My love letter to Pulau Ubin

By Lisa Twang, Sep 26, 2019

At 27, Jodi Thiele married the love of her life, Terence Tan, in a “Chinese-ang moh fusion wedding ceremony” on Pulau Ubin, Singapore’s second-largest offshore island and one of its last kampung villages. 

But beyond being the site of her wedding, Pulau Ubin also carries a deeper meaning for Jodi, who lived with Terence on Pulau Ubin for a year. For her, Ubin is her second home; her kampung with friends who became family, and a refuge from city life on the mainland. An artist and puppeteer with community art collective Artsolute, Jodi found solace on the island.

In this letter penned to Pulau Ubin, Jodi shares how she came to fall in love with the mysterious Ubin, the beauty of kampung life and her neighbours, and why she yearns for Ubin every day. 

* * * *

Dear Pulau Ubin, 

 

It’s me, Jodi. You probably know me as “ang moh”, “mei nü” or “lau po”, which is what everyone on Ubin calls me. None of your residents has ever called me by my real name; on Ubin, you get a local nickname and it sticks. Even Terence, my husband, gets called ‘Hock Chew’ because of his beard. Names are too formal on Ubin; everyone feels like a friend or your extended family, so jokes and nicknames are quite the norm. 

I first set foot on you in 2017. I wonder if you remember that day? My husband Terence was my boyfriend then, and we were working together in Artsolute; he was its founder and I was its Artistic Director. I’d moved to Singapore from Melbourne to be with him, and we were living in a flat in Bedok. Terence had just suffered a mental breakdown and was feeling a little depressed, so I suggested he take a break in nature to lift his spirits. 

Still new to Singapore, I Googled for nature spots to visit, and your name popped up. So Terence and I boarded a bumboat from Changi Jetty, and we chugged our way across the sea. 

When I first set foot on you, Ubin, I felt an instant connection. Coming from a small town, being with you just made sense to me; surrounded by nature, and knowing everyone around me.

I grew up in a place in New South Wales called The Rock, living with my family of three sisters and one brother on a 100-acre plot of land. The Rock has just under 1,000 people, so I’m used to living in a small, tight-knit community (if you didn’t like somebody, you would just have to deal with it!). The nearest big city of Wagga Wagga was an hour’s drive away, and my dad worked there for the local government. 

 

Me out the front of my childhood home.

Me out the front of my childhood home.

My brother and I waiting for the school bus on the veranda.

My brother and I waiting for the school bus on the veranda.

My parents weren’t farmers; they preferred the arts, history, and music. Anyway, our land wasn’t designed for farming: It was built on a hill. We had cats, chickens, loads of kangaroos, echidnas and wild snakes — once in a while, a chicken would disappear because of the snakes. 

Later, I moved to Melbourne, a city of over 4 million people, for university. I studied drama at Deakin University, and then acting at the Victorian College of the Arts. In 2012, I discovered puppetry and started pursuing it more. Unlike acting, I loved how puppetry genuinely connects the audience with the story without the silly business of the actor getting in the way. 

My love for puppetry brought me to Asia. I travelled to the Philippines, Malaysia, Cambodia and Indonesia, learning traditional puppetry from local artists and absorbing the language and art. 

It was in Yogyakarta, Indonesia that I first met Terence. He’d organised a series of puppetry workshops for the local community, which was still dealing with the aftermath of the 2010 Mount Merapi volcano eruption. For the first time, I realised how transformative art could be — that it was the process of creating art together, and not just performing it, that had the power to change people’s lives. 

Terence and I started dating really quickly: by the end of that first week, we’d confessed that we liked each other. We both understood the importance of our community art: even now, our work always comes first. 

Your community, Ubin, is such a close one. Right now there are less than 40 residents who call you home. There are Chinese and Malay families, and foreign workers from Malaysia and India. Your people are boatmen, fishermen and shop owners who cater to residents, mainland Singaporean visitors and tourists. 

Because your land is owned by the state, your people lease their houses from the government, and there are so few who still do so. The kampung houses have water that comes from your wells, and electricity from local generators.

After our first visit, Terence and I wanted to see more and more of you. We’d visit a few times a week, striking up conversations with your people and making friends with them.

We also thought a lot about how we could help others recognise the people in your community, which is what makes you so special.

We saw you as a genuine, living place of heritage in Singapore. Most Singaporeans would visit you for the day — cycling to Chek Jawa, going fishing, or praying to your gods and spirits — and then they’d leave. We wanted others to understand your community in a deeper, more meaningful way.

