Rebuilding Ah Ma’s drink stall

NUS Architecture students are helping to build a new stall on Pulau Ubin for drink stall owner Mdm Ong

Thirty-two NUS Architecture students led by Senior Lecturer Dr Tan Beng Kiang are part of a project team that is rebuilding a drink stall on Pulau Ubin using traditional architectural techniques that also meet current building regulations.

Mdm Ong, known affectionately as Ah Ma, and her drink stall are a familiar sight to visitors at Pulau Ubin, an island off the eastern coast of mainland Singapore. The stall was constructed by her late husband, Mr Choo Lai Huat, and her son-in-law some two decades ago. Located next to a river with a mangrove swamp behind it, the drink stall has been gradually slanting due to soil erosion and is now structurally unsafe. Occasionally, it will even become flooded during high tide.

The Ah Ma Drink Stall Project is a multiparty initiative that includes the National Parks Board (NParks) which funded the project and provided workshop space; PH Consulting which provided pro bono professional engineering expertise; Mr Philip Lim, a resident on Pulau Ubin who taught the students traditional carpentry skills and timber construction techniques; the Singapore Heritage Society; and Sea Angel, a community group that aims to protect nature and preserve the village lifestyle. This initiative is part of a larger pilot project to revitalise Pulau Ubin’s rustic charm as a living kampung (Malay for village) and serve as a testbed for the construction and rebuilding of traditional homes on the island.


Students working on the timber structure of the stall

Said project supervisor Dr Tan, “It was a good learning opportunity for our Architecture students to participate in so we volunteered to do a design-and-build in collaboration with other stakeholders…as a local hands-on community service project.”

She spoke about the many benefits which the project brought, saying, “I believe that empathy is the seed of a good designer. Through this project I wish to foster empathy in my students and hope to inspire them to be socially responsible architects and designers who will be changemakers for a better world.” She added that the students gained knowledge about the history and heritage of the place through interactions with stakeholders; applied design skills they learned in school; picked up the traditional method of timber construction from Ubin resident Mr Lim; and developed project management skills through planning manpower and scheduling works.

The students, ranging from Years 1 to 4, started the project with site visits to survey existing conditions in August 2017. Following interviews with Ah Ma and her family to understand their needs, the students developed design schemes and met with multiple parties including NParks, the Building and Construction Authority and the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF).

I believe that empathy is the seed of a good designer. Through this project I wish to foster empathy in my students and hope to inspire them to be socially responsible architects and designers who will be changemakers for a better world.

Team leader Lam Ching Yan, a Year 4 student, shared about the construction process, saying, “We helped to clear the drink stall and moved furniture and sign boards out for safekeeping. The fabrication and assembly of the timber structure were mainly done by students, guided and assisted by experienced Ubin residents in collaboration with NParks contractors.”

Speaking of hurdles which the team had to overcome, Year 3 student and deputy team leader Tu Tung Yun said, “The hardest part is daily manpower management and coordination of on- and off-site progress, to ensure the pace of the project is at maximum efficiency.” Waking up early in the morning to go to the jetty was tough too, he quipped.

Throughout the construction stage, the students fondly recalled Mdm Ong and her daughter, Pack Lian, generously plying them with isotonic drinks, green bean soup and snacks.

During Ubin Day on 24 June, Mr Desmond Lee, Minister for Social and Family Development and Second Minister for National Development was given a preview of the work carried out to date.


Mr Lee (right) speaking to the students at the site of the stall

Working on this project has changed Tung Yun’s perspective towards building construction and maintenance. “I realised we can’t be just sitting behind the desk and designing, without consideration for the construction process. A good piece of architecture need not be too extravagant, and as future architects, we must be sensitive and attentive not only in our personal design but what stretches beyond, and be mindful of individuals who are part of the journey to the final outcome,” he said.

The stall is scheduled for completion in early July, after which Mdm Ong will once again be able to quench the thirst of visitors to Pulau Ubin.

See media coverage.