The modern polity of Singapore is now better known as a concrete jungle, constantly entangled in the discourse of political freedoms and the leadership of the late Lee Kuan Yew. When it comes to tourism, the fun-filled Sentosa Island often springs into our minds. Yet, little do we know about the quaint story of a people before the invention of Sentosa. Yeo Tze Yang, a visual artist and student of Southeast Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore takes us on a trip down his family’s memory lane to reveal the forgotten history of a place once known as Pulau Belakang Mati.
Since my childhood, stories about Pulau Belakang Mati have always been a topic my father and grandmother often raised. A curiosity of the history of this place grew over the years, yet, as my awareness and knowledge increased, it was puzzling why the rich history of this island is never talked about in today’s Singapore. Hence, a visceral desire to search for my roots and also fill this chasm in Singapore’s history are the motivations behind this research I have conducted.
Therefore, through this essay, I aim to highlight the personal histories of the local past inhabitants of Pulau Belakang Mati and the idiosyncrasies of the local culture on Belakang Mati in the past. I will thereby discuss the impacts of the eviction in 1975 on the individuals and the community of Belakang Mati. This paper will be structured into five sections. The first, as seen here, will set the direction this paper will take with regards for thesite of Belakang Mati. The second will be a brief history to the island. The third section will analyse the past literature on this topic, and point out how these past and present records of the history of the island lack information on the kampong life on the island. The fourth section will describe certain aspects of life on Belakang Mati and assert how they are very different from mainland Singapore. I will then go on to discuss the impacts of the eviction to Singapore from Pulau Belakang Mati in 1975, on the individual and community. Lastly, I will conclude with some thoughts I have regarding this topic.
Information about Belakang Mati and my family clan is based primarily on an oral history interview with my father, Yeo Hong Peng, who was an inhabitant of the island from other sources include various remarks from my grandmother, other past inhabitants of Belakang Mati, and the Meishan Yeo Family Tree book.
A brief history
Pulau Belakang Mati is the name of an island south of Singapore. In Malay it literally means “Island of Death Behind”. Stories about Bugis pirates plundering, looting and killing the inhabitants of the island (Oon, 1995) and Japanese soldiers slaughtering locals on its beaches during the Japanese occupation from 1942-1945 surround the origins of the name.
In the early 20th century the Yeo clan from Meishan Village of the Dongshan County in
Hokkien province made their way down the Southern Seas to escape political turmoil in
China. They eventually settled on Belakang Mati as it was less populated. (Yeo, 2008) Thus, this island became home for many generations of Meishan Yeos, until 1975 when all locals were evicted and resettled in government housing. The island was renamed in 1972 to Sentosa, which is Malay for “peace and tranquility” (van Dinter, 2009) and redeveloped to become the tourist destination and expensive real estate (Sentosa Cove) it is today.
Absence of memory
All remnants of Belakang Mati’s kampong past is gone. In a 1969 article on the Straits
Times, it states that the goal of Belakang Mati’s redevelopment was “to attract millions of
tourists seeking the sun”, targeting tourists from developed nations, like USA, Europe, and Japan (The Straits Times, 1969) Today, the island is an artificially constructed tourist spot, with “golden sandy beaches, resort accommodations, world renowned golf courses, a deepwater yachting marina and luxurious residences” (“Sentosa Island About Us Sentosa”, 2016) a materialist decadent paradise. However, some of the island’s past remains. The colonial British military’s forts, quarters and barracks were left there after their withdrawal in 1967 (Omar & Chan, 2009). Yet any trace of the local’s kampongs are gone. According to my father, the exact location of his home is where the casino now sits.
Researching into past literature, information about the history on Pulau Belakang Mati’s local inhabitants is few too. From online sources such as the National Archives of Singapore, popular nostalgia websites like RememberSingapore.org, and online photography social media site Flickr I find mostly records and photographs about the island’s military past. But not all is lost. After making inquiries amongst my relatives I was able to find several photographs from my granduncle’s family. These portraits and landscapes seem ordinary on the surface but upon close analysis they offer rich insights into the everyday life of Chinese Singaporeans on Belakang Mati.
Pulau Belakang Mati: A different Singapore
Meishan Yeo of Belakang Mati
Most of the Chinese community on Belakang Mati belonged to the Meishan Yeo Clan. Being an island separate from Singapore, Belakang Mati was geographically less vulnerable to cultural diffusion, and thus benefited from enhanced assimilation and lower cultural diversity (Ashraf & Galor, 2011). Along with the content livelihoods and deep-rooted sense of belonging with your kaki lang (own people), is the inconvenience of moving away even if one wanted to because of the water barrier. As a result of these factors, the Meishan Yeos retained a strong sense of communal identity for many generations, which was rarer in Singapore, where movement, cultural diffusion and blending could take place more easily.
The Hokkien spoken on Belakang Mati is also very different from that on mainland
Singapore. Meishan Yeos spoke the Zhaoan variant of Hokkien (in Fig._ it is visible how
Dongshan is right beside Zhaoan county), whereas the majority of Hokkiens in Singapore
were speaking Xiamen Hokkien. As pointed out by my father, “A cemetery is called bong in Singapore Hokkien, but we call it tiong in Zhaoan Hokkien.” Such is one of many words that are spoken differently in Zhaoan Hokkien. While Hokkien on mainland Singapore was becoming more streamlined, Zhaoan Hokkien on Belakang Mati retained these unique qualities, which could be attributed to the geographical separation too.
A cherished childhood
Childhood on Belakang Mati revolved around nature. My father had many hobbies, such as plucking fruits and fishing. But of all these hobbies the one he enjoyed the most was catching and rearing birds. During the interview he spent an hour describing how he caught and reared his favourite bird, which he calls the Jawa Cuckoo, and how he designed an entire aviary made from recycled materials, which shows how fond and precious these memories are for him.
