Saturday, August 20, 2005

Moving Gods Screening at NUS

and other stories of the German Girl Shrine

Date: 26 August 2005 (Friday)
Time: 7pm
Venue: NUS LT 25 (See map)
Admission: FREE

"Moving Gods" is a movie adapted from a play by Lim Jen Erh about the German Girl Shrine on Pulau Ubin for the Mediacorp Arts Central "Stage to Screen" series.

The German Girl Shrine is a Taoist shrine on Pulau Ubin in Singapore that is possibly the only Taoist Shrine in the world dedicated to a German but with a Malay title of "datuk". Gamblers and fortune seekers from all over Asia visits it. It has captured the fascination of many, including the director, Ho Choon Hiong, who also did several other documentaries on the shrine. He embarked on a project "Find German Girl" which seeks to trace the girl's family back to Germany.

Find out more about the German Girl Shrine and other mysteries on Ubin in this evening of legends and history.

There is also a Q&A session with the director where you can find out first hand the many experiences he has encountered in his quest to unveil the mystery.

7.00pm - German Girl Documentary
7.15pm - Curse of the Moving Gods Documentary
7.30pm - Q&A with the director
8.00pm - Moving Gods, the Movie
9.00pm - End

For more information, please email November Tan.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Waterfront developments

August 9, 2005
Straits Times: Inside Track

IT IS the poster child of conservation.

The intertidal nature site of Chek Jawa on Singapore's rustic Pulau Ubin was preserved because people from all walks of life rallied around it, persuading the authorities to put off reclamation there. And now, the waving pastures of sea grass, the soft shores strewn with carpet anemones and sea stars, are theirs to enjoy.

For years, this special spot was secret, because its bounty surfaced only for a few hours during the lowest of tides. It was only in late 2000 that nature lovers stumbled on it during an outing.

The beauty of Chek Jawa is that several different ecosystems converge in this 1 sq km space, including rocky shore, coastal hill forest, rich sand and mudflats. It also holds Singapore's only seagrass lagoon, where families of dugong gather in the dusk to graze.

'In the beginning, the native life was devastated because of the uncontrolled walking and collecting,' said Mr How Choon Beng, the National Parks Board Senior Outreach Officer for Pulau Ubin.

Now, good controls are in place to allow people full enjoyment of the unique creatures there, while protecting them. To prevent trampling from heavy feet, visitors walk along designated routes during low tide periods.

Volunteers point out the interesting animal life that can be invisible to the untrained eye, such as the ultimate upgraders - hermit crabs, which swap shells when their old homes get too cosy; or the leaf porter crab, which camouflages itself by carrying a leaf on its back.

There is also one of Chek Jawa's most memorable creatures, the nodular sea star - almost 30cm in length, its rough surface covered in bumps, and coloured anything from dirty green to pink.

Further down near the mangroves, they can see the Nipah palm, whose leaves are used to make thatched roofs. Flesh from its young seeds is soaked in sugar syrup to create atap-chee.

Visitors on the fully-booked trips used to have a special guide. Priscilla, a wild boar hand-raised as a piglet by villagers, was a frequent companion on the tours until she died last year.

And to allow more people to enjoy the wonders of Chek Jawa, a walkway meandering along the coasts and into the mangroves - which will be completed by next year - will bring visitors up close to its inhabitants, without harming them.

Visitors who arrive on Ubin also get to sample locally grown rambutans, jackfruit and durian, or feast on fresh seafood and cycle along the winding tracks.

Through this, they learn quickly that the kampong isle is much more than Chek Jawa, and has rich pickings in terms of nature.

Ubin contains much the same life that Singapore would have had if there was little or no development. It provides a glimpse into Singapore's natural flora and fauna which can no longer be seen on the mainland, such as the last few wild populations of the red junglefowl.

Many hear the raucous calls of the Southern pied hornbills, or if they're really lucky, see their slow, laboured flight as they glide in formation overhead.

The large black and white bird, once thought extinct here, is making a miraculous comeback. Guides have spotted groups of 17 foraging for fruit and crabs, as well as three nesting sites last year.

There is also the Sensory Trail. The 1.5-km walk is designed to allow the blind to touch and smell fruit trees, spices and herbs, plants used in traditional medicine and native plants of the mangrove forest.

Lemongrass, for example, acts as a mosquito repellent when the leaves are crushed and the juice rubbed over the skin.

