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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Lost Singapore: The hundred steps to a thousand Buddhas

1 11 2017

Of the many places in Singapore we have lost over the years, none might have possessed the magical quality of the Hall of A Thousand Buddhas standing at the top of Mount Washington. From its isolated perch, even if it was merely 80 metres above sea level, it would have seemed that heaven was a lot closer to it than was earth. A sanctuary for prayer, and perhaps for contemplation, the ascent to it would – at least for the devoted – involved a climb of a hundred steps.

A view from afar with the two 19th century Guanyin temples also seen (photo posted by Tan Chee Wee on On A Little Street in Singapore).

In as magical a fashion as the hall might have been, photographs of the temple have quite recently come to the surface – in the same wonderful photograph sets posted by Lies Strijker-Klaij On a Little Street in Singapore. The same set includes those of the Anchor Brewery and its railway siding that made an appearance in my previous post.

The Hall of A Thousand Buddhas, c. 1960s. Photo: TH. A. STRIJKER (potsed by Lies Strijker-Klaij on On A Little Street in Singapore).

The prayer hall, also referred to as a temple, was erected by the World Buddhist Society in 1966 to commemorate the first anniversary of Singapore’s independence. An accompanying pagoda, standing close to the hall, was actually built before the hall and had been in existence since 1957 when it was built in commemoration of the then Malaya’s Merdeka. Besides the pair, two other temple buildings – built onto the slope below the hall – were also found by the long staircase. Both were dedicated to Kwan In – the goddess of mercy, with the upper temple intended for male worshippers having been of a 1871 vintage and the lower temple – for women – thought to have been built in 1884. The complex of structures adorned the summit of Mount Washington, also known as Telok Blangah Hill or Thousand Buddha Hill until the late 1980s. That was when the land on which it stood was acquired to allow an extension to Mount Faber Park, across Henderson Road (a 1972 addition), to be built; despite the appeals that were made against it. The World Buddhist Society’s headquarters, housed in the Alkaff Mansion downslope since 1970, was also acquired during the same exercise.

The Hall of A Thousand Buddhas, c. 1960s. Photo: TH. A. STRIJKER (potsed by Lies Strijker-Klaij on On A Little Street in Singapore).

The Pagoda of A Thousand Buddhas, c. 1960s. Photo: TH. A. STRIJKER (potsed by Lies Strijker-Klaij on On A Little Street in Singapore).

A close-up of the Pagoda of A Thousand Buddhas, c. 1960s. Photo: TH. A. STRIJKER (posted by Lies Strijker-Klaij on On A Little Street in Singapore).

A postcard of the hall and the pagoda.

 





Parting Glances: Hup Lee Kopitiam

23 08 2017

Just like the remnants of Robinson Petang flea market at Sungei Road, just a stone’s throw away, the old world Hup Lee kopitiam at Jalan Besar was a reminder of a Singapore that has all but been consigned to the past. Its closing, just this week, just over a month after the decades old flea market was shut for good, is perhaps no surprise; the old coffeeshop’s fortunes were very much tied to the flea market from which it drew quite a fair proportion of its patrons.

Going back to the 1950s, Hup Lee was one of a rare breed of old-world coffee shops in which time seemed to have stood very still. The touch of nostalgia that its provided was a huge draw. An oasis in the desert of modernity that Singapore has become, its closure will be mourned by those for whom Singapore has moved much, much too fast.

See also:

The small crowd that gathered at Hup Lee on its last day of business on 21 August 2017.

The last pot of coffee.

Washing up for the last time.

A customer having the very last cup of coffee that was served, as the coffee shop emptied just after 8 pm on Monday.

Closed for business.

A last look.

Gates closed for good.

The morning after.





Tanah Merah, 1965

22 05 2017

Old photographs, of much cherished places that are no longer with us in Singapore, are a godsend. They help me to hold on to my sanity in a country that due to the relentless pace of change, feels much less like home with each passing day.

A set of such photos arrived in my inbox over the weekend. Taken in 1965 and sent by Ian Brooks, the photos are first in colour that I have come across of the Tanah Merah Besar area of my early childhood. The photos are especially precious for two reasons. One, the show a house perched on a set of cliffs (yes, cliffs!) and two, they also show one of many machine-gun pillbox that were then a fairly common sight.

The area in which these were taken – where the seaward end of Tanah Merah Besar Road turned northeast or left into Nicoll Drive and right or southwest to Wing Loong Road – was a gateway into a most magical of places, the Tanah Merah of my early childhood. That Tanah Merah was one of seaside kampungs, coconut groves, beach-side villas – one of which belonged to Singapore’s first Chief Minister, David Marshall – and holiday bungalows (see also: Once Tanah Merah and also Mata Ikan) and one that provided me with some of the most memorable moments of my early childhood.

Sadly, nothing is left of it except for a Tanah Merah Besar Road that now ends at a fence (belonging to Changi Airport’s western perimeter), and the memories of a world that if not for the photographs that still exist, would surely fade away.





