Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Site & Sound II features Pulau Ubin

Mediawork's Site & Sound II
Episode 10: The last wild place to change its face

"A journey through sites of history, legend and commerce on Pulau Ubin, where tigers frequently lurked beside clay and stone quarries, and jungle overtakes the remnants of the last island kampongs. Also included will be a brief visit to Singapore’s other small coastal islands such as St. Johns, Kusu, and the Raffles Lighthouse."

Day: Wednesday 22 September 2004
Time: 8pm
SPH MediaWorks Channel i

AVA buys up surplus chickens and ducks on Pulau Ubin for slaughter

By Pearl Forss, Channel NewsAsia
Source: 20 September 2004

SINGAPORE: Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) officials were back on Pulau Ubin on Monday to buy up any surplus chickens and ducks on the island so as to ensure that families on the island do not have more than 10 birds each.

This quota was set to minimise the chance of the backyard farms on the island getting infected with the bird flu virus.

The deadline for 18 farming families to get rid of their extra birds is Tuesday.

Fortunately, some have managed to sell off their surplus birds.

The AVA bought up the rest - some 75 chickens and ducks - for between $10 and $20 each.

Residents were generally happy with the deal as the prices offered are comparable to market prices.

The birds will be slaughtered before being distributed to the Salvation Army homes. - CNA

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Changing with time

"Even Ubin is not spared in fast paced singapore... [Not visit Ubin] for a couple of months and [you'll find] everything changed"
- Anecdotal, in response to this story

I tend to have the impression that Ubin is an idlylic island frozen in time, immune to the winds of change. Having not been there for almost half a year, yet I still expect every rock and every tree to be untouched, awaiting for my return, to welcome me from the same spot I left them months before.

Never had I expected not only changes but familiar sights lost and never to be seen again.

The biggest lost is ultimately the German Girl Shrine area facing Pulau Ketam and near Aik Hwa Quarry. I hardly recognised it as I cycled down the mountain of gravel. Originally, I was rather dissapointed when I heard earlier in the day that the area was closed off due to construction but as we were about to call it a day, we heard that the area was accessible and happily rounded the sharp turn from Thai temple to the German Girl Shrine.

What greeted me as we cycled pass the "under construction" sign totally shocked me. It was the first time I could see the sea from anywhere beyond the beach itself. What used to be a nice patch of mangroves and coastal trees that lined the rocky beach and hid the sea from view had been totally removed. Nothing indicated its previous existence except for the stump of a chopped coconut tree. The only things left are my fond memories of admiring the serene coastline along the shade of the sea hibiscus trees, exclaiming the biology of fire ants.

According to some stories I heard during the Pedal Ubin guide training sessions, this area is actually under development to become an off-road biking trail. Behind the beach is actually hills of gravel that create an artificial terrain for the adventurous. On one hand, this is good as it would offer an alternative to the adventurous slashing through the forest, creating new trails in the slowly reforesting Ubin. It has also been said during these training sessions that the gravel is actually from mainland singapore, a product of tunneling for the circle line.

This was a relatively desserted land to the west of Ubin, near the Thai temple and Aik Hwa quarry where my grandfather used to work. Today, fences can be seen admist the sea of gravel. No trees in sight. Further from the Shrine, in the background of the photo, a barge can be seen near the coast, transferring gravel to the island.

(l-r) Before [source] and After

Fortunately, the German Girl Shrine can still be seen with its signature Sea Almond tree by its side, a lone figure in the barren landscape. In fact, it even received a face lift! No longer mysterious or creepy with its dingy old housing and crickety door and chain around its gates. Now it is airy and brightly lit as the renovator has taken pains to include windows for sunlight to shine through. The urn is prominently displayed with a rather modern looking female vanity as tribute to the local divinity.

The Urn of the German Girl [source]

While this may indicate that the Shrine is here to stay and will withstand the test of time and the intrusion of development, some of us who knew and loved the old shrine will miss it. The old shrine gave the mystery of the German Girl its flavour and supernatural aura. Its upgraded look could now pass off as any shrine on the island on mainland. It seems to no longer captivate the imagination asit once used to.

A very old picture of the shrine [source]

Perhaps my biggest regret in this time of change is not cherishing every tree and place enough, capturing them on photo and revering them while they were around. I had assumed they would be there when I returned, weeks later. This surely serves as a lesson to me and others, not to be complacent any longer.

There is no use crying over spilt milk of course. My absence these few months has taught me that regular visits are a must. Every visit is a unique experience, cherish every moment and we will be able to learn and encounter new things. Perhaps this way we might be able to prevent our losses before it is too late. Take our memories with us in photos and stories and share it with everyone.

