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.

1932 Malaya, Jahore Straits, Pulau Serimban near Lim Chu Kang

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.

 

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Still in the dark, where the darkness began this Sunday, 73 years ago

8 02 2015

In the darkness of a Sunday night, 73 years ago today, the end was to begin for Singapore. Just after 8 pm on 8 February 1942, the first wave of landings were made by Japanese troops  along the poorly defended and mangrove lined northwest coastline of the island.

In the dark: WWII landing site at Sarimbun Beach today with its fence to prevent a new invasion of  illegal immigrants and goods.

In the dark: WWII landing site at Sarimbun Beach today with its fence to prevent a new invasion of illegal immigrants and goods.

Defended by the ill prepared and poorly equipped Australian Imperial Forces’ 22nd Brigade, who were spread out thinly over a long stretch of the coastline, coupled with Percival’s misjudgement in focusing the defence of the island in its east, the area, the mangroves proved to be no barrier and the coast was very quickly overrun. The defence of Singapore was to fail miserably just a week later, a defeat that was to plunge Singapore in more than three years of darkness as the light of the Japanese Empire’s south.

“Sarimbun battle” by Unknown; original uploader was Grant65 at en.wikipedia. – Lionel Wigmore (1957) “Defence of Western Area” in Australia in the War of 1939–1945: Volume IV – The Japanese Thrust (PDF), Canberra: Australian War Memorial, pp. 310 Transferred from en.wikipedia by Gorbi. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Much of the area today is still shrouded in darkness. Cut-off from the rest of Singapore by its relative inaccessibility and isolation – much of it is off limits as a large part of it lies within the Live Firing Area (and even where it isn’t, there is a fence intended to keep the new invasion of illegal immigrants and goods out that also cuts us off from our seas), it is an area seemingly forgotten even if there are markers in place to commemorate an event that should remain in the minds of all of us in Singapore.

A page from the Australian Imperial Forces 2/20 Battalion unit diary. The 2/20 Battalion was defending the sector where Sarimbun Beach is at the time of the landings.

A page from the Australian Imperial Forces 2/20 Battalion unit diary. The 2/20 Battalion was defending the sector where Sarimbun Beach is at the time of the landings.

Japanese forces landing on Singapore on the night of 8 February 1942 (Australian War Memorial – Copyright Expired).


Related:

Japanese footage from the Romano Archives, 1942 The Taking of Singapore, which includes some landing scenes:

Another landing site, The Pier: A lost world in Lim Chu Kang






A paddle through the Jalan Gemala Nature Area

15 12 2014

The Jalan Gemala area at Lim Chu Kang is as remote and wild as it can possibly get on the island of Singapore. Set along the banks of the upper reaches of the Sungei Kranji, once a tidal river lined with rich mangrove forests up to the extent of the tidal influence,  it finds itself at the edge of a reservoir of freshwater, created by the damming of the mouth of the Kranji River.JeromeLim-0667 2

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The river itself had in the past been one that served as a communication link, bringing in settlement to an area where early gambler plantations had been established. An area of mangroves – the river was lined with the watery forests up to the limits of the tidal influence, it now supports an area of freshwater marshes, wet grasslands and secondary woodland that is teeming with bird, plant and insect life – it is thought to support a colony of fireflies.

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The area was one of two identified in the 2013 Land Use Plan and subsequently the URA Master Plan for conservation as Nature Areas – the other being Pulau Unum and Beting Bronok.  The Land Use Plan has this to say about the area:

Jalan Gemala at Lim Chu Kang has varied habitats such as wet grassland, freshwater marshes as well as tall secondary woodland and freshwater reservoir that are near the area. Its addition as a nature area is significant given its rich wet grassland, with two rare plants (Leea angulata and Cayratia trifolia) being sighted. The inclusion of Jalan Gemala will also help secure the sustainability of the existing Kranji Marshes site at Neo Tiew Lane. The Pink-necked Green Pigeons and Mallotus paniculatus, a quick growing shrub that provides food for small birds are some wildlife species that can be found here.

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Based on information provided by the Nature Society (Singapore) the Jalan Gemala Nature Area is spread along a length of 4 to 5 kilometres and includes secondary forest, grassland and wetland running along the Kangkar inlet into Kranji Reservoir and is adjacent to Kranji Marsh.