Moving images of the Syonan Jinja at MacRitchie Reservoir

2 03 2017

A rare clip with scenes taken at a ceremony at the Syonan Jinja (from 1:23 to 3:30 in the clip), a shrine built during the Japanese Occupation with POW labour. The shrine was to have been a most beautiful of shrines with pebbled streams, stone lanterns, a stone stepped paths and torii gates and set in a 1,000-acre park with public recreational and sporting facilities. Pebbles, intended for the water filter beds at Bukit Timah, were diverted for its use. A new city was also to have been built around it. The grand plans were cut short with Japan’s defeat in the war and the shrine was destroyed before the British returned for fear of its desecration. More on the shrine can be found at this post: Lost places – the shrine across the Divine Bridge.

A worship ceremony involving Japanese troops at the opening of the Syonan Jinja in 1943 (source: http://www.himoji.jp/himoji/database/db04/images_db_ori/2200.jpg).

The opening of the Syonan Jinja in 1943 (source: http://www.himoji.jp/himoji/database/db04/images_db_ori/2200.jpg).

The clip apparently shows a ceremony taking place at the Syonan Jinja on 15 February 1943, the first anniversary of the Fall of Singapore, that involved children seen who had returned from civilian camps they were sent to in New Dehli in India when the war in the Far East broke out.





The gun battery set up for the defence of Singapore at Pengerang

1 11 2016

Hidden in the vegetation on a knoll just by the Tanjung Pengelih Jetty in Pengerang is the little that remains of a 6″ gun battery that was set up for the defence of Singapore in the 1930s. The battery was one of several that came under the Changi Command. Positioned at the southeastern tip of the Malay Peninsula, the battery, along with others at Pulau Tekong and Changi, protected the eastern approach to the Straits of Johor and thus the Naval and Air Bases constructed up the strait at Seletar. All that now seems left of the battery – the guns were destroyed by the British just before Singapore fell, at least from their accessibility to the public, are the positions where Defence Electric Lights or DEL’s were placed.

Structures belonging to a DEL position at Tanjung Pengelih in Pengerang.

Structures belonging to a DEL position at Tanjung Pengelih in Pengerang.

One of the DEL positions, with part of its roof collapsed.

One of the DEL positions, with part of its roof collapsed.

DEL’s, powerful searchlights,  supplemented coastal artillery. They could be used to search for and pick out targets, a practice that apparently had been used by the Royal Artillery since the late 1800s. These searchlights would be mounted in fortified positions closer to the coast and housed in concrete emplacements . Essential electrical power would be provided by generators housed in well-protected engine rooms, often built deep into the terrain.

A view from the inside of the DEL emplacement.

A view from the inside of the DEL emplacement.

Singapore's Defences, 1937 (Source: Between 2 Oceans (2nd Edn): A Military History of Singapore from 1275 to 1971 by Malcolm H. Murfett, John Miksic, Brian Farell, Chiang Ming Shun.

Singapore’s Defences, 1937 (source: Between 2 Oceans (2nd Edn): A Military History of Singapore from 1275 to 1971 by Malcolm H. Murfett, John Miksic, Brian Farell, Chiang Ming Shun).

Such would have been the case with the searchlight positions in Pengerang. Its remnants include both searchlight emplacements and an engine room, as well as supporting infrastructure such as accommodation blocks and storage rooms. These are all placed on the small hill that lies in the shadow of Bukit Pengerang or Johore Hill, on which the two 6″ guns of the battery were positioned.

A 1935 map showing positions or intended positions of Defence Electric Lights at the eastern entrance to the Straits of Johor (including those at Pengerang) and their coverage (National Archives of Singapore online).

An extract from a 1935 map showing positions or intended positions of Defence Electric Lights at the eastern entrance to the Straits of Johor (including those at Pengerang) and their coverage (National Archives of Singapore online).

An observation post above the DEL emplacement.

An observation post above the DEL emplacement.

I managed to join a visit to the site over the weekend orgainsed by a grouping of urban exploration enthusiasts who collectively brand themselves as the Temasek Rural Exploring Enthusiasts or TREE. For the visit, the group had tied up with guides and representatives from several Malaysian organisations and groups. These were the Muzium Tentera Darat (Army Museum) in Port Dickson, the Yayasan Warisan Johor (Johor Heritage Foundation), the Malaya Heritage Group and the Jabatan Warisan Negara (National Heritage Department). We were also joined by a Soko Jampasri,  a Japanese researcher who is based in Bangkok. Soko brought with her a Japanese military account of the war, contained in a book published by the now defunct Imperial Japanese Army Academy.

Kapten Zuraiman of Muzium Tentera Darat.

Kapten Zuraiman of Muzium Tentera Darat.