A trek up Ubin's highest point, the 75-m high Puaka Hill, will give visitors a bird's eye view of the granite island's largest quarry, with its grey and ochre rock walls and clear jade waters 10-storeys deep. Along the way, they will have to traverse trails thick with ferns and undergrowth, and meet some native inhabitants as well.

NParks is working with partners to document the biodiversity of the island's flora and fauna, as well as planting trees to reforest jungle areas, home to civet cats, bats, wild boars and many others. Said Mr How: 'We have to know what we have so that we can protect it.'"

For more articles in this series, visit
ST: Inside Track: Flora and Fauna section (Access is free)
Habitatnews also has the links to all the articles in the Flora and Fauna section.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Old Durian Trees

Just 2 weeks to a month ago was the peak of the Durian seasons and Ubin, if nothing else, has a large number of durian trees. Just walking along the Ubin road a month ago would hear a sudden rustle amongst the trees and suddenly a big THUMP would be heard.

Photo by Ria No, it's not the coconuts, althought they have been reputed to not see where they drop. It's the purportedly more "intelligent" durian trees dropping its ripe fruits on the ground. [editor's note: sadly, these trees have been known to drop its thorny missiles on hungry and unwary fruit collectors. In fact, according to Wikipedia, "A durian falling on a person's head can cause serious injuries or death due to the fact that it is heavy, spiky, and may fall from high up, so a hardhat is essential when collecting the fruit. Because of this, the durian is sometimes called the most dangerous fruit in the world." So, beware!] However, looking at this durian below, one might wonder how big these ripe fruits area.

A tiny durian picked up by my mother along the road on Ubin. Photo by November. 11 July 2005.

Indeed, these "organic durians" are plentiful and delicious. It is no wonder Singaporeans, Ubin residents and even the wild boars on the island all vie for a taste of the King of the Fruits during its fruiting seasons (rumoured to often be after an extended period of hot weather and rain). [editor's note: please correct me if im wrong or if it's a certain time of the year] According to Wikipedia, durian fruits mature 3 months after pollination and if you don't know, they are pollinated by bats! There are always abandoned shells and seeds littering the roads - a sure way to help disperse its seeds! There were also abandoned bicycles at the start of trails, another sure sign of durian hunters on the move.

2nd abandoned bike spotted in one day, with ample space on the basket behind for durian collection. Squeals of wild boars were heard later - perhaps a tussle between man and boar for these sumptuous durians? Photo by November. 11 Jul 2005.

There is even a fenced up property on the island that displays a sign saying "organic durian and rambutan" and I believe they are not only for sale but allows visitors to partake in some fruit picking themselves but probably for a price. While not having checked with the owner, I have seen "illegal pickers" being hurled out by owners or NPark officers. The next time I saw them, they were carrying more rambutans and durians than they could finish so I suppose they must have paid for their spoils. Surely a point to investigate. [editor's note: If anybody knows more about this place, please enlighten me!]

Although "a typical durian tree can bear fruit after 4-5 years" (Wikipedia) - or perhaps longer if not grown in a plantation, however, don't underestimate these trees - they are known to have a lifespan up to 80 and 150 years (source)!

An almost hundred year old durian tree in Kamariah's garden. Photo by November. 31 Jul 2005.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise for me is that Ubin is home to many of these century old durian trees. According to my father, Ubin is perhaps the only place in Singapore that has these old durian growths. Of course I was rather skeptical when he insisted I write about this "pride of Ubin". I had put it out of my mind as a belligerent child would. Of course parents are always wise and knowing and I was soon put in my place. When I visited Kamariah's house during the Kampong Cooking Class, I was told that the very big and old durian tree was almost a hundred years old!

Of course the disbelieving skeptic in me had to do the maths and concluded that if a tree is almost a century old, it has to be probably from Kamariah's grandfather's time. However, she told me that it was from her mother's time, which means that it is probably almost a hundred years, like about 80-90 or so. Still, I am sure it is (hopefully) not in any danger of disappearing anytime soon. Otherwise, what would the connoisseurs do when they crave for organic durians? The plantation durians wouldn't do after you've had a taste of these great old ancient ubin durians!

Next time you're on Ubin, look out for the golden-brown sheen of the durian tree crown and you might just find yourself in for a feast of organic fruits and maybe even spot the family of oriental-pied hornbill that has made their home in the durian trees!

