The stilt supported bungalow growing out of the sea

10 07 2021

Influenced by the many tales that were told of lighthouses and their keepers, any mention of the word “lighthouse” through much of my younger days would conjure up images of large waves breaking against a lighthouse’s rocky foundations, and of lighthouse keepers with weather-worn faces dressed in their oilskins. I have formed quite a different impression of lighthouses over the years — at least of the ones in Singapore where it isn’t quite as chilly enough to be comfortable in oilskins and where the seas, with the exception of that around Horsburgh Lighthouse during the Northeast Monsoons, are much less tempestuous. What has helped in forming that altered impression were visits to Raffles Lighthouse at Singapore’s southernmost island Pulau Satumu and the numerous occasions on which I had set eyes on the lighthouse on Sultan Shoal, which I first spotted from the days when I was involved in ship trail trips as a naval architect.

The two lighthouses, Raffles and Sultan Shoal, are among four conventionally styled lighthouses that Singapore’s Maritime and Port Authority (MPA) operates. A less conventional fifth, is perched on the top of a high-rise building along the east coast. Together they play a crucial role as aids to navigation in an area of the world in which the sea lanes are among the most congested. Raffles and Sultan Shoal lighthouse are also part of a trio of lighthouses marking key points around the western entrance to the Singapore Strait. The third lighthouse of the trio is one on Pulau Pisang, an island off southwest Johor. The fourth conventionally styled lighthouse, Horsburgh Lighthouse, marks the eastern entrance to the Singapore Strait.

The lighthouse on Sultan Shoal is one that fascinates me. Built in 1895, the lighthouse wears quite distinct look and is quite eye-catching. While it now finds itself perched on a 0.6 ha island, the lighthouse originally rested on a shoal and looked like it was in the middle of nowhere when the tide had the shoal submerged. Having been built on a shoal, a two-storey house that has been described as a “stilt supported bungalow growing out of the sea” — to accommodate its keeper and a lascar as well as for stores and water that wraps around the lighthouse, has also given it quite a distinct external appearance.

Plans for Sultan Shoal Lighthouse (National Archives of Singapore)

Locally known as Terumbu Karimum (Trumbu Carimon) and named by British navigators after a ship that ran aground on it in 1789, Sultan Shoal was quite a treacherous spot close to the western entrance to the Singapore Strait. This prompted a tripod beacon to be placed on it before it was converted into one with a granite base. Even with the lights, the shoal made the news frequently for groundings occurring on and around it. One occasion in which this happened was in 1869, when the Mata Mata, a ship that had set sail for Penang to provide accommodation for the visiting Duke of Edinburgh, ran aground on the shoal. By the 1880s, a lightship or a ship used as a lighthouse, appeared on the scene. Used to mark the equally dangerous Ajax Shoal, one nautical mile south east by east half east of Sultan Shoal, the lightship served also as a navigational marker for ships entering the western entrance of the Singapore Strait. Ajax Shoal was named in quite a similar manner as Sultan Shoal, with Ajax being the name of a steamship which scrapped its bottom on the shoal in 1877. Commissioned in 1896, the lighthouse on Sultan Shoal took over the lightship’s role in marking the northwestern entry point to the Singapore Strait. Being quite remotely located and surrounded by little but the sea, the lighthouse was also armed. Two rifles, each of which was fitted with a bayonet, were kept in it in case of pirate attacks.

Sultan Shoal before reclamation.

Sultan Shoal would come into the spotlight in February 1942 when a troopship – part of a convoy of three ships that included the City of Canterbury and Felix Roussel, came under attack as it was approaching Ajax Shoal. The ship, which bore the brunt of the attack, caught fire. As the fires burnt uncontrollably, anchors were dropped off Sultan Shoal to keep the ship in position to permit evacuation. The ship eventually sank several days later and its wreck remained in place until last year. In all, just sixteen out of the 2235 troops and 416 crew on board lost their lives – a remarkable low number given the severity of the attack. An anchor salvaged from the wreck is currently on display at the National Museum of Singapore to remind us of this incident.

The Empress of Asia burning after an Imperial Japanese Army Air Force attack on it off Sultan Shoal on the morning of 5 Feb 1942. Sultan Shoal Lighthouse can be seen on the right of the photograph.
Blue Mountains Library, (CC BY-SA 2.0)
The anchor from the RMS Empress of Asia troopship on display.

The face of the shoal would change with land reclamation around the shoal in the 1970s. With an island to rest on, a holiday bungalow could be added for use by senior officers with the Port of Singapore Authority and in the Civil Service. That change pales in comparison in what has been happening in the seas around the former shoal since 1995, with reclamation extending Jurong Island — created from the reclamation around a cluster of southwestern islands that has brought it well within sight of Sultan Shoal to the east.