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A blue-tailed bee eater in flight

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A rare blue-eared kingfisher


Works being currently bing carried out by NParks

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Surviving the tidal wave of development

24 12 2013

Among the many highlights at the URA’s Draft Master Plan 2013 exhibition at the URA Centre (which has been extended to 17 January 2014), is one which relates to the house over a beautiful house over sea in the beautiful and undisturbed world at Lim Chu Kang. Referred to as Cashin House and also known as “The Pier”, I had a chance to see the place, a former home of the late Howard Cashin, back in 2011. It is a house that is said to have played host to teatime visits from the Sultan of Johor and a place in which one is taken back to days of leisure by the sea in times we have well forgotten. It is nice to see that the life of the house, and its rustic surroundings, are being extended and not built around – as too many conserved buildings have unfortunately been. It will be a western gateway to what will be an expanded Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve that will link pockets, such as the Lim Chu Kang East mangroves adjacent to the Cashin House, up, along what is a mangrove dominated northwest coast with the first phase of the reserve east of the Cashin House.

The Pier (Draft Master Plan 2013)

More on the Cashin House can be found in a previous post: A lost world in Lim Chu Kang.

The Pier.

A Lost World in Lim Chu Kang.





A lost world in Lim Chu Kang

19 07 2011

Deep within a world that is now missing from much of Singapore, lies a reminder how life might once have been; one of carefree days spent by the sea, and of quiet nights gazing at the stars. It is a world that doesn’t exist anymore and one that many would find hard to go back to.

A reminder of carefree days in the sun, accompanied by the sand and the sea … a world that doesn’t exist in Singapore anymore?

This reminder, takes the form of the former residence of the late Howard Edmund Cashin, a prominent lawyer and sportsman in his time. Perched on a pier like structure that stretches over mud flats from an area of the mangrove dominated the north-western shores of Singapore, The Pier, as Mr. Cashin referred to the residence, was one that also boasted of an expansive garden from which one can be serenaded by the songs of the sea. Left vacant following Mr. Cashin’s passing in 2009, “The Pier” reminds me of gentler days, of times when the escapes to or taking up residence in seemingly far-flung and idyllic coastal locations across our island seemed the fashion. And, with most of these places since been lost to land reclamation, these are moments and places that we can never again see.

A lost world that reminds us of a Singapore that doesn’t exist anymore can be found in Lim Chu Kang.

The lost road to the lost world …

“The Pier” had served Mr Cashin’s for close to 50 years. Based on newspaper articles and oral history interviews, I understand that the Cashins, Howard and his wife Gillian, moved in to “The Pier” in the 1960s. It was however well before that that the pier had been constructed, the pier itself having been put up in 1906 by Mr Cashin’s father as a means to move rubber from his vast Cashin estate in Lim Chu Kang to Kranji from where it could be transported by road. The house we see on it, was largely added in the 1920s.

The Pier was the home of Mr and Mrs Howard Cashin and was built over a pier which fell to the invading 5th Division of the Japanese Imperial Army in the dark days of February 1942.

The Pier in the 1920s (a scan from The Singapore House, 1819-1942).

The Pier in the 1920s (a scan from The Singapore House, 1819-1942).

“The Pier” is significant from a historical perspective, having been on of the sites where the Japanese Imperial Army’s 5th Division first landed on the north-western coastline in the dark days of early February 1942 that was to lead to the eventual fall of Singapore. The site was where the Japanese invaders out-fought the Australian 22nd Brigade. This despite the Australians defending valiantly and having inflicted heavy casualties on the Japanese. The battle, fought over the night of the 8th of February, was to see some 360 Australian troops losing their lives in the relatively small area of land around “The Pier”. The Japanese were to erect a war shrine at the site. This was something that Mr. Cashin had difficulty removing after the war as it was not easy to find workmen willing to demolish the shrine. Mr. Cashin, in an interview, said that the stone from the pedestal the shrine had stood on was used to construct the road to the house that Mr. Cashin was to add before he moved in in the 1960s.

A view of The Pier from the expansive gardens.

A view of the gardens.

One of the things I was to learn from N. Sivasothi or Siva, who had been kind enough to ask me along for a recce he was conducting of the mangroves close to “The Pier” (see my previous post), was that the then Sultan of Johor (the late father of the current Sultan) was a frequent visitor. His Highness would drop in on the Cashins for tea, coming over by boat across the Straits of Johor; the first of his visits was at low tide and this required the assistance of a huge man in the Sultan’s entourage to carry His Highness on his shoulders over the mud of the tidal flats. This, a reminder of times when borders did not exist, both in the physical sense of the word as well as in the minds of many who lived on either side of the Causeway.

The Pier.

A look through the gates ….

