The last puppet show

25 07 2015

The distractions of the modern world have seen us lose many of the traditions that once coloured the streets of Singapore. One that struggles to survive is Chinese puppet theatre in its various genres, kept alive only by the passion of those still involved with it.

Words that may no longer be sung.

Words that may no longer be spoken.

Controlling the Teochew Rod Puppet.

Controlling the Teochew Rod Puppet.

Sadly, we would soon see one of Singapore’s two Teochew rod puppet troupes, Sin Sai Poh Hong (新赛宝丰), exit the scene. Faced with dwindling interest, a lack of willing successors and the pressures of the modern world, the members of the troupes will play out their final act in same week Singapore celebrates its tight half century embrace of modernity.

Fading with time ...

Fading with time …

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A more recent addition to the street theatre scene – Teochew rod puppetry arrived Singapore in the early part of the 20th century, the form of puppetry does have a long tradition in the land of the Teochew community’s forefathers, serving as a vehicle for the transmission of values from one generation to the next.

Part of the preparations for the performance include getting the puppets ready.

Part of the preparations for the performance include getting the puppets ready.

Strange bedfellows.

Strange bedfellows.

At its height in Singapore, its performances would have attracted many off the streets, although intended primarily as entertainment to the deities. Troupes such as Sin Sai Poh Hong were kept busy through the year and would on the average, be engaged ten days in a month, providing sufficient income for the troupe to be run on a full-time basis. However, pressures of the modern world in which tradition is less valued coupled with the enforced shift away from the use of the vernacular,has seen interest fall in traditional puppetry.

Music accompanies the performance.

Music accompanies the performance.

The photographs accompanying this post, as well as the badly taken and edited video found at the end of this post, were of the troupe recent performance at the Chee Chung Temple at MacPherson Road. The temple, where the troupe regularly performs, was commemorating the birthday of its main deity, Huang Lao Xian Shi (黄老仙师). The next performance, the troupe’s last, will be held at the same venue on the evening of the 28 September 2015 (amended from previously reported date of 24 August 2015), the sixteenth day of the eight month of the Chinese lunar calendar (Birthday of the Monkey King). More information on this, and further updates, can be found at this Facebook post (please click).

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The Chee Chung Temple.

The Chee Chung Temple.

Part of the festival rituals at the temple.

Part of the festival rituals at the temple.



Other forms of puppetry once commonly seen in Singapore:





The long road to Somapah

26 06 2015

Excerpts of an interview with Mr Lim Jiak Kin:

From the late 1950s to the 1970s, I had a relative who lived in Mata Ikan. This was close to Somapah Village where my mother’s best friend lived. Her second son was my second brother’s god-brother.

The approach to Somapah and Mata Ikan was via Somapah Road, lined on the left and right with rows of shophouses. I remember a tailor, as well as a corner shop where my mother’s best friend ran a permanent wave salon. The salon was air-conditioned – a big deal in those days and it was where we always stopped on the way to Mata Ikan.

The idyllic setting of Mata Ikan village as captured by Singapore artist Harold Ong.

The idyllic setting of Mata Ikan village as captured by Singapore artist Harold Ong.

I also remember that there were shophouses opposite the permanent wave shop, in front of which were some very good food stalls. One hawker sold fish porridge and another sold fried oysters. The stalls were relocated to Changi Village when Somapah was resettled. Right next to the permanent wave salon was an open-air cinema.

Somapah Road, at its junction with Jalan Somapah Timor (National Archives online catalogue).

By the side of the cinema there was a little slope where a number of stalls had been set up. This was where the morning market was held and where freshly cooked food and fish were sold. The fish would probably have been brought in from the sea at Mata Ikan, one or two kilometres away. Driving past the market, you would come to a child and maternal clinic. Farther in there were holiday bungalows, corporate as well as private ones.

Mata Ikan 1973

A playground at the Government holiday bungalows at Mata Ikan.

