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 https://stateofmotion.sg/2018/.

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 https://ubinavigate.wixsite.com/2017.

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.

Perfromers.

The silhouette of a dancer.

The silhouette of a dancer.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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The younger ones got involved too.

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Posters on display at the event with information on the initiatives

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Ubin’s biodiversity.

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Species recovery efforts on Pulau Ubin.

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Restoration of the shoreline.

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Restoration of the shoreline.

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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.

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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.

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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:


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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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SMS Lee putting the finishing touches on a nesting box.





Reliving the good old days

17 06 2015

Pulau Ubin, the Granite Island, is possibly the last place left in Singapore in which we are able to rediscover how life might once have been. The island, which provided material with which the early structures of modern Singapore were built, is where the last remnants of village life in a setting reminiscent of the rural world that seems to have become irrelevant to the now ultra-modern Singapore is now to be found.

A village house on Pulau Ubin.

A village house on Pulau Ubin.

A resident of Ubin, an oriental pied hornbill.

A resident of Ubin, an oriental pied hornbill.

Despite the goings-on at the various sports venues across Singapore, the island managed to grab some attention from Singaporeans over the weekend when an almost carnival-like atmosphere descended on it for Ubin Day 2015. The two-day event, which attracted boat loads of visitors, provided an opportunity for many to relive the good old days with a host of activities that ranged from a Malay wedding showcase, a tour of a traditional Chinese kampong house (House 363B), and traditional games to nature and outdoor related action.

A silat performance at the 'Malay wedding'.

A silat performance at the ‘Malay wedding’.

Minister of State, National Development at the opening of Ubin Day 2015.

Minister of State, National Development at the opening of Ubin Day 2015.

Windows into the past.

Windows into the past – the windows of a kampong house.

Among the “guests” of the Malay wedding, were several VIP visitors, including Minister for National Development, Mr Khaw Boon Wan and Minister of State for National Development Dr Maliki Osman – who rode a bicycle to the house. The VIPs, besides being treated to a silat performance, also dropped in on Mdm Kamiriah Abdullah in her century old kampong house.

Madam Kamariah's century old Malay kampong house on Ubin.

Madam Kamariah Abdullah’s century old Malay kampong house on Ubin …

... which received some VIP guests ...

… which received some VIP guests …

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It was especially encouraging to see the many kids in the crowd show interest in the various nature conservation groups who had their booths set up at the old basketball court. The kids were also given an opportunity to try their hands at some of the traditional games – although it did seem like the overgrown kids were having most of the fun in rediscovering their childhood days…

A boy playing a traditional game hopscotch.

A boy playing a traditional game hopscotch.

A kid grown up showing her amazing zero-point skills.

A kid grown up showing her amazing zero-point skills.





The granite island alive

4 06 2015

Pulau Ubin, the granite island, comes alive for a few days around the full moon of the fourth month of the Chinese calendar, when the celebrations in honour of the Taoist deity Tua Pek Kong are held. The festivities, now still going on, offers an opportunity to have a glimpse into a Singapore we have discarded. The highlight for many is the Teochew opera performance, which is being held on five of the six evenings of the six day celebration, the last being this evening. The festival will end tomorrow, with a getai performance.


More information can be found in the following posts:


Photographs of Pulau Ubin taken during the full moon of the fourth month this year

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The celebration returns to Pulau Ubin

26 05 2015

Every year around Vesak Day, Pulau Ubin comes alive as the Pulau Ubin Fo Shan Teng Tua Pek Kong Temple (乌敏岛佛山亭大伯公庙) holds a series of festivities to celebrate the Tua Pek Kong festival. It is one of two occasions during which Teochew opera and getai performances are staged and offers a rare opportunity to watch Teochew opera as one might have done in the old days, under the stars. This year’s festival will be celebrated from 31 May to 5 Jun 2015 with opera performances every evening, except on the last when a getai performance will be held. The main day of the festival is on 1 Jun. More information on the festival schedule is provided below.

Backstage at the wayang stage: a festive face of Ubin.

Backstage at the wayang stage during last year’s celebrations.

