Christmas came early

23 12 2017

An early Christmas present – the wonderful combination of colours that painted this morning’s sky, taken at 6.47 am from the Beaulieu Jetty at Sembawang Park. The view is of the Tebrau Strait towards Pasir Gudang in Johor on the left of the photograph and the former Kampong Wak Hassan on the right – where the silhouettes of two tower cranes can be seen. The area of the former seaside kampung is where luxury homes are currently being built.

Colours of the morning, 23 Dec 2017, 6.47 am.

 





Monday not so blue

20 05 2015

It has been a long while since we a celebration of the new day as spectacular as the one seen on Monday.

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Colours of the new day, Monday, 18 May 2015, 6.48 am as seen from the beach at Kg Wak Hassan.





A magical Christmas sunrise

25 12 2014

The colours of sunrise, as seen at the Tebrau Strait at 6.41 am on Christmas Day 2014.

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The burning boat

14 10 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

The crowd at Kampong Wak Hassan.

The crowd at Kampong Wak Hassan.

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

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

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

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

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

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Worshiping the sun in a place on which the sun has set

23 06 2014

The view across the Tebrau Strait at 7 am on 21 June 2014, as seen from the seawall at Kampong Wak Hassan, an area that hosted a village by the sea , on which the sun has long set.

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Early light over the strait

8 06 2014

Another long exposure. This time to capture the early light over the Straits of Johor through another rain coloured morning, at 6.22 am on 7 June 2014.

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Colours of dawn 31 May 2014

31 05 2014

Colours of dawn, 6.31 am, 31 May 2014, as seen at the unmanicured beach of Kampong Wak Hassan.

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Dawn by the strait

26 05 2014

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

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Early light

11 05 2014

6.29 am, 10 May 2014, Kampong Wak Hassan.

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The sun rises on the year of the horse

2 02 2014

Photographs taken as the sun set on the Chinese year of the snake on 30 Jan 2014, rising at dawn on 31 Jan 2014 in a golden welcome to the year of the horse.


Colours of the sun setting on the year of the snake, 7.24 pm 30 Jan 2014.

Colours of the sun setting on the year of the snake, 7.24 pm 30 Jan 2014.

Early light as the sun rises on the year of the horse, 6.46 am 31 Jan 2014.

Early light as the sun rises on the year of the horse, 6.46 am 31 Jan 2014.

A couple watching the changing hues at sunrise, 6.56 am 31 Jan 2014.

A couple watching the changing hues at sunrise, 6.56 am 31 Jan 2014.

Colours of the sunrise, 7.01 am 31 Jan 2014.

Colours of the sunrise, 7.01 am 31 Jan 2014.

The rising sun, 7.17 am 31 Jan 2014.

The rising sun, 7.17 am 31 Jan 2014.

The rising sun, 7.22 am 31 Jan 2014.

The rising sun, 7.22 am 31 Jan 2014.





A sunrise where the sun may soon set

21 11 2013

7.01 am on 21 Nov 2013. The rising of the sun seen through storm clouds at one of the last natural stretches of beaches in Singapore. The beach, is off the area of Sembawang which was once Kampong Wak Hassan, along a coastline which hosted several coastal villages. Based on the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) Draft Master Plan 2013 which we got to have a first glimpse of yesterday, the coastline is due to be altered through land reclamation (see graphic) – no change from the more recent Master Plans which the URA releases once every five years, including the 2003 Master Plan which invited Ms Margie Hall, a member of the Nature Society (Singapore) and a long time resident of Sembawang, to write to the URA on (see Feedback to URA by Margie Hall, 8 May 2003). While land reclamation in the area appears to have been put on hold and the beach area at Sembawang Park adjacent to Kampong Wak Hassan has been given a recent makeover, it does seem that the intention to reclaim land from the sea off the beach is very much still there.

