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Melissa Lin and Linette Lai
Saturday, Jul 26, 2014

Singapore

'We don't close doors, there are no thieves here'

The Straits Times | Melissa Lin and Linette Lai | Saturday, Jul 26, 2014

SINGAPORE - Towkay Tan Chee Kiang runs a busy restaurant and a shop in a prime location, serving up fried squid and sambal kangkong to visitors hailing from South Korea to Germany.

But the 66-year-old is no boss of businesses in Orchard Road, or even an HDB town centre.

Instead, he owns a provision shop and one of the largest eateries on Pulau Ubin, an isle the size of Tampines.

Born and bred on Ubin, Mr Tan is one of the popular island's last 30-odd residents.

Home for Mr Tan is a single room at the back of the provision shop that has been in his family for nearly 100 years, back when Singapore was a British colony and when policemen wore shorts.

The shop is a short walk from the main jetty, where bumboats drop off visitors, past a dusty road lined with bicycle rental shops and weathered old men whiling their time away.

Here, there are no traffic lights, no shopping malls, no clinics even, but residents are all the happier for that.

"It's quieter, more peaceful and the air is definitely better," Mr Tan said in Mandarin.

"We don't need to close the doors in our homes. There are no thieves here."

A queen-size bed sits in the corner of the room he shares with his wife. The wall is bare save for a framed photograph of his youngest daughter as a toddler.

The corridor that links to the shop is lined with stacks of cartons of canned drinks. A cool, salty breeze blows in from a single window facing the sea.

Mr Tan, the middle child of a family with five children, took over the shop from his father.

His father, who died three years ago at the age of 103, was in his 20s when he moved to the island with his younger brother.

Mr Tan's uncle ferried people to and from the island as a bumboat pilot; Mr Tan's father started the provision shop.

"Nine or 10 years ago, I started this seafood restaurant," Mr Tan said, gesturing at the business adjacent to the shop, now one of the island's largest eateries.

The village of his childhood in the 1950s and 1960s is very different from today's Pulau Ubin, or Granite Island in Malay.

Back then, thousands of people called the island home, working at its granite quarries, fish farms and in agriculture.

"We used to grow some vegetables for ourselves," Mr Tan recalled.

"Neighbours would also grow them, and we would buy some from them."

The wooden "wayang" stage in the town centre, where Chinese opera performances were put up, held fond memories for him.

"They used to have shows here, and there would be a lot of people. Nowadays only a few people watch such shows."

The "theatre" sometimes doubled up as a classroom, when the nearby Bin Kiang School ran out of space.

Mr Tan, who attended primary school there, said the island had many children in those early days.

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