A brightly dressed dancer on stage - getai is often seen as kitsch and somewhat crude, but it does have a huge following in Singapore.

A brightly dressed dancer on stage during the last evening’s getai performance two festivals back.

The schedule for this year's Tua Pek Kong Festival.

The schedule for this year’s Tua Pek Kong Festival.

A quick look at the main events as translated by Victor Yue:

Sunday 31 May 2015 (4th Month 14th Day)
10 am: Invite Tua Pek Kong
1 pm: Prayer ritual starts
3 pm: First Taoist Ritual
7 pm: Second Taoist Ritual
7 pm: Sin Sin Yong Hua Teochew Opera performance starts
10 pm: Invite Jade Emperor

Monday 1 Jun 2015 (4th Month 15 Day) – also Vesak Day, a Public Holiday
10 am: Prayers starts
1 pm: Lion and Dragon Dances
2.30 pm: Distribution of Temple Offerings
3.30 pm: Send off Jade Emperor
7 pm: Sin Sin Yong Hua Teochew Opera performance starts
8 pm: Tua Ji Ya Pek (First and Second Grandpa deity from the nearby temple) visit

Tuesday 2 Jun 2015 (4th Month 16th Day)
7 pm: Sin Sin Yong Hua Teochew Opera performance starts

Wednesday 3 Jun 2015 (4th Month 17th Day)
7 pm: Sin Sin Yong Hua Teochew Opera performance starts

Thursday 4 Jun 2015 (4th Month 18th Day)
7 pm: Sin Sin Yong Hua Teochew Opera performance starts

Friday 5 Jun 2015 (4th Month 19th Day)
10 am: Teochew Opera Singing (From Sin Sin Yong Hua)
6.15 pm: Pulau Ubin Fo Shan Ting Da Bo Gong Night (Getai) with Dr Mohamad Maliki Bin Osman, Minister for Defence & National Development, Mayor for South East District, and MP for East Coast GRC as Guest of Honour
10.30 pm: Tua Pek Kong returns

Free Ferry Service
31 May  to 4 Jun 2015 from Changi Jetty (6.30 pm to 9 pm) and from Pulau Ubin Jetty (8 pm – 10 pm)
5 Jun 2015 from Changi Jetty (6.30pm to 10pm) and from Pulau Ubin Jetty: (6.30 pm – 10.30 pm)


More photographs from the main celebrations last year:

More backstage scenes.

More backstage scenes.

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A view of the wayang stage during the evening's performance.

A view of the wayang stage during the evening’s performance.

The Teochew Opera performances is one of the draws of the festival.

The Teochew Opera performances is one of the draws of the festival.

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The ritual sees the appearance of the Tua Ya Pek (大爷伯) or Bai Wuchang (白无常) and ...

The ritual sees the appearance of the Tua Ya Pek (大爷伯) or Bai Wuchang (白无常) and …

... the Li Ya Pek (二爷伯) or Hei Wuchang (黑无常). Collectively the pair - guardians of the Taoist interpretation of the hell or purgatory of afterlife, are known as the Tua Li Ya Pek (大二爷伯) or Heibai Wuchang (黑白无常).

… the Li Ya Pek (二爷伯) or Hei Wuchang (黑无常). Collectively the pair – guardians of the Taoist interpretation of the hell or purgatory of afterlife, are known as the Tua Li Ya Pek (大二爷伯) or Heibai Wuchang (黑白无常).

A dragon dance held during the celebrations.

A dragon dance held during the celebrations.

The three stars make an appearance.

The three stars make an appearance.

The opera troupe onstage paying respects to the deity.

The opera troupe onstage paying respects to the deity.

The Tua Pek Kong temple.

The Tua Pek Kong temple.

The temple during one of the rituals.

The temple during one of the rituals.

 





The festive face of Ubin

15 05 2014

It is during two Taoist festivals celebrated in a big way by the Pulau Ubin Fo Shan Teng Tua Pek Kong Temple (乌敏岛佛山亭大伯公庙), the Tua Pek Kong festival celebrated around Vesak Day in May, and the Hungry Ghosts Festival during the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar, that the somewhat sleepy island takes on a festive air.