Interactions with the Gurkhas
I also found out about an interesting trait of Belakang Mati life that would be alien to most Singaporeans interactions with the colonial British army’s Gurkha soldiers from India. Some of their barracks were within the military camps on Belakang Mati and as a result of their long stay and prohibition from marrying locals, many brought their families along with them to Singapore as well, leading to them bringing their cultural and religious practices to the island. An incident that was most memorable for my father was watching the Gadhimai festival, a Gurkha religious animal sacrifice ritual. At the tender age of 8 he witnessed the gruesome chopping of the head of a cow. Following this ritual are a few days of gambling, during which locals would join in, despite language barriers.
I find this a salient aspect of Belakang Mati life as while Gurkhas are well known to be
military personnel in Singapore even to this day, not much information about their everyday life interactions with Singaporeans exist. It is thus pitiful that this unordinary shared experience between Singaporeans and Gurkhas hold no records and is little known to most Singaporeans.
Impact of the 1975 move to mainland Singapore
On the individual
Having spent twenty years on Belakang Mati, the move to mainland Singapore in 1975 had a huge impact on my father. Inhabitants of the island were already informed five years beforehand of the eviction, hence they were mentally prepared. My father also recalled how his home’s address was changed from 409 Pulau Belakang Mati to 23a Sentosa; an almost too literal indication of the eminent changes. In due course, the eviction happened. From the large open spaces of the kampong to the confinements of the small government housing flats, he felt: “don’t know where to walk, surrounded by four walls” a sense of entrapment and unease. Furthermore, as time passed, my father gradually had to start calling his home the new name Sentosa, as mainland Singaporeans may not understand what Pulau Belakang Mati mean. Moreover, he also mentioned how he had to adapt to the mainstream Singapore Hokkien “because if I speak Zhaoan Hokkien others may not understand”. Such are ways an individual who was a distinctive Belakang Mati Meishan Yeo was forced to discard parts of his identity to adapt to changes.
On the community
The communal identity of the Meishan Yeos faces threats as well. By relocating to Singapore, a community that once lived together sidebyside is now dispersed. My father,
who once lived in a house for three families, was separated from his relatives. While his family moved to Telok Blangah Rise, the other two families moved to other locations. My father talked about resentment amongst the elderly from Belakang Mati, who were
compensated with “peanuts” for their vast lands (“around the size of four badminton courts”) in exchange for tiny flats. Lands that were once home to modest kampongs are now villas for the super rich and docks for their yachts.
In addition, small businesses that were passed on for generations on Belakang Mati like
provision shops and shifted to Singapore were gradually wiped out by supermarket chains like NTUC Fairprice. My granduncle’s shop (Fig.9) is a good example. Yet these businesses offer more than monetary transactions; they possess a personal touch that big enterprises lack, where shop owners have rapport with their customers, and the shop fronts become gathering points for chitchats. They are the very pillars to our community that are forced out of existence by modernity.
The Singapore Meishan Yeo Clan Association that was set up in the 1960s on Belakang Mati still operates today. Its main purpose was to maintain the communal bonds within the clan and also maintain ties with our ancestral village in China. For instance, trips back to Meishan Village are still organised regularly to bring the older folks back to visit and pray to the ancestors back in China.
The major annual event organised by the association is the worshipping of Tua Pek Kong,
where three days of w ayang is followed by a day of getai and a dinner. My grandmother,
father and I attend this yearly occasion. It is a great opportunity for the older folks to reunite with their old friends from Belakang Mati, which proves the effectiveness of the clan association’s role even after decades of leaving the island.
However, attendance decreased over the years as members found the event expensive,
irrelevant to their current lives, or simply too inconvenient to make it to these events. With less attendees and thus less funding, the event itself has seen changes over the years too. The Teochew opera was replaced by a less costly puppet show, and the getai is a now cheaper karaoke session. Once the dinner was held in a giant tentage at the foot of Mount Faber, where the restaurant Yan Palace, that has loyally served this dinner since 1960s, came to cook onsite. Today, the dinner is shifted to the restaurant itself in Chinatown, due to the increasingly expensive rental of the field at Mount Faber.
In all, it is clear how decades of traditions and customs are risk losing irrelevance as Singapore moves forward. For instance, often at these dinners I see youngsters “dragged” by their parents or grandparents. Perhaps they are unwillingly attendees, but who is to blame? What relevance does such an event have for the young Meishan Yeo of today like myself, when we no longer live together as a close-knit community?
Through this essay I have written about the life on Belakang Mati from my father’s
perspective and its idiosyncrasies. I then discussed the impacts of the 1975 eviction on the peoples of Belakang Mati, and questioned the present relevance of the communal identity of Belakang Mati. As pointed by cultural researcher PiChun Chang, “the concern for cultural policy and identity construction, therefore, is not how to make all persons within a given political community part of the ‘Singapore Story’. The concern is rather what should count as relevant to the ‘Singapore Story.’” (Chang, 2012) My father’s story of Belakang Mati is one that is forgotten in the Singapore Story. He said about the eviction, “Of course it’s sad, but what to do? If you’ve gotta go it means you’ve got to go”. This statement encapsulates the predicament of the people of Belakang Mati. Not only are ordinary people’s lives changed drastically by sweeping government policies, all traces of Belakang Mati’s past are also washed away with the waves of national progress. Yet for the ordinary Meishan Yeos of Belakang Mati, being a part of this community means the world for them, and it is my hope that future generations will at least acknowledge this part of their heritage even as the past grows increasingly distant from us.
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Yeo Hong Peng, 15 March 2016