Photo by Peter Geddes. From Balik Pulau: Stories from Singapore's Islands, National Museum of Singapore, 2 June - 10 August, 2014.
Every man is an island. And no more so than when the island lies dead, buried, burnt and banished to a hinterland of the mind, a life that lingered above the tide before sinking into dull recesses and clement states – unsaid, unfelt, undeserving of a hearing until a word or two, an innocent query, draws out a cry of anguish, of pain that can no longer be deferred or deleted, a punch in the gut of a man who found a world to his liking and tasted paradise before it was paved and forty years of work came to an end in a flat of four small walls.
Other islanders, still hale and handy with bubu and boats, lurk on the fringes of flats that survive in an archipelago of tanks, cells and smokestacks. These terembu were not their traditional hunting grounds, for the men sailed to more distant haunts, close to the lands of the fathers of their fathers. The reefs, just a few paddles away, belonged to the womenfolk, who once wandered on them early in the morning or in the dying hours of the day, clad in sarong and with bunga raya in their locks, seeking spider conches, edible crabs, gulong and the gelatinous fruit of the sea. The sound of their chatter would waft towards the village and caress the ears of fishermen in huts by a shore of sand and coral, a barricade of natural mysteries before an isle of ease and eternity. To the north, nine sullen islands, named after vessels, beasts and trees, guarded the borders of Jurong and exchanged words in the dark as voices floated from house to house, isle to isle and across the water, over mud, slope and shoal, to their kin by the coast, to villas where gin, tonic and trust were traded, to the tip of Tanjong Kling where pleasure was launched and the past resides, in fits and empty starts, in eyes of bright blue and distant frowns.
Few return to the islands today, and fewer still reside on them, but for accidents of history that gave rise to an abode of pilgrimage, a minor attraction in a city of far more luxurious sights. Some continue to endure the ride to these shrines, though in scantier numbers than the flotillas that used to surround the turtle at high tide and unleash a mob of nonyas, grand- and would-be mothers, hawkers, beggars, captains of twakows and champions of commerce who clambered out of rocking sampans, waded across a bridge of sand, walked up a hill and prayed to a trio of saints before attaching their desires, in codes of primary colours, to sundry boughs and offering token and tribute to the grand old uncle of the southern sea, patron of sailors, protector of sojourners, a god who looks east and askance at the port that sought his favour only to forget his name.
Few return to the islands today, for many have bid farewell to their homes and others have burnt their boats, preferring to save the worst for last and spare the powers that be the trouble of scuttling their craft and sending the owners the bill for a grave on the bottom of a dire strait. Those who still do so, who charter bright yachts and dingy ferries to greet the dawn and land between lanes filled with ships that could crush a reef or islet with half their hull, find piers with happy names and silent walls, barriers of misery to both history and humanity that displaced a century or more of coastal settlement and banished old reefs to the margins of a maritime hub. Some corals have returned, but not all can take the heat and the polyps grow in waters that have turned cold and no longer tell stories of pirate queens, watchful dragons, ancient duels and wrathful spirits to frighten and frustrate the children of a flagrant harbour.
Few now return to the straits to find islands of ease, islands of confinement, islands of refuge, islands of industry, islands on fire, islands of light, islands of shadow, islands of trees that have lost their roots, islands of cats, islands of goats that devoured nearly all vegetation, bald islands, barren islands, islands of stone, islands of evil, islands of laughable loves, islands of fatal, forbidden ties, islands of revolt, islands of seclusion, islands that have found a second life as habitats in harmony, button islands, butttressed islands, islands lost to the waves, islands left to rot, islands of no account and islands of last resort – names without places and places without names. Every island has a story, but not every story has a tail. The islands remain in place but have grown distant and detached, the wind has abandoned their sails, their myths have lost their makers and their children now reside in flats that the tides can never touch, where time passes with a sigh and each day is a dream gone bad, a life cut short and caged with nowhere to go, no way out and no way back.