Backstage at the wayang stage: a festive face of Ubin.

Backstage at the wayang stage: a festive face of Ubin.

The Tua Pek Kong temple.

The Tua Pek Kong temple.

The island, particularly during the Tua Pek Kong festival, is overrun by thousands of visitors who range from the many devotees who go over to participate in the rituals at the temple and the curious who are there to soak up the atmosphere of what might once have been a common scene on the main island of Singapore; to the hundreds who would head there festival or not, to seek an escape from the madness of the concrete jungle.

The Teochew Opera performances is one of the draws of the festival.

The Teochew Opera performances is one of the draws of the festival.

A dragon dance held during the celebrations.

A dragon dance held during the celebrations.

The three stars make an appearance.

A modern interpretation of the three stars make an appearance.

It is more than just the colourful religious rituals that would be of interest to the curious. It is during the two festivals that we also see the use of the permanent Chinese opera stage – one of possibly two that are still left in Singapore. It has long been a tradition for Chinese temples to hold a ‘wayang‘, as the various forms of Chinese opera is commonly referred to in Singapore and Malaysia, in conjunction with festivities to entertain the deities and in the case of the seventh month, the spirits who return and many permanent stages were a feature of temples in villages across Singapore.

The opera troupe onstage paying respects to the deity.

The opera troupe onstage paying respects to the deity.

A view of the wayang stage during the evening's performance.

A view of the wayang stage during the evening’s performance.

While interest in wayangs, which had a following among the masses, has waned in the wake of the introduction of more modern forms of entertainment, the art is being kept alive at the Ubin temple and by its Teochew opera troupe on which the spotlight does shine during the two big festivals that the temple celebrates.

More backstage scenes.

More backstage scenes.

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At the time of writing, this year’s Tua Pek Kong festival (the photographs of which are used in this post) is still being celebrated. The celebrations will draw to a close on Saturday (17 May) with a getai (歌台) after which the temple sends Tua Pek Kong (Da Bo Gong or 大伯公) off. On the evidence of last year’s celebrations, the getai does also draw a sizeable crowd (see a post on last year’s Getai at Watching the stars under the stars) and for the experience of watching the stars (of the local getai circuit), under the stars, it certainly is well worth going over to Ubin on the final evening of the festival.

The temple during one of the rituals.

The temple during one of the rituals.

The ritual sees the appearance of the Tua Ya Pek (大爷伯) or Bai Wuchang (白无常) and ...

The ritual sees the appearance of the Camel cigarette smoking Tua Ya Pek (大爷伯) or Bai Wuchang (白无常) and …

... the Li Ya Pek (二爷伯) or Hei Wuchang (黑无常). Collectively the pair - guardians of the Taoist interpretation of the hell or purgatory of afterlife, are known as the Tua Li Ya Pek (大二爷伯) or Heibai Wuchang (黑白无常).

… the Li Ya Pek (二爷伯) or Hei Wuchang (黑无常). Collectively the pair – guardians of the Taoist interpretation of the hell or purgatory of afterlife, are known as the Tua Li Ya Pek (大二爷伯) or Heibai Wuchang (黑白无常).

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Free boat rides are provided through the period of the festival from 6.30 to 9.00 pm each evening from Changi Jetty (and from 8.30 to 10 pm on the return trip). More information on the festival’s programme can be found at Peiyan’s blog: 12 May – 17 May 2014: Pulau Ubin Celebrates the Tua Pek Kong’s birthday.


[Photos of another ritual, the Pingan Bridge (平安桥) crossing ceremony, done in the belief that it would cleanse the participant of negative energy]

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Pulau Ubin Tua Pek Kong festival Programme for 17 May 2014:

1000: Teochew Opera Performance
1845: Pulau Ubin Fo Shan Ting Da Bo Gong Temple’s Night! + Getai Performance
2230: Departure of Da Bo Gong ritual


Some previous posts on festivities at the Pulau Ubin Tua Pek Kong Temple and the island:


 

 





A window into a Singapore we have discarded

6 05 2014

Update, 3 December 2016:

The house featured, Teck Seng’s Place, will be open on the 2nd and 4th weekend of the month and public holidays, from 10.00am – 2.00pm from. The house is also one of the highlights in NParks’ Kampung Tour, which is held on every third Saturday of the month. The house together with the Ubin Fruit Orchard will also feature in NParks’ new Rustic Reflections Tour, which will commence next year on every third Saturday of the month. More information on the tours can be found at https://www.nparks.gov.sg/ubin.


