The last Ubinites: A glimpse into the lives of long-time Pulau Ubin residents

SINGAPORE, Oct 17 — A short bumboat ride away from Changi Point, Pulau Ubin feels like a world away from the bustling metropolis that Singapore has become.

There are no sleek cars, shopping centres or high-rise buildings. Mobile phones are hardly in sight, and residents spend more time talking to one another than staring at computer screens. Bicycles ply gravelled roads while houses are cobbled together with wood, and their occupants rely on wells for water and diesel generators for electricity.

With only 38 people still living on the 10.2 sq km island, the Ubin of today is a far cry from the ‘50s and ‘70s when it had a flourishing population of almost 2,000 people.

The area around the jetty is the main hive of activity, especially on weekends when 2,000 to 3,000 visitors throng the island. Ubin residents call it their “Orchard Road”.

For decades, residents had to live under a cloud, unsure of the fate of the island. To their relief, the authorities have since decided to keep Ubin untouched for as long as possible.

Ubin was recently in the spotlight again, as the subject of a study which found that the remaining residents have developed wide social networks with visitors.

To get a glimpse into the lives of the last Ubinites, TODAY speaks to some long-time residents — a temple guardian, a crab catcher, the “Ah Ma” of the island, the village chief, and a town crier who shares news and happenings on the mainland with the other residents.

Ubin resident Ong Siew Fong, 72, who is one of the founders of the Wei To Temple. — TODAY pic: The temple guardian

Ubin resident Ong Siew Fong, 72, who is one of the founders of the Wei To Temple. — TODAY pic: The temple guardian

For decades, Ong Siew Fong’s life has been mostly spent in an area about half the size of a football field, attending to the needs of her husband and daughter who are both wheelchair users.

The 72-year-old caretaker of Wei Tuo Temple, which is a few kilometres away from the jetty, hardly ventures beyond the temple’s perimeters, which contains several shrines and a tortoise pond.

Ong was born in Johor and moved to Ubin after she married her husband, Wong Kee Chong, who worked at the island’s quarries.

Wong’s family founded the temple. The couple has six children, five of whom have relocated to the mainland. Her daughter, Wong Seow Kian, 47, moves around on a motorised wheelchair, after a spinal injury affected her ability to walk properly. About a decade ago, Wong got a stroke that left him paralysed and unable to speak.

In 2013, the family hired an Indonesian domestic helper. Suny, 48, who hails from Central Java, takes charge of feeding, washing and bathing Wong. She has grown so attached to the family that she rushes back on her days off to take care of Wong, whom she refers to as Ah Kong.

With Suny’s help, Ong brings her husband and daughter to the mainland to see the doctor. But, they can only travel when the tide is high enough for them to be able to wheel Wong onto the bumboat. At times, they would have to pay for the use of the boat just for themselves.

Ong says: “It’s getting harder for them. In Singapore, they can just take a taxi to see the doctor, have access to everything, as compared to now where we have to cross the sea.”

Last year, Ong tried to apply for a HDB flat, but she was unsuccessful as their monthly family income of S$1,300 was too low. The family had to forfeit the deposit of S$1,000. Ms Wong says: “It’s all our hard-earned savings, gone down the drain.”

East Coast Group Representation Constituency Member of Parliament Maliki Osman is looking to help the family by getting their deposit back, as well as engaging community and government agencies to assist them.

Except for Tuesdays and Wednesdays, Ong’s second son — Wong Ming Hua, 50, who is the temple’s religious leader — and his wife make their way from their flat in Tampines to the temple, bringing with them groceries and other daily necessities.

In their hut, the fridge is piled with frozen foodstuff dating months back, which they refuse to throw away.

On a typical day, Ong wakes up at dawn and has a simple breakfast of bread and kopi, before doing the temple rounds — filling up tea for the deities, lighting up lamps, tending to the plants and tidying the complex. She also manually pumps water from the well. Once a month, she tops up 40 jerry cans of diesel to fill the six generators that power the temple.

In the afternoon, the 80-year-old temple draws regular devotees from the mainland, or curious visitors attracted by the colourful prayer flags flapping in the breeze. At night, the family retreats into their living quarters at the side of the temple, where they have dinner and watch television.

