Thursday, June 10, 2004

The Legend of Ubin

Legend has it that three animals from Singapore -- a pig, an elephant and a frog -- had a challenge to see who would reach the shore of Johor first. Whichever animal failed to reach the shore would be turned into a Rock. All three creatures had difficulties swimming the Straits and while the frog turned into Pulau Sekudu, both the pig and the elephant changed into one big rocky island. The island of Ubin. (Source)

As can be seen above, the island is well known to resemble a boomerang. So where are the resemblances to the animals in the legend?

Pulau Ubin had not always been one whole island. In fact, the main island itself was originally two halves, bisected by Jelutong River. When prawn farming was a thriving trade on the island, the farmers built mud bunds across the Jelutong river so as to form dams or pools of water so as to rear the prawns and these are controlled by sluice gates which determines when the water is allowed to flow. Usually, the sluice gates are only opened when the prawns are mature for harvesting and a net is put on the other side gate where the prawn would flow into. These mud bunds was formed across the river so as to join the two halves of Ubin to form one whole island. Thus, this explains why, today, we only see one whole island of Ubin instead of the different halves that resembled the animals.

That surely solved the mystery that the island was comprised of 3 animals - the frog (Pulau Sekudu means frog island), the pig (one half) and the elephant (the other half). Now which half looks like the pig and which half look like the elephant is a mystery to me! I guess we'll just have to leave it to the vivid imagination of our minds to figure that mystery out then. I have even heard of somebody commenting, after much scrutiny, that one of the ends of the island actually resembles the head of the tiger. The rumors of tiger stalking the island must have fueled their imaginations!

What always made me wonder was, why is there a Pulau Ketam (Crab Island) - an islet off the south-west coast of Ubin - when there are no crabs in the legend...

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

The Red Jungle Fowl

Pulau Ubin plays host to a great assortment of birds - whether residents or migrants. Some of these birds are even endangered and as habitats are being destroyed all over the world, the population of these birds are become rarer yet! I must admit that I have never been much of a birdwatcher, but there is nothing more exciting on Ubin than the exhilarating moment of spotting a oriental-pied hornbill (first picture on the top left of this website) swoop right across your path or chancing the unique cry of the Red Jungle Fowl!

The Red Jungle Fowl was one of the first resident birds of Ubin that was introduced to me during my first Pedal Ubin! guide training in late 2003. I must say I feel like I have a sort of "karma" with this shy, elusive bird that I have yet to see on the island itself. Perhaps it is by no coincidence that the Pedal Ubin! guides are also called the "jungle fowls". However, it is wise not to confuse the jungle fowl with the "kampong ayams". Kampong ayams (kampong chicken) are actually to my knowledge the descendants of the jungle fowl. According to Ecology Asia, "Close to the kampongs (villages) the males (jungle fowls) will interbreed with domestic stock, producing a range of hybrids." Kampong Ayam would be better described as non-factory, subsistence-bred, traditionally free-roaming village chickens.

You may have guessed by now that the Red Jungle Fowl (Gallus gallus) is actually the ancestor of the domesticated chicken. What then makes it so special since it is just another... chicken?

The red jungle fowl is said to be the original "chicken" from which all domestic chickens are descended based on comments and observations made by Darwin. (Source) Inbreeding, hybridisation and genetic engineering efforts in recent decades have taken us even further away from these natural birds. Therefore the small pockets of jungle fowl still living in the wild are almost living dinosaurs and are of great interest and value. (source) The endangered birds are protected under local law. Although native to this region, they can only be found in Singapore on Pulau Ubin. (source)

Unfortunately, I have never had the privilledge of setting my eyes on what can be described as our "national treasures", until this day! Knowing how rare this bird is, I seriously never had thought I would encounter it on mainland Singapore, much less at Sungei Buloh itself! I am almost 100% certain that it is the Jungle Fowl itself. However, how it got there I have absolutely no idea since Junglefowls are not known for their flying ability. They have curved rounded wings that enable swift flight. Unfortunately they can only fly for very short periods of time. (source)

