Monday, October 20, 2014

A night of NanYin at Kusu Island

Have you heard of the legend of Kusu Island?
There are many versions if you were to google it. The most common belief was that a giant tortoise turned itself into an island in order to save 2 drowning fishermen, a Chinese and a Malay. That was why Kusu Island had the shape of a tortoise. However, if you were to google the shape of the island now, it looks nothing like tortoise because this island had undergone reclamation.

The Singapore Heritage Festival (SHF) took place in July, the theme this year was Our Islands, Our Home. I wanted to go for Nanyin (songs from the South) at Kusu (Chinese Hokkien for Tortoise) Island. However, it was fully booked and due to the overwhelming response, additional tours was conducted in September. I was lucky enough to go after balloting.

Participants would visit the Tua Pek Kong's (Da Bo Gong) temple on the island and if they want to, they could also visit the 3 Muslim keramats on top of a hillock which was located just next to the temple. However, visitors would need to climb 152 steps to visit these Malay shrines. The night ends with a Nanyin performance, a special arrangement for SHF, by the Siong Leng Musical Association (established 1941) at the temple. This musical  performance is usually held during the Kusu pilgrimage (which occurs in the ninth lunar month)

I was truly excited when I got to know we could visit the island. It would be my first visit. My sister who had been there when she was very young, remembered getting sea sicked and vomited! Good gracious! As my husband and I would be bringing Little One along, we are naturally worried whether the same would happen to her. I tried find anti seasickness band in pharmacies but could not find any. Hence, we crossed our fingers and hope every thing would go well. I did prepare plastic bags just in case. We also brought light food to be eaten for dinner that night, another precaution for sea sickness. The journey from Singapore to Kusu Island is about 30-45min depending on the condition of the waves. We were glad that my little girl survived the ferry trip without much problem. I guess my sister could have traveled on those small and unstable boats that were used in the past.

Facts about Kusu Island
Kusu Island is about 5.6 kilometre to the south of Singapore. It was initially 1.2 ha but due to landfill and reclamation in 1975 joined it with another coral outcrop, it had increase to  8.5 ha island.

Pilgrimage to Kusu began as early as 1813, the year of Syed Abdul Rahman's death. Hence, the tradition of the pilgrimage had started before Sir Thomas Raffles arrived Singapore in 1819. When the island (known as Peak Island then) became the burial site for immigrants who died in quarantine on St. John's and Lazarus Islands in the late 19th century, many of the devotees were unhappy about the use of the sacred place as a burial ground,

It is noted no overnight stay is allowed on the island. There is no street lamp on the island.

Our trip
This is our second family trip exploring islands of Singapore. The first one was just a few days ago to Pulau Ubin.
My daughter's excited about the trip. The tag she had on is our group name. SHF utilised many guides as there  were more than 100 people on tour that night.
Cheng Ho Cruise Ship, a replica of the actual ship that Cheng Ho comes to Singapore in! It tours around the southern coast of Singapore as well as provide a landing on Kusu Island. I wish to board this instead!
This was the cruise ship we boarded. 

Welcome to Kusu Island!
A rather serene view of the island

The skyline was not clear that evening
The lagoon
Causurina trees, commonly found along Singapore shores

The temple

Tortoise Sanctuary. Spotted a deformed one 
Food Centre but this is no longer  functional
The Keramats

There are keramats or shrines built on Kusu Island to commemorate the 19th century pious man Syed Abdul Rahman, his mother Nenek Ghalib and sister Puteri Fatimah. This is easily located at near the food centre which is no longer in operation. The yellow painted walls and railings will led you all the way to the keramats. Many believers climb the 152 steps to pray for wealth, good marriage, good health and harmony. The shrines are also popular with childless couples because of their strong links to fertility.

I was pleased that Little One managed to climb the steps all the way to the keramats. Our guide told us though this is Muslim sacred ground, the praying ritual is rather "unusual". Devotees are allowed to  "tiam yew" just like in the Taoist temples - i.e. for a small donation, the Malay caretaker would add oil to the lamps, ring a bell and chant some auspicious sayings before the keramat. Chinese joss-sticks are allowed to be used here.
Left: Up 152 steps to the keramat
Middle: Chinese offerings at the keramat. Wishes from devotees were written on the yellow paint
Right: The keramat of Datuk Kong, Syed Abdul Rahman 
Tua Pek Gong's temple
Popular Chinese temple, Da Bo Gong, was built by a wealthy businessman and houses two main deities: Da Bo Gong and Guan Yin. The former is widely regarded as having the power to bestow prosperity, cure diseases, calm the sea and avert danger, while Guan Yin is known as the 'giver of sons'.

When exactly was the temple built?
I have no idea. As I was writing and researching  on this place, I get different results.Wikipedia said it was 1923 but this website mention that it was built in 1860 (as stated in Lian He Zao Bao, a well known newspaper in Singapore) However, despite the different in year, it is interesting to note the keramats were there before the temple does, so now I am very interested to know why had the prayer ritual in the keramats so unusual, as in how it have evolve to adapt Chinese or rather Taoism prayer ritual instead.

When we reached the temple,the surrounding was quite dark

Lovely night sceneries
Sculptures and wishing well. Btw, the wishing well belongs to Sentosa, not the temple

Old photos and more tortoises or is it terrapins?

Next Generation Caretakers Wanted
The caretakers for both the keramats and the temple are getting old. They are facing a problem of getting new caretakers for these places.

We proceeded to listening to Nanyin at the end of the day
The main purpose of this tour is introduction to Nanyin. In this tour, we are treated to both traditional Nanyin music as well as a fusion between Nanyin and Malay instruments. You may want to google for some Nanyin music at Youtube.

Nanyin can be traced back to the Han Dynasty (206BC-AD220) when it was originally performed as court music.

The main musical instruments used in a Nanyin performance have not changed in form or appearance for hundreds of years. They are namely: the erxian (a two-string fiddle); the dongxiao (a vertically-held six-hole bamboo flute); the pipa (a pear-shaped four string lute, said to have originated from Persia); and the sanxian (a long-necked three-string fretless string instrument whose sound box is covered with python skin). These were introduced in the tour

The singer usually takes her place at the centre of the ensemble, holding a clapper in her hands to mark the first beat of every measure. A full array of Nanyin musical instruments would include hand-bells, gongs, cymbals, woodblocks, as well as a set of short hand-held bamboo pieces know as sibao which are made to vibrate against each other at high velocity. The sibao is unique to Nanyin and is not known to exist in other musical art forms.

Nanyin can be grouped into instrumental ensemble music, music which may either be played or sung, and songs. In performance, a piece may be as brief as two minutes in duration, or stretch up to forty minutes in full.

It is good exposure for Little One at Kusu Island. We read more about the folktale of the island. It is interesting to learn some history about the temple and the keramats. Though Kusu Island is rather boring place with no other source of entertainment besides the temple and the keramats, I would still like to come back here again for a picnic and explore the coastal marine life. Yes, Kusu has wonderful coral reef!

Kusu pilgrimage 2014
This year, it falls on 24 Sep 2014 to 23 Oct 2014.
Pilgrimage to Kusu began as early as 1813. Usually, people who pray at the temple would pray at the keramats too! It is an example of racial and religious harmony in Singapore. 
To read more  Kusu Island, read this The Kusu Pilgrimage: an enduring myth by Lu Caixin

Tips for Island trail (Kusu Island)

    1. To get to the island, take a ferry from Marina South Pier {return trip fee: adults S$18, child aged 1-12 years old S$12}. It will stop at St. John Island before making its way to Kusu Island. Check this site for schedule. This schedule would not apply during the Kusu Pilgrimage.
    2. Make your own arrangements for food and drinks (non-alcoholic) as there is no food on sale. Pork is not allowed in the Temple and Keramats.  A temporary market is set up only during the Kusu Pilgrimage.
      1. No skirt/dresses for modesty reason, covered shoes only (no sandals or slippers)
      2. Bring your own medication for seasickness and related ailments.
      3. Please note that it might get rather warm on the island and in the temple.
      4. Please refrain from feeding the monkeys and tortoises and take care of your belongings at all times.

      Linking with :-



      1. Hi! I stumbled upon ur blog as i was researching on kusu island. I had gone over last weekend and although ive read about the malay shrines being there, i was quite taken aback at the state of the shrines, adorned with taoists religious periphernalias.

        I am quite puzzled because as a Muslim, i understand that muslims dont bulit shrines. If there were, we dont adorn it with other objects. Neither do we pray to it with the intent of fulfilling our wishes and prayers. We will offer prayers for the departed's soul to find peace and safety in the other world.

        im not a racist and im all for peace in our multi cultural society. But as it is regarded as sacred, other than it looking like a muslim grave with headstones, everything else about the shrines is un-Islamic.

        Perhaps its gotta do with money. The funds used for the shrines did not come from muslim organisations of spore. It came fm a Peranakan family who paid for everything. While most muslims are thankful for the contributions, most like myself, are greatly saddened by the conditions of the graves which is largely unislamic.

        But i must agree, the island itself.. is beautiful. :)

        1. Thank you for your comments! Agree with you, everything else about the Keramats except the headstone is un-Islamic. That is precisely something which I find interesting. It is kind of a fusion. I am very much interested to know why it is in that state but the caretaker was not around that probably he would be a better position to tell us. :) My guess is that because it is built from funds from Peranakan family and hence, it had a mix of Malay and Chinese elements?


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