We started by bringing some artists in. We organised watercolour workshops, so other artists could paint your wetlands, bumboats, kelongs, provision shops and temples. We worked with the Singapore Heritage Society and Friends of Ubin group to organise community events like a heritage trail, day and night markets (pasar minggu and pasar malam) for mainland visitors, with local art and games. We also hoped that someday, we could help support the elderly who loved you so well.

Terence also learned to paint. He painted portraits for many of our local friends, as well as landscapes. It was his way of capturing your beauty, and your peoples’ stories. 

Terence’s paintings of your landscapes and people.

Terence’s paintings of your landscapes and people.

Organising our wedding on you, Ubin, happened almost out of the blue. Terence had met our elderly Ubin friend, Ah Kok, from a TV shoot they’d done together over 10 years ago. We’d been discussing marriage, and Terence had lamented to our friend Ah Kok that it was so expensive to get married in Singapore. His response was, “Why not get married at my house?” 

Most of your residents thought planning our wedding on Ubin was a joke — they couldn’t believe we would actually pull it off. But when they saw we were serious, they were so warm and generous and all chipped in to help. 

Within about three months, we’d organised our wedding on Pulau Ubin, with 120 guests. My family flew all the way from Australia to attend, so we had 12 ang mohs staying together in one kampung house! It was a no-frills wedding: The food was catered by your very own zhi char stall, chairs were borrowed from your temple, and a cake was brought all the way from Australia. I wore a beautiful red qun qwa gown, and we held our tea ceremony and cake-cutting in Ah Kok’s house. 

You were the perfect spot for our wedding — we were surrounded by nature, with all our friends and family around us.

A few months after our wedding, Ah Kok started to get quite sick. He’d get bouts of diarrhoea and had kidney issues, and it was hard for him to cope while living by himself. Terence jumped in and started staying overnight with him temporarily, helping him with his meals and making sure he was okay. 

Your people have always been very cautious of outsiders, especially other Singaporeans, who may mean well but be unintentionally condescending towards Ubin natives. But your community saw Terence’s good-naturedness, and started to accept both of us more. They’d been friendly with us even up to our wedding, but when Terence began caring for Ah Kok, their trust in us deepened.

Ah Kok with a mural on Ubin, painted by our friend Belinda Low.

Ah Kok with a mural on Ubin, painted by our friend Belinda Low.

Ah Kok’s family eventually moved him to a nursing home on the mainland, so he could get better care. It was sad, but it was no longer sustainable for him to live without assistance.

We were still keen to live on your island, so Terence and I began to stay at another friend’s house at his invitation. We didn’t rent it from him (no money was exchanged), but it was easier for us to stay on your island while we were doing our community art work. We could gather support, talk to your locals, and design things they were really interested in. Terence would also do portraits for your people for free whenever he could.

Even as a foreigner, I don’t think it was any more difficult for me to be accepted on Ubin than it was for Terence. Though your people saw me as an ang moh, with my fair hair and skin, they looked as an individual —  not as a stereotype.

They saw I was really keen to learn your ways. So they were really invested in me becoming part of your community, teaching me Chinese and Malay, showing me the herbs that grow, and telling me their fantastic stories.

I learned the story of the German girl, who is a part of your local legends. Her family had been living here when the First World War broke out, and when the British came to send them to detention barracks, the German girl fled to the woods. Her body was found later, as she’d fallen to her death from a cliff. Locals put up a shrine to her memory, and still celebrate her birthday every year.

Attending the local celebration of Na Tuk / Datuk Kong and the German girl's birthday.

Attending the local celebration of Na Tuk / Datuk Kong and the German girl's birthday.

Terence and I lived on you, Ubin, for about a year. I’d get up, make coffee, and feed our friend’s dog, Moni. I did most of the housework and gardening in the morning, sweeping up fallen leaves and grass, dealing with termites, composting, and burning weeds and excess grass for fertiliser. After this, I’d visit your residents and chat with them about our projects, then work on my laptop. We sustained ourselves with Artsolute’s projects, from funds and revenue for our social enterprise.

We cooked most of our own meals. We tried having a refrigerator, but it ended up being too expensive: electricity costs three or four times more than on the mainland. So we’d make simple dishes like rice and lots of fresh vegetables from our friend’s garden, or porridge and peanuts.

We had banana blossoms when his banana trees were in bloom, and dragonfruit, durians, kaffir lime and other herbs.

The dragonfruit tree when it blossomed.