When the children I was guiding at Buloh on Friday (4 June 2004) triumphantly announce to me that there were "chickens" hanging around the trees near the visitor centre, I wrote them off as being domesticated poultry that were remnants of farms in the area. I had originally told the children that there were probably no "chickens" at Buloh but obviously I was proven wrong. Nonetheless, nothing prepared me for the shock when I saw not one but 3 jungle fowls sitting calmly just 1.5 metres away from me. When I recovered from my shock, I quickly whipped out my camera and nervously tried to take some clear sharp photos of them but it seems impossible with my hands shaking.

I was certain they were Jungle Fowls because I had learnt the hard way how to identify them (if and when I would ever see them on Ubin!) It was during Dr Chua's talk in April that the Jungle Fowl came into discussion. I kept insisting that the Jungle Fowl's tail was upright or something ridiculous and was very sternly set straight that the way to identify a Jungle Fowl is with the following:

1. The tail is carried horizontally.
2. The female has no comb.
3. the pure strain of the male Red Jungle Fowl can be identified either by its grey legs and white cheeks
4. the male is vibrant in colour with gorgeous golden neck feathers and long dark green tail feathers (but this is common to all fowl species)
5. the truncated call

As you can see, the picture on the right is of the male and on the left, one appears to be a younger male and the pheasant looking female appears to be blocked by a branch. Notice the distinct white cheek and downwards tail of the males. It was obvious that they are Jungle Fowls. Compared to the domesticated chicken (rooster) below, you can see that the domesticated chicken usually has its tail upwards. Of course some chickens have been bred to have a very small comb but it does not have the pheasant like qualities of the jungle fowl females.

Still, theres no way better to differentiate the domesticated chicken and its ancestors than the difference in their call. Our poultry usually goes "cu-koo-koo-kooooooooooo" while the jungle fowl sounds like a "strangled chicken" thus the "truncated call" as it goes "cu-koo-koo. koo" like a chicken with a bad sorethroat. The best way to experience the call is to either stake out in Ubin and try to listen out for the elusive call or get somebody to mimick the cry for you! My 2 year old nephew was rather captivated when I went around the house practising my jungle fowl cry. He almost thought there was a chicken in the house and couldn't stop looking around for it when I was sitting right in front of him!

source and other reads:
  • Red Jungle Fowl
  • Illegal excavation on Pulau Ubin threatening birds and marine life
  • Ecology Asia
  • Background on Jungle Fowl
  • Pulau Ubin Fowls to be put down - Feb 2, 2004
  • No bird flu, but AVA to destroy 250 poultry from Pulau Ubin - Feb 1, 2004
  • Thursday, June 03, 2004

    It's a zoo out there!

    You may have read about elephants swimming from Johore and possible tigers (or maybe just leopard cats) on Pulau Ubin. But Pulau Ubin has had seen more "exotic" residents yet!

    Wildlife checklist:


    Workers taking away a shot deer after a hunting trip at pulau ubin in 1930s, courtesy of PICAS

    Sadly, there are no longer any deers on the island itself. However, in an article from Naturewatch's Pulau Ubin Special, it writes "One can imagine that the larger mammals like elephant, tiger, leopard and deer, mammals that were still found in Singapore in the last century, roamed Ubin freely then." The above picture is surely proof to fire those imaginations!

    Malayan Tapir

    Malayan Tapir at the San Diego Zoo (Source)

    In one of my first trips to Pulau Ubin in recent years, around 2003, along with another 2 photographers, we visited a Taoist Temple on Ubin and spoke with some of the people who worked and possibly lived there. While chatting about the quarry lake (Tian Ci) just behind the temple, a lady amongst the group told us that a long time ago, there were even Tapirs on the island and one of them even fell into the quarry and died. It was part of a couple. That was the first time I even heard of a tapir in Singapore. It had apparently swam over to Singapore from Johore.

