The haunted island in Northwest Singapore and its laird

17 11 2017

Pulau Sarimbun, a little known island tucked away in the northwest corner of the Johor or Tebrau Strait, has quite an interesting chapter in its history. Now forlorn and isolated due to the area’s heightened security, it was once a picnic spot and later a place of retirement for a Boer War veteran turned planter, tin miner and waterworks engineer, Mr W A Bates Goodall.

1932 Malaya, Jahore Straits, Pulau Serimban near Lim Chu Kang

Mr Goodall’s bungalow on Pulau Sarimbun in 1932 (photo courtesy of Mr Stephen Downes-Martin).

Mr Goodall arrived at our shores as part of his deployment when he was in the service with the Manchester Regiment in the early 1900s but left soon after as “soldiering in the east did not appeal to me”.  He visited the island regularly for picnics from 1923 to 1932 and as the “Robinson Crusoe life” appealed to him, decided to live in a bungalow perched on a cliff on the island upon his retirement after 13 years in the waterworks department in 1932. Mr Goodall was sometimes also referred to as the Laird of Sarimbun Island and “ruled” over four “subjects”: a Cambridge educated Chinese clerk, a Malay boatman and two Chinese servants and rented the island for some $35 annually. Mr Goodall lived on the island until his passing in October 1941 – just a few months before the Japanese invaded.

Pulau Sarimbun as seen on a 1938 map.

Interestingly, Mr Goodall wasn’t the island’s first inhabitant. There was apparently a mysterious Russian who lived in a hut on the island, who paid  a rent of “three peppercorns” annually at the end of the 1800s. Sarimbun Island was described in a The Straits Times 15 March 1936 article as “sunny, shady and delightful a spot as can be imagined” and commanding a view “embracing the Jalan Scudai waterfront of Johore, and the Pulai, and Plentong Hills”. The same articles also explains that its name means “shady island” in Malay*, which the people of the strait thought was haunted. A rare indigenous fossil fern thought to have been extinct in Singapore, the Dipteris, was found on the island in 2003.


Mr Max Bevilacqua Bell and the attempt to cross breed Friesian cows with Indian cows in Lim Chu Kang 

It is hard to imagine that Singapore had an agricultural past. The northwest corner, while we know was given to rubber (see also: A Lost World in Lim Chu Kang), was apparently also where cattle was reared.

The very rare photograph of Pulau Sarimbun was sent to me by Mr Stephen Downes-Martin in October 2015. Mr Downes-Martin, who lived in Singapore as a child in 1959, 1960, and then again in 1970, was the stepson of Mr Max Bevilacqua Bell,  a businessman whose association with Singapore began from the early 1920s and lasted until the 1970s. Among Mr Bell’s ventures in Singapore was in cattle rearing. Mr Bell had a farm in Lim Chu Kang on which he attempted to cross breed Friesian cows with Indian cows but the war put a halt to that venture. A photograph of Mr Bell’s house in Lim Chu Kang also came in the same email.

Mr Bell’s farm in Lim Chu Kang in the 1930s (photo courtesy of Mr Stephen Downes-Martin).


* Sarimbun probably follows the naming convention adopted for Singapore’s islands by the Orang Laut, which have a prefix sa- or se-. Rimbun in Malay translates to “lush” from a perspective of vegetation – which well describes the island.

 

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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: