13 January 2011

Pulau Sakijang Bendera [Saint John's Island]

St John's Island is one of our better-known Southern Islands located southeast of Sentosa. A popular destination for anglers and nature lovers, the island is acclaimed for it's white sandy beaches, azure waters and a myriad of flora and fauna, and it is often billed as the perfect getaway from the hustle and bustle of city life, without having to leave the country. A number of holiday bungalows and a holiday camp located on the island cater for those in need of a short break away from their hectic lives on the mainland.

Lagoon One, the only swimming lagoon that's left open to the public.

However, the island has a much more colourful history than simply being a holiday destination. One interesting point of note would be the origin of its name, and the many monikers it has. You see, the island wasn't always known by its present English name. One account states that a long time ago, the island was known as Pulau Sakijang by the Malay locals, which can be literally translated as the Island of A Barking Deer. When British sailors arrived in Singapore, they took it upon themselves to fiddle with the name of the island to make it more pronounceable among themselves, hence the name Sakijang was alleged to be anglicized to Sin Jang Island to suit the English tongue, and subsequently Sin Jang Island became St John's Island over time. With reference to an old newspaper dated in 1835, the name St John's Island was used by a journalist to describe Pulau Sakijang, suggesting that the name has been around longer than expected*. Hence, this debunks the common misconception that the island was named St John's Island after the lazaret and hospital on the island, as the latter were only built in the late 19th century with the rise of the cholera epidemic.

* The island's name also appears to predate Raffles' arrival in Singapore as the island appears as St John's Island in 18th century navigation charts like Captain Lindsey's 1798 The South Part of the Straits of Malacca.

The island was also known in Mandarin as Qi Zhang Shan (棋樟山) or Mount Qi Zhang, after a hill which is located on the central part of the island. "Mount" Qi Zhang is a bit of a misnomer, as the hill stands no taller than 57 metres high. However, both mountains and hills are called "shan" in Mandarin, hence this could have given rise to this peculiar name. The Chinese name Qi Zhang is also believed to be derived from its Malay name Sakijang.

View of the Mainland (in the background) from St John's Island

Sir Stamford Raffles was believed to have felt that the location of St John's Island was especially advantageous when he anchored his vessel, the Indiana, and his fleet here on the 28th of January, 1819 - one day before his fateful meeting with the Temenggong to seek permission to set up a British settlement in Singapore. Raffles remained onboard the Indiana whilst locals from Singapore island called on board. Raffles consulted these locals, asking if the Dutch had authority over the main island. He was then told that only the Temenggong held fort on the mainland. With his good foresight, he could envision that St John's Island would be an important maritime marker for seafarers to know that they had reached the southern tip of the Malayan Peninsular.

Southeastern view of the The Singapore Strait
from St. John's Causeway, which links to Lazarus Island

Major William Farquhar, the first resident of Singapore who had been tasked to establish the British settlement, knew that in order to perpetuate trade, people had to be invited to trade and live in Singapore. In February 1823, he ordered for a flagstaff signal post to be erected atop the summit of Mount Qi Zhang and a British official, skilled in visual signals from his training in Calcutta, was stationed on St John’s Island to invite passing ships to stop at Singapore. The flagstaff signal post had been shifted from its original position on Pulau Tembakul (also known as Goa Island, a name given by cartographer James Horsburgh, then later renamed Peak Island, and in our present day, Kusu Island) to Pulau Sakijang as it was in a much better location and had Mount Qi Zhang as a vantage point for an all round view of the surrounding waters. Signals were sent out to vessels at sea with the help of coloured flags raised up on a tall flagstaff. The official, with the help of four British-Indian soldiers, would raise a flag whenever they saw a large vessel sailing past the island, to request for the ship to drop anchor. The raised flag would also be a signal to the lookout point on Government Hill (Fort Canning Hill) that a large vessel was spotted at sea. Different flags would signify the size of the vessel, their country of origin, as well as the direction from which they would be approaching the port. The signal detachment of St John's Island would then sail out to sea in a small boat to meet up with the captain of the ship, warmly inviting the vessel to call at the newly established Singapore Harbour.

Fort Canning Hill, Circa 1902 by Aldwin Teo, on Wikipedia
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License by Aldwin Teo
Fort Canning Hill in 1902, with the flagstaff, lighthouse and time ball
visible in the background (click to enlarge)


The flagstaff on Fort Canning Hill, present day

The time ball, present day

Such was the tenacity of these unsung heroes, coupled with Singapore's favourable geographical and nautical location, that led to the thriving activity we have in our port today.

*Sidenote: The officials on the Government Hill lookout post would keep their binoculars peeled on the signal post on St John's Island. Whenever a flag was raised on St John's, the officials on Government Hill would raise the same flag on a flagstaff of their own as an indication, earning it the nickname "Bukit Bendera" (Flag Hill).

A 19th century map of Raffles' landing at South Point.
St John's Island can be seen in the background.

With the flurry of flags being hoisted up at the signal post atop Mount Qi Zhang, the Malay locals then created an alternate name for the island, calling it Pulau Bendera or Flag Island. The island was then known much later as Pulau Sakijang Bendera, literally The Island of A Barking Deer and Flags, a merger of the names Pulau Sakijang and Pulau Bendera. The existence of the Port of Singapore spread like wildfire. Merchants from Europe and the Middle East learnt of this little oasis that they could call at, en route to their destination in the Far East or Oceania and vice versa. With the emergence of the port within a short span of time, the British decided that there was no need for the signal post to lure vessels into the port anymore. The signal post had done its job and it was subsequently decommissioned.

In the late 19th century, cholera was a big concern among the authorities. The cholera epidemic of 1873 saw 357 deaths in Singapore, prompting the Master-Attendant of Singapore harbour, Captain Henry Ellis (a retired Naval officer and experienced Master Mariner who performed the functions of a shipping master), to call for a lazaret* to be built on the island. All vessels heading into Singapore would first call at St John's Island, where health officials would conduct checks on commuters, before the healthy ones were allowed to continue their journey onto the mainland. The plans of the lazaret included a floating police station, a hospital at St John's and a quarantine burial-ground sited at Peak Island (yes, Kusu Island was a burial ground for the quarantined victims who succumbed to their illnesses). The lazaret was completed in November 1874, just in time as well as it attended to more than 1,300 cholera-infected Chinese coolies. Subsequently, victims of beri-beri were also brought to the island and by 1930, the island started screening Asian immigrants and pilgrims returning from Mecca as well.

The quarantine station was eventually extended to screen and house victims of other communicable diseases, such as leprosy, and was comparable to other world-class quarantine centres such as Ellis Island in New York and El Tor, Egypt in the Sinai Peninsular.

*At the time when the quarantine station was established, the neighbouring Pulau Sakijang Pelepah (Lazarus Island) was known as St John's Island Number 1 by the British authorities. The lazaret was built on St John's Island Number 2 (Pulau Sakijang Bendera). The name Lazarus Island was first mentioned in the press in 1902 and St John's Island was used to address Pulau Sakijang Bendera exclusively thereafter.

Communication channels were not always clear between the quarantine station and the Government Health Office on the mainland. A radio telephone was only set up in 1947, as the Superintendent on St John's Island only managed to get in touch with Singapore after much difficulty after rioting broke out among the quarantined passengers on two occasions in a single day.

Coolies from China being screened at St John's Island

After the events that transpired during WWII, the Japanese Occupation and the ensuing surrender of the Japanese, mass immigration was closed as ordered by the British. In approximately 1948, the island was turned into a penal colony for political detainees with nationalist sentiments and members of secret societies. These holding areas were later converted into a drug rehabilitation centre mainly for opium addicts in 1954.

It was only in 1975, that the independent Singapore Government decided to turn the place into an island resort. Other than swimming lagoons, a football field, basketball courts and a holiday resort on the island, there is a Prison Detention Centre for illegal immigrants and drug addicts as well. There is also a Tropical Marine Science Institute and an AVA Marine Aquaculture Centre located at the south-eastern end of the island.

On the 9th of January, our team visited this colourful island along with our friends from 2 other groups - The SGHC and T.O.S.S. We literally had to jump onto the ferry at the Marina South Pier at the last second as we arrived pretty late at the pier. This was about the same time we saw the Admiral Cheng Ho cruise depart from the ferry terminal. Safely on board, we shared some interesting St John's Island's stories we heard with each other en route to the island.

After a short 20 minute ride, we arrived alongside the pier at St John's island. As we stepped off the ferry onto the island, we were enamoured by the laid-back feeling of the island. We assembled in front of a large wooden board where the island map and a brief history of the island were displayed. Rudy Emcee from SGHC proceeded with a short briefing of our activities for the day and I could see that everyone was fired up for the walkabout. Without much further ado, we proceeded to our first checkpoint of the day, the campsite where the former lazaret was situated. Although the island wasn't too large in size, the hilly terrain made our stroll a little more challenging.

Rudy Emcee giving a briefing for what's to come.

A staff bungalow spotted en route to the campsite.

The Campsite

The holiday campsite consists of a cluster of dormitories located within a hilly area. These dormitory buildings, which can house up to 60 people, were probably a part of the quarantine station in the past, judging by the same long shape of the single-storey buildings and the double fencing around the area, complete with watchtowers at stipulated intervals. These buildings have not changed much since the 1930s.

Stumbling upon a unique building which looked like a verandah, we only found out later while sorting out our photos, that there was an old photo which looked like one of the photos Andrew snapped during our trip. This old photo taken from a similar angle by the Chief Health Officer of the lazaret, Dr. F.R Sayer, in 1930. Could this be an accidental Second Shot which our friend, Char Lee, the Second Shot specialist, excels in?

Could this be the same building? The photo above was taken in 1930,
and the one below was taken by Andrew in 2011.

We walked around the campsite area, taking several photos of the buildings around us. Who would have imagined that several years ago, these were the same buildings used to house deck passengers who were quarantined on the island? One can just imagine the scene from those days, a horde of quarantined deck passengers waiting for their turn to be screened, and British Indian soldiers keeping order with their spiffy uniforms and matching turbans.

Menacing watchtowers lined the compound, and the entire area had
double fencing, a testament to its former use as a detention centre.

One interesting find was a weathered State Crest in the vicinity of the campsite. A rather sad sight, the crest was in really bad condition and one could see that it wasn't maintained properly at all. The tiger, lion and the 5 stars were missing from the National Coat of Arms.

During our walkabout, we also noticed that although several buildings have been repainted with a fresh coat of paint, there were some old latrines that were blemished with age and algae was rampantly growing on all four sides.

Close by to the latrine, there was a raised platform which looked like the probable base of one of the former quarantine buildings, judging by its long rectangular shape. Whatever it was, it had been long removed, leaving only the platform to keep us guessing.

Another curious point was this stone sculpture located in a corner of the camp grounds where the year "1955" is boldly carved out. You may notice that the "1955" stone sculpture was around in the old photo on the left which was taken in August 1966, when then-Minister for Health Mr. Yong Nyuk Lin visited the quarantine station on St John's Island. We are unsure as to what the numbers or the year 1955 symbolizes, as the closest significant date of the island's history was the opening of the Opium Treatment Centre for the custody and treatment of opium addicts in 1954. Maybe someone could come forward to address this mysterious number?

There is also a basketball court next to the verandah-like building within the campsite. People have reported hearing marching sounds and shouting coming from the direction of the basketball court at night, but when they investigate the strange sounds, no one would be there. Alas, in the day it looked like any other run of the mill basketball court. Perhaps this was one of the few recreational areas where many detainees once had a trifling time.

The Human-Sized Chessboard

Within the campsite compound, lies a sinister looking human sized chess board. During the Japanese Occupation, the island was occupied by the Imperial Japanese Army and it was mainly used to house large numbers of prisoners of war (POWs). It is said that the Japanese soldiers used to line up the POWs on this chess board and used them as real-life chess pieces. This 'game' had the unfortunate side-effect of the prisoners being beheaded on the spot if they were captured or, in local speak - "eaten", giving rise to reports of people hearing blood curling screams coming from the chess board at night.

We're not sure how true this is, especially when there are no known records of the date of the chessboard's construction. However, our British colonial masters are renowned for enjoying chess so this could have been built when the quarantine centre was first established on the island, providing some form of entertainment to the detainees on the island as well. Hence, the notion of the Japanese taking over the camp from the British during the Japanese Occupation and using it for their own twisted game of human chess doesn't seem too far off.

