Pulau Ubin's life and times being documented

The project will seek to chronicle residents' experiences living on the island and their feelings on the way of life there, as well as capture short biographies of them.
The project will seek to chronicle residents' experiences living on the island and their feelings on the way of life there, as well as capture short biographies of them.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

NHB to interview current, former residents and produce documentary

A project is under way to capture the life and times of residents living on rustic Pulau Ubin.

The National Heritage Board (NHB) will conduct interviews with about 40 current and former Ubin residents before producing a research report and a 20-minute documentary on the island's community heritage.

One possible interviewee is Mr Kat Kau Chye, a 67-year-old boat operator who lives in a wooden house on the 10.2 sq km, boomerang-shaped island.

Born and raised there, Mr Kat told The Straits Times he would never trade the tranquil kampung life for the dense urban living on mainland Singapore.

"In Singapore, you can hear your neighbours through the walls, or be woken up by the sounds of cars late at night," said Mr Kat in Mandarin.

Then there is Ubin's close-knit community, which he has become accustomed to.

"If I cook herbal soup, and my two or three neighbours bring along their own dishes, we have a feast," he said.

It is this largely intangible spirit, among other things, that the NHB wants to document.

The project will seek to chronicle the interviewees' experiences living on the island and their sentiments on the way of life there, as well as capture short biographies of them.

The NHB said this documentation project, which will also include oral history recordings, is one of its contributions to the ongoing Ubin Project led by the Ministry of National Development.

The ministry has been working with the community and other government agencies such as the National Parks Board to gather ideas on how to maintain the island's rustic charm. Its plans include preserving Ubin's nature and biodiversity.

Mr Alvin Tan, NHB's assistant chief executive of policy and development, said research on the island's community and social heritage can help "develop more sensitive strategies to enhance Pulau Ubin's island heritage".

The project will build on NHB's earlier work on the island, which includes a 2013 documentation of the island's historical sites such as former quarries, temples and shrines; a virtual tour of the island; and a documentary on Ubin's boatmen.

The Singapore Heritage Society's president, Dr Chua Ai Lin, a participant in the ministry's Friends of Ubin Network sessions, said it is important that the interviews do more than collect dust on a shelf.

For instance, she believes residents should be asked to elaborate on and break down the aspects of island life to better understand what exactly constitutes "rustic".

This in turn could help the Ubin way of life to "continue to thrive", she said.

"It could range from their knowledge of agriculture, skills on repairing and living in wooden houses, and the mentality behind leading sustainable, kampung lifestyles," she added.

Ubin resident Kamariah Abdullah, 57, who owns a century-old Malay kampung home which she restored with her family, agreed with Dr Chua.

She hopes the project will be able to capture the challenges of maintaining a traditional house and lifestyle.

Architectural historian Lai Chee Kien believes that the project can help supplement existing data on the island, which has seen its population dwindle over the years.

Although it receives more than 300,000 visitors annually, it is home to just 38 residents now, compared to the 2,000 who lived there from the 1950s to 1970s.

Said Dr Lai: "It is worthwhile to get as best a representation as possible on how islanders think and compare it against the record of the people who have already been interviewed in the past, to give context to the evolution of island life then and now."

melodyz@sph.com.sg