Revisiting the Singapore of the Malay film industry’s golden age

7 02 2018

The Malay Film Productions (MFP) at Jalan Ampas was one of a pair of production houses that entertained a generation of Singaporeans and Malayans. Established by the Shaw Brothers’, the MFP is especially well known. It was where the legendary P. Ramlee made his name, excelling not just as an actor but also as a singer, songwriter and director. Lending his range of talents were to a series of films, his popularity has endured to this day, more than four decades after his sudden and premature passing in 1973.

Main gate to No. 8 Jalan Ampas.

The recent run of State of Motion 2018: Sejarah-ku, organised by the Asian Film Archive, renewed a consciousness for Jalan Ampas. P. Ramlee’s career there coincided with the golden age of Malay cinema – a time when the production of Malay movies was at its most prolific. Besides the screening of films of the genre, a guided tour also plotted a return to the MFP, albeit to its closed gates beyond which the buildings of the former studios stand quite forgotten. The tour, one of two – the other an offshore tour – with which locations where outdoor scenes in several MFP productions were visited, permitted a recall not only of the scenes, but of a Singapore forgotten if not for the movies. Site specific art installations were also presented at the sites, expressing the memories that also lay embedded in the locations .

Participants listening to CLOSURE / TUTUP by Wu Jun Han outside the gates of No. 8 Jalan Ampas.

Standing outside gates at Jalan Ampas, I found myself transported to the confrontational scenes that were enacted at that very gateway by Wu Jun Han’s recording, Tutup or Closure. The scenes, captured in the movie Mogok (Strike), although set in the Eveready  factory, were actually inspired by a strike that took place at the studios that same year involving 120 MFP employees.  The spot was also a location for another movie, the hit comedy Seniman Bujang Lapok,  which P. Ramlee directed and played a leading role in. This inspired a second installation along Jalan Ampas, Izzad Radzali Shah’s Wayang Terbiar (The Theatre that was Left Behind). A diorama of a mini threatre with scenes from the movie depicted, it seems almost altar-like in appearance.

Wayang Terbiar.

I was particularly drawn to Mintio’s Penghibur Hati-Lara (Solace for the Heart) installed just off Tanah Merah Besar Road. The work takes its title from a line in a lullaby “Kau penghibur hati-lara” (you are solace for my painful heart) sung in the film Darah Muda by the female protagonist to her baby in the seaside setting provided by the promenade at the end of Tanah Merah Besar Road. Anticipating separation, the line also suggests a sense of yearning that the artist also intends to evoke with her piece and its location between Changi Prison and the Airport – both sites of separation. The seaside promenade is now buried under a Changi Airport runway. Having been part of an area in which some of my most treasured memories of childhood were made, the artwork also evoked a sense of great longing and of loss in me.

Penghibur Hati-Lara at Tanah Merah Besar.

The former Kangkar Fishing Port, the location for scenes in the 1958 movie Sri Menanti, also provided a setting for Boedi Widjaja’s Path. 9, ))) ) ) )). The artwork, separated from the audience by the Serangoon River is bridged by the sounds of the flute, exploring the divide that the main characters in Sri Menanti faced in their attempts to bridge a cross-religious and cross-cultural gap in finding romance.

Once where a scene of Kangkar’s fishing colourful fishing fleet would have greeted the eye.

The mainland tour’s two other sites were at seaside (or former seaside) locations. At Punggol, the sea provided a backdrop for the scenes from Isi Neraka (Sinners to Hell) that inspired Salleh Japar’s Sulh-I-Kull (Universal Tolerance). The Shaws’ former seaside villa was used as a symbol of the individualism brought about by materialism and wealth in P. Ramlee’s Ibu Mertua Ku. P. Ramlee’s character in the movie violently blinds himself after he realises the circumstances in which he regained his sight after a previous spell of blindness. It is this loss of sight that the site’s installation, Tan Peiling’s 0.25 Seconds before an Image is Void, provides a response to.

The former seaside villa of the Shaws at which Liz Taylor was hosted on her visits here.

I was also able to join the offshore tour, which included a visit to Pulau Ubin – off which Pulau Sekudu or Frog Island lies. The rocky islet, a popular spot once for photo shoots, served as locations for Hang Tuah (1956) and Hang Jebat (1961). A central theme in the two movies is loyalty, betrayal and feudal authority. That is played out in the final fight scenes that both movies feature, which pitted 15th century pair of warriors – one-time close companions. The questions of the loyalty, betrayal, brotherly love, rage and desire expressed during the fight are what Akulah Bimbo Sakti’s Cinta Tuah Jebat examines. The artwork, a live performance accompanied by a recorded audio playback takes place on a beach on Ubin and within sight of Sekudu. More on State of Motion 2018: Sejarah-ku, which runs until 11 February 2018 can be found at

Pulau Sekudu, where the final fight scene in Hang Tuah and Hang Jebat was filmed.

Cinta Tuah Jebat (The Love of Tuah and Jebat).


Making the cut (rubber and the forgotten art of rubber tapping)

6 06 2017

The cultivation of rubber, once the mainstay of the Malayan economy, has left a mark not just on our northern neignbours, Malaysia, but also here in Singapore. Clusters of aging rubber trees or even individual trees in Singapore’s less developed parts mark former rubber plantations, the largest of which are found on Pulau Ubin and Pulau Tekong. In the northwest, a pier turned sea pavilion, built to move rubber out of a long isolated area of Singapore in the 1920s, also recalls a business on which many fortunes were made (and lost) and in the west, two surviving dragon kilns speak of the pottery making trade fed by the demand for clay latex cups from the many plantations. There is also a little corner of a former rubber plantation in the northeast in which its past is commemorated by five old rubber trees found in a corner. The five are all that remain of hundreds that a Japanese monk had planted to acknowledge the donation of the plot by the plantation’s owners – to be used as a burial place for hundreds of karayuki-san who died penniless.

Latex being collected in a clay latex cup – many kilns were established across Singapore, including the two surviving dragon kilns at Jalan Bahar, to produce these cups.

One of the things I found fascinating as a child was the sight of rubber tappers moving from tree to tree that I would catch on the many drives to Malaysia. From comfort breaks taken in and around rubber estates – due to their isolation – I could see the results of the tappers’ actions. The cuts made on the trees’ bark were quite visible as were the cups of latex. What I was not able to see close up however was how the tapper actually made the cut; that is, until just a few days ago when I was able to catch a demonstration of the art. The live demo (see video below) was performed by a retired rubber tapper, Uncle Ah Ha, as part of an Outward Bound School (OBS) UBiNavigate 2017 trail organised for Pesta Ubin 2017.

An old rubber press in the OBS area of Pulau Ubin – in surprisingly good condition.

UBiNavigate also gave its participants the opportunity to explore the western part of Pulau Ubin. An area in which OBS operates, the area is normally off-limits to the general public. Once where Ong Seng Chew owned a rubber estate, this corner of the island is still filled with many reminders of that past such as an old rubber press lying in a bed of tree fall, broken bottles that once held the enzymes required for the rubber production process, and rubber trees that have long been abandoned.

Part of the UBiNavigate trail taking participants through the relatively unexplored western side of Ubin.

Several aspects of Ubin’s much storied past were also in evidence, some of which were related to the quarrying activities that provided much of the granite used to build modern Singapore. Besides the sight of a former quarry – just beyond the fence of OBS Camp 1, two concrete storage rooms could be seen, fitted with heavy steel doors. These storerooms were apparently used for the storage of dynamite that the nearby quarry used for blasting.

A dynamite store that used by a nearby quarry.

Several other interesting “discoveries” tell us of the the island’s previous inhabitants: a solitary tomb of a Madam Goh that is still tended to by her descendants, a disused well, a concrete communal stove, and the concrete base of a Chinese village-style dwelling. More on UBiNavigate, which was held on 3 June 2017, can be found at

Latex dripping into a clay latex cup.

Remains of narrow necked enzyme bottles used in rubber processing.

Other rubbery posts:

More views around the western end of Pulau Ubin

An abandoned well.

Coconut shells were also utilised as latex cups.

The OBS Reservoir.

A beach on the southwestern shoreline of Ubin.

A solitary tomb of a Madam Goh.

Remains of an old communal stove.

A shrine built in 1979.

Another of the shrine.

Getai night on Pulau Ubin

26 05 2016

A large crowd, one not normally associated with Pulau Ubin on a Wednesday, turned up on the island last evening for the final night of the annual Tua Pek Kong festival. The last night, has in more recent times been marked with a getai (歌台) performance. Crude and somewhat kitsch, Getai (歌台) draws much more interest these days than the traditional street operas and puppet shows once used to provide the deities with a grand send-off.

This year’s getai, with forty dinner tables sold (as opposed to about twenty last year), seems to have attracted a much larger interest. This could be seen in the especially crowded village square (if I may call it that), where Ubin’s free-standing wayang stage – used by the Pulau Ubin Fo Shan Teng Tua Pek Kong Temple (乌敏岛佛山亭大伯公庙) to hold street opera and getai performancesis found.

The getai also saw a special guest, Dr Mohamad Maliki Osman. The Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Defence & Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Mayor, South East District also took to the stage, not to sing, but was able to impress the crowd nonetheless, with a few words in Mandarin and also in Hokkien.

Photographs from the final night of the Tua Pek Kong Festival

A boat load of devotees heading to Pulau Ubin.

A boat load of devotees heading to Pulau Ubin.

Lion dancers welcoming visitors.

Lion dancers welcoming visitors.

A larger crowd than ones previously seen turned up to watch the Getai performance held to send the popular deity off.

A larger crowd than ones previously seen turned up to watch the Getai performance held to send the popular deity off.

The lower temple saw a steady stream of devotees making offerings.

The lower temple saw a steady stream of devotees making offerings.

Lighting joss sticks at the temple.

Lighting joss sticks at the temple.

The wayang stage set for the evening's performances.

The wayang stage set for the evening’s performances.

A performer and a dancer.


The silhouette of a dancer.

The silhouette of a dancer.


A special guest, Dr Mohamad Maliki Osman, Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Defence & Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Mayor, South East District. He didn't sing but managed to wow the crowd with a few words of Hokkien.

A special guest, Dr Mohamad Maliki Osman, Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Defence & Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Mayor, South East District. He didn’t sing but managed to wow the crowd with a few words of Hokkien.



Homeward bound.

Homeward bound.

Another Ubin celebration

24 05 2016

Just as the festivities in honour of the Taoist deity Tua Pek Kong are taking place at Pulau Ubin, a celebration of a different kind was being held in another part of the island at the Ubin Living Lab. Graced by Senior Minister of State (Home Affairs and National Development) Desmond Lee, the event, held in conjunction with the International Day of Biological Diversity on 22nd May, was marked by the planting of mangrove saplings by volunteers of all ages at  the lab’s rather muddy mangrove arboretum.


The former Celestial Resort, now used as the Ubin Living Lab.

The mangrove arboretum.

The mangrove arboretum.

Those present for the event also learnt of several important and timely initiatives – all part of the Ubin Project, to enhance the island’s biodiversity and to protect its badly eroded northern shoreline from further damage. These include species recovery efforts aimed at increasing the diversity of insect eating bats on the island and the Oriental Small-clawed Otters. Native to Pulau Ubin and Pulau Tekong, this species of otters are less commonly seen than the Smooth-coated Otters that have been making waves across Singapore and are critically endangered.

Senior Minister of State (Home Affairs and National Development) Desmond Lee speaking.

Senior Minister of State (Home Affairs and National Development) Desmond Lee speaking.

The effort to rehabilitate the northern shoreline, which includes the badly eroded Noordin Beach – once a popular camping spot, will also see a 500 metre coastal boardwalk being built (see photographs below). Work on this will commence in 2017 and more information on this and on the species recovery efforts can be found at the NParks website.


Volunteers planting trees at the mangrove arboretum at the Ubin Living Lab.


The younger ones got involved too.


Posters on display at the event with information on the initiatives


Ubin’s biodiversity.


Species recovery efforts on Pulau Ubin.


Restoration of the shoreline.


Restoration of the shoreline.


The proposed boardwalk off Noordin Beach.


Ubin comes alive

21 05 2016

Photographs taken mainly of the Teochew opera performance held on the first day of festivities this year (20 May 2016). The main festivities of the annual celebration take place today, the day of the full moon. The event lasts until Wednesday and will see nightly Teochew Opera performances on one of the last free-standing Chinese opera stages left in Singapore, except for the final night when a Getai will be held. More on the schedule of this year’s festival can be found in this post: The full moon on the fourth month on Ubin.





























The full moon of the fourth month on Ubin

17 05 2016

For a few days around the full moon of the fourth month of the Chinese calendar, Pulau Ubin comes alive for a huge religious celebration held in honour of the popular Taoist deity Tua Pek Kong. The festival offers a glimpse into a Singapore that no longer exists and is a reminder of days when villages would have come alive in similar circumstances during feast days associated with their respective temple’s main deities.


