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Chek Jawa and How It Provided for the Ubin Orang Pulau

Tanjung Chek Jawa — loosely translated as “Javanese Men’s Point” from Bahasa Melayu — is a must-go destination when you’re visiting Pulau Ubin. Renowned for its vast sandbars that stretch kilometres out to sea at extremely low tides, this wetland at Ubin’s eastern tip is home to one of Singapore’s most diverse biodiversity. While it is not conclusive how Chek Jawa got its name, most people would agree that it pays homage to the Javanese who were among the first to settle there.


My mom had fond memories of Chek Jawa growing up on the island from 1959 till the early 1990s. When the tide was low, she and her sister would follow their mother on a 45-minute walk from their home in Kampung Surau to the wetland; and when the tide was relatively higher, they might take the sampan which could save them half an hour. They traverse the rocky shores, open sandbars and brackish mangroves of Chek Jawa foraging for a variety of intertidal creatures; an act called “berkarang” by the Ubin Orang Pulau community.


The massive sandbars at Chek Jawa during an extremely low tide in 2021.

While my mom would commonly forage for gonggong, kerang and kepah, one creature stood out the most in Chek Jawa: the Haddon’s carpet anemone (Stichodactyla haddoni); which was plentiful there.


Known locally by the Ubin Orang Pulau as boren, uprooting these anemones from the substrate requires a special technique which involves placing sand on the middle of its oral disc. When this is done, the anemone would “fold up”, making it easier for one to place their forearm into the sand and yanking it out from underneath.


The process in preparing the boren for consumption is time-consuming, sometimes spanning hours just to remove the mucus off the anemone. However, once that is done, the anemone would then be boiled; only to be served in every dish imaginable; from curry to sambal to lemak chilli padi. Rendang boren was one of my grandmother’s signature dishes on Pulau Ubin, where my aunt claimed that it tasted superior to chicken and beef.


Haddon's carpet anemone out on a sand bar at Pulau Merambong (Image by: Rochelle Chan). Retrieved from Wiki NUS

Berkarang” at Chek Jawa was a pastime and tradition of the Ubin Orang Pulau when the tide was low, but as soon as the tide rises, the community would fish. In Chek Jawa alone, my mom was able to catch through rods and gillnets — ikan…

Bebulus (Sillago sihama);

Becok (Labridae);

Belanak (Moolgarda seheli);

Cencaru (Megalaspis cordyla);

Duri (Hexanematichthys sagor);

Kekek (Leiognathidae);

Kembung (Rastrelliger Sp);

Kerapu (Epinephelinae);

Gelama (Chrysochir aureus);

Gerut (Pomadasys Maculatus);

Mempinang (Lethrinus miniatus);

Mengkapas (Gerres);

Mengkerong (Terapon jarbua);

Mentimun (Lutjanus carponotatus);

Merah (Lutjanus argentimaculatus);

Pari (Himantura walga)

Sebacin;

Sebekah;

Sebelah (Pleuronectiformes);

Selar (Atule mate);

Sembilang (Plotosidae);

Seriding (Ambasis nalua);

Tekok (Batrachoididae);

Tudung periuk (Drepane punctata); and

Usat.

My mom (in pink) with my elder brothers (background) and cousin (foreground) fishing at the House No. 1 Jetty in 1991.

House No. 1 can be seen in the background

Just off the coasts of Chek Jawa floated the tiny rocky islet of Pulau Sekodok; which could often be described by the Ubin Orang Pulau community as their “playground”. Surrounded by beautiful white sand and pristine waters, the island was frequented by the Orang Pulau as a hotspot for picnicking, fishing, swimming, and “rock-climbing”.


Pulau Sekodok got its name from the Batu Kodok —the frog-shaped boulder facing the southwestern shore of the islet. “Se-” is a prefix that means one while “kodok” is the Javanese word for frog; further cementing Javanese influence on eastern Pulau Ubin.


My cousins (left) and elder brothers (right) playing on Pulau Sekodok in 1991. Batu Kodok can be seen in the background (facing off-right).

Chek Jawa’s flourishing marine environment was indicative of the area’s strong food security and might have also influenced the early inhabitants of Orang Laut and other Malays of Bugis and Javanese descent to settle along the eastern coasts of Pulau Ubin. Since then, Chek Jawa continued to serve as a primary source of sustenance for the Ubin Orang Pulau community; and generations of indigenous fishing and foraging knowledge were taught there — until 2001.


Towards the turn of the new millennium, the Ubin Orang Pulau community who used to reside in Kampung Tanjung and Kampung Chek Jawa were told to resettle to the mainland following the Government’s plan to reclaim Pulau Ubin’s eastern shorelines, which was approved back in 1992 to create land for military training. Their homes were also promptly demolished and the village wiped off the map — with the exception of House No. 1, the British bungalow.


This plan however did not materialise following a staunch campaign led by nature enthusiasts, marine biologists and thousands of concerned members of the public who only came to recently discover the rich biodiversity found in Chek Jawa. The “Save Chek Jawa Campaign” witnessed the successful deferment of land reclamation just days before it was slated to begin in end-2001.


While such a move was celebrated to the surprise of many, the reactions were bittersweet — almost painful — for the Ubin Orang Pulau community who had to witness their homes destroyed and their ties uprooted from their ancestral island; almost as though for nothing.


They were met once again with another blow when Chek Jawa was shortly fenced up, and together with Pulau Sekodok, gazetted as a protected zone; where long-practiced traditions of fishing and foraging which have sustained the community for generations were hence, made illegal. The remaining Orang Pulau on Ubin had to find alternative shorelines elsewhere for their source of food, though they would often not yield the same harvest as how Chek Jawa has provided for them.


One such alternative spots were the mangroves of Sungei Durian, which was a stone’s throw away from my grandparents’ house. Islanders and visitors alike were free to access the area to fish and forage, up till recently in 2022 when the coastline has since been fenced up. This was in preparation for the development of the OCBC Mangrove Park, slated to be completed by 2026.


A mist of déjà vu clouds the mind of the Ubin Orang Pulau as they anticipate the loss of yet another place which has provided for them, even more so for the remaining residents of Kampung Sungei Durian that benefitted from their “backyard river”. However, this may not necessarily have to be the case.


There is always room for improvement and collaboration, and I personally believe exceptions can and should be made when it comes to preserving something dear for the people who often go voiceless or unheard of. As a descendant from the Ubin Orang Pulau community, I find it my shared responsibility and duty for these intangible human elements such as the sociocultural significance of a place to be weighed heavily when plans to develop the island are tabled; so that we may still be able to learn and live our culture, heritage and traditions.


For a very long time, there has been great emphasis and noble efforts taken on preserving Ubin’s natural heritage, that the island’s cultural heritage — especially that of the Orang Pulau’s — has been severely neglected. As the population dies out and as Singapore’s last surviving kampung for her Orang Pulau community remain vulnerable at the mercy of violent development and policies that come with them, there is merit to believe the plight of the Ubin Orang Pulau community grows evermore challenging in the years ahead.


But as history teaches us: even as the waves grow rougher and the currents flow ever so rapidly, the Orang Pulau continue to row their sampans; for rowing is what Orang Pulau do best.


And so, this Ubin Orang Pulau shall keep on rowing.


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