It may well be on the island from which the early building blocks of modern Singapore was obtained that we will find the last reminders of a way of life the new world it built has rendered irrelevant. The island, Pulau Ubin or the granite island, is the last to support the remnants of a once ubiquitous village community, a feature not only of the island but also much of a rural Singapore we no longer see.

A window into a forgotten way of life.

A window into a forgotten way of life.

While in all probability, the days for what’s left of the island’s village communities are numbered; there remains only a handful of villagers who now number in their tens rather than in the low thousands at its height and who hold stubbornly on to a way of life that will have little appeal to the generations that will follow; there at least in a well preserved village house, House 363B, that little reminder of a time and place that does now seem all too far away.

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House 363B is typical of a Chinese village dwelling, with a zinc roof, and a cemented base supporting half cemented and half wooded walls. Outside it, rubber sheet rollers tell us of days when much of the rural landscape had been dominated by rubber trees. On the inside, there is a collection of once familiar household items. These include a food safe – complete with receptacles placed under its four legs to keep insects out (a necessity in homes in the pre-refrigerator era), classic furniture, foot-pedal sewing machines, dachings and other implements of that forgotten age. It is in the house where life as it might have been, sans life itself, is being showcased, providing the generations of the future with a glimpse of how we did once live.

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The house is perhaps symbolic of what we in Singapore hope for Ubin, not just an ready made escape from the brave new world we have embraced just a short boat ride away, but in its wild, undisturbed, and unmanicured state, a world where we can relive a life we have discarded.

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Ubin does of course offer potentially more than that. The authorities do seem to be committed to not only keeping it in its rustic state for our future generations, but are also taking efforts to regenerate and protect its natural environment. This along with the noises being heard on an interest to keep what is left of the island’s heritage, the efforts taken in developing environmentally friendly solutions in the provision of electrical power for the island, and the attempts to engage Singaporeans on what they would like to see of Ubin (see also Enhancing Pulau Ubin’s heritage and rustic charm), does give us hope that Ubin will not become another part of a forgotten Singapore that will be lost.

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On the subject of Pulau Ubin, the Tua Pek Kong Temple on Pulau Ubin (Pulau Ubin Fo Shan Ting Da Bo Gong Temple or 乌敏岛佛山亭大伯公庙), hosts an annual festival in honour of the deity over 6 days this year from 12 to 17 May 2014. It is well worth a visit there to soak up an atmosphere of a traditional religious celebration in a setting that is only available on the island.

The highlights of the celebration, besides the religious ceremonies, include Teochew Opera performances on each of the first five evenings (12 to 16 May) at 7pm and one in the morning of the last day at 10 am, as well as a Getai performance on the last evening that does draw a huge crowd. Free boat rides to Ubin will also be offered during the festival evenings from 6.30 pm (to Ubin) and up to 10 pm (from Ubin). More information on this year’s festival can be found at this site.

More information on previous Getai and Teochew Opera performances on Pulau Ubin can be found at the following posts:


About house 363B, Teck Seng’s Place (information from NParks)

Overlooking the Sensory Trail ponds, House 363B has been refurbished and conserved as a model of a Chinese kampung house. Built in the 1970s, the house was owned by Mr Chew Teck Seng who used to operate a provision shop in the village centre known as ‘Teck Seng Provision Shop’. When Mr Chew’s family resettled to mainland Singapore mainland in 2005, the house was returned to the state.

Renamed ‘Teck Seng’s Place’, the house offers visitors a nostalgic trip back in time to life on Pulau Ubin during the 1970s. The interpretive signs and memorabilia, like retro furniture and old photographs, centre around the fictional narrative of the Tan family, highlighting key milestones such as the grandfather’s first voyage to Pulau Ubin from China, the family’s struggles to eke out a sustainable living, as well as the growth of the family.

