pair – guardians of the Taoist interpretation of the hell or purgatory of afterlife, are known as the Tua Li Ya Pek (大二爷伯) or Heibai Wuchang (黑白无常).

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Free boat rides are provided through the period of the festival from 6.30 to 9.00 pm each evening from Changi Jetty (and from 8.30 to 10 pm on the return trip). More information on the festival’s programme can be found at Peiyan’s blog: 12 May – 17 May 2014: Pulau Ubin Celebrates the Tua Pek Kong’s birthday.


[Photos of another ritual, the Pingan Bridge (平安桥) crossing ceremony, done in the belief that it would cleanse the participant of negative energy]

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Pulau Ubin Tua Pek Kong festival Programme for 17 May 2014:

1000: Teochew Opera Performance
1845: Pulau Ubin Fo Shan Ting Da Bo Gong Temple’s Night! + Getai Performance
2230: Departure of Da Bo Gong ritual


Some previous posts on festivities at the Pulau Ubin Tua Pek Kong Temple and the island:


 

 





Watching the stars under the stars

29 05 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The large crowd seated in front of the stage.

The large crowd seated in front of the stage.

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

Marcus Chin (陈建彬) on stage.

Marcus Chin (陈建彬) on stage.

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

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

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

Babes in the City (宝贝姐妹).

Babes in the City (宝贝姐妹).

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

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

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

The view backstage.

The view backstage.

A view through a window of the permanent wayang stage.

A view through a window of the permanent wayang stage.

More photographs of the stage and audience:

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Monoscapes: Moonlight on the Straits

10 04 2013

Moonlight on the Straits of Johor, on a night of the full moon, as seen from Pulau Ubin. Pulau Ubin is a granite island off the north-east Singapore, which in its natural state was dominated by mangrove swamps, much of which were cleared at the end of the 19th century to allow farming, plantation and quarrying activities to be carried out on the island. Described as Singapore’s “last wilderness”, it is today better know as an escape from the highly urbanised main island of Singapore. It is also known for its Outward Bound School and for the wetland reserve at Chek Jawa on its south-eastern tip.

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It was back in the 1980s that I first set foot on the island, joining friends on several overnight excursions around the island. Then, it played host to villages by the sea and fish farms, and its coastline was marked by boats and wooden jetties. Most have since disappeared, with just a small cluster of village houses close to where the jetty at which bumboats from the main island call at. The island, for which has been identified as a reserve for possible future housing development, was also where former a political detainee, Mr Lee Tee Tong was confined to after his release in February 1980. Lee was a former Barisan Socialis Assemblyman who was arrested during a crackdown on left-wing trade union activists under Operation Pechah in October 1963. In June 1978, some 131 Vietnamese Boat People, refugees who made the perilous escape from Vietnam after the fall of Saigon by boat up to the end of the 1970s, landed on the island. The island together with the neighbouring military training island of Pulau Tekong, is possibly the last habitat for the critically endangered Leopard Cat in Singapore.





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: