Casa Verde, an Italian restaurant at the Botanic Gardens, attracts just as many animal as human patrons. Dogs on their morning walk will look up from their tethers to hope for table scraps, mynahs stalk the edges of the tables for unattended plates, and from the edges of the adjacent forest lurk a third group – the ‘wild chickens’.
Plaintive chirping has filled the air outside my bedroom window the past three days – unmistakable signs of a season of new beginnings and adventure, for a pair of yellow-vented bulbul fledglings are making their first forays out of the nest.
Earlier this year, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that mainland Singapore might still be home to some rare species. In particular, there was one on the brink of extinction that badly needed a fighting chance at survival. Continue reading
The series of torrential downpours the island has been receiving has, unexpectedly, brought a burst of colour to my doorstep. I was alerted to this beautiful male brown-throated sunbird by a brilliant flash of iridescence from behind a window. He flitted away from a ginger blossom to land on the branches of a frangipani tree. As he leaned back to preen his tail feathers the light caught his brilliant head plumage – deep azure turquoise ending in a flourish of deep purple, contrasting perfectly his bright yellow belly and the leafy green of his surroundings. This was the first time I had been able to see the colour of its plumage in full view – perhaps the bird was my proverbial rainbow at the end of the storm.
For most of the past few days, the birds had ceased their cries as they were forced to take cover from the persistent rain. I would see a sodden myna crouch despondently under a shrub and staring out at the showers pounding upon the grass, or the silhouettes of sparrows winging desperately towards shelter. Without any access to brollies or raincoats, the birds are forced to cease their daily foraging and wait for the rain to stop, wasting what for many must be precious daylight hours. When left with little choice, some birds that normally keep a wide berth from humans will take cover near their settlements. I saw a pair of oriental magpie-robins sitting rather listlessly on a length of rope that happened to be dangling under the eaves of the roof. One of them was twittering repeatedly, as if anxiously wishing for the rain to let up.
Examining their plumage, I saw that they were of opposite genders – a couple, perhaps? I’m not sure if these birds are monogamous, but the way they idled in such close proximity to each other made me entertain the notions of their having travelled together, although magpie-robins only begin the courtship season in March. But what struck me was the chance I got to observe them in a closer way than I had ever done. There’s something odd about seeing animals that are normally so mobile and active sit still, engaged in no other act but the odd preening of their feathers. And yet it afforded me a rare chance to gain more than what are usually elusive glances of these pretty creatures.
The rain, despite having temporarily put a stop to the birds’ activities, was not without its perks. It’s well-known that earthworms and snails will emerge after wet weather, providing easy pickings for many a hungry beak. And the birds’ songs themselves are also signs of the end of another burst of inclement weather, as they are free to roam the skies again. Like the birds, perhaps we can let ourselves be assured of the better times that will lie at the end of any proverbial storm. And after the rain, another lesson that Nature can teach us is of how to seize the day – for oppurtunities, like worms for hungry birds, can pop up where you would least expect them.
Occassionally, an eerie ululating call will sound out across the neighbourhood. It always seems to come during a lull in the day, when everything feels peaceful and the air shimmers hot and lazy over the streets. And every single time, it will send a chill down my spine. This is not only because of the moments at which it arrives or the haunting resonance of the sound. In spite of myself, I can’t help but think about what it could represent – not only is it resonant but also taunting, as if tempting the occurrence of an unfortunate event or even Fate herself.
In the bare canopy of an old yellow flame tree across the road, I saw the koel. An Indonesian domestic helper who used to work for my mother described the bird as like a ‘black chicken with glowing red eyes’. It was larger than many other birds I’d seen around the estate, distinctly visible as a dark hulk amid the thin branches. It was a male; the females had lighter speckled plumage. As a child I had once seen one up close in person, and I had been petrified by those bright blood-red eyes. Again that chilling, booming announcement – kooo-OW, kooo-OW; the koel introduced himself to all who could hear. Abruptly, he fell silent, leaped to another nearby branch, started again.