The house will be open on the 2nd and 4th weekend of the month and public holidays, from 10.00am – 2.00pm. Teck Seng’s Place is currently one of the highlights in NParks’ Kampung Tour, held on every third Saturday of the month. Ubin Fruit Orchard and Teck Seng’s Place will also be highlights in NParks’ new Rustic Reflections Tour, which will commence next year on every third Saturday of the month. Members of the public can visit NParks’ website (https://www.nparks.gov.sg/ubin) for updates and more information on how to register for these guided tours.






Light after dark (Pulau Ubin)

28 05 2013

The light after dark at 7.35 pm on 28 May 2013 on Pulau Ubin, an island off northeast Singapore.

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Monoscapes: Moonlight on the Straits

10 04 2013

Moonlight on the Straits of Johor, on a night of the full moon, as seen from Pulau Ubin. Pulau Ubin is a granite island off the north-east Singapore, which in its natural state was dominated by mangrove swamps, much of which were cleared at the end of the 19th century to allow farming, plantation and quarrying activities to be carried out on the island. Described as Singapore’s “last wilderness”, it is today better know as an escape from the highly urbanised main island of Singapore. It is also known for its Outward Bound School and for the wetland reserve at Chek Jawa on its south-eastern tip.

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It was back in the 1980s that I first set foot on the island, joining friends on several overnight excursions around the island. Then, it played host to villages by the sea and fish farms, and its coastline was marked by boats and wooden jetties. Most have since disappeared, with just a small cluster of village houses close to where the jetty at which bumboats from the main island call at. The island, for which has been identified as a reserve for possible future housing development, was also where former a political detainee, Mr Lee Tee Tong was confined to after his release in February 1980. Lee was a former Barisan Socialis Assemblyman who was arrested during a crackdown on left-wing trade union activists under Operation Pechah in October 1963. In June 1978, some 131 Vietnamese Boat People, refugees who made the perilous escape from Vietnam after the fall of Saigon by boat up to the end of the 1970s, landed on the island. The island together with the neighbouring military training island of Pulau Tekong, is possibly the last habitat for the critically endangered Leopard Cat in Singapore.





A dying tradition lives under the light of the silvery moon

3 09 2012

The seventh month in the Chinese calendar is a month that is held with much superstition in a predominantly Chinese Singapore. It is a month when, as beliefs would have it, the gates of hell are opened and it’s residents return to the earthly world. It is a time when the air fills with the smell of offerings being burned and when tents and stages appear in many open spaces all across Singapore to host dinners during which lively seventh month auctions are held during which entertainment (for both the returning spirits and the living), more often than not, in the form of Getai(歌台) – a live variety show, is often a noisy accompaniment.

Offerings are made to the spirit world when the gates of hell are opened during the seventh month.

Getai, popular as it is today, is however, a more recent addition as entertainment to accompany seventh month dinners. Before its introduction in the 1970s, it would have been more common to see Chinese opera performances and various forms of Chinese puppet shows at such events and during festive occasions at the various Taoist temples in Singapore.

Chinese opera was a common sight at seventh month festivities in the 1960s and 1970s.

The various forms of Chinese opera back in the 1960s and 1970s as I remember them, were always looked forward to with much anticipation by the young and old. My maternal grandmother, despite her not understanding a word of the Chinese dialects that were used in the performances was a big fan, bringing me along to the opera whenever it hit town. Travelling opera troupes were common then, moving from village to village setting up temporary wooden stages on which served not only as a performance stage but also as a place to spend the night. The travelling opera troupes brought with them a whole entourage of food and toy vendors with them and it was that more than the performances that I would look forward to whenever I was asked to accompany my grandmother to the wayangs as Chinese opera performances are often referred to in Singapore and in Malaysia.

A temporary opera stage set up during a Teochew Opera performance at the Singapore Flyer.