The Watchtowers

Keeping vigil over the detention area, guards used to stand on top of these watchtowers to keep a lookout for anyone trying to escape. Together with the help of double fencing with concertina and barbed wires intertwined atop these fences, breakout was almost impossible. Even under the cover of night, the powerful beams from the searchlights in these watchtowers pierced the darkness like a hot knife through butter and with the entire island surrounded by water, any attempt to escape was simply futile.

View from the watchtower overlooking the football field

This powerful searchlight could illuminate targets far away.

The watchtowers looked rather new and well maintained. My guess is that they were probably built much later after the Singapore Prisons Service established the Opium Treatment Centre on the island. I have seen similar watchtowers built in the same fashion at existing drug rehabilitation centres such as the Khalsa Crescent and Sembawang Drug Rehabilitation Centres in the northern part of Singapore.

An odd sight at the football field below, was a shower cum toilet building with several stalls. Maybe it suited the large groups of detainees who utilised the toilets all at once.

The Buildings along the seafront

Along the seafront, to the left of the new pier, are several bungalow houses which have been converted into staff quarters. These wonderful houses certainly come with the perfect view of the neighbouring Lazarus Island and the mainland in the background. As you can see from the old photo, these buildings have remained relatively untouched. One such building would be the one with several arches on its front facade .

In the vintage photo, this particular building was open but a fence has been erected around it in the present. Although we couldn't get closer to the building to explore further, the gentle whirring of machinery and some black smoke emitting from an exhaust pipe above one of the windows gave some indication that this could be the power station.

Former muster sheds, now being used as staff quarters

These buildings were formerly used as muster sheds, in which immigrants effect their change of clothing and were instructed to go through the process of disinfection under a bath of showers, an improvement on the old system of wallowing in tubs. Meanwhile, the clothes they have discarded, as well as their personal belongings, will be placed in a steam sterilizer for 25 minutes, a process which is believed to kill off all harmful germs.

A disinfection station spraying Izal Solution, a disinfectant
used liberally to clean up quarantined personnnel

Further down the footpath, was a house that was idiosyncratically in contrast to the normal staff bungalows peppered along the coastline. Unmistakably built in the Tudor style - also colloquially known as a "black and white house" (other notable black and white houses include the Pier at Lim Chu Kang and the ones located at Sembawang), this building was probably used to house an important official in the past. Perhaps the Chief Health Officer, Dr. F.R Sayer stayed here whenever he visited the island? Dr. Sayer's ashes were scattered in the presence of his widow and several personal friends in Cooper's Channel (the channel between St John's Island and Lazarus Island) on 1st July 1935 when he passed away as the bathing pagar (a designated bathing enclosure in the sea enclosed with stilts; pagar literally means fence in Malay) in the channel was said to be his favourite spot. Dr. Sayers frequently found pleasant recreation in the bathing pagar whenever he visited the quarantine station, either officially or otherwise.

Grubby walls and even grubbier doors.

As we entered the front door of the house, we noticed that there were 2 locked rooms, on either side of the central corridor which led to the rear of the house, where the servants' quarters were located. In typical colonial fashion, the servants' quarters and the kitchen was located in a smaller building away from the main house. This was because the British didn't like having the smell of food cooking or staying under the same roof as their servants.

The guys exploring the servant's quarters

The kitchen, located within the servants' quarters

On the left of the servants' quarters was the kitchen, a structure which was used to formerly place a stove being a dead giveaway, while a similarly sized room on the right was empty except for an old wooden cabinet, probably used to store dry foods, with its vintage insect netting still intact. One could guess that the servants probably placed the legs of this cupboard in little saucers of water to prevent ants from invading the cabinet as well. There was also a squatting latrine further behind.

As we moved back to the front of the house, we spotted a metal plate attached to one of the columns in the front porch. The initials on the plate read "P.W.D Central Building" - meaning that this was the Central Building built by the Public Works Department. Sadly, the year of construction was not inscribed on this plate.

The guys checking out the inscriptions on the metal plate.

The roof tiles were imported from Marseille, France, judging from
the manufacturer's name and country of origin inscribed below the tiles.

