Pulau Ubin native, 77, back on island after 50 years

Mr Lai Gee, 77, grew up on Pulau Ubin but moved to the mainland after he got married. Last month, he returned to his childhood home for the first time in 50 years.
Mr Lai Gee with Home Nursing Foundation chief executive officer Christina Tiong (left), and Accessible Ubin founders Colin Chew (pushing Mr Lai's wheelchair) and Albert Liu (right).
Mr Lai Gee with Home Nursing Foundation chief executive officer Christina Tiong (left), and Accessible Ubin founders Colin Chew (pushing Mr Lai's wheelchair) and Albert Liu (right).PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

Home Nursing Foundation arranges visit to mark International Day for Older Persons

Before the bumboat ferrying Mr Lai Gee, 77, even reached the jetty of Pulau Ubin on a Sunday morning last month - his first trip back in 50 years - old friends from his childhood days started calling out to him from shore.

"Black mole," they yelled - a nickname villagers gave him because of the birthmark on his face - as they rushed to embrace him.

Mr Lai, who grew up on Ubin, used to walk and cycle around the village freely as a young boy. But when he returned to the island on Sept 1, he moved around with a walking stick and a wheelchair as part of his foot was amputated in 2016 after complications with diabetes.

He was helped by five employees and volunteers from the Home Nursing Foundation, as well as the two founders of the group Accessible Ubin, Mr Albert Liu and Mr Colin Chew, who helped to hire a spacious bumboat and van to accommodate his wheelchair.

The Home Nursing Foundation, a healthcare service provider, had organised the outing - one of five excursions for seven of its elderly, home-bound patients - as part of its efforts to mark International Day for Older Persons 2019, which is celebrated today.

Home Nursing Foundation chief executive officer Christina Tiong said these outings aim to encourage the elderly to revisit places from their past, relive fond memories and reconnect with friends.

Mr Lai, who started working on the island's granite quarries when he was 11, left the island for mainland Singapore in 1972 after the quarries - the main source of economic activity on Pulau Ubin - started closing down. He said he never found the chance to return.

Speaking in Mandarin, he said: "After leaving Ubin, I worked in a variety of fields, from sand reclamation to renovation projects as a contractor. I even had my own hardware store and, over the last 20 years, was a bus driver. I never thought of returning to the island, not even with my wife although it was the site of our wedding ceremony. We were just so caught up with work."

Mr Lai said the couple barely had enough money to renovate their new three-room flat in Kallang Bahru, which they moved into in 1972, and are still living in.

 
 
 

He and his wife, Malaysia-born Mork Kiew, 78, have three children. Madam Mork did not accompany Mr Lai to Ubin as she tends to get seasick.

In his golden years, Mr Lai said he started reminiscing about his old kampung but was unable to make the trip on his own because of his amputated foot.

"I wanted to see it one last time... I longed to see my old friends and the island's rustic nature. It had been my dream but I didn't dare ask anyone. Who would be available to take me all the way to the island in my condition?"

Mr Lai said he jumped at the chance to visit Pulau Ubin when the Home Nursing Foundation spoke to him about it in July.

He visited the site of his old home near the Kampung Bukit Coffee Chinese Cemetery, where he grew up with four siblings. They reared pigs and chicken and had a small vegetable garden. His father worked at the quarries too.

Mr Lai said his house was demolished in 1972. Today, just a few wooden planks remain at the site.

He noted the changes on the island. "Where there used to be muddy dirt tracks, there are proper roads, so it's easy for Singaporeans and tourists to come and explore our beautiful kampung.

"I'm happy and extremely grateful to have been able to visit Pulau Ubin once more and to share a little about its history with the young group of volunteers and workers accompanying me. It will be the last time I ever get to see it."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 01, 2019, with the headline 'Ubin native, 77, back on island after 50 years'. Print Edition | Subscribe