2. st john’s island
3. japanese cemetery park
4. places of congregation
5. pulau ubin
Photos by Hera
This booklet documents a series of walks taken in Singapore throughout June and July, 2016, as an accompaniment to the exhibition Getting to Know You—recorded walks in Singapore. Hera’s writings draw on historical or factual accounts surrounding the recorded walks, Georgia’s are fictional pieces inspired by the locations, the characters are not based on real people.
We met for the first time in early June, 2016. Hera coming from a background in drawing and design and Georgia from a background in live art, sculpture and spatial practice. In discussing common threads in our practices and thinking about the type of work we might make, we discovered shared interests in mapping, psychogeography, the act of ‘place-making’ and text-based work. We became interested in documenting spaces in a highly subjective way and exploring alternative forms of mapping.
We set about exploring space and thinking about the different ways we could record it and the importance of the act of walking itself.
The works are not intended to be in-depth maps of locations. They are merely records of walks—a celebration of place and the fictionality of maps and memory.
The walks in this booklet were undertaken over a two week period and the locations include islands, cemeteries, themed bars and eateries.
In total we walked for 21 hours and 28 minutes with a total walking distance of 38.1km.
I. The children run ahead of their parents and she trails behind them all. Like a sad life boat that no one expects to save them. She sees him put his arm around his wife and look back across the ocean towards the city. “It’s always there,” he laughs. Casting her eye off across the sea, she turns towards the grey buildings rising up out of the water. A city of sky scrapers that she has become lost in countless times already. This is her new home and the couple in front are the only things that remind her of who she used to be. This family, with their loud children, bucket full of bath toys and pre-packed lunches. She feels like she has become a satellite—so distant, circling above everything.
They are on a small island. It’s a weekend. A picnic day. A day for relaxing. They’ll go to the toilets, change and then swim. The husband has bought an ice box which he wheels along behind himself. She changes into her bathers in a toilet cubicle with cream tiles and pale pink trim. They are out before her. Two adults and three children waiting patiently under a pavilion. “Ready?” They smile and turn to walk across to Lazarus Island, where there is a nice beach for swimming. “I think I will walk for a bit,” she says. Pretending not to notice the disappointment on their faces. “OK,” they say. Crouching down and springing up to heave large bags of towels, toys and clothes onto their shoulders.
“Do you know how to find us? Just follow the walkway between the islands. You can’t miss the beach. We’ve got a red umbrella.” The husband gestures to the umbrella in his right hand, pinches his lips together and curves the corners upwards nodding his head.
“OK, see you soon,” she says, heading off in the opposite direction.
Bird calls carpet the air above her head. Some soft and calming, others loud and overwhelming. Their calls are like thousands of tiny screws being turned until they squeak. She imagines someone up there in the canopy, wearing blue overalls and turning all those screws, a never ending job. There are cats too, around her feet. Their meows are similar to the bird calls, but deeper, longer, more desperate. She wants to pat them, but she can’t tell what they are thinking so she takes a photo instead. She will send it to her friend back home, the one who likes cats.
She walks along the concrete paths, past barbed wire fences, old watch-towers and countless toilet blocks – so many toilet blocks, some as big as the sleeping areas. The paths run neatly from building to building. There are barbecue areas and benches for camps. Beside the neatly ordered paths the jungle hums around her.
She finds them on the beach, they are the only red umbrella. The white sand where they sit looks pristine, the water glows blue and is so bright she can’t look directly at it. She un-rolls her towel and helps the youngest child fill a red bucket with sand.
There is a long glass bottle that sits on the mantle piece. It has been washed countless times, but there is still a fine layer of sand caught inside that no amount of cleaning will ever remove. The sand clings to the base of the bottle, tiny specks that reflect the light and draw your eye in. As if you can feel the course grains running across the surface of your eye when you look at it.
He has put a dried rose in it. There is nothing else on the mantle, only the thin glass bottle that curves delicately in, then out and then back in again. Like a dancer swaying their hips.
He is not normally a collector. He prefers to leave things where they lie. Observe, but never intervene. But for some reason when he saw the bottle he couldn’t stop himself. It was lying on the beach, amongst some other rubbish: cheap plastic bottles, foam and bits of old rope. It didn’t belong he thought. It was beautiful, so confident in its shape and unlike all the other rubbish around it, it had remained unchanged by the waves and harsh sand.
