It is the durian season now.
Often described as a smelly fruit with heavenly taste, a durian’s aroma is so strong that the thorny fruit is banned in MRT trains and the airport. To most locals, however, it is the king of fruits. Many durian plantations used to thrive in Singapore, especially in the early part of the 20th century. Today, one can only find abundance of durian trees on outlying islands such as Pulau Ubin and Pulau Tekong.
A colleague of mine has invited me to visit his grandparents’ former home at Pulau Ubin and, perhaps, pick a few durians along the way. So in one hot and humid Saturday morning, we found ourselves on the bum boat to the rustic island that resembles a Singapore of the seventies rather than the modern city it is today.
Walking around the island was perhaps too tiring and time-consuming in a hot day, so we decided to follow what most visitors to Pulau Ubin do: Cycling. It is an efficient and environmentally friendly mode of transport on the island, where its number of vehicles is kept under control.
Our first stop was the former home of my colleague’s grandparents, who had stayed on the island some twenty years ago before they resettled at the eastern side of mainland Singapore.
Their old house had already been demolished and only a forgotten flight of steps and a disused water well remained, with the rest slowly consumed by the forest over time. There are several giant durian trees at the vicinity; some are over 50 years old and have grown to heights of more than 10m tall. We scanned around for durians that had just dropped to the ground but unfortunately we could not find any fresh ones.
The neighbouring zinc-roofed kampong houses are still standing in a mint condition well supported by a water well and electrical generators. Opposite of the kampong houses lie two ponds, which according to my colleague, used to be a fish breeding pond and a dumping pool. In other words, it was a natural toilet.
Our next stop was the Kampong Sungei Tiga Chinese Cemetery, one of the three Chinese cemeteries at Pulau Ubin, along with the Muslim cemeteries at Kampong Chek Jawa, Kampong Malayu, Kampong Sungei Durian and Kampong Sarau. At this 150-year-old cemetery lies dozens of tombs, one of which belongs to my colleague’s great-grandfather.
The abandoned burial ground had few visitors even during day time, as most cyclists chose to avoid or ignore the path leading to the cemetery. We thought it was a good opportunity to pick up some fresh durians unnoticed by others. The result was not satisfactory as we came across only two good pieces.
As we rode on, we came across the kampong house that was in the news two years ago. In late 2012, a durian tree, said to be over 90 years of age, fell and crushed the 4-decade-old house, leaving half of it in wrecked condition. The house, once featured in the National Parks Board’s Pulau Ubin trail, has since been restored, although its owner no longer lives in it.
So at the end of our three-hour durian-picking and exploration of the island, we had only two good durians to show off. And they were nearly snatched by a family of wild boars. Already used to human presence, the friendly beasts have all the freedom to roam around the island, becoming one of Pulau Ubin’s main attractions.
Unlike the “branded” ones such as mao shan wang (cat mountain) or ang hei (red prawn) sold in Singapore, the Pulau Ubin durians are small in their sizes with lesser flesh. But they come with tasty pale-yellow creamy flavour that reminds us of those durian trees that once grew in abundance at Mandai, Nee Soon and Upper Thomson during the olden days. Despite only two durians as our reward, it was still considered a “fruitful” trip, especially for urban dwellers like us.
Published: 25 June 2014