Sunday, December 25, 2005

The White Girl of Pulau Ubin

Story and Photos by Samuel J Burris
Changi Magazine, Nov 1993

Pulau Ubin is a tranquil island in the Johor Straits.
Many visits spend an enjoyable weekend there. There is a sad story about a German Girl who lost her life on the island.

On the island of Pulau Ubin, northeast of Singapore, there was a coffee plantation managed by a German who lived on the island with his family.

Their plantation house was on a small rise with a scenic view of Pasir Ris across the water. The coffee processing equipment was within walking distance of the main house. The workers were housed in a wooden structure on concrete pillars above the water just off-shore

According to the islanders, when the British came to take over the plantation in August 1914, a young girl, the daughter of the plantation manager, became frightened and ran away. Since it was dark at the time, the girl lost her way, fell down a steep cliff and was killed.

Meanwhile, the rest of the family was taken away by the British authorities and interned. A few days later, her body was found by local Malay workers from the plantation. The body was covered with ants so they threw soil over the remains. Often after that, when the local workers and residents passed the spot, they would say a prayer.

Eventually, her remains were exhumed and placed in a Chinese temple on a hill on the island. There were many steps leading up to the temple and gamblers began to pray at the temple for good luck. Several of these gamblers were successful and attributed their success in winning to the spirit of the German girl.

The news of the declaration of war reached Singapore in 1914. German ships in the harbour were seized by the British Government in Singapore and German citizens were interned at Tanglin Barracks. All German property, including private property, was confiscated. The export businesses belonging to Germans were halted. These actions were taken under the Alien Enemies Winding-Up Ordinance of 1914.

When the war was over, the German plantation manager and the rest of his family were freed. They returned to Pulau Ubin to find out what happened to their daughter but because of language difficulties, were unable to determine where her remains were. They left Pulau Ubin and Singapore, never to return.

The remains of the German girl were kept at a temple on the hill until 1974, when the property became the site of a granite quarry. Several local people took the remains consisting of hair, an iron cross and some coins and put them in a porcelain container.

A new temple on the quarry property was built for the remains. The coins were somehow lost at the time the remains were moved in 1974.

Today, one can still observe the foundation of that old plantation house on the rise. The ruins of the coffee mill are still there and so are the cement pillars above the ocean, although the wooden structure, which later became a school and which had housed the plantation workers, has long since rotted away.

In November 1990, I went to the temple of the German girl on Pulau Ubin accompanied by Chia Yeng Keng, who has been living nearby for 16 years. I observed the vase which was set in the centre of the altar. Worshippers had placed such things as fruits, flowers, cosmetics, perfumes, oils and cigarettes on the altar and there were many joss sticks in containers.

Several Chinese characters above the altar translated into “Angel goddess”. I asked Mr Chia if he would look inside the porcelain vase to verify that the hair and iron cross were there. He said that in the 16 years he had lived near the temple, he had never looked into the vase. He had last seen the remains when he helped place them in the vase in 1974. When he looked into the container, it was empty.

What could have happened to the remains? Did they ever really exist? Is it just a legend? Perhaps some day, someone will be able to shed some light on the mystery.

  • "Mystery girl of Ubin." Tan Shzr Ee, The Straits Times, 09 March 2003
  • "Moving Gods" @ Cathay Cineleisure, Pulau Ubin Stories
  • Moving Gods, Pulau Ubin Stories
  • Moving Gods Screening at NUS, Pulau Ubin Stories
  • Find German Girl, Website
  • Sunday, December 18, 2005

    Water - all the way from Singapore?

    This is the first in a series of newspaper articles courtesy of a Ubin resident who has collected and archived them over the last 15 years. Thanks to Ria Tan for providing the contact.

    The caption reads: "Thank you, thank you: Madam Lim watching SCDF recruit C C Low pouring water into a countainer outside her kitchen." Photo by David Tan, The New Paper

    Water - all the way from S'pore?
    Friday, October 10, 1997
    Yvonne Lim
    The New Paper
    Image of the actual article [1MB]

    She had lived most of her 87 years without electricity. For years, without company. And for the past two months, without her own water supply. Madam Lim Chin Ching's well dried up two months ago in a drought that has hit most of Pulau Ubin's 200 wells. Alone in her remote, crumbling wood-and-zinc hut, the tough widow has been relying on a friendly visitor in blue for her water.

    Yesterday afternoon, a Police Coast Guard land-rover pulled up outside her hut. Out jumped Sergeant Tan Tiam Hock, shouting cheerfully in Hokkien: "Wa nang gia zui lai leow! (We've brought the water)." As two Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) recruits lugged out four jerry cans of water, Madam Lim clasped her hands and gushed: "Gam sia, gam sia (thank you)." Every week, for two months, Sgt Tan has been bringing Madam Lim water from other wells on the island - enough for a week's drinking and cooking. But yesterday, there was a new tang to the water. All 80 litres of it was from mainland Singapore - part of the 50,000 litres shipped over to relieve the island's water shortage.

    When Sgt Tan told Madam Lim this, her eyes grew big.
    "All the way from Singapore?" she exclaimed.

    Since Madam Lim came from China 40 years ago to settle on Pulau Ubin with her husband, she has tasted only the island's well water and rain water. To catch the rain that fell yesterday, Madam Lim laid out rows of pots, pails, bowls, even jam jars.

    She could not make it to the collection point yesterday, as her home is a 20-minutes drive through mud tracks and hilly roads. She has been using a neighbour's well water to wash her clothes. But she doesn't dare take too much, and she cannot walk far to find other sources of water, she said in Teochew. "I try to save water, like when I wash rice, because I am an old woman - I cannot carry too much water."

    She has lived on welfare aid since her husband died years ago. Her only daughter is in China. Why didn't she move to an easier life on the mainland? Said Madam Lim: "Oh, if I had the chance I would go. Life is difficult here." However, residents later said she had been offered a place in a welfare home last year - but she came back home in the end.

    They came with used oil drums, jerry cans, pails, bins and bottles - on trolleys, lorries and motorbikes. Pulau Ubin residents yesterday carted away some 8,000 litres of water. The water was shipped over by the SAF and SCDF on Wednesday. Coupons were issued to 40 of the island's 170 households, allowing each person 40 litres per day - about 3.5 pails.

    The water distribution began at 3pm, presided over by Community Development Minister Abdullah Tarmugi. For three elderly residents, who lived far away, water was delivered to the doorstep. The water operation and yesterday's drizzle broke the dry spell - but not the islanders' thriftiness. Retiree Low Hai Chua, 82, said: "I will drink this water - and bathe in the sea."

    Source: The Straits Times

    On the right is an image of a tanker transporting water to Pulau Ubin in 1997 from the Straits Times courtesy of a student website on the 1997 El Nino event that impacted the world.

    The trade winds, which normally blew from Asia to South America across the Pacific, reversed due to the El Nino, causing a large body of warm ocean water to flow from the coasts of Asia across the Pacific to the coasts of South America. Therefore, rain clouds formed above South America instead of above Southeast Asia and Australia, causing a drought over Southeast Asia and the Oceania, bringing higher than usual temperatures.

    The website explains the phenomenon and its impact on Singapore:

    "The droughts caused a village on the island of Pulau Ubin off the northeastern coast of Singapore to run out of water after a dry spell of 5 months. The Singapore Armed Forces and Singapore Civil Defence Force to transport more than 50 tonnes of water to the island to ease the water shortage.

    The main island of Singapore itself also suffered from water shortage. The water stock of Singapore fell to just 73% after months of El Nino induced droughts."

    Below is a list of cited bibliography from the El Nino Website relevant to Ubin.

  • Teo, G. (1997) "Fresh water bound for Pulau Ubin today" The Straits Times, October 8, 1997
  • Gascon, G. (1997) "Launching to Ubin's aid" The Straits Times, October 9, 1997
  • Yeo, G. (1997) "Water tankers spell relief for Pulau Ubin" The Straits Times, October 9, 1997

  • Lim, Y. (1997) "Water - all the way from Singapore?" The New Paper, 10 October 1997
  • Tan, J. and Tangen, H. (1998) "El Nino Around the World" Website available at:
  • Saturday, December 03, 2005

    Maternity and Child Health Clinic

    Over this last semester, Alvin Lee, a Masters student from the South East Asian Studies Programme, did an ethnographic study of Pulau Ubin and kindly allowed me to publish his results.

    Below is an extract from his paper on the Maternity and Child Health Clinic on Ubin that was closed down in 1987 that is now the Ubin First Stop Restaurant facing the Wayang Stage!

    A Maternity and Child Health Clinic (M&CH) was set up on the island in 1957 (Chua, 2000) There was a team of nurses who visited the clinic two or three times a week and they attended to the needs of expectant women, post-partum mothers and their children (up to pre-school) including immunisations and treatment of minor ailments. Deliveries were referred to the Kandang Kerbau Hospital even though a midwife was stationed at the M&CH clinic daily during office hours. The midwife attended to this group and visited them at their homes for emergency deliveries and follow-up services. [The 78-years-old Ubin resident interviewed, Mdm Ong] did mention to me that a few of her children were born on the island though I did not have to chance to ask about her thoughts on the services provided by the clinic. The clinic shut its operations on 1 December 1987 with the decreasing island population. Residents had to travel to the Somapah Outpatient Clinic for their medical problems. When reports of emergencies were received, officers stationed at the police post would in turn contact the marine police to transport residents to the mainland.

    Also mentioned in Dr Chua's book on Pulau Ubin (2000), according to residents, the Maternity and Child Health Clinic used to be a remand centre for the Japanese and after the war, it served as an opium retail shop (Tan, 2004).

    The M&CH clinic's current facade - The Ubin First Stop Restaurant.
    Photo by November Tan, 2004.

    WildSingapore writes this of the Ubin First Stop Restaurant:

    Ubin First Stop is housed in the building that previously served as the Maternity and Child Health Clinic of Ubin. The Clinic was closed in 1987 as the number of Ubin residents fell. The restaurant serves seafood and other interesting local specialities including wild boar. Facing the Wayang Stage, the Restaurant sometimes also hosts large dinners with seats on the wayang stage itself or under a makeshift tent.