Before he knew what he was doing he found himself bending down and picking it up. His fingers fitting perfectly around its middle. It was warm, but not too hot. He wasn’t burnt. He allowed the warmth to move through him. First it warmed his hand; then up to his elbow; his shoulder; then it snaked around his neck; and up the back of his scalp; finally it fell like soft rain over his face. He held onto it. Took it home, washed it. He moved everything of hers off the mantle, put it all in a box outside the front door and put the bottle
St John’s Island
—in reference to
As a dependency of Singapore, St John’s Island has been used to:
quarantine—late 19th century, for Asian immigrants and pilgrims returning from Mecca
rehabilitate—mid 20th century, a drug rehabilitation center
holiday—1975, a getaway with constructed lagoons, picnic grounds and football field
detain—at present, a detention center for illegal immigrants still remain
Before our trip, Georgia was considering what constitutes an island, especially since Australia (where she’s from) and Singapore (where I’m based at) could differ so much, yet both still can be identified as islands. I thought of how the people of Java never really thought of themselves as islanders. Naturally, it is Bali, or Kalimantan, or Lombok, or the thirteen thousand others that are islands, regardless of their landmasses. When I Googled “Java” in English, many search results came back describing it as “an Island of Indonesia”. That was off-kilter.
Upon landing on St John’s Island, we walked up a hill dotted with characteristic lightweight blue roof shacks. One of them is surrounded by green wire fence instead of walls, with two limb-sized holes. It is as empty and airy as a school hall or an artist’s studio.
Around them there are smaller rectangular white wall structures, these are unusable historical toilets. Impeccably clean and numerous, they are in stasis at a particular juncture of time-narrative when the island “quarantined” for Singapore. These toilets are not marked as exhibits, or are visitors prohibited to approach; it is simply indicated in signages that proper usable facilities are at a different part of the island. In the face of these heritage edifices, there are only a few choices of acceptable behaviours. Most people photograph them, walk around them, past them but rarely in them. In fact most people went straight to the beaches of Lazarus Island.
The only spaces that felt lived in were the mosque and the workers’ quarters beside it. Cats roamed around in dozens and there were people cooking in the kitchen. I felt like a trespasser, even though they are friendly. The mosque and the house with many cats rooted my memory palace of St John’s island, like a flagpole firmly planted into sand.
Pulau Sakijang Bandera means “island of the barking deer, flag” [sic] is the Malay name for St John’s Island. It was said that when the British Sailors arrived on the island, they anglicized Pulau Sakijang to “Sin Jang Island” and eventually
“St John’s Island”.
Japanese Cemetery Park,
—landscapes and bereaving plants
It is a subtle cemetery park. Despite its immense purpose and reason for existing, it faces the prickly issue of to whom and how should its messages be conveyed. It treads on a number of faultlines where old wounds can still be reopened and stories have to be kept silent. For these reasons the Japanese Cemetery Park is special to me. It reminds me that the physical presence of a memorial is important not because the nation wants to remember, but precisely because of the desire to forget.
Some of the forgotten ones are the Karayuki-san. They took up about a third of the graves, and were the cemetery’s initial raison d’ etre. In late 1800s, Singapore’s largely immigrant population gender ratio was 14 men to 1 woman. The colonial government allowed Japanese brothels to flourish in response. The Karayuki-san hailed from extremely poor rural areas, obliged daughters who were sold and transported to foreign lands for the survival of their families. The rampant diseases and violence meant that for every payment they received they also shaved off their life expectancy. Many were left to be buried in Singapore to avoid bringing shame, marked by nameless headstones scattered around the park. These plain headstones are easier to reconcile as a part of the landscape compared to their more distinguished counterparts. They are the park itself, as much as the bougainvilleas, the saga trees, the heritage rubber trees, banyan and others who ironically were given plaques bearing their plant names.
Across a number of cultures, plants are predominant features on burial grounds—whether as offerings, as an act of remembrance or to create an environment that lends comfort to the bereaved. In Japan’s rich literary and religious traditions, nature is also seen as possessing great capacity to express wisdom or emotion that is outside our ability to articulate in purely human terms. The lovely trellises, well-tended shrubs and fruit trees please the senses of the park visitors, but are also discourses.
He turns on the garden hose and lets it sputter then ease into a steady stream. He walks carefully between the plants, teetering on the edge of rocks. When he has moved into the garden far enough, he holds his thumb over the end of the hose so that the water forms a hard jet and points it towards the trees at the back. Drenching the ground, he hears the earth soften.
The park is quiet during the week, of all the places he works he likes this one the best. It is quiet and familiar, doesn’t seem to change as much as other locations. Sometimes, in the afternoon when the there is no one in the park, he angles the hose up into the air and lets the water fall down around him like rain. He smiles to himself and to the sea of graves that spread out in front. Thin stone monuments, curved at the top, or carved into peaks, some tall, others short and narrow. Monotone in colour, hundreds of them rise out of the earth against the rich green of the grass and tropical gardens around them. He drops his eyes and continues watering.
