Lost skill of kampung building found on Ubin; NHB study reveals thriving community

Mr Quek Kim Kiang, a crab catcher who has lived in a house he built in Pulau Ubin for two decades.
Mr Quek Kim Kiang, a crab catcher who has lived in a house he built in Pulau Ubin for two decades. PHOTO: ST FILE

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

Mr Ahmad Kassim, 80, who has lived on the island for 70 years, can rattle off the various steps involved. "You go into the forests to collect suitable woods, lay the foundation build the frame... Eventually you add the zinc roof. It takes about two months," he said.

His expertise was uncovered and recorded by anthropologist Vivienne Wee and her team of five researchers. Dr Wee, the managing director of anthropology company Ethnographica, was commissioned by the National Heritage Board (NHB) to map the island's multi-faceted layers of social history.

It is the first such comprehensive effort for Pulau Ubin.

Dr Wee's year-long research, which just concluded, identified other skills of islanders including the cultivation of indigenous fruits, herbs and spices; fishing and crabbing by line hook and trap; as well as knowledge of wildlife such as hornbills and wild boars.

The study also puts to rest the assumption that the island, home to about 130 residents - down from 2,000 in the 1950s to 1970s - is a sleepy backwater island in decline.

She has mapped out a "kampong-centred social network founded on kinship, neighbourly relations and friendship".

The network is not only thriving but expanding beyond the island's shores to include non-residents and regular visitors to the island. 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.

Take for example, financial consultant Ms Emily Chia, 26, whose parents run a bicycle rental shop. She returns to the island thrice a week to help out with the business.

Dr Wee said the constant flow of non-residents to the island, and their induction into the existing network, reflects 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.

The cultural mapping project was first suggested by the Singapore Heritage Society. It is one of the board's contributions to an ongoing 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 Ubin's nature, biodiversity and heritage.

Mr Alvin Tan, NHB's assistant chief executive of policy and community, said the project's findings will "inform our deliberations" on how to develop sensitive strategies to retain and enhance the island's heritage and charm for future generations of Singaporeans.

To get a taste of island life, the public can sign up for a tour of the island based on Dr Wee's research on May 14. Filmmaker Royston Tan's new documentary about the island will also premiere on the island's wayang stage on the same day.