With that gentle world now lost, “The Pier” stands as one of the few reminders left of that world. Now vacant, the ownership of “The Pier” has been passed on to the Singapore Land Authority and thankfully, it is not one we would soon be saying goodbye to as often is the case with many abandoned homes that eventually, would fall into decay, the initial word was that it could see use as a field station. I know at least that it will be there to return to. And, while it may not be a return to a place that I once knew, it will be to a place from which I can be transported back to places and times forgotten that would otherwise exist only in the dreams I have of yesterday.

A peek through the grilles at the entrance to the house …

Signs of abandonment.

Windows.

A peek inside … what would have been the kitchen and dining room.

The living room.

The balcony.

View of the mangrove dominated coastline.

A stariway to the sea … probably one that the Sultan of Johor would have used to ascend from his boat on his visits to the Cashins.


Update on status of the house (source: URA Draft Master Plan 2013 exhibition in Nov/Dec 2013): The Pier (Draft Master Plan 2013)






The forgotten shores

18 07 2011

Lying in the (somewhat) remote and relatively undeveloped north-western corner of Singapore is a world that we seem to have forgotten. It is a world that I had in my younger days, visited on occasion, distracted in my forays into what had seemed like the ends of the earth by the purpose with which I had visited it, first as a boy scout and later as a National Serviceman. It probably has been close to two decades since I last visited the area, and when an opportunity arose to revisit the area over the weekend – the man instrumental in the efforts to cleanup some of the neglected coastal areas in Singapore, N. Sivasothi of the National University of Singapore (NUS), was doing a recce of mangroves in the area which will be the focus of his efforts come August and September of this year and extended an invitation to me to join him, I decided to have a look. I was glad I did, finding that the area was as I had imagined it to be – a lost world that seems far from the Singapore that I have grown accustomed to.

A forgotten world lies along the north-western shores of Singapore.

The forgotten north-western shores of Singapore.

Much of the coastal region around the northwest of Singapore are still dominated by the mangroves that had extended around much of the island’s original coastline, a coastline that lies forgotten and somewhat neglected over the years. Access to the mangroves of the area are through roads that lead to the north-west of which the main thoroughfare is Lim Chu Kand Road which ends at an area that seems as remote as one can get to in Singapore, one that is now dominated by a large Police Coast Guard base and a pontoon jetty that is used by fishermen. One of the mangroves that was surveyed was the one that is adjacent to this jetty, accessible over the mud flats that reach out to sea just by the jetty, which is well known for it’s giant mud mounds built by the mud lobster. This will be the focus of clean-up efforts on the 6th of August this year, something that Siva does for Singapore around every National Day. The extent of the litter that has washed up and become entrapped within the mangroves was clear just from having a look around and it is wonderful to know that there are efforts to clear the area of all that.

A mangrove forest at the Lim Chu Kang area. Much of Singapore's north-western coastline is still dominated by mangroves that had lined most of Singapore's original coastline.

Mud flats adjacent to the pontoon jetty at Lim Chu Kang end.

Saturday's recce through the Lim Chu Kang mangrove.

Litter washed ashore and entrapped by the mangroves was evident all around. The area will be the focus of clean-up efforts on 6th August 2011.

Another area that was surveyed was a little further to the east, accessible through Lim Chu Kang Lane 9, close to where the late Howard Cashin had his incredible retreat by the mangroves, a building that is built on stilts over the sea and is still there. This I would devote another post to. Adjacent to the plot of land where Cashin built the retreat, runs a stream through the mangroves that would be the focus of attention on International Coastal Cleanup Day on 17th September 2011. Here, the extent of the fouling by debris is again evident, with much of it washed up the stream together with renovation debris that has apparently been dumped there. Although much of the efforts involve volunteers amongst the staff and students at NUS, others are also welcomed to join in. For the effort on 6th August, sign-ups for volunteers can be made at this link.

A view of the mangroves off Lim Chu Kang Lane 9.

Siva in his element ... the mangroves that are very close to his heart.

Siva and Jessica Ker surveying the stream off Lim Chu Kang Lane 9.

Being in what is an area that is abundant with greenery, I was able to also spend a little time to have a look around me and take in some of the joys that the greenery brings. The area is rich in butterflies and my brief visit allowed me to watch a few dance around the abundant flora of the area. I certainly am thankful to Siva for opening a door for me to an area that I have forgotten about and one that I would now certainly have more encounters with.

A male Painted Jezebel.

A female Leopard Lacewing.

A Plain Palm Dart.

A weaver bird's nest.