Ecolit Travels: Have You Been To Ubin?

By Kelly Leong (20S07C) and Ng Jing Ting (20A13A)

A little off the coast of Singapore, away from the hustle and bustle of the mainland, lies Pulau Ubin. Quaint, inexpensive, and perennially sun-kissed, it is the ideal destination for a weekend getaway. On Saturday, 13 July, fifteen members of the Ecological Literacy Programme (Ecolit) and two rather unfit members of Press geared up for a cycling tour round the island that promised new discoveries ahead.

Having set off from Changi Point Ferry Terminal at a time when many would still be emerging from sleep, Ecolit arrives on the shores of Pulau Ubin in two separate bumboats. Already, the main village of Pulau Ubin is teeming with activity: the tangy tunes of the Chinese pop music that blasts through the windows of a used-goods store intermingles with the distant puttering of the bumboats at the dock. As we head towards the bike rental to rent our mountain bikes for the day, we pass by other cyclists, families, and tour groups, all of whom are smothered in layers of sunscreen.

We set about picking our bikes from the neatly-arranged rows, with confident riders choosing to ride alone, while those who preferred the company of a friend hopped on tandem bikes. Chaos ensues almost immediately, as pairs of tandem bikers try desperately to find their groove, intent on keeping their balance. All in all, it takes 15 minutes and a few practice loops before everyone is confident enough to set off.

DESTINATION 1: UPON THE BUTTERFLY HILL

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Butterfly Hill—classy, vintage and au naturel.

Situated close to the jetty and main village, the Butterfly Hill is home to numerous species of butterflies and to the 50-odd species of plants that have been painstakingly cultivated to attract them. The teacher-in-charge, Mr Tan Si Jie, is quick to point out the various uncommon species on the hill. While his charges flit around the landscape, eagerly snapping photos of the delicate, winged creatures that brush past (cries of “Above you!” and “Turn around!” get increasingly shrill), he deftly identifies the insects with the air of a sharpshooter taking down his kills. “The Black Veined Tiger,” he says, pointing, “and the Common Bluebottle.”

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The Blue Glassy Tiger.

Before long, we leave the picturesque view behind and make our way back down the hill. Mr Tan stops to explain the curious mounds that pop up in alarming numbers on either side of the pavement. “Anthills,” he explains simply, gesturing at the gritty mounds, before motioning for Ecolit to take a closer look at a particular plant. The first impression the spindly ant-hill plant offers is unimpressive, but a closer look at its sagging leaves offer a more flesh-crawling discovery⁠—weaver ants of the reddest and angriest variety crowd the green surfaces by the thousands, having made their home on them. Keen to put Mr Tan’s assertion of the ants being highly territorial to the test, members of Ecolit make intimidating gestures at the colony, with one boy going as far as to hover his finger a few centimetres away. Taking great offense, the ants immediately respond by clustering around the area closest to the offending finger. Having exhausted their ingenuity at finding new ways to distress the ants, Ecolit set off once again, this time for some light refreshments.

DESTINATION 2: AH MA’S DRINK STALL

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A simple façade for this 25 year-old stall.

Yes, the name of the drinks stall is, quite simply, ‘Ah Ma’s Drink Stall’. Founded in 1995, the stall is run by Madam Ong Ang Kui, known to the locals and regulars as ‘Ah Ma’. Even at her ripe old age, she and her daughter, Auntie Ivy, hack away at tough-shelled coconuts to provide refreshments for the guests that drop by. Auntie Ivy, who has seen prior batches of Ecolit students, was excited when we arrived. Welcoming and enthusiastic, she greets us and offers us two tables, about half the seating space in her small, cosy shop.

“Take! Feel free to take photos!” She enthusiastically replies when questioned if we could photograph her at work. It’s a rustic pit stop right next to a quarry, only recently renovated to prevent flooding when rains were heavy. Auntie Ivy tells us that the quarry used to be a prawn farm run by Ah Ma and her husband, until it was forced to close and the drinks stall was set-up.

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Auntie Ivy, serving fresh coconuts at Ah Ma’s Drink Stall with Ah Ma
standing by in the background.