    Today, as we enjoy our meals at this popular restaurant, how many of us would ever get to know of the location's colorful and exciting past.

    Photo by November Tan, 2004.

  • Chua, E.K. (2000) "Pulau Ubin: Ours to Treasure" pp. 36-37.
  • Lee, T.S.A. (2005) "An Ethnographic Study of Pulau Ubin" unpublished
  • Tan, P.T. (2004) "The Colonial History of Pulau Ubin: A neglected cultural resource" unpublished
  • WildSingapore (2003) "Makan (Eating) on Pulau Ubin" (website)
  • Tuesday, November 22, 2005

    Pseudokarst Granite

    Ubin Jetty at low tide, exposing large granite boulders commonly known as "flute rocks" with vertical grooves or "flutings". Photo by November Tan

    As a person arrives at the Pulau Ubin jetty, the first thing that may capture their attention are the large granite boulders that line the coast of the island. These are we commonly referred to as flute rocks. It has always been mentioned by various sources such as Dr Chua Ee Kiam that these rocks are really unique features and has been described in various books about Singapore such as Edmund Waller's "Landscape Planning in Singapore". In fact, according to this quote from a book on coastal features around the world by Heather Viles and Tom Spencer (1995), these flute rocks are indeed rare features even around the world.

    "Granite cliffs in Singapore with its presence of deep 'pseudokarstic' fluting on the granite, extending way below present sea level, bears witness to the antiquity of their formation." (Page 117)

    There are also mentions of Pulau Ubin's pseudokarst features in a journal article by H.M. French and M. Guglielmin (2002) on "Cryogenic grooves on a granite nunatak, Northern Victoria Land, Antarctica" published in Norsk Geografisk Tidsskrift.

    Our coastal features does appear to be well known around the world. Not only are these granite features popular, we also appear to be along the ranks of famous coastal locations in terms of having a rock shore environment and shore platforms as again Viles and Spencer (1995) writes that "shore platforms are found in many parts of the world including Australia, Antarctica, Norway and Singapore." (Pg 111)

    They also quoted Swan (1971) that while most cliffs in the humid tropics are not being undergoing active erosion activities, Singapore is one of such unique exceptions where "active" cliffs are found on relatively exposed coasts. (Swan, 1971)

    These brings to mind the few remaining rocky shore beaches and cliffs that remains in Singapore today, such as that in Labrador Park, Changi and Sentosa. Hopefully these cliffs would remain for some time to come along with the rare pseudokarst granite "flute rocks" of Ubin.

  • Viles, H. and Spencer, T. (1995) "Coastal Problems: Geomorphology, Ecology and Society at the Coast" Edward Arnold
  • Swan S.B.StC. (1971) "Coastal Geomorphology in a Hot Humid Low-energy Environment: The Islands of Singapore" in Journal of Tropical Geography, Vol 33
  • French, H.M. and Guglielmin, M. (2002) "Cryogenic grooves on a granite nunatak, Northern Victoria Land, Antarctica" Norsk Geografisk Tidsskrift
  • Monday, November 21, 2005

    Food for thought

    Would we now expect to see an increased number of tourists from India to Pulau Ubin?


    Great film! Now let's visit Singapore
    Visitor numbers from India up by 24%, even as S'pore courts Bollywood, film fans
    7 November 2005
    Today Online
    By Jasmine Yin

    WHAT Winter Sonata did for South Korea, the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) hopes Bollywood blockbusters like Krrish will do for Singapore.

    If the board gets its way, fans of the upcoming flick will flock to Singapore to re-live the sights and sounds their movie idols experienced here. About 60 per cent of the film — which is directed by Rakesh Roshan and stars Hrithik Roshan and Priyanka Chopra — is currently being shot in Singapore.

    Local attractions featured include the Singapore Zoo, Changi Airport, the Esplanade, Clifford Pier, Chinatown, Pulau Ubin and Orchard Road.

    Krrish is the first Indian mega movie to be shot under STB's $10-million Film in Singapore! Scheme, launched last May to generate more awareness of Singapore in STB's key target markets.

    The scheme, which will disburse the $10 million over three years, will subsidise up to half of the expenses incurred by international film companies during their shoots here.

    "India is among Singapore's top 10 visitor-generating markets … (and) promises great potential to the tourism sector. The Indian film industry is also one of the most dynamic, prolific and illustrious in the world and has a wide international reach beyond India," STB's brand management director Bill Ang told Today.

    "We are always keen to work with quality productions which are aired in our key target markets and which showcase Singapore as a fun and unique destination."

    Latest statistics from STB show that visitor arrivals from India grew by 24 per cent for the month of September, as compared to last year.

    The top five visitor-generating markets for September were Indonesia, China, Australia, Japan and Malaysia.

    Mr Ang said that several film companies in various overseas markets have indicated strong interest in the scheme. So far, STB has approved nine projects, with a few more under evaluation.

    These projects, which must showcase Singapore in positive light, are for distribution in Europe, China, India and South-east Asia.

    STB has previously worked with major international networks like MTV, CNN and National Geographic to create programmes that build awareness of Singapore as an attractive destination. Its regional offices have also collaborated with national networks in their respective countries, such as China's Sun TV and India's Zee TV, on programmes such as travelogues and game shows.

