In the late 90s, Tess Magaw went with her parents on an ill-fated trip to find a seafood restaurant on Pulau Ubin, a tiny former mining island off the coast of Singapore. Her mother had read about it in a years-old guidebook, of the prawns and the tuna and the hulk-armed spider crabs. On that steaming morning they headed north to the ferry at Changi Village, where thousands of cats tricked tourists into sharing their lunches.
Transport to the island was by bumboat – more properly described as planks of driftwood strongly inclined to be afloat. It seated twelve people and sputtered its guts across the water by way of a kerosene engine pulled from a lawnmower. Even in the still harbour it lurched violently from side to side, kept upright only by a string of car tyres attached to its bows.
Most traffic through the Serangoon Harbour travels east-west along the coastline, across the face of Pulau Ubin. There were many other boats, some of them dinghies with hatted fishermen and some of them cargo liners and some of them junks with their red triangle of sails. They would travel perpendicular to their wakes. Certain death would cost them two dollars apiece, and two dollars again to have another go after lunch.
The boat lurched and plummeted, this container of kerosene fumes on a mission to reach the other side, and in the ten minutes that was actually an eternity, they held their guts together with the good fortune they’d had not to eat hotel sausages at breakfast. They were a pinprick in that folding sea, a speck on the memory of the ships that charged across its face.
At the end of their journey they alighted to a small jetty attached to a floating city, boats and gangplanks roped together and moving on the waves. Many of the people who lived there had never set foot on the land, they said. Most of them were born under sea level, in the bowels of a boat they’d inherited from their father and his father and his father, and they worked to bring in seafood to sell to the shops along the foreshore.
A woman had set up an improvised stall by the end of the jetty. She had several cardboard boxes taped together, and a sign in English: ALL ONE DOLLARS. Tess bought a crab shell with a painting on it: a girl in a red dress with her head down.
They walked from the dock in ninety-nine per cent humidity, to the song of falling coconuts they’d been told killed three people every year. The jungle was thick and hot. If they strained, they heard the squeal of wild boars in the undergrowth. This had better be bloody good, they said, and laughed because the air was thick with salt and they could almost taste the splintered meat of the crabs. They had forgotten about nearly dying on the water.
It took two hours to reach a shack, a kiosk of sorts, where they cracked open cold soft drink cans and lay prostrate in front of a whirring fan. The island, barely ten kilometres across, was hiding this restaurant, and her mother told the kiosk owner’s wife so, pointing at the photo in her dog-eared guidebook.
Pulau Ubin does not have a seafood restaurant, the kiosk owner explained. It has not had one for thirty years.
The air dropped dead. The humidity, the silence. They bought soft drink in eight artificial colours and sat right down in the mud to wait for the world to turn. They waited there, looking for their spirits in the potholes left by homicidal coconuts, for an hour or more, tried again to find the taste of the white crab meat in the air.
As the equatorial sun went down, her mother hiked her skirt above her knees to a rusty ute, and the fishmonger inside returned them to the jetty. Tess touched the painted crab shell while they fought for their return, two dollars to plummet breathless to the ocean floor, and found an uneasy comfort in the smashing of the tyres against the sea.