The sun beats down unforgivingly as more of us begin to pull out our wallets to purchase coconuts and cold drinks. As we approach Auntie Ivy and Ah Ma to talk, the pit stop soon evolves into an impromptu history lesson. There’s a faraway look in Auntie Ivy’s eyes when she tells us more about Pulau Ubin’s history, with Ah Ma chipping in at certain times in a mix of Hokkien and Mandarin.

“There used to be schools. Malay, Chinese, even a nursery for young children.” She says, gesturing to the open spaces around. She tells us more about the naming of the island (did you know Ubin means ‘rock’ in Malay?), what it used to look like and how it has evolved to become the rustic hamlet that it is today.

Auntie Ivy sighs as she thinks back on her childhood. “Ubin used to have many granite mines, but the government stopped [them] to prevent the collapse of the island.” The granite mined from Ubin was actually used in the construction of the first few flats in Singapore! Unfortunately, the collapse of the mining industry on Pulau Ubin caused the miners to lose their jobs, and the native population of Ubin began an exodus to the mainland. Auntie Ivy herself only comes back to the island on the weekends to help man the stall.

DESTINATION 3: GLANCE AT AH MA’S HOUSE

The stall name, however, can be rather misleading, for Ah Ma’s Drink Stall sells not only bottled drinks and organic Ubin coconuts, but rambutans and durians too (yes, wild durians!). How does Ah Ma get all these fruits?

Well, it’s all in her backyard!

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Ah Ma’s house.

Ecolit is given permission to drop by Ah Ma’s property, which is nestled near the drinks stall. Hiking up the dirt road littered with angular rocks and hidden potholes, we realise that Ah Ma is an islander through and through: having to cycle or hike up the rocky road is no easy feat! The breeze rustles the trees above us, as we arrive at a single-storeyed, blue-roofed house surrounded by fruit-bearing trees. Rambutans, durians and even some spices—like curry leaves—could be found in and around Ah Ma’s abode.

It’s a very modest living space, with only the bare necessities, a testament to the simple and minimalist lifestyle the islanders lead. Mr Tan is quick to elaborate more, telling us what Ah Ma and her family went through when the government had taken back the land, and some legal troubles Ah Ma had faced. Interestingly enough, we learn that Pulau Ubin residents actually have a member of parliament, and is subsumed under the East Coast Group Representation Constituency (GRC)—after all, they are still Singaporeans.

We have travelled back in time to a period that involves little to no modern amenities like the Internet. Ah Ma’s house even features a wood stove, something Ah Ma uses for simple cooking. There is a chicken coop nearby, the clucking of poultry and low murmuring of students a background soundscape as we survey the area.

The yard is littered with fruits, and with explicit permission, we pick a few rambutans to sample. The cloying sweetness of the fruit saw blissed-out smiles on numerous faces as Ecolit members hovered below the rambutan trees, grabbing at the tantalous scarlet spheres that dangled from their branches. A stray durian finds its way into someone’s arms (“How are you going to bring that onto the MRT?”). As we leave the house for the drinks stall again, we see Auntie Ivy ride up the hill on her motorcycle to collect a fresh batch of wild durians and rambutans for the stall.

Business is booming for Ah Ma.

DESTINATION 4: GERMAN GIRL SHRINE

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The German Girl Shrine.

A hush falls over the chattering Ecolit members as we approach the shrine on our bikes, having cycled quite the ways. The tall trees overhead cast a shade that only lends it an even more forbidding aura. The Taoist shrine sits on a small plot of land that barely covers the size of a container classroom, but everything about it—from its marbled exterior walls and tiled roof— exudes a timeless and almost intimidating elegance.

Mr Tan explains that the shrine was built to house the remains of a German girl who had lived on the island with her family during the First World War. She had run away when the British soldiers came to interr her parents; in the dead of the night, her escape attempt had been thwarted when she lost her footing and fell over a cliff to her death. The quarry workers who had discovered her remains years later had given her a proper burial and interred her ashes within the shrine.

Her story began to make rounds when it was rumoured that many who came to ask for lottery numbers came away with windfalls. Shrine visitors today will pray to an urn and a Barbie doll, which represents the deity. Unfortunately, it is suspected that thieves had made off with the original porcelain urn containing her ashes a few decades ago, so it is not known what is contained within the urn devotees pray to. Till today, however, her shrine remains crowded with offerings of varicoloured nail polish, doll dresses and even pairs of childrens’ shoes.