Again I wrestled with the old feelings that always surfaced whenever I heard one of the male koel’s calls. The bird itself is not bad luck, I told myself, in spite of what my Indonesian helper had told my mother based on Javanese belief. My mother wholeheartedly believed it, because when the koel called a neighbour had lost her family during vacation and moved out from the house in grief. When the koel called, there had been an argument the other time. When the koel called, my mother would ready a water pistol and shoot in its general direction as vigorously as she could. My discovery that the koel was a brood parasite turned me off the bird, too. And always it would disappear and reappear, wraith-like, solidifying the connection between its presence and bad luck in our minds.
Biology attributes the koel’s call to a far less malevolent reason. The bird is simply lonely, and is calling to attract a mate. In Indian folklore, the koel is conversely a lucky bird. Its call is said to summon rain, and they are even revered according to Hindu legal texts. Some find its singing melodious, and keep the birds in cages and feed them boiled rice. I find it intriguing how the same bird could inspire such vastly different reactions in different areas of its range. Perhaps its sonorous cries and mysterious movements easily give rise to polarising emotions: awe, or fear.
Some days, I feel pity for the bird that has been misunderstood. Perhaps, I wonder, it isn’t unlucky in itself, but simply warning us of the potential pitfalls and dangers that could pursue us in our lives. And now whenever I hear the male koel pining for a mate, I keep this in mind. A bird that calls to mind a useful pointer on life is a good bird indeed. And as for that bird I saw in the yellow flame tree, I wish him success in his quest for a willing partner.
Nature subjugated. That was how Sungei Pandan, the river that winds its way southwest from Commonwealth before spilling into the sea at West Coast Park, appeared to me during my walk along the Ulu Pandan Park Connector. Near its mouth the river sprawls into a small mangrove swamp, but here its path appeared sadly strait-jacketed by bare concrete banks. This river (‘Sungei’ means ‘river’ in Malay, so it can otherwise be called ‘Pandan River’) was one of many that had been canalised in the 1970s and 1980s to provide more resources for the island’s growing freshwater needs. I don’t discount the urgency of our local freshwater needs. Nevertheless, it does make me a little sad to see a river being reduced to a straight channel with its murky brown surface clouded over with soap suds and plastic flotsam.
That said, I was surprised to detect signs of life still flourishing within this urbanised environment. Walking along the river, I was intrigued at the sight of large black shapes swimming around in the waters below. There was a huge group of male tilapia that had gathered in the waters just before the river forked out towards Buona Vista. I used to go down into the canal to catch fish with my siblings using home-made nets, and the only haul we ever brought in were guppies and mosquitofish, which made it all the more surprising to me. I found it curious that they should only gather at one specific part of the river, only to learn later that they were actually gathering at a lek where they would compete for the affections of the more drably-coloured females. Squinting, I also scanned the water for telltale glimmers and ripples: signs of smaller aquatic life that also shared these waters. Although the tilapia is an introduced species – it had been cultivated on the island for food – I found it heartening that there was still life that could thrive in a river that had been long past its former glory.
Suddenly, I caught a flicker at the corner of my eye. An bright blue blur swooped down from the trees on the opposite bank towards the water, before arcing back and coming to rest on the top of a row of green fencing. It was a collared kingfisher – a bird rarely found in the most urban parts of the city, and typically associated with the wilder mangroves near the coast. Part of me felt immensely proud that such an uncommon, beautiful bird should choose to make this stretch of the river its hunting grounds. I watched it as it sat, un-moving. Then, unable to restrain myself from taking a closer took, I climbed over the fence and down to the bank. When I looked up, it had vanished. Off, I presumed, to find its next meal.