The dragonfruit tree when it blossomed.

We also ate lots of canned luncheon meat, and ordered meals from Sisters’ Restaurant and the Cheong Lian Yuen seafood and Mr Ngo’s zhi char restaurants. Like other local shops, most of their food supplies would be brought over from the mainland.

I did get bitten by mosquitoes a lot in the beginning. Your island is full of mosquitoes, which is why we had to take great care not to leave any water traps in the garden. But eventually, the mosquitoes seemed to stop biting me. Perhaps after living on your island for a long time, my body grew used my environment, too.

Because you’re an offshore island, almost everything had to be brought over from the mainland, so we lived minimally.  We didn’t have air-conditioning, malls, or cinemas there, but we enjoyed on the occasion back on the mainland. Living on Ubin made us appreciate these things more, since they weren’t so readily available. And we realised we didn’t need much to be happy; helping our friends, living in our house with each other, our dog, and our garden, we were at peace.                

I also practiced Teochew opera with Singapore group Tok Tok Chiang: that’s me on the far left.

I also practiced Teochew opera with Singapore group Tok Tok Chiang: that’s me on the far left.

My maiden performance on Ubin was at the Fo Shan Ting Da Bao Gong Temple, during the Hungry Ghost month. I haven’t been able to sing much yet, but I’m learning to do the actions. I love Teochew opera: it’s a traditional art that’s very community-based, and I’m happy to share that with audiences who come to watch it. 

We also celebrated Hari Raya with our friend Pak Ahmad’s family in Kampung Durian and the Assembly Area, this year. Former residents and volunteers came down to share in the festivities, and enjoy a traditional dikir barat choir performance. 

Terence and I got so comfortable living on your island. We even had visions of having cute little babies on your island, and raising them there (though that would’ve have brought its own challenges, like buying baby supplies!). For now, though, we still don’t have kids yet.   

Sadly, we weren’t able to continue living with you. Our friend, Ah Yong, who asked his friend to lend his house to us, passed away a few months ago this May. National Parks, which manages you, has yet to be able to allocate a space for us to conduct our community work either.

In August, we packed up and said goodbye to the house we’d called home for a year. It broke our hearts, but we didn’t have a choice. We never had any time limit for how long we’d stay with you — but we didn’t expect to have to leave so soon. 

Right now, our work on your island continues: we’ve come too far to stop now. Things aren’t the same since we moved back to our Bedok flat; we love Bedok as it has a kampung feel of its own, but we miss your people and your remote beauty. We still come visit you a few times a week: we’ve accepted that we can no longer live with you, but we still carry you in your hearts and will do all we can for you and your people. Whatever happens, we just need to learn to make our kampung a little bigger.

 

This month, we organised a Mid-autumn Festival celebration and invited families to come join in the festivities. 

We had old-school lanterns and mooncakes, played games under the moonlight, and arranged tents for those who wanted to stay the night. 

As Singaporean author Josephine Chia says: 

“You don’t have to live in a kampung to have kampung spirit. Kampung spirit is a positive attitude. It is a value, not an object of heritage that has relevance only in the past.”

I think that’s absolutely true. We can emulate the kampung spirit in all sorts of ways; good relationships with our neighbours, our local mamak shops and prata stalls, and building connections with people around us. In Bedok, I’ve become friendly with the people in the neighbourhood; the Sheng Siong supermarket auntie, the hawker stall uncles, and so on. Making genuine connections with people in our everyday lives is so important. 

 

Sometimes, I worry about your future. Your land belongs to the state, so it could be redeveloped and changed. We see you as part of Singapore's heritage that needs to be shared; we don't want your kampung to disappear. That's why we're also fighting to keep you alive: through art that we and others create, your people's stories we're recording, and events that bring life and laughter to your shores. 

I’ll always love you, Pulau Ubin. You’re not just a place or destination; to me, you’re an opportunity to reconnect with what makes us human. Managing our own homes, our water supply, looking out for each other in our little communities. 

When I’m with you, I don't worry about things that matter less (like how I look or dress). I'm more concerned with how I’m treating people, how my garden’s growing, and what my art is like. It’s these little things I’ve learned to appreciate.

For now, I just want to say thank you for letting us in and giving us a home. For opening your community to us, inviting us in, and changing our lives so we could rediscover the joys of simple living.
 

Love, 

Jodi

Writer's Note:

For more information on Jodi’s work, visit https://www.artsolute.asia.

Photos provided by Terence Tan and Jodi Thiele.

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