These human-sized bubu fish traps are unique in design and make to Singapore’s Southern Islanders. But only a dwindling group of men make and use these traps.

The Art of Bubu fishing

Photos by Edwin Koo

Despite being known as “a little red dot”, Singapore has over 60 natural and man-made islands off the mainland.

In 2015, photographers Edwin Koo, Zakaria Zainal and Juliana Tan set out to document the forgotten stories of life and customs on the country’s southern islands.

Tightly-knit communities once dotted many of these islands — Sentosa, Pulau Seringat, Pulau Brani, Lazarus Island, Kusu Island and St John’s Island on the east, and Pulau Bukom, Pulau Semakau, Pulau Seking, Pulau Sudong, Pulau Senang and Pulau Satumu on the west. But most residents have since moved to the mainland, as the islands they once called home became rezoned for economic or military purposes.

With no comprehensive record of life on these islands, traditions like bubu fishing could soon fade from memory. Only a small community of men who once lived on the islands still make these bubu traps, using chicken wire mesh and steel rods.

On weekends, they head out in boats and place the traps, unique in make and shape to the Southern Islanders, on the sea bed. And for a few hours at least, they say they feel like children of the sea once again.

Former Pulau Sudong islander Mr Selasa Hussin (left), 56, puts the final touches to a bubu fish trap made from chicken wire mesh and steel rods. Using the traps onboard narrow boats require both strength and agility, as Mr Latiff Hashim (right) demonstrates.

About this series: Singapore’s photography scene is growing rapidly, with an increasing number of local photographers publishing their own books, holding exhibitions and making a name for themselves overseas. This new monthly series highlights the diverse range of stories these Singapore photographers have produced in recent years.

About Island Nation: This documentary project by photographers Zakaria Zainal, Edwin Koo and Juliana Tan aims to capture the living history of Singapore’s southern islands, and connect a modern-day audience with the near-forgotten stories of residents who used to live there.

For more stories from the Island Nation project by Zakaria , Edwin and Juliana, go to:

Brothers Selasa and Salamoon Hussin heading out to sea for their regular weekend fishing trip. Though they have moved out of Pulau Sudong, they still consider fishing a major part of their lives.

Your project covered many different aspects of life in Singapore’s Southern Islands. Is it still ongoing? Any plans to turn it into a book?

Juliana Tan: We have gone as far as we could with existing resources and funding. Currently, we are waiting for funding to turn the project into a book.

Zakaria Zainal: As far as we are concerned, the first phase of the project has been completed. What is just as important is having distance, both time and space, from the work so that you can glean fresh perspectives. Future phases may be in the form of derivative work regarding these islanders, or fresh material we may discover in the near future.

What are the reasons for the lack of a comprehensive record of life, history and customs on Singapore’s Southern Islands? What more would you have done in this project if you had more funding?

Zakaria Zainal: One possible reason is that such documentation is a massive undertaking. Most researchers and/or documentarians would narrow their focus to just one island — where life, history and customs are just as rich.

Each island that we researched could easily have been a documentary project on its own. Additional funding would help but what is more important is having time to understand the relationships between these islands, the people and how collectively they relate to the main island of Singapore.

As a Singaporean photographer, what was the biggest surprise or finding for you in this project?

Zakaria Zainal: What struck me personally was the islanders’ struggle with the notion of identity after being displaced. These islands were once a thriving community with close to 10,000 inhabitants — with 5,048 registered voters in the 1963 elections. The residents have family histories dating back to the 17th century.

On mainland Singapore, we see residents of Dakota and Rochor Centre being moved out in the name of progress. But I don’t think anyone can imagine the feeling, especially among residents of Pulau Sudong, of not being able to set foot again on the island that you were born in.

Mr Selasa Hussin throws a trap overboard in shallow waters. A diver like Mr Ahmad Sah Mohamed (right) , 63, would dive into the waters days later to collect the traps.

What advice would you give younger photographers planning an ambitious documentary project like Island Nation?

Juliana Tan: The scope of our project is both wide and deep. We used text, videos, photos, drone images, old photographs and multimedia pieces to explore the stories of the islanders. At the same time, we wanted to have depth in our work, so that’s where research and execution were crucial.

As such, I would advise younger documentarians who want to attempt a project like this to collaborate with like-minded peers with different skill sets. I think there’s a limit to how much one person can do. But with a team, you can do more. We were very lucky to have found each other for this project. We got others on board too, to come together to tell this story as best as we could.

The bubu fishermen say their catch has been dwindling, amid the growing traffic in Singapore’s waters. They usually split up a portion of their catch among friends and relatives. The remaining portions are sometimes sold to eager buyers waiting on shore for the fishermen to return.

Tell us why you chose to record this story on bubu fishing in different formats — digital stills, videos as well large format photography.

Edwin Koo: The islanders’ lifestyle belongs to another era. We felt that by slowing the photography process down with a large format camera, it would do the documentation justice.

We turned to digital cameras to record faster events, such as the Sudong Games, or the story on Pak Sulih’s way of life. These stories revolved around events that were unsuited to the slow 4x5 film camera.

Videos were integral to other stories, such as how the islanders set the bubus (fish traps) underwater. We used GoPro cameras to document this process in its entirety.

Former Pulau Sudong residents Awang Chekek (left) and Haji Ahmad Sah Mohamed. They are among a small group of men who are keeping the tradition of bubu fishing alive.

The Island Nation project was supported under the Singapore Memory Project’s irememberSG Fund, as part of the Singapore50 (SG50) celebrations.

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