The schedule for this year’s festival is as follows:

Friday 20th May 2016 (4th Month, 14th Day)

10 am  Invite Tua Pek Kong
11 am  Beginning Ritual sts
3.30 pm  Taoist Ritual Part 1
7 pm  Taoist Ritual Part 2
7 pm  Sin Yong Yong Hwa Teochew Opera performnce
10 pm  Invite Jade Emperor

Saturday 21st May 2016 (4th Month, 15th Day)

10 am  Taoist Ritual
1 pm  Lion & Dragon Dance
2.30 pm  Distribution of Blessed Offering
3.30 pm  Sending off Jade Emperor
7 pm  Sin Sin Yong Hwa Teochew Opera
7.30 pm  Crossing the Ping An Bridge
8 pm  Wei Tio Temple’s Tua Ji Ya Pek visit

Sunday 22nd May 2016 (4th Month, 16th Day)

7 pm Sin Sin Yong Hwa Teochew Opera

Mon 23rd May 2016 (4th Month, 17th Day)

7 pm Sin Sin Yong Hwa Teochew Opera

Tuesday 24th May 2016 (4th Month, 18th Day)

7 pm Sin Sin Yong Hwa Teochew Opera

Wednesday 25th May 2016 (4th Month, 19th Day)

10 am Sin Sin Yong Hwa Teochew Opera Qing Chang (Singing only)
6.45 pm Getai
10.30 pm Sending Tua Pek Kong back

Free Ferry service

20th May 2016
Changi-Ubin 6.30pm-9pm
Ubin-Changi 8pm-10pm

21st May 2016
Changi-Ubin 6.30pm-9pm
Ubin-Changi 8pm-10.30pm

22nd to 24th May 2016
Changi-Ubin 6.30pm-9pm
Ubin-Changi 8pm-10pm

25th May 2016
Changi-Ubin 6.30pm-9pm
Ubin-Changi 6.30pm-10.30pm

More information can be found in the following posts:










Launch of the Ubin Living Lab at the former Celestial Resort

28 02 2016

The first phase of the transformation of the former Celestial Resort into the Ubin Living Lab (ULL), an initiative announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong as part of The Ubin Project on November 2014, has been completed with the launch of the ULL (Phase 1) on Saturday by Senior Minister of State for National Development Desmond Lee.


A Singapore conversation taking place by the mangrove tree lined Sungei Puaka?

Set in the midst of the mangroves of Sungei Puaka – one of the largest patches of mangroves left in Singapore, the ULL, intended as an integrated facility for field studies, education and research, and community outreach, will also see a mangrove arboretum set up. The arboretum will see eight critically-endangered local mangrove tree species re-introduced as part of NParks’ ongoing reforestation and habitat enhancement efforts on Ubin.

SMS Desmond Lee at the launch - with ITE College East staff and students working on setting up nesting boxes around the island for the Blue-throated Bee-eater.

SMS Desmond Lee at the launch – with ITE College East staff and students working on setting up nesting boxes around the island for the Blue-throated Bee-eater.

JeromeLim-9942The first phase sees the restoration of two buildings on the site to accommodate a field study laboratory, seminar rooms for up to 100 people and basic accommodation facilities. An outdoor campsite is also being set up to take up to 100. The first users of the ULL will be students from the Republic Polytechnic and ITE College East who are looking at setting up roosting boxes in Ubin for insect eating bat species and nesting boxes for the Blue-throated Bee-eater as part of a biodiversity enhancement and species recovery programme.


The setting for the ULL – the former Celestial Resort.

The Ubin Project is an engagement initiative launched by the Singapore Government aimed at enhancing the natural environment of the island, protecting its heritage and also its rustic charm, involving a Friends of Ubin Network (FUN) that has been set up. More information on the project’s initiatives can be found at the Nparks website. Members of the public can look forward to a series of activities organised by NParks and the National Heritage Board – who have recently concluded an anthropology study on the island, aimed at bring the rich natural and cultural heritage to a wider audience. Information on the activities NParks already has planned can be found at a NParks news release Celebrating Ubin.



Senior Minister of State for National Development Desmond Lee, launching Phase 1 of the ULL.


SMS Lee putting the finishing touches on a nesting box.