The evidence of the villagers’ care for the shrine was present in abundance. The slow-burning coil of incense that sits on the table before the shrine is testament to the fact that someone on the island still cared enough to personally visit the shrine every day to tidy it up. In fact, Mr Tan explains, the shrine used to be a simple affair of cracked wooden walls and a zinc roof. Its renovation works had been solely financed by the generosity of a certain member of the public.

The mood turns sombre as Mr Tan relays the sad fate that the island and its ageing population seem destined for. “The residents are old. Even Ah Ma is already eighty years old,” he says, conjuring up images of the feisty drinks store lady for whom mortality seemed an absurd destiny, “if we do not become custodians of Pulau Ubin’s stories, the stories of its inhabitants and how they came to be die with them.” With this sobering thought hanging over us, Ecolit leaves the shrine and its secrets behind, and departs for the next destination.

DESTINATION 5: AH KOK’S HOUSE

We arrive at Ah Kok’s House, anticipating lunchtime. Ah Kok, born and raised as a Ubin local, is the man who owns the largest plot of land in Ubin. Greeting us at the house are three dogs and Ah Kok’s brothers, who maintain the house. Unfortunately, Ah Kok himself had relocated to a nursing home on the mainland due to the ailments brought about by his advanced years, and was hence unable to meet us as he had the previous batches of Ecolit students.

We walk down a flight of stairs to a small, sea-facing construction in Ah Kok’s backyard. On first sight, it looks dark, primitive and dingy. Though the coat of paint is still vibrant, the seats are layered with dust, and the wooden flooring with its planks creak slightly as we tread inside. The breeze that brushes past is cool, despite the noontime sun, as we perch ourselves and our lunches along the railing. In the patch of large shrubbery below, we see a dirt path leading to several boats. The water laps at the banks of the channel, creating a nice, soothing lunch time atmosphere. It’s almost like a scene out of Little House on the Prairie.

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Lunchtime with Ecolit.
Utensils? Bring your own.

It is here that Ecolit puts the ‘eco’ in their name by bringing out lunch boxes and reusable plastic cutlery. For this group of students, environmental sustainability seems to rank high on the totem pole, even where food is concerned. In fact, someone who has forgotten to bring his own cutlery receives a fair amount of good-natured teasing. Mr Tan then explains over food that this facility is often rented out to student groups for activities like camps, and has been around for a long time.

“I [have] actually camped here before [when I was a student]. We slung hammocks between the pillars, and it was quite hot.” He said, gesturing to the second flood of the building which we do not explore. He gives an off-handed comment about the vicious mosquitoes in the area that would stop by during the night for a feast.

The quiet, idyllic atmosphere, occasionally broken by laughter and the clanging of utensils, is broken by a shout. Two of the dogs have come to join us for lunch! The dogs stalk between our bags and legs, sniffing intensely with their tongues lolling out. A member of Ecolit decides to have some fun, which leads to a circus act of dogs jumping for the scraps of chicken bones that dangle from his hands. As the chorus of adoring exclamations peters out gradually, the dogs curl up on the floor for an afternoon nap, resolutely ignoring the few students who stand around and whip out their phones to capture this sweet scene.

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The only dog that matters.

After the last of the lunch-boxes had been tucked away securely in our bags, we set off on our longest journey of the day—for the Chek Jawa Wetlands. Those riding at the back saw two mixed-breed canines chasing after our departing contingent, their features settling into a heart-wrenching expression of resignation as our bicycles carried us further and further away.

DESTINATION 6: THE CHEK JAWA WETLANDS

What visit to Pulau Ubin would be complete without a stop at the Chek Jawa Wetlands? An ecological paradise, Chek Jawa is home to a host of flora and fauna, with a boardwalk extending into the sea and the mangroves. In fact, it is a zone where 6 different natural habitats converge and meet. The landscape evolves with the changing of the tides, leaving much of what we were able to see to providence and luck.

However, our trip there draws to a temporary halt when two members of our entourage lag behind, and do not show up for a long while. Mr Tan orders us to stay put and while he hops on his bike to retrace our journey and locate the missing members. Speculation as to their whereabouts dominate the idle chit-chat that breaks out as we drag our bikes to the side of the road. Amidst this uneasy atmosphere, the idiosyncrasies of Ecolit members begin to manifest themselves. A member of Ecolit quietly brings out a harmonica (“Where did you get that from?”) and amuses himself with his own tuneless melodies, while two non-bikers are cajoled onto bikes (“Cycling is an essential life skill!”) to wobble around unsteadily.