To the shoal’s west and immediately to its south, work reclamation work on the fingers of the already reclaimed Tuas South extension that will accommodate the future mega-port is taking place at relentless pace. Phase 2 of the work, which involves the construction of a finger that will come almost within touching distance of Sultan Shoal is well underway with a large section of the massive caisson seawalls being installed having already been put in place. The reclamation, which will create some 26 km of deepwater wharves that would accommodate mega-container ships of up to the hypothetical “Malaccamax” size – the largest size vessels that the 25 metre deep Malacca Strait would be able to accommodate. On the evidence of the extent of reclamation work it does look like that Sultan Shoal Lighthouse, having played a key role in the development of Singapore’s port for over a century, may no longer be relevant to the port it has nurtured. The port has certainly grown too big for the lighthouse and what the future now holds for it and the expanded shoal that it rests on, is anybody’s guess.

The caisson seawalls for the Tuas Mega-Port Phase 2 reclamation, with Sultan Shoal in close proximity.
A chart showing the relative position of Sultan Shoal (the black dot on the left on top of the second finger being reclaimed).
Another chart showing the proximity of Sultan Shoal to the second finger being reclaimed.



Sultan Shoal Lighthouse in 2014.
A closeup of the lighthouse in July 2021.
A southward view, with the caisson seawall behind the expanded shoal.





The public bathing pagar at Katong Park

14 01 2020

Katong Park is where a last bastion of a 1870s coastal defence fort, built quite foolishly on sand, can be found. Once fronting the sea, the former defensive position turned recreational space, was also where a bathing pagar – the first to be established by the Municipal Commission for public bathing – was to be found.

Children at the bathing pagar at Katong Park, 1969 (Kim Hocker Collection).

The construction of the pagar – an enclosure extending from the sea shore originally made of wooden stakes – came on the back of the commission’s thrust to provide public facilities for sporting pursuits (see: A short history of public Swimming Pools in Singapore and Parting Glances: the boxing gym at Farrer Park) in the 1920s and 1930s. The original public pagar at Katong was opened by Mr William Bartley in December 1931 – in the same year that Singapore’s first public swimming pool, built using the disused service reservoir at Mount Emily, also opened.

Another view of the pagar in 1969 (Kim Hocker Collection).

Private bathing pagars were especially common then. They were constructed primarily to keep bathers safe and keep the sharks outs and were found at seaside homes and hotels, and at private swimming clubs. A shark attack in 1925, which resulted in the death of an unfortunate bather, Ms Doris Bowyer-Smyth, prompted the Singapore Swimming Club to erect its pagar soon after.

A bathing pagar seen in the sea in front of Beaulieu House, which had been a private seaside residence before it was acquired for the construction of the Naval Base in the 1920s (photo: National Archives of Singapore).

The Chinese Swimming Club’s Bathing Pagar.

The Katong Park pagar,  which was concretised in the 1950s, stood until work on reclamation started in 1971. All that now remains to remind us of the seaside – the reason for Katong Park’s coming into being in 1928, is the last bastion of Fort Tanjong Katong.


Fort Tanjong Katong

Among the first set of instructions given by Raffles to Farquhar upon the establishment of Singapore as an East India Company trading post was to have a defensive position in the Tanjong Katong area – at Sandy Point or Tanjong Rhu. The thought of a fort was in fact broached from time to time in reviews conducted of Singapore defences, but it wasn’t until 1878 that a coastal battery at Tanjong Katong would be established with a strengthening of coastal defences in the face of a possible Russian threat.

The sandy base meant that the fort’s high range finding tower moved with each firing, not only requiring a recalibration of the range finders with each firing but also made them impossible to use when the tower shook. The fort, built at sea level, also acquired a reputation for being a “wash-out fort” and was decommission in the early 1900. The fort’s southeast bastion, which were uncovered several times following the conversion of the grounds of the fort into Katong Park were once again uncovered in 2004 and can now be found at a corner of Katong Park.

Fort Tanjong Katong Source: Wellcome Collection (CC BY 4.0)

 

Fort Tanjong Katong’s southeast bastion.

 

Another view of Fort Tanjong Katong’s southeast bastion.

 

The area where the sea – and the pagar was.


 





Lost in the rising sea at Telok Ayer

12 02 2016

It is hard now to imagine the sea coming right up to Telok Ayer Street where the original shoreline had once been.  The Telok Ayer Reclamation scheme of the 1880s moved the shoreline to where Shenton Way is today, adding some 1,808,028 square feet or 167,971. square metres of land where Telok Ayer Bay had been. A portion of the land, reclaimed at a cost of 51 cents per square foot, was sold initially (in 1896) for an average price of $1.13 per square foot.

