Pulau Ubin's kampung spirit alive and well: NHB project

Lianne Chia and Alicia Tantriady Channel NewsAsia 29 Apr 16;

SINGAPORE: Far from being a sleepy backwater island in decline, Pulau Ubin houses a vibrant and evolving community with close links to mainland Singapore, according to the results of a year-long cultural mapping project by the National Heritage Board (NHB).

The project documents the island's heritage through historical accounts passed down orally and lifestyles of its residents, both current and former. The results were released on Thursday (Apr 28).

For instance, there is a constant flow of non-residents to the island who are drawn to the kampung-centred social network through activities like work, religious activities, and fitness and leisure. NHB said this reflects that the network is likely to continue to grow and evolve.

There are also several Ubin-centric events and activities that contribute to the growth of this network, the statutory board added. For example, the annual six-day Tua Pek Kong Festival includes activities like Teochew opera, "getai" performances and a ritual by the sea. Last year, it drew about 5,000 visitors to the island.

The island currently has about 130 inhabitants.

“We found that Pulau Ubin has a community that is active and thriving, and this actually overturns several misconceptions that it is actually on the decline,” said Mr Alvin Tan, NHB’s Assistant CEO of Policy and Community. “It’s actually bolstered by this kampong-centric social network that actually inducts new members as they participate in activities on Ubin, and as they help out in their family shops and businesses.”


Ms Emily Chia, 26, is one such example. While she has lived on mainland Singapore since she was young, Pulau Ubin is an integral part of her childhood because she came over every weekend to visit her grandparents, who used to live on the island. Currently, her father, aunt and uncle run a bicycle rental shop on Ubin.

She said one of her favourite childhood memories involves fishing over her uncle’s kelong: “We could take a little speedboat over, and start using sticks to fish,” she said. “But I caught a snakefish, and it wasn’t edible so I couldn’t cook and eat it.”

But while she works the corporate life as a financial consultant, Emily returns to the island about three times a week to help out in the family business. She said her visits became more frequent after her father developed a knee problem last year. “I talked to him and he said he needed help. So I try to schedule my time to come over and help.”


The project also found that the Ubin community lives in harmony with the island’s rich biodiversity, and residents also possess a range of traditional skills and knowledge about nature.

Ubin resident Tan Leong Kit, 85, is always happy to share his knowledge of medicinal herbs with visitors. He said he has been interested in the medicinal properties of herbs since young. “I have a lot of plants around my home, and from what I know, 5 of them can treat cancer,” he said.

Formerly a pig farmer living in Bishan, he moved to Ubin in 1989 after pig farms and poultry farming were discontinued on mainland Singapore. But his farm has since closed down and he now spends his time selling drinks to visitors and tending his herbs.

He admits that he enjoys the idyllic life on the island, even if he has to live away from his wife, who returns to Ubin every weekend to help with the sales. He added that his third son also returns every weekend, and his grandchildren stay over occasionally. “I’m not lonely living alone. I’m used to it,” he said. “I’m old and I want a quiet place to live.”

- CNA/kk

TRACY LOW The New Paper 29 Apr 16;

Anthropologist Vivienne Wee and her team of four researchers spent a year studying Pulau Ubin's multifaceted history and culture.

Here are some of the interesting findings from the Pulau Ubin Cultural Mapping Project commissioned by the National Heritage Board (NHB):

1. Don't assume Pulau Ubin has just a few residents - some reports have it at 38. According to Dr Wee and her team, there are more than 130 people living on the island.

2. A kampung-like atmosphere pervades the island. Dr Wee's team found that there is a network based on mutual support, kinship and neighbourly relations. Residents help each other out with little things such as repairing houses.

3. Around 300,000 visitors visit Pulau Ubin annually, with several non-residents heading there every week to help with their family business.

4. An annual six-day Tua Pek Kong festival is held at the Pulau Ubin Fo Shan Teng Tua Pek Kong Temple . Last year's festival attracted about 5,000 people.

5. A 25min documentary titled Life on Ubin was produced by the NHB and it showcases the memories and experiences of current and former residents of Pulau Ubin. The documentary is available on online heritage portal, Roots.sg

6. A tour based on the team's research of Pulau Ubin is sold out. Film-maker Royston Tan's new documentary about Pulau Ubin will premiere on the island's wayang stage on May 14.