    Using entertainment culture to attract tourists is not a strategy unique to Singapore. One needs only to turn to South Korea to witness the phenomenal effects that its entertainment stars, who are fervently embraced across the region, have had on its tourism industry.

    Popular culture has become big business in South Korea, with more than 100 million followers in Asia of its programmes and music, and a fast-growing cultural industry worth $122 million last year.

    Tour packages themed around its popular dramas, such as Winter Sonata, were snapped up by avid fans flocking to visit these filming locations. Tourist arrivals increased by more than 40 per cent in the first eight months of last year, as compared to the same period in 2003.

    When asked to assess the impact of STB's one-year-old film scheme, Mr Ang said it was "still too early" to determine the impact on Singapore's image as a destination because some of these projects have either just completed filming or are still in the production stage.

    He added: "Our officers in international officers are always on the look-out for opportunities to attract film-makers to Singapore and have been actively meeting up with the film industry in their respective markets to share the scheme with film-makers and producers."

    Copyright MediaCorp Press Ltd. All rights reserved.

    Source: Today

    Friday, November 18, 2005

    Bird flu checks for migratory birds stepped up

    The Straits Times
    18 November 2005

    EVERY year, about 20,000 birds flying south for the winter take a breather at the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve in Kranji. Many others stop off at Pulau Ubin and the Changi coastal area during the September-March migratory season.

    It might be a natural marvel, but this year it brings with it the potential threat of bird flu.

    To deal with this threat, Singapore's Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) and the National Parks Board have set up an ongoing surveillance programme to test wild birds for the virus at the wetland reserve. During this peak migratory season, officers are carrying out weekly tests.

    They have also extended surveillance efforts to Pulau Ubin and widened their net to test resident birds around the island throughout the year.

    More than 400 birds have already been given a clean bill of health since testing started in August 2003.

    The deadly virus can infect many species of birds. In general, domestic poultry such as chickens and quails are most susceptible. Many species of waterfowl, especially wild geese, ducks and swans, may carry the virus without appearing to be ill.

    However, the current H5N1 strain also appears to cause severe disease even in wild waterfowl. Why this is so is not well understood.

    The AVA has given the assurance that Singapore is free from bird flu and it is safe to visit nature reserves.

    However, it has warned that people should wash their hands thoroughly with soap if they come into contact with birds.

    Thanks to: WildSingapore

    Singapore steps up testing of wild birds for bird flu as winter season approaches

    By Lee Ching Wern
    Today Online
    18 November 2005

    As the danger of bird flu infiltrating Singapore heightens with the arrival of the winter season, the Government is stepping up the testing of wild birds for avian flu at wetlands reserves islandwide.

    During the migratory season from September to March every year, about 20,000 birds flying south for the winter stop over at the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve in Kranji for a breather. Migratory birds, in particular, are a cause of concern to the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) because these birds could have come from countries affected by the disease.

    To ensure visiting birds do not spark off a bird flu epidemic here, the AVA, in collaboration with the National Parks Board (NParks), increased its surveillance on these birds about two months ago.

    In addition, animal health officers from the AVA perform weekly tests on the birds' faecal and blood samples. These officers visit Sungei Buloh and Pulau Ubin to trap and collect samples from migratory birds as well as resident birds such as mynahs and crows. Swabs of stool and blood samples from the birds are then sent to the AVA's Animal and Plant Health Centre for testing.

    So far, the 411 birds tested here have been found to be clear of the H5N1 virus.

    "There is no control over the movement of migratory birds. It is likely that they are infected from other infected migratory birds or domestic poultry," said Mr Madhavan Kannan, head of AVA's Centre for Animal Welfare and Control.

    Domestic poultry such as chickens and quails are the most susceptible to bird flu. Meanwhile, many species of waterfowl, especially wild geese, ducks and swans, may carry the virus without clinical signs.

    "We're concerned migratory birds may spread it to poultry farms, so the critical point is to stop that avenue," said Mr Madhavan. "For that, we've got all our farms to take bio-security measures so if some birds have it, the trigger point won't be set."

    Until the whole bird flu scare blows over, Singapore will continue with the weekly surveillance.

    Source: Today

    Living on the Edge: The Straw-headed Bulbul in Pulau Ubin

    Review contributed by Mr Budak

    Straw-headed Bulbul. Picture by Sian, courtesy of Dr. Ho Hua Chew

    Singapore tends to be seen as a place where wildlife is barely hanging on. Its native megafauna has long been extinguished, while a handful of endemics cling to the precipice of extinction in the island's fragile central reserves. So it might surprise some that a species of global conservation significance is actually finding sanctuary in Singapore, even as it faces extermination in neighbouring countries.

    The creature in question is an unspectacular songbird called the straw-headed bulbul (Pycnonotus zeylanicus), which has found a safe haven in Singapore's wooded areas, in particular Pulau Ubin. Remarkably, there is no record of this species in Singapore prior to 1951, and even till to 1970s, the bulbul was not known to be common, even on Ubin. A bird survey in 1992 counted 50 birds on Ubin, which fell to 30 in 2000. However, the population rebounded to about 32 breeding pairs in 2001, whilst the mainland recorded a estimate of 76-93 birds.

