Mr A. [pseudonym] is quietly spraying Baygon on the long ant trails that have gathered on the keramat (shrine/s) overnight, drawn to the sweet oil burning in prayer candles. As I catch my breath from ascending the 152 steps that lead up to the Kusu Island Keramat, I feel a sense of hesitation from the caretaker, with me being a stranger, foreign to the keramat unlike the thousands of devotees who visit every year during the ninth lunar month to pay their respects to Datok Kong.
Thanks to anthropologist Alan Elliott, I have a convenient conversation starter on my iPad. Upon my mention of Elliott’s 1950 photographs of the Kusu Island Keramat, Mr A. perks up. He tells me that he has been looking for historical photographs of these shrines. They have been under his family’s care for about two centuries. But he has been unable to locate photographs of them, some of which were in his aunt’s possession before her passing.
As I show him my iPad with thumbnails of Elliott’s photographs of the keramat, Mr A. looks curiously at this photograph of the Datok Kong shrine (Figure 1). Above the shrine, Chinese characters painted on a cloth banner read 那道公 (Mandarin: Na-Dao-Gong), a transliteration of ‘Datok Kong’. The calligraphy banner no longer exists today, replaced by a printed paper banner instead, with another version of the ‘Datok Kong’ transliteration, 拿督公 (Mandarin: Na-Du-Gong), printed on it.
I read the characters on the sign in Elliott’s photographs for Mr A., who does not read Chinese and thus does not recognise the older transliteration. He muses that the older cloth version looks much nicer than the current one. I ask Mr A. why a Chinese signboard has been placed at this Malay shrine, and he explains that back in his grandparents’ time, the main demographic making up the keramat’s visitors included Chinese-educated people. It thus did not make sense to put up a sign in English or Malay that the visitors would not be able to read.
Suddenly, Mr A. recalls that he had seen this cloth banner before when he was younger, but he believes it was lost in the 2022 fire, along with many other artefacts accumulated and stored at the keramat throughout its long history. He says he would love to put in a calligraphy cloth signboard like his grandparents did, but this will have to wait until after the new roof is put in to protect the sign from rainfall.
Mr A. then asks me for a link to Elliott’s photographs of the keramat, accessible through MAA’s online collections portal, and we exchange contact numbers. From there, the ice is broken and he laughs and jokes as he continues sharing stories of the shrine and his experiences of looking after it over the years.
Elliott’s research focussed primarily on Chinese spirit-medium cults in mainland Singapore, culminating in his 1964 ethnography on the subject. I assume that the contacts he made while conducting fieldwork with the Chinese introduced him to the Kusu Island pilgrimage, which was at its peak in the 1950s, according to Mr A. The ninth lunar month pilgrimage is a practice which has been going on since the mid-19th century, and continues today. Every year, thousands of devotees travel to the island about 40 minutes (by motorised ferry) south of mainland Singapore to visit the keramat as well as the Tua Pek Kong temple located adjacent to the hill, paying their respects to both Datok Kong and Tua Pek Kong in a display of what scholars like Dr Lai Chee Kien and Dr Chua Ai Lin call ‘cross-worshipping’, a practice commonplace in multi-religious Singapore.
I wonder if Elliott somehow knew that Kusu Island was going to transform at an unprecedented pace in the decades following his voyage to the island, and felt a calling to document it even though it was not directly related to his research interest.
After Singapore’s formal independence in 1965, Kusu Island joined the national facelift project. Developing the physical landscapes of Singapore was seen as a crucial step to attract foreign investment and enable the small city-state’s economy to survive independently. As such, a lot of resources went into land reclamation, designing clean and green spaces, and constructing modern infrastructure and facilities.
Tourism was one key industry in which the government invested, and Kusu Island was considered a potential attraction for tourists given its regionally renowned places of worship, as well as its unspoiled beaches. Undergoing massive land reclamation works in the 1970s, the two disconnected fragments of land that housed the temple and the keramat (Figure 4) transformed into a cohesive island. Bumboat services previously operated by Chinese immigrants who lived around Telok Ayer Basin became monopolised by the government statutory board Sentosa Development Corporation (SDC). The SDC also constructed streetlights, pathways, a hawker centre, and public toilets on the island. While the temple and keramat remained under the autonomy of their caretakers, the landscapes of the island came entirely under the control of first the SDC, and later on the Singapore Land Authority.
Pilgrimage practices also changed, with the new political economy of Kusu Island. I brought this photograph (Figure 6) to Mr A., as I was curious about the stones hung at the tree outside the keramat. He explained that this was an old practice, where devotees would collect stones from the top of the hill and try to hang them as high as possible, some even climbing to the top of the tree at the hilltop despite the danger of falling. They believed that the higher they tied these stones, the more likely their wishes to Datok Kong would come true. This also explains the stones that are tied around the facade of the Datok Kong shrine seen in Figure 1.
When the SDC became involved in Kusu Island in the 1970s, the caretakers were advised to discourage pilgrims from continuing this practice as it was seen as a safety hazard, with concerns that the stones would fall onto passers-by. Today, people tie ribbons cut from yellow cloth onto the tree branches (Figure 7) instead of stones to strengthen their wishes to the deity.
Evidently, Elliott’s photographs are time capsules from pre-independence Kusu Island, acting as memory elicitation devices which help caretakers and elders today recall lost practices and traditions. This is especially important for a place like the Kusu Island Keramat, the history of which has not been documented or written down but passed through oral tradition. Visuals thus become vital for reviving memories and stories heard from relatives and ancestors long ago, and my experience so far chatting with Mr A. over these photographs has certainly proved this to be true.
As my visits to Kusu have taken place outside of the ninth lunar month pilgrimage, the Kusu I captured in my photographs is vacant and quiet, typical of the off-peak season. In a dramatic contrast, Elliott’s photographs show a Kusu as crowded as central London. I especially appreciate how his coloured photographs like Figure 8 almost capture the sounds, smells, and tastes that would have characterised the pilgrimage season. We see colourful soda sold in glass bottles along the street (Figure 8) and people engaging in conversations while picnicking (Figure 6).
I imagine Elliott must have been amused at the sight of pilgrims climbing onto the roof of the Tua Pek Kong Temple during a particularly busy day of the pilgrimage (Figure 10), presumably because there is no more space to stand within the temple as we see in the background. This is definitely something you would not see today, both because of land reclamation creating extra space for devotees, and stricter standards for safety. With land reclamation, the sea that takes up such a big portion of space in Figure 10 is also no longer present, and gone are the sampan (smaller wooden flat-bottomed boats) we see docked near the temple that ferry devotees between the temple and keramat at high tide. Mr A. also remarked that Elliott possibly took his photograph while sitting in a sampan.
In my few meetings with Mr A., he has been enthusiastic about viewing Elliott’s photographs. His relief at seeing the shrines safe and immortalised in the photographs on my iPad, and his pride at seeing his ancestors’ innovation and adaptability represented, have shown me the power of photographs to heal and restore. Losing most of the keramat in the 2022 fire has caused Mr A. and his family immense grief and anxiety. It appears that bringing these photographs to his knowledge has helped him get a better sense of how he wants to design the reconstructed keramat, from redesigning a cloth banner signboard, to preserving the slight slant of the shrine roof (Figure 1). Poetically, Elliott’s collection from the past becomes Mr A.’s source of inspiration and strength to work towards the future.
Like Mr A., I find historical photographs fascinating, especially those of Singapore, because of just how dramatically fast its landscapes change. Based on my experiences in this project so far, old photographs seem to be consistently effective at jogging social memory and inspiring unexpected conversations. I was very intrigued when I learnt that MAA was collaborating with the National Library Board of Singapore to digitally repatriate Elliott’s photographs of Singapore. I was curious to see how this project might make learning and talking about the history of religious communities and practices in Singapore more visually interesting and accessible to people in Singapore.
As part of fieldwork for my undergraduate thesis, I am working closely with MAA to digitally repatriate 32 of Elliott’s Kusu Island photographs to Mr A.’s family. More specifically, I have been acting as an intermediary between the museum and Mr A., obtaining high-resolution copies of the photographs, and transferring them digitally to Mr A., with his agreement that the museum continues to take care of the originals. These high-resolution copies have gone into Mr A.’s family’s archives, to be passed down to future generations along with the stories about the keramat that they carry.
Furthermore, I have also assisted in printing out 19 of these photographs for Mr A. to display at the keramat (Figure 12). Following our encounter he requested his contractor to install a display board at the keramat so that he can share these stories with visitors during the pilgrimage coming up in mid-October this year. I am also working with Mr A. and his son to write captions for all these photographs, in hopes of documenting oral histories of the Kusu Island Keramat relayed by Mr A. throughout our conversations. Finally, the stories I learn from Mr A. will also go towards an upcoming online exhibition on the Digital Lab of Elliott’s photographs of Kusu Island.
I am not sure if this is what Elliott envisioned people doing with the photographs he took, but I am excited to work with Mr A. to inject new life into these old photographs. Just as the photographs helped me connect with Mr A. during our first encounter, I hope that they go on to help others connect with the deep history of the Kusu Island Keramat, so that Mr A.’s family continues receiving support to preserve the shrine and its stories for more centuries to come.