Mr Tan Leong Kit


"You can take a handful of herbs and it's $5 only," said Mr Tan Leong Kit, 85, who sells medicinal herbs planted around his home for extra income.

He was making the offer to journalists interviewing him about the Pulau Ubin Cultural Mapping Project.

The independent man sells drinks for a living and also cleans the Pulau Ubin Fo Shan Teng Tua Pek Kong temple for extra income.

"I don't need money from my children. I earn around $1,000 from selling drinks and $300 from cleaning the temple," said Mr Tan.

He moved to Pulau Ubin in 1989 and has been living alone there since.

His wife and children visit him every weekend.

"I have eight children and 21 grandchildren," he said.

Mr Tan goes to the mainland every Tuesday for grocery supplies.

Ms Emily Chia


"Ubin life is very relaxing and stress-free compared to the hectic lifestyle of Singapore," said Ms Emily Chia, 26, a financial consultant.

She goes to Pulau Ubin thrice a week to help out at her family's bicycle rental shop. The bicycle rental shop called "45C" has been around for 12 years.

Ms Chia said: "The three days are not fixed. I plan my schedule every week to see which days I can go to Pulau Ubin to help my family.

"I have two older sisters, but they are both married, so I am the only one who helps out,"

When asked to compare the two islands, Ms Chia, who was born on the mainland, said: "In Singapore, work-life is very busy and I can knock off work as late as 10pm.

"But in Ubin, life is very easy and I can just sit and wait for time to pass. I don't feel any stress at all."

Mr Ahmad Kassim


The 80-year-old first went to the island with his father and his six siblings to escape the Japanese occupation.

"I Built my own house. I got my resources from the forest and I picked out the wood myself," said Mr Ahmad Kassim.

"I got married on Pulau Ubin when I was 25. My wife and I have been residing on this island since then."

"I have three children and seven grandchildren," said Mr Ahmad, who has lived on the island for about 70 years.

Just like Mr Tan Leong Kit, Mr Ahmad is also independent and earns his own income.

"I sell drinks to visitors in the morning and if there is nothing else to do, I will just ride around the island and relax," he said.

He occasionally hosts school excursions for children from various schools.

'Living heritage' study of Ubin wraps up
Melody Zaccheus, The Straits Times AsiaOne 29 Apr 16;

One of the few Singaporeans who know how to build and repair kampung houses and dig wells still resides on Pulau Ubin.

Mr Ahmad Kassim is 80 years old and has been living on the island for 70 of them. He can rattle off the various steps involved in what is usually a two-month process of building a kampung house.

"You go into the forest to collect suitable wood, lay the foundation, build the frame... Eventually, you add the zinc roof," he said.

"It takes gotong royong (kampung spirit) to complete it."

His expertise was uncovered and recorded by anthropologist Vivienne Wee and her research team as part of the first comprehensive study of Pulau Ubin's living heritage.

Dr Wee, managing director of anthropology company Ethnographica, was commissioned by the National Heritage Board (NHB) to map the island's social history.

Her year-long research, which has just concluded, recorded about 90 structures, including houses, huts and coops, on the 10.2 sq km island, off the north-eastern coast of mainland Singapore.

It also identified other skills of islanders, including the cultivation of indigenous fruits, herbs and spices; fishing and crabbing by line, hook and trap; and having knowledge of wildlife such as hornbills and wild boars.

The study further puts to rest the assumption that the island is a sleepy backwater island in decline.

Previous newspaper reports said there were 38 official residents on the island - down from 2,000 between the 1950s and early 1970s. But Dr Wee's research has found that there are more than 130 people who live and work on Pulau Ubin.

She has also identified a "kampung-centred social network founded on kinship, neighbourly relations and friendship" on the island.

She said the network is not only thriving but also extending beyond the island's shores to include non- residents and regular visitors.

Capturing 'way of life rooted in our history'

Younger Singaporeans are also integrated into the day-to-day affairs of Pulau Ubin. The island gets about 300,000 day trippers annually.

Dr Wee said they are tied to the island through informal apprenticeships, fitness and leisure, or because of their family businesses.

