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.

 





Singapore Landscapes: the tortoise in the early light of day

5 05 2014

It was in the soft light of a storm washed morning on the first of May that I found myself taking in the quiet beauty of less visited part of Singapore, an island, Kusu Island, just 15 minutes away by boat from mainland Singapore. The island is one I have not set eyes on since the days of my youth, the last I did see of it would have been some three decades ago, when reclamation had already expanded it.

Low tide in the swimming lagoon.

Low tide in the northern swimming lagoon.

The island has been one that has been the subject of many tales from the past. Taking on the shape of a tortoise or turtle when the tide came in – it had been a pair of rocky outcrops set on a reef that were separated at high tide, with the smaller of the two outcrops resembling a head, and the larger mound, the body; legend does have it as having been a turtle that turned into an island in the act of rescuing shipwrecked sailors from the sea.

The swimming lagoon at low tide in the light of dawn.

The swimming lagoon at low tide in the light of dawn.

The incoming storm - the approaching Sumatra.

The incoming storm – the approaching Sumatra.

The legend is one connected with a annual pilgrimage that the island hosts during the ninth month of the Chinese lunar calendar when the sleepy island sees hundreds of thousands of Taoist devotees from the mainland who visit to pay homage at the island’s Tua Peh Kong temple (set on the smaller outcrop) and also the island’s three keramats (on the mound). The tradition is thought to go back to the days before Raffles arrived (see: “Before the Days of Raffles” – article on The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884-1942), 19 October 1932, Page 7) and draws some 100,000 to 200,000 visitors over the pilgrimage month.

A postcard of Kusu Island at low tide, showing the smaller rocky outcrop on which the Tua Peh Kong Temple is, from the larger side (posted by Yun Xin on the Facebook Group 'On a little street in Singapore').

A postcard of Kusu Island at low tide, showing the smaller rocky outcrop on which the Tua Peh Kong Temple is, from the larger side (posted by Yun Xin on the Facebook Group ‘On a little street in Singapore’).

A view of the temple with Lazarus Island across the channel.

A view of the temple seen today with Lazarus Island across the channel.

The sight of Kusu during the pilgrimage must certainly be an amazing one – especially in days before the reclamation of the early 1970s provided more room for the mass of visitors – the reclamation saw some 270,000 cubic metres of sand filled into the sea and provided Kusu with an additional 7.3 ha. of land area (on top of the original 1.2 ha.) with swimming (two lagoons) and picnicking facilities added.

Conservationists at work.

Conservationists at work.

That sight was, however, not the same one that I did get of Kusu in the early light. I had gone over with a group of Marine Conservationists, who were kind enough to allow Juria and me (we are both attempting to document memories of the coastline and the islands as part of a IrememberSG project, Points of Departure) to tag along. The timing of the journey, which had us embarking a boat at Marina South Pier at 5 in the morning, had been timed to bring the group led by Ria Tan (many will be familiar with her Wild Shores of Singapore site) to the island at low tide. As I was experimenting with capturing sounds of the shoreline after the brief Sumatra squall had passed, the group was threading through the flats and reefs exposed by the shallow water of the western lagoon and beyond the rock bund to document marine life in and around what is a regenerated reef that I never realised was there. You can see what the group did manage to find on Ria’s post “How is Kusu Island doing?“.

Another view of the western lagoon at dawn.

Another view of the northern lagoon at dawn.

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Sitting on the bund, I did, for a brief moment, find myself transported faraway in time, to a Singapore I once was familiar with. It didn’t take long however, before the sounds of the sea were punctured by the drone of jets flying above and I noticed the illuminated wheel and adjacent to it the unmistakable paraphernalia of the modern city looming on the horizon. It was then that I heard the chatter of my companions for the morning, busy at work, bringing me back to where I was in time and space.

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I have for long, longed to be transported to a childhood sea. And while I do know that sea is one I will never again see, I do at least have moments such as these to look forward to and be thankful for; moments, that in a world I can not longer feel for, is able to bring a sense of peace that might otherwise elude me.

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Information on Kusu Island, including newspaper articles with illustrations of what it did once look like can be found in the following links:

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