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Music prodigy or unknown member of Ecolit?

Eventually Mr Tan returns with the missing girls in tow. The pair emerges on a new tandem bike, the old one having been bested by the rough gravel roads.

“Our tires were punctured,” One of the pair laughs, and onwards we went. The road narrows as tarmac gives way to gravel, the popping and crunching of rock ever present. The humid tropical air makes our sweat stick to our skin, but the luxuriant trees shade us from the harsh lighting and gives us refuge from the heat. The narrow road only being able to fit two-way traffic at a tight squeeze, encounters with bikers coming from the opposite direction were punctuated with panicked shrieks. With the steep incline of the hills and the endless congestion, we end up doing more walking than cycling, trudging along with our bikes.

By the time we arrive and park our bikes, the tide had risen slightly from its daily low. Nonetheless, we file onto the boardwalk, and into the sun’s merciless rays. The coastal view is breathtaking—the water is clear, with the occasional patch of orange sand. Mr Tan tells us that the patches are actually silt drifting along the water’s surface. We see needle fishes (they remind us of pens) and eventually stop to admire the crabs which have emerged above their homes and onto the wet sand. The crabs are fierce fighters, despite being no bigger than half the size of our palms, and they are extremely territorial. Some crabs even have claws the size of their body!

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Other interesting finds include the Nipah Palm, whose large fruits we commonly find and devour in our ice kachangs—the ‘atapchi’— and the shell of a horseshoe crab. We even find a banded krait further in to the mangrove, a rare, highly venomous sea snake that we are eager to snap a photo of.

After about ten minutes of walking, we reach a watch tower that gives us a bird’s eye view of Pulau Ubin. The slim structure extends seven stories up, causing it to sway lightly with every strong gust of wind. The expanse of tall greenery around us makes us feel light (though this gives a few vertigo). In the distance, we hear the chattering of monkeys and the squawking of birds, and see Changi Village just beyond the green. High above the ground, Ecolit gathers for a quick photo opportunity.

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COUNTRY ROADS, TAKE ME HOME

The day ends with a quick stop at the colonial house, a small Victorian building that was occupied during the time before the Japanese occupation. A barn near the house, which a tree has grown atop of, now houses a special species of vampire bats. Mr Tan expresses mock outrage at the incorrect image of ravenous blood-sucking, human-killing vampire bats often presented in the media, and tells us that, in reality, they only require a small amount of blood to survive, and in fact do not feed on humans at all.

We cycle back, energised by our finds at the Chek Jawa Wetlands. A bunch of ups and downs and a two-person bicycle crash later, the main village from this morning comes into view. We return our bikes, and stampede towards the drinks stall to get refreshments. Our legs scream for mercy—it’s been a long day and we have traversed a sizeable chunk of the island. As we head back to the jetty to take the bumboat back to mainland Singapore, the sun is already hanging low on the horizon, the golden hour bathing us in light.

The difference in environment between Pulau Ubin and mainland Singapore becomes evident as we step back into Changi Point Ferry Terminal. Comparing the chic, polished exteriors of the numerous food establishments that line the pavements outside to the wooden, zinc-roofed houses on the island, it’s clear that Singapore has progressed rapidly. Yet Pulau Ubin, the living proof of our not-so distant past, has great relevance to our history. The local population is gradually disappearing, in more ways than by migration to the mainland, and with them the first-hand experiences of the cultures of Ubin. Who’s to say what will become of the island and its rich heritage?

So, before its history and culture become obscured by the ravages of time, why not pick Pulau Ubin as the destination for your next weekend getaway?

But before that, remember to bring your best sunscreen. The sun shines a little brighter there.

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One thought on “Ecolit Travels: Have You Been To Ubin?”

  1. This is really well written and well-researched! An insightful and interesting glimpse of the life and history on Ubin. I’ve passed by Ah Ma’s drink stall many times, but have never known who runs it or how they got there, so that section was really interesting :) Might go for a cycling trip to explore Ubin myself after reading this!

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