One of the earliest structures to be erected in the land where the bay had been is what we now know as Telok Ayer Market or “Lau Pa-Sat” – meaning old market in the Hokkien dialect with pa-sat being a Hokkien loan word from Malay used locally. The “New Town Market” replaced a 1833 market that had been built along the earlier shoreline and would possibly be the only one of the reclamation’s early structures to have stood to this very day (it did disappear over a three year period in the late 1980s when it was dismantled to protect its structure from damage from tunnelling works for the MRT).

A National Monument, the former market and now a food centre, is a showpiece of exquisite Scottish ironwork. Although it still remains very recognisable for its distinctive octagonal plan and its clock tower, the old market has become a lot less noticeable now that it is lost in the new sea at the former Telok Ayer Bay; a sea not of water but of towering skyscrapers that has risen in the last four decades or so.

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Lost in the sea of skyscrapers, the former Telok Ayer Market. This view of it is down Maxwell Link, running in between Robinson Road and Shenton Way, along which newer and taller buildings are now replacing the first generation skyscrapers of 1970s vintage.

The view from Mount Wallich

When the air was much clearer – a view from Mount Wallich, which was soon to be levelled, towards the Telok Ayer Reclamation, possibly in the late 1890s, soon after the “New Town Market”, also seen in the picture, was constructed. The road closest to the viewer would be Cecil Street, with Robinson Road running parallel and what would became Shenton Way just by the sea.

Carnival time on the reclamation – the Manila Carnival during the Malaya-Borneo Exhibition in 1922 where Shenton Way is today. The market can be seen in the background (National Archives of Singapore Photograph).

 





Strange Horizons: Past, present and the probable future

14 08 2014

One of the last untouched islands of Singapore, Pulau Jong, is seen with the first to be developed for industrial use, Pulau Bukom Besar (on the right), and its smaller neighbour Pulau Bukom Kechil – a juxtaposition perhaps of past, present, and perhaps the probable future.

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Pulau Bukom Besar’s development goes back to the 1890s when Shell established a kerosene storage facility on the island, then deemed a safe distance away from the main island of Singapore, outside the then port limits. The age of industrialisation in Singapore brought with it the refinery that Shell built – which heralded the start of Singapore involvement with the oil refining business, in 1961. The expansion into Pulau Bukom Kechil began in the 1970s. More on this can be found on a previous post: Snake Island at dawn through the darkness of the storm.

Sadly for Pulau Jong and its large fringing reef, a 2013 Land Use Plan seems to show that future plans could involve its absorption into a larger land mass through reclamation, joining it with the islands of Pulau Sebarok to its southeast and the enlarged Pulau Semakau (now Singapore’s offshore landfill) to its southwest.





A view from a sandbar

5 06 2014

It was against the backdrop of the drama of a passing storm playing out in the rapidly changing light of the morning, that I found myself standing on a sandbar four nautical miles out into the Singapore Strait.

Terumbu Pempang Laut and beyond, seen in the light storm coloured morning.

The view from a sandbar in the light of the storm coloured morning.

The view from a sandbar, four nautical miles out.

A rainbow appears as the weather clears.

Walking where few now thread.

Walking where few now tread.

Reflections on the morning.

Reflections on the morning.

The scene revealed by the transformation of night into day in the darkness and light of the storm coloured morning was one that did seem rather surreal, disfigured by the craggy interventions of the natural world juxtaposed against the human interventions that now dominate Singapore’s nearshore.

The morning's drama.

The morning’s drama.

Light in the darkness.

Light in the darkness.

Juxtapositions of the natural world against the human world.

Juxtapositions of the natural world against the human world.

Spot light on the interventions of men that now dominate Singapore's nearshore.

A natural spotlight on the interventions of men that now dominate Singapore’s nearshore.

It wasn’t quite what I had intended in interrupting that much needed weekend’s slumber. The excursion was one to have a feel for the patch reef, Terumbu Pempang Laut, to which the sandbar was a part of, as well as the island to its south, Pulau Sudong, regular visitors from which it would once have hosted.

The changing hues in the early hours of the day as seen from the boat.

The changing hues in the early hours of the day as seen from the boat that left at 6am.

A northward view across the reef.

A northward view across the reef.

The expanded Pulau Sudong, as seen from Terumbu Pempang Laut.

The expanded Pulau Sudong, as seen from Terumbu Pempang Laut.

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It was as close as one could get to Pulau Sudong, now part of a restricted military zone. The island, once itself not much more than perhaps a spit of sand that was part of the surrounding reefs, had been one of several islands off Singapore’s south-western shoreline on which stilted villages of the sea had decorated.