After stopping by the salon, we would head to the end of Somapah Road. That was where we would find the last house by the sea, a house of wood and attap typical of a Malaysian beach hut, standing under a coconut tree.

That was our main destination, a provision shop run by a good friend of my father’s. He was a relative of sorts, having originated from the same ancestral village in Hainan as my father. This man and his Teochew wife lived at the back of the house and kept chickens, reserving the best of them and also their eggs for my father for the Chinese New Year.

Across the path from the provision shop was a small shed. That was where my father’s friend turned crushed cockle shells into a ‘dough-like’ kapor to be sold as whitewash. Packed into wooden crates measuring one foot by one foot and two to three feet high, the kapor would be put on sale in paint shops. Competition from low-end, but superior-quality paints introduced by established paint-makers, had seen the trade gradually dying out.

I remember that the population of the Somapah area was mainly Chinese. Among the various dialect groups was a large Hainanese community and I can recall the Hainanese-run Kwang Boo Kok Suat Thuan. The head of the association was one of the founders of the Long Beach Seafood Restaurant that used to operate in the now long-gone Bedok Rest House.

Kwang Boo Kok Suat Tuan on the Changi 10 Mile Facebook Page.

I have many fond memories of my trips to Somapah and Mata Ikan. It was an outing that to a young boy, seemed almost like an overseas trip. Not many people had the opportunity to travel to the beach by car in those days. We would head there in an Austin A40 with the registration plate SC 644 that my mother would drive. There would be five of us; my parents, my two brothers and me, and we would take the drive on Sundays when my father was free.

Somapah Village was one of the main settlements in the area and served as the gateway to some of the villages that lay along the old coastline.

Somapah Village, in the National Archives online catalogue.

The drive was a long but scenic one. It seemed a long journey even in later years when made on board a lorry that left from the Capitol Cinema, near where the Bata shop was. Sitting on a plank in the back of the lorry about an hour into the journey, I would always look out for the “阿弥陀佛” (a mi tuo fo) temple opposite the Bedok Army Camp, as a sign that we were nearing our destination, the site of the picnic we were attending.

The “阿弥陀佛 (a mi tuo fo) temple” – photograph online at Stamford Chalky’s Flickr album.

As a city dweller living in a two-storey shophouse with only the very dangerous Odeon car park to run about in, I felt like a caged dog being let loose when we went to the beach. It always meant getting my feet wet, picking up shells and sitting under coconut trees – a real treat that to this day I can still picture in my dreams.


More memories of Somapah Village and Mata Ikan

The site of Somapah Village is now where the new campus of the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) stands. Mata Ikan, was a holiday destination for many in days when it was the fashion to take vacations by the sea. The site of the village by the sea would be close to where Changi South Ave 3 is today.

What has happened to the magical Tanah Merah Coastline ...

Approximate locations of some of the missing villages of the Changi / Somapah area.


 

 





Signs of the times: the final Halt

28 04 2015

What perhaps is the final “Halt” in Singapore is to be found in the area where the former Loewen Camp, part of the former British Tanglin Barracks, was located. The former military camp, used in the post 1971 (British military pull-out) era to house Singapore Armed Forces units such as HQ Medical Services (HQMS) and the 9th Division (9Div) HQ, has recently been refurbished with the buildings found within it being put to new uses. One of the things that, rather surprisingly, can be found in the midst of the old buildings, is a remnant of times when traffic was brought to a halt.

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The halt found in a road marking comes from days when “Halt (at) Major Road Ahead” signs were in use rather than the red octagon Stop signs we are used to seeing these days that are supplemented by “Stop” road markings. The previously used “Halt (at) Major Road Ahead” signs were originally introduced in the United Kingdom in 1935 and its use was then extended to Malaya and Singapore in the same decade.

Halt Major Road Ahead sign and road marking seen at the junction of Transit Road and Sembawang Road in Nee Soon Village, 1966 (photo from David Ayres’ wonderful collection of Singapore and Malaya in the 1960s on Flickr).