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Kampong Wak Hassan: Memories of Times Past

3 09 2013

“It is sad to see that all that remains of it is just a road sign”, sighs Yunos Osman about the village of his birth, where he lived for the first three decades of his life. The sign bears the name ‘Kampong Wak Hassan’, now a 150-metre stretch of road named after the village and except for that there is indeed little to remind us of Yunos’ kampung by the sea.

The seawall at Kampong Wak Hassan.

The seawall at Kampong Wak Hassan.

This kampung was one of several coastal villages situated along a stretch of Singapore’s northern coastline along what is today Sembawang Road and southeast of Tanjong Irau, at the mouth of Sungei Simpang. The oldest of the villages, Kampong Wak Hassan, has a history that goes back to before the 1920s, when it was moved to the area.

The village had its origins in a coconut grove established in 1914 by Wak Hassan bin Ali, who lent his name to the village. Located where Sungei Sembawang had originally spilled into the Johor Strait (just west of what today is Sembawang Shipyard), it was relocated during the construction of the huge British naval base along the northern coastline (the base was to stretch some 6.5 kilometres along the coast from Woodlands to Sembawang).

Kampong Wak Hassan, photo courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore.

Kampong Wak Hassan, photo courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore.

The village was also the area’s longest surviving one, cleared only at the end of the 1990s. For Yunos, who left it in 1994, and other former residents, the attachment they have to the area is still strong. Many return from time to time to sit by the former village’s sea wall. A narrow strip of public land between the road and the wall serves as a place where bygone days can be relived.

Most of the village’s former residents now live in new kampungs, public housing estates with modern amenities. Another former resident and descendant of the village’s founder, Yazlyn Ishak, enjoys the convenient aspects of her new home. However, despite the conveniences they now enjoy, many would have preferred to not trade the days when the sea was their playground, when they woke to the sight of fishing boats returning to waters coloured by the sunrise, when their doors did not have locks, for the urban world they now live in.

New luxury housing development in the area.

New luxury housing development in the area.

For both Yunos and Yazlyn, who moved to Yishun in 1987, it is the ‘kampung spirit’ that set village life apart from their new environment. Yazlyn’s fondest memories are of the times the village came together during preparations for festive occasions and weddings.

The sea wall, now partially collapsed, is a physical reminder of their former home that both Yunos and Yazlyn hope will remain. The area is currently in the throes of redevelopment and the sea wall is the only remaining physical part of the kampung. On part of the land where the kampung once stood, a luxury residential development has already taken shape.

The sea wall still welcomes visitors very much in the same way as the village it protected once did and also serves to remind us of what walls in villages such as Kampong Wak Hassan were – they offered privacy and protection, but were never a barrier to the development of a community; something we find lacking in the new ‘villages’.

The area today.

The area today.

The changes we see taking place around the former Kampong Wak Hassan are perhaps also a reflection of how society has changed. In former times many would have lived by the sea out of necessity because it provided a livelihood. Living by the sea has now become a measure of the material success that the new society so craves.

NB. ‘Kampong’ is the older Malay spelling of ‘kampung’, usage of which has been retained in place names.


This article was published in the September/October 2013 edition of the Friends of the Museums bi-monthly magazine, Passage (see link).






The glow of the new day

21 08 2013

An unusual sight at sunrise at 7.03 am on 18 August 2013 with the clouds parting to leave a clear band of sky at the horizon coloured by the rising sun.

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Colours of independent Singapore’s 48th birthday

9 08 2013

Colours of the new day breaking at 6.51 am on the occasion of independent Singapore’s 48th birthday. Happy National Day Singapore!

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Colours of the morning, 24 July 2013

25 07 2013

The colours of the sunrise seen at 6.47 am from a wild and forgotten shore along which I find quiet moments on many a morning.