Ubin's Oriental Pied Hornbill on a durian tree. Photo by November.
For more biological information about Durians:
Wikipedia: Durian
Fruits of warm climates: Durian and related species
Know and Enjoy tropical fruit: Durian and Mangosteens
Durian OnLine: Everything you want to know about the King but was (sic) afraid to ask!
Brooklyn Botanic Garden: Durian - The real Forbidden Fruit
Durio zibethinus (Bombacaceae)
Durian Palace, a tribute to the King of the Fruits!
The Infamous Durian and other pics

Friday, August 05, 2005

A New Domain Name!

We now have a new domain name that will make telling your friends about Pulau Ubin Stories that much easier.

At the same time, show your support for Pulau Ubin Stories by linking us on your blogs and websites by adding these spiffy icons. To link any of these images unto your website, copy and paste the html codes below each respective graphic unto your websites.

Finally, the latest feature for Ubin Stories is the yahoo! groups mailing list where you can sign up and receive updates on events and new articles in your mailbox.

Of course, a simpler way of subscribing to be notified when updates are available on Ubin Stories, you can always subscribe to our RSS feed. Find out more about RSS feeds here.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Kampong Pictorial

(l-r) Feasting on the floors of the house. Homemade lontong and tea by our host. Old fashion ice shaver brings back good memories. Found a scarecrow outside the house - perhaps to prevent the garden from being nibbled away? Photo by November. 31 Jul 2005.

Last weekend, visiting Kamariah's house for Cookery Magic's kampong cooking class was surely an eyeopener for me.

The layout of a malay kampong house is often remarked as being very unique and most of all, it can always be lifted up whole and moved elsewhere! I always thought that was a very innovative feature! You would also have noticed that it is on stilts. According to wikipedia, "a main characteristic of a typical kampung house includes the obvious fact that it is raised on stilts or piles. There are five or six advantages for this: to avoid wild animals, to be above floods, to deter thieves and enemies, for added ventilation from underneath and as a storage area below."

A thriving and beautifully maintained kampong home. Photo by November. 31 Jul 2005.

Another unique feature is the raised verandah attached to the house which is for "seated working or relaxation or where non-intimate visitors would be entertained, thus preserving the privacy of the interior" (wikipedia). It is also rather obvious that where we were seated, it was an area for hosting guests as the family quarters are beyond the room. Also noted in the description of a malay house is that it has "at least two parts: the Main House called Rumah Ibu in honour of the mother (ibu) and the simpler Rumah Dapur or Kitchen Annex - this way if the kitchen catches fire only that part would be damaged, saving the main house" (wikipedia).

(l-r)Several views of the window, from outside and from within. Perhaps the simple pleasures from a relaxing afternoon sees wide smiles from our instructor. A congkak board in our host's home. Photo by November. 31 Jul 2005.

One of the first things that captured my attention when I entered the house is the congkak board (above) by the window. The image of the Congkak (or congklat in bahasa indonesia) often speaks in my mind as being synomynous with the malay kampong lifestyle. Read more about Congkak in Wikipedia.

Still, this must be the shared heritage in Singapore as often people forget that in the past, as perhaps even today, in villages such as on Ubin, there are not many differenciation between ethnicity. Islanders communicate not using english but malay or chinese or its dialects. My grandmother spoke her native dialects, mandarin but also Malay. My mother also mentioned that Malay islanders not only speak with their chinese counterparts in Malay but also in Mandarin! The cross cultural exchanges goes both ways.

Kamariah's uncle's al fresco shop front with its festive disco ball. One of the many cats homed by the Ubin barber. Photo by November. 31 Jul 2005.

Perhaps a good example would be Kamariah's uncle, who would be of my grandmother's generation. He works on the island as the resident barber, probably the only of his kind left. Upon some questioning from my host, she reveals that most of his customers are regulars and they are mostly Chinese! However, at this point in time, he no longer serves new customers but only his long time clients.

Interestingly enough, Kamariah and her sisters and their families only visit the island and the house on weekends, spending weekdays on the mainland and at their respective jobs and school. On the other hand, her uncle commutes daily to the island to work and instead there was no sign of her uncle that weekend. Still, his house is just right in front of theirs! Kamariah reveals that at one point in time, his house was home to 50 cats but ravenous wild boars has reduced the population significantly till certain measures were taken by her uncle to protect his feline house guests.