    This seems a common occurence as is written on a Museum Fest writeup "The northern coastline of Singapore is barely one kilometre away from the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula. So close, in fact, that large animals can easily swim across the Johor Straits from Malaysia as they would any large river. And indeed they do, considering that animals do not recognise political boundaries drawn by humans! Wild pigs, elephants, tapir, and perhaps even a tiger have recently landed on the mangrove-fringed shores of Pulau Ubin and Pulau Tekong in the Johor Straits."

    Later, in the talk by Dr Chua Ee Kiam, he also mentioned the tapirs. In fact, he even showed a black and white picture of a dead tapir at the bottom of the then functional quarry HDB Quarry (now Tian Ci) surrounded by the quarry workers. That was the first time I realise that the Tapir had fallen to death and not drowned as I initially thought. Sadly, I have not been able to find the picture yet.

    Wild Boars

    Priscilla the Pig at Chek Jawa, Pulau Ubin

    Wild boars are a common species even on mainland Singapore. Of course the most famous wild boar in Pulau Ubin must have had been Priscilla who lived in Chek Jawa. She was brought up by a family at Chek Jawa, on the east coast of Pulau Ubin and thus explained her friendliness to humans. Sadly, Priscilla recently passed away. Of course there is also Pringles who was rescued by the NParks officer who was found swimming in the middle of the Johore Straits. Yet again, proof that animals constantly swim over the channel.

    Pringles the Piglet

    Of course, almost all of the wild boars on the island are dangerous and unlikely to be friendly to humans. Most of the time they would not be seen by visitors to the island but traces of them can be found in the form of half eaten durians and turned-up soil that indicated they have been digging around for food. Of course there is also another known pet wild boar near Mamam Beach, at the home of the headman Lim Chye Joo's son, Lim Chu Zi. However, this particular wild boar is kept within an enclosure at the compound.

    Wednesday, June 02, 2004

    The Legend of Ma Zu

    In the previous article "Ma Zu Temple", I discovered the origins of a Ma Zu Temple that once stood on the west coast of Pulau Ubin. Since the article was written, there was a spark of curiousity as to why seafaring folk were faithful devotees of this female Deity - Ma Zu. Who is Ma Zu and why did she become the patron "saint" of the sea.

    As I mentioned previously, my mother had told me that most island countries have its fair share of Ma Zu temple and devotees. In total, there are around 1,500 Matsu temples in 26 countries of the world ( Singapore is no exception. In fact, this particular Ma Zu Temple of Ubin was not the only one. It had a more well-known counterpart in the Thian Hock Keng Temple which stood on the Telok Ayer Basin before land was reclaimed from the sea. According to, "Telok Ayer Street once formed the foreshore of the sea before it was reclaimed in the 1880s". Again, the similarity in locations is unmistakable. wrote, "Thian Hock Keng is the oldest Chinese temple in Singapore, it is also the island's most important Hokkien temple. Sailors were said to have given thanks at this Taoist-Buddhist temple as early as 1821. Both the young and the elderly can be seen paying their respects to Ma Zu Po (the Mother of Heavenly Sages) or Confucius."

    Picture of Thian Hock Keng, undated (UNESCO)

    At first I didnt understand why "Thian Hock Keng" would have any similarities to the "Ban Gang Tian Hou Gong" of Ubin. There appears, of course, to be many variations of Ma Zu Temples. Thian Hock Keng is the hokkien dialect pronunciation of "Tian Fu Gong" while the temple on Ubin is "Tian Hou Gong". However, according to, Ma Zu is also known as Ma-Zu-Po (Tian Shang Shen Mu), the Celestial Queen. This is of course familiar as can be seen by this photo below. The name on the sign says "Tian Hou Shen Mu" which may just be another variation of Ma Zu's title.

    According to the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards for Culture Heritage Conservation webpage on Thian Hock Keng Temple:

    "The shrine was dedicated to Ma Zu Po, the Goddess of the Sea, or Mazu for short. As the immigrants would have had a potentially hazardous voyage across the China Sea, the newly arrived showed their gratitude to Mazu for a safe passage. Those making the return trip would have done likewise to insure a safe return.

