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’.
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
Despite my general respect for the numerous little creatures that frequent the garden from time to time, there are occassions when I am compelled to make exceptions. 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.
As long as there has been a contemporary art scene, artists have attempted to use their craft to make sense of their belonging to a community. The City Book is another of those attempts to take a fresh spin on the decades-long issue of Singaporeans negotiating their identity to the city-state. Published by the local art design studio Production Q, it compiled the works of six artists using their respective media to relate the stories and ways they view this urban island. I went with a friend, who shall be referred to as V, to their opening reception at Robertson Quay, hoping to find out more about how others have also tried to explore what their city means to them.
We edged past throngs of well-heeled socialites in business suits and cocktail dresses to find a browsing copy of the book. We were almost embarrassingly out of place: a pair of teenagers attending what appeared to be a swanky reception in an avant-garde retail-art-food market, complete with waiters bearing trays of champagne and truffle mushroom toast. V and I sat on a pair of beige rattan high stools, thumbing through the pages while looking out over the Singapore River gleaming under the night lights. A symbol of the island’s lifeblood, juxtaposed against an artistic dedication to the lives that have gone on around it, mostly oblivious to its presence.
One thing that stood out to me from the art I found in the book was an undercurrent of absence. A selection of what was covered: overlooked urban spaces, the disconnectedness of people in proximity to each other, the reclaiming of the urban by natural forces. I was particularly struck by Zhao Renhui’s photographs highlighting the artifice of nature in urban Singapore, as well as Charles Lim’s pondering Singaporeans’ lack of connection to the sea despite being surrounded by the ocean. I, too, felt discomfited by how many locals seemed to concentrate their yearning for the past on the recently bygone, oblivious to the natural and cultural losses that also go on around us. It seemed like the way these artists had chosen to frame their personal journeys was through looking back, through loss. It was something I found myself unconsciously relating to.
“It isn’t anything new,” V remarked. We had gone a quarter of the way into the book. “It’s just a different way of expressing what we already feel.” Several of the artists had stated they weren’t doing what they did for sentiment or nostalgia – a disclaimer, of sorts. And yet, in spite of the book’s main purpose as an expression of their views on the city, what they pointed out couldn’t help but sting a little. It stung because of what it, like its literary predecessors, had subtly highlighted: a chronic dissatisfaction of the present generation with the state of our city. Perhaps it is this dissatisfaction that also spurs me, to an extent; maybe it’s also what drives me to look towards and glorify the past.
I looked behind through the window-panes at the people inside. How many of them understood the book and its artworks beyond its abstract aesthetic value? How many of them would seriously think about the themes it raised? How many of them would be able to contribute to a greater conversation that this book points towards, one where we as a nation can decide how we can truly belong?
V and I continued talking as we walked to the bus stop. We discussed Dawn Ng’s psychedelic compositions of typically mundane objects that could be found in households and provision stores. “I guess we’re privileged in that we’re able to distinguish the quotidian from an artistic standpoint,” he went on, “but I wonder if the people who actually use it would recognise it as the quotidian.”
And even if we recognise it as such – what then?
The search for, and celebration of, the quotidian is arguably another big driving force behind what I write about. It can easily be seen as a sort of quizzical, inane idealism. But I guess it is precisely the fact that I feel the everyday needs to be celebrated that points to a deeper, unspoken absence that many Singaporeans would feel – hence a common national attraction to nostalgia.
And yet, I hope that one day I’ll be able to find artists who don’t just mention the keen loss of the past, but also pride over the future. A piece of art that shows how we can celebrate our country holistically without mourning what we wanted to keep.
And I will be working towards that, too.
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.