URECA – Mirror of the Past: Pulau Ubin

A click through an article posted on National Heritage Board‘s (NHB) Facebook page somehow brought me to their unique website – https://www.roots.sg/. They even have a Google Map Trails section not unlike the prototype we have on OSS right now.


But that’s not what this post is about though. After poking around in what the website offers, I came across National Heritage Board’s Youtube Channel – Heritage TV (https://www.youtube.com/user/yesterdaysg/featured). With it, I found a 25 minute documentary on Pulau Ubin, a popular offshore island of mainland Singapore.

Turns out, Life on Ubin, is part of NHB ethnographic mapping project, which I thought is interesting as our project deals with mapping Singapore too, albeit in the past and dealing specifically with food. In either case, I thought this documentary is worth a look as it give us a contemporary view of ‘Kampung’ life not too different from the past. I also took the chance to read their media release and the Channel NewsAisa’s report on this project (link below in Reference section).

The documentary highlights that the residents are very knowledgeable when it comes to living in the countryside. They know where to find food such as crabs and fish, herbs that treat specific condition and where to install a well for maximum yield of water for drinking and showering. They also built their own homes and are moderately equipped with electricity. Personally, I have stayed overnight at Pulau Ubin overnight last year I understand many shops close for the day at sundown around 6pm and retire for the night once the sky turns dark. This is important because there are a significant number of Chinese and Malay immigrants and migrants that live near beaches or in kampungs in the past.

This gives us a glimpse of probably how our forefather lives in the 20th and early 21st century in Singapore. For our purpose, it also allows me to understand that some of our forefathers cook whatever they could find or bought from local farmers despite living in a literally port city where they could also get ingredients from other parts of the world such as spices from India. This in a way could probably be a way which led to regional variation of dishes, such as most Malay dishes. Pulau Ubin is an interesting subject as it is separated from the Mainland that allows it to remain somewhat unchanged from the early days of Singapore, or at the very least aged slower than the rest of the nation, making it somewhat of a “living fossil”.

Another important point I notice, from an interview by Channel NewsAsia is that most people in kampung would cook their own meals instead of buying food from outside. However, this is probably only for village people as people living in the more developed area of Singapore in 20th century would eat from street hawkers, coffee shops or restaurants for people from high society. People who work outside of town would probably consume their lunch at makeshift street hawker stalls as well. So it is possible that there is a mix of people who prefer home-cooked meals and hawker fare.

Of course, it is generally know that as time progresses and Singapore becomes more urbanized and more city folks work long office hours (especially starting in late-1960s), that hawker food is generally the preferred choice as people have less time to shop for ingredients and cooking.

In my previous post, I mentioned that people tend to romanticize the past but in this case the past is in the present and it coincide with the fact that young Singaporeans would like to see this part of our heritage being preserved but we can’t do so without the people. What is a village of the past when there is no one in it? After all, regardless of the project, as with any humanities project, we are studying about the culture of people and without people there is no culture. The empty village will just be a husk of its former days.

Beside that is a video on the current boat operators of Pulau Ubin. While by no means have any relation to food whatsoever, it does give me an idea of how we can go about interviewing chief for this project. Basically we are talking about the technical aspect of video documentation and this is a good example (along with The Migrant Kitchen).

This look at the NHB project is useful as a case study to understand Singapore society in the past better and while it is not directly related to food, it does provide some insights to how the people lives and how that would affect their daily life and I suppose that is important to understand why people cook the dishes the way it is.


Zaccheus, Melody. Pulau Ubin Cultural Mapping Project: ‘Living heritage’ study of Ubin wraps up, “If Only Singaporeans Stopped to Think”. 29 April 2016. Accessed 23 Dec 2016: http://ifonlysingaporeans.blogspot.sg/2016/04/pulau-ubin-cultural-mapping-project.html

National Heritage Board. PULAU UBIN’S CULTURAL HERITAGE: AN EVOLVING KAMPONG  COMMUNITY Media Release. Accessed 23 Dec 2016: http://www.nhb.gov.sg/~/media/nhb/files/media/releases/new%20releases/media%20release%20pulau%20ubin%20final.pdf

Chia, Lianne; Tantriady, Alicia. Pulau Ubin’s kampung spirit alive and well: NHB project, “Channel NewsAsia”. 28 April 2016. Accessed 23 Dec 2016: http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/pulau-ubin-s-kampung/2739060.html

Heritage Research & Assessment, National Heritage Board. Life on Ubin – Full Version. Accessed 23 Dec 2016: https://roots.sg/learn/resources/Videos/life-on-ubin-extended-version

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