Information provided by Kapten Muhd Zuraiman Abd Ghani of the Muzium Tentera Darat as well as members of the Yayasan Warisan Johor (Johor Heritage Foundation) and the Malaya Heritage Group, point to Pengerang, a remote and isolated corner of the Malay Peninsula, being among the last positions in Malaya to have been surrendered to the Japanese Imperial Army. The army’s arrival coming a week or so after Singapore’s 15 February 1942 fall and this allowed several members of the forces based there to attempt an escape to Batam, where they were to be rounded up by the Japanese. Those that remained at Pengerang were captured and sent over to Changi.

Soko Jampasri, the Japanese researcher and Zafrani Arifin from the Malay Heritage Group.

Soko Jampasri, the Japanese researcher and Zafrani Arifin from the Malay Heritage Group.

Zafraini showing a map of the Japanese invasion of Singapore from Sako's book.

Zafrani showing a map of the Japanese invasion of Singapore from Soko’s book.

There was a little uncertainty if the guns at the position were fired at all in anger. Information provided in the Karl Hack and Kevin Blackburn’s “Did Singapore have to fall? Churchill and the impregnable fortress” point to them being used to fire at a junk on 11 February 1942. The guns might not have been used again and were destroyed on 14 February 1942 along with those at Sajahat, Ladang, Calder, Sphinx and Tekong as the loss of Singapore seemed imminent. The gun positions on Bukit Pengerang are now within the confines of the TLDM KD Sultan Ismail, the Naval Base now at Tanjung Pengelih, and it is not known if any traces of their emplacements are still around.

Another observation position,

Another observation position,

An accommodation block.

An accommodation block.

One of the structures that remain is one that greets the eye just around the bend in the road from the jetty – a machine gun pillbox. The pillbox, which is now decorated will Johor state flags and a strange collection of old items, is quite readily accessible and is one that takes me back to the days of my childhood. There were many such pillboxes found across the southern shores of Singapore up to the early 1970s and several at the Changi area, including one at Mata Ikan where I would have the holidays of my early childhood at, served as places of play and adventure despite the strong smell of rotting matter that accompanied an entry into them. Most were removed as the coastline was being pushed out during the reclamation efforts of the 1970s. One that is left, at Labrador Park, now has its openings sealed and there no longer is a possibility of an adventure in them.

The machine gun pillbox by the coast and at the foot of the knoll on which the battery's searchlights were positioned.

The machine gun pillbox by the coast and at the foot of the knoll on which the battery’s searchlights were positioned.

Inside the pillbox.

Inside the pillbox.

Several other gun emplacements and positions remain intact, including the publicly accessible No. 1 gun emplacement at the Johore Battery in Changi, now topped by a replica 15″ gun as well some substantial remnants of the Faber Command positions in Blakang Mati. However, what is left now at Pengerang is especially of interest, as it is a reminder that the protection of the garrison island, even if it was to prove ineffective in the entire scheme of things, involved positions outside what we see today as the boundaries of Singapore.

The naval base at Tanjung Pengelih, with Bukit Pengerang in the background.

The naval base at Tanjung Pengelih, with Bukit Pengerang in the background.


More photographs of the structures associated with the DEL position:

A water tank.

A water tank.

Another view of the inside of the block.

Another view of the inside of the block.

Nature has taken over some of the spaces.

Nature has taken over some of the spaces.

The corridor of another block.

The corridor of another block.

Inside the block.

Inside the block.

A gun post near what appears to be a cookhouse.

A gun post near what appears to be a cookhouse.

A wash basin.

A wash basin.

Chimneys and what was a stove.

Chimneys and what was a stove.

The entrance to the Engine Room built into the knoll.

The entrance to the Engine Room built into the knoll.

An escape shaft from the Engine Room.

An escape shaft from the Engine Room.

A trunk in the Engine Room.

A trunk in the Engine Room.

A more recent addition, a Yeo's soft drink bottle next to the structure intended to support the generators.

A more recent addition, a Yeo’s soft drink bottle next to the structure intended to support the generators.

More trunks.

More trunks.

A tunnel.

A tunnel.


Further information on the Pengerang Battery and the Coastal Defences of Singapore:


 





Light at the end of a tunnel

26 09 2016

The tunnel under the circus at Jalan Bahru (now where Jurong Town Hall Road passes under the Ayer Rajah Expressway) was one of three railway tunnels built for the industrial Jurong Railway Line. The line, built as part of the development of Jurong Indistrial Estate in the mid 1960s, was one of the more profitable sections of the Malaysian run railway and fell into disuse in the early 1990s.

Large parts of the abandoned line have since been built over, although several sections of it, including a series of steel and concrete bridges and sections of tracks can still be found. The tunnels, all of which were constructed by Hong Guan Construction Engineering Co. Ltd. and lined with corrugated steel, are also still around. The westernmost tunnel, now under Jurong Pier Circus (previously the junction of Jalan Buroh and Jalan Pabrik) is difficult to reach. A third tunnel,  under Clementi Road, is being extended for the road widening project taking place above it.

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