Her room overlooks the park. She has not lived there for long. Perhaps six months, maybe longer, she can’t quite remember. Keeping track of the time and date seems an impossible task. It’s always slipping away. Days always merge into one another and loose their distinct feel. She is always thinking Thursday is Friday, or Tuesday is Sunday, or sometimes Monday is Wednesday. She gets the days confused, like the faces of guests at a dinner party – familiar faces that have somehow morphed into one another, their names not committed to her memory. Often her weeks start on a Wednesday and ends on a Tuesday. She gets up late and goes to work when she feels like it. Her boss never says anything, he lets her come and go. After what happened last year he has been going easy on her. The other employees notice, raise their eyebrows at him when she walks in 30 minutes late, he looks down to avoid their eyes, offers her a smile without lifting his face, then turns and locks himself inside his office.
As far as he can tell she is doing her work, often more of it than the rest of his staff members. She doesn’t take a lunch break, just sits silently at her computer, working away at the numbers, then she leaves later in the afternoon. She works from home on Wednesdays, but often spends the day sleeping or staring out the window. She likes to watch the gardener in the park below. Likes the way he moves purposefully around the grounds. Doing his tasks meticulously in the same order. At three o’clock he waters the large garden bed near the temple as it moves into shade. The end of his working day she knows is the best, he lifts his hose into the air and lets the water fall down on himself. Then she watches him stand facing the graves and nod slowly to them. She nods slowly from her window, opens her laptop and begins her work.
Places of Congregation,
—eating and drinking our way through a shifting city
golden mile complex
The commercial building smells of lemongrass, pungent salted fish, roasting pork and stale air. While we sat down for mango sticky rice the cashier bantered with a shop employee in Hubei accented Chinese. This place was not always little Thailand, and perhaps it will be a satellite of another community in the future. Upstairs the shop employees casually set up tables and were always eating something nice and spicy while keeping a lookout for customers. The speakers were playing either heart-rending pop ballads or an unceasing disco tunes. At the supermarket I stood transfixed for a moment watching the butcher. All around him were different shades of pinks and reds, the innards were displayed prominently, a rare sight in Singapore. The strange texture of the intestinal Villi and Crypts, made me think of food digesting in my own guts.
The laid back bar was an unmistakeable nexus, the guys sitting right in front of the big screen watching AFL sure looked the part. One other TV screen showed an AFL match from a different state, two are showing rugby matches while the last one is counting election results. I had really a decent iced coffee served in a glass far more generous than all of Singapore’s hipster cafes. Georgia went with beer. She talked about voting at the embassy a few days ago and how it felt familiar when she saw cars with funny decals.
todamgol and tanjong pagar road
In Todamgol many of the tables have paper screens protecting their privacy, which makes it hard for us to people-watch. The diners on the table next to us were practising Korean and ordering extraordinary amount of food. We ordered a dish each but the table looked like a feast with all the complementary side dishes. After dinner we walked along Tanjong Pagar Road which was lined with Korean eateries of wedding shops. A flag hung over the Korean Association door.
brotzeit and paulaner bräuhaus
At 4am the roads are silent but Brotzeit is packed with fans wearing white jersey with three black stripes. It was ten minutes into the second half of the game at 0-0, so we walked over to Paulaner. It was a big space for a pub, but the enthusiastic crowd forms a human wall blocking newcomers and the bar. We squeezed right up into the center of action and for a good view of the television screen. The fans chanted and cheered for the German national team at the other side of the world as if they could be heard. The atmosphere was electric. At the end of the 90 minutes the score was 1-1, the winner had to be decided with penalty, which was more excuse for feverish cheerings. When Jonas Hector scored the decisive penalty the whole pub roared in delight. Moments later when we went out, most people were just coming out of the other pubs as well. The white jerseys congratulated each other for their team’s fine performance. It reminded me of my teacher’s comment that Stadiums were one of the first structures that new nations built, followed by the Museums and Memorials.
Her alarm goes off at 3.15am. She sits up, feeling like every aspect of being awake now is wrong. She feels like the surface of her eyes hasn’t rejuvenated. It’s coarse and irritating, like cheap synthetic fabric. She pulls on the clothes from yesterday, which are soft and floppy. For a moment she feels guilty for waking them.
