On Kusu Island (“Tortoise Island” in Chinese), you can find attractions which include a Malay shrine and a Chinese temple with an interesting legend woven around them. Legend has it that a giant sea turtle turned into an island to save 2 shipwrecked sailors – a Malay and a Chinese. As an act of thanks, the two men built a Chinese temple, Malay shrine and a huge turtle sculpture on the island.
The earliest mention of Kusu Reef was in the 17th century. Dom Jose de Silva, Spanish Governor of the Philippines was believed to have run aground on March 1616 at Kusu Reef and thus the coral island had gained the name “Governor’s Island” which was later adopted by the Singapore Straits which became known as the “Governor’s Straits”.
In 1806, the island gained the name “Goa Island” given by the East India Company hydrographer, James Horsburgh. With the founding of Singapore, Daniel Ross, hydrographer to Stamford Raffles, selected the island in 1819 as a reference point for ships entering the new harbour. The earliest charting of the island is in Lt. Jackson’s Chart of 1822. The signal flagstaff of the station manned by the Harbour Master’s Department was set up on the little island when it was still known as Goa Island or colloquially, Pulo Tambakul.
Every year, on the 9th day of the 9th moon in the Chinese calendar, a month-long festival stretching between September to November see more than 100,000 devout Taoist, Buddhist, and Confucian pilgrims visit Kusu Island. The Chinese temple was built by contributions from a Chia Cheng Ho in 1923 who initiated the worship of Tua Peh Kong (earlier known as Da Bo Gong), the “Merchant God” or “God of Prosperity”. Guan Yin, the “Goddess of Mercy” and the “Giver of Sons” is also prayed to there. At least, 80% of the devotees are women, many praying for good husbands, healthy babies and obedient children. At least five blessings are sought for : longevity, wealth, tranquility, love of virtue and a fulfilled destiny.
Muslims visit Kramat Kusu. At the top of the rugged hillock on Kusu Island stands three kramats (or holy shrines of Malay saints). Devotees climb the 152 steps to reach the Malay shrines. One of the shrines is dedicated to Syed Abdul Rahman, whilst the other two are believed to belong to his mother, Nenek Ghalib and his sister, Puteri Fatimah Shariffah. The shrines are watched over daily by Pak Ali, who tends to the Keramat Datok Kong and Haji Shamsudin who tends to the Keramat Datok Mother and Keramat Datok Daughter, as they are named. Placards next to the later two Keramat seem to indicate that Nenek Ghalib had visited a Baba Hoe Beng Huat and garnered finances to build these shrines from this group of Peranakans some time in 1917.
It is common for childless couples hoping to have children to visit this shrine, where they leave white cloths tied to the nearby trees as a token of the sincerity of their prayers.
Kusu Island was originally 1.2 ha but landfill and reclamation in 1975 joined it with another coral outcrop, making a 8.5 ha island resort. The island was the burial site for immigrants who died in quarantine on St. John’s and Lazarus Islands. Stunning views of the mainland can be seen from Kusu’s beaches and its hilltop. The warm waters of the lagoon are ideal for swimming.
If you’re neither Taoist nor wishing to have kids, you can always kick back and relax on a beach. The beaches at Kusu Island have changing rooms, toilets, picnic spots and swimming areas. We spotted lots of crabs and beached jellyfish on the sand so decided to stay out of the water.