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Ubin: Paradise Lost and Found

02 May
Mon, 12am

by Edwin Koo

A 10-minute boat ride to Pulau Ubin transports the passengers from one world to another.

What is an island without people? In common perception, the uninhabited island is paradise, undisturbed by the scourge called mankind.

Jordan B. Peterson, in his book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, writes about this romantic notion: “We remain eternally nostalgic for the innocence of childhood, the divine, unconscious Being of the animal, and the untouched cathedral-like old-growth forest. We find respite in such things. We worship them, even if we are self-proclaimed atheistic environmentalists of the most anti-human sort. The original state of Nature, conceived in this manner, is paradisal.”

In its latest site-specific theatre performance, ubin, Drama Box examines and challenges this notion.

Ubin after dark, when it returns to its “original” state sans visitors.

Staged on the island of Pulau Ubin, or “island of granite”, a 10-minute boat ride from mainland Singapore, ubin is a unique show that does not only engage the visual and aural senses, but also uses the locale to evoke the sense of place. The show takes place at twilight, so the audience experiences the “true” Pulau Ubin that reveals itself after the daily exodus of visitors and workers.

Using dance, music, oral narration (the latter two transmitted via earbuds), and the entire island as a canvas, ubin stitches myriad disparate snippets into a rich story, like how a skilled seamstress combines found pieces of cloth into a beautiful patchwork quilt. The art-meets-advocacy performance immerses its audience in a 3-hour journey on-site, which culminates in an audience participation segment discussing thorny issues surrounding the future of Singapore’s last bastion of island kampung life.

In 2014-2015, I embarked on a similar journey examining a parallel history of Singapore’s southern islands, in a visual documentary project titled Island Nation. Tackling the transformation of the islands south of Singapore, we tried to recapitulate history through another lens, and met diverse protagonists who offered up alternate versions of the history of the islands. Were they collaborators of the state’s land use policy, or were they victims of eviction? Can the idealised island life be preserved in land-scarce Singapore? Can economic progress ever be harmonised with sustenance of nature and culture?

A dancer, symbolising the Orang Pulau, or “people of the islands”, is tied inextricably to the granite rock with a metaphorical umbilical cord.

These questions can be answered in many different ways, depending on whom you ask.

First, there is the Orang Pulau, who lay claim to ancestry from generations living off the land on Pulau Ubin. Then there are the economic migrants, who started entire lives while making a living from mining the island’s granite quarries. From their economic activities sprang other businesses like boat repair shops, restaurants and provision shops, whose owners also contributed significantly to social welfare on the island, including the only primary school on the island called the Beng Kiang School. Then there were the temples and shrines, and the bicycle rental shops, which saw to the needs of religious and recreational pilgrims alike. Most recently, wildlife conservationists and researchers have laid claim to the rich biodiversity on Chek Jawa.

Dancers evoke the nostalgia behind the island’s only school, the Beng Kiang School.

No matter how we look at it, Pulau Ubin occupies an important space in the Singapore narrative. As a certain Pak Ahmad claims in the audio narrative: “Last time, before they take the granites from Indonesia, it was the granites of Pulau Ubin that make up half of Singapore.”

Today, Pulau Ubin has lost its economic importance. Its population is graying and dwindling. The last of the Ubinites are confronted by the inexorable force of Nature, which with merciless certitude, claims back what has been taken away. In the show, we hear alarming tales of how monkeys and wild boars are invading homesteads, and witness creepers and corrosion colluding to decimate all the neglected man-made structures.

Indian artist Orjit Sen reminds us of the very nature of Nature: “People go on about how calm and happy they feel in peaceful natural surroundings. But all I see is pitiless competition. The weak puppy gets consumed by a python while her stronger siblings get away. Ants eat an injured lizard while it’s still alive. A creeper climbing up a hapless tree strangles it slowly and relentlessly to death over months… I live surrounded by nature and I see struggle and death every day, everywhere I look. Of course, I’m still happy to be able to live surrounded by nature.”

Roads are one of the few made-made structures left unmolested by the encroaching wild forces of Nature.

A dance piece at Pekan Quarry at twilight brings out the tension between Man and Nature, and seems to reveal a violent side of Nature itself.

Living amidst nature has a certain charm until Nature turns on the inhabitant. Wan, a 25-year-old undergrad and an Orang Pulau descendant, says in the audio narrative that when he revisited the island with his mother back in 2005, he witnessed his mother’s crestfallen face upon discovering that the forest had laid waste to her old family house.

“I somehow associate kampungs as an important part of Malay culture and identity... when we look at it this way, the kampung houses on Pulau Ubin are the very last kampung houses for the Orang Pulaus of Singapore. I always like to think of this analogy, that ‘a tree no matter how tall will come tumbling down if you don’t take care of its roots,’” said Wan.

The Strangler Fig Tree, true to its name, grows around the original tree (a durian tree) and slowly subsumes the parent tree, preventing it from further bearing fruits but at the same time, sheltering it from the elements beyond.

Perhaps Wan’s philosophical conclusion was meant to drive the audience to contemplate if Marcel Proust was right after all when he famously said: “The only true paradise is paradise lost.” In the participatory Act 2, the audience is invited to examine the issues surrounding Pulau Ubin, and conjure dreams and visions while taking in real-world obstacles and challenges.

From beginning to end, the tension between past and present, man and Nature, arrogance and humility, takes centrestage in ubin. In fact, this shine-only event is in itself an ode to the reality of Ubin life — things are not 24/7 on-demand on this island, as it is on the opposite shore where the city never sleeps.

This point was made on the first full-dress rehearsal day, when torrential rains mid-performance brought the show to an abrupt halt.

Indeed, there is a time and place for everything. Ultimately, this 4-hour experience is an immersive labour of love, and an admirable attempt at balancing the interests of diverse stakeholders. It may take a different pace to understand a place like Ubin, one which may be at odds with those who seek out a paradise through their own lenses.

The final dance piece suggest a voyage into the unknown future which can be navigated only with the help of every stakeholder.

In Act 2, the audience is asked to participate in dreaming up and envisioning Pulau Ubin’s future, while taking into account real-world challenges.

The audience is given a visual conclusion at the end of Act 2.

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