Tuesday, November 01, 2005

14. Kusu Island Temple 龟屿大伯公.

There is a Chinese temple and a Malay shrine on this 85,000 square metres island (about the size of 13 football fields) located 5.6 km south of the main island of Singapore. To reach it, you have to board a ferry from Sentosa ferry terminal. The boat trip takes about 45 minutes one-way, and a round trip costs S$9 for an adult and S$6 for a child (3 to 12 years). The Sentosa admission charge is waived for visitors who buy the Kusu Island ferry ticket upon entry. No overnight camping is allowed on Kusu Island unlike the nearby St John's Island.

“Kusu Island” means “Tortoise Island” in Hokkien. Other names have been associated with this island too, among them Peak Island, Governor’s Island and Pulau Tembakul. There are several legends on how Kusu Island was so named. One popular tale is that of a tortoise transforming itself into an island to save two shipwrecked fishermen, a Malay and a Chinese, who had earlier rescued it from the Lau Pa Sat market. The fishermen had noticed tears dripping from the tortoise’s eyes, and decided to buy it, and then released it back to the sea. They did not know that it was an enchanted tortoise until its extraordinary manifestation during the storm. Out of gratitude, the two fishermen returned the following year to make offerings on Kusu Island. Soon other people followed suit.

At the time of writing, the Chinese temple on Kusu Island is looked after by Mdm Sim Chwee Eng, a 76-year old widow, and her 57-year old son, Seet Seng Huat. The Seet family has been taking care of the temple for the last five generations. They used to live in an attap hut on the island. Over the years, this has been upgraded to a brick and mortar dwelling next to the temple. How did this responsibility fell on the family? According to Mdm Sim, her husband’s ancestors were boatmen and fishermen. They used to seek shelter on the island during inclement weather - there is a Tua Pek Kong (God of Prosperity) statue on their boat. One day, the Tua Pek Kong spirit entered his ancestor and disclosed that he wanted to reside on Kusu Island. Complying, the ancestor built a modest shrine there.

By and by, more people came to know of this Tua Pek Kong and one man who used to be a bullock-cart puller, became wealthy after praying to this deity. This was probably during the 1920's. He had promised to upgrade the shrine, but did not do anything about it until the Tua Pek Kong reminded him, in a dream, of the pledge he had made.

Before 1975, boats would berth right at the doorstep of the temple. Land was reclaimed in 1976, and now the jetty is some distance from the temple. The temple housed seven types of deities - besides Tua Pek Kong who occupies the central altar, there are the Jade Emperor; Goddess of Mercy; Eight Immortals; Kuan Kong (God of War); Tai Seng Yah (Monkey God); and the Tiger God/s. Now there is even a wishing well on the compound leading to the temple - where visitors are encouraged to make a wish, toss a coin which hopefully will hit one of the bells inside the well, ringing in the good luck sought.

There are two pythons caged up in the temple, as well as two ponds containing tortoises. According to Mdm Sim, many tortoises were released here by members of the public so she has no choice but to do what she could to feed and housed these creatures, at her own expense.

There is a food complex built between the temple and the Keramats’ (holy men/women) shrine. But this food centre only comes alive during the Kusu pilgrimage season during the Chinese 9th lunar month when about 120,000 devotees would converge on the island. Hence at other times, visitors who are hungry can order simple dishes such as a plate of fried vermicelli from Mdm Sim, at S$10 per plate. On a typical weekday, only about twenty visitors, mostly tourists, would visit the island.

To reach the Keramats’ shrine, one has to climb 152 steps. The shrine houses the remains of Syed Abdul Rahman, his mother Nenek Ghalib and his sister, Puteri Fatimah. They had lived around the time of Stamford Raffles in the early 19th century. Devotees would pray to these Keramats for wealth, fertility, good marriage, and good health. As a mark of respect, visitors to the shrine would usually avoid having any dishes containing pork before making the trip.

Although there are Muslim symbols around this shrine - the star and crescent moon being the most obvious - the prayer ritual was rather "unusual". Devotees could "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 were used apart from having the "kemayan" (incense) lighted before the deities.

On the day we visited, there were even 4-digits written on the joss urn - 9734. This came about because an elderly man had a lottery windfall after praying at this shrine. As a token of gratitude, he offered these numbers in the hope that other punters would be as lucky as him.

For landlubbers who eschew boat rides, there is a Kusu Tua Pek Kong Temple at Havelock Road, diagonally across from the Geok Hong Tian (see blog entry No. 13).

The Sentosa Development Corporation (SDC) looks after Kusu Island;
for inquiries, call SENTOSA 1800-736-8672 (9am to 6.30 pm)

Ack: taoism-singapore@yahoogroups.com

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