It was also common then to see more permanent structures that served as stages back then – they were a feature of many Chinese villages and were also found around temples. Perhaps the last permanent stage in Singapore is one that is not on the main island but one found in what must be the last bastion of ways forgotten that has stubbornly resisted the wave of urbanisation that has changed the landscape of the main island, Pulau Ubin, an island in the north-east of Singapore. Although many of the island’s original residents have moved to the mainland and many of their wooden homes and jetties that once decorated the island’s shoreline have been cleared, there is still a small reminder of how life might once have been on the island – a small community still exists, mainly to provide services to the curious visitors from the main island who come to get a taste of a Singapore that has largely been forgotten.

The permanent stage at Pulau Ubin – it was common to see such stages around temples and in Chinese villages up until the 1980s.

The permanent stage at Pulau Ubin is one that sits across a clearing from the village’s temple which is dedicated to the popular Taoist deity, Tua Pek Kong (大伯公). It is also one that is still used, playing host to Teochew Opera performances by the temple’s opera troupe twice a year – once during the Tua Pek Kong Festival and once during the seventh month festivities. I have long wanted to catch one of the performances in a setting that one can no longer find elsewhere in Singapore, but never found the time to do it – until the last weekend when I was able to find some time to take the boat over for the seventh month festivities which were held on Friday and Saturday evening.

The Tua Pek Kong Temple on Pulau Ubin.

The clearing in front of the temple at Pulau Ubin with the tent set up for the seventh month auction.

For me, it is always nice to take the slow but short boat ride to the island – something I often did in my youth, not just because Pulau Ubin offers a wonderful escape for the urban jungle, but also because it takes me back to a world that rural Singapore once had been. We do have a few places to run off to on the main island, but it is only on Pulau Ubin that one gets a feel that one is far removed from the cold concrete of the urban world in which I can return to the gentler times in which we once lived.

On the slow boat to Ubin.

Ubin in sight – all it takes is a short boat ride to find that a little reminder of a Singapore that has long been forgotten.

Pulau Ubin offers an escape from the maddening urban sprawl.

Although the festivities on the island are now a quieter and a less crowded affair than it might once have been here and in similar celebrations that once took place across the island, it is still nice to be able to witness a dying tradition held in a traditional setting that we would otherwise not be able to see in Singapore any more. While it still is difficult for me to understand and appreciate what was taking place on stage, especially with the amplified voice of the auctioneer booming over the shrill voices of the performers on stage, it was still a joy to watch the elaborately made-up and kitted-out performers go through their routines. It was also comforting to see that the members of the troupe included both the young and the old, signalling that there is hope that a fading tradition may yet survive.

The stage manager calling lines from the script out to the performers – a necessity as the troupe members are all doing this part-time.

The treat that comes with any wayang performance is that it brings with it the opportunity to go backstage. It is here where we get to see the performers painstaking preparations in first doing up their elaborate make-up and in dressing up in the costumes, as well as watch the musicians who provide the characteristic wind, string and percussion sounds that Chinese Opera wouldn’t be what it is without.

Going backstage is always a treat. A performer gets ready as a drummer adds his sounds to the opera in the background.

A performer preparing for the evening’s performance backstage.

The same performer doing her make-up.

Another putting a hair extension on.

The fifteen year old little drummer boy.

Performers also double up as musicians as the troupe is short of members.

I would have liked to have spent the whole night at the festivities, but as I was feeling quite worn out having only returned to Singapore early that morning on a late night flight, I decided to leave after about two hours at the wayang. The two hours and the hour prior to that on the island were ones that helped me not just to reconnect with a world I would otherwise have forgotten, but also to the many evenings I had spent as a child catching the cool breeze in my hair by the sea. Those are times the new world seems to want us to forget, times when the simple things in life mattered a lot more … There will be a time that I hope will never come when this world we find on Pulau Ubin will cease to exist. I will however take comfort in it as long as it is there … and as long as there are those who seek to keep traditions such as the Teochew opera we once in a while are able to see there, alive.

The light of the silvery moon seen on Pulau Ubin – the festivities are held during the full moon of the seventh month.

A section of the audience and participants in the seventh month dinner.


Close-ups of performers and scenes from the Teochew Opera: