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).


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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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