Life on Pulau Ubin: 'We don't close doors, there are no thieves here'

Melissa Lin and Linette Lai The Straits Times AsiaOne 26 Jul 14;

SINGAPORE - Towkay Tan Chee Kiang runs a busy restaurant and a shop in a prime location, serving up fried squid and sambal kangkong to visitors hailing from South Korea to Germany.

But the 66-year-old is no boss of businesses in Orchard Road, or even an HDB town centre.

Instead, he owns a provision shop and one of the largest eateries on Pulau Ubin, an isle the size of Tampines.

Born and bred on Ubin, Mr Tan is one of the popular island's last 30-odd residents.

Home for Mr Tan is a single room at the back of the provision shop that has been in his family for nearly 100 years, back when Singapore was a British colony and when policemen wore shorts.

The shop is a short walk from the main jetty, where bumboats drop off visitors, past a dusty road lined with bicycle rental shops and weathered old men whiling their time away.

Here, there are no traffic lights, no shopping malls, no clinics even, but residents are all the happier for that.

"It's quieter, more peaceful and the air is definitely better," Mr Tan said in Mandarin.

"We don't need to close the doors in our homes. There are no thieves here."

A queen-size bed sits in the corner of the room he shares with his wife. The wall is bare save for a framed photograph of his youngest daughter as a toddler.

The corridor that links to the shop is lined with stacks of cartons of canned drinks. A cool, salty breeze blows in from a single window facing the sea.

Mr Tan, the middle child of a family with five children, took over the shop from his father.

His father, who died three years ago at the age of 103, was in his 20s when he moved to the island with his younger brother.

Mr Tan's uncle ferried people to and from the island as a bumboat pilot; Mr Tan's father started the provision shop.

"Nine or 10 years ago, I started this seafood restaurant," Mr Tan said, gesturing at the business adjacent to the shop, now one of the island's largest eateries.

The village of his childhood in the 1950s and 1960s is very different from today's Pulau Ubin, or Granite Island in Malay.

Back then, thousands of people called the island home, working at its granite quarries, fish farms and in agriculture.

"We used to grow some vegetables for ourselves," Mr Tan recalled.

"Neighbours would also grow them, and we would buy some from them."

The wooden "wayang" stage in the town centre, where Chinese opera performances were put up, held fond memories for him.

"They used to have shows here, and there would be a lot of people. Nowadays only a few people watch such shows."

The "theatre" sometimes doubled up as a classroom, when the nearby Bin Kiang School ran out of space.

Mr Tan, who attended primary school there, said the island had many children in those early days.

"The school had six classrooms but sometimes those weren't enough and we had our classes on the stage," he recalled.

There were no cars and villagers went around on bicycles.

The roads were wide enough for only one cyclist to pass at a time; the bridges were so rickety you had to get off your bike and push it across, he said.

But the Ubin quarries started closing down - the last one shut in 1999 - and the islanders begin to move out in search of other livelihoods.

The number of residents on the island has since whittled down to fewer than 40.

The wayang stage now stands silent in the village square and some of the houses scattered across the island are abandoned.

Bin Kiang School closed in 1985 and was demolished in 2000.

Mr Tan's two daughters and a son, now aged between 26 and 38, went to schools on the mainland. They would wake up at 5am to catch the 6am boat to school.
The house he grew up in, opposite the provision shop, was turned into a storeroom.

His children moved into an HDB flat in Tampines, and he and his wife moved into the room in his shop.

Although he bought the flat more than 20 years ago, it was only after his father died that Mr Tan could spend nights at the flat, relieved of the responsibility of taking care of the old man.

But he still prefers his home on idyllic Ubin, where he spends most of his days.

"Living on Ubin is not so hectic, not like on the mainland," he said.

Here, life operates at a different pace.

Crates of beer and other heavy goods are delivered a few times a month, depending not on the traffic on the roads but on the tides.

"If the tides are too low, the boats can't come," he said.

These days, his rest days, Tuesdays, are spent meeting his group of old friends from the island for coffee near his Tampines flat.

He said wistfully of the past: "I had friends everywhere, no matter where I walked to (on Ubin). I grew up here, played here and went to work here.

"But everyone has gone his own way."

In the neighbourhood: In search of a simple life

Mr Sim Kim Seng, 50, did not grow up on Pulau Ubin but rents a room from his good friend, Mr Tan Chee Kiang. Mr Sim tells The Straits Times about the home he has adopted.


I am a contractor on Ubin who does repair jobs. I live in a rented room on Ubin four to five days a week, and have been doing so for the past eight to nine years.

I have a daughter, who works as a teacher, and a son studying in university, who live on the mainland.


Singapore is very "cramped". On Ubin, there are fewer rules and no traffic lights, zebra crossings, and ERP (Electronic Road Pricing).

I like the air and sunshine here. When I take walks in the morning, there are many surprises. I get to see different animals and birds. It is never boring.

The road is the same but every time you take a walk, it is a different experience.

When you say "hi" to people here, they respond. But if you do that on Orchard Road, people will wonder what you are doing.


Pulau Ubin used to be like an "orphan" last time, nobody cared about it. Now, more people are interested in it and there are tourists of all nationalities who visit.

Schools also hold their camping trips here. But most of the young people who lived here have left.


The nature here. On the mainland, the floors are made of concrete.

The people who live here, if their feet do not touch the soil, they are not used to it.

Is it inconvenient to live here? No, as long as you get used to it and live a simple life, it is okay.


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