Singapore Landscapes: the tortoise in the early light of day

5 05 2014

It was in the soft light of a storm washed morning on the first of May that I found myself taking in the quiet beauty of less visited part of Singapore, an island, Kusu Island, just 15 minutes away by boat from mainland Singapore. The island is one I have not set eyes on since the days of my youth, the last I did see of it would have been some three decades ago, when reclamation had already expanded it.

Low tide in the swimming lagoon.

Low tide in the northern swimming lagoon.

The island has been one that has been the subject of many tales from the past. Taking on the shape of a tortoise or turtle when the tide came in – it had been a pair of rocky outcrops set on a reef that were separated at high tide, with the smaller of the two outcrops resembling a head, and the larger mound, the body; legend does have it as having been a turtle that turned into an island in the act of rescuing shipwrecked sailors from the sea.

The swimming lagoon at low tide in the light of dawn.

The swimming lagoon at low tide in the light of dawn.

The incoming storm - the approaching Sumatra.

The incoming storm – the approaching Sumatra.

The legend is one connected with a annual pilgrimage that the island hosts during the ninth month of the Chinese lunar calendar when the sleepy island sees hundreds of thousands of Taoist devotees from the mainland who visit to pay homage at the island’s Tua Peh Kong temple (set on the smaller outcrop) and also the island’s three keramats (on the mound). The tradition is thought to go back to the days before Raffles arrived (see: “Before the Days of Raffles” – article on The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884-1942), 19 October 1932, Page 7) and draws some 100,000 to 200,000 visitors over the pilgrimage month.

A postcard of Kusu Island at low tide, showing the smaller rocky outcrop on which the Tua Peh Kong Temple is, from the larger side (posted by Yun Xin on the Facebook Group 'On a little street in Singapore').

A postcard of Kusu Island at low tide, showing the smaller rocky outcrop on which the Tua Peh Kong Temple is, from the larger side (posted by Yun Xin on the Facebook Group ‘On a little street in Singapore’).

A view of the temple with Lazarus Island across the channel.

A view of the temple seen today with Lazarus Island across the channel.

The sight of Kusu during the pilgrimage must certainly be an amazing one – especially in days before the reclamation of the early 1970s provided more room for the mass of visitors – the reclamation saw some 270,000 cubic metres of sand filled into the sea and provided Kusu with an additional 7.3 ha. of land area (on top of the original 1.2 ha.) with swimming (two lagoons) and picnicking facilities added.

Conservationists at work.

Conservationists at work.

That sight was, however, not the same one that I did get of Kusu in the early light. I had gone over with a group of Marine Conservationists, who were kind enough to allow Juria and me (we are both attempting to document memories of the coastline and the islands as part of a IrememberSG project, Points of Departure) to tag along. The timing of the journey, which had us embarking a boat at Marina South Pier at 5 in the morning, had been timed to bring the group led by Ria Tan (many will be familiar with her Wild Shores of Singapore site) to the island at low tide. As I was experimenting with capturing sounds of the shoreline after the brief Sumatra squall had passed, the group was threading through the flats and reefs exposed by the shallow water of the western lagoon and beyond the rock bund to document marine life in and around what is a regenerated reef that I never realised was there. You can see what the group did manage to find on Ria’s post “How is Kusu Island doing?“.

Another view of the western lagoon at dawn.

Another view of the northern lagoon at dawn.


Sitting on the bund, I did, for a brief moment, find myself transported faraway in time, to a Singapore I once was familiar with. It didn’t take long however, before the sounds of the sea were punctured by the drone of jets flying above and I noticed the illuminated wheel and adjacent to it the unmistakable paraphernalia of the modern city looming on the horizon. It was then that I heard the chatter of my companions for the morning, busy at work, bringing me back to where I was in time and space.


I have for long, longed to be transported to a childhood sea. And while I do know that sea is one I will never again see, I do at least have moments such as these to look forward to and be thankful for; moments, that in a world I can not longer feel for, is able to bring a sense of peace that might otherwise elude me.



Information on Kusu Island, including newspaper articles with illustrations of what it did once look like can be found in the following links:




Singapore Landscapes: A pathway to the divine

9 04 2014

It is a magical pathway on which one makes a journey in the search of the divine, the lost and almost forgotten Divine Bridge. The pathway that leads up to the area where the bridge once stood, traces a route by the water’s edge at MacRitchie Reservoir, and in doing so, passes through an area that offers some of the prettiest views of water, trees and space that Singapore does have. Part of the landscape is dominated by the manicured greens of one of the golf courses at what is the Bukit location of the Singapore Island Country Club (SICC). It is at this location, where the SICC will return one of the two courses it operates to the government for use as a public course in 2021 when its lease expires. A paved public walkway now runs by the course close to the water’s edge, leading up to the area where what does remain of the Divine Bridge, the wooden stumps that were once part of the columns supporting the bridge, can be seen.

