Idyllic, Mysterious and Sacred: Kusu Island
Credit: Thaejas, Wikipedia
The definitive origin of Kusu Island is shrouded in mystery. An information panel on the island lists at least five. But perhaps the most well known of them goes like this: once there were two friends, one a Malay gentleman and the other a Chinese gentleman, who were shipwrecked on Kusu Island. They were subsequently rescued by a giant tortoise, which was how the island came to be so named. For Kusu translates to tortoise island in Hokkien.
A more prosaic explanation relates to the original shape of the island, before extensive land reclamation began. At low tide, the island resembled a tortoise with the head of the tortoise joined to the back of the tortoise by a thin strip of sand. Today, Kusu Island is nearly 6 times its original size, at 8.5 hectares.
Whatever the truth may be, the fact remains that pilgrimages to Kusu Island, mostly from the mainland of Singapore, was what helped Kusu Island to grow. These pilgrimages began even before Stamford Raffles even set foot on Singapore, according to local English news articles published in the 1940s – 1950s. Long before the jetty was built, devotees made their way to the island and rolled up their trousers, or pulled up their skirts to walk up to the beach. They came to worship Tua Pek Kong, Syed Abdul Rahman, Nenek Ghalib and Puteri Fatimah.
Tua Pek Kong
A Tua Pek Kong temple in Borneo. Credit: @travel_theworld_with_sjoerd
Tua Pek Kong, or (大伯公) in Chinese, is well-known among the Southeast Asian Chinese. His origin, much like the origin of Kusu Island is also shrouded in mystery. The Chinese community in Penang believes Tua Pek Kong, or Zhang Li, as he was known in mortal life, to be the first Chinese settler in Penang. As such, he took on the role of a big brother and mentor and was said to be the soul of helpfulness. As the eldest in the village, he was called Tua Pek Kong, or grand uncle by the others. The name stuck and when he passed on, he was buried with his sworn brothers when they too, passed on.
The end of Zhang Li’s life, however, was the beginning of Tua Pek Kong’s legend. The sworn brotherhood became the Tua Pek Kong society, providing mutual aid to its members and policed its own. Much like the Tiandihui or (天地会), in Chinese, the Tua Pek Kong Society also worshiped its founders.
A new god was born.
The Malay Saints
Datuk Kong on Kusu Island. Credit: weirdhag
A third generation caretaker of the Malay shrines (keramat) on the island doubts the Malay Saints were blood relatives. He believes Syed Abdul Rahman vanished on Kusu Island while with his friends. A shrine was built according to his wishes when he later appeared in their dreams. On Kusu Island, Syed Abdul Rahman is known as Datuk Kong, which is a combination of the Chinese title “Kong” and the Malay title “Datuk”. Inscriptions on the Malay shrines show that Nenek Ghalib’s shrine was funded by Straits Chinese businessmen, who saw her appear before them in a dream. She promised them wealth and success – if they built her a shrine. As a sign of respect for the Malay saints, Chinese devotees that come to the island do not bring pork nor do they consume pork on the island.
A quick dive into old newspaper articles online show that pilgrimage season typically last up to a month. It can occur anywhere between August to November. It changes yearly as the season is based on the ninth lunar month.
Datuk Kong on Kusu Island. Credit: weirdhag
At its peak, Kusu Island was visited by 23,000 people in a single day. That was in 1976. Today, 5000 visitors or so is considered a record number. Sentosa Development Corporation, which manages Kusu Island, states that pilgrimages have been in decline since 2001. Many pilgrims have grown old and increasingly frail. Few from the younger generations are keen on the old traditions. Some pilgrims are also unhappy about the new ferry service which has monopolized travel to the island. Where in the past pilgrims could choose between privately-owned water taxis or a ferry service provided by Port of Authority Singapore, today there is just one choice. At $15, this is magnitudes above the original price that remained under a dollar up until 1981.
Kusu Island Today
Apart from visiting the temple and keramats, you may also opt to visit the tortoises. Living up to its name, Kusu Island now has a tortoise sanctuary. The Tua Pek Kong temple also has dozens of resident tortoises. Of course, you may also want to pack a picnic so you can enjoy one of Kusu Island’s pristine beaches with your family and friends.
Who knows, a break from the city life on Kusu Island may be just what you need right now.
What have you learned about Kusu Island? Will you visit one day?