I am not quite certain when the more internationally recognised “Stop” signs we see today replaced the “Halt” signs, but it would have been in the very early 1970s. The new “Stop” signs had their origins in the United States, having taken its form and colour in the 1954 Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways (MUTCD). It was one of two variants specified under the 1968 United Nations Vienna Convention Road Signs and Signals and has since been widely adopted in many parts of the world.

Highway Code for Learner Drivers – 1950s to 1960s.





Stumbling upon a Tiger’s lair …

2 03 2015

The last tiger in Singapore may have roamed the island some eight decades ago. It does however appear that the island’s secondary forests still conceal a few tigers from a less distant past. I stumbled upon one, hidden in a lair that lies under a forested slope in the south of Singapore.

The entrance to the tiger's lair.

The entrance to the tiger’s lair.

The “lair” in question is a bunker that seems to have been built before WWII. Red bricks reinforce its tunnel-like structure, a common feature among prewar bunkers. The bunker’s small entrance leads into a small passageway, which in turn opens out into a lower room on the right.

Not quiet a light at the end of the tunnel ...

Not quite a light at the end of the tunnel … it is in this room that I found the crate.

The dust-covered wooden box appears to have been left undisturbed for a number of years. There’s a large Tiger logo printed on one side.

Opening the crate.

Opening the crate.

The contents of the crate seem intriguing. Among them are a number of newspaper clippings and photographs, a Paul Cheong vinyl record, as well as a Kodak Brownie camera of perhaps 1950s/1960s vintage. These provide clues as to the crate’s age.

A first look into the crate.

A first look into the crate.

A chain with a shackle, resembling something out of the prisons of old, is one the crate’s most disturbing contents. Less disturbing is a Tiger Beer bottle and an old Tiger Beer can. Both seem rather old. The can is of steel and not of the aluminum variety that is used today.

A close-up of the undisturbed contents.

A close-up of the undisturbed contents.

A close-up of the undisturbed contents.

A close-up of the undisturbed contents.

The crate also contains what appears to be a nameplate with the name “Chu Beng Huat” and the number “21509”. Who Chu Beng Huat may have been, and what happened to him are a mystery.

A close-up of the undisturbed contents.

A close-up of the undisturbed contents.

It’s hard to say where the crate came from, or who put it there. Perhaps it was abandoned or left by mistake. I am not sure of the crate’s origins or where the crate came from and some further investigation would be needed.

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I am not really fond of putting videos up, especially when I can be seen in them, but I have included one that one of my jalan-jalan kaki took that would provide an appreciation of the “lair” and what can be found in it:





Fragments of the old tiong

13 01 2015

In a Singapore where we seem to be fond of displacing both the living and the dead, it always is a nice surprise when bits and pieces of the displace turn up in a space whose use has evolved. A recent set of such discoveries on the grounds of the Singapore General Hospital (SGH) was made by Singapore’s foremost tomb hunters, Raymond and Charles Goh; discoveries that connect the land on which much is now done to aid the preservation of life, with a time when it served as a place where those whose life had passed were put to rest.

A recent discovery on the grounds of SGH.

A recent discovery on the grounds of SGH.

The elevated grounds of SGH, made it an obvious choice for a institution for treatment and convalescence; having been identified as “high and dry”, “admitting of easy drainage” and “open to all prevailing breezes”. And, it was where the General Hospital and also a Lunatic Asylum was moved to in the 1880s.

Participants on the trail negotiating the slopes of Tiong Lama.

Participants on the trail negotiating the slopes of Tiong Lama.

The terrain around the site, described by a 1875 Municipal Engineer’s Office report as one of undulating hills of clay and laterite, also made it a choice location as a Chinese burial site, 29 acres (about 12 ha.) of which had initially played host to a Hokkien cemetery, one of the first Chinese graveyards in Singapore, that came to be known as Tiong (or Teong) Lama. The report also stated that what it described as a well kept site, had been closed for 16 years and had “its joss-house and priests”.

A fragment of the past  found on the hills of Tiong Lama.