    Revealing these figures, Dr. Ho Hua Chew of the Nature Society of Singapore shared the background behind a recent field study he conducted on Pulau Ubin to analyse the habitat preferences and prevalence of the bulbul. The largest bulbul species in Southeast Asia, the straw-headed bulbul is a perky brown-bodied bird boasting a yellow crown, white throat and a black streak across its cheek.

    Liquid gold
    The bulbul's rich, melodious song, described as liquid gold, is more often heard than the bird itself, and has led to the species' disappearance from of its former range. Once found throughout the Sunda Shelf from Burma to Borneo, the bulbul is now believed to be extinct in peninsular Thailand and Java and near extinction in Sumatera. Veteran birder Ivan Polunin notes that suitable habitats in Southwestern Johor are also devoid of the bird. Habitat destruction such as clearing of secondary forests and mangroves is one reason for this fate, but the widespread practice of trapping songbirds for the pet trade is thought to be a significant factor in the bird's rarity, a fate shared by the once common white-rumped sharma. The bulbul is now classified under the CITES Division 2, which allows for trapping and trade of the species under specified permits and quotas.

    A mosaic landscape
    To obtain updated data on the bird's population and habitats on Ubin, Dr. Ho conducted extensive field work on the island in 2001-2002. The study sought to determine the extent of the species in Ubin and why the island is proving to be a stronghold for the bird. There is a "need to see how the species fits the island; it's preferred habitats, nest sites, habits etc..," Dr. Ho said at his talk this Wednesday evening at the NSS office in Geylang.

    Firstly, it was necessary to develop a profile of Ubin's biophysical environment. The island sits between mainland Singapore and Southern Johor, and according to Dr. Ho, serves as a kind of stepping stone that allows species from Johor to disperse into Singapore.

    Ubin spans some 102 hectares and a human population of about 500. The island serves as a refuge for many species once found on the mainland, including the wild boar, oriental pied hornbill, jungle fowl, buffy fish owl and white-rumped sharma. Smallholdings, rubber estates, coconut plantations and orchards used to dot the island, but many of these are now disused and dismissed to the care of mother nature, whose tendrils and creepers are reclaiming what was once her virgin territory.

    Dr. Ho pointed out four primary threats to wildlife on Ubin. There is the encroachment of modernisation in the form of future high rise developments and resort centres (e.g. the Lagoon Resort). Land reclamation is also changing the landscape; for instance, a part of Pulau Ketam (an islet off Ubin) has been cleared of its original mangroves and turned into a landfill for no discernible purpose. Large camping grounds also play a role; Dr. Ho notes that the NPCC campground on the northeast of the island required the clearing of nearly 30 hectares of secondary forest. Finally, as visitors to the island and observers of its residents' backyards would know, there is poaching. In Singapore, however, the straw-headed bulbul is not a popular cagebird.

    Dr. Ho divides Ubin into three broad biophysical sections. The island's narrow centre is dominated by mangroves, ponds and other wetland, serving as a sort of watery gulf between the extremities. The western side of the island has been largely given over to the Outward Bound School, for better or worse, and is covered by secondary forest (led by Adinandra belukar and Caryota palms), abandoned orchards and wasteland that is being recolonised by fast growing Acacia and Paraserianthes falcataria (aka Albizia) trees. The east end contains higher ground, secondary forest and old rubber plantations. A 'mosaic' landscape is how Dr. Ho terms the island's features. His survey estimates the following land composition: rubber plantations (32%), secondary forest (14%), mangroves (14%), orchards (12%), open ground (10%) and wet areas (17%).

    Picture by Sian, courtesy of Dr. Ho Hua Chew

    Bulbul ecology and observation
    What we know about the straw-head bulbul is that the bird is an omnivore, feeding on fruits, berries, insects, spiders and other small animals. The bird is often seen in territorial pairs, and nests all year round, although February to April appear to be the main breeding months for the Singapore population. The nest, a cup-shaped mesh of leaves, plant fibres, roots and grasses, is built 1-5 metres above the ground and the normal clutch size is two. After the nesting period, the birds may move around in groups of 3-8 individuals.

    Describing his methodology in surveying Ubin's habitats, Dr. Ho said he employed three ways to observe the birds: the archaic 'look-see method', territorial mapping of observed pairs and playback of recorded birdsong to register vocal responses. Several variables pertaining to the nature of the habitats surveyed were gathered and the data analysed by a logistical regression programme to ascertain correlations between the bulbul's presence and the characteristics of the habitat. The variables were collated from 30 randomly-selected 'presence' sites (locations where birds have been sighted) as well as 30 random 'absence' sites (which serve as a control).
    The result allowed Dr. Ho to build a model that would help predict the probability of the bulbul's presence in a particular habitat, given knowledge of certain variables. After mapping out both presence and absence sites on a map, he determined that at least 32 clusters (one breeding pair each) existed on the island.

