In the air-conditioned nation that is Singapore, the idea of embarking on a music sojourn on our shores is hard to imagine. We think about drawbacks such as the lack of space, electricity, tropical humidity and perhaps most importantly, Wi-Fi connectivity.
Then along comes Pulau Ubin, the ever endearing island that for close to 200 years, has seen itself transform from a heavily mined granite quarry to the eco-tourism hub that we associate it with today. Along the way, it has graciously accepted the generations of residents, day-trippers, and even enemies (Japanese during World War II), that have brought about umpteen changes to its landscape and biodiversity.
It is perhaps this mystery and appreciation for Ubin that led singer-songwriter Inch Chua to the island for a four-month stay to produce her latest EP. Titled “Letters to Ubin”, the album is part of a joint project between The Artist Village and National Arts Council.
Having attended her EP launch at Aliwal Arts Centre on 26 Nov, Inch’s narration of her experience left me deliberating the idea of what Ubin really means to each of us, something that is perhaps best described through the verse “All that survives is dust that moves, all that survives is not me not you” from the track “Dust that Moves,” that reminds even myself on the changes on Ubin i’ve seen over just the past 20 years.
“Everything affected my songwriting. Every little difference, every experience, from how much I was consuming to what I was consuming,“ says Inch, who points out that Ubin’s unique history and indelible fighting spirit was what drew her to discover more of the island in the first place.
Retreating to a sparsely furnished kampong house beside a Chinese cemetery, Inch’s encounters with mosquitoes, the biodiversity of Chek Jawa, diesel engines, and night walks around the deserted island are perhaps effective summaries of her experiences and inspirations that she invests into her music, leading the listener through an immersive aural trek across Ubin that’s acutely reflected in tracks such as “Granite” and “Simple Kind of Life”.
“Humans may be the number one threat and reason why animals become endangered. But sometimes, I do feel it’s also nature itself taking its course, and I’ve learnt to let go of the anger that comes with it. I focus instead on the opportunities to encounter them – it makes it all the more special to be able to witness rarity,” says Inch, whose chance encounter one night with the endangered native Mousedeer (also the name of the title track from her album), led her to adopt it as her spirit animal.
Affectionately known as Ghim Moh Za Bor (blonde hair girl) to the some 30-odd residents that still call Ubin home, Inch passionately points out that Ubin is an island that “keeps giving back”, one that adapts to the needs of its inhabitants, who in turn provide their kindness to those that embrace the island.
Letters to Ubin is ultimately a solemn yet uplifting reminder of the pace of change we struggle to accept at times, while we simultaneously learn to embrace its benefits along the way. The album, which featured prominently on iTunes and Spotify recently, is the fourth in the line of well-received albums by Inch following The Bedroom (2009), Wallflower (2010) and Bumfuzzle (2013). Its attention to the emotions and experience of space is indeed a great step forward for made-in Singapore music, proving that our musicians can move beyond their comfort zones to produce music that challenges our own thoughts of our island nation.