Another fragment of the past found on the hills of Tiong Lama.

The “old cemetery”, as tiong lama, a combination of Hokkien in the “tiong” (cemetery) and Malay in the “lama” (old), translates into; had by the time of the report been supplemented by a new cemetery to its east, referred to as “Tiong Bahru”, a name that now brings to mind its offerings for the living rather than ones intended for its early occupants.

A head stone of the grave of a member of the Khoo clan from 1842.

A head stone of the grave of a member of the Khoo clan from 1842.

I was to find out more of the Gohs’ discoveries during a walk organised by the Tiong Bahru Heritage volunteers that the brothers led over the weekend; discoveries that might perhaps have made the visits to hospital grounds, of which I made many as a child to see a relation in the nursing profession living in the nurses’ quarters, a little spicier.

Raymond speaking to the participants of the walk, with Charles looking on in the background.

On the eternal slope: Raymond speaking to the participants of the walk, with Charles looking on in the background.

Just a stone’s throw from one of the quarters, which I realise was very recently pulled down, is the area once referred to as Eternal Hill, Heng San (恆山). At the foot of its slope, which a stretch of Hospital Drive (previously a section of Silat Avenue) runs through down to Jalan Bukit Merah, stood the Heng San Teng (恆山亭).

Heng San Teng before its destruction (National Archives of Singapore).

The temple, founded in 1828, was the focal point for the Hokkien immigrant community in Singapore prior to the Thian Hock Keng assuming the role, and stood watch over the cemetery. The historic temple was destroyed by a 1992 fire, well after the cemetery was exhumed in the early 1900s. All that has survived, are a few pieces of the cemetery, discovered by the brothers, that have somehow been left behind.

Heng Sua today.

Eternal Hill today, eternising life.

Of the remnants of Tiong Lama, one is a head stone belonging to the grave of a lady from the Khoo clan that dates back to 1842. It now lies on a part of the slope, close to evidence of a more recent activity that took place on the slope: rectangular troughs of brick and cement. These, as confirmed by an ex-resident of the area, were water troughs used by an Indian dhobi, who took on laundry work provided by the hospital. A few blocks of concrete can also be found on a terrace just above the troughs which the ex-resident said were used to support laundry drying poles.

The troughs used by dhobis and a broken piece of relief from a grave.

The troughs used by dhobi, with a broken piece of relief that would have been from a former grave.

The loose headstone.

The loose headstone on the slope.

What is perhaps also interesting, is a curious little shrine against one of the trees lining the road. Painted in red, it bears the Chinese characters 黃姑娘 in gold, which Mandarin-ised, reads as Huang Ku Niang, reputedly a resident of a nearby village who had lived around the turn of the last century. Miss Huang or Ng, as she would have been known in Hokkien, had been a cleaner turned nurse, who had received her training from a doctor at the General Hospital. Her dedication to saving lives had apparently extended beyond her hospital duties and whilst attempting to rescue a fellow villager from a fire, the house she was in collapsed on her, ending her life prematurely.

The shrine to Huang Ku Niang.

The shrine to Huang Ku Niang.

Huang Ku Niang’s dedication seems to have also extended into the afterlife. Her spirit has often been sighted roaming the area of the slope, seeking to further her cruelly interrupted mission. Many afflicted with illnesses, offer a prayer at her shrine. The deitised Huang Ku Niang is reputed to have the ability to deliver her devotees, from their ailments.

The slope where the dhobi operated. Concrete blocks used to support laundry drying poles can be seen on the upper terrace.

The slope where the dhobi operated. Concrete blocks used to support laundry drying poles can be seen on the upper terrace.

From Hospital Drive, the walk continued east down Jalan Bukit Merah, to the slope where the old tiong met the new tiong. The area is close to where towering blocks of the newest additions an urbanised Tiong Bahru are now coming up, in stark contrast to an area of seemingly dense vegetation separating it from the hospital. In part of the green area, recently cleared of its trees, is the area where a cluster of uncleared graves from the second half of the 1800s, were also recently discovered by the Gohs.