If you wish to organize visits to Kamariah's home to experience a true kampong experience, contact Kamariah at:
mobile: 91006958

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Plants identified

Previously I questioned the identity of some plants that are planted by NParks along the road, at the new campsite near the Ubin Jetty.

I asked some trained botanists, Cheng Puay and Adrian, seeing how they are both teachers and a teacher of mine at some point.

As expected, my biologically-untrained eyes resulted in me making a big mistake in assuming that the maize-like plant is the plant which the "beads" came from, since I never really saw my father pick them off the plant ahead of me. Turns out they are two different plants!

This plant (above) is identified by the two botanists as being the "rojak ginger" or Torch Ginger, Etlingera elatior. Interestingly, this plant was also used during our Kampong Cooking Class. We were told that it exist deep within the forest and we were not going to venture inside as it was deep within. Thus, although we do not actually see it, we were told it was there. I suppose once these roadside counterparts mature, we would see many culinary lovers trying to get some free ingredients by the roadside! However, please be warned that I am sure picking NParks' plants is surely an offense. As the saying go, "take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints".

The torch ginger flower bud commonly used in cooking. Illustration taken from the Asia Food Glossary Page Thanks to MrBudak for the correction.

To answer our question about its origin, according to this United States Department of Agriculture website, the torch ginger is native to these areas:
Indonesia [possibly native]; Malaysia [possibly native]; Philippines. At the same time it is also widely cultivated in tropics.

On the other hand, these beads (above) are actually from another plant called Coix lachryma-jobi or Job's Tears. I suppose that explains the lachryma-jobi part of its latin name! It's other common name includes Pearl barley and more.

Seeds from the Coix lachryma-jobi. Photo taken from

Again, the origin has some roots in the Malay archipelago. In fact, it is rather widespread and distribution includes China, Taiwan, India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia and Philippines. Interestingly, this plant has also been widely naturalized in tropics [source] and is used in many countries and cultures as a medicinal plant.

Monday, August 01, 2005

An afternoon of Ubin

Today we met up with the Moving Gods and Find German Girl documentary director, Ho Choon Hiong today at the NUS science canteen. It was altogether an animated discussion about supernatural (or really fear and guilt induced reactions!) happenings during the filming at the German Girl Shrine on Ubin. There were also lots of interesting behind-the-scenes action such as Choon's phone call to LTA and SLA every six month to find out its well being.

According to Choon, the shrine requires a TOL (Temporary Occupation Licence)*, a title that cost $600 every 6 months and at the moment, it is owned by a self-designated caretaker on the island who luckily kept his day job as a taxi driver on the island while apparently moonlighting as a medium/caretaker of the german girl. Of course throughout their interactions, there were much conflict and tension and much skepticism towards ethics of the caretaker's sustaining, maintaining and even upgrading the shrine through donations. I believe my favourite moment of the 2 hour chat was finding out that the current TOL is sponsored by the owner of Katong Laksa!

(l-r clockwise) Marcus, Airani, Choon Hiong and Sivasothi at the NUS science canteen. Photo by November. 1 August 2005.

Much of Choon's interest and work in the German Girl, his hunt for the name of the girl and his attempt to trace the family and its descendants back to Germany has seen him visit the National Archive, German Embassy and even a trip to Germany! He has even been brought by a villager on Ubin to see a house that alledgedly belong to the german family! Unfortunately, lack of exact location of the house, the tracing back of land title records showed 2 possible German families but who supposedly left before the war.

Still, arrest warrants, British interning records during WWI are all possible record traces. According to Choon's research, Germans in Singapore and Malaysia during the time were interned in Australia. Hopefully we shall soon be able to find a trace of the mystery through what Siva described as the "voluminous records" kept by the British!

* According to the SLA FAQ page, a Temporary Occupation Licence (TOL) is a Licence issued by SLA for the temporary use of State land or for the purpose of the retention of minor encroachment from private properties onto State land. Some examples on the website for need of a TOL includes "continued occupation by owners of properties already acquired by and reverted to the Government which are not required for immediate development". This might be what the temple's location fall under, considering that it is standing in the middle of development. As Choon mentioned, if a TOL is not paid for, the temple will be considered as standing illegally on state land and will be dealt with accordingly by SLA.