Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Weekend spot for many, home to a few

My Paper, Tuesday, October 21, 2014, Page A8, Top Stories
From http://epaper.mypaper.sg/emnd/fvxen/fvxp/fvxpress.php?param=2014-10-21
Source Website: http://mypaper.sg/top-stories/weekend-spot-many-home-few-20141021
By Goh Wei Hao, mypaper, myp@sph.com.sg, Published on Oct 21, 2014

PHOTO: QUIET SPOT: Pulau Ubin, located off the north-eastern coast of Singapore, housed 2,000 villagers during its heyday. Now, just over 30 remain.

TODAY, just over 30 villagers remain on the once bustling island - all of whom are elderly.

Pulau Ubin, located off the north-eastern coast of Singapore, housed 2,000 villagers during its heyday.

"People started leaving for Singapore and Malaysia to look for jobs when the ubin (Malay for granite) quarry closed," said Madam Tan, the daughter-in-law of the dead village chief.

These days, Madam Tan can be found sitting on the front porch of her two-storey home, where she lives alone. She spends most of her time planting crops, cleaning the house and playing with her dog.

On weekends, her three sons and two daughters come to visit.

"Whenever my children come, they will keep asking me to move in with them," she said.

She has resisted their overtures (suggestions).

"I like it here because it is less crowded," she explained. "The air is also fresher after the quarry closed and people stopped practising slash-and-burn farming."

Madam Tan, 76, married the village chief's eldest son when she was 15.

"My husband had eight brothers, so I had to take care of 10 people," she said. "I also had to rear the pigs and chickens, and help to tend my father-in-law's provision shop."

However, she was very contented. "If I was unhappy, I would have left ages ago!" quipped Madam Tan.

According to her, the main source of income for the villagers used to be from the quarries, rubber plantations and farming.

"I started working at a very young age, helping my father tap rubber sap and my mother push carts in the quarry," she said.

Today, these industries are obsolete. Instead, the main village is filled with bicycle rental shops and seafood restaurants, all vying for the patronage of visitors to the island.

One such store can be found deep within the island: a food and beverage store opened by Mr Ahmad, 78, and Ms Saipiah, 75 who have been together for more than 50 years.

The couple enjoy spending time at the five-year-old store - selling coconuts, drinks and Malay snacks - because they get to interact with visitors. Their other pastimes include watching TV and listening to the radio.

On Fridays, the couple travel to a mosque in Bugis or Geylang for their prayers.

Even though the number of villagers has dwindled, the "kampung spirit" is still alive and well on the island.

GOOD OLD DAYS: PHOTO: GOOD OLD DAYS: Even though the number of villagers has dwindled, the "kampung spirit" is still alive and well on the island.

Ms Juhaini, a 46-year-old production operator, is a prime example of this. Even though her parents have died, she returns to the island to help her neighbours on weekends, especially with translations.

The other big draw is that living expenses on the island are closer to those during the 60s. Ms Lee, an illustrator in her 30s, said both her parents spend less than $1,000 a month, with the bulk of it going to groceries and phone bills, as the rent is just over $100.

The island's tranquil pace of life makes it easy to see why it is still a draw with visitors, who come during weekends or holidays to fish and cycle.

"The visitors are normally from the Philippines, Indonesia and China," said Mr Heng, 69. "Singaporeans normally only come to cycle during the weekends or during Qing Ming Festival to sweep their ancestors' tombs."

Mr Heng, who lives in Hougang, visits the island every few months to stay at his friend's house - located a stone's throw from the jetty.

"When I am here, I like to fish, cut the grass, clean the house or just sit here (outside the house)," he said.

"Sometimes, I bring my brother or my kids."

According to him, the villagers - although greying - are still very healthy and mobile.

PHOTO: STILL GOING STRONG: The villagers - although greying - are still very healthy and mobile, says a visitor, adding that those who are ill have all left the island.

"You will be surprised because many of the villagers in their 90s can still walk faster than me," he said.

He added: "The villagers who are ill have all left the island."

So have the children of the villagers, who have moved to the mainland.

One such person is Ms Lee, who left because "it was too troublesome to keep travelling to and fro".

According to her, she belongs to the "last generation of Ubin-born children".

The Lasalle School of the Arts graduate added: "During my time, there were only around 10 children left."

When she visits her parents with her older brother and sister on weekends, Ms Lee makes sketches of the island in her black notebook.

She still holds many fond memories from her childhood, especially of cycling and exploring the island with her neighbours. "I like that it is less congested and the air is much fresher. I might retire here one day," she said.

By Goh Wei Hao, mypaper, myp@sph.com.sg, Published on Oct 21, 2014