    The study's rationale is based on the need to clarify the ecology of the bulbul in terms of its population density, breeding success and feeding patterns in carefully evaluated habitats. Information about where the birds feed and nest in relation to the island's habitats would hopefully aid in the design of reserves as well as habitat management and future efforts to secure viable populations of the species. Prior to Dr. Ho's study, there were no ecological studies on the bulbul's population in Ubin and Singapore. On the mainland, the bird is known to exist in scattered groups in Bukit Batok, Bukit Timah and the Botanic Gardens. Ubin was thus chosen for its biogeographic bridging role between Johor and Singapore as well as its relatively high concentration of bulbuls.

    Birds on the edge
    Dr. Ho observed that in rubber plantations, pairs were more dispersed, compared to birds living in secondary forest, which had more clustered populations. In addition, the birds tended to be found at the edge of habitats, rather than the centre. The birds were commonly seen at the edges of plantations and the fringes of mangrove swamps and secondary forests. In contrast to observations in other countries, the Ubin bulbuls preferred low ground, being absent from areas more than 20 metres above sea level.

    The population and density of bulbuls on Ubin were recorded as follows:
    SectorPairsHectareDensity (per Ha)
    Total321020 0.03

    The specific habitats frequented by the birds were recorded.
    Secondary Forest
    Number of Pairs

    The variable data collected from the 30 presence and 30 absences sites for logistical regression of habitat preferences were:
    • Altitude
    • Nearest edge (of habitat)
    • Tree density
    • Tree richness
    • Undergrowth density
    • Nearest waterbody
    • Nearest coast
    • Nearest track/road
    • Nearest building
    The crunched numbers indicated that only four variables were correlated to the bulbul's presence: altitude, the nearest edge, tree density and tree richness. A mathematical model was formulated to predict the relative probability of the bulbul's presence given data on these four relevant variables. Dr. Ho noted that the birds seem to be fairly tolerant of human activity on Ubin, being indifferent to the existence of tracks, roads and buildings. Ubin's bulbuls were also indifferent to the proximity of waterbodies, in contrast to studies in Borneo which found the bird to be highly riverine, never straying more than 20 metres beyond a riverbank.

    Altitude proves to be negatively correlated to the bulbul's presence, with a decreasing chance of sightings as one enters higher ground. This feature may be linked to the species' marked presence for edge habitats; habitat centres on the island also tend to be located on high ground.

    Edges, however, appear to be the single most vital feature of bulbul habitats. Dr. Ho notes that the probability of sighting a bulbul rises strongly as one approaches the fringes of a habitat. So what matters is not just the habitat itself, but also the adjacent habitats with which it borders. For instance, a habitat that borders a mangrove swamp would yield a 33% chance of a sighting. Habitats fringed by open ground were also favourable spots (see table below).

    Open ground
    Secondary forest
    Rubber Plantation

    Tree richness (i.e. the number of tree species in a habitat) is positively correlated with bulbul presence. Dr. Ho believes this stems from the greater availability of food sources in heterogeneous forests, in contrast to the uniformity of Acacia secondary woodland and rubber plantations. The Ubin bulbuls also prefer a lower tree density, contradicting earlier observations that the bulbul is an early successional species that colonises newly abandoned land.

    Conservation strategies
    Dr. Ho outlined a number of conservation strategies based on his study's conclusions. Firstly, it is important to preserve tree diversity as well as maintain a varied number of habitats. Thus, Ubin's existing mosaic of landscapes consisting of patches of woodland, orchards, mangroves, old plantations and open areas should be retained in preference to monocultured habitats. And rather than allowing nature to overwhelm the entire island and recreate an endless firmament of forests, the existing orchards and plantations should be managed to control tree density and preserve the borders between varied habitats. Such management would also have to take into account the preferences of other species which may prefer denser habitats, such as the jungle fowl and white-rumped sharma.

    The birds' implied indifference to human activity, however, does not mean that the erection of high rise developments would necessarily prove insignificant to the welfare of the island's species. What remains as well is the question of whether the bulbuls in mainland Singapore share the preferences of their Ubin counterparts. Given the species' precarious situation in much of its former range, the maintenance of suitable habitats on Ubin and Singapore may well prove vital to the survival of the straw-headed bulbul.

    Thursday, November 17, 2005

    Singapore steps up bird flu tests among local and migratory birds

    By Rita Zahara
    17 November 2005

    SINGAPORE : Tests on local and migratory birds for bird flu have been stepped up islandwide, from once a fortnight to once a week.

    The tests by the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) and NParks also include poultry raised on farms and resident birds like mynahs and crows.

    Some 100 species of migratory birds, among them the Siberian Marsh Sandpiper, flock to Singapore during the winter months between September and March each year. Starting from the northern hemisphere, they travel some 6,000 kilometres from areas like Russia, Siberia and Mongolia to South-East Asia, with stopovers in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Australia.

    Sungei Buloh is one of the places migratory birds like to visit to rest and feed. Some might stay for a few days before flying off; others are known to remain here till the end of March. It is estimated some 20,000 migratory birds fly into Singapore, with the November and December months being the peak period.

    Since there is no guarantee the birds are free of the avian flu virus, AVA is not letting its guard down. Said K Madhavan, head (Animal Welfare and Control Centre), AVA, "We're concerned that the migratory birds, if infected, would spread it to our poultry farms. The critical point here is to stop that avenue and for that we have got all our farms to take bio-security measures so that in the event that some migratory birds have this virus, they will not affect our farms and the trigger points will not be set."