Pulau Sudong in the 1950s (source: National Archives of Singapore Online).

The dwellings on stilts arranged around the island’s foreshore, had been on that had evolved from buoyant mobile dwellings of those, the sea nomads from the pre-Raffles era, who the occupants had inherited the seas from. Living on the sea, the nomads and their descendants also lived off it; the waters and the reefs around the island, contributing much to their livelihoods.

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Even without there being a source of fresh water, the island at its height, supported a community of several hundred and boasted of schools (there apparently were two in the 1940s), a clinic, a community centre and a police post.

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The reefs, teeming with marine life and exposed as the tide receded, was where life on the islands might have often extended to. Men would be seen laying their bubu, traps made by the fishermen themselves out of strips of bamboo, weighing them down with corals that the reef did provide. The womenfolk also found their way to the reefs, seeking a harvest of both edible produce of the sea and items such as corals that could be sold.

Corals were harvested by the women of Pulau Sudong.

Corals were harvested by the women of Pulau Sudong.

Life as the reefs might have seen, is quite wonderfully captured in words by Chew Soo Beng, who in “Fishermen in Flats” (1982), describes the activity on a Terumbu Raya, a reef to Sudong’s west:

Groups of women row their kolek to different parts of the exposed portions of the reef to gather sea produce. In the past, this activity was performed with considerable gaiety, seeming to be an enjoyable activity. Everyone carried a basket and unmarried girls wore bunga raya (hibiscus flower) in their hair.

In teams of threes or fours, usually to form a line, they combed the reef for agar-agar (an edible seaweed), gulong, the trepang and a variety of beche-de-mer. When both the tide and sun were low, the gather chatter of the women at work would drift into the village where the men, excluded from the offshore merriment, conversed beneath their favourite pondok.

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The reefs see a different merriment today. The chatter of women gathering in the harvest is now replaced by the excitement of sea birds seeking a harvest of their own. Human chatter is now heard on occasion, of those who seek only to harvest what the reef can tell them – as an part of a continuous marine survey that the tireless Ria Tan of the Wild Shores of Singapore champions.

The merriment the reefs see today are those of the sea birds seeking their harvest from the sea.

The merriment the reefs see today are those of the sea birds seeking their harvest from the sea.

It was with the group that I ventured out to the sandbar. Of the finds of the morning’s harvest, the one that did perhaps trigger the greatest excitement was a sighting of a small giant fluted clam. This find, along with what else the reef did reveal, is described by Ria in Terumbu Pempang Laut check up in her blog, which is a glorious celebration of life on our shores.

The giant clam that raised the level of excitement.

The giant clam that raised the level of excitement.

On the reef's edge.

On the reef’s edge.

One thing that Ria does point out in her post that did get my attention, is that life around the shores of the reefs and the islands might to come to an end. The reefs, along with the cluster that it belongs to which also includes Terumbu Pempang Tengah to its immediate east and  Terumbu Pempang Darat, face an uncertain future. The Land Use Plan, released to support the less than popularly received Population White Paper in early 2013, does show that the area is one where future land reclamation work could take place.

Possible future reclamation poses a threat to the future of the reefs (and the islands).

Possible future reclamation poses a threat to the future of the reefs and the islands (source: Land Use Plan 2013).

If that does happen, the reefs will be incorporated into part of a land mass that will include the Bukom cluster of islands and the Hantu twins, leaving the only ghosts haunting our southern shores (hantu translates into “ghost” in Malay) – there was also another Pulau Hantu that has since been renamed as Keppel Island, that of lost islands and reefs, and of a people and a way-of-life that will never again be seen.

The future of many of the islands as individuals such as Pulau Jong, are also under threat from the Land Use Plan.

The future of many of the southern islands as individual islands, such as Pulau Jong (seen here with Pulau Sebarok), are also under threat from the Land Use Plan.

Life on Pulau Sudong, one of the last of the Southern Islands to host a resident population, did itself come to an abrupt end in early 1980. By then, reclamation that added some 174 ha. to its area, had already decimated the once rich fishing grounds that surrounded it, prompting a move for many in the late 1970s to seek a new beginning in Tanah Besar as the mainland was referred to, completing an assimilation into the Malay world.

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Initially intended as a recreational island, Pulau Sudong was closed to the public in mid-1982. Used since as part of an air force live-firing area that also includes Pulau Pawai and Pulau Senang to its south, what ghosts it may have inherited from its long discarded past, may also have abandoned it.

Reflections off a lagoon at low tide.

Reflections off a lagoon at low tide.

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