Further down, however, there were few visible signs of life. Plastic bags and empty drink cartons littered the bleak shores, and there were sprawls of psychedelic stains where pipes discharged household waste water into the river. The only movement I detected would be of soap bubbles gliding down on their way from the pipes, or a few strands of plastic waving frantically in the breeze. Yet I knew that if I climbed over the fence and crawled down the steep slopes flanking the canal to look into the river itself, I might still be able to spot schools of guppies flickering beneath the surface – as I had on many an occassion. The unintentional pollution that had resulted from this industrial discharge has made the waters even more inhospitable. And at the same time, it makes these species’ ability to survive even more incredible.
Despite all the unpleasant sights that appeared to line the river, there were still moments where I saw an odd beauty, in the unique ways that surrounding channels of water had been moulded by their urban environment. One could also say that there is beauty in the way nature is somehow able to turn adversity into oppurtunity, as evidenced by my sightings of the tilapia and kingfisher who had managed to find from the river a way to survive. Many people would dismiss this unassuming channel as just another canal, but a closer examination could turn out to reveal pleasant surprises.
After my initial encounter with the sunbirds, I had the good fortune of viewing many more species of birds on a walk I made around my neighbourhood. First there were the elusive silhouettes of swifts winging high overhead, vanishing as quickly as they had appeared. It took some walking before I suddenly spotted this spotted dove making its way about its daily business. With its drab brown feathers, it would have melted seamlessly into the pavement had I not noticed its sudden burst of frantic, bobbing movement. Though the signature owl-like hoots of its fellows could be heard in the distance, this dove seemed to be travelling alone. So often have I seen these birds foraging in pairs, serene and secure in each other’s company, that seeing one on its own seemed a little unnerving. Nevertheless, the sight of these peaceful animals never fails to bring me a certain measure of calmness.
Doves were another animal I had not seen in a very long time around the neigbourhood. The periodic appearance and disappearance of certain species of birds from the area I live in sometimes makes me think that my sightings of them must have symbolic significance. There are days where I gain much comfort from thinking on the symbolism of the wild animals I happen to stumble upon. While in the West doves are often associated with peace and love, they are symbols of fidelity and longevity in Chinese symbology – so much so that the staff that is typically presented to a septuagenarian in Chinese custom is known as a ‘dove-staff’. Either way, the dove is typically known for being a gentle, nurturing animal. In the light of the New Year, I thought, perhaps it was offering me a positive symbol of hope.
Another shape suddenly zipped past me, up into the canopy of a nearby tree. I craned my camera up to look, and immediately felt a shiver of joy. It was an Oriental magpie-robin: a species that has happily been brought back from the brink of extinction on the island. This one was a male, judging from his bolder plumage. He stopped barely long enough for me to take a picture before flying off again, landing on the edge of the roof of a nearby house and surveying his surroundings with a gutsy pride. As distinctive as this species might be (not being related very closely to either robins or magpies), it is not commonly found in any lexicon of cultural symbology. Given its remarkable jump back from the brink, I’d like to think that seeing one could be a reminder of persistence, and the promise that things will get better even as they seem to get worse.
Regardless of whether the appearance of different birds has any special meaning, I feel like there are still simple messages we can derive from Nature. It could be something as paradoxically simple and prosaic as just enjoying the time we have in the present. These birds live in the moment, never worrying much about their past or future, content to take things one day at a time. Perhaps it would be worth it to slow down once in a while, and listen carefully to the birdsong around us that is hidden in plain sight.
Amid the bustle of the sights and sounds that crowd the city, I sometimes forget to pay attention to the simpler delights much closer to home. Seeing birds flock to the garden is one of those. I’m proud of the variety of wildlife that’s attracted by the profusion of tropical plants outside in the yard – parakeets, cockatoos, starlings, sparrows, spotted doves, zebra doves, and even a pair of Oriental magpie-robins (the last is especially significant given that the species had almost gone extinct in Singapore just three decades earlier). However, none of them are as commonly-seen, or give me as much joy as seeing the sunbirds on their quest for nectar. Lately they haven’t been appearing as much due to the lack of torch ginger blossoms at this time of year, so I felt my spirits soar when I spotted this female busily feeding from a young flower.