An area of dense vegetation at the edge of the hospital's grounds.

An area of dense vegetation at the edge of the hospital’s grounds.

The graves, four of which are marked by simple single head stones (two of which has fallen) placed from the 1860s to 1878 (more information can be found in this link), also includes one that still lies hidden in the trees. The latter has a more elaborate structure bearing a closer resemblance to the Chinese graves we see today, and dates back to the 1890s. The graves are the remnants of a burial site belonging to the Chua clan, occupying a private strip of land sandwiched between Tiong Bahru and Tiong Lama that would have been referred to as Seh Chua Sua.

The first of the Chua graves.

The first of the Chua graves from the 1860s.

The second from 1872.

The second from 1872.

Raymond Goh showing how he uses flour to bring out the faint inscriptions on the third headstone.

Raymond Goh showing how he uses flour to bring out the faint inscriptions on the third headstone.

The flour enhanced inscriptions.

The flour enhanced inscriptions.

A fourth grave.

A fourth grave.

The Chua grave hidden in the trees.

The Chua grave hidden in the trees.

A tablet marking the altar to the earth deity placed next to the last grave.

A tablet marking the altar to the earth deity placed next to the last grave.

A fragment of the past.

One half of a pair of lion guards that has somehow merged into root of a tree.

Close by is one further discovery unrelated to the burial site made by the Gohs – a wall that is thought to have been the perimeter wall of the Lunatic Asylum that would have been built in 1887, part of which has recently been removed. What would have once been a wall that towered three metres high, it is only a section of the top of it that can now be seen.

What's left of the wall of teh Lunatic Asylum.

What’s left of the wall of the Lunatic Asylum.

Part of the wall lies partially hidden by the dense vegetation.

Part of the wall lies partially hidden by the dense vegetation.

Across Jalan Bukit Merah from the site of the Lunatic Asylum is Silat Estate, where Kampong Silat also known as Ku Ah Sua (龟仔山) – the village that Huang Ku Niang had apparently hailed from, was sited. A hillock, which gave the village its Hokkien name, which translates into Little Tortise Hill, was where the walk was to end.

Tai Yeong Kong on Ku Ah Sua.

Tai Yeong Kong on Ku Ah Sua.

Inside the Tai Yeong Kong.

Inside the Tai Yeong Kong.

Nestled on the hillock are two temples that connect the hill to the now missing village. Lying now in the shadow of a block of HDB flats, the hill is dominated by the yellow structure of the Tai Yeong Kong (太阳宫). Dedicated to the sun god, the syncretic temple is housed in part in a structure that resembles a beach side villa from the early 20th century. Within the temple, devotion extends beyond the Taoist deities, to a Hindu god along with ancestral deities and several images of bodhisattvas.

Inside the Tai Yeong Kong - a reminder of an old world.

Inside the Tai Yeong Kong – a reminder of an old world.

The dragon deity under the main altar.

The dragon deity under the main altar.

Ancestral tablets and deities, including one with a neck tie.

Ancestral tablets and deities, including one with a neck tie.

A Hindu deity outside the temple.

A tantric deity outside the temple.

The other temple on the hill, Chia Leng Kong (正龙宫), the main deity of which is the god of the North Star, Xuan Tian Shang Di (玄天上帝), actually sees several Taoist temples associated with Ku Ah Sua merged into one. The temples operate on Temporary Occupation Licenses on land that belongs to the Housing and Development Board and it may be possible that the links they have long provided to the area’s past, may in the future, be broken.

Xuan Tian Shang Di.

Xuan Tian Shang Di.

The crest of the little tortoise hill where a cemetery once existed.

The crest of the little tortoise hill where a cemetery once existed.

Extract of a 1920 map. The extent of the burial grounds at Tiong Bahru and Tiong Lama can be seen. The location of Heng San Teng is marked as "Temple" on the lower right of the map as is the Lunatic Asylum, which is seen in its vicinity.