Just before she goes to sleep, Ong dons rubber boots, arms herself with a wooden stick and flashlight. She then heads out into the dark to switch on a different generator for the night. She wields the stick as she walks, trying to scare off wild boars, or flick away centipedes or snakes.

Crab catcher Quek Kim Kiang, 63, who has lived on Pulau Ubin for the past two decades. — TODAY pic: The crab catcher

Crab catcher Quek Kim Kiang, 63, who has lived on Pulau Ubin for the past two decades. — TODAY pic: The crab catcher

Every morning, Quek Kim Kiang, or Ah Kiang as he is affectionately known, dons a pair of rubber fishing boots, grabs some steel hooks, hops onto his bike and heads towards the island’s dense mangrove forest.

“If I want to, it’s very easy to lose you in here,” Quek deadpans in Mandarin, as he leads this reporter down a narrow pathway leading into the mangrove forest.

Expertly, he navigates through conical-shaped mounds made by mud lobsters, past spindly roots that threaten to trip unwary visitors, and hacks through leafy branches with a well-worn blade.

Using a hooking method, Quek patiently pries a crab out of a hole where its hiding — all this while planting his feet deep in the mud. He does this over the next four to five hours, as he goes to various spots on the island in search of the crustaceans. It is all in a day’s work for Quek, who sells crabs for S$25 a kilogram. After the day’s catch, the 63-year-old bachelor — who has lived on the island for the past two decades — heads to one of his two homes: A hut located along the main jetty, and another one built on a fishing platform.

On some afternoons, he whiles away time, tossing back a beer or two with friends. On Saturdays, his friends arrive from the mainland to visit him, and they do gardening and exercise together. Possessing a wide knowledge on crabs, Quek willingly dishes out — to anyone who would listen — various tidbits on why these creatures thrive in mangrove forests, how to locate them, and even their breeding patterns.

In fact, he has taken a young “disciple” under his wing — a nine-year-old-boy who was so impressed by his skill in hooking crabs that he asked for his father’s permission to learn from Quek. He has since brought the boy along with him several times, but avoids places where poisonous snakes lurk. Says Quek, with a grin: “He’s still a bit too young, he’s not strong enough yet to go running around in the forests with me … I think give it a few more years.”

For now, Quek nurses hopes of one day leading his own mangrove guided tours. He has even thought of wet weather plans: When it rains, he will invite groups over to his backyard and regale them with tales of the island’s history. “Not many know about mangrove forests … Some visitors may see it as dirty, or feel there’s nothing special about it … But inside, there are many hidden treasures, and every time I go in, I find new things to discover.”

Farmer turned drink-seller Wang Xiao San, earns about S$400 to S$500 a month. — TODAY pic: The Ubin ‘Ah Ma’

Farmer turned drink-seller Wang Xiao San, earns about S$400 to S$500 a month. — TODAY pic: The Ubin ‘Ah Ma’

For many visitors to the island, Wang Xiao San — who is known as Lai Huat So to the islanders — has become a recognisable face.

Her Ah Ma Drink Stall, housed in a distinctive blue wooden structure, is one of the first stops along the trail at Jalan Jelutong.

Despite her age, the 76-year-old — who lives alone with her three dogs — cuts a sprightly figure. For the past 22 years, she has been running the drink stall every weekend, earning about S$400 to S$500 a month. In her spare time, she chops firewood, and tends to about 100 durian, rambutan and jackfruit trees in her backyard. She also holds the unofficial title of being the only woman motorcyclist on Ubin, zipping around the island on her old red motorcycle. Wang credits her good health to Ubin’s fresh air and kampung lifestyle. “It’s good here, as compared to living in Housing and Development Board flats, where you’ve got nothing much to do, and nowhere to walk around,” she says in Mandarin.

Born on Ubin, she used to farm vegetables, as well as rear poultry and prawns. Recalling how it was more lively on the island back then, she lamented that her old neighbours had moved out to the mainland after the quarries were shut down.

Wang takes the bumboat to Singapore every Monday to visit her son at his Bedok flat. She returns to the island on Wednesday. On weekends, her daughter, Ivy Choo, 52, stays over at her place and runs a mobile drinks stall near the island’s 45-hectare Ketam Mountain Bike Park.

Wang tells TODAY that her children have been nagging her to move to the mainland. But all this while, she has said no. Her children have to resort to calling her every day on her phone at home to check in on her. But her phone often gets broken, Wang said.