I’ve sighted two species of sunbird in my garden thus far: the olive-backed and crimson sunbirds. To my surprise, I discovered that this female was neither – judging from the broken eye ring that framed her face she was, in fact, a brown-throated sunbird. Most of them come singly, all the better to take advantage of the huge torch ginger grove that flanks the side of the house. While the torch ginger seems to be their favourite, I have also seen them try to satisfy themselves from chilli flowers, pink powder-puff and clematis blossoms. Thankfully she had found a few newly-opened ginger flowers, and flitted from plant to plant, drinking nectar with a greedy urgency.
Occassionally she would look up with nervous alarm, darting her head from side to side before she resumed feeding. There would be times of the year where the male sunbirds would advertise themselves from the top of the fence, and dart around the canopy searching for mates. For now, however, she was merely watching out for danger. I watched, transfixed, from within the house, daring not to come too near lest she fly away. At last, her belly filled, she perched on the stem of a woody vine and began to preen herself. In the shade provided by the yam leaves overhead, her translucent flight feathers took on a delicate, greenish gossamer hue.
Suddenly, a series of sharp chirps cut through the air. She took off and landed on a taller branch, responding with a sharp cry that sounded almost accusatory. By this time I was watching them from behind a window, and craned my neck to look for the source of the sound. It was a male sunbird of the same species. The late afternoon sunlight fell briefly over his blue-and-purple head feathers, catching a faint iridescent gleam. Both birds launched into a verbal joust, calling loudly and flitting from perch from perch in agitation over the right to these stomping grounds. Though their cries might sound pleasant to the human ear, the songs of these birds have a much more pragmatic purpose: to assert themselves and help them fight for their survival.
After what seemed like a long argument, the male took off huffily. Almost instantly, the female flew back to her original perch and resumed preening herself, looking a lot calmer than she had been just seconds earlier. As some clouds briefly passed over the sun and left her in shadow, I stepped out to take a better look. Startled, she flew off, and I didn’t see her again for the rest of the day.
The milieu of the daily lives of animals is no less interesting than the daily lives of humans. I like to think that with their complex array of calls, displays and signals not easily understood by the human species, the animal life is a harder one to piece together and appreciate. Yet, that afternoon I felt like I had caught a glimpse into the window of what it would really be like to be a sunbird – the freedom to fly where one pleases, mingled with a turbulent undercurrent of the need for self-preservation. Such is the beauty and complexity of Mother Nature.
Last March, I found myself trekking through West Coast Park late on a Saturday afternoon, armed with nothing but a cap, plastic gloves and a water bottle. Gradually, the sandlots and jungle gyms began to disappear, followed even by the tough green grass underfoot. Eventually I found myself standing on a bare concrete path overlooking an expanse of jagged rocks tumbling down into a placid stretch of pale blue sea. Up to that point, I hadn’t known that there were stretches of the Singaporean coast still untouched by the island’s trademark flurry of maritime commerce.
Somewhere off to the distance, there still loomed the hulks of tankers and cruise vessels. But closer to the shore, separated by a patch of ocean, bobbed the sleepy outlines of various small fishing vessels. Many of them lay quietly under large drapes of green tarp, as if napping from a day’s catch. For a moment my mind travelled back to memories of history books on early fishermen who used to roam ancient Temasek’s coasts, surprised to find their echoes in these fishing vessels even today.
A woman approached, and I was reminded of what I had come here to do: help the Singapore Nature Society in its island-wide census of horseshoe crabs. Volunteers spread out across the island were combing various marshy areas at the moment for specimens to be measured and released for documentation of the local population. An English couple were already crouched over a small crevasse near where the rocks met the path, their young son traipsing boldly across their jagged edges. I was assigned to search the stretch of coast much further down the path, where I would have to go into the water.
I slowly lowered myself over the edge of the path and onto the rocks. Making my way down to the shore by picking my way from rock to rock had already started to seem difficult, but the closer I came to the ocean, the harder it was to gain a grip on the rocks’ mossy hides. After what felt like hours of balancing on safe perches with other volunteers looking for smooth paths before progressing step by careful step, the rocks beneath our feet gave way to thick mudflats, and the ocean, now a pale grey, began to lap beckoningly at our ankles.