Extract of a 1920 map. The extent of the burial grounds at Tiong Bahru and Tiong Lama can be seen. On the map is the Heng San Teng location, marked as “Temple” on the lower right. The Lunatic Asylum can also be seen in its vicinity.





How the west was lost

9 01 2015

The mention of Tuas, a far flung location in the west of Singapore, conjures up an image of its bleak and rather uninspiring industrial landscape, a patchwork of dull and faceless buildings within which much of Singapore manufacturing output is produced.  It would have been a very different Tuas that would have come to mind a little more that a generation ago, a Tuas that for those who express little sentiment for its then untamed shores, would have seemed wild, inaccessible and unproductive; a tangle of mangrove lined tidal inlets and muddy seashores.

The shores of the wild west today.

The shores of the wild west today.

The sea at the far west (National Archives of Singapore).

Wild as it was, it was not without human habitation. Access to the far west certainly was possible, requiring a drive along the long Jurong Road that wound through a rather lonely part of Singapore. The drive would end at the mouth of the Sungei Tuas estuary, the furthest west one could possible head to for a while on a public metalled road. It lay just beyond the road’s 18th milestone and brought with it the promise of seafood at what was the fishing village of Tuas to all who dared to venture.

Tuas Village, 1970. [This digital copy (c) National Library Board Singapore 2008. The original work (c) Tan Marilyn].

Tuas Village, 1970.
[This digital copy (c) National Library Board Singapore 2008. The original work (c) Tan Marilyn].

That reward, would of course only be made possible to those who not only had to endure what seemed an endless journey, but also brave enough; there were parts of the drive that especially on the after dinner journey in the dark, would not have been ones appreciated by the fainthearted. One particular stretch was at the road’s 13th milestone, just before one came to Hong Kah Village on the return journey, had been the source of many a tale of horror. That was where the gravestones of the Bulim cemetery close to the edge of the road, in the glare of the vehicle’s headlamps, would seem to reach out to anyone passing.

The reward just beyond the 18th milestone of the long and winding Jurong Road – the restaurant is still in existence in a location close to where it originall was (National Archives of Singapore).

It is a different set of horrors that await the visitor on the journey to the Tuas of today; the roads now far from lonely. Much of what we refer to Tuas today lies west of where the village had been, on land that has come out of the sea. This includes the “hockey stick” – a huge southward projection of land to the south part of which will host the future Tuas mega-port. Tuas, at its north-western corner, is also where the Second Link is located, carrying vehicles over to Malaysia, from what had been Tanjong Karang.

A lone mangrove tree within sight of the Second Link.

A lone mangrove tree within sight of the Second Link.

It is just south of Tanjong Karang where a small reminder of the previously wild west can be found (discounting the vast coastline of the Live Firing Area to its north from which our eyes have been shielded), although it lies out of sight to most of us beyond one of the ugly security fences that kills and deprives of any joys we can still derive from the seashore.

Life where one may not expect it.

Life where one may not expect it.

The intertidal region that exists, reaches out to the Merwang Beacon. It includes a naturally occurring extension of a much altered shoreline plus perhaps, a small remnant of what could be the original foreshore. It was at this point that the western tip of the island of Singapore in its unaltered state had been at Tanjong Merawang. Around the beacon, and also in the area just north of it where a small cluster of mangroves can be found, we are able to discover that there is still a small celebration of what might have been (see Ria Tan’s post on the visit  made on 23 Dec 2014: Return to Tuas Merawang Beacon).

The intertidal zone at Tanjong Merawang looking out towards Merawang Beacon and Pulau Merambong.

The intertidal zone at Tanjong Merawang looking out towards Merawang Beacon and Pulau Merambong.

A celebration above the sea that the shore also offers, is a perspective of the western end of the Singapore Strait. On a clear day, parts of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia can be seen, with the view southwest extending to the Indonesian Karimun Islands. That lies far beyond the Malaysian island of Pulau Merambong in the foreground. It would be interesting to note that the waters around Merambong is home to Malaysia’s largest intertidal seagrass meadow. And, in it, the country’s largest concentration of seahorses is said to be found.

