In the spirit of SG50 celebrations last year, a series of community memories driven projects were introduced under the Past Forward showcase supported by the Singapore Memory Project. One of them is Singapore, Very Old Tree.
The memories of trees in Singapore were given a fresh breath of life through the stunning visual exhibition curated by Robert Zhao and Adeline Chia. Robert is a visual artist with ten years of experience whose work mainly deals with human’s relationship with nature, while Adeline is an arts writer and associate editor at ArtReview Asia who used to be arts correspondent at The Straits Times and the Southeast Asian bureau chief of Blouin Artinfo.
When we asked them about their project, Robert and Adeline have shared this, “We were inspired by a trip through the Californian redwoods, where we saw many massive, ancient trees. We thought it might be a good idea to do something about the trees in Singapore, and the stories of the relationships people had with these trees.
So we spent about three months looking for stories with the help of two research assistants. We contacted nature societies and interest groups, we tapped on our friends, we went through old newspaper articles on historic trees etc. Sometimes the tree came first, sometimes the interviewee. It depends. Then we met up with the subjects, interviewed them, and took a photo.
Through this project, we realised that people have a great amount of ownership in terms of their favourite tree. We remember this old man who loved his pear tree so much he transplanted it from his old flat to his new one, and another pair of old uncles who hang out under the same bamboo cluster every day in Commonwealth, even when the police occasionally come to chase them away.
We hope that our project can help to make people appreciate the individual trees in their everyday environment. “
With that, we share four stories selected within the book to illustrate some of the touching tales documented by Robert and Adeline.
No.3: Sea Beam – Stamford Road
In the late 1960s, when he was a child, Mr Lai used to visit the former National Library at Stamford Road with his siblings. Every time, they would pass by this handsome sea beam. Then, although he did not know what kind of tree it was, it always caught his eye and made an impression on him
Before the old National Library was demolished, he took his son to say farewell to the building. His son slid down the bannisters, just as Mr Lai used to do when he was young. Next, they went to stand under this old tree, and Mr Lai felt an overwhelming sadness. To his surprise, a caterpillar fell right before their eyes. He wrote an essay on the day’s experience and his memories of the old National Library. The title of the essay was “That trees do cry”.
No. 5: Malayan Banyan – Tanglin Trust School
How this tree, located at Tanglin Trust School, came to be its current size and location is an interesting story about student activism. This tree was originally part of a larger, sprawling banyan tree that sheltered generations of students in the school. It was slanted to be removed in 2008 to make way for a new building. According to former student Danielle Guy, the project was not widely publicized. After she got wind of the decision, she went to the headmaster with photographic documentation, including pages in past yearbooks, to emphasise the tree’s place in the school’s heritage and community. This later led to a peaceful protest that convinced the school to put the felling on hold.
Eventually, the school decided to shift the mother tree, its oldest part, 60m from its original location to allow for the expansion of the school while saving the tree. The transplanted tree now occupies approximately 20mᶟ, a far cry from its original 120mᶟ floor area.
Brian Teng Kok Seng
42, director of operations at Tanglin Trust School
No. 9: Durian Tree, Bukit Panjang
Mr Teo is a regular harvester in Bukit Panjang forest during the durian season, which happens approximately every three months. Foraging at night, he goes deep inside the wilderness to look for old durian trees left behind in a former kampong. For the past seven years, he has been returning to this tree as it produces the sweetest fruit.
His friend Ng An Zhu dubs the same tree the “XO Tree” due to the flavor of the fruit. Both of them believe that this is one of the older durian trees in the Bukit Panjang kampong before it was evacuated in the 1980s. There are two generations of durian trees, Mr Teo adds. The first being the original trees in the village, and the second being the new trees planted by residents to “earn” money from the government – a resident can get up to $110 for a durian tree of 3m on his land as compensation. There are now around 100 younger trees scattered in the forest.
As for durian picking now, there are certain informal rules. No one can lay claim to a tree: the fruit goes to those who come first. However, it is common for people to wait in two-hour under a tree. Some also wear safety helmets as they fear being injured by falling fruit.
Teo Teah On,
No. 25: “Energy” Rubber Tree, Ang Mo Kio Park
If you happen to be at Ang Mo Kio Park at 6am, you might notice a group of 20 people, with their arms up as if catching a falling object, walking around a tree. A well-trod path in the grass, in the form of a perfect circle, is evidence of their prolonged practice.
These are practitioners of Ba Gua, a walking meditation to uplift the spirit and to build health. It involves mindfully walking around in a circle facing a tree (or tall plant) in the middle, while contemplating nothing but the tree. Practitioners believe that the energies in the tree, absorbed from the earth and sun, can be transferred to human beings.
In Singapore, groups of people meet in parks in Woodlands, Lakeside, Marine Parade and East Coast to practice. The Ang Mo Kio group, which includes working professionals, housewives and students, meet every morning from 6 to 7am. They all swear by Ba Gua’s health benefits.
Madam Low Yuit Ting says she has developed stronger legs and a more cheerful disposition after practising for three years. She used to practise alone, before the group was formed, and had attracted strange looks. She said, “One boy joked, ‘Auntie, you are going to push the tree down!’” Other practitioners report fewer sick days, a faster recover from illness and less coldness in the hands and feet.
Low Yuit Ting
60s, housewife (and friends)
We hope you have enjoyed the stories. To read the book, Singapore, Very Old Tree is now available for loan at various public libraries (click here to find out more)