    Mazu lived on the coast near the Island of Meizhou in Fujian. She was gifted with great powers; of healing the sick and guiding seafarers to safety when the sea conditions were hazardous. Though her life was quite short (AD. 960 - 987), her exploits were extensive and were recognized by the Emperor. After her death she was revered as a goddess or saint and particularly by those whose livelihood depended on the sea and those embarking on a voyage. She was said to have appeared in dreams to coastal dwellers and instructed them to build temples so that they could receive blessing for safe voyages.

    This is evident from the many temples, including Thian Hock Keng, dedicated to her that can be found throughout the region from Fujian, along the coast of Southern China, Indochina and the Malacca Strait including Penang and Lumut. This was the area of sea plied by the Fujian seafarers. These temples all feature close similarities in architectural style and the deities represented within included idols of Mazu herself as the principle.

    The importance of Mazu's blessings for safe passage from China to Singapore cannot be underestimated as in those days the voyage was made in small sailing junks across seas beset with dangerous reefs and typhoons. Safe passages as well as safe arrival of the cargos and trade upon which commerce depended featured significantly in the welfare of all the immigrants from Southern China. Thus the clan leaders made it their business to build temples dedicated to Mazu."

    Ma Zu Temples are predominantly found in Chinese Dispora Communities in the South China Sea. As mentioned above, the immigrants before the dangerous voyage would pray to her for safety and when they reach their destination, to show their gratitudes, became faithful devotees and thus the temples started sprouting up in areas where the Chinese Dispora were established. According to the Chinese Overseas Databank, "These sojourners originated mainly from southern China and have come to trade and finally settled in Southeast Asia over a period of a thousand years." There are Chinese Dispora communities in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Philippines, Vietnam and Myanmar.

    Not only are there temples dedicated to Ma Zu, in Taiwan, there is even an archipelago (a group of islands) named after Ma Zu. The Ma zu Archipelago is located northwestward by west in Taiwan Strait, which is the very water Ma zu (the deity) had saved many sailors' lives. According to Asia Planet, "Ma Tzu (the archipelago) is named after the Goddess of Sea, who carried the body of her drowned fisherman father back to shore. The casket of the Goddess is still preserved in a local temple. Ma Tzu consists of more than 10 islets with a total area of 28.8 square km. Due to its sensitive position, Ma Tzu used to be a military fortress like Kin Men. With the cross-strait relations growing friendlier, Ma Tzu is now developing its tourism. In 1999, Ma Tzu was designated as a national tourist district and began attracting tourists."

    Not only were there islands in Taiwan named after Ma Zu, but if the below is true, then the previous portuguese colony of Macau may just be in fact named after Ma Zu too! According to a website dedicated to the place of Ma Zu's birth, Putian (Taiwan), "Ma Zu - The world-famous sea goddess Mazu ( Lin Mo by name) was born on Mar.23, 960 A.D. at Meizhou Bay in Putian and died on the ninth of September of the lunar calendar in the year 987 A. D. on Meizhou Island in the Song Dynasty. Throughout her life, Mazu devoted herself to offering generous help to those who were distressed at sea, for which she has been highly revered by the public. In 987 A.D., more than 1,000 years ago, people built a temple on Meizhou Island to worship her and to commemorate her meritorious deeds. After her death, she became the goddess of the sea. With great respect, outh-east China fishermen bring her statue with their travelling and build emples for her everywhere they settle down. Macao, the English name of this small peninsula actually cames after a temple of "Ma Zu" in the peninsula. This is the reason why the pronunciation of Macau(Macao) is so different from the Chinese name (Au Men) of it."

    For more interesting background reads on Ma Zu:
  • RGS' "Ma Zu in Singapore"
  • Online Encyclopedia entry on Matsu Goddess
  • Online Encyclopedia entry on Matsu Islands