Photographic Essay

Khayalan Island |pəˈlou ˈhäyālan|

James Jack

DOI: 10.33671/ISS03JAC

Khayalan Island is rumored to have disappeared in the early 19th century just as Sir Stamford Raffles was establishing a post in Singapura. This project consists of gathering stories, collecting artifacts and conducting a journey to rediscover this island in the contemporary port of Singapore. Excerpts from The Story of Khayalan Island have been specially edited for this volume.

Singapore, Battam, Gallat, Sabon and Khayalan Islands Map,
Ink on paper, 1822/2014.

Image courtesy of the artist.


Remnant of a Vessel, 2013.
Exhibition view Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore, Photo courtesy of the artist.


Spirit of a boat

7,253 meters

off the southern coast

of Singapura

rumor says

there was an island

in between

Belakang Mati and Sebarok


less than forty minutes

to circumambulate on foot

“shoals of stone and sand, with one to two feet of water at low tide, or even less on moon tide days, it would not be difficult to visit the islands without a boat”

yet there is a challenge to the feet

sharp igneous stone on the shallow bottom

known to cut the feet

interspersed with tree coral

on the southeast and west shores

which upon being broken

makes an earthy sweet sugar

now searching for the name of the harbor

I have not yet encountered anyone who knows precisely where it was.

was it forgotten, or is it more about forgetting?

an untold history of the people who worked in the harbor

the land they lived on

what they did after breakfast and before sunset,

looking after this harbor

watching boats come and go

lying under the shade of the sea almond tree

contemplating how to find stories

of a place on the verge of disappearing


now strolling along the reclaimed coastline

what “Pulau Khayalan” did she refer to?

walking one foot in front of the other

square stones and cement orderly fitted one against the other

to hold back the uncertain land covered beneath the surface.


a clear image of a rib cage on this very site

flashes before the back of my eyes

fragments of a disintegrating boat

rotting senegal mahogany

half sunk in the mud

a wooden framework of a sampan boat remains

a spirit among all those that were once docked here


betel palm and rambutan trees dotted the harbor line

along with durian trees

whose wood was used to make sampan boats

sliced, stripped, bent and formed

noticing without waiting


saltwater penetrating the wood fibers

keeping it alive day by day

now freshwater fills it like a tub

slowly rotting the disappearing planks


presence in absence

Search for an Unknown Island, 2014.
Image courtesy of Art Base Momoshima, Photo by Misaki Ohashi.


Island connecting to everywhere







it has a mouth

it has chichi

in this shape!


this island

doko demo tsunagatoru

a bridge here

taka tall!


a bridge expert

can get there in one minute

……..one minute

one minute!


or by boat

this island moves

it moves

can go in one minute de


kore na

it moves

in katakana

arriving in one minute

ankiro sound



“can get there in one second”

whale island anchor





“what are you writing?”


a dolpin

Mushroom Island


this island


shio-Ta haru-KI

I wrote “doko demo tsunagaru shima”

“island connecting to everywhere”


pirates, whales, sharks and mushroom island

sea, bridges and…

island city

treasure box

many shapes for islands




          an island in the mind

“doko demo tsunagaru shima”

preparing for a journey

to an unknown place

where it is possible

to build a city

appreciating what lies below


inside the earth






is this the future

or is it the past?



Journey to an Unknown Island, May 6, 2014.
Photo by Mihoko Furuya.


The scenic channel

one of the smallest boat taxis

six passengers max in the hatch

the dock on the other side

must be far smaller than this one


wind from the south

steadily picking up since we arrived

standing still          moving

our boat stops three boats away from the dock

scurry across

one boat to the next

touching for a moment

engines pushing together

ropes lie coiled on deck


green potted plants

on the rooftop of the boat

as I duck in below

flowers, grass and a small tree

with heart shaped leaves

looks so familiar

but not in this generation

a locust tree from Whaddon?

seeds carried from Holland

to be planted in the contingent ecosystem


on the boat

a gentle rocking begins

swaying continues

for the rest of the journey

back and forth——up      and      down


unpredictable but rhythmic

three other passengers board quickly

sitting on the blue painted slats

we face each other


sliding away from the harbor

just as we push off from land the boat rocks fiercely

jerking starboard and port

waves colliding

as if we might capsize, but that’s impossible

the captain is far too relaxed for that


a choice between a scenic pathway

or the shortest route between two points

inside the boat

slipping off my sandals to step up the five stairs

to the driver’s cabin,

one young boy sits listening to music on headphones

while the other drives

with one hand on the steering wheel, the other hand texting:


in this steamy cabin

a/c reserved for the passengers

watching ahead through scratched and tinted plexiglass

looking down far from

Pulau Belakang Mati on the right


slowly moving forward in the channel, depth 23 meters

previously 2.5 meters at low tide

dredged for passage of tankers in the 1980’s

underwater scenery distorted

memory of contours in dissaray

Kusu Island on the left

slowing down near St. John Island

…what is that tuft of mangroves in between

a sign of Khayalan?