For instance, financial consultant Emily Chia, 26, returns to the island thrice a week to help her father run the family's bicycle rental shop. "I really love this place, the people and the way of life," she said.

Dr Wee said the constant flow of non-residents to the island and their induction into the network reflect that it is likely to continue to grow, expand and evolve.

The project also documents different aspects of Ubin's unique island heritage, including the social history of the island, religious practices and festive events, such as the annual six-day-long Tua Pek Kong Festival, which drew 5,000 people last year.

Dr Wee said the study is significant as it captures "a way of life that is rooted in our history".

First suggested by the Singapore Heritage Society, the project is one of NHB's contributions to The 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 Pulau Ubin's nature, biodiversity and heritage.

Mr Alvin Tan, NHB's assistant chief executive of policy and community, said the project's findings will help the authorities develop sensitive strategies to retain and enhance the island's heritage and "ensure its transmission from one generation to another".

Those interested in learning more about Pulau Ubin can catch the premiere of film-maker Royston Tan's new documentary on May 14 on the island's wayang stage as part of this year's Singapore HeritageFest.

A 25-minute documentary capturing Dr Wee's research is available on NHB portal Roots.sg.

New NHB documentary tells stories of residents from Pulau Ubin
Marianne Louise Das AsiaOne 30 Apr 16;

Ms Emily Chia visits Pulau Ubin three times a week and has been doing so for the past 20 years.

She hops onto a ferry to Pulau Ubin three times a week, and has been doing so for the past 20 years.

To date, Ms Emily Chia, 26, believes her fondest childhood memories come from the little boomerang-shaped island, more commonly known to us all as Pulau Ubin.

She would often skip over to her cousins' seaside homes to splash around in the water with them.

"I remember almost drowning in the sea once, but one of my cousins saved me," Ms Chia recalled with a laugh.

And one might think that such an experience might have altered her love for Ubin, but it never did.

In Ms Chia's eyes, Singapore's modern metropolis is nothing compared to Ubin's kampong charm.

"Most of the time I do nothing while I'm here and I hate the weather, but it is the people and the interaction that makes me come back so often," she said.

And because the people contribute to Ubin's character and charm, the National Heritage Board (NHB) chose to embark on a year-long piece of research, involving a documentary, on the former and current residents of the island.

Titled the Pulau Ubin Cultural Mapping Project, a team of researchers spearheaded by Dr Vivienne Wee made it their prerogative to correct the misconceptions about Pulau Ubin.

One popular misconception about the island is that it has only 39 people.

However NHB's Assistant Chief Executive Officer Mr Alvin Tan clarified: "Through field work at Pulau Ubin the team of researchers have found more than 130 residents living and/or working on the island."

And these residents seem to possess an array of unconventional skills.

Take Mr Ahmad bin Kassim for example, an 81-year-old resident living in Kampong Melayu on the island.

Having lived in Ubin for over 70 years, Mr Ahmad has a knack for finding wells and knows how to build and repair wooden structures.

In his more agile years, he even dug wells for his neighbours. A generator is then use to carry the water to the households' taps.

Mr Tan Leong Kit is another example of a man with a distinctive skill in Ubin.

Besides owning a drink stall, the 85-year-old grows and tends to his own medicinal herb garden.

He sells herbs like the elephant's foot plant that treats health conditions like anaemia and arthritis at $150 per kilogram to occasional customers on the island.

Formerly a pig farmer, Mr Tan moved to Ubin in 1989 to rear his own pigs. But after his farm closed down, he decided to turn to another form of commerce.

Mr Tan's wife however, lives in mainland Singapore along with their eight children, 22 grandchildren and 4 great grandchildren. They often visit Mr Tan on weekends.

The stories of Ms Chia, Mr Ahmad, Mr Tan as well as other people living in Pulau Ubin, can be found in a 25-minute documentary released on Thursday (April 28) titled, "Life on Ubin".

"I think it's good that the government has decided to preserve this place. Seeing how most of us are always busy with our careers, we seldom even remember the memories we have here in Ubin," said Ms Chia.

"I prefer the lifestyle back then and think it will be good if the government continues to preserve it."

Members of the public will be able to experience Pulau Ubin's heritage for themselves in May during NHB's Singapore HeritageFest 2016.

For more information on performances and film screenings, head on to http://heritagefest.sg/.