Pulau Ubin: Getting Away, Heading Back
Pulau Ubin: Getting Away, Heading Back
PHOTOS BY: Alvin Toh
Pulau Ubin: Getting Away, Heading Back 30. September 2019, Photos by Alvin Toh
We take an up close and personal look at Pulau Ubin through one family’s eyes.

Pulau Ubin might be a tourist attraction for some, but for Soh Yeow Koon, it’s home away from home. And there’s good reason why he feels so comfortable on this rustic island.

His grandfather, Lim Chye Joo, was the late village head, so family visits were a weekly occurrence during his growing up years. These days, whenever he feels the need for a digital detox, Yeow Koon escapes to Ubin. We tag along on a recent trip, and get the special privilege of meeting some of his relatives to discover more about living on the island.

“Life was different back then. Because you grew your own produce and reared your own animals, there was seldom a need to buy anything to eat. If I wanted a coconut, my cousin would just go pluck one for me,” Yeow Koon reminisces. We get a glimpse of this at the old family home, where his mother, Lim Cho Sim, gives us a tour of the surrounding grounds. She easily identifies fruits and vegetables in various stages of growth for us city folks—mangosteen, starfruit, sweet potato leaves, durian, loofah melon, and cocoa, among many others.

We get some freshly chopped sugar cane to chew on, and the refreshingly sweet juice dribbles down our chin. She laments about how they had to carry four jerry cans of water from the well daily, because the plants needed to drink up. Still, the nature-loving side of her takes over, and exclaims excitedly when she chances upon a ripe guava that was left untouched by the wild animals. “This will be really tasty,” she says, feeling mighty pleased with her harvest.

Later at the jetty, we meet Yeow Koon’s cousin, Ah Lai, who’s having a drink with his buddies. As a fisherman, he’s done with his work for the day, which is usually done out at sea in the wee hours of the morning. The daily catch, such as grouper fish or flower crabs, would be temporarily placed at a fish farm, then delivered ‘live’ for lunch or dinner to nearby restaurants.

When asked about his previous jobs, his answer is telling of how he’s seen the island change through the years. He used to be a quarry driver when the quarries were still operational, and subsequently worked to patrol the waters around Ubin to keep illegal immigrants out in the 1990s. The island obviously holds a lot of memories for him, and he tells us wistfully that he just can’t bear to leave.

It is a poignant moment, since many of his relatives have moved to the mainland, mostly choosing to live in areas nearby, such as Simei, Pasir Ris or Tampines. In recent years though, some of them have started to come back. Like Ah Lai’s mother, Ah Kim, who stayed on the mainland after a hip surgery to recuperate for some time. Yet after a while, she still preferred to return to Ubin for the fresh air. Or cousin Lim Chye Hee, who does a daily commute from the mainland to operate a bicycle rental business on the island.

Then like a breath of fresh air, Yeow Koon’s nephew, Bryan Lim, passes us on his bicycle. His own bicycle, mind you, not a rental bike, because this 13 year old spends so much time on Ubin. He knows the island like the back of his hand—the shortcuts, the rest stops, the secret lookout points. We ask if he knows of other kids on the island around his age, and he shakes his head. “Whenever I invite my friends for visit, they always ask if there’s Wi-Fi.”

Bryan lives on the mainland, but drops by frequently to hang out with his grandfather, Lim Chor Gan, who runs a drink stall near the Old Orchid Farm. Bryan leads us there, and we are greeted by the loud, rhythmic pumping of the generator that’s powering the house and refrigerators.

When his grandfather gets up from his big boss rattan chair, Bryan slips right into the seat like he owns the place. He tempts passers-by with a cold drink, and greets the regulars by name. When business slows down, he discusses after-dinner plans with Yeow Koon. A night walk, perhaps?

With the next generation all ready to spend a simple weekend like this in Ubin, there is hope for the island. Perhaps the lifestyle of yesteryears won’t be lost, at least not just yet.

Yeow Koon welcomes us at his old family home with his mum and aunt.
A wild monkey goes about its daily workout on the trees above.
A loofah melon hangs from the homemade garden trellis.
The residence of the late village head draws the attention of a curious passer-by.
Cooking is still done over a wood fire in an open kitchen at the back.
Bicycle rental shops are set up near the jetty to cater to active visitors.
Chye Hee resides in Simei, but has been returning daily to run his business for the past 7 years.
Peace offerings are made for the wellbeing of the worshippers.
An eatery along the main street serves freshly caught seafood at affordable prices.
The day’s catch waiting to be delivered for the dinner service.
The day’s catch waiting to be delivered for the dinner service.
Live seafood is housed in the nets that flank the sides of the narrow wooden walkway.
Chor Gan takes a walk down memory lane in the overgrown forest.
Remnants of an old brick pen that was used for the family’s pet boars.
A sign that Bryan is in the house—a smartphone plugged into the old sockets.
Bryan helps run his grandfather’s drink store on weekends and school holidays.
While Chor Gan reclines in his seat, Bryan opens a cold bottle of soda for a customer.