Chope! That tourist is mine!

Chope! That tourist is mine!
Kamariah Binte Yacob, 52, pictured with old photographs taken when she used to live on Lazarus island where she was one of the unofficial "tour guides". Her sisters (from left), Samiah Binte Yacob, 57, Anon Binte Yacob, 59 and Meda Binte Yacob, 52, also lived on the island.

Growing up on Lazarus Island in the 1960s and 1970s, Madam Kamariah Yacob and her childhood friends knew the tourist boat schedule like the back of their hand.

A chartered boat from Clifford Pier came daily at 10am and 4pm, and also at 11am on Sundays. Onboard would be about 20 tourists from countries such as Japan, Canada, Europe and Australia.

As the boat approached Lazarus Island, the children would be watching excitedly from the jetty, "booking" their preferred customers by the colour of their shirts.

When the visitors disembarked, young boys would be in the water, inviting them to throw coins into the sea.

Meanwhile, girls such as Madam Kamariah, mostly still in primary school, offered to give tours of the island to these "sirs" and "madams".

The tours usually took 30 minutes and earned them at least $1.

Some tourists even asked for the children's addresses and later sent them photographs they had taken, as well as presents such as clothes, sweets and books.

Madam Kamariah was part of 42 Malay families living on the 33ha island, most of whom subsisted by fishing. There was also one Chinese family and one Indian-Muslim family - both of which ran provision shops.

Today, Lazarus Island does not exist on its own. It was merged with the southern end of Pulau Seringat and is connected to St John's Island by a bridge.

Madam Kamariah remembered she never had any pocket money as a child. In fact, "money was hard to come by for most of us in the village", she said.

When she earned any, she used it to buy tidbits and stationery and gave the rest to her mother.

Now 52, she is a customer service officer who lives in a five-room HDB flat in Choa Chu Kang. She shares it with her husband and son, as well as her sister's family.

Aside from being tour guides, Madam Kamariah and her sisters and neighbours also went to the nearby Kusu Island during the annual pilgrimage season in the ninth lunar month. They helped elderly Chinese devotees carry offerings to the Chinese temple and kramats (holy shrines of Malay saints), earning about $2 to $3 each at the end of the day.

Madam Kamariah's family - all 14 of them, including their grandparents - worked hard and lived simply. Her fisherman father died of kidney problems when she was four months old.

To earn a living, their mother sold kueh to other villagers while her grandfather caught fish for the family.

Later, her older siblings also worked on the mainland, variously as a prison warden, a parking attendant and an administrative staff.

The family lived in an attap house fringing the shore, which was housing that was typical then. Their toilet was a shed built over the sea with a hole in the centre.

There was no electricity or running water. Once a week, a water boat arrived at the nearby St John's Island and islanders from Lazarus would row over in their sampans to collect water.

Thankfully, there were also six wells on Lazarus Island, which the villagers used for drinking water, showering and washing clothes.

While her siblings studied at the Malay school on the island, Madam Kamariah took a chartered sampan to the English school at St John's Island every weekday.

Even though life was tough, she and her family miss their "kampung" now. And they are not alone.

Most of the islanders resettled in Telok Blangah in 1976, and even though some have moved, they still keep in touch, mostly at weddings, funerals and during Hari Raya.

She says: "Whenever we meet another islander, we will talk about how much we miss our island and how nice it would be if we could go back there to live again.

"It's not so much the physical environment that we miss, but the human environment. We lived so close to one another that if we opened our window, we could pass something to our neighbour.

"We always shared our makan and I don't recall anyone quarrelling. We were like one big happy family."

This article was first published on April 12, 2015.
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