The coastline of the far west of Singapore as seen in a 1927 map.

The coastline of the far west of Singapore as seen in a 1927 map.

This is unfortunately, under threat (see: Seagrass meadow in danger, The Star, 24 Mar 2014). Concerns raised on the impact that an ill-conceived and highly controversial luxury development project, Forest City, which will see four huge islands rise out of the waters close to Pulau Merambong, will have, include the threat it may pose to the rich marine life in the waters that surrounds the island. What that will do to what is left of the wild west of Singapore, already decimated by the developments closer to it, time will only tell.





The fast fading ghosts of Ghost Island

12 09 2014

The search for the ghosts of times forgotten takes me to some fascinating places. One place I found myself in recently was an island whose name hints of quite a haunted past, Pulau Hantu – Malay for Ghost Island. Long held with much superstition, why the island, which has remained uninhabited in recent memory, possesses its rather sinister sounding name seems to have been lost on many.

Dawn over an island abandoned by its ghosts.

Dawn over an island abandoned by its ghosts.

One theory about how it got its name is that much of the island (when seen at low tide) seems to vanish like a ghost in the night with the rising tide, leaving no more than two coconut tree lined sandbars above the water. While that is quite plausible, it lacks the mystery and forbidding that many would think is more deserving of the title.

Less than ghostly apparitions ...

Less than ghostly apparitions … across the channel at Pulau Ular

A 1939 newspaper article written about stories and superstitions of old Malaya does provide a more disquieting take on the origins of the island’s name, attributing it to Pulau Hantu’s haunting by spirits of the dead connect to a “long forgotten story of death and cruelty”, revealing some of the superstition with which the island was held by the people of the coast:

Pulau Hantu, though planted with coconuts, has no one living on it. There is no water to be got there by digging, but that is not the reason for no one desiring to live there.  In the centre of the place are to be found many graves, and there is some long-forgotten story of death and cruelty which makes the place haunted by the spirits of these unfortunate people, so that it is but seldom visited by the Malays, and then only to collect ripe coconuts, which are the property of a man on the next island, to which one can wade at very low tides.

(More Stories And Superstitions Of Old Malaya: Tales related by an old Malay to “Yahya”, The Straits Times, 9 April 1939)

An are of mangroves on the northern shore of Pulau Hantu Besar.

An are of mangroves on the northern shore of Pulau Hantu Besar.

The island, or as it is more commonly taken to be today, two islands, Pulau Hantu Besar and Pulau Hantu Kechil, has since expanded in size. Additional land mass through reclamation work in the 1970s, enlarged its total area by some 12 times. While there may have been a reluctance to visit it amongst the people of the sea, it has actually long been known as a spot for recreation, and its sandy beaches and rich coral reefs have attracted many picnic goers and campers as well as divers as far back as the early twentieth century. Sentosa Development Corporation (SDC), under whose charge the two islands have come under since the mid 1970s, continues to keep the islands open for recreational activities.

The view across the lagoon between the two parts to Pulau Hantu towards Pulau Ular.

The view across the lagoon between the two parts to Pulau Hantu towards Pulau Ular.

It is perhaps in keeping with the SDC sanctioned version of the tale behind the islands’ names that sees the two parts to the island being considered as two individuals islets. This version has as much to to with the spirits dwelling on the islands as with the tale told by the old Malay in 1939, as it has with jinns and sea spirits, fitting quite nicely into the collection of stories once told of our seemingly turbulent seas.

Smoking guns at Pulau Ular.

Another view by night across the lagoon – towards the smoking guns across at Pulau Ular.

I am reminded of this coming ashore on Pulau Hantu Besar. This version of the tale is what all visitors are confronted with at the inshore end of the jetties on both islands, told from a prominently placed signboard marked with these words:

There were once two great warriors locked in a fierce battle at sea. Many people died and the blue seas slowly became polluted with human blood, upsetting the Jinns at the bottom of the ocean. In anger, one powerful Jinn created a whirlpool and sucked the two warriors deep into the sea to drown them. Undeterred, they continued their battle.