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Singapore Landscapes: A body of water named after a municipal engineer

17 03 2014

Described in its early days as an area of picturesque loveliness, MacRitchie Reservoir and its surroundings, remains today an area in Singapore to find an escape in. Singapore’s first impounding reservoir, MacRitchie was first created by the building of a dam from 1864 to 1868, and has been enlarged twice to the size it is today. The reservoir is today set on the fringe of a secondary forest – now is part of the Central Catchment Reserve, that if not for the reservoir being there, might be with us today.

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An article in the 22 May 1869 edition of the Straits Times describes the reservoir:

“Probably within the radius of double its (the reservoir’s) distance from town, there exists no point in the island possessing the same charms of placid loveliness that the abortive reservoir offers to the view of the excursionist”.

The same article also describes the existence of the many “Malayan hamlets” that had existed when “pioneers of the work first intruded upon the solitude of the valley”, going on to describe how the fruit trees that had been left behind under “the shadow of the great primeval forest” has lent “an interest to the spot beyond the picturesque loveliness which the artificial lake has produced”.

The reservoir, once known as Thomson Road Reservoir, was named after James MacRitchie, a municipal engineer who had overseen the second expansion of the the reservoir in 1891. That expansion was to increase the reservoir’s holding capacity from what was an equivalent of 50 days supply to  a capacity which held 200 days of supply.

The much travelled Mr MacRitchie – he had taken up several appointments including ones that took him to Calcutta, Japan and South America, who had arrived in Singapore in late 1883; had an illustrious career in Singapore as the colony’s Municipal Engineer, before his untimely passing in 1895 at the age of 47.

Besides the waterworks and the improvement of its supply lines that included the laying of pipelines and the construction of filter beds , one group of which is located at the corner of Cavenagh Road and Bukit Timah Road, Mr MacRitchie was also responsible for overseeing several civil works, the most notable of which are the building of a number of bridges and several markets. These included some that were to become well-known landmarks such as the 1886 Coleman Bridge (dismantled in the late 1980s), the Read Bridge, the Pulau Saigon Bridge (dismantled in 1986) and the Telok Ayer Market (Lau Pa Sat).

Singapore Landscapes: the secret lake

10 03 2014

While Singapore hasn’t quite been blessed with naturally beautiful landscapes, there are several areas in which the intervention of man, has created places that are a joy to behold. One such place is the former Seng Chew Granite Quarry, nestled in a forested area well hidden from view. The former quarry is in the same area as the former Gammon Quarry, which has since become known as Little Guilin, on the slopes of Bukit Gombak.

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The quarries at Bukit Gombak (which at 133 metres is Singapore’s second highest hill after Bukit Timah), were involved in the excavation of norite as granite (although they are not the same type of rocks). Norite in Singapore, concentrated in Bukit Gombak and Bukit Panjang and referred to as “Gombak Norite”, belong to some of Singapore’s oldest rock formations – thought to date back to the Palaeozoic age some 250 to 500 million years ago.

Left with hollows blasted that have been out of the rock formations, many disused quarries in Singapore,  have since become pools of water resembling lakes, giving us some rather pretty sights. Some such as Little Guilin, and the granite quarries on the slopes of Bukit Timah Hill, have since been incorporated into parks and are some of the more picturesque spots in Singapore. The former Seng Chew Granite Quarry however isn’t one, lying at present, abandoned and forgotten – although a glance at previous version of the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s previous master plans as well as the Singapore Land Authority’s onemap system seem to indicate the area’s planned use is for a park. However, this is uncertain as frequent landslides in the area may have put paid to any thoughts to do this – a nature trail, the Bukit Gombak Trail, in the area was permanently closed following frequent landslides in 2006.

Singapore landscapes: the view up north

23 09 2013

In a Singapore which becoming increasingly dominated by towering blocks of concrete, it a always refreshing to be able to take in landscapes such as the one in this photograph. Landscapes such as this take us back to a time when we were truly a city in a garden, well before our urban planners decided to use that phrase to describe the vision of the next phase in the greening of Singapore.  Such landscapes, are to me, escapes which provide a sense of space we now lack in a Singapore that has become too cluttered. They are unfortunately fast being replaced in an overcrowded city state caught not just in a frenzy of urbanisation, but also of urbanising open spaces.

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The photograph was taken in an area where the natural undulations which shaped much of the terrain around it have until now been preserved by what became of the land around it. The area was at the turn of the last century, one of plantations. The plantations made way when the land was acquired for the development of the huge naval base along the northern coastline in the late 1920s to the end of the 1930s. While the part of the area seen in the photograph is not under immediate threat of development, it is one which does see many developments coming up around it, developments which will certainly alter an area still rich in charm and character. A huge change to it will possibly come when the nearby shipyard shuts its operations (as has been identified in the Ministry of National Development Land Use Plan issued earlier this year) freeing “new waterfront land” along the Sembawang coastline (see also A Final Frontier).