She’d already let him down that evening, said she was too tired to come out, but that she would sleep and meet him later to watch the match. She had been trying to put it off, pretend she was never really going to see him. She realises now how stupid that decision was, how meeting someone at 9pm is actually much easier than getting up to meet someone at 3am. She looks back at her bed and considers lying down, but she had gone to sleep at 9.30pm the night before, she knows she is not really that tired.
There are still people out. Young women run across roads, holding onto their shoes as cars honk. Other people are hailing taxis or walking confidently about. The air is warm and she thinks if it were cold perhaps this walk might seem more dangerous. She doesn’t know if that’s true, but the warmth seems to soften everything. Instead of pulling her arms tightly around herself and walking with her head down, her arms swing loosely by her side and she isn’t nervous to get to the next turn in the road.
She walks past one German bar where people have spilled out onto the footpath and are watching the screens intently. She keeps walking, perhaps another 10 or 15 minutes, to reach the bar where she is meeting him. She’s awake now. Everything feels OK. More familiar.
It’s about 4am in the morning and it’s packed inside. The UEFA European Championship is playing on multiple screens. She walks in, looking for his figure, squeezing through the bodies. Children sleep on benches, their mother’s arms draped protectively around them. People stand with their arms crossed, resting a pint in the crook of on elbow. A waiter moves through the crowd to her right. She takes the opportunity and follows in his slipstream making her way around to the right of the bar. There is a small space to stand in between two women who spontaneously break into German verse and eat sausages with hot chips. To her left, a group of men are drinking beer and doing shots of Sambuca. There is no sign of him. It’s too busy to keep looking, so she just stands, comforted by the close proximity of the other bodies. Not long after she arrives Germany scores a goal. People yell and throw their hands up in the air, clawing their friends shoulders and jumping together. She is celebrating too, whether she’s meant to or not, she is involved. Italy also scores a goal and there is silence. She orders a lemonade and takes out her phone to text him.
“Are you here?”
She waits to see if the three little dots appear, the ones that mean he’s writing back. They don’t. She puts her phone away and focusses on the screen.
She met him in the supermarket. She had been standing in the same spot for too long. Packets of mackerel staring back at her – two of them wrapped in cling wrap, their heads forced down and mouths open, facing each other. All of the packets looked kind of comical together, like a choir calling out from the fridge. He’d been trying to edge his way around her to get to them. Every time he’d tried to reach the fridge she’d moved and gotten in the way. They’d ended up talking and he’d asked her out. She’d cancelled. Twice. Three times if you counted earlier this evening.
She drains the whole glass of lemonade. It must be 700ml. The waiter refills her glass, winking at her. She holds his gaze and nods back. She is dreading the moment when the lemonade hits her bladder and she has to make her way out of the crowd. She takes out her phone to check. Nothing. She checks the earlier messages, just to see she’d got the bar right. Yes, 4am. She is correct. She laughs through her nostrils and smirks. He has stood her up. He didn’t think she’d actually come. She stands at the bar, elbows, body parts and German swear words bumping into her sides. There is extra-time and then a penalty shoot-out. She doesn’t even know that much about soccer. She’s always felt a little bit disconnected from her feet. Like they kind of do their own thing. Germany wins the shoot-out and there is an eruption of cheering, clapping and throwing of beer around the room. She can’t help but smile.
He parks his bike and sits down on a faded orange chair at a deserted coconut stall. Lifting his right leg, he attempts to cross it over his left and rest the ankle on his knee. He is sweating a lot. His legs slip off each other like they are made of wet clay. He decides to leave both feet flat on the ground and fans himself with a limp hand as he pulls the backpack from his shoulders. The polo shirt he had put on this morning is now stuck to the skin on his torso. He pulls it off his body, trying to get some air in between the fabric and his skin, it peels off reluctantly. His adult sons have ridden off in front. He knows they will circle back for him if he doesn’t follow soon.
Flexing his hands, he waits. The joints ache from gripping the handlebars. He doesn’t understand, in the morning he wakes up sore and needs to move. “Too much fluid in the joints,” is what the doctor had said. But too much exercise and he seems to have the same problem. It feels like there are hard bits of rock floating around inside his body constantly colliding and grating on each other, weighing him down.
Before going to Ubin he heard there might be Dugongs in the waters around the island. They haven’t been spotted for some time, but he likes to think there might be one out there. Likes to think of it swimming around the island while he is here. He admires their slowness, the calmness their stocky frame possesses, they seem to move with soft ease.
