Anthropological study of Ubin uncovers thriving community and economy on island

The temple complex.
The temple complex.ST PHOTO: MELODY ZACCHEUS
Crab seller Quek Kim Kiang.
Crab seller Quek Kim Kiang.ST PHOTO: MELODY ZACCHEUS
Drinks seller Madam Wang Xiao San, 76, at the drink stall her late husband built.
Drinks seller Madam Wang Xiao San, 76, at the drink stall her late husband built.ST PHOTO: MELODY ZACCHEUS
A dog resting at Ubin.
A dog resting at Ubin.ST PHOTOS: MELODY ZACCHEUS

SINGAPORE - Pulau Ubin is not the dead town that people have assumed it to be.

Although its population has taken a dive from 4,000 to 38 over the decades, anthropologist Vivienne Wee has found that each resident is connected to vast social networks with ties to mainland Singapore. She has also uncovered a small but thriving local economy within the island.

She was hired by the National Heritage Board (NHB) to map out the island's multi-faceted layers of social history.

The project team of five researchers led by Dr Wee from anthropology company Ethnographica, started work in April and have completed interviews with more than 20 residents. They expect to complete field work by December or January.

Among the team's stories : the art of crab catching; the origin of the Wei To Temple complex home to a Hindu shrine, Taoist temple and Tibetan temple; and the life story of Madam Wang Xiao San, a former farmer turned drinks seller who was born and bred in Ubin.

Mr Quek Kim Kiang, 63, has been earning a livelihood for the past two decades catching crustaceans from mangrove swamps on the island.

He usually sells these crabs for about $25 a kg to families on the island. "I use an old method where I push a hook through crab holes in the mud to fish them out.

"I'm passing on this skill to a nine-year-old boy from Singapore who comes here on weekends to fish with his father, and is now also my disciple,"said Mr Quek.

Dr Wee's team will be producing a research report that will be shared with the Ministry of National Development's Ubin Project.

NHB said a 20-minute documentary on the island's community heritage is also in the works.

The board's assistant chief executive of policy and development Alvin Tan said this will help the authorities develop sensitive strategies that will "retain and enhance the rustic qualities of Pulau Ubin to be shared with future generations".