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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Revisiting Clifford Pier

13 10 2010

Having spent a few hours of my weekend in Rotunda Library of the former Supreme Court, I was able to have a last feel of what must be considered to be the greatest work of Frank Dorrington Ward. This certainly allowed me to have a better appreciation for the genius of the architect who gave us some of the magnificent structures we have inherited from our colonial past, including one that my attention was turned to last evening, Clifford Pier. Ward’s contribution towards the beautiful pier was as the Chief Architect of the team of architects at the Public Works Department that provided the design for what must be the finest pier to be built in Singapore, in which the Art-Deco style features prominently. The pier, which may have looked a little worse for wear in the latter part of its life as a public pier from which many people made their journeys to the southern islands and the gateway for many seamen coming ashore to Singapore, has been wonderfully restored and a large part of it given to use as an exclusive restaurant “One on the Bund”, and the front end of it being converted into an entrance to the very posh Fullerton Bay Hotel.

Clifford Pier at its opening in 1933 (source: Woh Hup 80, Building with Integrity).

The front end of the pier now serves as the entrance to the posh Fullerton Bay Hotel.

The magnificent pier, built to replace Johnston’s Pier in 1933, never seemed to go to sleep and was always alive with activity in the 1970s when I was growing up. It was a place that I certainly have many fond memories of, having visited on many occasions to watch the comings and goings of the passengers of the launches that bobbled up and down the sides of the pier. There was always a frenzy of activity as passengers would scramble up and down the precariously slippery steps to or from the spacious deck of the pier. Already busy as it was, the ninth month of the Chinese lunar calendar would bring with it the frenzy crowd of pilgrims heading to Kusu Island for the annual pilgrimage. The pier was also where I had embarked on several adventures of my own – to the islands that lay beyond the southern shores of Singapore and also on to the high seas. It would have been nice if the pier had kept its place as a gateway to the southern islands and beyond – a focal point close to the old heart of the city from which a doorway opened to the shores that lay beyond Singapore – an area that is significant to the history of Singapore as one being where many of the our forefathers – the early immigrants who made Singapore what it is would have first set foot on the island. This sadly wasn’t to be as the conversion of what is now known as Marina Bay into a fresh water reservoir with the construction of the Marina Barrage put paid to any thoughts some of us might have harboured on this. The pier ceased operations in 2004 as the Marina Barrage had cut off what had once been the Inner Roads of the harbour to the sea.

An early view of Clifford Pier (c. 1950) from an old postcard (courtesy of Mr. Low Kam Hoong).

The pier is perhaps best known for the beautiful concrete trusses which support its roof structure, which provided a wide unsupported span of the roof supports, allowing a clear and unobstructed space across much of the expansive deck of the once well used pier – another piece of architectural genius given to Singapore by Frank Dorrington Ward and his team. While the trusses have perhaps escaped the eyes of many in the hundreds of thousands who might have passed under the roof they provide support for during the 71 years of the pier’s operation, it was (and still is) a sight to behold.

Deck of Clifford Pier with the beautiful concrete arched trusses of the roof structure above (source: Woh Hup 80, Building with Integrity).

Clifford Pier as it appears today as "One on the Bund".

The beautifully illuminated concrete trusses of the roof structure - not everybody gets to get close up and personal with them anymore.

Another view of the setting of the restaurant that now occupies Clifford Pier.

The restoration and conversion of the use of the pier does provide an opportunity to savour the beauty of the truss structure, particularly in the evenings when the effects of the varied and changing hues provided by the coloured illumination which does seem to bring the beauty of structures out brilliantly. However, it is unfortunate for many of us that much of the pier within the exclusive restaurant remains inaccessible to the general public to allow an up close and personal appreciation of the wonderfully design roof structure. I had in the past attempted to capture the trusses on camera but was prevented from doing so and only got a chance to do it as a guest of an event held at the restaurant last evening. While it is nice to see the restoration of buildings that are our monuments and heritage and the use of them in a very dignified manner as is the case with Clifford Pier, and with the consideration that certainly must be made from a commercial perspective, it would still be nice if at least some parts of it are made accessible to the general public who like me, have a link or a memory to a past that might be worth a revisit from time to time. I do hope that whatever is planned for some of the future heritage sites such as the grand station at Tanjong Pagar that consideration be put in to allow parts of them to at least remain accessible to us.


The beautiful setting inside the restaurant.


More views of the restaurant.

Maybe other ideas on conservation are required to allow the general public to fully appreciate some of our heritage buildings?

The entrance to the Fullerton Bay Hotel at the front end of the pier.

The view of the restaurant from the entrance.

Views of the wonderful structure of the pier.

A close-up of the trusses ...

Air-conditioning vents blend in with the existing structure.


The decor of the restaurant does include many reminders of the past.

More views of last evening’s event:

Dough figurines that were commonly found amongst the vendors that accompanied the the wayangs (street Chinese Operas) of old.

The open air deck at the far end of the pier.