The Abandoned Apartment Block

Departing the Tudor house, we continued on our way to a flight of stairs nearby which led up a steep slope. As we ascended to the top, we came face to face with the notorious abandoned block of flats, where many have claimed to have experienced encounters of the third kind. There is a common story which tells of a thrill seeker filming the abandoned block with his handphone camera. He then captured a ghostly figure floating down the stairs in the middle of the block and he immediately turned and ran away. The sighting gave him endless nightmares and he was too afraid to keep the video, deleting it subsequently.

Some old clothes on the second floor have confused many, giving the
impression that the abandoned block might be occupied by foreign workers.

We entered the abandoned block and were surprised to find that the door on the right was unlocked. Before we entered the apartment, we noted that the power switchbox mounted on the wall was lighted up, suggesting that power was still being supplied to this building.

Rear of the abandoned block

Although the interior of he building looked run down and dusty, we were appalled to find that there were spanking new air-con units fitted in almost every room. We then proceeded up the reputedly haunted stairwell up to the second floor, which led to another locked door each on both sides.

The "haunted stairwell"

Portico on the second storey with locked rooms on both sides.

As the main body went back down the stairs where we came up from, Andrew and myself decided to take a different route behind the building. There was an open gate beside a wire fence and following our instincts, we walked down the less beaten path, arriving at another staircase that led downhill. We descended the stone steps, unsure of how far away we were from the main group.

The Village and Masjid St John's Island

By some stroke of luck, the mysterious stairs actually led us back to where the rest of the group was headed, the old mosque of the island. Our friends were already inside the mosque, intrigued by its rustic charm and documenting the place through photographs and video. The Masjid St John's Island has been around for longer than anyone can remember, ever since there were people living in villages. The masjid (mosque) has been faithfully serving the residents on St John' Island, as well as the thriving Malay community on nearby Pulau Sakijang Pelepah (Lazarus Island), providing a haven of solace and divinity in times of need. Life on these islands must have been a magical experience. A former Penghulu (village headman) once said in a newspaper interview that: "On the islands, the spirit of gotong-royong (mutual help) was all pervading, be it at weddings or funerals"

Our heritage advisor, Jerome, recalls in a blog post:

"Having lived mostly off the sea for generations, modern society caught up on the islanders by the time the 1970s had arrived. Many were forced to commute to Singapore to make a living and to receive their education. There was the odd primary school that was built, including one on St. John’s Island (Pulau Sekijang Bendara) – I remember a national primary school level football competition in which the team from the school I attended, St. Michael’s School, played against opponents from St. John’s Island School in the final, narrowly losing 1-2 to the islanders, but post-primary schooling had to be for all on the main island." (More from Jerome's blog here)

Trivia - The Chinta Manis: While the St John's Island School provided the residents of the island with primary education (St John's Island School conducted its classes in English, while the teachers of the Malay school on Pulau Sakijang Pelepah conducted their classes in Malay), secondary students did not enjoy this privilege. Every schoolday, a luxury cruiser, under a five year contract to the Singapore Government penned in December 1966 at the princely sum of $9750 a month, would ferry these teenagers from departure points St John's Island and Pulau Brani to the alighting point at Jardine Steps (where the Harbourfront Centre presently stands) and Clifford Pier on the mainland, where a schoolbus would be waiting for them. As there were only 2 designated departure points for this ferry, children from the smaller surrounding islands would have to paddle their sampans to these 2 departure points.

A 1960s Southern Islands Tours Organization Ltd. Brouchure
A photo of the Chinta Manis can be seen on top
(Image Source: http://www.singas.co.uk)

1960s Brouchure for the Chinta Manis Island Tour (click to enlarge)
(Image Source: http://www.singas.co.uk)

The vessel which ferried these schoolchildren was the locally built Chinta Manis , operated by the Southern Islands Tours Organization Ltd. The Chinta Manis was a floating schoolbus, the subject of envy for many kids living on the mainland. It would also be used after sundown for luxury tours along the Singapore waterfront and the outlying islands. The 24m long vessel was equipped with airline-type seats, ship to shore radio, special ventilation and stereophonic tape equipment, a true masterpiece that was way ahead of its time. At night, it would take on a small band for dancing and also provides cocktail and snack bar facilities. Some of the older folk who lived on St John's Island would definitely remember this daily boat ride to school onboard the Chinta Manis.

