Having Left Ubin

A tale of two islands.

21 Jun 2012
Having Left Ubin

According to one story, a frog, pig and elephant once raced from Singapore to Johor. All three animals failed and were turned to stone. The frog was transformed into the islet Pulau Sekudu, while the pig and the elephant also drifted towards the Northeast and turned into Granite Stone Island, or Pulau Batu Ubin.

In the 1960s, 4,500 people lived on this 10.19 sq km island. They mostly worked in quarries – from which the Causeway partially derives its igneous source – agriculture, and on prawn and fish farms, as writer Chua Ee Kiam finds in Pulau Ubin. When the quarries started closing in the 1970s, and plantations followed suit in the 1980s, many of these residents started making the trip back from Ubin to Singapore. By 2002, Ubin’s population was an estimated 100 out of Singapore’s 4,176,000.

Left largely to itself, wildlife reclaimed the island tenuously. In 1991, for example, Bernard Harrison led the capture of an elephant. It was believed to have swam over from Johor, in the same way a tiger reportedly did in 1997, more than 60 years after the last one was shot.

One human couple who bridged both worlds was the Chias. In their 80s, Chia Yeng Keng and his wife Chow New Phang used to run a provision shop on Ubin’s southwestern coast, near the former Aik Hwa Granite Quarry. Since 2009, photographer Philipp Aldrup, who was born in Germany, has been documenting the Chias’ former house and its afterlives.

Here is his version of the tale, as spoken:

Ubin is bigger than you think. You can cycle around the island in a day, but if you roam around you can get lost. Then the only way out is to follow the coastline. At one section, I came out of the jungle to two wooden houses.

Outside one I met Nick [Chan]. He told me that he had bought this property from an elderly couple and now rented it out to them. He opened the house and I realised it hadn’t been updated in maybe 20 years or more. Not only was the house messy, but the whole site too. It was a site of wonderful clutter, full of plastic barrels and bags here and there. It was already on the way off, crumbling.

The next time I went back, middleman Nick introduced me to the couple. The Chias mainly spoke Teochew, so Nick translated.

At first Mr. Chia thought I was there because of the German Girl Shrine. It’s a yellow hut next door. In its centre is a Barbie doll. Some people say the shrine is devoted to the daughter of this German plantation family who drowned while running away in 1914. There are many stories. But Mr. Chia thinks the German girl is not there anymore. He’s a down-to-earth guy. His theory’s that the original urn was stolen.

The Chias were always on the move. Every 10 days or so, they would take the ferry back to the mainland. They stayed in a Serangoon HDB flat. Even though Mrs. Chia was not the native Ubin-er – she was from China and had first met Mr. Chia on the mainland – she was not too keen on being in Singapore. So sometimes only Mr. Chia would make the trip back to see the doctor and play chess with his friends downstairs. Before returning to Ubin, they would go grocery shopping for food, water, even ice.

Both their flat and house had three rooms. In Ubin, there was also a hall with shelves where they used to store their products. The toilets were outside. But Serangoon was bare, white and clean, a bit random. One could sense that the Ubin house was something they would leave soon – it was already like nature was slowly taking over – and the HDB was somewhere they would spend the rest of their lives. But it was also as if it wasn’t their environment. Like how Mrs. Chia wouldn’t sit on the sofa, she would sit on the foldable garden chair next to the sofa. Maybe apart from the foldable garden chair, there was no overlap between the two.

Mrs. Chia always felt more watched than Mr. Chia, I think. She’s more active, always around either house preparing food. In the past, I heard she would go out into the quarries with a mobile cart to make the rounds. Mr. Chia would be reading the papers for hours, but was always open to talk. Nick says he was once also a travelling salesman from Singapore to West Malaysia.

Earlier this year, they stopped returning to Ubin because of ill health. When I asked her if they felt sad leaving their house of so many years, it didn’t appear that this was a huge issue. They were rather happy to have a good home and a hospital nearby: a more comfortable life, I think.

Now the Ubin house is the home of six dogs. It’s entropy in there. There’s also a three-legged wild boar who comes by every day. Nick feeds him coconuts and chicken heads.

Once I brought the Chias some of their portraits, framed. I think they enjoyed it. No... they never did ask me to eat with them. But I hardly meet people I’m interested in who are also interested in me. Sometimes you’re just there to listen.

At night the sound in Ubin is of coconuts bumping down in the woods, monkeys swinging around, rooftop parties for rats, geckos and I don’t know what else. It’s quite a relief to listen without being scared. You learn to hear again.

To me it's as much a place of romanticism as horror. Romanticism of being part of a wider context: people, nature, an island that may one day be a second Sentosa. But a T-shirt hanging in the middle of nowhere, rubbish from 30, 40 years ago – that’s horror. It’s the whole atmosphere of a past that is not continued.

You feel like someone was standing here before, you feel like our own traces will also be devoured. It's an impressive feeling of functionality failing. It can make your imagination run wild and once that happens, you can make a story of every plastic bag you find.

Words Dan Koh

Images Philipp Aldrup


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