    So while the birds are in transit, NParks randomly captures different species and clips them with identification tags. AVA then takes swabs from the birds, and these samples are processed and tested. The samples are injected into eggs, which act as testbeds for viruses. The eggs are monitored to see if they grow healthily. If present, the bird flu virus can be detected between 24 to 72 hours.

    Said James Gan Wan Ming, senior conservation officer, NParks, "This is a cooperative and collaborative project in which AVA is riding on Sungei Buloh's existing bird ringing programme. This is our part to enable AVA to do the necessary tests."

    Since the AVA-NParks partnership began two years ago, more than 400 birds have been tested.

    All were negative for the virus.

    But as long as countries in the region are affected by the avian flu, AVA says the weekly surveillance will continue.

    Source: CNA /ct

    Tuesday, November 15, 2005

    Talk on the Straw-Headed Bulbul on Pulau Ubin

    Date: 16 November 2005, Wednesday
    Time: 7.30pm
    Venue: NSS office, The Sunflower
    Organized by: Nature Society (Singapore)
    Speaker: Dr Ho Hua Chew

    The Straw-headed Bulbul is the most conspicuous and loudest bulbul on Pulau Ubin. The species is doing relatively well on the island. It is also a popular cagebird. Sadly, it has become endangered in many areas of its distribution range and is considered extinct in Thailand and Java where it was once common. It is now globally vulnerable. The talk focuses on its habitat requirements and the possibility of Pulau Ubin as a model protection area for this lively and bubbly species.

    All are welcomed.

    How to get there?

    510 Geylang Road, #02-05 The Sunflower, Singapore 389466

    Thursday, September 29, 2005

    Healing agents from the soil of Pulau Ubin

    Antitumour chemotherapeutic agents from the soil of Pulau Ubin
    Source: National University of Singapore

    We heard of meliodosis -- caused by bacteria in the soil which enters the body through cuts or wounds – a disease which could be deadly. But the soil also yields "healing" bacteria. A team of NUS researchers started searching for these bacteria in 1996. Led by Associate Professor Nga Been Hen, Department of Microbiology the team scoured the forest floor of Pulau Ubin, an island off Singapore -- in search of soil containing bacteria belonging to the actinomycete group which produces antitumour chemotherapeutic agents.

    After years of painstaking research, the team has managed to isolate a new strain from the soil. This is the first time researchers in Southeast Asia had literally "unearthed" a new strain of actinomycete that produces antitumour polyketide compounds. There are not many such recorded discoveries in Asia and among these are those in Japan and Korea. The team has recently applied for a patent for this new strain.

    Actinomycete strains are able to synthesise antitumour compounds belonging to aromatic polyketides. These are characterised by their chemical structure of four "aromatic" rings, with a sugar group attached to one of the rings. They are capable of intercalating into DNA and thus inhibiting the synthesis of macromolecules.

    Associate Professor Nga recalled: "Four of us went to Pulau Ubin. We needed to look for places where the soil is pristine and not disturbed. We brought with us sterilised bottles and spatulas. We scraped one to three centimetres of the soil below the surface of leaf litter and scooped this into the bottles.

    "We were so absorbed in our work that we didn't even know that mosquitoes were out in full force and attacking us until we felt the itch. I slapped on the itch and was surprised to find that I had actually killed three mosquitoes at one go!"

    Bringing the soil back to the lab was the first step. The team needed to make sure that the bacteria in the soil were what they were looking for – the types which can stop tumours in their track.


    One gramme of soil was mixed with three millilitres of sterile water and shaken gently for three minutes. Small quantity of this mixture was inoculated onto a thin layer of agar in a Petri dish. The culture was left to grow for four days at 28 degrees Centigrade.

    The bacteria grew as tiny spots on the agar. The antibiotic component, daunorubicin in the bacteria is identifiable as it is red in colour. They were then screened for antimicrobial activity against Bacillus subtilis.

    "When we found that the actinomycetes were actually working to inhibit the growth of the Bacillus, we know we were on the right track," said Associate Professor Nga.

    The chromosomal DNA of the actinomycete strains were further screened for the presence of the ketoacyl synthase gene (an early and essential gene responsible for the biosynthesis of the aromatic polyketide compounds).

    The team proceeded to build a cosmid genomic library – a collection of clones made from the strain's genomic DNA fragments (20-25 kilobases). 2,000 clones were characterised. They were analysed for containing daunorubicin-resistance genes (a gene present in the daunorubicin gene cluster) by employing the PCR technique using appropriate primers.

    The polyketide compounds produced by this strain have the potential to be made into antitumour drugs.

    Thanks for the alert from Marcus Tay

    Thursday, September 15, 2005

    Filming for Hindi movie "Krrish" begins in Singapore

    By Asha Popatlal, Channel NewsAsia
    15 September 2005

    Top Indian director Rakesh Roshan is in town to produce 'Krrish', the sequel to his successful award-winning science fiction flick "Koi Mil Gaya".

    It is the first movie to be shot under the Singapore Tourism Board's 'Film in Singapore' Scheme.

    The filming sessions is expected to take more than 60 gruelling days.