Pulau Ubin Stories Archives: Mystery Girl of Ubin - reproduction of Tan Shzr Ee's article in The Straits Times, 9th March 2003.

Find the German Girl. Webpage by Frische-Medien (Germany) to gather information about the girl and the shrine. The project is headed Ho Choon Hiong (Singapore), who is backed by Amie S. Williams (Balmaidenfilm Productions, USA).

Photo Archives: Tapirs

In the story "It's a zoo out there!" on 3 June 2004, I wrote about the pair of Malayan Tapir on Ubin that met a tragic end when one fell from the top of a quarry and met a bloody death.

Without pictorial visualization, I always thought the tapir drowned because having never seen a fuctioning quarry, I had the impression that it has always been filled with water.

If you are like me, then this photo provided by Dr Chua Ee Kiam, taken from the National Archives, will prove to be very enlightening.

Errata: This photo belonged to a resident of Ubin and not from the National Archives.

Thanks to Dr Chua Ee Kiam for the alert!

Pulau Ubin Stories on the news

Pulau Ubin Stories was started partly as an effort to archive the stories of Ubin as a future resource for students and researchers, or simply as a good read for the interested public and maybe even to create more awareness for some of the hidden treasures on the island.

With this project and two others (Pedal Ubin! and hopea sangal education program), I proposed as part of my application to the Bayer Young Environmental Envoy. There was fierce competition from other excellent brown-issues related proposals, thus it came as a pleasant surprise when I was rewarded with being named one of the envoys this year.

Yesterday was the award presentation and Pulau Ubin Stories was put on the limelight for the day.

Read these news articles online:

1) Channel News Asia "4 youths win trip to Germany to learn more about the environment," by Hasnita A. Majid.
Website [pdf]

2) Straits Times "Student gets green award for bid to preserve P. Ubin" by Radha Basu.
Website [pdf]

3) TODAY "From Ubin to Germany" by Eveline Gan
Website [pdf]

4) Lianhe Zaobao (not available online at the moment)

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

AVA visits Pulau Ubin for precautionary bird flu checks

Channel NewsAsia - 8 September 2004
Report by: Johnson Choo

SINGAPORE : Officials from the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority have visited the backyard farms on Pulau Ubin as part of checks to make sure bird flu does not enter Singapore.

The visits are also to make sure that the public safety precautions put in place back in February are being obeyed.

But villagers are still worried about their own livelihoods.

Families and farmers on Pulau Ubin were reminded last week to make sure that they did not have more than 10 poultry each.

The visit by AVA officials was to remind them about the dangers of bird flu, and to make sure that by next Wednesday any extra birds are slaughtered.

Needless to say this has upset the farmers.

"Only the rich keep pets. These are not pets; they're our livelihood," said Soh Hock Cuan, a licensed farmer.

While the AVA officials understand their unhappiness, they say the poultry quota and other precautions are absolutely necessary.

"If there are no chickens, that would be even better. But we have to work out a number that we're comfortable with. If you have up to 10, the chances of the virus multiplying are less as compared to more chickens. Because if you have more hosts, it means that you have more chances of getting viruses," said Dr Lim Chee Wee, head of AVA's virology branch.

Of the 19 families on the island who still keep poultry, five have farming licences.

Among them is Lee Chin Hah, who has been rearing chickens and ducks for the past 40 years.

He pays S$100 a year for the licence and spends another S$400 each year on medical checkups to prove that he is healthy.

He says if he can only keep 10 birds, he should be compensated.

Mr Lee said, "Why restrict? It's like telling you to sell only 10 cups of coffee a day. It's unfair."

But the AVA has pointed out that the licence also allows the farmers to rear fish or to grow fruit and vegetables. - CNA

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Ubin "crop circles"?

During my visit to Ubin on Sunday, 5 Sept 2004, I explored the entire stretch of Noordin Beach which I have never done before.

The tide was relatively low and much of the natural sandy beach was exposed. While walking along the beach, I started noticing meticulously-created equal-sized balls of sand littered along the beach, forming very interesting patterns.

The more I walked, the more I discovered. I was about to suspect that aliens have landed on Noordin till I noticed that the balls of sand usually span outwards from a hole in the middle. Then I figured it was probably the handicraft of a crab. I was unable to take a picture of the elusive sand artist but I managed to caught sight of a few sandy-coloured legs scurrying into the hole. Not only are they found along the beach, they are also found on the sandy banks of the river behind the beach, seperated by mangroves.

After consulting a graduate student friend studying crabs at NUS, based on my description, she concluded that this was the work of the Sand Bubbler Crab (Scopimera).

