Pulau Ubin 'far from a dying town'

Madam Lai Huat So, 76, and her daughter Ivy Choo, 52, at their Ah Ma Drink Stall along Jalan Jelutong, on Pulau Ubin's main strip. Madam Lai, a farmer turned drink-seller, is among more than 20 Ubin residents who have been interviewed so far in the cultural mapping project commissioned by the National Heritage Board.
PHOTO: Lim Yaohui for The Straits Times

A forested route in Pulau Ubin that is the dwelling of poisonous snakes and wild boars leads to a mangrove swamp that Mr Quek Kim Kiang frequents daily to catch crabs.

Using a hook attached to a pole, the 63-year-old fishes out the edible crustaceans from the mud. He then sells them to families on the island or the mainland for about $25 a kilogram.

Mr Quek's daily routine was uncovered by anthropologist Vivienne Wee, who has discovered "hubs of economic activity and vast social networks within and beyond the island".

She said this puts to rest the assumption that the island, home to 38 residents - down from 2,000 in the 1950s to 1970s - is a dying town.

Through her research, she found that the islanders have established links with people beyond the island, such as former residents, as well as the 300,000 day trippers it gets annually. She said that heritage, nature and sports interest groups also have ties to the place.

Dr Wee, managing director of anthropology company Ethnographica, was commissioned by the National Heritage Board (NHB) to map the island's multi-faceted layers of social history. This is the first such comprehensive effort for Pulau Ubin.

She is leading a five-member research team, which started work in April and has conducted interviews with more than 20 residents.

The project is expected to be completed by December or January.

NHB assistant chief executive of policy and development Alvin Tan agreed with Dr Wee's assessment.

"Everyone thinks the trades here are in decline, but that is not true. There is a actually a sense of rejuvenation and renewal," he said.

For instance, Mr Quek, hoping to pass on his crab-catching skills, has taken a disciple under his wing.

"I am passing on my technique to a nine-year-old boy from Singapore who comes here on weekends to fish with his father," he said.

The information gathered by Dr Wee and her team so far can be clustered into categories such as economic activities, trades and skills; social lives and relationships; religious festivals; and kampung architecture.

The cultural mapping project, first suggested by the Singapore Heritage Society, was undertaken by NHB. It is one of the board's contributions to an ongoing Ubin Project led by the Ministry of National Development.

The ministry is working with the community and other government agencies through its Friends of Ubin Network to gather ideas on how to maintain the island's rustic charm. Its plans include preserving Ubin's nature, biodiversity and heritage.

NHB's Mr Tan said research findings will be shared with the network "to help the authorities develop sensitive strategies to retain and enhance the island's rustic charms".

The project also builds on NHB's earlier work on the island, which includes a 2013 documentation of its historical sites, a documentary on its boatmen and a virtual tour.

Among Dr Wee's other interviewees is farmer turned drink-seller Wang Xiao San, known by islanders as Madam Lai Huat So, 76. She represents the varied skillsets of an average islander.

Madam Lai, who zips around the 10.2 sq km, boomerang-shaped island on a motorbike, used to farm vegetables, grow fruit trees, rear poultry and cultivate prawns.

While she continues to maintain 90 durian trees and 10 rambutan and jackfruit trees, her main source of income today is from her Ah Ma Drink Stall along Jalan Jelutong, on the island's main strip.

The stall - a blue wooden structure built by her late husband - still gets about 100 customers a day on weekends, thanks to day trippers.

Madam Lai also exhibits the island's culture of self-reliance, as she is able to build structures such as chicken coops on her own. She picked up these skills from her late father, an influential islander credited with building most of Pulau Ubin's kampung homes.

In addition, the island's Wei To Temple complex, on which a Hindu shrine was recently established alongside a Tibetan Buddhist temple and Taoist temple, is evidence that the landscape is continually evolving, said Dr Wee.

The shrine is just a few months old and is where deities from demolished Hindu temples on mainland Singapore were relocated by devotees.


This article was first published on October 3, 2015.
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