Sentosa Island, located off the south coast of Singapore was once a little fishing village called Pulau Panjang. Then a severe epidemic (most probably malaria) wiped out most of the British signal station staff on the island, along with many of the local villagers. It took such a dire toll that by 1848, the island had become known as Pulau Blakang Mati, "island of death from behind".
There were three artillery forts on the island by the 1880s, which had been used in the Battle of Singapore in February 1942. After the fall of Singapore, Blakang Mati became a prisoner-of-war camp for about 400 Allied (British and Australian) troops. The Japanese soldiers were believed by some to have executed up to 100, 000 Chinese (mainly civilians) on the beach during Operation Sook Ching.
Pulau Blakang Mati was renamed Sentosa by the Singapore government in 1972, which is derived from Malay meaning "peace and tranquillity". Today, Sentosa is a resort island with theme parks, a casino, hotels and several residences. But its history as a place of death still echoes in many parts of the island.
In February 1988, my elder sister, Lily (names mentioned have been changed) rented a holiday chalet on Sentosa which was owned by the company she worked for at the time. The family would spend the whole weekend there - our first family holiday in years. It was also a good opportunity for my folks to get better acquainted with Damon, my fiancé at the time.
The holiday chalet was a long two-storey building, with white-washed walls, and an overgrown tropical garden. It had once been used as an army barracks for the British during the colonial period in the late 1800s.
When I stepped into the house, for a moment it was as if the walls were closing in on me. The surrounding air felt sluggish and thick. For a house with airy, high-ceilings, it seemed rather dark, even on a sunny day. I kept my impressions to myself though; I didn't wish to appear ungrateful to Lily.
While the rest of us watched TV, Lily's husband, Galen spent hours patiently teaching Damon and my younger sister, Cara how to play mahjong. Mahjong is a Chinese game played with tiles by four people; rather like a cross between bridge and gin-rummy. My mother would join in every now and then to elaborate on the finer points of the game.
When the time came to settle for the night, Damon was allocated a room by himself because my parents held to traditional cultural ideals on what was deemed "proper behaviour". It didn't make much sense to Damon (who was born in Europe but grew up in Australia); we were both in our mid-twenties, had been together as a couple for a year and were engaged. Furthermore, the room he'd been given must have once been a storeroom of some kind. It was small and boxy, with no windows or openings, except a few small vents cut high up on the far wall near the ceiling. The air in the room felt heavy and oppressive. I felt claustrophobic when I saw it and wanted to say that no one should stay there. But Damon decided to keep the peace and simply put up with the sleeping arrangement.
That night, I kept tossing and turning, twitching at every creak of the settling wood, jumping at the chirps and clicks of the geckos (lizards). At one point, I needed to go to the bathroom. It was a huge communal affair with two doors, one on either side of the chamber. Stark white tiles lined the walls and the floor, making it look like a sinister morgue. My bare feet echoed with a slap-slap sound on the worn tiles.
I found myself glancing over my shoulder every few minutes. The bathroom appeared empty to my eyes, but the nape of my neck prickled with the sensation that I was being watched. I had no wish to linger there any longer than absolutely necessary.
As I hurried out of the bathroom and into the hallway that led to the bedroom, I thought I saw something dark move on the central staircase that linked the floors. I blinked; there was nothing. The place really gave me the creeps.
When morning light came, I immediately went to check on Damon. A thin sliver of amber light limned the bottom of the door. When I knocked on the door, he was already awake and fully dressed.
Damon had spent the night with the light on because the total darkness that met him when he turned off the light was unnerving. For some reason, he didn't feel safe or alone in the room. That weird feeling seemed to lessen when the light was on. He had not bothered to change because he thought it best to be prepared in case he had to get up and leave in a hurry. That room really felt like a holding cell. He was eager to leave the confines of the room.
We found Lily having minor hysterics in the kitchen because there had been a rat burglar in the pantry. The greedy rodent had gotten into the bread in the night and happily chewed its way through half the loaf. Dad thought the whole situation was hilarious. Fortunately, Galen managed to calm Lily down and Mum cobbled together a hasty breakfast with whatever edible food that was left.
Cara seemed rather subdued at the breakfast table. When Mum asked her what was wrong, all she would say was that she hadn't slept well.
It was about two decades later when I would learn what had happened to Cara. She had found the place "creepy" as well. There were several windows in the house, yet the bedrooms and adjoining hallways remained dimly-lit and gloomy.
The wooden staircase positioned right in the centre of the house gave Cara the most cause for unease. It was an imposing structure, standing like a sentinel in the shadows, overlooking all activity that went on in the place from its vantage point. What she found odd about it was that it felt much cooler there than anywhere else in the house.
Whenever Cara was on the staircase, she would get the distinct feeling that someone or something was following her. This eerie sensation happened at specific places on or near the staircase. If she were to come out from the bedroom and step into the darkened hallway, moments later she would feel this presence. It would follow her from the top of the stairs and all the way down to the bottom step. If she were to come up the stairs, it would be there right behind her by the time she reached the top step.
Cara made a point of hurrying up and down the stairs as quickly as possible. She found that if she stayed still too long in one spot on the stairs, her neck would tingle, warning her of this shadow person.
Whatever it was, it had a very definite presence. She felt it was hostile and angry at our intrusion. It didn't want us there disturbing the peace and most definitely wanted us to get out.
As we were discussing Cara's experience at Sentosa, my mother suddenly spoke up, 'I think I saw that shadow too.'
We all turned to her in surprise.
My mother had been heading out from her bedroom at the time when she thought she saw a dark figure already on the stairs. Thinking it was one of us, she continued onto the staircase but found no one there. When she came downstairs, we were all watching Galen, Damon, Cara and Lily having a mahjong session.
Mum had only just remembered the incident when we were talking about Sentosa. She had dismissed it from her mind all those years ago as just a play of shadows.