Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Visiting the Syonan Jinja Shrine

Back on Saturday 19 January, me and some Theatreworksy folks made a little pilgrimage into the depths of Macritchie reservoir.

Y'see, we're doing a performance/investigation/project called RESERVOIR, based on the curious fact that the jungle around the reservoir hides the ruins of the Syonan Jinja Shrine, a Shinto temple built by POW labour during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore.

There are various legends surrounding the shrine (documented here), including a few that it hides a great treasure, maybe Yamashita's Gold, maybe the ashes of the Emperor, maybe something so mysterious that it's the Japanese version of the Holy Grail: an item that would make Singapore the iconic point of Japanese spiritual colonisation of Southeast Asia. Syonan-To: the Light of the South.

But of course, it was pulled down by the POWs as soon as they realised the Allies were winning. Only the foundations remain. A parallel shrine in Bukit Batok was demolished completely and a signal farm built in its place,

But the odd thing, Ka Fai says (and of course the whole thing's his idea), the odd thing is that the Shrine remains in ruins - it has neither been cleared nor restored (failed proposals have been made to restore the shrine to draw Japanese tourists, for example). It is protected by nature, by the wilderness that is the original, genuine biota of the lately hyperurbanised Singapore. It is preserved by kami.

Still, it's accessible via a four-hour trek into the jungle. Time for a little expedition!

Snafu #1: we were supposed to meet by 7:30 but Ka Fai's tyre went flat on the highway. He had to get a new one, setting us back about a couple of hours.

Farewell, old thing! (Hey, this is a performance about old things. You gotta respect.)

Meet the gang: Choy Ka Fai (Associate Artist with Theatreworks and member of KYTV), Charles Lim (a multimedia/new media/conceptual artist who was just along for the ride), Patricia Toh (an actress who was in VISTA Lab with us and shaved her head for Singapore Season Shanghai with DramaBox).

Ah, Macritchie. The place holds a lot of memories for many of us. Science field trips, army fitness runs, family picnics.

And some new memories as well! These guys were pretty cool when we told them we were doing art.

Evidence of our jungle heritage: a community of macaques.

They're not scared of humans much. They want your food. They'll open your backpack themselves if you're not careful.

Quite early on we passed a slightly mysterious gravesite. I remember visiting it with Singapore Paranormal Investigators once. Not Japanese; Chinese.

Yup, that's Singapore.

The weird thing (okay, there are many weird things) about Macritchie is that you keep on walking through this thick virginy jungle and then suddenly come out into a stretch that's used by Island Country Club. (Yes, those are golf buggies in the background.)

And a fountain!

And also some godawful, brackish streams.

Could the secret treasure of Syonan Jinja be a sacred lingzhi?

These are the remains of a bridge that served people as a shortcut into the shrine area. The Allies pulled it down, of course. It'd be faster to get to the site if we waded through.

Even faster if we went by canoe. This is where it's supposed to be; on the other end of the shore. But of course we're gonna trek through the jungle.

With a stop at the observation deck, of course.

This is it! We're leaving the beaten path for the actual bash-through the branches jungle!

This turned out less than ideally. Snafu #2: we found the GPS we'd brought didn't work well, especially since we'd forgotten to bring a compass. Snafu #3: we got lost for a while, despite Charles's best efforts to get us to smash the branches behind us. Snafu #4: a branch hit me from the side, between my cheekbone and my glasses, right in the eyeball, and I got a bacterial infection.

But I didn't know that yet. I bathed it in mineral water, and after about five hours of trekking (yeah, we were slowcoaches...)


Don't have good photos here, but it's basically an abandoned pump room. It's really nice and overgrown; can't do it justice. The floor and the walls are eaten away by algae and moss and creepers; it's created this wonderful space in the midst of the forest.

And a dramatic backdrop, too.

Charles loves the photo op.

Look! Even the end of this broken branch is photogenic! And tourist-friendly!

Okay, time to pack it all in. More trekking ahead.



Yep, these are the steps built into the hill upon which stood the fabled Syonan Jinja shrine. And here we are, finally at our pilgrimage site.

Charles was pointing to the incredible canopy overhead. There was some animal above, making warning noises. Now and then, there was the sound of a tour group in the distance, but they never found us. Hard to find.

Time for lunch first. Nom nom nom.

Then time to exploar. And dockument.

There was still the ablutionary basin at the top of the steps. Snafu #5: Charles put his hand in and he got an infection later. But the rest of us were fine. Pat said it was the most alive thing in the midst of the stone ruins: there were even guppies inside.

For shits and giggles, Charles let his GPS float inside.

Other strange fragments in the architecture, of course. That's what ruins are.

Someone's been making offerings!!!

After a while, we turned back, and decided we were too exhausted for the land route.

Yup. So we waded across the ruins of the bridge.

And we got wet.

These are Ka Fai's s interpretations of the headscarf. Eat your heart out, Jeremy Hiah.

Eventually we returned to civilisation, and Charles got his wife, the filmmaker Wee Li Lin, to give us a lift.

But not without a victory shot first!

And then I went home to sleep. And that night I went with Migrant Voices to help teach creative writing to Indian and Bangladeshi construction workers.

I do lead an interesting life. Some info on my Philippines trip soon.

Oh, and before I forget: RESERVOIR will be staged at 72-13 from 28 to 30 August 2008, with a cast and crew drawn from both Singapore and Japan. Stay tuned.

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