Khayalan Island Artifact
Image courtesy of Art Base Momoshima, Photo by Taro Furukata.



sitting beneath mangrove shadows



I quit       searching


a light blue plastic corner protruding from the sand: a clue?

the two of us start digging along the edges to find its dimensions

with cupped hands pulling handful after handful of sand away

from the uncertain form


a stern begins to appear

toru looks for anything that could become a shovel

foraging amidst a rusty gas can, aluminum foil, a blue rubber sandal with no match

round plastic

and bottled plastic

and more plastic

he grabs a broken plastic pitcher and a small white bucket

all useful items


we dig

and dig

uncovering red ants,

plastic bags

and rope.


dig, dig, digging until light-headed

pausing by the sea

a plank of wood floating on the threshold of land and water

rotting, heavy with seawater

dark blue paint on one side raw wood on the other

the letters “SZ18…” in white but cut off halfway


certainly a boat, but far too deep and much much bigger than it appeared

a tree sprouting through the midrift

completely buried in sand—probably won’t float anyway


canary tree leaves now lie where passengers sat decades ago

sailing between Changi, Pulau Ubin and Tekong Islands



what is land?


Reconstructed Vessel. Decaying wood and paint.
Exhibition detail from Tokyo University of the Arts, 2014.


a yellow square box in the center towards the rear of the boat

immediately intrigued

with its chipping paint

and faint wood core

fading with the saltwater wind

without human touch

yet retaining the memories

of nakamura

the man who cared for this boat’s delicate existence

in the last years he slowly lost the mobility to venture out

fish were dwindling

and the aching of his lower left back

made it painful

to sit

on the boat slats

for more than an hour

it was even more painful

for him to recapture the feeling

of returning home at dusk

with the blue waterline of his boat riding low in the water

heavy with buckets of pomfret and mackerel


by these memories

in the disintegrating boards

of this small wooden boat

5.5 meters long


staring at the rib cage of this skeleton

on the verge of returning to the earth

only visible because of all the oversize garbage items

that have been disposed of inside of its gunnals

standing back

to gaze at what’s left of its hull

no trace of its name on the chipped paint


nothing but bright red painted boards remain

but three can be quite easily reassembled

one split matches the next

after noticing this

I set down the red parts

and notice a corner of curved wood

a stunning shape

that is no longer retained

on boats today

sleek square hulls

a slice of evidence to be examined

no name, just one pale sky blue piece of wood


Unknown Island

start with water

then look at the traces

of that water

paint an Island

that doesn’t exist


paint another faint layer

a very thin wash

the whiteness around an island

minimal void

emptiness around the islands

it can be the sky

it can be water

that experience


i paint what i know

not what i see in the outer environment

I work to know the tree

by observation

talking to people around

the locals

to feel the weather

to paint what I know

in the landscape


try to remember that feeling

I found there were no mountains in Singapore


flat lines


what is this flatness

obviously a lot of it is manmade

there used to be many hills

here looking at photographs

but there is a closeness

of bringing land and water


making new shapes


I see long linear lines

I feel a peacefulness

in this imaginary landscape


a seagull struggling in the

harsh wind

being pushing up and down

while trying to go forward


I will just add some ink

and see what happens

the paper itself

has a lot of properties

its like meditation

imagine myself there

in the island


start building a boat

in the shadow of the island

faded, not very clear

blending with the shadow


the boat is the darkest of all the forms

stones are a mix, big rocks in the front

dark ink with dry brushstrokes

looking through the cliff

and in the back there is the island

with space between the island and the cliff


get on the boat

actually, only part of a boat

not the whole boat

but the boat might not make it there

because its an imaginary island

viewers can swim there

or they could fly


Gleason, Henry Allen. “Botanical Sketches from the Asiatic Tropics III. Java (Continued)” Torreya, Vol. 15, No. 8, (August 1915), pp. 161-175.

Horsburgh, James and W.F.W. Owen. “Some Remarks Relative to the Geography of the Maldiva Islands, and the Navigable Channels (At Present Known to Europeans) Which Separate the Atolls from Each Other”, Journal of the Royal Geographic Society of London, Vol. 2 (1832), pp. 72-92.

Japan Scientists’ Association Setouchi Committee. “Umetate jigoku no setouchi engan: Kaihatsu no shōrai ha kore de yoi ka?” (“Setouchi Coastline Reclaimed Land Hell: Is this future development right?”), Kyoto: Hōritsu bunka sha Press, 1985.

Morris, Robert. “Notes on Art as/and Land Reclamation”, October, Vol. 12 (Spring, 1980), pp. 87-102.

Newell, Frederick H. “What may be accomplished by Reclamation”, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. Vol. 33, No. 3, Conservation of Natural Resources (May, 1909), pp. 174-179.

Schwartz, Neil H. and Raymond W. Kulhavy. “Map Features and the Recall of Discourse”, Contemporary Educational Psychology 6, (1981): pp.151-158.

Yeoh, Brenda S.A. Contesting Space in Colonial Singapore: Power Relations and the Built Environment. Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2003.

*Special thanks to Chand Chandramohan, Steve Dixon, Taro Furukata, Milenko Prvacki, Ade Putra, Seng Yu Jin, Jishi Shuho, June Yap, the children of Seikenji Temple nursery school, Danny Liu and residents of Pulau Ubin.


Map, Straits of Singapore, Durian and Rhio,

from surveys by Captain Daniel Ross and Others, 1840,

reproduced with permission of Singapore Maritime Museum Collection,

Courtesy of National Archives of Singapore.

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