Suddenly, the Jinn sprayed water onto one of them. The other warrior, seeing his opponent blinded, thrust his sword into his abdomen. At the same time, the wounded warrior forced his sword into the other man. Both collapsed and died.

The gods felt it was wrong for the seas’ spirits to interfere in human affairs, so the Jinn transformed the two warriors into islets so that their spirits could live on. As one of the warriors was smaller than the other, his islet was known as Pulau Hantu Kecil, while the larger one was named Pulau Hantu Besar.

Wandering around the shores of Pulau Hantu Besar, just a few hours past the witching hour, I am confronted not by jinns, sea spirits or ghosts but by the glare of the gods of the new age. It is from the angry stare of smoking chimneys and lighted towers of steel that now rise to the island’s north that the jinns and sea spirits have retreated, leaving only footprints fading in the sand. With no more shadows left to hide in, it is in the echoes that we find the the ghosts of Pulau Hantu, echoes in which I can only hear, the evanescing whispers of words that will soon lose their meaning.

The angry glare of the gods of the new age.

The angry glare of the gods of the new age.


The islands of many ghosts:

Singapore’s islands, rich in the legends of a time we have been made to forget, have many fascinating tales to tell; hints of which are found in the names of many of the islands. The islands were once an integral part of a larger maritime based society that spanned across the Riau archipelago that through the enforcement of national boundaries, resettlement, reclamation and development, have broken their links to a centuries old past.

Among the tales that have survived the self-inflicted amnesia is that of the junk that was turned into the island of Pulau Jong, Junk Island, although it may not be for very much longer. The course that has been set for the junk, based on the 2013 Land Use Plan,  will set it on collision course with a larger land mass that will have it aground by the year 2030.

Several islands, having been renamed, have also lost their ghosts. One that comes to mind is the former Pulau Penyabong (now Pulau Tekukor), where warriors were said to have dueled to the death. That tale also features Tekukor’s northern companion, the former Pulau Blakang Mati, which in being re-branded as Sentosa – the isle of Peace and Tranquility, has been cleansed of what is possibly a gory past.

The islands that are the subject of this post, Pulau Hantu, were, interestingly not alone in being so named. The other Pulau Hantu, is to be found in Keppel Harbour (see post: A Sunrise from Ghost Island) and having had its ghost exorcised in 1983 after Keppel Shipyard gained possession of it, is now called Keppel Island. Keppel shipyard has since moved away from the area and the island is now where the Marina @ Keppel Bay is located.

The Pulau Hantu, or I should say Pulau-pulau Hantu, I found myself looking for ghosts on, are located in the south-west, just south of a more recently created island that has fused the previously individual islands of Pulau Bukom Kechil, Pulau Ular, and Pulau Busing – on which a petrochemical complex is being developed, together.

Apart from the hantu found in their names, there is little that is now ghostly about the islands. A popular dive spot, the islands are also where campers and fishermen, seeking an escape from the urban world, can head to. While the surreal glow from the monster of a petrochemical complex on Pulau Ular brightening up the northern shores of the two islands may not be what a camper seeking an escape might appreciate, the islands are probably as far out from urban Singapore one could practically run off to, while still remaining in Singapore.

More information on Pulau Hantu (Besar and Kechil), as well as the rich array of marine life found in its reefs can be found at the following links:

Sisters’ Islands and Pulau Hantu (Sentosa Leisure Management)

The Hantu Bloggers

A special National Day at Pulau Hantu! (Wildshores of Singapore)

Lionfish on Lion City’s birthday at Pulau Hantu!

Sea the hidden depths of Singapore (Asia One)

The view across the inter-tidal mud flat towards what would once have been Pulau Busing.

The view across the inter-tidal mud flat towards what would once have been Pulau Busing.

A different ghost in the night.

A different ghost in the night.


 








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