Now that we were close enough, I could see figures in and around the boats. A sinewy man stood in the water carrying what appeared to be a box of crabs, while others lay asleep in their boats in an unusually picture of simple idyll. Metal frames and bits of flotsam poked up from where the mud churned beneath the water’s surface, wreathed in rust and algae from years of Nature’s embrace. I was not so much searching for horseshoe crabs now as I was taking in a sense of the quiet, self-assured wildness I now felt.
There was another fisherman on the coast, walking much more sure-footedly than we were. His name was Manuel, and as I talked to him I learnt that he had been fishing all thirty-five years of his life, first at offshore islands and now here, as a form of “exercise” and “to relax”. He pointed out, with a down-to-earth geniality, the level the tide came up to when it would roll into the beach and described the different types of crabs – horseshoe, flower and mud crabs – to be found in the area.
A light rain began to fall, and we came back up on shore having found no crabs at all. Yet I was struck from my brief experience of having felt like I’d stepped into an older, more tranquil world. That concrete path seemed to be the only thing separating the last vestiges of an old fishing-village spirit from the seething bustle of contemporary modernity. And as I walked away and wondered about the affinity these fishermen had to their environment – and about how we, too, lived as island-dwellers in proximity to the ocean – that path also reminded me of the severing of our connection to the sea.
What better panacea for the maladies of urbanisation than spending the day making bricks, sawing wood and working the land? The Ground-Up Initiative (GUI) seeks to provide exactly that, one day at a time. Every weekend, bright-eyed volunteers from all walks of life–housewives, NSmen, students and directors among them–would gather at the modest premises that serves as the intitative’s headquarters to balik kampung–‘return to the village’ in Malay. Excited and heartened to learn of a community of nature-lovers in this dense urban jungle, I paid them a visit one Saturday morning to see what they were all about.
Going down Lorong Chencharu and stepping into the makeshift kampung felt, for me, almost like stepping into a different realm. In line with the organisation’s goal of being in step with the earth, the premises of their headquarters seemed to be intricately woven in with elements of Nature herself. The roof was crafted of woven straw, which also framed the clusters of lights that hung from the ceiling. The front of the building looked out over a thin stream, flanked by steep grassy banks, and sat adjacent a swathe of forest. Man-made materials such as disused glass bottles and old bicycle wheels had also been artfully incorporated into other parts of the building, adding to its rustic feel rather than detracting from it. Already at eight ‘o clock on a weekend morning the main team of long-term volunteers were getting down to business, discussing the schedule for the day with a lively energy and infectious congeniality.
Shortly after, other volunteers streamed in. The gotong royong (community spirit) that being in touch with the earth fosters soon set in as everyone got down to work after being assigned jobs for the day. Every person there pitched in, whether they were four or forty years old, and individuals who had been total strangers just a few minutes before began to swap friendly banter and ask on each other’s well-being. Such camaraderie was rare in the modernised, urbanised community I had grown up in, and it was then that I understood why some of the older generation here would muse about the kampung days gone by. For two hours everyone had been bonded by the menial work and immersed in a happy atmosphere of enthusiasm, whether they were washing toilets or preparing lunch.
After work for the day was done, everyone sat down in the ‘living room’ to a video on the origins of the Ground-Up Initiative, presented by none other but the founder Tay Lai Hock himself. Here I have endeavoured to render his narrative, coloured with anecdotes and steeled with a solid conviction, of the story behind the kampung as best as I remember it.