When that happens, her children will contact her neighbour, Ong Kim Cheng, who drops by frequently at her place and helps her fix things around the house.

Wang stresses that she has no wish to leave her birthplace. “I’m used to life here, I can just look after the durian trees, or rambutan trees … If I’m able to, I want to stay here as long as I can.”

Ng Ngak Heng, 66, runs the Yak Hong provision shop on Pualu Ubin. — TODAY pic: The town crier

Ng Ngak Heng, 66, runs the Yak Hong provision shop on Pualu Ubin. — TODAY pic: The town crier

After being retrenched from her job at a travel agency during the economic recession in 1997, Doreen Lim moved from her flat in MacPherson to a friend’s house on Pulau Ubin.

She has not looked back on city life and its cushy comforts since, except in one aspect.

Lim, who is in her 50s, is one of the few on the island who owns a smartphone, and uses a Toshiba laptop to get her daily fix of Facebook, games and news, in between tending to her duties as custodian of the Tua Pek Kong Temple. She uses a top-up card for data, and has a broadband stick to connect to the Internet.

“I always try to keep myself updated. Just because I’m here on Ubin, doesn’t mean I should let myself fall behind ... You have to move with the times!” Unsurprisingly, her office at the temple has become an “information kiosk” of sorts, says Lim.

During the recent General Election, islanders flocked to her to suss out candidates rolled out by the various political parties, or check which constituency they belong to, she recalls.

The ongoing haze episode also sees neighbours prodding her periodically for the latest Pollutant Standards Index levels.

Mimicking the gesture of using a loudhailer, she says: “I’ll report to everyone every few hours ... if the PSI level crosses over 200, I’ll tell everyone to wear masks!”

Apart from her “town crier” role, Lim also doubles up as a translator for the islanders, since she is one of the few who speak English. She helps Ubin residents with reading letters or filling up forms.

“Every time a resident throws a letter and their IC to me, I already know lah ... they need my help again,” she says, adding that the elderly residents sometimes try to slip her a red packet to show their appreciation.

Lim spent a lot of time on the island before moving there. She previously ran Pulau Ubin Explorer Services, which organises guided nature walks and team-building activities on the island. Although she still returns to her MacPherson flat occasionally, Lim has embraced the kampung way of life, saying the peace and quiet is a haven. “Ubin is a beautiful island ... There’s lots of wildlife here, like the white-bellied sea eagle ... You can wake up to the sounds of birds singing, and there’s a nice sea breeze,” she says.

“If you stay in a HDB flat, upstairs flush, downstairs also can hear ... It’s even worse for those living by the road, you always hear cars passing by every night — it’s too noisy.

The ex-Village Headman's house. Photo by last_samurai on Flickr

The ex-Village Headman's house. Photo by last_samurai on Flickr

For decades, whenever islanders needed advice or help in mediating disputes, they would flock to the two-storey house at No. 427 — the respected village headman Lim Chye Joo’s home. Since the 101-year-old passed away in 2006 after a battle with cancer, the role of village chief was informally thrust into the hands of Chu Yok Choon, 70. But these days, no one asks for help anymore, with most people choosing to settle their problems themselves. They only come to him with feedback on issues they face about living on the island, says Chu.

A long-time grassroots volunteer, Chu attends Residents’ Committee meetings at the Changi branch every month, where he relays Pulau Ubin residents’ feedback. One request residents have, for example, is to have the government run ferries that depart on the hour so that it is more convenient for islanders to travel to and from the mainland. “It might provide a good solution, as people know when to show up. They can estimate time accurately, so they don’t waste time,” says Chu.

Currently, the boats run by individuals set off only when there are 12 passengers.

Unless one forks out S$36 to charter the whole boat, it could be a long wait in the early mornings or late in the day. Another suggestion residents have is for a sheltered boardwalk to be built along the main jetty.

Chu, who was won several Long Service Awards for serving his community, also runs one of the oldest bicycle shops on Pulau Ubin at No 45C, which he set up at 17.

Previously a bicycle repair shop for residents, it is now a popular bike rental store with prices ranging from S$5 to S$20 an hour.

Chu would not say how much he earns, but he supplements his income by ferrying construction workers daily, delivering supplies and fetching tourists around the island. — TODAY