As we sauntered around the venerated surroundings of the Masjid, everyone was fascinated by how old this mosque was. Old maps indicate that there was a Muslim cemetery situated near to the mosque, and there was also supposed to be a village nearby. However, the villagers have all been relocated to the mainland, all traces of the village removed completely and the graves have all been exhumed. There were also many who lived on kelongs in the surrounding waters. These people were truly people of the sea. Not surprisingly, the children from the St John's Island School and the Pulau Sakijang Pelepah Malay School were known to trounce their opponents in the Radin Mas District primary schools swimming meet held annually at the sentimental location of the old swimming pool of River Valley Road.

Simple, yet charming.

While we were soaking in the atmosphere of the old mosque, Harry shared with me on how the Mosque planners would use a special compass to find the Qiblat, so that they may face the foundation of the mosque in the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca. The mosque would then be built based on this foundation and this would ensure that the worshipers would be facing the right direction during their prayers.

In the vicinity of the mosque, were 2 long buildings which looked different from the ones on the other end of the island. They were equivocally listed as quarters in a recent map. Multiple clothes drying on a line indicated that there were people staying in one of these buildings. There was also an entire battalion of cats running around the premises, purring at us and scurrying around us excitedly. All the doors and windows in this building were closed. I guess the occupants probably went to the mainland on their off day. It was a Sunday, afterall.

While one of these buildings was a residential dwelling, the other one seemed to be a storeroom of sorts. Peeking in through the windows, we could see large paint buckets, brooms and rakes and a pile of trashbags arranged in one corner together with an old television.

According to the map, there was supposed to be a pond nearby the mosque as well. We snooped around and managed to find an opening between the trees, and standing in that clearing was a most bizarre find, a peacock which ran off upon seeing us. Too bad the peacock was too fast and ran off before we could take any shots of it.

Following the impromptu path leading in from the clearing, we arrived at the bank of the pond. The water in the pond was a beautiful bluish-green hue and we noticed that someone had dumped a large number of banana leaves at one spot. The squarish shapes of these discarded leaves reminded me of the leaves traditionally used to hold Nasi Lemak.

With the return ferry beckoning upon us, we made a beeline for the pier. Along the way, we stopped at the old wooden pier which was used before the newer concrete pier was built. Many of the planks on this old pier were gone, and the gangway looked old and weather-beaten. A zinc board prevents people from stepping onto the old jetty, which was now closed due to safety reasons. From a paranormal standpoint, this old pier would be an interesting place to explore as some visitors and anglers claimed to have sighted a white figure standing at the end of the jetty at night.

Way back in the 1930s, there was a second pier about 200 yards down the shore. Nobody was permitted to use it for landing, nor probably would wish to use it, for this was the dreaded Mortuary Pier, so called because at its head stood the post-mortem house. Here, the bodies of persons who have died from contagious diseases are dissected and prepared for burial. A boat slung from davits nearby is employed specifically for the purpose of conveying the dead across Cooper's Channel to their burial grounds in Lazarus Island and Peak Island.

Martin setting up his tripod to snap the old pier,
while Wendy's "ghostly hand" captures a candid moment from behind.

As the ferry approached the pier, we prepared to board it, our group tired from all that walking. Although it had been a taxing day, it had been a most fruitful trip to this charming island. Everyone was in high spirits at what we discovered and experienced that day, and as the ferry departed the pier of St John's Island for the mainland, we could feel a sense of longing already. This island was indeed a gem and we will definitely return for more adventures on St John's Island.

We also had a little foray into the neighbouring Lazarus Island, but that is another story, for another time.

*Note: the watermarks on photos incorrectly indicate the year 2010, it should be 2011. Any inconvienience caused is much regretted. Thank you!

View slideshow of photos from our album
View more photos in our album


The Founding of Singapore

Info on Fort Canning

Setup of Opium Treatment Centre by the Singapore Prisons Service

Masjid St John's Island, as listed in StreetDirectory.com

Article by Aaron "Six Stomachs" Chan

Photos copyright of Andrew Him

© 2011 One° North Explorers

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