According to the Guide to Seashore Life in Singapore, "the common name of this crab derives from the balls of sand it leaves behind after sifting it for organic detrital matter. They are related to the soldier crabs (Dotilla) and prefer sandier areas. They have numerous stiff hairs on their legs, and lack the transverse row of abdominal hairs. Their hairs are instead located at the base of their legs, and are used for the same purpose as Dotilla's. (Body diameter up to 1.5cm)

BBC's Blue Planet TV series also mentioned this fastidious worker to be "the best 'back-heel' in the world. These beach-dwelling [crabs] convert an entire beach into minute footballs as they work at breakneck speed to filter food out of sand grains. They religiously practise their skills every day as the tide goes out."

I must have been very lucky to have caught them in action during the low tide then!

Pulau Ubin Stories Gallery Photos from Ubin taken on 5 September 2004

Sand Bubbler Crab in A Guide to Seashore Life in Singapore by Dr Leo W H Tan and Peter K L Ng. Published by the Singapore Science Centre and Sponsored by BP.

BBC - Science & Nature - Sea Life - Blue Planet TV series

Sand Bubbler Crab in Online Guide to Chek Jawa

Photo of Sand Bubbler Crabs taken from A Guide to Seashore Life in Singapore. Taken by Kang Nee. (source)

1991's Land Thefts

"Illegal excavation on Pulau Ubin threatening birds and marine life"
Source: The Straits Times, September 16, 1991
Report by: David Miller
Taken from: recyclingpoint.com

THE illegal excavation of soil on several plots of land in Pulau Ubin has destroyed the nesting grounds of some local birds and is threatening marine life as well.

Dr Ho Hua Chew, chairman of the Conservation Committee of the Malayan Nature Society (Singapore Branch), said that part of a hill on one of the three plots which was illegally excavated was a haven for a rare species of bird - the red jungle fowl.

The endangered birds - ancestors of the domestic fowl - are protected under local law. Although native to this region, they can only be found in Singapore on Pulau Ubin.

Bird lovers fear that the destruction of its natural habitat would have serious consequences for the future of the colony.

The area is also a sanctuary for other birds such as the green imperial pigeon, the ruby-cheeked sunbird, and the magpie robin.

A Straits Times check at the island last week found that on the plots which cover a total area of 16 hectares on the island's northern shores, excavation has laid waste huge stretches of land.

There are large hollowed-out depressions there - 3-metre-deep in some places - a silent indication of the vast quantities of soil which had been illicitly removed.

And with the natural protective vegetation cleared away, erosion has set in.

The run-off by rain water across the now barren landscape has cut ugly gullies in the soft soil and turned the nearby coastal waters muddy brown.

This case came to light last Monday when the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) took court action against four landowners for marring the island's landscape by illegally excavating and removing soil and using the land for unauthorized storage of property like disused trucks.

One of the owners said the soil was used for "industrial purposes" but declined to give further details. The other three could not be contacted. Villagers on the island believe the soil was taken away in barges to another Island. But most residents were unaware that the excavation was illegal.

According to the URA, some of the of fences went as far back as 1966. The owners and operators of the land had ignored the URA’s order to restore the plots to their original condition and this led to the court action.

The URA has again ordered the owners to refill and returf the land to its original condition. Details of how this will be done are expected to be worked out soon between the URA and the owners.

The maximum penalty for the offence is a fine of $3,000 or a jail term of up to three months, or both.

Meanwhile, conservationists are worried that If left unchecked, the rate of erosion could spell disaster for local marine life.

Associate Professor Chia Lin Sien of the Geography Department at the National University of Singapore said the excavation and the washing of soil to remove the finer particles which would render It suitable for Industrial use, will adversely affect the marine eco-system in the surrounding waters.

He said the erosion would lead to a silting of the sea water, which may in turn hinder the growth of Muatic plants like the sea grass.

On its impact on the food chain of the marine eco-system, he said aquatic plants provide both food and shelter for small marine animals and fish, which in turn support larger marine life forms.

One initial reaction to the gradual silting of the waters around Pulau Ubin would be the disappearance of fish which would move to more attractive feeding grounds.

Perhaps even more worrying is that the layer of silt would eventually settle on the sea bed, causing distress to marine creatures such as sea worms, coral and crustaceans.

Others which could be put at risk by unchecked erosion are the few families of sea cows or dugongs which inhabit the surrounding waters.

These lovable and virtually defenseless mammals thrive or sea grass which would not be able to grow in muddy waters.

Conservationists said that while remedial action in refilling the excavated land and replanting it may help contain the problem, it could take many years before nature’s balance is restored.

Said Dr Ho: "As it stands now, It could be difficult for the natural vegetation to recolonialise the area as nutrients in the soil have been depleted."

