Pulau Ubin – History & Mystery

Pulau ubin is well known as a rural getaway for many Singaporeans who come here to cycle, enjoy nature, as well as to have sumptuous seafood by the waters edge. However, there are some sites on this island that holds some history and mystery that not many people know about. Ubin also has some history related to WWII. This entry is a collective post from information I gathered from multple visits to the island.

In 1825, exactly one year after Singapore was ceded to the British, Dr John Crawfurd the Resident, made an expedition trip around the island, Pulau Ubin or Obin as it was spelt, to take formal possession of it. On 4 August 1825, they landed in Pulo Obin, hoisted a British Flag there, and fired a 21-gun salute. The occupants then were a few local woodcutters who lived in huts. It is believed that a certain Encik Endun Senin who had been living along Kallang River, had initiated the major move for local settlers to the island in the 1880s. Chinese quarry workers soon followed. In 2000, there were 250 residents on the island most of whom were fishermen.

On the evening of 7 February, 1942, during World War II, the Japanese Army occupied Pulau Ubin; and the next day, began a heavy bombardment on Changi itself. The Changi fortress artillery replied with great intensity but with little effect, destroying only rubber trees on the island. Despite these actions the Japanese had no real intentions of landing in the east. It was a tactic merely to distract the British. That night the enemy made their assault across the narrowest part of the Johore Strait, and the standby defenders of Changi had to stand idle, while the Japanese rapidly breezed through, and gained a stranglehold on the western part of Singapore island.

Ubin Jetty (1965)

Since the British founding of Singapore, the island has been known for its granite. The numerous granite quarries on the island supply the local construction industry. The granite outcrops are particularly spectacular from the sea because their grooves and fluted sides create furrows and ridges on each granite rock slab. These features are captured in John Turnbull Thomson’s 1850 painting — Grooved stones on Pulo Ubin near Singapore.

The granite from Pulau Ubin was used in the construction of Horsburgh Lighthouse. Tongkangs ferried the huge rock blocks (30 by 20 feet) from the island to Pedra Branca, the site of the lighthouse, in 1850 and 1851. Later, the granite was also used to build the Singapore-Johor Causeway.

Ubin Quarry (1911) – courtesy of National Archives of Singapore

Most of the quarries are not in operation today and are being slowly recolonised by vegetation or filled with water. Apart from quarrying, farming and fishing were the principal occupations of the inhabitants of the island in the past. It is also called Selat Tebrau (tebrau is a kind of large fish). In the 1970s as the granite quarries closed down and jobs dwindled, residents began leaving.

Located at the eastern tip of Pulau Ubin, House No. 1 is believed to be Singapore’s only  remaining authentic Tudor-style house with a working fireplace. It  is a A unique pre-war structure, it was variously called the English Bungalow/Cottage and House No. 1. A delightful home under pine trees, with its own jetty, it has a great view of Pulau Sekudu and mainland Singapore. The two-storey building has a lovely airy verandah and comes complete with fireplace. It was built in the 1930’s in the English Lytyenseque or Tudor style.

It was built in the 1930s by the then Chief Surveyor, Langdon Williams, as a holiday retreat. The architecture is Tudor-style, with adaptations to the tropical climate, and is similar to the cottages built in tea plantations during the British colonial era. Other accounts it was said be originally be the vacation home for the resident British medical officer. It is said the home was later taken over by a rubber company and the local rubber estate manager stayed in it.

The German Girl’s Shrine holds the remains of a German girl who died in 1914 when she accidentally fell off a steep cliff whilst running away from the British who had come to take over the plantation. It is said that her body was discovered the next day, covered in ants and buried at the beach where she was found.

They call her the German Girl, or the Nadu Guniang – a Malay-Chinese appropriation of the words ‘Datuk’ and ‘Miss’. She makes her home in a yellow shack by an Assam tree, among carpets of lallang and grass. The villagers kept seeing her ghost so her remains were moved to a nearby Chinese shrine and kept in an urn. The remains were eventually looted, but the urn remains. The place: Pulau Ubin’s south-western plains.

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