    The filming locations include arts centre the Esplanade, the Zoo, Pulau Ubin island and even the East Coast Parkway for a sequence on a major highway.

    Read full article here.

    Related Ubin Stories:
    Bollywood film Krrish to showcase Singapore
    Bollywood movie filmed on Ubin

    Other links:
    [Singapore Tourism Board Press Release] Bollywood Celebrities Kick Start Filming of Krrish in Singapore with Blessing Ceremony

    Tuesday, September 13, 2005

    Going off the cliff

    Straits Times: Sept 13, 2005
    [PDF version]

    Professional cliff diver Joey Zuber performed a series of somersaults and twists off the disused Kekek Quarry (see map below) in Pulau Ubin yesterday. The 28-year-old Australian was in Singapore for a three-day trip to find a suitable platform here to promote the sport on a competitive level.

    There are plans to bring six to eight of the world's best cliff divers here next year.

    Mr Zuber had visited Little Guilin in Bukit Batok, but found the Ubin quarry more suitable for its water depth and its surroundings.

    With 20 years of diving experience, he is quick to stress the need for ample training in amateur diving before attempting cliff diving.

    The 2002 champion of the Red Bull World Cliff Diving Championship in Hawaii added: 'Singapore's infrastructure and diversity make it an ideal place to introduce a cool sport like cliff diving to Asia.'

    Copyright © 2005 Singapore Press Holdings. All rights reserved. Privacy Statement & Condition of Access.

    Monday, September 12, 2005

    Pulau Ubin hosts cliff-diving demonstration to promote sport

    Channel NewsAsia: Sep 12, 2005
    [Source: CNA Website]

    Singapore hosted its first-ever cliff-dive at Pulau Ubin on Monday.

    It's a leap of faith definitely not for the faint-hearted!

    Athletes can be travelling at speeds of up to 100 kilometres per hour when they hit the water.

    Cliff-diving champion Joey Zuber was at hand to explain what the sport is all about, and to share his experience with thrill lovers.

    The event is part of a demonstration drive to create awareness of the sport of cliff-diving in Singapore. - CNA/de

    Saturday, September 10, 2005

    Cartoon Map of Sensory Trail

    Download full size map

    For those interested in exploring the sensory trail on their own, NParks has now released a map of the sensory trail. However, for those who would still prefer a guided tour around the trail, there is always the tour by trained guides which will cease to be free beginning January 1, 2006.

    For more information, read:
    Sensory Trail guided walks no longer free

    Tuesday, September 06, 2005

    Sensory Trail guided walks no longer free

    As of Jan 2006, NParks guided walks at the Pulau Ubin Sensory Trail will no longer be free. Charges will be $60 per group of maximum 15 persons.

    Currently guided walks are provided free by trained guides. Beginning 1st January 2006, free guided walks for the Sensory Trail will cease.

    From the information on the NParks website, it seems unclear if groups of less than 10 will be able to enjoy these guided walks and at what rates.

    Still, the sensory trail remains free for individual exploration and all the plants are well labelled with sufficient details and even have braille letters as the park was originally designed for the visually handicapped.

    For more information, see:
    NParks website

    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.

    Sunday, July 31, 2005

    Kampong Cooking on Ubin

    Getting ready to cook al fresco with freshly pick herbs from the jungle. Photo by November. 31 Jul 2005.

    Over this last weekend of July, a rather unique class was conducted on the island of Pulau Ubin. In fact, it probably was one of the most interesting class I ever attended, and definitely the most enlightening visit I had to Ubin in the last one year.

    As mentioned several times over the month, Ruqxana of Cookery Magic has been conducting special Kampong Cooking Classes in an authentic kampong family's home on the island. In conjuction with the Singapore food festival, lessons were held on the 30th and 31st of July. I was fortunate enough to be able to join them on this second date.

    Well trodden paths between homes in the Ubin Malay Kampong. Photo by November. 31 Jul 2005

    Not only was this the first time I entered a real authentic Malay Kampong house on the island, and a very well maintained one at that, I also visited a part of the island I never had the leisure to explore before. This is perhaps the last thriving Malay Kampong on Singapore soil. It also allowed me to forgo any need for vivid imagination when I saw the well-used village paths that my mother talked about.

    Lunch! - Mixed herb rice, Nasi Kerabu, served with freshly pounded and fried sambal belachan chilli in Simpoh Air leaves! Photo by November

    Participants were led by the nature-taught guides through their backyard jungle to pick fresh herbs and plants off the tree and from the ground to make a most delicious Nasi Kerabu which is a mixed herb rice. At the same time, our knowledgable organizer informs us of the many wonderful medicinal and cooking properties of these herbs. What more, after frequently telling others about it, I finally had the first hand experience to eat my food out of Simpoh Air leaves, also known as tempeh leaves as they are often used to wrap those fermented beans.

    All in all, it was a most fruitful morning despite misplacing my brimming notebook on the island. What more, to add the ice-ing on the cake, I got to witness my mother's favourite childhood dessert - the mythical ice balls!

    Ice balls made by our little host. Photo by November.

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

    For more information on Ubin Kampong Cooking Classes or other interesting cooking classes, visit the Cookery Magic Website.