Prof Chia said it would be an expensive operation to restore the land to Its original condition as soil would have to be brought In to refill the excavated parts.

Even then he cautioned that care should be taken to ensure that replanting is done selectively, using only the natural trees and shrubs native to the region.

Pulau Ubin, which is a brisk six-minute boat-ride from Changi Point, has largely been preserved in Its natural state to promote outdoor activities like trekking, rock climbing and bird-watching.

It also houses the Outward Bound School.

Friday, September 03, 2004

Sons of Ubin keep tradition alive

The New Paper - SEPT 3, 2004
Report by Kor Kian Beng
Photos by Kua Chee Siong

THERE was no boisterous getai, or roadshow, and no dinner. Only about 30 people came to bid at the auction. And when it was time for an opera performance, old folks turned up, some of them with their own chairs. The Hungry Ghost festival on Pulau Ubin is nothing like it is on the mainland. But there are those who make it a point to be there.

Mr Lim Kia relocated from the island to Bedok North 26 years ago. But every year, the sprightly retiree returns to Pulau Ubin on the 15th and 16th of the seventh month in the Chinese lunar calendar when the island celebrates the Hungry Ghost Festival. Said Mr Lim, 59, in Mandarin: 'I was born and brought up here. Most of my friends are still living here. So this festival is a good time for us to gather and catch up with one another.'

And he is not the only one doing this. Mr Lim Ah Tee, 61, who moved out in 1974, has been helping the organising committee over the years with his knowledge on the religious rites and procedures. 'I grew up here. This is just a small way I can give back to this place which has given me so much,' he said in Hokkien.

For these nostalgic folk, it doesn't matter that they get only a token hongbao for their efforts, said Mr Lim Kia, who was there with his wife, Madam Lee Soo Kheng. It also doesn't matter that there is nothing like the usual getai with humorous emcees and accomplished singers to entertain them. Nor is there any dinner which they can enjoy comfortably, while joining in the bidding at the auction. Instead, what they have on Pulau Ubin is a small, quiet affair - but interesting in its own way - as The New Paper witnessed on Tuesday. At 7.30pm, the Wayang House in the kampung square came alive with a traditional Teochew opera, with colourful characters and melodramatic acting. Old folk sat right in front of the stage - some of them on their own chairs - captivated by the show put up by a troupe hired from the mainland. The auction began around 8pm. There was no proper stage, so the auctioneers had to climb onto the altar table to make themselves seen and heard.

Mr Lim Kia turned out to be a vociferous auctioneer, and kept shouting 'Gah gah!' (be bold in Hokkien) to the crowd. Standing around him were the bidders - mostly middle-aged men - clutching beer bottles and dragging their slippers. But they put up a bidding war no less exciting than what is seen at mainland auctions. The lack of getai and dinner didn't stop the 100-strong crowd from enjoying themselves. Some mainland visitors stayed till the auction and opera ended at 11pm before heading home.

Madam Chris Seah, 26, was there with her family. 'You can't find the festival celebrated in this kind of atmosphere on the mainland,' said the former Ubin resident, who moved out at the age of 6. For those who remain on the island, the celebrations have to be there of course. Said Ubin resident Kek Koon Hai: 'This is my kampung. Of course, I enjoy myself more here than elsewhere.' But their numbers have fallen. Thirty years ago, there used to be crowds of 5,000 people at the festival. That is why the local people are particularly happy to see former residents coming back and doing their part to sustain the island's festival celebration.

Said Miss Koh Bee Choo, 34, who runs Comfort Bicycle Rental near the jetty: 'Without them, we the younger ones won't have the know-how or the experience to run this festival.' Still, there are doubts about how long it can go on. Mr Lim Kia is determined to enjoy the event as long as it lasts. He declared: 'I'll keep on coming here and helping out with the celebrations. That is, until I'm too sick to get out of bed or until I die.'

THEY used to be petrified of him. But now, Mr Lim Kia and Ubin resident Kek Koon Hai regard their former teacher, Mr Kek Yak Kwai, 67, fondly. They all help out together at the Hungry Ghost festival celebration every year. The grey-haired but fit-looking man was their Chinese teacher at Min Jiang Primary School on Ubin, where he taught for 27 years. Said the younger Mr Kek, 47, a kitchen helper: 'He once caned me on my buttocks for something I did wrong. I can still remember the pain!' His former teacher, who is not related to him, smiled. He was pleased to see many of his former students again on the island. I'm also glad to see them all grown-up and doing well,' said Mr Kek, who moved to Tampines around 20 years ago. 'Some of them are even grandfathers now!'

Thanks to Sivasothi for the alert