Tay Lai Hock
“I always love village life. I went backpacking for four years and for two months I stayed in a village in Thailand. There was very little lighting, lighting was very dim, and if you want hot water you have to go down to the stream and get the water yourself. People would say, ‘Wow Lai Hock you must really like village life,’ but I’d never lived in a village before then! The closest was that the street name was Kampong Aran. Then I met an Irish lady while hitchiking, who would go back to Ireland every six months to take care of her mother. She said, ‘I’m going to WWOOF in Spain!’ and at first I thought it was ‘woof’ as in the sound the dog makes, and she explained it was World Wide Oppurtunities on Organic Farms. Then I met another woman who said, ‘I’m going to WWOOF in Ecuador!’ So I helped out at an organic farm in Ecuador. There was no heater. The toilet we used was a composting toilet! We had to work with horse shit everyday. At first I thought it would only be old people on the farm, but there were actually two young men helping out. In Ecuador I held a photo exhibition to help the poor, and I went out on the streets, asking people to come see my photos. Some of them would ask me, ‘Are you Ecuadorian?’ and I told them, ‘No I’m a Singaporean’ and they replied, ‘Then why are you helping us?’ I told them, ‘I can’t just be a bystander, can I?’ We even decided to create a website–Internet speed was only 56 kb/s at the time–and mobilised people to help!
I went backpacking in New Zealand and stayed with a friend. She’s Malaysian; married a Kiwi. You see their children were playing, so carefree! Not like Singaporean kids; they’re so annoying–not all, of course! There I attended a lecture by a local professor on the bank of a river. There was no public transport so people had different ways of getting there. One guy came all the way down the river in a canoe! The professor told us, ‘You can lie down,’ so there were people just lying down on picnic mats listening to his lecture! We ate fresh fruit. Crushed our own apple juice–I never drank so much apple juice in my life. There was a guy who powered a washing machine using his bicycle. Can exercise and wash his clothes at the same time. A house built in a truck–would you like to live in one? I helped to build that house. And they made their own pizza and served it on cardboard. Wow, cardboard, who knew?
But then I went hitchiking again and they say, ‘When you go hitchiking in New Zealand 90 percent you will see Maori.’ One day a Maori driver in a cab pulled up next to me. I told him ‘I want to go this way.’ He said, ‘I’m going the other way, but I can take you to someone who’s going that way.’ We went to his house and he asked, ‘Have you eaten breakfast?’ I said ‘No’ and he replied ‘Well we have fish head freshly-caught this morning, would you like it smoked?’ And I love fish head; I’m a Singaporean! And what struck me was how they were willing to share what they have with others.
I met a professor who was very unhappy. Had a war with his neighbour for 20 years. You would think he’d be very healthy but he died of a brain tumour. His last words before he died were, ‘I should have focused on the right thing.’ That thing was happiness.
Then I realised that a lot of society’s vices are caused because there is no farming. Singapore is unhappy, because we are so heavily urbanised. Maybe that’s why the country is so rich, because we are so unhappy. I decided to return to Singapore while sitting in the Sahara Desert in 2002. When I came back I decided to reach out to the students by talks in the polytechnics. When I was at ITE I saw the students were very sleepy so I told them, ‘You can lie down’ and they were shocked. But after lying down for ten minutes all of them were sitting up. Later when I was volunteering in Malaysia I gathered a group of volunteers and I decided to call this the Ground-Up Initiative.
I started this project back in 2008. People would ask me, ‘Lai Hock, are you an architect? Do you have enough funds?’ But I have guts, and I have heart. In 2001 I approached the owners of Bottle Tree Park wanting to rent the land. The owner told me one sentence in Chinese ‘先做给我看.’ Let me see it first. We rented the land for two years, and there were more people coming to give their support. Now we managed to lease the land for another 6 years.
There’s also a spiritual dimension to farming. We’re an open, multi-faith community. We want to nurture leaders by teaching them through farming. To have a sustainable community, you need to farm your heart first. Some days I feel like giving up, but it’s the people that keep me going.”
At noon, the communal plant-based lunch was ready. Ending the day by tucking into mixed rice and vegetable soup with new friends didn’t just hail the camaraderie we had forged over the span of a few hours. It was also a tribute to the inter-connectedness of man and the natural world.