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)