Standing up, he walks past the stall and into the mangroves. The tide is out and he walks gingerly between the trees. There is a view through the foliage to the Strait of Johor. Small fishing villages float 100 metres out. Houses made out of so many different materials floating on top of barrels. He thinks they look like outback shacks, tin shining under a harsh sun, but instead of desert surrounding them they float on glossy water. A man is sitting on his floating home listening to the radio. The water carries the music across to the mangroves and he stands, face pressed up against a tree trunk looking out to the sea. He can only see the back of the man’s head. He is motionless, slumped in a seat, but perhaps his hand is tapping along to the music.
His sons ride back up the road, talking loudly to each other. He puts on his backpack, feels the familiar solid form against his shoulders and straightens up. He wears his backpack high. Starches the fabric so it’s stiff. He likes it to hold its shape.
They smile and wave as they approach. He smiles back, ignoring the pain in his hand. He climbs onto his bike and follows them back up the road trailing a few metres behind, letting their conversation wash over him.
The legend of Pulau Ubin says a pig, an elephant and frog challenged each other to swim to Johor. The last one to reach Johor would be turned into a rock. None of the animals managed to swim the journey and they say that Pulau Ubin grew out of the elephant and the pig. Pulau Sekudu, the small stone form in the water just south of the island is the frog.
He peddles, but he can feel the pieces of rock weighing him down, slowing him, taking over.
The boat had not come to a complete stop when we were asked to disembark. Most day-trippers proceeded to rent out bicycles and began moving eastwards to the wetlands of Chek Jawa. We decided to explore the west side, which is dotted with shrines, village houses and fruit trees.
There are at least three Datuk-Kong shrines that we encountered. Chinese immigrants settled in Southeast Asia as early as the 10th century, bringing with them their Taoist faith. Realising that they were in a foreign land, they seeked help from local guardian spirits and spirits of nature. Datuk-Kong are guardians spirits said to be holy Malay men or warriors in their mortal life. Typically their shrines contain elements of Chinese and Malay designs. One of the shrine smelled sweetly of burning sandalwood, had colourful kuehs and green chequered Sarong.
“Datuk-KuNiang” is the female counterpart of the Datuk-Kong. In Pulau Ubin, strangely enough, one such guardian hailed from Germany. She was supposedly the daughter of a German coffee plantation manager who fell to her death in a quarry when the British soldiers captured her family after the World War I. The local residents who had been treated well enough by her parents gave her a proper burial. Through some strange turns of events she became the deity of choice for local worshippers and Toto1 punters. The signage of her shrine reads “Bo Lin Yuan” in Mandarin and “Berlin Heiligtum”, both meaning “Berlin Shrine”. A few years ago it was a bright yellow shack, a strange shrine with an encased Barbie doll at the central altar. Today it has been renovated into a chunky woodcutter’s hut. the Barbie doll is gone, replaced by a wooden idol, with high cheekbones, a sharp nose and ever so slightly melancholic expression. She could have been a Tara2, housed in an ornate altar with fresh garlands of flowers around her neck. Below the table there are two plastic dolls, one of which still has the price tag left on.
About 10 minutes walk from the shrine there is a road called Jalan Wat Siam, where a Thai Buddhist temple used to reside. In 1986, the monk Phrakru Panna Dhamvithes from Thailand walked southwards to Singapore and settled at Pulau Ubin. In an interview in 2004, he said he wished to stay forever in Pulau Ubin to teach meditation. Residents on the island possess a Temporary Occupation License from the Singapore Land Authority, unfortunately the temple’s license was not renewed in 2007. Now Ubin Thai Buddhist Temple has relocated to Singapore mainland.
In Wei Tuo Fa Gong, another nearby temple complex, we found a Sukothai Buddha statue, flanked by a Naga Muchalinda3. Beside the altar was a garlanded panther idol which felt right at home in the lush surroundings. We were led into the complex by flags on the side of the road printed with Mahayana4 Sutras. At the end of the flags trail, colourful cloths were hung connecting two parts of the complexes in an exuberant welcome. At the complex beside the pool the colourful sutra cloths gathered into tent-like structures, these housed a golden Buddha with a pagoda, The Ocean Dragon King, its Tortoise Minister and the young Gautama Buddha. Across the pavilion there was a Datuk-Kong shrine and myriads of other Gods and Goddesses statues. The temple carer’s son offers a consultation service guiding visitors regarding whom they should pray to, and how.
1. Toto: The only legal lottery sold in Singapore.
2. Tara: A tantric goddess in the Hindu pantheon, or a deity of meditation in Tibetan Buddhism.
3. Naga Muchalinda: a snake-like being, who protected the Gautama Buddha from the elements after his enlightenment.
4. Mahayana: Meaning “Great Vehicle” it is one of the main branches of Buddhism.