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Monoscapes: Dawn of a new world

19 07 2013

Seen against the light of dawn by the Tebrau or Johor Strait is a fence at the beach in Sembawang. More recently erected, it marked, for some reason, a long discarded boundary between what used to be a huge British naval base, vacated in 1971 and the area to its east, once occupied by coastal villages, the last of which was cleared in the later half of the 1990s. The fence came down two weeks ago, coinciding with the completion of “renewal” work at Sembawang Park which was developed at the end of the 1970s on the eastern edge of the former base. For long spared from the huge wave of development that has swept across much of the island of Singapore, the Sembawang area is in the midst of change as new public housing and luxury private residential developments in the area will transform what was an area with a well known laid-back feel and old world charm into another well populated and overly manicured neighbourhood in new Singapore.

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Light through the darkness

9 07 2013

While a storm sweeping in at dawn does usually bring with it a muted celebration of the new day, the effort to catch the break of day is sometimes rewarded with a surprise as it was today when the storm clouds parted to reveal a spectacular view of the coloured light of sunrise filtering through the darkness …

The colours of sunrise seen through the gathering of storm clouds at 6.48 am on 9 July 2013.

The colours of sunrise seen through the gathering of storm clouds at 6.48 am on 9 July 2013.





A view down the Strait

8 07 2013

The view northwestwards down the Straits of Johor from Kampong Wak Hassan is one which would have once looked across to the part of the strait where the huge naval base which was completed in 1938 by the British. The base which stretched from what is Sembawang Park today all the way along the strait to what today is the west end of Woodlands Waterfront close to the Causeway, was opened up in 1971, allowing public access to what was a restricted area.

A view down the Strait

The view down the Strait at 6.52 am this morning.

The area is one I have had many interactions with since the 1970s. The jetty seen in the photograph, is one I spent many nights at fishing for crabs as was another jetty at the west end of the former base – the then already derelict Ruthenia Oiling Jetty which has since been demolished. The 1970s were interesting times for the area, with the opening up of it allowing some parts of the area to be exploited for non-military use. One use of a small part of the area one was perhaps one we in modern Singapore have largely forgotten, a reminder of a period of South-East Asian history when times were less certain. This particular use will be one of the subjects of an exploration by two popular television personalities for an episode on the Woodlands area of a Chinese TV series, Secrets in the Hood, to be televised on Channel U on 3 September 2013. Do look out for it and other interesting hidden secrets from neighbourhoods across the heartlands of Singapore in the series which will air from 6 August to 13 September 2013 in the 9 to 10 pm slot.

A popular TV personality will be exploring the area in an episode of a Chinese television series which will be aired on 3 September on Channel U.

A popular TV personality will be exploring the area in an episode of a Chinese television series which will be aired on 3 September on Channel U.





A simple pleasure

31 05 2013

Possibly one of the best places in Singapore to enjoy the rising of the sun is along the northern shoreline just east of Sembawang Park. It is in the area where of the last natural sandy beaches left on the island can be found. Wild and untamed, it is full of character which is no longer found in the manicured seaside parks we now have too many of. The beach, off the former Kampong Wak Hassan, is one I often find myself at, partaking in one of the simple joys that nature brings – the painting of the sky by the colours of the rising sun – made even more of a wonder to behold by the beauty it reveals of a beach that is like none other in Singapore – at least for now. The signs are there that it will not be long before a now all too familiar world descends upon it. Until then, it will be where I will be able to cling on to a little reminder of a past we have otherwise discarded.

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7.00 am the sun appears at the horizon.7.00 am the sun appears at the horizon

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The joy of solitude in a world forgotten

22 05 2013

It is in a world by the sea that lies forgotten that I often find myself in silent solitude to celebrate the joy of the morning. Spared from the obsessive desire we in Singapore have to manicure and introduce clutter to our public places, it is a world which connects me with the wonderful memories of childhood holidays by the sea in a gentler Singapore that we long have left behind. I do hope the day when this world is made to catch up with the new is far away, but it probably will be a case that it will come sooner rather than later with developments in the area gaining pace to bring us that promise land some find little promise in. But before that happens, it will serve as an escape from a world it increasing is hard to find an escape from and a world we I can at least feel at home in.

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